Tim Pawlenty, Bad Fundamentalist

After producing a truly epic book advertisement, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty sat down for an interview with Christianity Today. Two of his answers early in the interview jumped out at me:


Your book encourages Christians to be involved in public issues. At what point might Christians rely too much on political solutions to current problems?

I started with the perspective of someone who says that faith is separate from public law and public service; it really isn’t. We have, as a country, a founding perspective that we’re founded under God; our founding documents reference and acknowledge God, and acknowledge that our rights and privileges come from our Creator.

For those who have an interest in or passion about an issue, being involved in the political process is important. It isn’t for everybody; there are other ways to serve, including the family, neighborhood, faith-based organizations, charitable organizations, and also reaching out and helping somebody on a one-on-one basis.

Recently, Alabama governor Robert Bentley spoke at a Baptist church about accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior, and then said, “I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister and I want to be your brother.” How does someone balance being evangelistic while also having the obligation of a governor representing a religiously diverse state?

I’m not familiar with the Alabama situation, so I can’t comment on it. Beyond that, when I go into the public square and speak about faith matters, first of all, I try to not inject my own personal editorial comments. If I make a faith-related comment, I usually quote from the Bible, often from the Old Testament. I remind people that our country is founded under God, and the founders thought that was an important perspective. I watch my tone so I don’t get judgmental or angry about issues. I try to express myself in ways that are measured and appropriate and hopefully civil and positive. Lastly, I try not to say that God is on my side, but I strive to be on God’s side.

There is a parallelism in Pawlenty’s logic here. First, he argues that our founders and our founding documents show that our country was “founded under God,” though he never explains what that phrase means or what its repercussions are; nor does he even discuss who this God we’re founded under is. But that’s beside the point. He also incorrectly implies that God or a Creator is mentioned in our Constitution when only “Nature’s God” is mentioned, and then only in the Declaration of Independence. Yet that’s also beside the point.

The point is that, for Pawlenty, there is evidential proof of America’s founding “under God” in the Founders and their documents. Then, he makes the point that when he speaks in public about matters of faith he tries “not to inject my own personal editorial comments.” Rather, he quotes from the Bible. Pawlenty’s use of scripture and his use of the Founders share a similar precision. In both cases he believes he is not injecting his own editorial comments, but instead, that he is relating what is plainly obvious. Just read the founders. Just read the documents. Just read the Bible. It’s all there, clear as day.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

Pawlenty stars in American Civil Religion: The Movie

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and an unofficial candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, has released one heck of a political ad that masquerades as a book ad that looks like a movie trailer. The ad runs only a minute and fifteen seconds but it packs in a flurry of American religious and civic mythology around the themes of freedom, security, and prosperity. With a thrilling musical score of vague but impending danger that could have been lifted from the season finale of 24, Pawlenty’s voiceover reminds us that these three goals won’t be easy but that we can accomplish them because “we are the American People.” He also cites that we’ve done it before at Valley Forge, on the moon, and settling the West. If we just roll up our shirt sleeves we can get it done.

Pawlenty’s message draws on three myths in American culture.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

GOP Hopeful Herman Cain: Jesus was “The Perfect Conservative”

There’s now officially a hat in the ring—or is it a pizza? Herman Cain, the man who saved Godfather’s Pizza and argued against Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform, has started a presidential exploratory committee. In a profile on Cain at Slate, David Weigel describes Cain’s popularity among the Tea Party folk:

When Cain speaks at conservative conferences and Tea Party rallies, he gets bigger crowds than members of Congress, and only slightly smaller crowds than Fox News hosts. He was invited to join the board of Tea Party Patriots, declining in part because he was thinking about this presidential bid, and he was a spokesman for Ginni Thomas’ “Liberty Central.” At the October 2010 Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention in Richmond, I saw football-jersey-style T-shirts displaying names of those who might run for president this year: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, and Herman Cain. When no other Republican wanted to talk about 2012, Cain would walk into speeches introduced by a heavily produced video, a highlight reel of his other speeches.

Weigel also notes Cain’s radio show on WSB in Atlanta where he rails against President Obama, “socialism,” and the Democrats abuse of individual rights while mixing in some “Dale Carnegie-esque leadership talk.”

When it comes to his credentials as a Christian conservative, well, Cain is working on those. Sarah has already pointed out religious right connections and he’s continued to step those up. Last month he wrote a Christmas column for World Net Daily titled “An Example for America: The Perfect Conservative” in which he turned the carpenter from Nazareth into Ronald Reagan:

He helped the poor without one government program. He healed the sick without a government health-care system. He fed the hungry without food stamps. And everywhere He went, it turned into a rally, attracting large crowds and giving people hope, encouragement and inspiration.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

Religion Dispatches: Zeitgeist A Blend Of Skepticism, Metaphysical Spirituality, and Conspiracy

As Sarah noted, Good Morning America reported last week that Jared Loughner had been influenced by the documentary Zeitgeist, a film that depicts Christianity, 9/11, and federal banking as conspiracies meant for social control. Since that report, the internet has been abuzz with attempts to locate Zeitgeist—and Loughner—on either the right or the left. Much of the analysis of Zeitgeist and Loughner has focused on its ideas about an international banking conspiracy that uses currency to foster debt slavery with the goal of instituting a one world government. But such analysis only accounts for part of what is going on in the film.

As Jesse Walker points out, in the case of Zeitgeist the labels “left” and “right” are pretty useless descriptors. Rather than placing the film, and by proxy Loughner, on the political spectrum, the religious elements of Zeitgeist provide another set of insights into the themes and theories that may have appealed to him. Although Walker calls it, for lack of a better label, “New Age paranoia,” the film defies easy categorization, but mixes anti-Christian polemic with metaphysical spirituality in its narrative of conspiracy, manipulation, and social control. And while it draws on different American strands of skeptical thought, from the founders through the present, and attempts to present a utopian vision of shared humanity that would overcome the dark conspiratorial world it depicts, ultimately that dark world is the film’s predominant theme.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

My Notes from the 2011 AHA and ASCH meetings

I’ve seen more snow at home in Atlanta than I did up in Boston. Weird. I spent a whirlwind two days up in Boston for the meetings of the American Historical Association and its smaller, more religious cousin, the American Society of Church History. There was plenty of religious history goodness to be had, but alas, I was on a time crunch. I flew in early Friday, stayed the night and flew back late Saturday. Here are my random thoughts, observations, and notes from the various panels I attended and things I found to occupy my time drawn from scattered marginalia in my conference book.

Friday afternoon’s panel on cosmopolitanism and the religious left at the turn of the 20th century was very good. John Pettegrew (Lehigh University) offered an interesting argument for Mark Twain as a religious liberal and for Twain’s belief in empathy as a force that bound humanity together. For Twain, argued Pettegrew, empathy was war’s opposite and it allowed for a universal humanity. Emily Mace’s paper (Princeton) analyzed some intriguing ritual festivals in the life of New York’s Ethical Culture School. These festivals organized around civic values of democracy and equality, as respondent Leigh Eric Schmidt pointed out, were anything but Durkheimian collective effervesance. Nonetheless, Mace’s point that we must not neglect ritual in the study of liberal religions is well founded. Finally, my favorite paper-if only because it was closest to my own research-was that of Ann Marie Kittelstrom (Sonoma State University). Kittlestrom traced the history of the National Federation of Religious Liberals in the wake of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion. In the NFRL and its successors, Kittlestrom sees the beginning of a real cosmopolitan pluralism that appreciated differences while still holding onto shared universals. Leigh Eric Schmidt (Harvard University) responded to all three papers in turn but for me his big take away was the importance of sympathy-in contrast to Pettegrew’s empathy. Sympathy, according to Schmidt, was a rich moral/social sentiment for bridging differences and imaging a cosmopolitan sensibility in the 19th century among religious liberals. Sympathy could be found in the subjects of all three of the papers presented.

Friday night the American Society of Church History held a reception for graduate students at theCongregational Library on Beacon Hill. It is a beautiful library and it was a nice chance to talk to colleagues also along the graduate school path. Kudos to the ASCH for doing this! What was even better was that the ASCH arranged for a small group of graduate students to have lunch or dinner with some great historians on Friday and Saturday-for free! So, after the reception at the library a few of us went to dinner with the great historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps. We had a wonderful dinner and Jan was truly delightful to spend time with. She can tell some amazing stories. On Saturday lunch was arranged with Charles Lippy and dinner with Keith Francis. Again, kudos to the ASCH for setting up these meals. I wasn’t able to take part in any of them on Saturday but they were great opportunities and only available within a smaller society like the ASCH.

By the way, I do love the smaller and more intimate setting of the ASCH in the midst of the glitz and glamor of the AHA. It’s really the best of both worlds. Sort of like Mayberry and Manhattan at the same time.

Saturday morning, I got up and headed to a roundtable chaired by our very own Randall Stephens on “Bracketing Faith and Historical Practice.” The panel featured Randall Balmer, Margaret Bendroth from the Congregational Library, Jon Roberts, Grant Wacker, and Lauren Winner. I won’t say much in case Randall wants to post something later. The main question the panelists addressed was whether or not (or even if) historians should bracket their religious beliefs when practicing their craft. Balmer and Winner seemed confused that this was even a question. For them, it was impossible not to bracket one’s faith and so historians should be upfront about where they are coming from. Roberts disagreed and argued for “norms” that guide the practice of history and call for objective “historical natuarlism.” Grant Wacker offered what I thought was the best argument. Wacker pointed out that there is no hard and fast rule and that various political and social situations will guide a historians decisions about what to disclose and what to use in their interpretation of historical events and agents. Randall Stephens did a good job as chair in relating the various comments and furthering the conversation but I kept getting the sneaking feeling that Roberts and Balmer/Winner were just talking past one another and really arguing about the value of reflexive methodology and not the role of belief in history writing. It was a good conversation, however, and one that will hopefully continue.

After the roundtable I rushed over to the Westin, where the ASCH panels were meeting. It was my turn. I was part of a panel on Methodist Media. The panel began with a paper from Erika K. R. Hirsch (Boston University) who analyzed the role of worship in early Methodism. Hirsch argued that the personal experiences afforded in hymn singing and corporate prayer provided authentication of genuine piety. She tied this desire for authenticity to an early modern emphasis on empirism and verification by the senses. My take away from Hirsch was that we need to pay more attention to the role of practice in British and American Methodism. Elizabeth Georgian (University of Delaware) also emphasized the role of practice in Methodism in her paper on Methodist print culture in the early nineteenth century. Georgian argued that practice, not theology, was the source of debates between Methodists and Presbyterians in their respective periodicals. David Scott (Boston University) brought in a transnational element with his paper on Methodist educational missions in Asia during the nineteenth century. Scott argued that Methodist missions focused on education overseas because they were so focused on education already on the home front. Educational missions were a key part of Methodist identity at home and abroad. Finally, I kept the missionary theme going with my own paper on the Methodist Christian Advocate. I argued that the Christian Advocate allowed Methodist readers to map out the distant land of India, make contact with Indian Hindus (especially women), and travel to the mission field alongside missionaries. The full paper is available here. Russell Richey dispensed with the usual “5th paper” style response, as he put it, and instead posed some refining questions to each paper. Overall, I thought the panel went well but it’s always hard to tell when you’re the one up there.

After my panel I ate lunch at California Pizza Kitchen and headed to airport. A few final thoughts on the overall conference. As Tenured Radical has noted, it was weird going to a conference in a mall. There was also a ridiculous number of Starbucks shops within the bounds of the conference. I also struggled to find WiFi all weekend, but that could have been my own ineptitude. In the end, it was a fun trip that involved little sleep and a lot of running around in glass walled skywalks.

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact, and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

As I posted last week, this weekend I presented a paper on the topic of Methodist Media to the American Society of Church History at this year’s American Historical Association meeting. Below is my paper from the panel.

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

Michael J. Altman, Emory University

What could bourgeois Methodist readers have known about India and how could missionary work abroad have brought them this knowledge?  Today, I will begin to answer these two questions through an analysis of The Christian Advocate in the late nineteenth century. The Christian Advocate, published in New York and the official weekly publication of the Methodist Episcopal Church, rose to a circulation of 63 to 70 thousand by 1879 and as one historian claims, “the paper became an icon of bourgeois America.”[i] The Advocate circulated among a growing middle class during the rise of the popular press in America and, therefore, the representations of India and Hinduism contained in its pages sparked the minds of a broad Evangelical readership.

I focus on three themes in the pages of the Advocate regarding India and Hinduism: mapping, contact, and travel.  First, missionary reports mapped out India as a geographic and spiritual field for missions work.  Second, women in America were especially recruited to join in the missionary effort and make spiritual and imaginary contact with Hindu women in India. Finally, in order to see the fruits of the Methodist mission work in India, writers sent letters and stories of conversions, conferences, and revivals that allowed American Methodists to travel to India and see the Holy Spirit at work.  In all three cases, imagination brought India into American homes through the pages of the Advocate.

Read the rest of this entry »

Methodist Media: Comparing Means of Communicating the Message

If you’re in Boston or headed to Boston for the AHA be sure to come check out my panel on Methodist media. I’m talking about representations of Hinduism in the Methodist Christian Advocate and Emory’s own Russ Richey will be responding to the panel. It should be a great time.

125th Annual Meeting (January 6-9, 2011): Methodist Media: Comparing Means of Communicating the Message

Methodist Media: Comparing Means of Communicating the Message

American Society of Church History 26

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM

St. George Room C (The Westin Copley Place)

Chair: Richard P. Heitzenrater, Duke University


Evangelical Encounters: Authenticity in Early Methodist Worship

Erika K. R. Hirsch, Boston University

An Evangelical Public Relations Campaign: The Methodist Episcopal Church and Print Culture, 1792–1834

Elizabeth A. Georgian, University of Delaware

“The Spirit-Filled Teacher”: Methodist Educational Missions in Nineteenth-Century Asia

David W. Scott, Boston University

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact, and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860–90

Michael J. Altman, Emory University


Russell E. Richey, Emory University

Things Sacred & Profane: Sacred Constitution, Jerry Brown, Mormon politics, and an atheist Bible reader

The recitation of the Constitution in the House renews the debate over Founders’ intentions.

Peter Berger on “Conservative Christians and the Sexual Revolution”

Romney and Reid: Does Mormonism matter in politics?

An atheist who is spending a year reading through the King James Bible.

California’s new (but not completely new) governor, Jerry Brown, trained with Jesuits, studied with Zen Masters, and hung out on the streets with Mother Theresa. He also inspired this great Dead Kennedy’s song.

Things Sacred & Profane: Natural Theology, Islam’s Billy Graham, and Mormons on Immigration

Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it.

Amr Khaled’s TV preaching has made him Islam’s answer to Billy Graham – and he’s mounting a direct attack on the terror camps of Yemen

Among Mormons, a deep divide on immigration

Catholic Hospitals vs. the Bishops

The “Business” of Being Christian: The Ethics of Usury


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