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Engage Vigorously

Convivium contributor Gideon Strauss enquires into how historian Heath Carter, recently named Redeemer University College’s 2018 Emerging Public Intellectual, engages church and world.

9 minute read
Engage Vigorously November 8, 2018  |  By Gideon Strauss with Heath W. Carter
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My first acquaintance with Heath Carter was almost a decade ago, through mutual friends in Chicago, and it has been a delight and an education to give attention to his work in the years since. These days Heath is Associate Professor of History at Valparaiso University. He has written or co-edited four books, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class, Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, and A Documentary History of Religion in America, with a fifth forthcoming, On Earth as it is in Heaven: Social Christians and the Fight to End American Inequality. This interview was conducted by e-mail.

Gideon Strauss: Can you summarize your advice to undergraduates, aware of the common call to seek justice, perhaps discerning a call to a life of scholarship, in a short set of aphorisms?

Heath Carter: Ha! I’ll do my best. Here you go: 

Refuse to abide an echo chamber.

Even if it’s not your major, study history and especially the history of where you live. To know the way forward, you must know how we got here.

Don’t allow yourself to lose touch with the voices and experiences of people who have less power and privilege than you do. 

Civic engagement is an essential mode of neighbourly love.

Engage vigorously, in love, with other believers about what it means to live faithfully today. Don’t be contemptuous of them. 

Christianity is always political but never partisan.

Don’t live your entire life inside the Ivory Tower. The Church needs you—and the world does too.

Gideon Strauss: In an article accompanying the announcement that you are the 2018 Emerging Public Intellectual Award winner, you are quoted as saying that, "At the root of my labour lies an abiding interest in the Gospel’s implications for society. My prayer is that my work will never be merely ‘academic,’ but will contribute to the forging of a more just world." What are the sources in your own life of this abiding interest?

Heath Carter: I grew up in an evangelical home and learned from a very young age that faith is not just one dimension of life, among many others. Both my parents and the churches I was raised in emphasized that our answers to ultimate questions have major implications for who we are as human beings and how we should live together in the world, and that basic intuition has remained deeply resonant for me down through the years. What has shifted is my sense of the implications. I grew up during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of the Moral Majority, and during those years my family was very much in its orbit. 

I listened to a lot of James Dobson and Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and conceived of "Christian" and "Republican" as more or less coterminous categories. I chose Georgetown University for college because I was interested in politics. My freshman year roommate was the son of a Democratic congressman and had been steeped in Catholic social teaching, with which I had had no previous encounter. His very different sense of the socio-political implications of the Gospel came through loud and clear in our many late-night debates, and while I never let on in the moment, those conversations underscored for me that there was a lot I did not know. 

My desire to learn more has yet to be quenched. At the end of my sophomore year, I dropped my government major in favor of theology. I went on to write a senior thesis on the politics of the Left Behind series and then a master’s thesis on evangelical responses to Vietnam. I worked on the latter while getting to know Chicago, an experience that only intensified my questions and concerns about the American church’s engagement with the world around it. 

I’ll never forget riding my bike near the University of Chicago’s campus one afternoon and then deciding to explore the surrounding environs. I turned left at Cottage Grove and soon found myself in a blighted black neighborhood—a world that I knew virtually nothing about. Why was that? And why did the stark segregation and disparate realities of the city never come up in my church on Sunday morning? I’ve never been able to shake these kinds of questions and they continue to animate my life and scholarship. 

Gideon Strauss: Do you have ways—practices, perhaps—of nurturing the connections between the gospel, your scholarship, and your concern for ‘a more just world’? What inspires you? What sustains you or helps you recover when the going gets tough—as a Christian, as a scholar, as a citizen, and at the intersection of these aspects of your vocation? 

Heath Carter: I spent my twenties and early thirties in Chicago and during those years my faith was profoundly and enduringly strengthened through my immersion in Christian community. After finishing my master’s degree, I taught for a year at a Jesuit high school on the city's southwest side and while there I not only witnessed Catholic social teaching lived out on the ground but also had the great fortune to make a lifelong friend. He and I bonded over our common interest in living faithfully in the city. 

We were both newly married and the four of us ended up co-leading a small group at our Evangelical Covenant church. After reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together and through the course of some intensive discernment we decided to move into intentional community in a working-class Latino neighborhood and to establish rhythms of common life: prayer, shared meals, and hospitality to others. We moved very begrudgingly out of community a couple years later, after I got hired at Valparaiso University, but we continue to see our friends regularly and I can’t overstate how foundational those relationships and experiences remain for me.

When we first moved to Valparaiso, I had no idea how involved I would end up becoming in the local community. It was driven by my faith, to be sure, and also by my family. My oldest son is African American and this town has a long and troubled history of racism. 

A beloved colleague who was raising children of his own here always used to say to me, “I want to make Valparaiso the kind of place I want to raise my kids in.” That same spirit informs a lot of my work in this place and so in that sense I draw strength anytime I look at my three boys. My involvement took a turn several years ago when a Sheriff’s deputy arrested one of my black students. I ended up in the middle of the ensuing controversy and not long after it subsided the mayor named me chair of the city’s Human Relations Council. I’ve now been in that role for three years and it has been tough work the whole way through. Again, I could not do it without the sustenance that comes through Christian community—our church, which has long had a strong social witness, as well as family and friends. 

One reason I love my research on Christian social witness is that I’m often inspired by what I find in the archives. You won’t find perfect people in the past but you will find earnest believers who sought to live faithfully in their times. I draw great strength from getting to know them, too.

Gideon Strauss: In Evocative Objects, Sherry Turkle suggests that, "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with." If you were to talk about your work as a public intellectual with reference to an object that functions for you in ways that Sherry Turkle might call "evocative," what would that object be, and how would you describe what this object means to you? 

Heath Carter: Anyone who knows me well knows that I have terrible visual memory when it comes to describing people. But it’s an entirely different story when it comes to church buildings. I have always loved going for long walks and, as my long-suffering friends can tell you, I almost never pass by a church without stopping. I want to walk around it and find the cornerstone, which lets on when it was built and sometimes by whom. I want to go in if I can. Church buildings evoke so many questions: What kind of community was it that first imagined and invested in this space? What did it mean for them? What values shaped its design, not to mention its ongoing use? And how did this building end up here, in this particular location, instead of somewhere else? I wrote a whole research paper in graduate school on the Moody Church building on Chicago's near north side. The first time I walked by it I was absolutely stunned by the fact that a congregation so suffused with premillennial dispensationalism had chosen to build such a massive and seemingly permanent structure, modeled in part after the Hagia Sophia. What could possible explain this? I write a lot about churches and in the course of my investigations I always want to find out more about their buildings. They tell you so much. 

Gideon Strauss: In your responses to my earlier questions you show yourself inclined towards the asking of hard questions, prompted by your experiences, and open to learning from the people you encounter as you are asking these questions. To the extent that these attitudes are more than dispositions inherited from your parents and nurtured during your childhood, how do you go about cultivating them in yourself? 

Heath Carter: I am going to end up sounding like a bit of a broken record, but I think one primary way we discover and stay tuned to God’s call on our lives is through community. I am immersed in many different communities, which make claims on me and challenge me to remain open to different kinds of experiences and perspectives. These range from my extended family, which comprises, by and large, poor white people who remain largely in the orbit of the contemporary Religious Right; to the many upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan types I’ve met along my journey through some world-class institutions of higher education. And there are many more beyond. 

Here in Valparaiso I am deeply engaged with communities of citizens who are underrepresented in civic leadership; at the same time, through my role as Human Relations Council chair, I've forged relationships with pastors, non-profit executives, and city leaders whose politics are sometimes quite different from mine. My social media feeds therefore end up being anything but echo chambers. Sometimes I laugh (or cringe!) when these communities collide on a Facebook or Twitter thread, but above all, I’m grateful to have so many different kinds of voices ringing in my ear. I find in my faith a strong call, especially, to avoid the contempt that I often see Christians directing at other Christians with whom they disagree. I believe that, for the sake of God’s glory and neighbor’s good, we’ve got to hang together to the extent that we can, even when our disagreements are quite deep. 

Gideon Strauss: Given that you are being recognized as an “emerging public intellectual,” how do you understand the vocation of the intellectual, and in particular the public intellectual? Would you imagine this vocation to be different in America than it might be in, say, Brazil, Canada, or South Africa? And different today than it might have been in the 1890s, 1930s, or 1960s? 

Heath Carter: I don’t suppose that there is one way to be an intellectual or even a public intellectual, so I’ll just say how I conceive of my own vocation. I have always loved reading and debating ideas, but especially as I’ve made my way through graduate school and my early career, I’ve come to recognize that I’m not someone who’s content to talk only to a handful of other specialists in my field. 

As a historian of American Christianity, I see the topics and themes at the heart of my work as being of urgent significance for the church and for any other number of contemporary communities. I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in college and it helped to redirect my course. I am deeply grateful that Mark—whose work is, of course, deeply respected within the academy—did not remain entirely ensconced in the ivory tower. And there are many others like him. My experience has been that there are countless folks who are not academics but who have a desire to know more about the past and how it affects the present. I have spoken many times to adult Sunday School classes as well as to Christian family camps, and I love the rich interaction and engagement I’ve found in those spaces as much as I enjoy it in the classroom. I think the vocation of the public intellectual might indeed look very different in different parts of the world and certainly it would have been less accessible to many folks in earlier eras. I think it could also look very different depending on one’s field of study. It happens that, as a historian of American Christians, there is a large constituency with a ready-made and profound investment in the stories people in my particular guild tell. That may be part of what drew me to it in the first place. There is just no question in my mind that Church history is of profound importance for the church today.  


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