In Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation's Capital and Redeem a Christian America, Lauren R. Kerby gives readers an unusual and fascinating perspective on “heritage tours,” an important means by which many evangelicals in the United States acquire and enhance their understanding of America and of themselves as Christian citizens, especially regarding where they and the country have been, are now, and likely will be: politically, culturally, socially, morally, and religiously. Kerby argues “that to understand white evangelicals’ political activity, we must pay attention to how they imagine and reimagine the American past and their place in it” (6). She explores her hypothesis by concentrating on commercial tours of the American capital and nearby sites, journeys designed for and marketed to evangelical Christians, which in Kerby’s treatment provides a novel and engaging approach. These tours accentuate various ways selected aspects of the Christian tradition are depicted in art, architecture, monuments, images, inscriptions, statues, and other types of material culture throughout the DC area. Informed by her study, Kerby proposes “that white evangelicals have created four roles for themselves vis-à-vis the nation: they are founders, exiles, victims, and saviors” (19).
The story of how she conducted her research is an essential part of the book. In 2014 and 2015 Kerby was a participant observer in several Christian heritage tours in and around Washington, DC. The locations and objects she experienced, along with discussions she had during the tours and in follow-up interviews, constitute the basis of the book. Kerby is a keen observer and astute in her ethnographic field work. Her tone is both academic and conversational.
Throughout, Kerby makes a compelling case for the importance of attending to conservative, white, evangelicals’ conceptions of America’s past and its relationship to themselves. She also successfully lays out and defends her interpretation of the aforementioned four roles conservative, white, evangelicals understand themselves to occupy. Explication of these roles and how they are demonstrated and advanced by Christian heritage tours comprise the bulk of Saving History and structure Kerby ’s presentation. She maintains these roles are informed by two “public narratives,” insider and outsider, and three metanarratives: Christian salvation history, American exceptionalism, and secularization (17-19). As Kerby sees it, those who lead the Christian Right employ insider and outsider public narratives, in selective combination with these three metanarratives, to develop accounts of American history that accentuate the displacement of white evangelicals from their original and central role in American society to one now at the edges.
Kerby highlights the importance of Christian heritage tours for conservative, white, evangelicals because they comprise the bulk of tour participants and to call attention to other evangelicals who are not typically on such tours and whose religious views and understandings of US history are not necessarily consonant with those of most conservative, white, evangelicals. According to Kerby, these tours and their guides focus on mostly conservative, white, male, evangelical Christians, past and present, while largely ignoring or excluding the stories and contributions of mainline and liberal Protestants, Catholics, Black evangelicals, women, and others. The conceptions that tour participants have of themselves, of fellow Christians and Christian churches, and the country are simultaneously formed and informed through these tours, which cover several of the usual tourist spots in and around DC, along with others that may be unfamiliar to many.
Kerby ’s perspective is well-informed by literature from a wide range of subjects and she has a sharp eye for details. A rich set of resources animates her critical reflections while also enlivening them with recent data and timely analysis. Readers will benefit from the notes and bibliography, which can serve as primers on topics beyond those that students of American history and religion in America are often versed in. Photographs of DC landmarks and architectural details complement the text and help illustrate various points the author makes.
Kerby brings to our attention something most Americans and students of American evangelicalism may not be aware of. Few who are not part of white, conservative, evangelical, Protestant churches likely know of the Christian heritage tour industry or the significance it plays in the lives of many Americans. Highlighting this is itself an important contribution.
One major drawback, though, is the extent to which Kerby attributes motives to others. Referring to notes she took about discussions she had with tour participants, Kerby notes, “I include many excerpts from those conversations in this book, in an effort to let my subjects speak for themselves when possible” (7). Indeed, she generally treats her fellow tour participants and their comments with grace and sympathy, a bit less so the various tour guides she encountered. Yet throughout the book Kerby goes beyond descriptive insights of a participant observer to render judgments about the intentions, goals, and motivations of those she observed and others like them.
Early on Kerby asserts that for those on the Christian heritage tours she witnessed, Christian meant a particular kind of evangelical, conservative, and white Protestantism, a construal that largely aligned with the demographic composition of tour participants and which, significantly, Kerby characterizes as “a strategic choice” (11). She claims that, in recent years, those who doubted the political power of conservative, white, evangelicals did not fully appreciate the degree to which they have used to their own advantage occasions when conservative, white, evangelicals are positioned on the margins of the broader society. Furthermore, she maintains that Christian tourists sensed an ownership of both Washington, DC, and more broadly the country. Discussing insider and outsider positions, Kerby comments on times when white evangelicals “wanted to play an insider role” or “wanted to play an outsider role” and claims white evangelicals “can choose whichever position offers the most advantage in a given moment” (138).
These comments and many others of a similar vein may cause readers to wonder if conservative, white, evangelicals, in particular those who participate in Christian heritage tours of the nation’s capital, are really that intentional and crafty. Kerby ’s views may be correct. However, too often they come across as statements of fact rather than the author’s judgments. Moreover, declarations she makes about the motives and intentions of others may leave readers wondering how she knows such things; they also seem inconsistent with the stated desire to let her “subjects speak for themselves when possible” (7).
Notwithstanding these critiques, those concerned with religion, politics, and culture in America will be interested in and learn from Kerby ’s intriguing book. Her engaging account fills a gap in the literature and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of a sizable and influential segment of American Christianity.
E. Harold Breitenberg, Jr. is an associate professor of religious studies at Randolph-Macon College.
E. Harold Breitenberg
Date Of Review:
June 15, 2022
Lauren R. Kerby is lecturer on religious studies at Harvard Divinity School.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.