American religious history

April 29, 2013

Response to Jeffrey Guhin

[Editor’s Note: This post responds to Jeffrey Guhin’s engagement with the author’s Harper’s article, “Blinded by the Right? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives.”]

I am always grateful for a serious debate on what’s going on with evangelical Christianity. Let me make clear what I am trying to argue in the Harper’s essay.

It is not controversial to point out that hippie Christianity had a big impact on the style of the evangelical Christianity which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and helped to make that style of thinking mainstream. It is also not controversial to suggest that hippie Christians were left wing and that most modern evangelicals—including many who were once hippies—are now right wing. The question is whether those hippies who changed their political orientation were simply “blinded by the right” or whether there is what you might call an authentic or compelling reason based on their understanding of their relationship with God to be more politically conservative. I think there is. I think that understanding yourself to be “walking with Jesus” means that you think of yourself as growing with God—and that you are always intending to be better tomorrow than you are today. From that perspective, it is but a small step to think that government “handouts” will stunt someone’s growth and development.

I don’t think that Betsy’s been snookered. And I don’t think her views or her prayer practice or the way she thinks about God represent the whole of evangelical Christianity. But I do think that like many contemporary evangelicals she comes to her views from a genuine response to her theological orientation. That’s what I wanted to say.

April 23, 2013

Hippies Were Cool and All, but They Didn’t “Beget Evangelical Conservatism”

Editor’s Note: Tanya Luhrmann responds to this post, here.

In her recent Harper’s article, Tanya Luhrmann tells the story of hippie Christians becoming conservative Evangelicals, using one such transformation—that of Californian Betsy Jackson’s transformation from flower child to mama grizzly—to illustrate the tale. Along the way, Luhrmann tells an even bigger story, this one about these hippies’ influence on American Evangelical spirituality and politics. She writes:

Of course, American evangelicalism has deeper, older roots, but the hippies changed what it meant to be Christian in America. They made speaking in tongues common. They made reading the Bible literally a mainstream practice. They made the idea of Rapture—the process by which believers will be spirited up to heaven when Jesus returns for the Second Coming—a cultural touchstone.

But they also went through a dramatic political transformation. We know that most evangelicals are now vehemently right-wing, and that most hippies were decidedly not. They seem to have been largely apolitical or, like Betsy Jackson, on the left… So what transformed an Aquarian ethos woven around gentle Christian communalism into a fiery form of conservatism?

The argument Luhrmann lays out has three versions. The first is that hippies came to find conservative politics accidentally, either through preachers they met by happenstance, or—as some secular liberals might want to believe—by insidious design. Yet Luhrmann finds the two others stories more compelling. One is that Evangelical politics, and particularly the suspicion of big institutions, is not all that different from hippie politics; and the other, that Evangelicals think about politics in terms of who they want to become rather than what is best to do. Without using these terms, she describe a distinction between a kind of Kantian focus on the right versus an Aristotelian focus on the good. Until seculars understand this more Aristotelian focus, she argues, they will not understand Evangelicals.