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Column: Search for a Tiny Glimmer of Light Leads to N.C. Festival

  • The closing service at the Wild Goose Festival brings together many of the more than 4,000 attendees for music, worship and communion for the July 15, 2018 service. Photo E. Lane Gresham E. Lane Gresham photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 8/4/2018 10:39:56 PM
Modified: 8/4/2018 10:40:07 PM

In these dark days, with our future in the precarious hands of a mercurial megalomaniac, it’s important to look for glimmers of light anywhere we can find them — which is why I traveled to rural western North Carolina one weekend last month.

I very nearly did not make the journey. I’m teaching a new course this summer on the 1960s, and much of my time is consumed with preparations and grading (it’s a large class). And I’ve been trying to cut back a bit on lectures and travel.

Add to that, the organizers of this festival, called Wild Goose, are — how can I say this charitably? — not terribly well organized.

I had plenty of reasons to stay home. But the people there were importunate, and so I headed to Hot Springs, a small, somewhat dowdy resort town on the Appalachian Trail, hard by the French Broad River.

Wild Goose, which has been going for more than a decade (no one seems to recall the precise year it started), bills itself as a “Spirit, Justice, Music and Arts Festival.”

Brian McLaren, author and one of the original conveners of Wild Goose, offers a fuller description: “At Wild Goose, people flock together to celebrate a way of life rooted in faith, justice, creativity and beauty. It’s like a family reunion where you meet relatives you never knew you had. It’s a wild and wonderful convergence of stimulating conversations, campfires, music, kids, art, lawn chairs, prayer, fun, dance, frisbees, tents, food, sunshine, rain, laughter and fresh air.”

He adds, “There’s nothing like it, and I look forward to it as one of the best weeks of my year.”

What makes the festival intriguing is that it consists almost entirely of people who describe themselves as progressive Christians, a term that sounds like an oxymoron after the 2016 presidential election. Many would also claim the designation evangelical Christians, although that term has become fraught in recent years, especially following the aforementioned election when 81 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for the Republican candidate.

The evangelicals in Hot Springs hailed from the remaining 19 percent.

Amid the hot, dusty campground, I saw T-shirts reading “Queer Christian” and others advocating LGBT rights. “The World Needs a Group Hug,” another read, and another: “Jesus Was a Refugee.”

I asked a middle-aged woman who stopped by the book-signing table why she returned to Wild Goose every year. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say that the answer was obvious. She looked around the campground, extended her arms and said, “These are my peeps.”

The air of exasperation at those 81 percent was palpable. My friend, the longtime foot soldier for progressive evangelicalism Tony Campolo, told me that those who attended last summer were still stunned by the election and by the complicity of white evangelicals, but this year the mood had shifted toward resolve. “People are talking more about Jesus now,” Campolo said. “They’re trying to figure out how evangelicals lost their way and what we can do about it.”

Indeed. How can anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, or fidelity to the Bible, countenance the policies of the Trump administration — on immigration, on health care, on race relations or almost anything else? The problem is not so much Donald Trump himself; he is who he is and is unlikely to change. The travesty is that leaders of the Religious Right — Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and others — are not merely looking the other way. They’re cheering him on.

Taking my turn on the stage, I rehearsed the origins of the Religious Right, how evangelical political activism emerged in the 1970s not, as commonly believed, in opposition to abortion, but as an effort to protect tax-exempt status for segregated academies and for schools like Bob Jones University.

This is a movement steeped in racism, and unresolved racism festers, contaminating everything around it. Is it any wonder, then, that a movement begun in defense of segregation would four decades later support a racist for president? The 2016 election allowed the Religious Right finally to dispense with the fiction that it was concerned about “family values” — no one who supports Trump can credibly make that claim — and circle back to its founding principles.

Having spent the better part of the last decade trying to puncture what I call the abortion myth, I was surprised that so many at Wild Goose still subscribed to it. A queue of people thanked me and allowed as how they never knew the real story.

At a panel toward the end of the festival, Brian McLaren asked us to sum up our sentiments. Frank Schaeffer, who helped mobilize evangelicals against abortion in the 1980s but who has since repented of his activism on behalf of the Religious Right, unequivocally identified Trump with evil and said he must be resisted by people of faith. McLaren himself speculated that the reason evangelicals eventually joined the antiabortion crusade was effectively to borrow from the purity of the fetus in order to compensate for the racism that marked the origins of their movement.

My summation was directed to myself as much as to the assembled crowd. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by evil these days, especially when every news cycle brings a fresh outrage.

A lot of us suffer from outrage overload, and I know many people who have taken to insulating themselves from the news as a gesture of self-defense. I understand that impulse, and I struggle at times to resist it.

As I searched the faces beneath a huge tent that smelled like sweat, I saw people who felt as though their faith has been hijacked for nefarious ends. Their leaders had betrayed them, and they were desperate for encouragement, for guidance, for hope.  

I don’t believe we have the luxury of despair, I said. This is especially true of anyone who is a parent because we bear enormous responsibility for the world our children inherit. We are engaged in a battle against what the New Testament identifies as principalities and powers, and the stakes could not be higher.

With the support of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community, we must look for ways to make this world a better place, to shine light in the darkness.

And we must cherish even tiny glimmers of light anywhere we can find them.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

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