Saving history: white evangelical identity and Christian heritage tourism in Washington, D.C.
Kerby, Lauren Renae
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In the contemporary United States, power is exerted at both the center of society and its margins. Americans seeking political and cultural capital can cast themselves as insiders, claiming the authority of tradition, or as outsiders, claiming the prophetic voice of the oppressed. Previous scholarship has tended to portray white American evangelicals either as insiders, a theocracy-in-waiting, or as outsiders, a marginalized subculture. In practice, however, white evangelicals claim both positions and move strategically between them. Under certain circumstances, they appeal to the Christian Right’s revisionist history to claim a position at the center of the nation. Under other circumstances, they invoke threats to “Christian America” to claim a position on the margins. This ethnographic study of Christian heritage tourism in Washington, D.C., examines how white evangelical tourists use American history to construct four identities vis-à-vis the nation. Like white American evangelicals more broadly, they see themselves as founders, exiles, victims, and saviors. In addition to ethnography, I draw on intellectual history and material culture studies to account for the dynamic, contradictory, and strategic ways my subjects understand who they are. Written, verbal, and material stories about the American past are key resources white evangelicals use in shaping their identities. On Christian heritage tours and beyond, white evangelicals do history as they plot themselves into narratives about their communities and their nation. This approach, which combines “lived religion” and “lived history,” shows that white evangelicals are political shapeshifters, playing whichever part gives them the most power in a given situation. Their ability to act as both insiders and outsiders is a source of power in a nation that reveres tradition yet cheers for underdogs. While they may talk about leaving behind their outsider roles of exiles and victims, in practice white American evangelicals embrace and defend those roles just as much as they do their insider roles as founders and saviors. Their creative and strategic movement between these roles is a potent political resource that we must understand if we are to make sense of white evangelicals’ political power today.