Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism

Ten Questions for Jason C. Bivins on Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (OUP, 2008).

What inspired you to write The Politics of Horror? What sparked your interest?

My first impulse was to pursue some questions I had following the publication of my first book. Both projects are critical cultural analyses of idioms of “religious complaint,” for lack of a better term. As an interpreter of religious sources and expressions of discontent, I felt that I needed to take more seriously the “sentimental education” of conservative political religions, an element I had not considered in my writing about anti-liberalism, legitimation crises, protests, and other “formal” elements engaged by political religions. I also wanted to explore the possibilities for developing a language—in religious studies, a discipline with complicated understandings of and relationship to political matters—for thinking in fresh ways about what I call “fear regimes.”

While everyone knows that religions and fears are intimate, I wanted to talk not just about “interests” and “alliances” therein but about the normalization of a specifically doomstruck orientation to political life, a constellation of religio-political perceptions advanced over decades through, among other vehicles, pop- cultural narrations of religious fear. It’s a dark book, written in and about dark times.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

My hope is that with Religion of Fear, I have continued to document the subcultural shapes of political religion, beyond standard orientations like church/state studies and so forth, by looking at cultural politics and pop culture as ways of shaping religious orientations to politics.

The book tries to answer the question “How did these visions of religious horror erupting in public life move from the margins in the 1960s steadily to the center by the early 2000s?” The case studies I examine help tell answer this question, showing that a powerful anti-pluralism, resistance to liberalism, antipathy to governmental reform, and a zeal for disciplines of the flesh are powerfully nurtured in entertainments that partake equally of religious instruction and horror story.

There is something about the recrudescence of religious fear regimes in American life, and specifically about contemporary expressions of the old stories of alterity, that demands reconsideration of: 1) the specifically religious textures of, and contributions to, a broader crisis of confidence in American politics; 2) the complex, demonologically-driven identities generated in conservative evangelical engagements with pop culture; and 3) the responsibility that scholars of religion have to remake and maintain a critical engagement with public life.

Anything you had to leave out?

There were several things that ultimately didn’t end up making the final cut, most of which consisted of lengthier literature reviews (specifically of religion and emotions) and expanded historical sections (with further comparison between contemporary religions of fear and their predecessors). I also considered including additional case studies (some of which I mention in the introduction), but felt that there was a clear progression of the “fear regime” through four stages, each of which seemed to be captured by one of the cases in particular.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Many readers outside the academy might dismiss Chick tracts, anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, and Left Behind books as lacking substance, political or otherwise. Harsh they may be, frightful they certainly aim to be, but my aim in placing them at the heart of narratives of American political religions is to show that such expressions actually do far more cultural and political “work” than is commonly assumed by those who would snicker and turn away from them.

/images/managed/Story+Image_this_was_your_life_1228951958.gifSome folks have wondered if writing about this topic means I am suggesting that the “religion of fear” is normative for all evangelicals. This is certainly not the case (as I state often in the text). Rather, against the Bill Mahers of the world, I suggest that the “religion of fear” is not the common denominator underlying all American evangelicalism but an enduring strain of discourse—produced by powerful figures—that has become, for complicated reasons, disproportionately influential in public life, even as it is borne on political ill winds whose source is elsewhere.

Others have been perplexed about the book’s genre, since it is sometimes assumed that to write about evangelicals is to engage in some version of historical or ethnographic writing. Yet I don’t think there is any normative or necessary methodology in the study of American religions. The differences between our approaches to our subjects are not moral ones, either acceptable or unacceptable ones; they simply vary in their degree of suggestiveness. Ethnographers and historians would tell this story in their own illuminating ways, while I use the same hybrid methodology I have used elsewhere in order to focus on expressions, thematic or otherwise, of larger cultures of religious fear and criticism. I find this range of approaches to be the strength of religious studies.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I assumed that most of my readers would come from religious studies. I also kept in mind not only a broader academic audience—including American studies, political theory, cultural studies, and American history, for example—but a general reading public and students as well.

The book is still, in its tone and in its aims, emphatically an academic monograph, but I hope that the writing is accessible enough to appeal to readers generally interested in the subject.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

My hope was mostly to inform in these ways: to retell the narrative of post-1960s political religion, to challenge and broaden conceptions of the political in the academic study of religion, and to come up with some vivid cases and categories for thinking through the politics of religious fear today. I’ve tried to do this in a way that’s pleasurable to read, and certainly Chick tracts and Hell Houses make for vivid subject matter. But it’s a provocative topic, and I certainly have not shied away from that.

What alternate title would you give the book?

I honestly never considered a different title, since this was the name for this project since its inception. If I had to choose one, maybe I’d go for one of the chapter titles, perhaps “Like Beating the Dog.”

How do you feel about the cover?

Brilliant. All praises to Meechal Hoffman and the superb folks at OUP. Of course I love the main image, but I continue to marvel at the details: the eye-catching spine (spines are overlooked, aren’t they?) and the ash-grey title enmeshed in the black of the back cover.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

/images/managed/Story+Image_200px-amazingadventuresbook.jpgWell, I really wish I’d written The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but you probably have in mind a monograph. In terms of books close to this one that I have found impressive and inspiring, I certainly think David Frankfurter’s Evil Incarnate (which came out when I was finishing this manuscript) is superb, and I have been shaped in significant ways by James Morone, Ed Ingebretsen, and Julia Kristeva’s writings about the powers of horror.

What’s your next book?

There are two I’m currently working on. One is called Embattled Majority, a genealogy of the rhetoric of “religious bigotry” and “persecution” in conservative Christian politics since the 1960s (as manifested in Christian textbook narratives, conferences such as Justice Sunday, and political organizations like the JCCCR). But the book I’m most energetically working on is “Spirits Rejoice!”: Jazz and American Religion.

It may seem odd for a guy who writes about the darker impulses in American political religions to be looking into the intersections of jazz and religion in the U.S.—in terms of traditions, rituals, new communities, and musical metaphysics—but I have a lifelong relation with this music (I play and record myself, and I have also been reviewing jazz records for over a decade). I hope my combinative experiences, along with my training, position me well to write this happy story about American religions. I can’t wait.