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, has examined the relationship between race, religion, and nationalism around the world for the past five years.
Butler, the chair of the Religious Studies Department at Penn, focused on the transformation of evangelicalism in the United States into a movement that is associated with politics and nationalism.
The discussion was moderated by Charles M. Stang ’97, the 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 beginning in the 1990s that quickly grew to attract politicians, including former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin.
“This kind of belief system has begun to infuse the kinds of things that we see from people who were involved in the white Christian nationalist movement and also people who were there at the 1/6 insurrection,” Butler said.
This movement, Butler argued, also gave rise to political parachurch groups such as the organization that prayed in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry in 2011. However, the people in these groups began to be bound together by more than just religion, she said.
“These kinds of meetings bring together a disparate group of people who are not just Christian believers, but they're also political actors,” Butler said.
In recent years, the share of Americans who identify as evangelicals has grown, Butler said — a phenomenon she attributed partially to the growth of “NASCAR Christians,” a term she coined for people who hold Christian beliefs but do not regularly attend church.
“My sense is that these are the people who are identified as evangelical Protestants now, because they see something that marries both their religious beliefs and their political beliefs, and your nationalistic beliefs that Donald Trump identified with,” she said.
With complicated factors such as the meshing of religion and politics, the redefining of evangelicalism, and the interplay between nationalism and race, Butler said it is necessary to reexamine evangelicalism with a sociological and cultural definition.
“If you talk about evangelicalism as merely a theological movement, you miss the point,” she said. “It is not that anymore.”