Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

Marian Ronan

Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

By David Harrington Watt

Oxford University Press 2002, $29.95

Though a life-long Roman Catholic and an ardent feminist, in the mid-1980s I began theological studies at a low-church Protestant seminary in midtown Manhattan. (1) Some of the students at this seminary practiced a more biblically literalist brand of Christianity than my own and held convictions about sexuality and gender that I found troubling. Many of them were also passionately committed to racial and economic justice. Since then I have been wary of generalizations about “evangelicals” and “conservative” Christians.

David Harrington Watt also struggles with contradictions regarding the millions of Christians in hundreds of thousands of congregations across the U.S. who might be characterized as conservative and evangelical Protestants. A scholar of American religion with degrees from Berkeley and Harvard, Watt is well aware of the predominant scholarly discourse about such groups: that they celebrate male dominion and (male) pastoral authority, that they constrict female agency and condemn premarital and homosexual sex, and that they believe God favors corporations and the state. But Watt also grew up Southern Baptist in the 1960s-though he has not been one for many years-and finds aspects of this narrative unsatisfactory. For one, it stresses questions of power to the exclusion of those concerning beauty and truth. For another, it is self-consciously partisan, playing up tensions between those Watt calls “Bible Carrying Christians” (BCC) and feminist, Marxist, and gay liberation to the exclusion of other issues. But a scholarly counter-narrative, one that interrogates hegemonic aspects of this discourse, is growing. Watt’s book, Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power contributes, in some respects, to this counter-narrative.

It is not easy to counter a prevailing discourse, however. Though Watt finds the liberal critique of conservative evangelical Protestantism too exclusively focused on power, he himself has a longstanding interest in religion and social power, especially in relation to states and markets. (2) He is particularly concerned with the way that “the sort of power relations that seem natural” would shift if the many congregations of Bible-carrying Christians in the contemporary U.S. were replaced, for example, by pagan or Buddhist or liberal Episcopal congregations. To pursue this concern, Watt and three assistants conducted interviews in three different BCC congregations in the city of Philadelphia between 1991 and 1994.

At the time of this fieldwork, Watt tells us, Philadelphia was an ethnically heterogeneous, segregated city with a declining economic base. All three of the congregations he studied were made up of people who were neither very rich nor very poor. The first, Oak Grove Church, is a predominantly white, non-denominational congregation located in an ethnically changing working-class section of the city. (3) An important component of the church’s ministry is its school, founded to protect members’ children from the corrupting values of the public alternative. In an empty and forbidding neighborhood, Watt found the church and school to be places full of activity where participants felt safe. The worship services were also often vigorous and beautiful, while some of the sermons favored the poor over the rich and advocated the countercultural values of Jesus.

But interviews at Oak Grove also indicated that submission to male and pastoral authority was highly valued, with women consistently subordinated and feminism condemned. There was also no fundamental tension in the church between the American state, consumer capitalism, and the kingdom of God. Watt was especially struck by an interview toward the end of his fieldwork in which the Oak Grove pastor, a graduate of Bob Jones University, aggressively stressed the loathsomeness of gays and lesbians.

A majority of the members at the second church Watt studied, the Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship were also white, and the congregation met in a poor, mixed-race, neighborhood, but other differences between the two congregations were striking. The fellowship practiced a form of Christianity far to the left of liberal Protestantism, including a radical emphasis on congregational equality rooted in its commitment to the kingdom of God and rejection of the sovereignty assumed by the American state. Its approach to the Bible was uncritical, even fundamentalist at times, but its emphasis on the kingdom of God undergirded a radical political practice. Members evidenced a widespread conviction that devoting energy to earning money was a terrible mistake, and that those who prayed for the kingdom of God could expect a lot of suffering. On the other hand, though women played many more significant roles in this congregation than at Oak Grove, and some forms of feminism were believed compatible with authentic Christianity, there was no critique of masculinist symbols or language. Power relationships between men and women were asymmetrical. Heterosexuality was also clearly sacralized, though homosexuality was not an object of outright hatred as it was at Oak Grove.

The third church in Watt’s study, the Philadelphia Church of Christ, is similar to a number of churches receiving scholarly attention in recent years because of their emphasis on church growth, submission to the authority of elders, and rejection of seminary training for clergy. The Church of Christ itself is part of the International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement), a body that deemphasizes congregational autonomy and stresses national and international networks of disciples. In his visits to the Church of Christ, as at Oak Grove, Watt responded positively to the worship services (as he had not at the almost “aesthetically impoverished” Mennonite fellowship). He and his assistants were also struck by the sense that the Church of Christ was a power-filled institution, affording its members a sense of worth unavailable to them in the secular world. In effect, the Church of Christ told its members that God had picked them for a grand destiny, and reinforced this sense by enabling them to associate with powerful men and beautiful women.

But, Watt notes, empowerment does not necessarily mean participating in egalitarian power relations. A movement that empowers people could do so with the goal of conquering the rest of the world, something Watt suspects may characterize the Church of Christ. Most troubling, for Watt, was his introduction to “discipling partnerships,” the central structuring technique in the Church of Christ. A new or prospective member of the church is assigned to a more senior, same-sex member of the congregation for regular one-on one meetings. Nothing less than instantaneous obedience is acceptable in this relationship. Watt experienced his interactions with the church elder who attempted to convert him as virtual bullying and soon withdrew.

Watt’s assessment of the church is not entirely negative, however. He notes, for example, that because of conflicts with government agencies that considered it a cult–a zoning board in an upper middle class neighborhood who prevented members from holding bible studies in their homes, for example–the Church of Christ, at the time of Watt’s research, drew a very clear line between the State in its various manifestations and the Kingdom of God. It thus taught that Christians ought not to become entangled in politics; they should pay their taxes and vote, but that’s about all. Watt also notes that though the church opposed feminism and constructed narrow roles for female members, its patriarchal culture was not necessarily pernicious. Children there were loved, and women received a certain kind of attention. Involvement in discipling partnerships even gave some women power, though within a limited scope.

Those curious or concerned about evangelical Protestantism–an entity to which as many as a third of the American population now pledges some form of allegiance–would do well to read Bible-Carrying Christians. Watt’s ethnographic approach helps him to explore controversial questions with great clarity and evenhandedness. Every conclusion is linked to attitudes expressed in interviews or observed behaviors. His study is also a model for scholars interrogating the impact of social location on their work. Such self-reflexivity has long been recommended, but too often results in a kind of introductory acknowledgment that excuses more than it clarifies. In Bible-Carrying Christians, telling events in Watt’s own history are appended, in an understated way, to critical observations throughout the book, a practice that increases the likelihood that his readers will trust him.

Watt’s modest approach also marks the four pages of conclusions he draws from multiple years of fieldwork and background reading. To begin with, Watt realizes that as a lifelong American Protestant, what he has in common with the members of the three churches exceeds his differences from them. He also concludes that respect for pastors by many of the Bible-carrying Christians he encountered (though not all) far outweighs their respect for democracy. All three of the churches he studied likewise naturalize deference of females to males and believe that homosexual practices are ungodly. Nonetheless, according to Watt, some of the Bible-carrying Christians he studied, and others, one might infer, interrogate the claims of corporations and the state thoughtfully and radically, something many liberal Protestants have given up on. This makes them “important and valuable” (118).

Given the evenhandedness of Watt’s argument up to this point, it’s difficult to dispute this conclusion that inasmuch as Bible-carrying Christian congregations object to the dominance of states and markets, their existence is valuable. But it’s also difficult to grasp the practical implications of this resistance. Earlier Watt observes that although one of the churches he studied had begun to encourage its members to engage in partisan politics, the other two do not do so. Rather, they urge their members to vote and pay taxes but not to expect much from the state. As in the Southern Baptist congregation Watt attended as child, what really matters is the congregation itself, which comprises a kind of sectarian witness against the world.

But we live in a country in which the last presidential election was settled by a very few votes, and the outcome of that election led to a new, troubling policy of pre-emptive war-making. In the current American two-party system, how can patriarchal, homophobic convictions not influence, and probably determine, how many Bible-carrying Christians vote? A recent report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press notes that a far higher percentage of white evangelicals than white mainline Protestants voted for the current president. “Religion,” the report observes, “is a critical factor these days in the public’s thinking about contentious policy issues and political matters.” (4) Perhaps one implication of Watt’s argument is that the major candidates put forward in contemporary American partisan politics all represent state dominance, so the difference between them is negligible.

A more hopeful take on Watt’s conclusion is that for some Bible-carrying Christians, commitment to the kingdom of God over against state and corporate dominance so far outweighs patriarchal or homophobic attitudes that the latter are highly unlikely to determine political behaviors. This is probably true for many members of the Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. Beyond that, Bible-Carrying Christians suggests that the very existence of Christian teaching that God is more powerful than states and corporations is a value in itself apart from Christian practice. This is an interesting and provocative hypothesis.

1. This school, New York Theological Seminary, is now located at 475 Riverside Drive, near Union Theological Seminary, in upper Manhattan.

2. David Harrington Watt, “United States,” in Between States and Markets: The Voluntary Sector in Comparative Perspective, Robert Wuthnow, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 243-284.

3. The names of the churches and interviewees in the study are pseudonyms.

4. Quoted in Michael Massing, “A Kinder, Gentler Fundamentalism,” The Nation, 6 October 2003, 34.

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