10 Questions for Matthew Sutton about Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007)
What inspired you to write Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America? What sparked your interest?
I grew up in Southern California and had a lot of family connections to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (the denomination founded by McPherson). I was vaguely aware of who McPherson was and as I began studying American religion during my undergraduate years I became increasingly curious about her role in shaping modern American evangelicalism. When I started applying to graduate schools, I needed a good dissertation topic and I realized that McPherson was a perfect vehicle through which to explore gender, mass media, popular culture, and politics in the interwar years.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Probably that so many of the issues that frustrate and/or inspire people today have a long and complicated past. Efforts by religious activists to use the state to promote their values, the marriage of mass media and evangelism, the creation of celebrity ministers, and debates over gender roles in the church have happened before and they will happen again. McPherson both tapped into a deep history and foreshadowed the direction that modern evangelicalism would take.
Anything you had to leave out?
About one-hundred pages, but it was my choice. I wanted a tight, focused narrative, so I had to cut a lot of material that I found fascinating about ancillary characters who were not directly relevant to the book’s arguments. For example, I uncovered a lot of material on Rheba Crawford Splivalo, the Director of California’s State Department of Social Welfare when the Depression hit. She became McPherson’s assistant pastor in the 1930s and brought a passionate anti-statist ideology to the Foursquare movement. I may write an article about Splivalo sometime.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
A common misconception is that evangelists like McPherson should not be taken seriously. With the power that evangelicals now wield, fewer and fewer people are dismissive of books like mine, but I still had to make a case for McPherson’s relevance. One of my graduate school professors told me that McPherson was a third-tier character not worthy of a book. I trust that I have proved her wrong.
The second misconception is that I wrote a “regular” biography. I used McPherson’s life as a means of exploring other issues; I was not interested in her life for its own sake. So, some readers have been disappointed to find that the book does not delve into McPherson’s personal life or childhood in the same way that a traditional biography would.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I was hoping to write a book that would contribute to the scholarly discussion on evangelicalism and that would also appeal to the general public. The book is intentionally jargon-free, and discussion of theory and historiography is confined to the notes. I am committed to making my scholarship accessible to people outside of the academy.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? give them pleasure? piss them off?
I was hoping to give them pleasure, but instead I pissed a few of them off—especially those with loyalties to McPherson. I was naïve enough to believe that I could write a book that would appeal to the faithful and win the respect of secular critics; instead some critics complained that I was too sympathetic to McPherson while the faithful think that I was too hard on her.
What alternate title would you give the book?
The title has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Some readers have interpreted it as saying that McPherson was singlehandedly responsible for resurrecting America’s Christian foundations. I meant no such thing. Instead, the title was intended to convey the idea that McPherson believed that she was on a mission to resurrect what she thought was the nation’s Christian heritage. This is what motivated her. If I had it to do over, I would keep the title and clarify its meaning in the introduction.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love it. We went through four covers. The first was too boring and academic looking (it had a McPherson cutout behind the title). The second was beautiful. It featured a 1932 painting of McPherson, her church, and Los Angeles. However, the painting was a spoof of the evangelist and I did not think it was appropriate to put it on the cover of a book that is making an argument for the seriousness of McPherson’s work (the painting is included in the photos in the book). The fourth cover used a black-and-white tabloid motif. The third and eventual winner is a beautiful shot of the Hollywood sign. We actually left McPherson off the front cover, but she appears on the back.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom because it makes big arguments in a compelling way using beautiful prose.
What’s your next book?
Tentatively entitled American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse (Harvard University Press), my next book examines the relationships among American evangelicalism, apocalyptic thought, and political activism during times of national crisis and war. Essentially I want to know how evangelicals’ expectation of Armageddon shaped their social and political behavior. The main question that I am asking could alternatively be phrased as: if you believe the world is going to end very soon, why are you more likely to vote Republican than Democrat?