The Divine Institution

White Evangelicalism's Politics of the Family

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Sophie Bjork-James
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University Press
    , March
     2021.
     198 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781978821859.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The key point in The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism's Politics of the Family is that being evangelical is more than a theological conviction. As author Sophie Bjork-James puts it, to convert to evangelical Christianity is about gaining new “political sensibilities as much as spiritual ones” (21), and she embarks on a project to examine this connection between religious ideas with political views, race relations, and family values. As such, the book is part of a broader and long-going discussion among scholars of evangelical Christianity on the nature of the movement over whether evangelicalism is defined theologically, politically, or culturally. This book promotes a both-and position. The first four chapters examine this connection, focusing on race, Christian nationalism, same-sex attraction, and gender roles and exploring the ways whiteness, evangelicalism, and familism are interconnected. The fifth internal chapter discusses the ways American evangelicalism is challenged and changed from within.

Bjork-James’s method follows decades of studies of white, middle-class, suburban evangelical America, such as Nancy Ammerman’s Bible Believers, Susan F. Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell (Princeton University Press, 2001), and Judith Stacey’s Brave New Families (University of California Press, 1998), and provides an updated look into the world of evangelical America. Bjork-James combines participation in Bible study groups and conferences with interviews, analysis of books and videos, as well as archival work. The analysis of evangelical material is solid, though somewhat uneven. For instance, the connection to the discussion about segregation in the American South and the political sensibilities in Colorado Springs could have been more explicit. But the book contains plenty of insightful observations about evangelicals in Colorado Springs. This reader enjoyed especially the discussion about Christian nationalism in the Focus on the Family video series The Truth Project. Here, the author manages to balance wit and sharp analysis while dissecting the story of America shared in this video.

The interviews and ethnographic work represent the book’s strongest contribution to scholarship on American evangelicalism. The ethnographic work takes place in Colorado Springs, often referred to as the “evangelical Vatican” for its role as center of many evangelical ministries, among them Focus on the Family, which receives particular attention in the book. The author first arrives in Colorado Springs in 2006 when the influence of Focus on the Family was strong. The ethnographic work largely takes place from 2008, as the city’s evangelicals struggle to deal with being caricatured by outsiders, and the book includes a discussion of them also facing a string of scandals as the moral failure of certain church leaders come to light. The book follows the city’s development over the next few years. By doing so, the readers get a sense of shifting cultural sensibilities within a slice of evangelical America. In particular, the last internal chapter examines generational shifts and ways evangelicals challenge and adjust their beliefs faced with new realities.

But a real strength of this book is that it is decidedly written by an outsider. Many books on American evangelicalism are written by insiders and former insiders. Bjork-James makes it clear that her engagement with evangelicals in Colorado Springs means entering a world very much different from her own. The internal chapters frequently highlight her own thoughts and reactions to what she observes and takes part in. The author makes it clear that the informants had mixed feelings about being the object of a scholarly study of American evangelicalism. The author includes their own thoughts and reactions to social practices common among evangelicals. For instance, the author was struck by the contrast between “ordinariness” of a conference room in a suburban church and the “extraordinary feelings often cultivated there” (21).

This clash between what is expected and what is experienced comes up in different ways. Readers are, for instance, brought along on a golf cart ride during conversion therapy conferences, learning of how the author was confronted with their own stereotypical expectations of what to expect from those who are part of this movement. “I caught myself in the moment completely enjoying myself,” Bjork-James writes, “laughing and feeling like a participant in the moment more than an observer, a rare experience for me during my research. The tone of the Exodus conference was not what I expected” (90). It is a book that at times is just as much about what happens to a non-believing graduate student in CUNY’s anthropology department visiting the fly-over, evangelical America as it is about the object of the study. This makes the book stand out from other works on contemporary evangelicalism. As such, The Divine Institution works as a useful and informative starting point to think about the cultural and political divides between secular and evangelical America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hilde Løvdal Stephens is associate professor of English at the University of Southeastern Norway.

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sophie Bjork-James is an assistant professor in the anthropology department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the coeditor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism.

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