Jon Bialecki

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Politics, Difference, and Evangelical Ethno-Anthropology

There has been a talk, both before and after this recent 2016 American Presidential election, about race and evangelicalism. It’s no secret that according to exit polls, Trump won fourth-fifths of the white evangelical vote. This fact has to be balanced by the fact that there are plenty of evangelical leaders and laypeople who were critical of Trump. So, it is hard to say that support for a figure like Trump is baked into American evangelicalism, but it is also hard to say that it is not present at all, and that support is entirely a contingent factor and not somehow facilitated by some set of evangelical sensibilities, concepts, and practice.

The phenomenon of evangelical support for Trump is important for the obvious reason of political coalition support and maintenance, and I think that it is also important for evangelical self-reflection as well. But, as I’m a social scientist and not a politician or an evangelical, I believe that it is the importance of this phenomenon for social theory that I can best address. There are two questions on this front that stand out in relief.

The first is what is it that caused the lion’s share of evangelicals to fall behind Trump; as of now, there is plenty of informed and uninformed speculation on this point being produced at the present moment. This first question is an important one, but I think it is the second question that is more subtle, and is a prerequisite for thinking this first question through with any degree of success. The other question is how is it possible for two sets of evangelicals (those that voted for Trump and those that did not) to both articulate their views in the same evangelical paradigm. This bifurcation of opinions, both expressed through the same paradigm, is not something new: leading up to and during the civil war, for instance, both Northern and Southern evangelicals found religious warrants for their vying positions. But the fact that this simultaneous bifurcation of opinion but unity in logic has happened before does not tell us how it happened, with how meaning here what are the features of evangelical thought and practice that facilitate such different expressions?

Variation in evangelical expression and self-constitution is an important intellectual problem for me. One pattern that I have frequently observed is that evangelicals often have multiple different modes for addressing the same issue or problem. They use multiple modalities to articulate their economic practices, to engage in their reading practices, and also in their semiotic constitution of the boundaries of their very selves. And as I have recently argued in a new article just out in the Anthropological journal North America Dialogues, I think that evangelical ethno-anthropology is organized this way, too.

By ethno-anthropology, I mean the way that evangelicals conceive of the kinds of human difference that is often also a concern of academic anthropology: differences (real or constructed) such as race, ethnicity, and culture.  Evangelicals have a rich vocabulary borrowed from missiology for these kinds of discussions, with terms such as ‘people groups’ and ‘worldviews’ coming up again and again in American evangelical discourse. But in my latest paper, I argue that underlying it all are three different ways of organizing human difference.

The first mode or way is thinking of human differences are a function of differing plateaus of supernatural charge. In this view, some people and regions in the world are more demon-beset or are closer to God. When viewed this way, the evangelical map of human difference takes the form of a supernatural relief map, with high points indicating places where the Holy Spirit is active, and trenches, canyons, and flatlands places given over to ‘the enemy.’ It should be noted that this thinking of human difference as difference is spiritual potential is the logic behind practices such as spiritual warfare. This way of framing human difference is not necessarily a racialized projection, even if it is often shot through with a great deal of romanticism about alterity: people outside of American are as likely to be “godly” (particularly in conditions of poverty or oppression) as they are likely to be demonized. But it is worth noting that the greatest degrees of sharp difference in spiritual charge appears in the evangelical imagination to be found outside of the United States.

The second way to think human difference is to conceive of it as a relationship. In this mode, God often gives someone a special affection or responsibility, often described as a ‘heart’ or ‘burden,’ for a particular set of people. This divinely instilled relationship is often the engine of missionary activity, but also of ordinary concerns, of being informed about a population, seeking friends from that community, and other quotidian means of bridge building.

The third way that evangelicals think of human difference is as an ethnos, or “people.” This way takes the populations organized by different spiritual topographies or relations, and hypothesizes a series of shared traits by which its constituent members can be identified. This includes things such as particular cuisines, languages, customs, and sometimes phenotypical traits. This mode is open to racialization, but not necessarily racist in the way that the term is understood in liberal discourse: every group is identified by particular traits, but these traits do not have any necessary ethical charge. This is not to say that this way of thought can’t be a catalyst of structural racism (a topic not directly addressed in my article), but thinking in representative traits such as costume, food, custom and phenotype does not require animus. Even evangelicals think of themselves as being distinguished by specific traits.

But at the same time, this conceiving of evangelicals as an ‘ethnos’ can be the engine of a certain back-door racialized thinking. There is a long history, going back to the first few centuries of Christianity, of Christians speaking of themselves as a ‘people.’ This thinking is also found in contemporary American evangelicalism. Evangelicals can think of themselves as belonging to multiple people; sometimes even a three-way identification as belonging to some ethnic group of (usually European) origin, to America as a nation, and to evangelicalism. But in the moments where evangelicalism becomes the most salient identification, there is a tendency for evangelicals to think of their ethnicity as being marked by traits that are representative of the evangelicals they meet on a daily basis and see in the public sphere. And given that Sunday has long been the ‘more segregated hour in America,’ it is no accident that an unmarked whiteness becomes the default form through which white evangelicals imagine themselves. In essence, whiteness becomes invisibly laminated to evangelicalism, even as any conscious claim of a definitional or statistical equivalence or correlation between whiteness and evangelicalism is elided.

This unconscious lamination of race and religion leads to evangelicals saying things to non-white believers along the lines of “I don’t think of you as an Asian [or Mexican, or African-American, depending on who is being addressed], just as Christian.” This sort of association and blindness is again not the only way to think of evangelicalism and human difference: I note the presence of alternative evangelical visions of difference, which see human variation as divinely approved and part for the natural order. I also note that the same set of evangelical modes can be used to reach out to human populations considered ‘other,’ such as Muslims; this can be articulated as a function of a Christian ethical debt to neighbors, or of particular divine obligation given to a believer regarding a particular ‘people.’ But these modes, and particularly the first in the third mode working in combination with one another, can have quite negative valences as well.

My article is drawn in large part on ethnographic material gathered during my many years of involvement with the Vineyard and other charismatic evangelical groups. But in the closing section, I draw from another source – the controversy that arose when Larycia Hawkins, an African-American professor at Wheaton College, the premier evangelical liberal arts college, started wearing the hijab. Hawkins did not do this because of any Islamic piety; rather she did this to signal solidarity with Muslims, who she felt were being maligned by some of her evangelical co-religionists. She was right to see Islam as the object of opprobrium for at least some evangelicals; proof of this can be seen in how her donning the veil, and making a statement that Muslims and Christians worship ‘the same God,’ resulted in a crisis that lead to her resigning from Wheaton. I argue in my article that these three modes can be seen being expressed by the various actors that constituted the scene (Professor Hawkins, Wheaton administration, faculty, and students, and the financial base of donors and the parents of Wheaton students). Professor Hawkins, for instance, was animated by a feeling of Christian love for and obligation towards American Muslims, but also employed the veil as a means of indexing Islam. But it seems that the financial base of donors, or at least those donors who put pressure on the Wheaton administration, were operating in a way that suggested that Professor Hawkins was doubly suspect because she was not displaying the traits that index membership in American evangelicalism, and that the traits that she was seen as displaying aligned her with a negatively spiritually charged ‘other.’

The conflict that erupted over Professor Hawkins does not map on unproblematically to the recent American election, nor does it ‘explain’ why many evangelicals aligned themselves with Trump – that alignment is most likely driven by a long cultivated evangelical distrust of Hillary Clinton, but also because of waves of anxiety about social and demographic change. But it does give us a sense of how these concerns were expressed through the evangelical ethno-anthropology, and also allows us to see what other expressions of this ethno-anthropology came from evangelicals who were more concerned with preserving difference than with protecting themselves against it.



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