My dissertation is an historical study of religious change in Chicago’s suburbs from the 1950s through the 1980s. Primarily, I wish to investigate the effects of suburbanization on the widespread transformation of white evangelical Christianity during the period in question. I trace two geographical 'sites:' Wheaton, Illinois, past and present home of numerous influential evangelical institutions, as well as Willow Creek Church, one of the largest evangelical megachurches in the country, from its inception to its migration to and massive growth in South Barrington, Illinois. My intellectual interests in the subject are informed by historical work in urban and suburban studies on the racial effects of post-war housing crises, government development subsidies and so-called “white flight.” By drawing religious institutions into that history, I frame my research as an historiographical intervention meant to address lacunae in the underlying racial logic of accepted narratives that describe recent evangelical ascendance. Ultimately, I will attempt to explain three (possibly more!) interrelated phenomena: first, the significant intended and unintended effects of historically contingent material conditions on religious life; second, the enormous late-century success of white evangelicalism, including its rise as a cogent racialized category for scholarly analysis and political demography in the face of white supremacy’s purported demise within the tradition; and, third, racial inequality’s continuous reinforcement and exacerbation despite or even because of the best intentions of morally-concerned religious actors.
I am humbled and honored to work with the diverse array of scholars and colleagues assembled in this year’s cohort of MMC fellows. Furthermore, I look forward to honing the intellectual presentation of my subject with their feedback, especially given the often controversial and sensitive nature of race and racism both in American culture and within the academy. Over the course of our time together, I plan to complete two dissertation chapters, one on the socio-economic development of Wheaton from 1950-1970 and its effects on church growth, and a second on simultaneous transformations of leading evangelical rhetoric around race and civil rights in the 1950s and -60s.