Northern Ireland’s Fragile Peace

by Kate van Liere
Painted building with the text "You are now entering Free Derry." In the background, another building is painted with the image of a soldier in gas mask.

Republican murals in Derry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

This past Easter season witnessed many tragic outbursts of sectarian hatred around the globe, from slaughter of Sri Lankan Christians on Easter Sunday to the Passover shooting at a San Diego synagogue by a Christian white supremacist two days later. In Ireland—where my husband Frans and I spent ten days of our spring break from our semester in York, England—another cruel murder took place three days before Easter. On Maundy Thursday, the young Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee was shot in the head during street violence in the Northern Irish city of Derry. This killing stunned the world, as it raised the specter of a return to the time of “the Troubles” that had erupted fifty years ago and subsided only in the 1990s.

We heard the news of McKee’s death on our car radio while driving through the Republic of Ireland. It shocked us, because the day before we had walked through Derry, and from its picturesque city walls we had seen the neighborhood where she was killed. The once infamous place had looked tranquil and welcoming. In January 1972, in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre, British soldiers had shot 26 unarmed protesters about a mile from where McKee was shot, killing 14.

Memorial plinth with flowers and wreaths.

Bloody Sunday memorial. Photo by Kate van Liere.

But it seemed to us on our short visit that the peace process sealed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had succeeded in transforming this once violent city into a peaceful and prosperous town. A gleaming “peace bridge” built in 2011 (with over £14 million in European Union funds) now symbolizes the hope for unity by bringing Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods on opposite banks of the Foyle River closer together. The transformed neighborhoods on both banks felt surreally peaceful: on the west bank, the historic city center with its seventeenth-century defensive walls looks like an outdoor museum, and on the east bank, a large British army garrison is being redeveloped into a classy public park with upscale restaurants and the most elegant underground parking lot I have ever seen.

The next day’s news made us realize that we had not seen the whole picture.

Landscape showing bridge and Derry skyline.

Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

McKee’s killers were renegade Irish republicans associated with the “New IRA,” which rejects the 1998 peace agreement and still sees violence as the only way to reunite northern with southern Ireland and end British rule in the north. The bullets that killed her were meant for the local police, who were searching the Creggan neighborhood that night for weapons. They had been advised that groups like the New IRA might be planning violence to mark the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, the start of Ireland’s armed independence struggle against British rule.

Why the recent resurgence of violence in this region? The prospect of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, poses one of the gravest threats to Irish peace in the last two decades. If the UK leaves the EU with “no deal” this October, which seems increasingly likely, it will be difficult to avoid the return of a “hard border” between the two Irelands, since the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU while Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, will have to leave. This will undo a key provision of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That historic agreement, in which militants on both sides agreed to lay down their weapons and accept a democratic process for deciding the future political status of Northern Ireland, also opened the border between the two nations for the first time since it was created in 1920.

Since 1998 the national border has become virtually invisible. When we crossed it this April (three times, as it is very crooked), I was surprised not even to see the kind of “welcome” signs that mark state borders in the U.S. Only the change from miles to kilometers betrays a national boundary. Many fear that if Brexit restores a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with checkpoints and border police, this will embolden extremists on both sides and threaten a return to the violence of the 1970s. (Nor surprisingly, 56% of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in Europe, the inverse of the vote in the UK as a whole.)

As in Sri Lanka and San Diego, the partisans of violence in Northern Ireland are a small minority, and there are good reasons to hope that their appeals to sectarian hatred will fail. The fissures here run deep, but violence is not inevitable. And religious fanaticism plays a much smaller role here than in some of the world’s present conflicts. This may seem an obvious point, but in an era when religious hatred seems to be on the rise worldwide, it is worth observing that religious differences per se are less important in Ireland than they once were, and that Christian faith is more a source of hope for reconciliation than a cause of violence in modern Ireland.

Post author Kate van Liere on the ferry to Belfast.

Kate van Liere on the ferry to Belfast. Photo by Frans van Liere.

As a historian of the Reformation era, I have often seen Irish history through the lens of the sixteenth century, as essentially a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. I have even repeated to my students the cliché that Northern Ireland is the last place in Europe where the early modern Wars of Religion are still being waged. But this recent visit to Ireland helped me to understand how inadequate the “Catholic vs. Protestant” paradigm is for understanding the divisions that Ireland has faced in its modern history. Religion does still matter profoundly in Northern Ireland, but mainly as a marker of identity, compounded over the years by problems like colonialism, economic inequality, and militant nationalism. To understanding this, it helps to look back at how some of the cultural and religious divisions within Ireland have evolved since the Reformation.

The city of Derry, officially called Londonderry, which lies close to the border, embodies Ireland’s complex fissures in microcosm. Its two competing names betray its contested history. The medieval town was known as Doire or (in the Anglicized version) Derry, but from 1609 to 1613, during the reign of England’s King James I, Protestant English settlers from London expanded the city and renamed it ‘Londonderry’ after their home base. This was part of the “plantation” process that ushered in the three-centuries-long “Protestant Ascendancy” in Ireland. English kings had claimed sovereignty over Ireland since the twelfth century, but the Reformation, when most of the English population became Protestant while the Irish remained overwhelmingly Catholic, exacerbated the cultural differences between the peoples in Ireland. So did the subsequent immigration by thousands of English, Scottish and Welsh Protestants. By the middle of the seventeenth century, four generations of Tudor and Stuart monarchs and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had solidified English control by violently suppressing a series of Irish rebellions, driving much of Ireland’s indigenous landowning nobility into exile, and transferring the “forfeited” land of these rebels to a new class of English Protestant settler-landowners.

This process of settlement and expropriation coincided with the first colonization of New England and Virginia, and in some ways resembled it. In the northern province of Ulster, where the most extensive “plantation” took place, the immigrant English, Scots, and Welsh became the new majority, as in the American colonies. In much of the south, the English colonization of Ireland looked more like that of India or Africa in a later era, with a smaller English ruling class exploiting the indigenous population as laborers, but not radically transforming their culture. An excellent historical display on the “plantation” era that we saw in Derry/Londonderry’s town hall brought home the importance of this period to Ireland’s modern history. Early seventeenth-century Londonderry was a thoroughly Anglicized colonial city. Its picturesque walls, which seem so quaintly picturesque to modern visitors, were built to defend its English colonial occupants from the hostile indigenous population outside.

City walls with canon

Derry (Londonderry) city wall. Photo by Kate van Liere.

After the last wave of Catholic resistance was defeated in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne (an event still celebrated today by Protestants in Northern Ireland), Ireland was ruled almost exclusively by the English and Anglo-Irish landowners of the “Protestant Ascendancy.” A series of “penal laws” enacted in the next few decades consolidated the privileges of Anglicans (members of the official Protestant Church of England) by barring Catholics (as well as Presbyterians and other Protestant “nonconformists”) from voting or holding office, including seats in the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

A printed map depicting the city of Derry-Londonderry during the time of the Siege in 1689. The location of Jacobite and Williamite forces are marked, along with the ships that brought relief to the city. The original would have been created using woodblock printing methods.

A printed map depicting the city of Derry-Londonderry during the time of the Siege in 1689. The location of Jacobite and Williamite forces are marked, along with the ships that brought relief to the city. The original would have been created using woodblock printing methods.

Strictly speaking, the Protestant Ascendancy lasted little more than a century. The power of the Anglican Church and its members in Ireland reached its peak around 1800. The Act of Union (1801), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain, abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin, which had been monopolized by Anglo-Irish Anglicans, and folded its members into the British Parliament at Westminster. Not long afterward, a series of liberal reforms passed by the British Parliament steadily dismantled the legal privileges of Anglicans in Ireland. Between 1770 and 1830 most of the penal laws were gradually abolished, allowing Catholics and Protestant “nonconformists” in all parts of the United Kingdom to vote, hold office, and attend universities. In 1869 the Anglican Church was formally “disestablished” in Ireland, meaning that it could no longer collect tithes and enjoyed no legal advantages over the Catholic Church. The Protestant Anglo-Irish continued to enjoy social and economic privileges well into the twentieth century, however. The most dramatic embodiment of Protestant privilege was that the nearly 1 million victims of the tragic Potato Famine of the 1840s were overwhelmingly poor and Catholic, while most of their landlords were Protestant—a fact that exacerbated Catholic resentment.

But by the 1870s the Protestants’ monopoly on political power was strongly contested. The dramatic legal changes made over the previous century created an opportunity for the Catholic Church to play a much greater role in Irish politics for the first time since the Reformation—a fact that sorely frightened Ireland’s Protestant minority. Presbyterians, who were especially numerous in Ulster, welcomed the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, but deeply feared the potential resurgence of the Catholic Church.

Thus when a new “home rule” movement arose in the 1870s, seeking to restore the Irish Parliament in Dublin and give Ireland a political status more like that of Canada or Australia, the Protestant majority in Ulster staunchly opposed it. Protestant “Unionists” rallied behind the slogan, “Home rule is Rome rule!”, arguing that an emancipated Catholic majority would subject the country to papal absolutism and economic decline.

By the time World War One erupted in 1914, the British Parliament had voted to enact home rule despite the Ulster Protestants’ opposition, but the war delayed its implementation. Meanwhile, wartime Ireland became increasingly polarized between Protestant Unionists, concentrated in the north, and (mostly but not wholly Catholic) republicans, who now demanded not just home rule but complete independence from Great Britain. The republicans formed their own political party, Sinn Fein (Irish for “We Ourselves”), in 1905.

Outdoor mural captioned "Remember with Pride" and "Thoswe we Love Don't Go Away" and "Dedicated to our fallen comrade, military commander Stevie 'Top-Gun' McKeag.'"

Unionist mural in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Religious identity did not determine political loyalty for everyone in Ireland; in fact more Irish Catholics than Protestants (although a smaller percentage of the Catholic population) volunteered to serve in the British Army in WWI. But religious nationalism became an important mark of identity for partisans on both sides. Ulster Unionists who continued to oppose home rule swore in 1912 to uphold a “Solemn League and Covenant,” echoing a name used by seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterians during the age of religious wars. They formed an armed militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to resist home rule by force. Sinn Fein’s republican militants formed their own militia in 1913, first called the Irish Volunteers and soon reorganized as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Most of its members were not especially devout, but when prosecuted by the British authorities they cultivated the image of Catholic martyrdom.

On Easter Sunday of 1916, a small group of republicans launched the famous “Easter Rising” in Dublin, initiating a war of independence against the British authorities. This rising had little initial public support and was effectively squashed by the British authorities, but as World War I wore on, widespread conscription and wartime deprivation increased resentment again the British government, and Sinn Fein gained more followers.

Soon after the war ended, in 1919, Sinn Fein and the IRA turned to guerilla warfare, launching a bitter two-year civil war. In 1920 the British government agreed (for the second time) to grant Ireland home rule, but the resulting quasi-independent Irish Free State did not satisfy hard-line nationalists on either side; republicans still wanted to sever all ties with the British Commonwealth, while Protestant Unionists in Ulster refused to join an Irish state with a Catholic majority.

As a result, the six counties of Ulster that had the highest concentration of Protestant residents refused to join the newly independent Republic of Ireland, and constituted themselves as “Northern Ireland,” continuing to regard themselves as part of the United Kingdom and send MPs to London. (Diehard republicans in the south waged a new civil war against the Irish Free State until 1923; they lost this war, but eventually saw their hopes for an independent republic fulfilled as the new regime moved progressively further away from the UK; it declared itself a republic in 1937, remained officially neutral in WWII, and finally withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1949.)

Buildings painted with murals that say "Join the IRA" and "Victory to the Republican Prisoners: End Isolation of Republicans, End Forced Strip Searching, End Controlled Movement, End British Internment IRPWA"

Republican murals in Derry/Londonderry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Neither of the two newly formed regimes was religiously homogenous. A substantial minority of Protestants remained in the new Irish Free State and a much larger Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, which in some regions, like the city of Derry, formed a distinct majority. The southern state did better at accommodating its minority than the northern one. The Protestants who chose to remain in the south accepted the new independent Ireland (Eire) and prospered in it. The first President of the Republic of Ireland (1938-45) was the Protestant Douglas Hyde, deeply respected by Irish people of both faiths. Although Protestants comprise only about 4% of the population of the Republic of Ireland today, they are well integrated into the national culture, as are Protestant institutions like Trinity College, Dublin, and Dublin’s two historic Anglican cathedrals.

In Northern Ireland, however, Protestant and Catholic communities remained essentially segregated, and Catholics suffered social and political discrimination, as many Protestants considered them incapable of loyalty to the British regime. Although the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that established Northern Ireland expressly forbade religious discrimination, the ethos of the new regime was distinctly Protestant. Northern Ireland’s first prime minister declared in 1934 that “we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state,” and his successor publicly urged his countrymen to “employ good Protestant lads and lassies” and “not to employ Roman Catholics, ninety nine percent of whom are disloyal.”[1] In cities like Derry which had a substantial Catholic majority, gerrymandering and discriminatory voting rules succeeded in excluding most Catholics from voting or holding political office.

Quiet street in Ireland with two catholic school boys.

Catholic neighborhood in Derry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

In the late 1960s, while the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. was generating violent opposition, violence erupted in Northern Ireland after Catholic groups protesting against civil rights violations were confronted by Protestant paramilitary groups. These clashes were not over religious differences per se, but over civil rights and social identities that were defined in religious terms. In this new climate of elevated violence, which came to be called “the Troubles,” Protestant paramilitaries attacked Catholic homes and churches, and a new “Provisional IRA” claimed the role of the defender of the Catholic population and committed itself to using violence and terrorism to pursue Irish unification. The British Army was called in, ostensibly to neutralize extremists on both sides, but their presence served to raise tensions as much as to quell the violence. Over 3,500 people died in this violence over the next three decades, including more than 1,000 at the hands of British soldiers or police.

Were “the Troubles” a war of religion? Some Protestant partisans depicted the conflict that way. Firebrand evangelical minister Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party in 1971, urged Northern Irish Protestants to wage “the great battle of Biblical Protestantism against popery.”[2] But the majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens did not see themselves as fighting a religious war. They may have mistrusted the neighbors across the confessional divide for social and political reasons, but as the fighting wore on and the casualties racked up, many came to see the need for some kind of reconciliation. As Calvin historian Ronald Wells wrote in The People Behind the Peace, much of the essential work of reconciliation and cross-confessional understanding, beginning with the essential step of forgiveness, was carried out by courageous Christian peacemakers, both Protestant and Catholic. Father Ray Davey, a Presbyterian minister, founded the Corrymeela Community in 1965, before the Troubles began, as a nonsectarian place of refuge and reconciliation, and it continues to serve that purpose today. The Jesuit priest Michael Hurley founded the Columbanus Community in Belfast in 1983 with a similar vision. Both of these men and their colleagues have been criticized by more strictly orthodox Christians. But the painstaking day-to-day work of coming together, listening, forgiving, and understanding that communities like this understood during the Troubles contributed to a growing willingness to compromise that finally paved the way for an agreement to end the Troubles.

In the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland’s political parties and its population, as well as the Irish and British governments, agreed to an impressive number of compromises. All paramilitary groups on both sides agreed to disarm. Ireland acknowledged British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, while the UK acknowledged the possibility that the region could one day choose by democratic majority vote to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Eight major political parties on both sides signed on, with the exception of Paisley’s DUP party, which refused to countenance a future united Ireland. 71% of the Northern Irish electorate approved the agreement in a national referendum. Since the agreement, violence in Northern Ireland has not ended completely, but it has decreased dramatically, with only 158 violent deaths recorded in the two decades after.

Peace Wall in Belfast with graffiti and art.

Peace Wall separating Protestant and Catholic districts in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

The two-decade-long peace is now in jeopardy. Lyra McKee’s murder was one of many signs that the real possibility of the return to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will embolden radicals on both sides. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy have been eloquent in expressing the Irish people’s earnest wishes not to return to violence of the “Troubles” era. Father Martin Magill, the Catholic priest who spoke at McKee’s funeral in April (which her Catholic parents chose to hold in Belfast’s Anglican cathedral, as a sign of religious solidarity) received a standing ovation when he chastised politicians for not doing more to realize the Good Friday Agreement fully. This July the Rev. John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, one of several Church of Ireland (Anglican) parishes that straddle the border, addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressing his fears about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit—i.e., the UK’s leaving the EU in October without an adequate “backstop” to maintain the open border in Ireland.

Open section of the Peace Wall in Belfast.

Peace Wall in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Not long after returning to Michigan from my semester in the British Isles, I learned that Calvin students have been closely involved in the ongoing reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. This past January, Ken and Gail Heffner led an interim trip to Belfast with Calvin’s Artist Collaborative. They were hosted by Rev. Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, and Father Martin Magill, the Catholic priest of St. John’s parish in Belfast who officiated at McKee’s funeral.  These two men have forged an unlikely friendship in a country divided by religious differences. Several years ago Steve and Martin launched the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast, an arts festival that seeks to promote reconciliation across the Protestant/ Catholic divide in the city. This past year the theme was “Scandalous Forgiveness” and Calvin students worked in collaborative groups to produce original art (painting, photography, musical composition, and a children’s book) that were part of the 2019 festival.

This year’s 4 Corners Festival closed with the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, a prayer written in the aftermath of World War II by an Anglican priest from one of the English cathedrals most severely damaged by German bombs. It seems a fitting prayer not just for Christians in Northern Ireland, but for people of faith around the world seeking relief from violence and hatred in all its forms.

The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,

Father, Forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,

Father, Forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,

Father, Forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,

Father, Forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,

Father, Forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,

Father, Forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,

Father, Forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


[1] Ronald Wells, People Behind the Peace: Community and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Grand Rapids, 1999), 29-30.

[2] Wells, 32.

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The Personal is Historical

by Eric M. Washington

Next Monday is Emancipation Day in most of the Caribbean and in some places in the African Diaspora. Slavery ended in the British West Indies in August 1834 (though four years of an “apprenticeship” period stretched “unfree” labor to 1838). I had planned to write about Frederick Douglass’ Emancipation Day speech from August 1857, and make a case for why African Americans should still observe it in addition to Juneteenth (June 19). However, something unexpected occurred on this past Sunday night that derailed those plans, and this has been a totally conscious re-orienting event. A few weeks ago I purchased a DNA test to trace my heritage. I had been thinking of this for a couple of years, but had been reluctant to undergo the test. Feelings of anxiety over possibly surprising or embarrassing results arrested my steps.

After three wonderful weeks in Ghana this January, I decided it was time to swab my cheeks. I felt at home on the streets of Akropong and Accra, and soaked in all of the rich culture along the sun-drenched coast and in the hot and dry north. I experienced a spiritual connection to the people akin to the connection I know from back home in New Orleans growing up in an African-American neighborhood within a “Chocolate City.” If a person of African descent travels to Africa, especially West Africa without knowledge of his or her specific African origins, the wonderment will occur centered on the question: where am I from? This happened to me. The persistent question that echoed in my heart and mind as I traveled through Ghana was: am I from here?

As of this past Sunday night, I know the answer to that question and others. With this new knowledge of my ancestry, it has already changed how I view myself in this world, and it will change how I teach World, African, and African-American history.

I was totally unprepared to learn of my DNA origins this past Sunday. I had received an email on July 23 stating that the test was in process and that I should expect the results between August 6-August 13. On a whim, I checked my email to see if there was an update. Sure enough, there was. The results were in! I took a deep and heavy sigh. It was time to take the plunge into the deep waters of my ancestral past. I opened the email, clicked on the link to unlock my ethnic composition, held my breath a little, and I clicked one last click to reveal my origins. It was like a reveal party for one! What I found has been the cause of much rejoicing and high-stepping the past few days. When the presentation began, my eyes widened with great satisfaction that my primary ethnicity is “Nigerian” (big country with a couple of hundred of ethnic groups), then my delight increased by viewing that I am generally “West African.” The most surprising element of my African DNA is the Kenyan part. Another surprise was a percentage of my DNA emanates from North Africa. All told 77% of my DNA is African. I was hoping for 60%; so this revelation is beyond my imagination. The remaining 23% can be traced to the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, and Italy.

Map from "My Heritage DNA", highlighting the regions in Africa where my ancestors were from.

Since this glad discovery, I’ve been analyzing this as a historian. I have questions: is the percentage of Iberian DNA a result of ancestral mixing in North Africa, and then those ancestors migrating into the Sahel? Were some of my ancestors Moors? And what about that small slice of Italian DNA? Was this a result of a remote Italian ancestor or an ancestor who had some Italian ancestry venturing into North Africa in the remote past? Most of my European DNA is from anywhere in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. It’s fairly immediate. Was this the result of an Irish slaveholder, or plantation manager raping one of my great-great-grandmothers? Or was this a consensual relationship? My mother’s maiden name is Kennedy, and one census record lists her Louisiana-born father as a “mulatto.” And what about that Kenyan DNA? This is either the result of long-distance migration of ancestors from that area to West Africa, or the result of them being captives and transported to an Atlantic slave port rather than an Indian Ocean one. I lean to the former, not the latter. I believe knowing my ancestral origins has opened up many doors of historical investigation.

How will this disclosure help me become a better teacher? It can help me in at least two ways. First, this disclosure will lead me to investigate more of North African history prior to the advent of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What was the degree of interaction between North Africa and the Iberia peninsula? What was the level of intercourse between the Maghreb and the Western Sudan before the era of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? I know the rudiments, but now my curiosity has been piqued. I have a stake in entering into more depth in answering these questions. Second, I’m motivated to learn more about the process of creolization that Africans underwent in the New World. How did Igbos, Malinkes, Wolofs, Fantes, etc. become Africans first, and then African Americans? I teach creolization already. I have taught about the resilience of West and West Central African cultures amid enslavement and beyond. Still, my thirst to know more has been increased. Hopefully, my future students will benefit from this new quest of mine for more historical knowledge.

I’m amazed that my African DNA is as diverse as it is. It is conceivable that I have ancestors from at least four different areas in West Africa alone. Because men and women of West African descent came together sexually through the most horrible of life situations in the Western Hemisphere, I am. The majority of their names I will never know. Still, I am. It’s history, but it’s also personal.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Christianity and Evangelicalism

by Jim Bratt.

As prominent evangelical leaders recently gathered at Wheaton, IL, to discuss how the Trump era “has unleashed [a] ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith,” historian James Bratt weighs in with some thoughts on Christianity and Evangelicalism, and the death (and resurrection) of a movement. This post originally appeared on The Anxious Bench and is re-published with permission of the author.

I recently attended a conference at Notre Dame honoring the career of Mark Noll. As one of the most accomplished scholars of American religious history, as well as a person of deep faith, consummate integrity, and easy humor—and genuine humility to top it off—Mark is more than worthy of honor, and the participants made sure he received it, with remarks that were by turn analytic, humorous, and touching. Mark being Mark, however, the program was full of robust scholarship and featured rising younger scholars as well as the old lions.

The panelists attended to American religious history in its various eras as well as in the comparative global perspective at which Mark has been a notable pioneer. Things got most interesting for me in the concluding panel, which riffed off of what is probably Mark’s most famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). The scandal, Mark famously opined back then, was that there wasn’t much of one—an evangelical mind, that is. The panelists weighed in on the extent to which that situation has since been corrected, but in the process veered off into attempts to define just what is, and what is not, “evangelical.”

To me that inevitable but tiresome digression cost an opportunity to think about what might be the bombshell book equivalent to Mark’s Scandal for our own moment. I’d pick addressing the elephant in the room and asking—in the face of consistent polling that shows white “evangelicals” to be supporting Donald Trump at just about the 80% mark by which they favored him in the 2016 presidential election—what future evangelicalism has in the United States. And, more broadly yet fundamentally, what sort of religion white “evangelicalism” might be.

A number of the younger panelists raised this concern during the conference, and a host of commentators religious and secular have bruited the matter ever since Trump descended his hotel’s golden escalator onto the American political scene three years ago. My historian’s input is to suggest that we not just consult current opinion polls or attend to the evangelical leaders who have either advanced or decried the brand’s association with the man. Instead, let’s return to a foundational text from the evangelical past—indeed, the text which helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud within the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind the garments of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims. A totally depraved version, my Calvinist theology would put it: that is, tainted in every part and as a whole and unable to cleanse itself by its own power, but requiring a supernatural redemption via a miraculous intervention, registering as a conversion. That depravity, in turn, opens the question of whence it arose, of what might be the original sin in which it is rooted. Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives. And just as certainly, the 80% of white evangelicals who hold fast to Donald Trump have signed on to them with little—well, sometimes, just a little—embarrassment. Just as certainly still, the list and the behavior of the figurehead who embodies them, are all far, very far, from the kingdom of heaven. The results are toxic to the evangelical brand in particular and to the prospects of religion in public life in general.

Yet the picture is more mixed than this. To repeat, evangelicalism counts as a profoundly corrupted Christianity but not simply, or not yet, a non- or anti-Christian religion as Machen characterized Protestant liberalism a century ago. White evangelicals can point to Jesus’ criteria (in Matthew 25) for deciding who are the sheep and who are the goats at the final assay and say that they do indeed attend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc. The contradiction, of course, is that these efforts via voluntary charities rub up against public policies that would abandon the sick, deprive the hungry of food, and throw more and more people—people of color especially—into prison. The current situation thus exposes more clearly than ever the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century. They have followed now it to the point of paying allegiance, seemingly unbreakable allegiance, to the most egregious goat ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The first task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would thus be to explain how and why the latter has come to be a noxious version of the former. A lot of the empirical work toward that end has been done. I suggest adding some historical comparison by way of another classic text, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Besides appearing about halfway between Machen’s book and Noll’s, its analytic frame and treasury of polling data show a socio-cultural corruption of Christianity in the 1950s’ supposedly halcyon days of a great and pious America, only this time among Catholics and the Protestant “mainline” too. How else could a near majority of self-identified “Christians” not be able to name one of the four gospels? How else—this is my particular favorite—could American Christians, when asked to rate the most important event in world history, put Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a tie for fourteenth place alongside the invention of the x-ray and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk? Herberg, Jewish himself, was profoundly worried about this gap between professed and operative religion. We are no less, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the tribe that stood between the two some clear culprits explaining the great gap of our day.

The second, and harder, task of Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.

The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.

Jim Bratt is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College, where he taught courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. 

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