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Luhr Explores Political, Cultural Landscape in New Book

Published: April 1, 2009

The suburbanization of evangelicalism and the rise of Christian popular culture take center stage in Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture, a new book from the University of California Press by History’s Eileen Luhr.

Its 280 pages offer a lively cultural analysis of the conservative shift in national politics that transformed the U.S. during the Reagan-Bush era. Taking readers from the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s to Christian heavy metal music to Christian rock festivals, Luhr shows how evangelicals succeeded in “witnessing” to Americans suburbs in a consumer idiom.

“I wanted to explore the intersection of conservatism, religion and suburbanization by demonstrating the ways in which conservative religious beliefs helped reshape the political and cultural landscape,” said Luhr, who joined the university in 2006. “Rather than placing religious beliefs at the margins of public discourse, my book tries show how Christian conservatives adapted to and participated in public debates in which ‘the personal’ became ‘the political’ by articulating a morality-based social criticism through cultural forms such as popular music.”

Luhr contends that evangelicals benefited from post-World War II migrations to the suburbs. “My argument is that evangelicals get much of their strength from the suburbs,” she said. “This is not a phenomenon that is restricted to red states. It’s not just in Orange County or the South but in suburbs across the United States.”

Luhr cites megachurches like Orange County’s Calvary Chapel and Saddleback Community Church as examples of suburbanized religiosity. “Mega-churches are interesting because they are so good at adapting to the spaces of suburbia,” she said. “They’ve altered belief systems, worship practices, church architecture, and even the type of services people expect from their church.”

One adaptation is of religion to rock and roll, which Luhr cites as evidence of the “Christianization” of popular culture. About 7 percent of music sales in the United States are for Christian bands, Luhr points out. “Christian music is a $1 billion industry and it’s getting bigger,” she said. She focuses on two musical genres, Christian punk and Christian metal. According to Luhr, both Christian subcultures consider “obedience to authority to be the ‘true’ rebellion. Like some of their counterparts in the Christian right, Christian punk and metal bands use the language of rebellion as a rhetorical device. They use the language of punk and heavy metal and the outsider identities that go along with them.” Mainstream metal bands as Black Sabbath use language that some believers believe to be blasphemous or Satanic, but Christian musicians approach the issue differently. “Christian musicians come along and say they do the same thing but they play it for God. They say the music itself is neutral. According to their logic, if God created everything, including metal, then it cannot be Satanic.”

Eileen Luhr
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
Eileen Luhr

Luhr sees a move away from conservative stereotypes toward a new 21st century paradigm.

“There are many people who were raised in conservative evangelical households who are no longer conservative,” she said. “But there are still plenty of evangelicals who spend a lot of time, money and effort to ensure their children remain in the faith. What I try to document in my book is their movement from denouncing culture with its rock music to allowing kids to listen to Christian music. I see a shift toward engagement with popular culture rather than shutting it out completely.”

According to Luhr, the message was conservative even if the medium was not. “Christian music became a form of cultural activism focused on conveying conservative messages about ‘personal responsibility,’ ‘self-reliance’ and ‘values.’”

Luhr sees a gap between the Pat Robertson-Jerry Fallwell-James Dobson evangelists and new Christians. “The new Christians try to distance themselves from the old line, but that doesn’t mean the new school is anything but deeply conservative,” she said. Rick Warren, who recently participated in President Obama’s inauguration, “may be a conservative who wears a Hawaiian shirt, but he is still a conservative. There is a tendency to view his laid-back fashion sense as reflective of a laid-back world view and that is not the case. He mixes very easygoing signifiers of the suburban lifestyle with very conservative ideas about the world.”

Luhr held the Kevin Starr Post-Doctoral Fellowship in California History at University of California Humanities Research Institute before joining CSULB. She earned her B.A. in history and anthropology from Williams College as well as her Ph.D. in 2004 from UC Irvine.