Anthea D. Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the Harvard Divinity School’s Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice last Thursday.
The Greeley Lecture, an annual event hosted by the Divinity School, examined the relationship between race, religion and nationalism around the world over the past five years.
Butler, chairman of Penn’s Department of Religious Studies, focused on transforming evangelicalism in the United States into a movement associated with politics and nationalism.
The discussion was moderated by Charles M. Stang ’97, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Divinity School.
Butler described C. Peter Wagner, an influential author and religious leader, as a key figure in the evolution of evangelicalism. Wagner founded the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement that began in the 1990s and quickly grew to attract politicians including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
“That kind of belief system started to infuse the kind of things that we see in people involved in the white Christian nationalist movement and also in people who were there during the 1/6 insurrection,” Butler said. .
This movement, Butler argued, also gave rise to para-church political groups such as the organization that prayed at Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry in 2011. However, members of these groups began to be linked by more than just religion, she said.
“These kinds of meetings bring together a disparate group of people who are not only Christian believers, but also political actors,” Butler said.
In recent years, the share of Americans who identify as evangelical has grown, Butler said — a phenomenon she attributed in part to the growth of “NASCAR Christians,” a term she coined for people who have Christian beliefs but do not attend church regularly.
“My feeling is that these are the people who are identified as evangelical Protestants now, because they see something that embraces both their religious beliefs and their political beliefs, and your nationalist beliefs that Donald Trump identified with,” she said.
With complex factors such as the interweaving of religion and politics, the redefinition of evangelicalism, and the interplay between nationalism and race, Butler said there is a need to re-examine evangelicalism with a sociological definition. and cultural.
“If you talk about evangelism as just a theological movement, you miss the point,” she said. “It’s not that anymore.”