Tracking Christianity’s Transformation: An Interview with James Ault

About Theo Anderson

James Ault is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in Northampton, MA. His first film, Born Again (1987), focused on the life of a fundamentalist Baptist church in Worcester, MA. He later wrote a book about the same church, Spirit and Flesh (2004), which The Washington Post called “the best single-volume explanation of why American fundamentalist Christianity thrives among certain people.”

 Ault wanted to explore the social bases of “family-values” politics among grassroots supporters of the New Right, which was becoming a powerful political force when he began his research in the early 1980s. He settled on the small, blue-collar “Shawmut River Baptist Church” (a fictitious name Ault uses to protect the privacy of the subjects), whose pastor was vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of Jerry Falwell’s political organization, the Moral Majority.

 “As soon as I walked through its doors,” Ault said about his first visit to Shawmut River, “I felt you could see the social world in which New Right enthusiasms made sense to its supporters. Families are gathered. You get to know things about their personal life. There’s no separation between private and public. It’s all there.”

 Ault’s latest project is a two-part film series, African Christianity Rising, which focuses on Ghana and Zimbabwe. It documents Christianity’s “explosive growth” on the continent, showing the ways that it’s expanding and being adapted within African cultures. Information on Ault’s projects is available on his website, www.jamesault.com.


PE: To summarize part of your argument in Spirit and Flesh, for the professional middle class, adolescence is primarily about learning to establish a personal identity and becoming a self-governing individual. Whereas, for the people you found at Shawmut River, it’s more about fulfilling your role within  a family network.

Ault: There’s a world of difference between becoming an autonomous individual and meeting the duties of a connected kin-based network of people who know one another and who help define reality for you and define your moral universe, because you’re interacting with them, they’re gossiping about you, and you share common knowledge of one another. Whereas for people not anchored in a kin-based network, the world is more fragmented. So where is our moral universe going to come from? One of the ways it’s created in this more atomized, isolated middle class is through political enthusiasms. I noticed among my fellow New Left activists that there was not infrequently a kind of moral need to be hammering at these things, be expressing them, quite apart from  the actual effectiveness of these actions. There was an identity need: How are we going to create what we believe in? How are we going to know what matters to us?

PE: So this is a very communal world with tight networks of relationships. I imagine readers are wondering how that leads to fundamentalists’ general embrace of very hyper-individualistic economic philosophy and their endorsement of “free markets.”

Ault: A good question. That’s why there are strains between the libertarian and social conservative wings of the Republican Party. But they both come together around their stand against “Big Government.” For the social conservatives at Shawmut River, whose communal world was sustained by social pressures among people who knew each other’s business, the impersonal bureaucracy of “Big Government” not only doesn’t make sense, but also can be felt to interfere with community life. For example, if people have government programs to rely on, let’s say in old age, why do they have to count on their children, and expect their children to help them out later on? The effective reliance on a safety net that government provides is felt to break down the reciprocities that people rely on to knit their relationships together. It breaks the logic of that reciprocity that helping relations depend on.

PE: One intriguing aspect of your book was the discussion of absolutes, and the fact that they’re applied in a very practical, contextual way—that these people are above all pragmatic in the way they apply moral standards.

Ault: I would come to Shawmut River Baptist Church and hear the pastor preaching that “God hates divorce.” And then I would watch the members of the congregation help this woman divorce her husband and help get her an apartment and support her while she was doing it. And I would say “Hey, what’s going on here?”  They would say, “Everyone knows her husband’s pissing away the family income with his drugs and his snowmobile.”

I realized that “everyone knows. . .” was key here. The thing is that every moral judgment the collective makes, in an oral culture, is based on what we know in common and assume others know in common. So we don’t have to make it explicit. . . . We apply things in a more concrete, contextual way, knowing the details of every case. So abstract principles don’t matter that much.

Individualistic people, who don’t live in  family-based networks and have to find our own moral compass, have to have clearer ideas about what that moral principle is, and make it explicit. Whereas people in a village society, or this kind of church, are handling it with shared knowledge about the circumstances around this case and that one. Therefore, when they trumpet these absolutes, that doesn’t mean that on the ground they aren’t reasonable and loving. Of course, in some cases, they can be unloving and unjust. Some person’s animosity, or jealousy toward a particular person, may succeed in tilting things in an unjust direction. I saw that at Shawmut River. But, on the whole, I found people there loving, caring, and sensible to a remarkable degree.

PE: There’s a reason they can’t acknowledge that there’s a pragmatic application of the absolutes, because to acknowledge that would be to embrace a sort of relativism and individualism that they can’t abide, right?

Ault:  I think that you have to put it in the context of where fundamentalism arose. It didn’t just arise out of the blue. It rose in response to modernist theology that was denying the supernatural, denying basic tenets of faith and values. So fundamentalism arose out of a felt need to defend. It’s in that context of defense that you stake out a principle that you’re not going to let go. Otherwise, it would have never come to that.

And how do you best defend your traditional beliefs in the modern world? You use a modern form—from literate, scientific culture—of citing a text. You say, “The Bible says it in chapter 4, verse 10.” That’s a modern form of justifying a belief or tenet, even though in your actual practice, you might be much more flexible…Abstract [principles] come into play in defending something that they feel is under attack. By the same token, the New Right never would have gotten off the ground without the New Left movements of liberation challenging traditional values in the 1960s and 70s. Holding onto those things comes out of defense. And I think that ought to be taken into account by any organization or group that’s trying to move forward and defuse the opposition that’s arisen out of those moral conflicts. The accusation that you’re immoral, you’re unjust, you’re backward—these are the kinds of judgments that make people hold fast to their principles, I think.

PE: A common thread between Born Again and African Christianity Rising is that, in both cases, you’re covering a subject you think is important but that hasn’t been on the radar for most people. When you started your research in Shawmut River Baptist Church more than 30 years ago, people thought the New Right would be a fleeting phenomenon. And the same is true of African Christianity. So why did you want to tell this story?

Ault: I started on the project [African Christianity Rising] in 1996, and I think the first article that really brought the importance of African Christianity to American intellectuals was in The Atlantic Monthly—Philip Jenkins’ article, [“The Next Christianity,”] in 2002.

However, already in 1974, when my parents visited me when I was living in Zambia, they had come to Africa because my father had just become a bishop and head of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, and his close colleagues said that something important is happening in Africa now. So church leaders were already aware that something major was happening in Africa, a generation before it was noticed by American intellectuals. And it has proved to be the case that that movement, which was so robust, which sees the number of churches in Ghana, for example, doubling, every 12 years, is assuming a more important part of the Christian church worldwide…

So it’s becoming more important politically on a world scale, throwing up leaders that then come into positions of authority and influence. They are taking leadership roles in the church because of the power of the grassroots growth of Christianity, where people think: This is important for us. Church growth has been fueled, to a considerable degree, by more and more Africans moving into cities, just as urbanization fueled such growth in late-19th century America, and as it did with New South cities after World War II, which is when fundamentalism spread to the South. It was an urban phenomenon. People coming from rural villages where they have other forms of cohesion and community—they need something to hold their lives together in the anonymous world of city life, and churches become a major building block of that new kind of community.

PE: It’s clear from your recent work is that Africa is very religious. But why does it matter that the expression of that religiosity is so heavily Christian?

Ault: One reason is that it connects with other branches of Christianity, which has been the dominant religious tradition in the West and remains the major religious tradition in the United States.  As it connects with other branches of the church on a world scale, it influences  those branches. For example, here in the United States, while the Congregational churches have a more decentralized, local polity, Episcopalians through the Anglican Communion and United Methodists are more international bodies with  large branches in the “two-thirds [i.e., non-Western] world.”  So when the issue of gay marriage, or ordaining gay clergy, comes up, as it did in the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church, they face more challenges  from their representatives from the two-thirds world, who are growing in numbers and growing in representation in leadership…

PE: Why do you think have Africans been so opposed to gay rights?

Ault: This requires more time than we have, but I think that Africans generally have a hard time with homosexual rights for the same reasons members of Shawmut River Baptist church did, and many African- and Latino-Americans do. Wherever people live within extended families creating separate spheres for men and women—where blue-collar men, for example, spend weeks out hunting together while their wives and mothers-in-law run the household, or African men and women sit separately at public meetings (not together as husbands and wives)—men and women see one another as “other.”

In fact, their marriages don’t involve the same interdependent partnership, or intimacy, that autonomous, individualistic, urban professionals assume in the United States. We should remember that new models of marriage involving romantic love, and sex as a vehicle for emotional intimacy—not just pleasure—arose only in 19th-century America, and mainly among urban professionals (as Helen Horowitz shows in her book, Rereading Sex). The very word “homosexual,” where sexual practice is seen as part of one’s very identity, comes into English usage only at the end of that century. To propose the legitimacy of same-sex marriage to blue-collar men out hunting together, or to Ghanaian men friends walking down the street together hand-in-hand, as they routinely do, naturally raises tensions, and is felt, perhaps, even to threaten their assumed goal of marrying “the other.”

These differences have been very painful for progressives in the [United Methodist] Church. But I remember one saying, “If we’re going to be a world church, we have to accept these compromises and face these challenges.” So Christian growth in Africa connects with Christians in other parts of the world and brings it to church life here in the United States. When there are 30,000 Ghanaians living in the area of Worcester, Massachusetts, for example, and probably 80-90 percent are Christian, they become part of the church world there in various denominations.

Theo Anderson is the former editor of The Public Eye magazine, and a journalist and historian with a special interest in the origins of the conservative movement and the activism of the Christian Right in the U.S. He has graduate degrees in U.S. History from Indiana University and Yale, where his dissertation focused on the roots of the growing religious, intellectual, and cultural divide between conservatives and progressives in the early twentieth century.