Thursday, April 4, 2019

Emily Suzanne Johnson's "This Is Our Message"

Emily Johnson teaches modern American history, with a focus on women and gender. Her first book, This Is Our Message: Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right, tells the story of female leaders in the modern religious right, from the 1970s to the present day. This book explores the complexities of women's leadership in a movement that centrally emphasizes a return to traditional gender roles. Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2014.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to This Is Our Message and reported the following:
From page 99:
[Jim and Tammy Faye] Bakkers’ ministry was also representative of the increasing popularity of “prosperity gospel” in many Christian ministries, especially Pentecostal ones, in the 1970s. This theology, sometimes derisively known as “health and wealth” or “name it and claim it” gospel, has roots in older American religious and cultural traditions. The Puritans, after all, were Calvinists who looked to their material successes and failures to determine whether they were among God’s elect, predestined for eternal salvation. More recently, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a variety of philosophies from inside and outside the aegis of Christianity promoted “mind-over-matter” approaches to spiritual well-being, physical healing, and material profit...

The prosperity gospel had its detractors, not least among them Christians who saw this theological emphasis as a perversion of their faith, but its popularity grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, resonating with congregants’ hopes for their lives and afterlives, and propelling the growth of ministries like PTL.
My book is about religion and politics -- the two topics that we have all been taught to avoid in polite conversation. (It is also about sex, but not on page 99).

Specifically, I write about conservative evangelicals at the moment that “conservatism” and “evangelicalism” became inextricably linked with each other in the American imagination. I argue that as the modern religious right came into being, women were important leaders of the movement, even though their commitment to an ideology of “traditional gender roles” meant that they had to be careful about how they expressed that leadership.

In writing this book, I have worked hard to balance rigorous analysis with equally rigorous empathy. I want my explanation of this movement to make sense from the outside and from within. If I have succeeded, a conservative evangelical will be able to pick up my book and recognize their own history; those who struggle to understand the movement will find an explanation that makes sense to them.

Page 99 captures this effort. The “prosperity gospel” is something that many conservative Christians would recognize immediately, but can be really difficult for outsiders to understand. (John Oliver’s recent bit about prosperity ministries is a good example of how ridiculous these ideas can seem to people who haven’t encountered them before). I’ve tried here to provide an explanation that will give new information to those who already know about this movement (whether as scholars or as participants), but that will also make its logic legible to newcomers. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that I simply explain the movement on its own terms without analysis. By contextualizing it within its broader history and addressing the controversy that surrounds it, I have tried to offer an explanation that will provide new insight to readers regardless of how much or how little they already know about this controversial theology.

In the pages of this book, readers will find a similar approach to topics including evangelical sex advice, religious right lobbying organizations, singer-turned-anti-gay-rights-activist Anita Bryant, televangelism, and the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, among other topics.
Learn more about This Is Our Message at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue