Leadership Mosaic by Daniel Montgomery, Free for CAPC Members
Leadership Mosaic will remind you to evaluate your heart, your motives, and your relationship with God as it pertains to a role of responsibility.
In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen an explosion of academic work on the history of American evangelicalism. Although many of these works are well-written and accessible for interested non-specialists, few people outside the academy have time to read them all. This leaves a wide open space for authors to synthesize and interpret the vast amount of scholarship. I believe that trained historians are best equipped to do this (see Steven Miller’s excellent The Age of Evangelicalism for rip-roaring proof that manages to also advance an interesting new argument). But I’m also in favor of any author who brings historians’ work to the broader public—I’m a Nebraskan after all, and my populist tendencies run deep. Besides, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so ably proved, a good writer who immerses himself or herself in the scholarship on a given subject can create a powerful narrative that stays true to the experts’ work. Because of this, I was pleased at first to hear about Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity, and I was interested to see how Turner would approach the subject.
Turner writes that “[i]n our efforts to make God known, we’ve quite possibly turned God into something that resembles us, a big fat American with an ever-growing appetite for more.” His book thus attempts to present “the story of God as told, shaped, and affected by America.” To do this, Turner’s narrative takes the reader from the Puritan settlement of New England in the early 1600s through the George W. Bush presidency, stopping along the way to discuss key individuals involved in various historical moments and movements such as the first and second Great Awakenings, the Civil War, the rise of American imperialism, the social gospel and fundamentalism of the early 1900s, and post-World War II neo-evangelicalism.
By now an astute reader has probably already asked the question: Why begin with the Puritans when talking about something as nebulous as “America’s God?” What about the American Indians, or even the French and Spanish Catholics who beat the English to the land that became the United States? The problem is that Turner’s title is misleading. As he notes in the introduction, this is not a book about the multifarious ways that all Americans have understood God (or gods) over our long history. Instead, this is a book specifically about the God of American Christianity. But even that qualifier does not go far enough. Rather than being about “our” great big American Christian God, Turner is mostly writing about “their” American Christian God, with the “their” in this case being theologically conservative white Protestant Christians (or at least those deemed theologically conservative today). And it’s not even really about their God as much as it is about Turner’s distaste for their beliefs.
Unfortunately, the misleading title is far from the only problem I see with Turner’s book. His historical narrative is a bit sloppy, and he makes some basic errors that reflect his inexperience in writing about American history (e.g., “the common American belief before the Revolution was that to God, the United States of America was special”). Most damaging of all, Turner falls prey to a trio of tendencies that often mar popular American evangelical approaches to history. Far too often, he assigns unwarranted transformative importance to specific individuals, the “great men” of history. Far too often, he ignores Christians who are not white Protestants. And far too often he lacks the willingness to understand and explain the historical world inhabited by his subjects of study.
Given the pedigree of the authors that Turner cites in the footnotes (e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero, Thomas Kidd, Kate Bowler), Turner’s inability or unwillingness to contextualize the individuals and groups that he discusses is somewhat surprising. As it stands, his book reads like an expository sermon in which the pastor pulls out quotes from leading biblical scholars (or, in Turner’s case, American historians) to provide an air of intellectual legitimacy, and then, with jokes and personal musings, riffs on what the verse really means in a contemporary setting. “Had [Jonathan Edwards] been alive today,” Turner writes, he “would likely be famous on the internet, uploading his spiritual intellect onto YouTube and telecasting it around the world.”
Turner’s pastoral asides can be entertaining. He has a knack for witty observations and his informal connections between past and present make the book accessible to an audience not attuned to reading serious historical scholarship. But Turner’s narrative style also reveals a simplistic and misguided understanding of his subjects of study. For example, when trying to explain what motivated a group of Puritans to depart for America, Turner depicts them as the dupes of malevolent theologians. “Theology was the fairy dust in the Puritans’ kingdom,” he writes, “the magic potion for motivating a company of fear-filled people to step out in faith and do something brave, difficult, and incredibly stupid.” In Turner’s telling, John Winthrop and John Cotton knew this, so they constructed a theological narrative in which the Puritans were the new Israel. Turner laments that Winthrop and Cotton didn’t consider “the context of Bible verses,” and suggests they were “too focused on selling the big idea” to worry about the truth of their theology or “things like context.” (Yes, Turner’s critique here is dripping with unintended irony.) Like the pastor drawing on Scripture to make an unwarranted observation about the present, Turner connects the dots between Puritans and bad modern Christians: “Even among today’s American Christians, theology is still a pretty convincing manipulator, mostly because it’s often guilt-inducing,” he writes. “And few things motivate conservative Christians more than a holy helping of guilt poured atop a Bible verse taken out of context.”
And so Turner’s narrative goes, pausing every now and then for a diatribe against the forces of modern white American conservative Christianity. “Certainty as it relates to faith—something that the Puritans weren’t in short supply of—always leads to exaggerated displays of religiosity,” he notes with satisfaction, an observation that comes shortly after he’s discussed how the Puritans’ uncertainty about their faith led to anxiety. Later, he uses the Puritans as a case study to explain “why the likes of Rob Bell get labeled heretical by Calvinists.” His answer is simple:
Because a big grace paralyzes a Reformer’s religious views. It diminishes their core responsibility, really, the one they spend a lot of time doing—policing the grace of God, enforcing its limitations, and ensuring that anybody who might consider believing outside the boundaries they have put on God’s grace will feel like they are outside of God’s grace. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to be a Calvinist in America. Because, as the Puritans learned, it’s impossible to keep God on lockdown among people who are free.
Turner’s aversion to Calvinism dominates the first three chapters, before he turns to his problems with other strands of modern evangelical Christianity. Although Turner occasionally mentions an individual who does not fit in with the evangelical camp (like Thomas Jefferson or Reinhold Niebuhr), and occasionally offers praise (as with Anne Hutchinson), those instances are few and far between. The latter is not as much of a problem as the former: after all, there’s no need to praise one’s historical subjects. But his incessant criticism would carry much more weight if he managed first to demonstrate an understanding of his mostly evangelical targets on their own terms and in their own time.
Calvinists aside, perhaps no group receives a more thorough tongue-lashing from Turner than the fundamentalists, a group which sometimes includes only those who were identified as fundamentalists in the twentieth century, and at other times includes any evangelicals who (in Turner’s view) act like fundamentalists. According to Turner, “[a]t its root, in addition to being separate from everybody who isn’t fundamentalist, fundamentalism is about staying on and repeating one general message.” Turner goes on to repeat his own message few times: “Perhaps staying on message is important to fundamentalists because they believe that God is glorified by hearing them state their case over and over again.”
Turner’s discussion of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is wide-ranging and not confined merely to the fundamentalists. He takes the time to brand holiness movement pioneer Phoebe Palmer’s view of God as “demented” and then turns to topics like D. L. Moody, the social gospel, dispensational theology, and prohibition. After first blaming conservative evangelicals for prohibition, Turner (to his credit) reverses course and admits that even “progressive Christians” were part of the campaign. But even here, Turner cannot help but reveal his disdain for the non-enlightened. Evangelicals, he says, “waged war because booze was Satan’s venom,” while progressives actually had reasons: “[T]hey were convinced that America’s emerging drinking culture was creating urban environments fertile for prostitution, domestic abuse, and unnecessary street violence among hotheaded (and intoxicated) young people.” On the other hand, Turner does describe social gospeler Josiah Strong’s words as “Hitleresque,” so maybe it all evens out.
For the grand finale, Turner brings his narrative into the post-World War II era, skipping over whatever liberal Protestants (besides Reinhold Niebuhr) were doing. This is a shame, for much of what he talks about (quick spiritual fixes, a “culture where ministry, capitalism, and media merged into a holy American ménage à trois”) had precedent within both liberal and conservative forms of Protestantism. Ignoring the former, he credits fundamentalists and Billy Graham for these developments to “America’s God.” Turner then turns to his COPYRIGHT SCHITCK®, in which he laments the way that Billy Graham inadvertently turned God into GOD®. Turner’s critique of the marriage between consumer capitalism and American evangelicalism is worth considering, even if his explanation for how it occurred is lacking. “GOD® has become so infused into every aspect of America’s culture,” he writes in one of his deft turns of phrase, “that most people have become so accustomed to GOD® that we’re incapable of differentiating God’s presence from GOD®’s presents.”
Turner closes his book by noting that “here in the United States of America, our God is great, our God is big, and our God is always growing.” Based solely on Turner’s book, however, one gets a rather small view of American Christian perceptions about God. Turner focuses so much attention on white evangelicals that he virtually ignores (with a few exceptions) non-white Christians and expressions of Christianity. He also gives scant attention to developments related to naturalism, Deism (other than briefly discussing Jefferson), Universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mormonism, Catholicism, “modernist” Protestantism, and more. Not only is it impossible to understand evangelicals’ changing conceptions of God without understanding the groups and ideas they were reacting against, but many of the groups above are within the Christian fold. For a book about America’s big and ever-expanding Christian God, Turner’s vision for which Christians deserve attention is exceedingly narrow.
Of course, as noted above, this book isn’t really about American conceptions of God. Rather, it’s mostly an expression of Turner’s frustration with white conservative evangelicalism and his attempts to explore the past in order to find analogues with the present. I empathize with Turner’s frustration. Under the broad tent of American evangelicalism there is much that is worthy of critique. But Turner’s story is heavy on drive-by pontificating and mostly devoid of attempts to seriously understand his targets. On top of that, it is to his detriment that Turner stresses the notion that individuals in America mold God to suit their own personal interests. This overemphasis on the power of individual agency—which comes across as a reflection of the very individualism that Turner decries—often renders him unable or unwilling to analyze and comprehend the complex social, economic, and political structures that make our (changing) conceptions of God meaningful and even possible. Our notions of God reflect our personalities, sure, but also our moment in time and space—that is, the often unseen social structures that frame the limits and possibilities of our understanding. We indeed see into a mirror, darkly—and through lenses that shape our perception in ways we often do not take the time to consider. But Turner misses an opportunity to emphasize this point and to inspire readers who might not otherwise read books about the history of American Christianity to think deeply about the historical moments inhabited by American Christians, both past and present.
Even for all its flaws, readers may yet gain something useful from Turner’s book. It is, after all, a quick, lively read, and Turner is an entertaining writer. Those who have admired Turner’s writing in the past will find him in the same form here. And readers who have mostly scorn for Calvinists, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, dispensationalists, prosperity gospelers, and politically conservative Christians will find their heart strangely warmed with affirmation. While I believe Turner’s historical narrative left much to be desired, perhaps it can spur an interest in the history of American Christianity. To that end, Turner’s fine collection of secondary sources can point readers toward more useful books about America’s Christian past.
Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He is a regular contributor at the Religion in American History and American Society of Church History blogs, and his writing has also been published online by Religion & Politics, The Christian Century, and Christian Ethics Today. Follow him on twitter @p_emory.
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