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Notes from the Field: Evangelicals and Pro-Diversity Activism with Muslims in Nashville

Published March 06, 2020 by Samuel Victor

Nashville, Muslims, Evangelicals, Restoration Movement, Churches Of Crhist, Islamophobia, Pro-diversity Activism, Pluralism

In July 2019, I began the fieldwork stage of my research. My field site is a church in Nashville (USA), and I have spent the past 7 months immersing myself in the community's activities both within and without the church's walls. The church is rooted in the traditions of the Restoration Movement, an early 19th century frontier revival movement a stream of which led to the establishment of autonomous congregations calling themselves "Churches of Christ". Today, Churches of Christ are known generally to be deeply conservative, even "fundamentalist", in their favouring of biblical literalism, social exclusivism and eager evangelism. I selected the congregation that is the centre of gravity of my fieldwork because of the perhaps unexpected ways in which its members navigate their rootedness in this particular heritage and their current efforts to, in their own words, "stay relevant in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society".

A "diversity dinner" takes place in a Mediterranean restaurant at the footsteps of a local Christian university

As immigration and refugee resettlement have brought more diversity to Nashville in the past two decades, the predominantly Christian character of this "Bible Belt" city and its suburbs is changing. Although Muslims in Tennessee account for barely 1% of the state's population, anti-Muslim rhetoric, political activism and even violence have steadily risen since 2001. Such activism is often framed locally in terms of the preservation of "Christian America" and is inflected by the country's historical struggle with racism. The church under study is a predominantly white congregation nestled in the wealthy suburbs. The leadership is attempting to counter Islamophobic trends within mainstream Evangelicalism by encouraging its members to demonstrate Christian hospitality by positioning themselves as "allies" to their "Muslim neighbours" through various interreligious activities. The cornerstone of such efforts is the church's collaboration with a small organisation that was founded by a local Muslim man who previously ran a rural community center that was destroyed by self-described Christian white supremacists. In addition to local private donors, the organisation is supported by a national-level pilot project seeking to advance understanding and peace between religious groups. The church under study has multiple members on the advisory board and staff of the organisation and has made its spaces available for anti-Islamophobia workshops, as well as promoting a "diversity dinners" programme wherein participants are invited to eat a meal together in homes, restaurants and places of worship throughout the city.

After a "diversity dinner" in a mosque, a Muslim woman uses her smartphone to explain to a Christian man where in the Qur'an one can find passages about hospitality and caring for one's neighbours

At question for me in attending these activities - in addition to a consistent presence at regular church functions - is to ascertain the ways in which this case of evangelical pro-diversity activism constitutes a localised understanding of moral discourses about pluralism that circulate nationally and even globally. It has become clear that there is a tension between ambient American and cosmopolitan notions of pluralism as grounded in both the recognition and celebration of religious diversity and the fundamentally evangelistic ambition of this church's engagement with Muslims. However, if an attention to historical factors, political realities and power relations is essential in this ethnographic context, it is also important to not allow suspicion to dominate the conceptual frame with which I am trying to understand these churchgoers' vision of the ethics of social relations with religious others. My current research task is primarily descriptive rather than evaluative. As I have observed so far, many churchgoers are themselves conscious of, and critically reflective about, the paradoxes and potential contradictions that constitute their simultaneous expression of evangelistic and pluralistic values. Interestingly, this church's evangelical mission is imagined in multiple and overlapping timeframes. For example, proselytising during social interactions is discouraged and even frowned upon, but prayer and a sustained hope for conversion remains essential. This sets the scene for a number of ethical knots and relational considerations with which my interlocutors wrestle as they engage in pro-diversity activism. Indeed, for these Christians, the notion of pluralism remains anchored in the view that all people are already potentially Christian, rather than in a view that accepts all religions as holders of truths that promise the same level of human flourishing and eternal salvation.

An advertisement for an upcoming anti-Islamophobia workshop hosted at the church is displayed on a table in the church lobby

I am only now passing the halfway point of my fieldwork in Nashville. In the remaining months, I will continue to explore my evangelical interlocutors' ideas and experiences of social engagement, activism and friendship across lines of difference. Among the questions that will sustain the next stage of my fieldwork include: How is success defined in the context of evangelical pro-diversity activism?; How do the churchgoers' Muslim counterparts experience the outreach efforts of the church?; and What is the role of formal Evangelical/Muslim theological discussion in laying the groundwork for the possibility interreligious friendships?

Sam Victor was awarded the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship to undertake his PhD studies at the University of Cambridge (commencing 2018-19). His research, which is supervised by Professor Joel Robbins in the Department of Social Anthropology, examines the ways in which people understand the moral dimensions of social relations in pluralistic societies, with a specific interest in evangelical Christians who engage in various forms of social outreach to Muslims.



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