As the 2020 presidential election nears, Lauren R. Kerby and Jeff Sharlet discussed the politics of white evangelicals in the U.S. today. Kerby's book, Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation's Capital and Redeem a Christian America, offers a starting point for this important conversation about how race, nationalism, and Christianity become entangled for many white evangelicals through what they learn from their leaders about American history.
Their political commitments are baffling to many observers, but this conversation will explore how white evangelicals’ relationship to the nation offers a key to understanding their continued allegiance to Donald Trump.
Lauren R. Kerby is a lecturer on religious studies at Harvard Divinity School and the education specialist for the Religious Literacy Project. She earned her PhD from Boston University. She is the author of Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation's Capital and Redeem a Christian America (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
Jeff Sharlet is the Frederick Sessions Beebe '35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College. He is the author or editor of seven books including the national bestseller The Family, recently adapted into a Netflix documentary series of the same name, and This Brilliant Darkness. Sharlet is an editor at large for VQR and a contributor to publications including Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ, for which his reporting on anti-LGBTQ+ crusades in Russia won the National Magazine Award.
My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to our second public event of the year and our second fully online event, The Campaign for White Christian America.
Thank you for registering in advance for the webinar. When we last checked, we had over 200 people registered, which attests to the timeliness of this topic ahead of the election and to the popularity of our two speakers. We have only an hour together, so I'm going to keep my remarks brief in hopes that there will be time for Q&A.
This afternoon's event is a conversation between Lauren Kerby and Jeff Sharlet around Lauren's new book, Saving History How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation's Capital and Redeem a Christian America. So allow me to introduce our two speakers briefly. Lauren R. Kerby is a lecturer on religious studies here at Harvard Divinity School and the education specialist for the Religious Literacy Project. She earned her PhD from Boston University and Saving History is her first book.
Jeff Sharlet is the Frederick Sessions Beebe class of 1935 professor in the art of writing at Dartmouth College. He's the author or editor of seven books, including the national bestseller The Family, recently adapted into a Netflix documentary series of the same name. Jeff is an editor at large for VQR and a contributor to contributor to such publications as Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ, for which his reporting on anti-LGBTQ+ crusades in Russia won the National Magazine Award.
As the 2020 presidential election nears, we thought that there was no one better suited than Lauren and Jeff to discuss the politics of white evangelicals in the US today. Lauren's book offers a starting point for this important conversation about how race, nationalism, and Christianity have become entangled for many white evangelicals through what they learn from their leaders about American history. While their political commitments may be baffling to many observers, this conversation will explore how white evangelicals' relationship to the nation through a heavily curated account of its history offers a key to understanding their continued allegiance to Donald Trump.
This event is part of a multi-year series at the Center on Race, Religion, and Nationalism. The next event in the series is, in fact, next week. Christopher Driscoll from Lehigh University will give the annual Greeley Lecture on peace and social justice on Tuesday, September 29 from 1:00 to 2:00 PM. His lecture is entitled Spirits of Whiteness in the Age of COVID. Please join us for that lecture, and please consider joining our mailing list so you are kept abreast of this and other events.
Finally, if any of you are in any doubt about the relevance of Lauren's book or this conversation with Jeff, you should know that when we tried to promote this event through Facebook, as we often do for our events, our request was rejected for the first time ever. The message we received read, quote, "your ad may have been rejected if it mentions politicians, topics that could influence the outcome of an election, or existing or proposed legislation." End quote.
So that's just wonderful. Armies of trolls can use Facebook to suppress the vote in this country with seeming impunity, but we here at the Center cannot promote an event inquiring into the confluence of race, religion, and politics. So that's more good news for academic freedom. Thank God someone at Facebook is vigilant about ensuring that this election isn't tampered with.
So on that sobering note, I will turn it over to our two speakers. Lauren and Jeff, thank you both for taking the time out of your busy schedules to share your learning and your wisdom.
So Lauren, I think you're going to start us off with a passage from the book, which I was hoping you would do, because I just sort of want to-- I'll say what the author themselves can't say. This book is, in addition to being a vitally sort of accidentally timed to the moment, there's no way you could have known, is also in some way sort of a page turner. It's so sort of crisply written and tautly argued. And I was hoping you would share a passage so our audience can have a sense of your voice there.
Thank you, Jeff. That means a lot coming from such an extraordinary writer as yourself. I'm happy to read, and I actually love this idea as a way to drop our audience into this world that I spent two years exploring. So just to set the scene for you, we've trudged up Capitol Hill. We've made it into the House of Representatives, and we've collapsed into the very comfortable chairs on the House floor. And I'm going to read you a little bit of the conversation that ensued among this group of white evangelical tourists and a conservative Christian congressman who was hosting their visit.
So the congressman starts out telling us the history of the building, telling us about the Christian dimensions of it, the iconography. He goes on. "Speaking of God's plan, do we know that we are sitting in one of the first churches in Washington, DC? Thomas Jefferson himself attended church here while he was president," the congressman says, "and he even paid for the Marine Corps band to play at services. How's that for separation of church and state?" We laughed together, scoffing at those who would kick God out of government.
But the congressman quickly sobers and tells us, as if we haven't heard, that all of our founders were strong Christian men and it was their faith that led them to found this nation. As evidence, he reads us the closing prayer in George Washington's letter of resignation as commander in chief of the Continental Army, which he presented to Congress in 1783.
Quote, "I considered it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of almighty God and those who have the superintendents of them to his holy keeping." A few people said amen, and others murmured appreciatively.
The congressman gives us a moment to ponder the words and asks if we have any questions. In the front row, an eight-year-old girl raises her hand. When the congressman invites her to speak, she asks, "if George Washington could pray like that, why can't we pray in schools?" The crowd gasps, then erupts in chatter. "It's a very, very good question," the congressman tells her.
The adults around her praise her for her insight. People near me murmur about what a good question it is. To this group it seems obvious, so obvious a child could see it, that we should pray just as Washington prayed. The fact that we do not is a sign of crisis, one visible even to an eight-year-old. Her question cut to the heart of white evangelicals' anxiety about the nation. Why if our founders were such devout Christians do we not follow their example?
Thank you, Lauren. And I have to say, there's a couple of things that I particularly admire about this book, beyond the powerful argument and research. But one is that having spent a lot of time writing about conservative evangelicalism myself, I've often spent time sort of reading material that can be-- it can vary from the sort of fascinating to sometimes kind of ugly.
But what you did, you rode buses around a lot and stood in line a lot. And in this book, you talk about how this Christian tourist industry, the way that so many of these tourists experience the security checks one has to go through at every point in Washington as, in some ways, a metaphor for the kind of persecution they feel as outsiders. So you went through it all on hot days in Washington and sat there. And then come along and you did this research before Trump.
But I think this, again, in the context-- I published a book about an evangelical conservative group in 2008 just as Obama was being elected. And I remember at the time, interviewers sort of said, well, why talk about the Christian right now, since they're gone forever? And then just in time for the paperback, a number of politicians who were part of this group had torrid affairs and confessed extravagantly and publicly. And it was like they just wanted people to read my book. And I feel like the same thing happened here. Just as you published, Trump announces patriotic education and the sort of the more perceptive terms, as you write them, restorative nostalgia of this kind of history.
And I wanted to start and I want to get into this sort of the meat of the book but start with that presentist framing. And it's something that you wrote right in the beginning that as we try to understand that evangelical embrace of Trump, you write that Trump spoke their language and told their stories. And you're speaking not so much of the moral of stories. He doesn't have that piety. But he tells their history in a way that they can recognize. Can you tell us more what you hear in that meeting of minds there between Trump and evangelical history buffs?
Absolutely. And even the ones who wouldn't count themselves history buffs, I think these are stories told around the dinner table in any number of contexts. So yes, I was grateful for the free advertising for my book last week when the White House hosted a conference on American history that really if you didn't understand what my title was getting at before now, you would from listening to them.
It was really about how we have to protect American history. We have to save us from those academic liberals, and we have to use it to save the nation, to get the nation back on track. Everything hinges on history. The term salvation actually came up in one of the talks. So this is very contemporary, a very current way of thinking about American history on the right and particularly among white evangelicals on the right.
So when you say Trump is telling their stories, you're right, it's not the moral stories. And we heard in 2016, and especially in the aftermath, some hand-wringing and confusion about why white evangelicals vote for such a sinner. And I do argue in the book that it's because he was talking like them. He was telling them stories not just about the United States and its greatness but also about Christians within the United States. And it was mapping onto their own experiences and sort of imaginary of how Christians fit vis a vis the nation.
Once upon a time, they were the founders. They were in charge. They were tasked by God with being sort of the custodians of the nation, taking care of it, upholding the covenant with God. And what Trump really hammered home for them was that that's no longer the case.
He leaned into the idea that Christians, by which he generally met conservative white evangelicals and other conservative Christians, that they were persecuted, that they are silenced in schools, in government, in courts, in the public square, and that resonated deeply. And he promised to save them. He promised to restore their rightful position in the nation. And other presidents have done that before. Other politicians have done that before, to a certain extent.
I think Trump's personality and his own persona, who he is as a real outsider, in some ways, he can present himself as vilified by the media. He is a businessman, not a politician. He has had people attack him and he has survived. I think a lot of the dimensions of his own autobiography resonate with people in this audience.
So it's not just that he's telling them stories that are familiar to them. It's stories that are also, in some ways, a part of his experience. His experience may have nothing to do with Christianity, but the stories are the same of being lost and then found, being an outsider who returns. Those sorts of things are really working for him.
And that's one of the key frames that you identify in the book for this kind of telling of history, this sort of simultaneous identity as an outsider and an insider. And it's interesting. As I was thinking about that, just as now as you're talking about it, of course, Trump, many politicians try and claim the outsider mantle.
George W. Bush managed to do it despite being really kind of structurally more inside than any other human being can be. But Trump has maybe a different claim, despite being an elite, of course, and his sort of whole biography coming from Brooklyn to-- or I'm sorry, from Queens to Manhattan. And I wonder how much that map's backward.
And maybe we can start where these Christian tours that you took so many of started with the Washington Monument, which is sort of in the beginning there's George Washington. And the place that this stone monument occupies in the imagination and the way that outsider insider narrative is maybe always there. So that Washington, by being a revolutionary, one can lay a pretty good claim to being an outsider, even as Washington is a very naturally born to a kind of aristocracy. What does the Washington Monument mean to them? They see something sort of different then maybe a secular visitor to the monument sees, right?
Yeah, it's interesting. There's a couple of stories that I think are worth recounting there. One is it is a sacred space. And I don't use that term lightly as a scholar of religion. But for the people I was with, the Washington Monument is. It's divine. That's a connection to a religious past.
So I was there with one group and observed a man and just sort of walking around. It's always hot in these stories. It was hot. So we were sitting in the little tiny slice of shade in the shadow of the monument and I watched one of the tourists walk around. And he put his hand up against the monument sort of tentatively, and then he recoiled. And he came over and told us it's warm. I said, well, of course. It's been baking in DC heat all day.
But he was really primed to experience that as there's presence here. There's something transcendent about this site. And I think that holds true for a number of sites in DC. Arlington National Cemetery being the most sort of analogous. But yeah, the Washington Monument as a real center for these tours much as it's a center in DC.
I'm just going to screen share briefly so you can see what I'm talking about. There is an aluminum capstone at the top of the Washington Monument. And it came up on every tour. This is such a, I don't know, white evangelical urban legend perhaps. It's real. There is an aluminum capstone on the eastern face it's inscribed "laus deo," praise be to God. There's a lot of rich symbolism in this that's on the eastern face. It's the first thing the sun hits as it rises. Facing east is in Christian tradition facing toward the resurrection. There's a lot going on there. So they were excited to see it.
And I'll show you just briefly. This is a picture of a replica. It is very hard to see, and I'll say a little more about that. But can see just this little tiny inscription way up at the top of that monument that holds so much meaning. There's so much meaning about the nation and about Washington and the relationship to God accrued there.
But what happened with every group is almost immediately when they heard about this line, if they didn't know it already, they started to be anxious. And they started wondering, well, is it still there? My brother told me they were going to take it down. Or I thought they would have erased that by now. They being the Obama administration, which was then in office.
So there was this really intense anxiety about, well, what are we-- it's there, but it can't possibly be there for long, because we're victims. We're persecuted. We're exiles from our rightful places. And the replica I showed you is on the observation deck at the top of the monument. The group was able to go up there. Tours are quite limited. They sort of had the same reaction. They were excited. It's like, oh, it's actually here.
But oh, it's turned the wrong way. Man, those liberals just don't want us to see this. It's turned so that you can't see the laus deo as well. It's badly lit. All the complaints that one might expect in that kind of context. So there's no ambivalence about the Washington Monument in so far as it is sacred, but it's also really in danger is something that was pervasive throughout the tour. So it's that sense that these Christian objects that prove our Christian heritage, they're at risk.
Yeah. I thought that was so fascinating in the book the way you're sort of approaching material history and here the object as a victim or the object as imperiled in some ways in this sort of telling damsel in distress. But also a mirror, perhaps, for the visitor, in the sense that there's this other term you use, borrowing from, and I'm going to mangle his name, Matthew Engelke.
Yes, of ambient Christianity, which is a real antidote to the way this discussion so often happens, which is Christian right says this is a Christian nation. Secular person says, is not. Is so, is not, is so. When in fact, there is not as much Christianity in the founding as the Christian right claims. There is more than maybe some people were aware. For instance, this inscription on the Washington Monument.
And these tours are designed to both make you see it, to suddenly make it alive, but at the same time to feel imperiled. It's sort of a great marketing ploy. Come now, quick, see it while it lasts. And you yourself are in this position. Just by seeing it, you also become imperiled. Now I know the truth. But they're trying to suppress the truth. That means just by witnessing it, I'm being brave.
Maybe if you could tell us more about, maybe sort of give us an overview of the ambient-- you describe at one point in the Museum of the Bible there's sort of a virtual reality ride where they take you through Washington. If you could take us to a very quick version of that, of the ambient Christianity that there radiates out from the Washington Monument for them and how it reflects their own sense of danger and adventurousness.
All right. I'll have fewer special effects than the Museum of the Bible's ride, but I will do my best. Yeah, I mean, I think one thing to realize is that they're visiting all the places any other tour would go. If you've been to DC as a tourist, you've probably visited most of the same sites. So they're seeing the Washington Monument. They'll always do the Capitol Building. I have been on the US Capitol tour 11 times. I would like to never do it again. They'll do Library of Congress is very important. They'll do the Supreme Court.
If there's time, and it really depends, because in the summer when I was typically there, when they typically have tours, the National Archives are sort of the gold standard of what one could see, because the founding documents are there. The origins of the nation are in this beautiful very, very cathedral-like space. This is, by the way, where' the president's conference on American history last week was held, in this temple to the founding documents. Very interesting and effective choice.
They would always do Arlington. Arlington National Cemetery was essential. Depending on time, they would do the war memorials on the National Mall. But sometimes that was just a quick drive by and really focusing on Lincoln. They had nothing to say about the Vietnam wall. And Jefferson was another sort of outlier. If you've been to DC, it's a little harder to get to. There's not multiple things you can do in an area, which is how these tours like to prioritize things. And one group would go to Mount Vernon consistently. So continuing on that sense of reverence for George Washington and his life.
You'll notice they don't go to actual churches. They did not visit the National Cathedral except for one group. They do it because it's not real Christianity, according to many of them. It's too liberal. It's too left. And that's not what they're there for. They're there for a different kind of Christianity that they see as the backbone and foundations of the nation.
So what do they see here? They mostly see texts. These are Protestants. They love a good text. So they look for inscriptions. I'll show one that is not a historic site, but it is interesting. So you can see this is the visitor's center at the US capitol. It was built after the September 11th attacks as part of a new security procedure. It finally opened, I believe, in 2005. And you'll see that in God we trust is inscribed over the entrance. They look for this kind of thing everywhere.
A similar inscription is found in the US House of Representatives above the speaker's rostrum. And another one they love. There is a face of Moses staring right at you when you're standing at the speaker's rostrum. I can't find it right now. Apologies. It's on the book, so check that out. Jeff will do our illustrations for me.
Yeah, I'm finding the page to hold it up for you, but I don't know if I can find it.
It's a good image. Chapter two I think.
And I thought it was fascinating too, their idea that because the speaker can see Moses that they imagine Congress as being the sort of dialogue.
Yes. Here, I got it.
He's always looking over you like Big Brother.
This is courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. We thank them for allowing images, because I was not permitted to take photos in the House. But yeah, that's what the Speaker of the House is staring at every day. That's what the president is looking at when giving the State of the Union. It's symbols like these all over the city.
Statues of famous Christian leaders or subtle references to the Bible and different inscriptions on the Department of Agriculture's building, on Union Station. Less subtle there. Yeah, it's mostly text. It's mostly people that if you know who they are, you know they were Christians of a particular sort. They tended to be more on the conservative side or have been claimed by modern conservatives. So that's what they're looking for.
Yeah, let me ask you about that. That was one of the things-- I mean, you sort of described this second trinity here right of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln as these central figures. And the Jefferson that is not necessarily recognizable to us boring conventional history types.
Us brainwashed products of the public schools.
Right. Lincoln is even more astonishing, because you describe their account of Lincoln, and a fairly long account of Lincoln, with no mention of slavery or the Civil War. And it's a little bit like how do these white evangelicals deal with race? Let's just not talk about it at all. So the things that they see, for instance, that you, in fact, have look up his name. Jason Lee, forgive me, I forgot the name of the great Oregon missionary who is representing in statuary. They're very anxious about he might disappear, Jason Lee.
They don't see Sojourner Truth, also a great leader, also a great Christian leader, and a Black woman. They don't stop for her. I wonder if you could talk about that. Because in your telling, they're not going and explicitly saying anything racist or anything at all. They just wipe it out of history, it seems.
Yeah. And I wouldn't want to exculpate them for any racist remarks. They were just not fit to print.
Oh no, I mean there's something profoundly racist. But they don't experience themselves as arguing, Sojourner Truth is bad. We just don't--
Certainly. Yeah. I mean I think the way race is relevant in these tours is in its invisibility and in the ways they use particular language to obscure the fact that they are talking about whiteness almost exclusively. So I say white evangelical when I'm talking about them. I appreciate the precision of that term, even though it is itself sort of contested. But it speaks to both their race and their religious commitments. And when you're looking at a people's relationship to this nation over time, it really matters if you're white or not.
So I think talking about them as white evangelicals is essential for understanding what they're doing here. But they only ever say Christian. And what that does is it elides all the possibilities for other forms of Christianity, for progressive forms or mainline forms of Christianity, totally erases Catholics, it erases any people of color. Because they're saying Christian, but it only ever means white evangelical people, usually men, of the American past.
And I think that is a real loss. I mean, they're missing Sojourner Truth. They're missing Rosa Parks. These are critical people and moments in American history where religion is deeply involved, even Christianity. But it's not quite fitting into this very exclusive idea that to be Christian means to be white and means to be evangelical. So it's just constraining the meaning of that word in a way that rejects any internal diversity in Christianity.
And it's effective, because it just narrows what you see. I talk about the way they sort of make some pieces of the city visible and invisible. It's functioning in the same way. It's making some things visible as Christian, the things that they want to be visible, and it's really working to obscure others so that you can be standing in front of a statue of Rosa Parks wondering why your Black tour guide isn't talking about the Christians in the room.
Yeah. Yeah, well, I wonder in that same context the way in which it did seem visible or implicitly visible in the language you describe was this sort of seemingly sort of steady drumbeat of sarcasm and scare quotes. These tour guides saying, separation of church and state constantly. And then following that up with saying, you never knew that. You weren't taught that it in schools. And then actually using this language, because you've been robbed, and that they're going to fix it. So it's almost as if they're speaking about Christian reparations.
And implicit in that is very much his idea of this is their idea of white reparations, that whiteness has been robbed. Or if it hasn't been robbed, if they haven't taken Jason Lee's statue out, they're going to. And this will seem too sharp edged, maybe, but it's hard not hear in those scare quotes a kind of more genteel version of the Charlottesville chant of "you will not replace us" or they, I think, said "Jews will not replace us." But in this case, it's anybody. Am I reading too much into these scare quotes that seem to attend so many of their comments?
I don't think you're reading too much into it. I never heard the word reparations, but I can certainly imagine they're very good at borrowing the tools of minority groups to lay claim to what they want. They will play the underdog to the extent that it is convenient. So I could see that happening.
But yeah, I think this sense of entitlement to power, entitlement to dominance in politics and culture, that sense that they've been replaced, I think that's absolutely true. I also think it's worth digging into some of the theological consequences of that for them, because it isn't just about whiteness. The whiteness is bound up in it. It's also about salvation. They see a covenant with God that this nation is bound to uphold and that they are the ones who are going to carry that out.
And they see-- I can't overemphasize, I think, the fear and the anxiety, particularly when I was doing this research while President Obama was in office. The anxiety that, to paraphrase them, that God will remove His hand from the nation and the United States will suffer in concrete ways, which they usually meant to be economic crisis and sort of the decline of military power globally. There were also other things like declining test scores and workforce and kids misbehaving and any of the social ills. It really comes down to economy and the military. Those are the things that are going to be lost.
But also, again, if we're thinking like big salvation history kind of picture, if the United States falls, the salvation of the world is at stake. So really there's a sense of enormous stakes for them if they're thinking about being replaced that absolutely intersects with race, that intersects with economic concerns, but is also about a theological commitment to upholding this covenant with God.
Yeah, yeah, and that makes me think of I think it was just last month Trump was saying, if I lose, the nation falls. If the nation falls, the world falls. And there seems to be this inexorable logic. And this approach to history is always about inexorable logic. It's always about they speak history in the present tense. It had to come this way. It can only come this way.
But I want to pick up something there you said. Of course, they're very good at using this sort of language that's-- of using language that's developed to critique power to account for their own uneasy relationship to power, even when they have it. They have to imagine themselves as not having it. And this frame of the insider and the outsider, or as you put it in the book, they're both founders and saviors, they're exiles and victims. So maybe just sort of say this is the how to question. How do you be an insider and an outsider at the same time? How do they do it? And do they know that they're doing it? How aware of that maneuver?
I think the folks on the tours, it was largely unconscious. I think at higher levels of political strategy, I think Ralph Reed knows exactly what he's doing. So I'll start there. I think I describe the United States often as a nation that really cherishes tradition. We love to wrap things in the flag. We love to think about the founders and what real America is. This is left and right.
But we also love underdogs. David and Goliath is really deeply embedded in the American psyche. You mentioned George Washington as being sort of a potential outsider earlier, and I think Washington is sort of an avatar for the American Army, the little ragtag revolutionaries up against the great British empire.
I can't tell you how much that comparison was sort of dramatized as evidence that God was on the American side. Because otherwise, how could they have won against such a mighty power? So there's plenty of this sort of attitude and switching going on in American history. Historian Grace Hale documents it since the 1960s in a wonderful book called Nation of Outsiders.
As to how you do it, I think the process is really figuring out what's going to be most beneficial. What's going to win sympathy? What makes the most sense? So one of the things I do in the book is look at sort of how we all tell stories about ourselves that help shape our decisions as to what to do, who we want to be, how we understand ourselves in relation to others in our community and to others in our past. So what evangelicals are doing as they have some of these scripts to choose from.
They could choose-- I'm trying to think of a good example that's not Kim Davis. It's not working for me. Kim Davis is a great example. The Kentucky clerk who famously went to jail, I think it was three days, and on the third day she rose, for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple. This was a cause célèbre among evangelicals for quite some time.
And she had a choice there. It made most sense to her and to the folks surrounding her and advising her to be the victim there, to be the outsider, to say, well, Christians are just being persecuted in this country. How could you make me do such a thing? That was a really effective narrative. It made a lot of sense for her to be the outsider there. If she had asserted herself differently and said that no, Christianity is the rightful law in Kentucky. It's what's American. If she had made the traditional argument, basically, I think it would've been far less effective.
So it's all a matter of knowing what you want, if you're being intentional about it. But I think it's also just habits that people form. Starbucks is out of the or the creme brulee latte and, man, this is the war on Christmas all over again. There are these scripts that really permeate culture. You see in God we trust in a school building and you know to interpret that as, yeah, we do.
You have these little moments. It's not all about the Washington Monument and conferences on American history. It's these little encounters with things that may or may not be marked as Christian in everyday life that fit into these kind of narrative scripts that white evangelicals have available to them. There's a lot of those scripts that they do fall into these two big categories of insider and outsider. So it's really a matter of context, a matter of what that day holds, a matter of what you heard. It's always very fluid. And part of the agency comes in the ability to choose which narrative once you're aware of what you're seeing. I'll stop there.
Well, that nimbleness too, to imagine yourself as part of that ragtag army. And that makes me think, you borrow Robert Orsi's term of lived religion and say this is really sort of lived history. And then you also sort of introduce us to, I think, one of the tour guides saying that World War II sort of never ended. That the line between a spiritual concept, a spiritual war, and actual conflict is indistinguishable. And that means you too are in the battle and that you can have your lived history.
So when you go to Starbucks and you notice, and you write about I think it's one year that it's just a red cup and doesn't have a Christmas tree or reindeer on it. And you notice that. Hey, what's with this red cup? You're not a complainer or a whiner or a snowflake, as conservatives like to call liberals. You're like a scout for Washington's army. You're behind enemy lines. You are doing the work of sustaining this, which is simultaneously sort of interesting that the insider outsider, it's also simultaneously low stakes high stakes.
And I think of in this other area, we think of evangelicalism and, in fact, within evangelical circles there's an endless discussion about the fact that most evangelicals forget to evangelize, because it's awkward at work. But I don't have to evangelize, because I noticed your red Starbucks cup. I wonder if you can put that-- take us from the red Starbucks cup to the forever war that they sort of imagine, this never ending battle, which is certainly reinforced by the Washington landscape filled with war memorials and generals and soldiers and signs of battle.
Yeah. I like to think of these tours of DC as a kind of initiation. If we're thinking in the sort of battle metaphors, it's a boot camp. This is where the tourists are being prepared to do battle for American history. They're seeing the evidence in the form of all this material Christianity, the quotations, the statues, and so on. And they're taking that home to argue, to have facts, speak with authority about what it means, whether this nation is Christian, and what that means.
I think in terms of stakes, everything is high stakes. And that was one thing that really struck me about the tours is, yeah, security at the Supreme Court is really annoying. I'm with you. Because these narratives are so readily available, once it gets plotted into that narrative of, oh, the Supreme Court security is really annoying, because they don't trust us, because we're not from here. Probably because they know we're Christians. They don't like us, and they're making can't take extra long. And this is the Supreme Court, and they're about to legalize same sex marriage anyway.
It escalates at a really rapid rate, because these narratives are tied into that long war, that endless war between good and evil that is continually coming up in the history of the United States on these tours. At the Marine Corps memorial, a couple of the guides would talk about early American encounters with the Barbary pirates, who were Muslim, or as they would say, Muslim terrorists.
So they're trying to make this conflict with Islam stretch back to Jefferson's presidency, which is-- what does that accomplish? Well, it brings you in as a soldier in that battle, knowing about the history, being able to represent that, knowing the stakes of it. So I think, yeah, nothing is low stakes here. It's all roads lead back to the cosmic battle between good and evil.
And that presentism as well that the Barbary pirates, no need to learn too much about that. You've got what you need when you find out that there's this early conflict with people who are Muslims. Therefore, the conflict was with Muslims, even though you go back and look at historical records, it says--
A little more complicated.
Actually the point of the conflict. And that these are, therefore, Muslim terrorists, no different. And there's a point in the book you talk about the sort of the idea of these tours. It says, they also learn that what really matters are not these dusty artifacts. So that's a perfect case in point. You don't actually need to know too much of the detail, but the present day activities of a largely secular mainstream bent on persecuting Christians for their faith. And this idea of trying to bring the enemy into focus.
And that presentism, I don't want to wrongly suggest-- I mean, I think there is an imaginary secular imagined nation of the country as any kind of claim to a Christian nation is false rather than-- this is the sort of the liberal idea that I think the 1619 Project, the liberal idea about race. Essentially, we are a good nation that is all about freedom. And the 1619 Projects says, no, essentially we were a slave nation.
But the difference being, it seems that for these evangelicals, you said at one point they're trying to save history to save the nation. I just sort of switch-- it's almost like they're trying to solve the nation. They've got this problem of democracy. And how does it fit? It doesn't sit easily with their idea. They're a kind of an authoritarian theology. So how do I solve this dissonance? And whereas, say, Walt Whitman confronts that same dilemma and tries to solve it through an idea of multitudes, they try to solve it with a, am I right, with a sort of a clearly marked battle lines, a which side are you on kind of solution.
That's right. And I think one way I've thought about it is they say the past is a prescription. We just have to do it exactly like they did it. Which of course, the way they're talking about the founders is informed by this what I call restorative nostalgia following Svetlana Boym. A creative, strategic re-imagining of the past to suit present purposes. And what it does is it evokes that emotional attachment to the past, to those feelings of reverence for the way things were.
And it does-- what am I trying to say? There's no reality there. It's as much of a creative fiction, for lack of a better word, as a liberal dream of what we might be or what we have been. Yeah, the non-reality of it is so striking when you see how literally they want to follow it as a script for preserving democracy. I think that is really striking. Charlie's asking if we'd like to take questions. So Jeff, if you have any others, I'll invite you to have a final word.
Well, I bet some of our guests have questions.
They do. I've been monitoring the questions. So if you don't mind, Jeff and Lauren, I've picked out a couple so that you don't have to go through them all. One I wanted, but again, before I jump in, if Jeff or Lauren, want to say something in closing, feel free. I can disappear for another few minutes.
I'm just going to give, Lauren, I'm going to ask for a frame that in case it comes up in these questions, this is going to be my last question anyway, I was going to ask you to solve democracy, in preferably two sentences. You write of the more rigorous methodology. And I also wanted to think because their project is an imaginative project, and of course, we don't want to get into that is so, is not its own kind of fundamentalism.
We don't want to get into the sort of well actually kind of correction mode. I think of not just historians, like Jill Lepore and Annette Gordon-Reed, poets like Claudia Rankine. Beyond the work of the scholarly historian, what is the work of the citizen historian in imagining this? And I think that's a question that can probably line up with some of the questions our audience has.
I love that question. I was talking with my students last week that it's never a good idea to bring facts to a feelings fight, which I think is lot often how, particularly those of us in the academy who are armed with citations and footnotes and historiography, can be how we approach these conversations about Christian America. And it's wildly ineffective. It's all about facts. It's not even about fake news or any of the sort of challenges to what a fact is these days. It's about a feeling and a relationship to the nation and relationships to the nation's past and how we imagine it.
So I know you've mentioned Lin Manuel Miranda as a visionary, someone who's creatively thinking about history. And I think one reason I love this concept of lived history is that we're not leaving it to the historians. If we recognize that we are continually doing history, we're continually plodding ourselves into the story of the United States, not just the strategists at the level of a political party, but us at Harvard and Cambridge, wherever you all are tuning in from. You think about history frequently.
And I think that may be where more creative understandings and relationships to the nation's past than it was a Christian nation, no it wasn't. Who cares? What do we want it to be? How do we imagine that? How do we imagine that back into the past and use it to spark creative new ideas that we then continue critiquing and continue imagining? So I love the question, and I it's a great challenge to everyone listening, really, is how do we think more creatively and expansively about this past?
Thank you both, and thank you for your willingness to take some questions. I'm going to paraphrase one this came about 2/3 of the way through your presentation, and that is how representative are the folks who go on these tours of the broader white evangelical demographic? And the question had a wonderful tail to it, which is, is this the equivalent of sort of the difference between people who like science fiction and the people who go to Star Trek conventions? Or is this really representative? So that's the first question.
Yeah, that's a good question. I think Star Trek may have more range in its audience than white evangelicalism does. I could be wrong. They aren't representative in so far as they sort of encapsulate a very diffuse set of ideas. And they're concentrated. It's a concentrated sample, in some ways. A lot of what I do, and the book is actually not looking at tours. There's plenty of tours, but I'm also interested in tracing these stories through both sort of the political maneuverings of the Christian right and also the popular subculture of white evangelicals.
There's a Christian version of everything. There's devotionals. There's cruises. There's meal plans. There's all kinds of things. And you start to see these stories informing that. So I think there are some unique qualities to these folks. They're very interested. They're very committed. They're sort of the superfans, yes. They also have money. These tours are not super expensive, but they're also not free.
And they do share very conservative political values and evangelicals' ways of being Christian. So there's some unifying factors that maybe are more a little more extreme. But these ways of talking about the nation, ways of talking about Christians and who are Christians, they are representing a really broad subculture and consumer culture, also. It's not just political affiliation or theology. It's also what are they buying? And this is very much representative of that.
All right, I'm going to blend two questions together that I'm paraphrasing. Given that one of the through lines here is the way in which evangelical Christians lean on persecution periodically, and it seems, in some ways it's a matter of convenience, as Jeff was saying, this kind of moving between the insider and outsider feet, depending on what dance move you need to make at that moment. Washington, DC is filled with Roman architecture. Rome is for most Christians the scene most vividly of Christian persecution. How do white evangelicals metabolize the Roman-ness of Washington, DC?
That is a fascinating question. They don't mark it as Roman, in my experience. This is American architecture. This is what the founders wanted for us. They will sometimes talk about the classical tradition or the Western tradition, sort of getting into the idea of sort of a Greco Roman heritage.
But yeah, that's interesting. We didn't talk about what style of columns. We talked about the frieze of Moses on the Supreme Court. So I think they dodged that one pretty thoroughly, actually. It had never occurred to me, frankly. But it's a good question. It never came up.
I think it was implicitly there, though, in your book. At one point, you describe them being very dismayed by just the size, the scale.
I think that's true.
And while they may not identify that as Roman, there's a sort of an implicit sort of imperial nature.
That's true. Yeah, DC is built to intimidate people. The scale of the architecture, the size of the streets, just the layout. And that translates for the folks they worked with to a sense of the all encompassing oppression of the government. I don't know that that was about the style of the architecture so much as pure scale. Though they might, if they looked at all those fripperies and the details, they probably dismissed it as a waste of money and the government spending. So I'm sure it could come back to that somehow if they look more closely.
Lauren, you were saying earlier that Christian is essentially code for white Christian men. Do you have any experience in your research with either how Black evangelical communities tour DC or whether there were Black or other people of color on these largely white evangelical tours and how they participated in this heavily curated-- how they participated in or received or critiqued this heavily curated history?
Yeah, so over two years, more than 400 people, five of them were Black. So extreme minority. And there was one Hispanic family on a small tour from Texas. And the father was white and was an evangelical and wanted his children to learn this history of America.
I was not able to have conversations with any of these people formally on the record. I was able to talk with one of the Black women who was absolutely into it, who was just eating up this history and was so delighted to be hearing about the real Christian foundations of the nation. And I talked with her. She was traveling with her white best friend. And that was that was really their reaction was this was exactly what they came for. They were so excited about it.
And I don't know for her, I didn't ask. We were standing in line somewhere. When you hear Christian nation, are you hearing white in that or are you imagining something different? I can't imagine that. But it may well have landed in a more complex way for her than what I was generally hearing, just because any time they identified a person, they were white.
How about one more question, if that's OK? I know it's 2:00, but it's a good one. It's from somebody in our own community. It has to do with how these tours handle war and specifically the relationship between violence and redemption. Do they think of these wars in terms of a redemptive violence or is redemption thought of as more bloodless? That is, is there a kind of Christian theology or redemption through violence that's explicit or implicit, I suppose?
I think the term violence is never explicit, but sacrifice really is, with all the attendant connotations of death. There's also lesser forms. There was one striking moment when a mother told me she knew her children would be persecuted starting with economic persecution, which is not the same as dying. So there's sort of multiple levels that they're thinking of sacrifice.
But they do think of war both in its literal sense as sort of a military conquest, which they see themselves as part of this fight to preserve the nation, to defend freedom. They're soldiers in arms with fallen American heroes. They're part of the same cause. They do see that as necessary, and they see it as a gift, a sacrifice on behalf of everyone else. So they're really seeing the military and honestly seeing themselves as sort of Christ figures who are willing to die to give themselves up for the nation, for other Americans, for that sort of thing.
So in terms of violent acts, they are the military commits. It's just assumed that it's righteous. That if you're acting on behalf of America, it means you're acting on behalf of God. It means you are under a mandate to do what is needed. So really, I'm a glorification of war, even as they mourn the sacrificial victims of it.
Thank you for fielding those questions. Jeff, Lauren, did you have anything you want to say in conclusion?
I'll sell from the stage, because the author never should. This book, if you want to understand what's going on right now, this gives you a depth and a kind of a little bit of terror and a little bit of hope. Buy now.
Jeff, you're far too kind. I agree with him, though. Listen to the man. He knows what he's talking about. I think the thing I want to say that I continue mulling over as I watch this election progress is for those of us on the left who value inclusion and progressiveness and things that are the antithesis of the tourists I studied, let's not make it easier for them to feel like victims or like founders.
There is so much there to critique, but just being aware of sort of the landscape and knowing that they will take every opportunity to be persecuted, to be victims, and they will raise so much money for Donald Trump as a result of those opportunities. So I mean, I have no idea what the Biden campaign is going to do. Hopefully it doesn't involve anything like basket of deplorables.
But just for those of us communicating with neighbors about the election or trying to persuade family members, try not to play into that too easily. Avoid the cheap shots. There's no reason to go there, and it's really going to work against the goals of those of us on the left. So that is my killjoy closing comment for everyone.
Wonderful. All right. Well, thank you, Jeff, thank you, Lauren. Lauren, thank you for writing this book. Jeff, thank you for your insights and questions and comments. And of course, thank you all for joining us for this event, and please join us for the next event in this series next week or, indeed, any other series that we run through the Center. You can find out about those, of course, through our website or by joining our mailing list.
So without further ado, I'll let everyone get on with their day. Goodbye, and thank you once again.
Thank you, everyone.
Thank you. Bye.