The Challenge of Teaching about Evangelicalsm

Part of my work since 2009 has been teaching topics in American religion to undergraduates. Since my scholarly training focused on Christianity, most of the class concerned Protestants and Catholics in American history and culture. Most of the students lacked any real working knowledge of any religious community, even if they were graduates of Catholic schools (a small minority). The course will meet a distribution requirement, and with vanishingly few religion majors, I kept a broad focus. Given my students’ effective religious illiteracy things went reasonably well.  (I do not intend to exclude any American religion, but I do want to stick to my competencies.)

In teaching about evangelicalism, I hit a concrete wall. My students have assumed that Evangelicals by definition have been always and only conservative Republicans. They might feel some sympathy, I have learned, with a few conservative Evangelical viewpoints, especially amongst the males (immigration; economics; and the racial subtexts). But for the vast majority of my New England small-c and Capital-C c/Catholic students, Evangelicals are a strange tribe: inexplicable in all their ways, potentially hostile to Catholics and Northeasterners in general, and motivated by ineluctable commitments. Neither conservative Republicans nor high-profile Evangelicals are highly visible on the regional Tri-State, southern New England cultural spectrum. As one student wrote, “Evangelicalism: not for me.” I am hardly trying to turn them into Evangelicals (I made that abundantly clear, and they heard me), but I had hoped to shed a little light on Evangelical history and culture in hopes of building some respect for this particular “other.” I needed help.

I ran across John Fea’s blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home after reading several chapters of his book by the same title; Fea’s blog is genuine assistance to those few who would like to understand Evangelicals better, but have no interest in becoming Evangelicals ourselves. His new book Believe Me: The Evangelicals Road To Donald Trump (please order from Eerdmans, not Amazon) tells a story from inside Evangelicalism to those Evangelicals who did not vote for Trump, and to the rest of us.  Fea attended Trinity International University and teaches at Messiah College (Pa.); he earned his Ph.D. from SUNY/Stony Brook, so he also has commitments to scholarship off the Evangelical academic reservation. Thanks to John, I also began to read Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America. I returned to Mark Noll’s landmark The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) as well as George Marsden’s landmark Fundamentalism and American Culture (2nd edition, 2006).

In 2017 Mathew Mayhew (Education, Ohio State) et al. wrote “Expanding Perspectives on Evangelicalism: How Non-evangelical Students Appreciate Evangelical Christianity,” (Rev Relig Res (2017) 59:207–230 DOI 10.1007/s13644-017-0283-8), a survey-based social science project. The investigation revealed distinct differences in students’ attitudes towards their evangelical peers related to demographics, institution type, and academic major. Students who self-identified as having religious experience (or identity) were apt to be somewhat more sympathetic to Evangelical students, who might well feel ostracized or devalued in more secular academia. “How do we encourage appreciation of a worldview as polarizing as the one the evangelical narrative represents?” (p. 225) When does a challenging or provocative Evangelical viewpoint become perceived as divisive or hostile? This is an eye of a needle hard to pass through.

This challenge is particularly trying where no Evangelical students are present. I have found an analogy when trying to teach about the fervor of 19th-century Prohibitionists: most students will recognize the problems of alcohol abuse and alcoholism but advocates for Prohibition simply no longer exist. Students might well respond to the challenges (or provocations) of “hot-button” issues such as abortion rights, LGBTQ rights (and cake-bakers, florists, et al.), and immigrants with or without documents –but lack any awareness of Evangelical resonance. I have had one earnest student say, “I don’t believe in evolution because I’m Catholic,” and had to point out to her that she may have unawares absorbed an oft-held Evangelical viewpoint, but that her refusal cannot be based upon specifically Catholic bases, at least according to the Pope (then Benedict XVI). I must also reflect that my African American and Hispanic students often will reveal greater awareness of Evangelicalism than whites.

I return to the question: how does one teach about those who regard their faith as primary to those who are unaware of why any faith might be primary? (Granted the former category can include a great deal of wishful thinking, rationalization, and even fear and hypocrisy when things go wrong: read Believe Me.) Years ago I encountered a similar wall when trying to teach about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and why he chose to participate, however tangentially, in the July 1944 plot against Hitler. One Muhlenberg College student candidly observed, “We don’t understand anything about sacrifice because we have never been asked to sacrifice anything.” The gulf is more imagination than thinking, or the ability to think. (I am by no means assuming that Bonhoeffer was or would be Evangelical in contemporary North American usages of the word; Eric Metaxas’ book has been justly condemned as poorly sourced and even more poorly written, and I decline to link to it.)

In response, I have to cast back to my own limited experience of something bordering Evangelical America both at Princeton Theological Seminary and at Hope College (in my next post.) Personal experience may be a last resort –I am at my last resort.

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