A History of American Christianity
Editor’s note: Natasha Huang’s article, below, came about as we met her and—as she explains below in fascinating fashion—she told us that she’d gone to Yale in order to figure out “how we got here”—how white evangelicalism ended up in the strange place it’s at. We were all ears. What was her answer to that question? Could she summarize it in a page? That began a give and take that ended up with the longer article that you’ll read. We bring this up to make the same offer to you. We’ll call it “the 1,000 word ‘how we got here’ challenge.” If you have a take on that, get it to us at email@example.com. We of course don’t promise to print each take that comes in! But it absolutely would be fun to hear your perspective.
“How did we get here?”
Someone asked me this recently. That was not the first time I had heard this question in recent months, and I ask it of myself often. More mornings than I can count, I have started my day by eavesdropping, through articles and comments, on this conversation as it unfolds on Facebook.
“How did we get here?”
“We,” in this conversation, refers to the white evangelical church in America.
“We,” in some circles, refers to the part of Christendom that mostly voted for Trump.
“We” is still being defined, both by those on the outside and by those who feel torn between wanting to change things from the inside and wanting to jump ship.
My family does not identify as white, and we no longer identify with evangelicals, but we crossed paths with the “we” when we departed from a more conventional Taiwanese-American educational path and took up homeschooling instead. This differs from many of my peers, who encountered evangelical theology (produced by and for white middle class Americans) via Asian-American church circles. My parents are purists, so they wanted to get to what they considered to be the original source of American faith, which they wanted to bring in conversation with our heritage.
Thus began two decades of interweaving our lives and identity with the “we.” My family was adopted into it whenever we subscribed to its tenets on culture and faith. It never held us captive, but it presented enough of an appealing worldview that we tried to become a part of it. Eventually we began to see cracks in its foundation and we ultimately felt profoundly alienated from the “we.” I got a graduate degree from Yale to try to understand more about this “we.” My understanding these days of how “we” got to where we are takes the form of a mental mural of snapshots that I’ve taken along the way. I’ll put them in bold.
Puritans found the Massachusetts Bay colony with a theocratic social structure to escape the government-supported Church of England. The family becomes the basic structure of society, but this kind of patriarchy does not necessarily exclude strong women in the home. Education—often in the home—becomes a primary means of teaching theology. (Consider The New England Primer: the letter A is taught with the phrase, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” This is not the only children’s document that emphasizes original sin.)
My family’s homeschooling curriculum often looked nostalgically upon the Puritans as true American Christians who trained up children in the way they should go and made faith and family go hand-in-hand. We had reprints of The New England Primer, which was regarded as a godly way to learn, unlike modern-day secular TV shows like Sesame Street. My mom, who had two master’s degrees, channeled her energies into educating us rather than pursuing a career outside the home.
Outside of the fundamentalist homeschooling world in which I was raised, Puritans are often caricatured for their religious strictness. But think about it: these people crossed an ocean to perfect their practice of faith. Despite persecution, they took the prerogative of Scripture interpretation out of the hands of rulers and into the hearts of laymen. There is something to be said for people who want to think for themselves and approach faith from the ground up rather than the top down. They founded universities like Harvard and Yale to provide theological training to men. Puritans allowed women to be intelligent and strong insofar as these qualities served to uphold the family, but women like Ann Hutchinson who undermined and competed with patriarchal church structures were tried and found guilty. This is why only select women politicians today—such as Sarah Palin, who portrayed herself to be unwaveringly pro-(middle-class, white, Christian) family—gain traction with conservatives.
Enlightenment values come into the mix. Now God is a Deity who allows mankind to use their brains to figure things out, and figure things out they did! Writing is linked to thinking because it is used to communicate ideas and to reason out the best approach to structuring American government. Because the standards for writing involve reason and not feeling, writing is divorced from intuitive knowledge or self-expression. Alexis de Tocqueville observes in Democracy in America that America is strong because of the quality of its women.
Thomas Jefferson is often credited with establishing the notion of separation between church and state, but the concept is more nuanced than modern-day liberals tend to acknowledge. This separation was more about restricting the government from imposing any specific religion upon the people than about removing religion from government symbolism and ethos. Faith has been the springboard for education and civil society in America. With changes in educational philosophy, reason has taken on a life of its own outside of Scripture and interpretations of Scripture. At the same time, Scriptural themes spill into all layers of life—religion in America has always been un-compartmentalized—and merge with educational and philosophical trends. This is what makes American politics so fascinating and hard to divorce from faith. Think about values voting and how conservatives lump faith with politics . . .
During my high-school homeschooling years, we read primary sources by Locke, Jefferson, Hamilton and de Tocqueville. We were taught that America was a democratic republic and attributed its superior functioning to the rationale behind our government’s structure. At the core of this thinking is the idea that government is a necessary evil whose power should be limited because man can think for himself. European yardsticks still measured American legitimacy—and we were passing the test.
Holiness movements and revivals (called the First and Second Great Awakenings) book-end the American Revolution. They value dynamic personalities and extemporaneous preaching. Religion becomes itinerant and fluid. Methodism in America becomes a multi-racial denomination—but there are still ties to England through the Wesley family. Theological debates over slavery show that Scripture can be used to support both sides of the issue.
Some historians argue that the Great Awakening is when American evangelicalism was conceived and the first seeds were sown for celebrity preachers and televangelist culture. Faith became an experience, and that experience was available to women and men, illiterate as well as the educated. As Christianity became known as increasingly non-white, the role of Scripture came to occupy an interesting position. It was a source of enlightenment and education, but was also used to keep the disenfranchised in their proper place.
When I was 28, I went to seminary. My family had been both nurtured and scarred by evangelicalism and fundamentalist conservative theology, and I wanted to know how our experiences fit into the larger story. In part, our disillusionment came as we realized that people of color were disinherited by much of the language of the evangelical church. We learned that this was not anything new. Communities of faith in diverse contexts had often appropriated—or been colonized by—white-male-centered theology. Learning about the use of Scripture to support both sides of the slavery argument opened my eyes to the ways conservative values on family issues claim the authority of Scripture over and against other issues that have just as much biblical support. For example, the pro-life position argues that an unborn fetus is worth fighting for but doesn’t acknowledge that the quality of life after birth and issues like healthcare and immigration are also important. In seminary, I realized that just because a political argument claims Scriptural backing does not mean it has the final say.
In the period leading up to and following the Civil War, some retreat into transcendentalism and others latch onto Manifest Destiny. Westward expansion leads to an emphasis on the self-made man, individualism and an American brand of “macho” cowboy culture. Frontier women are just as strong, their value deriving from an ability to adapt to harsh circumstances. Native communities are displaced and killed; missions are founded. Mormonism finds its home in the West, and Pentecostalism spreads from Los Angeles.
The Civil War shook our nation to its core. Individualism gave people a sense of agency when government and other institutions experienced devastation. Transcendentalism painted spirituality in a way that defied the ugliness of human nature. Turning westward with a spirit of exploration helped Americans leave behind a troubled past. America escaped its pain by moving beyond and above.
We watched a lot of Bonanza growing up, and it always frustrated me that women were portrayed as damsels in distress. I also noticed the recurring idea that land was the most valuable thing one could own, while the people who originally belonged to the land were seen either as useful allies or as disposable obstacles.
Two World Wars set the stage for America to rise as a world superpower. We go abroad to help others even as racism continues to operate on home soil through means such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Jim Crow laws. Women work outside the home as men go off to war, but this is also the “Greatest Generation,” fondly remembered as models of (middle-class, white) family life. After World War II, the G.I. Bill benefits white soldiers while systemic racism segregates colored from white neighborhoods. As this unfolds, the concept of “white” expands to include ethnic groups like Jews, Irish and Italians.
Religion in the time leading up to the World Wars is a subject I studied for the first time at Yale. The evangelicals I grew up with referred to themselves as Christians, in contrast to mainline Protestants who referred to themselves as Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. The insinuation was that those in mainline denominations were not true (born-again) believers. One exception was the Baptists, who were considered Christians because of their emphasis on the Bible.
The civil rights era and beyond sees black churches embracing social justice. The idea of American exceptionalism now intertwines with theology in conservative circles. Contested issues begin to arise that are still alive today—abortion, homosexuality and the role of government. Evangelical churches put themselves forward to speak social issues. They are now also tech-savvy. They know how to market to consumers, and they are increasingly diverse. Conservative movements (which include a conglomeration of stakeholders like homeschoolers, Vision Forum, Patrick Henry College and the Young America’s Foundation) aim to restore theocratic values, take back government and, well . . . make America great again.
Conservative Christians often focus on how America began to decline in the decades following the Greatest Generation—a decline that they attribute to factors such as taking God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, legalizing abortion and the rise of homosexuality and feminism. I learned about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” but not about the involvement of faith communities in civil rights matters long before that historic day. I was taught that efforts to diversify public school curricula were actually attempts to undermine America’s original Christian heritage. In the homeschooling movement, the emphasis on a classical liberal arts education masks white nationalist thinking. The curriculum paints the Founding Fathers as both original Americans and true Christians and so links the liberal arts, which were supposedly emphasized in early American education, with Judeo-Christian and Christian-Enlightenment roots, ignoring secular Greco-Roman influence.
And so here we are in 2017.
Just about a year ago, the “we” of American evangelicalism again emerged into national consciousness, not just as a bloc of voters who delivered unexpected political results, but now also as a fracturing conglomeration of “faith-full” groups. These groups were held together by intersecting strands of theology, politics, and values—strands which became more fraught in the months following the election. Issues that I’d studied in Divinity School scooted to the forefront of conversations even in lay Christian circles, particularly questions about the roles and perspectives of women and people of color in a religion that was produced by and for white men. Like many other women and people of color, I found myself feeling frustrated and disillusioned by the brand of Christianity with which we had become associated.
Of course, this history of the “we” is skewed by my own background and what I regard as important. As Hayden White wrote, history is in fact narrative. Facts relate to our experience and memory and become what we call history. My story here is but one voice in the tapestry we are weaving together as we attempt to explain how “we” got to where we are.
Surprisingly, I have Yale to thank both for helping me shine a spotlight on Christianity’s dirty laundry and also for keeping me engaged with a faith that so many people I love and respect have chosen to leave. As I traced the history of the “we” at Yale, I found myself still in awe of the God I had first met as a child. I remained excited about my spirituality. I met others like me who clung fiercely to a personal relationship with a mysterious Divinity and helped me begin to acknowledge the limits of what I had been raised to see as “sound doctrine.” For the first time in my life, I was in a Christian environment where those in positions of authority championed the full humanity of “every tribe and tongue and nation”—and gender and orientation—and who saw those disinherited by straight white male theology as people worthy not only of respect, but more importantly, of leadership in God’s “kin-dom.”
Much of what kept me sane in the midst of confronting how “we” got here and the mess “we” made was the part of my personal faith that takes on supernatural (what might be called “spirit-led”) characteristics. When rules no longer made sense to me and my doctrine fell apart, I looked to a living deity to guide my conscience and behavior. By this spirit I continue to seek truth and beauty in a time when much of my world has come crashing down. I’m comforted that “we” are not all there is to the story. I believe that there is a “We” that transcends both the harm and the good that “we” could ever do. Perhaps, when all has been said and done, we will have become a part of something bigger and more beautiful than what has been ugly and problematic. One day down the road, I bet I will find myself asking—this time in gratitude and relief—“How did We get here?”