The Good Books (Re-Release): The Making of Biblical Womanhood with Beth Allison Barr
and some comments on the Atlantic piece from this week
Yesterday I re-released an archive episode I recorded with Beth Allison Barr, author of the The Making of Biblical Womanhood. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts.
I’m still easing back into recording after a difficult 2023; I’m also wrapping up copyedits on my book, which I will be happy to tell you more about as the release date gets closer.
I was also compelled to re-share this episode after reading the incredulous piece by John Fea in The Atlantic called “What I Wish More People Knew About American Evangelicalism.”
I say it’s incredulous for several reasons—not least of which because Fea lifts up James Dobson as an example of “the good in evangelicalism,” even though his emphasis on corporal punishment and staunch anti-LGBTQ+ stance has been incredibly damaging to generations of children and parents—because he credits his own father listening to Dobson with making his father “a better father and husband.” What’s truly surprising about these anecdotes is that Fea later writes that he himself “did not take James Dobson’s approach to child-rearing…Nor did we listen to much of his marriage advice, especially as it related to male headship and female submission.” (Insert millennial whaaa??? gif here)
The piece argues that, because in recent years there have been an increasing number of books that have criticized American evangelicalism, he has not seen stories like his father’s represented. He then uses this as a reason to criticize two successful authors, Kristin Kobes Du Mez & Beth Allison Barr:
Du Mez’s and Barr’s work is part of a narrative—perpetuated by scholars, memoirists, and journalists—that evangelicalism is bad for America. Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and sexual abuse have given the “good news” of the Gospel a bad name. Some of this criticism is necessary, a form of what the Catholic legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny calls “moral chemotherapy.” She describes it as a “reaction to a potentially life-threatening distortion in ordinary, day-to-day moral discussion” that “threatens to undermine the very possibility of moral and political reasoning within the community.”
But some of it is unfair or disproportionate. Journalists don’t sufficiently distinguish Christian nationalists from conservative evangelicals who simply and reasonably want to bring their faith to bear on public life. Brands and platforms are built upon calling out evangelicals for their sins. Overemphasizing the negative is also unhelpful to anyone outside the world of evangelicalism who wishes to understand why so many Americans are part of this movement.
Americans deserve a fuller accounting of evangelicalism’s role in our country’s life. By focusing solely on the moments when evangelicals behave badly, we miss the way most evangelicals practice their faith. Every day, you can find evangelicals serving their neighbors, addressing injustice, promoting the common good, and doing the things necessary to keep American democracy strong and compassionate. In the same way that the anti-evangelical narrative about gender, patriarchy, and racism fails to explain my father’s story, it also fails to account for these moments.
This is truly perplexing, as Fea wants to have it both ways. He’s displeased with criticism, and yet he wants to hold bad actors accountable—something that is done in part by focusing “on the moments when evangelicals behave badly,” as many more people are doing.
This increased scrutiny, criticism, and attention on evangelical behavior in political and social life is a direct result of their actions in political and social life, and it is often levied by current evangelicals and exvangelicals/post-evangelicals who know how the evangelical world works. This criticism is viewed as persecution, a key part of the American evangelical worldview. Melani McAlister is even more specific, saying that it is the combination of enchanted internationalism and victim identification:
Both enchanted internationalism and victim identification are double-edged. They allow American evangelicals to construct an image of themselves through a particular image of others. Those others are simultaneously glorified and abject; they are positioned as less powerful, but also as less encumbered by materialism. American believers’ identification with idealized and suffering Christians elsewhere also allows them to see themselves as persecuted by a secular American public, making them fellow victims in a global assault on Christianity. This sense of identification can also mobilize an ethic of responsibility. Although American evangelicals often have exhibited a sense of benevolent self-satisfaction in their ability to help needy and presumably pliant sufferers, they also have identified with believers who were poor or persecuted, and have claimed them as Christian family. It is through an embrace of both enchantment and victimization—orientations that are religious, political, and emotional all at once—that American evangelicals have come to understand their place in the world.” (emphasis mine)
McAlister, Melani. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Criticism is not equal to persecution.
I take issue with other parts of Fea’s piece - for instance, where he says that many evangelicals will “hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump,” omitting those who will gladly vote for him, and who may have heard a pastor say “Let’s Go Brandon” from the pulpit. Even in this piece alleging that the whole story isn’t being told, he is not telling the whole story.
As Du Mez wrote herself, in response to the article:
No single book tells “the whole story.” One person’s story shouldn’t cancel another’s. Some stories have been kept hidden for a very long time, by design.
Let’s tell Fea’s dad’s story. John could tell it himself—I’m sure plenty of publishers would be lining up for something like that. And let’s also tell the stories of survivors. Let’s tell stories of exemplary leaders and corrupt leaders, of good intentions and unintended consequences, of blind spots and power grabs, gatekeeping and cowardice, of those in charge and of those kicked out, paying attention to power dynamics and tensions, to resistance and complicity. And let’s grapple with how all of these stories exist within the movement side-by-side, within communities and within churches, and sometimes within families.
Nearly three years ago I wrote a bold piece called “The End of White Evangelical Hegemony.” In that piece I wrote that evangelicals had lost control over the national narrative of religion in America. But that is not the sole aspect of hegemony, and likely not even the most important. Evangelicals, especially elite evangelicals, may feel persecuted. But they still hold considerable sway over 1 of 2 major parties, are well-funded and well-connected, and one of their own is second in line for the presidency. They are still part of the dominant public, even as a counterpublic has arisen to criticize them.
That counterpublic is an essential part of telling “the whole story” of American evangelicalism.
I’ll have more to say in this vein in the coming weeks. I also plan to write about the fact that Alisa Childers and Tim Barnett wrote a whole book chapter about a blog I wrote years ago—but that will come have to come later.
Re: the Substack of it all
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