How should we understand conflicts over identity, theological boundaries, and orthodoxy within religious communities and across religious, national, and racial lines?
In recent decades, some of the most salient boundaries for American evangelical Christians have been related to Muslims and Islam—both within the United States and globally. This presents a compelling context for examining overlapping religious, national, and racial boundary drawing against a backdrop of ascendant white Christian nationalism and widespread political polarization. In this context, evangelical efforts to define Islam, prescribe orthodox ways of relating to Muslims, and lay out the social boundaries between Islam and Christianity are evidence of competition for religious authority, where evangelical elites vie for the standing to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and to define orthodox religious identities and behaviors.
The authority to define the character of the “other” and prescribe approaches to them is what sociologist George Steinmetz calls ethnographic capital. These struggles to define Islam and prescribe action toward Muslims regularly take on an ethnographic character, as evangelicals grapple with their role in pluralistic social settings and as churches and other evangelical institutions seek out authoritative guidance regarding religious, racial, and political “others.”
Before 9/11, the traditional holders of ethnographic capital on Muslims and Islam among American evangelicals were missionaries to Muslim-majority countries. Over time, however, this authority and standing among evangelicals to define Muslims and Islam has shifted from foreign missionaries in Muslim-majority countries to a new set of experts, including pastors, apologists, televangelists, and other prominent evangelical public figures who, prior to 9/11, had little to say about Islam or Muslims. And while this shift in evangelical authority began before 9/11, the intense demand for ethnographic capital post-9/11 gave rise to new layers of meaning and new stakes for how evangelical Christians should think about Islam and relate to Muslims.
When we think about contemporary Muslim-Christian relations in the United States, we might first recall the mistrust and surge of provocative statements on Islam and Muslims that came from American evangelical leaders following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the following months and years, several prominent American evangelical leaders publicly made disparaging remarks against Islam, Muslims, and the Prophet Muhammad. Pat Robertson of The 700 Club identified Islam as “a Christian heresy” that is “motivated by demonic power” and has the goal of “world domination.” He also described the Prophet Muhammad as “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic… a robber and a brigand.”Franklin Graham, the son of and successor to prominent evangelist Billy Graham, referred to Islam as a “very evil and wicked religion.” Of American Muslims, Franklin Graham later told a national audience, “True Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that.” The late founder of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, said that “Muhammad was a terrorist.” And the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Vines, called Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile.” Further, these statements from influential figures are connected to a wider base of negative views of Islam among American evangelicals that emerged after 9/11. For example, a 2003 poll of American evangelical leaders found that 70 percent believed Islam to be a religion of violence and 66 percent agreed that Islam is dedicated to world domination.
These provocative condemnations and negative views of Islam, however, represent only one mode of interreligious boundary drawing among American evangelicals. For more than a century preceding 9/11, other evangelicals had been engaged in both interfaith dialogue with Muslims and conciliatory missionary efforts to win converts among Muslims around the globe, especially as American evangelicals began to increasingly broaden the global scope of their religious-political concerns. These longstanding diverging approaches to Islam and Muslims raise questions about which American evangelicals have the authority—the ethnographic capital—to prescribe attitudes and action toward Islam and Muslims. And how is this standing acquired, sustained, and deployed?
While authoritative pronouncements from prominent evangelical leaders often come to the attention of the wider public through the kinds of media coverage noted above, the competition for religious authority among evangelicals begins in other social spaces. I suggest that book publishing is an important space where the competition for ethnographic capital to define Islam and prescribe orthodox evangelical behaviors toward Muslims takes shape. Attention to evangelical book publishing trends shows that, while the supply and demand for authoritative knowledge on Islam surged following 9/11, it did not begin there. When I set out to explore the evangelical discourse on Islam and Muslims and its many expressions, I compiled a set of 237 books on Islam by and for evangelical Christians going back to 1974. Of those 237 books, 48 were published before 9/11 and 189 were published between 9/11 and 2017.
Evangelical publishing is a major industry; popular books on countless topics of evangelical interest are widely read, referenced, and relied upon. Books represent the authoritative source of evangelical knowledge on Islam and are tangible cultural reference points for such knowledge. They are meaningful social spaces where influential ideas are encoded for widespread consumption. It is in the space of evangelical publishing that authors compete for the authority to define Islam. As sociologist Wes Markofski points out in his study of American evangelicalism, even in a world where electronic and social media dominate, evangelicals remain “people of the book”—meaning that book publishing remains an essential arena of evangelical knowledge production and dissemination. Markofski further notes that it is in books “that one can find the most comprehensive statements of influential and competing religious and political position-takings in the evangelical field.”
My analysis of more than 200 books on Islam by and for evangelical Christians between the years 1974 and 2017 captures a wide-ranging discourse on Islam over time, which illuminates key dynamics of contention among evangelicals about the authority to prescribe evangelical attitudes and action toward Islam and Muslims. The books represent a number of distinct genres. These include apologetics books, concerned with defending Christian beliefs against critics and competing worldviews. They also include missiological books, which focus on engaging with Islam as part of a much larger global imperative to spread the Christian gospel and seek converts through missionary activity. Another genre is pastoral or mobilizing books, through which pastors and leaders seek to shepherd evangelicals toward particular stances on social and political issues. Finally, testimonial books are biographies and narratives produced by converts from Islam, missionaries to Muslim countries, Christians from Muslim-majority countries, and others who personalize and embody Muslim-Christian relations. Across genres, the authors of these books are variously professional apologists, academics, Bible prophecy experts, activists, missionaries, journalists, pastors, evangelists, and more. And finally, I consider themes that cut across these genres and types of authors. These include conversion, proselytizing, persecution, insider knowledge, civilizational and moral threat, spiritual warfare, jihad, violence, peace, commonalities and differences, dialogue, cooperation, gender, and Islamic law (sharia).
Approaching these books with attention to the religious, social, and political contexts in which they were produced, disseminated, and consumed opens up a view of both dominant and dissenting narratives on Islam and Muslims. As the authority of foreign missionaries began to wane—even before 9/11, the dominant narratives that took the place of missionary discourse increasingly began to suggest that Islam and Muslims are a threat to the United States and to Christianity that must be protected against in moral, religious, and racial terms. This narrative asserts a radical difference between Christianity and Islam that comes in both “worldly” and “spiritual” forms. Islam’s dangerous and threatening character in worldly terms comes through reference to holy war, violence, chauvinism, and the need to protect America and “Western civilization” from its influence. Themes of conversion, persecution, and spiritual battle construct Islam as spiritually and morally threatening to Christian dogmas and identity. Conversely, dissenting narratives on Islam among American evangelicals, which highlight commonalities and underscore the potential for dialogue and collaboration across religious lines, could lead to the inclusion of Muslims within the American public sphere. Many of these narratives were developed by missionaries who had previously emphasized points of connection between Islam and Christianity, as well as by others interested in peacebuilding, reconciliation, and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
These kinds of struggles over the ethnographic capital to define and prescribe action toward various “others” are increasingly important amid critiques of ostensible failures of multiculturalism in North America and in Europe. I suggest that attention to a wide spectrum of what evangelical authors have said about Islam over several decades sheds needed light on the struggle over religious authority that permeates evangelical institutions in the United States—a struggle among American evangelicals to determine which principles of social division legitimately organize evangelical religious spaces and the broader American civic sphere. My research has considered who constitutes a religious, national, and racial “insider” to the social project of American evangelicals, and what it means to define and prescribe action toward “outsiders” to this project. These questions matter considerably within the context of rising white American Christian nationalism, where religious, racial, and national identities converge in what sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry identify as the key question of “whose country the United States really is.”