Then & Now

Religious historians take on the present

The case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has received extraordinary attention as a site of struggle between faith and law. The Supreme Court’s decision that businesses may refuse on principle to provide contraception coverage has not been a shining hour for religious freedom. Many observers fear that the ruling will do less to protect that freedom than to expand the power of corporations. Hobby Lobby has overshadowed two other suits this term that offered more compelling instances of conscience in action.
July 16, 2014
Ongoing and open revelation sets the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apart from many other religious traditions. Mormons believe there is a living prophet of God on Earth and that he has the power and authority to receive new doctrine directly from the Lord. Despite its infrequent implementation, the ninth article of faith is one of the most important tenets of Mormon doctrine: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Open revelation is at the heart of the recent excommunication of Mormon feminist Kate Kelly.
July 9, 2014
Fireworks this Friday will celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence almost 250 years ago. The founders' assurance "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" was authorized by "the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God." But the meaning of that phrase has been the subject of heated debate for some time.
July 2, 2014
Memphis is known for blues, barbecue, and kings. Elvis Presley, the "king of rock 'n' roll," shook, rattled, and rolled his way to stardom by drawing from the art of African Americans. He was, arguably, bigger than Jesus before John Lennon made that controversial claim for the Beatles in the 1960s. In that decade, Memphis became infamous for what happened to the preacher King. There to support the sanitation workers strike of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the legacy of bloodshed continues to haunt the city. Elvis and Martin are not the only kings of Memphis. There's also the king of kings. 
June 25, 2014
Last week college economics professor David Brat trounced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for Virginia's seventh congressional district. Prognosticators thought that Brat, a favorite of Tea Party supporters, was a long shot. How could he win? Hadn’t the Tea Party been on the wane? Now, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson warns, the Tea Party “should no longer be thought of as just a faction of the GOP. It’s calling the shots.”  What's clear is that Tea Party voters turn out in droves and care passionately about politics. Many of those Teapublicans are also fervent Christians of the evangelical stripe.
June 18, 2014
Last week, evangelical congregations across America began screening a documentary called The Stranger: Immigration, Scripture and the American Dream, produced by a group called the Evangelical Immigration Table. Among EIT's advocates are a host of uncommon bedfellows: Mathew Staver of the Liberty University School of Law and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and popular pastors Max Lucado and Wilfredo de Jesús. Immigration reform has attracted such a spectrum of advocates that it shows how it is a fortuitous issue for American Protestants.
June 11, 2014
To fully celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, we must contextualize her 86 years of living within the black religious traditions that influenced her and birthed her deep spirituality. While countless scholars have analyzed her literary, political, and cultural contributions, few have situated her work within the scope of black religious life, particularly the African-American Christian tradition.
June 4, 2014
Living in San Diego and having family in Norfolk, Virginia, I probably hear more sermons that involve military life than most Americans. I thought little of it this past Sunday when a video of a naval officer's account of war and call for church members to help those in combat and their families ran across the church televisions. But then we prayed for service women and men. And the pastor had all "retired and active" service people stand. It seemed a bit excessive. Then I realized it was Memorial Day weekend. It reminded me of the sermons of Gilded Age evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody.
May 28, 2014
The Harlem Ashram (1940-1948) was a grand experiment that didn't go very far. The interracial Christian commune at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street was modeled after ashrams, or Hindu religious centers, that Gandhi had established in India. Its founders were two white men, Ralph Templin and Jay Holmes Smith, who had been Methodist missionaries in India in the 1930s. There they became interested in Gandhi's synthesis of religion, politics, and nonviolent protest.  Templin and Smith were part of a cohort of American pacifists who saw Gandhi’s work as a potential model for political and religious activism in the United States.
May 21, 2014
Jimmy Carter rode to the White House in 1976 on the twin currents of his reputation as a “New South” governor and a resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the early 1970s. Progressive evangelicalism, which traces its lineage to 19th-century evangelicals and to the commands of Jesus to care for “the least of these,” represented a very different version of evangelical activism from that of the religious right.
May 14, 2014
The movie Heaven Is for Real—based on the book by the same name—tells the story of minister Todd Burpo and his four-year-old son Colton. The main plot revolves around Colton’s near-death experience and his claims that while undergoing surgery he visited heaven and sat on Jesus’ lap. Burpo struggles to define what happened to Colton for himself as well as for the community of faith to which he ministers. 
May 7, 2014
American evangelicals and mainliners often seem worlds apart when it comes to engagement with social issues. Take prisons as a case in point. The rhetoric diverges along the lines that one might expect: mainliners rail against the American mass incarceration system, the new Jim Crow that locks away minorities and the poor and is sustained by in-prison private labor and for-profit facilities. They want to fight this sinful system through activism (protests and petitions), academia (lectures and scholarly books), and artistic endeavors (photo essays and poetry).  Evangelicals seek inmate conversion. 
April 30, 2014
Long before Sarah Palin met CPAC and the Duck Dynasty clan discovered A&E, George Gallup Jr. famously declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Subsequent commentators often pluralized “evangelical.” They might have done the same for “year,” too. In many years hence—1980, say, or 2004—it was 1976 all over again, to judge from the headlines. Those election years highlighted the Christian Right, a force that was not on Gallup’s radar screen back when Jimmy Carter was the prototypical evangelical in public life.  The years of the evangelicals were not only about campaign politics, however. 
April 23, 2014
As Easter approaches, raising the dead is at the forefront of my mind. But I think of a different vision of resurrected dead, zombies. The popular monsters reanimate as gruesome bodies; their essential natures, spirits, or souls are absent. Zombies are a reckoning of the horror of the dead coming back to life. 
April 16, 2014
The Sportsman Channel touts its newest series, Amazing America with Sarah Palin, in a three-minute video making the rounds on social media. The video, a recording by “the most patriotic band in America,” Madison Rising, contains rousing lyrics, while a variety of activities flash by in rapid succession: men fighting fires, men shooting guns, women shooting guns, men running with bulls, men riding down zip lines, cars racing, and Sarah Palin on a dogsled pulled by pink-booted sled dogs.
April 9, 2014

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