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Leading female evangelical blazes trails, builds bridges
Karen Swallow Prior - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Around 25 years ago, Karen Swallow Prior and her husband, Roy, were walking to their car in a Buffalo, New York, drugstore parking lot when they came upon two men in a heated argument.

Drunk and clearly angry, the men were screaming at each other and on the verge of physical violence. Prior, then about 25 years old, felt she had to step in, so she walked up to try to restore peace.

"One of the men was African-American and there were racial slurs involved. I wanted to defuse the situation," she said, laughing at her youthful sense of invincibility.

Roy instinctively pulled her back from the tense scene, and the two headed home. Almost 25 years later, that night still pops into Karen Prior's mind from time to time, reminding her of how the drive to seek justice never really goes away.

"If I see something that's wrong, I want to fix it," said Prior, now 50 and the author of one of 2014's most notable Christian books, "Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist." As she continues to promote the book through Women's History Month, Prior is making a name for herself as a reformer in her own right.

She insists her days of breaking up parking lot scuffles are over, but friends and colleagues said the spirit of that encounter lives on in her work. As an English professor at Liberty University, Prior writes, speaks and prays about the cultural issues causing fights in religious communities with the goal of building bridges across theological and political difference, easing tensions between old and young evangelicals and carving out a place for women in the denomination's leadership.

The label of peacemaker is difficult to wear in an increasingly polarized culture. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Prior's ability to prioritize thoughtful reflection over confrontation makes her an important asset for America's evangelical community, a group that's often represented as combative and out-of-touch.

"I wish we had 1,000 more Karen Swallow Priors in evangelicalism today," he said.

Prior's evangelical community

Pew Research Center's 2008 Religious Landscape Survey found that evangelical Protestant Christians were the largest religious group in the country, representing 26.3 percent of U.S. adults. The label encompasses denominations that are generally theologically and politically conservative, such as Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God.

The size of the evangelical community has been both a blessing and a curse for its members, giving leaders like Moore a media spotlight to address issues like abortion and race relations, but also feeding a public image that Prior said is often more of a caricature than a fair representation.

"There's some truth in the image, but there's a larger truth that doesn't get a lot of attention," she said.

In Pew's 2014 study on relationships between American religious groups, evangelical Christians enjoyed one of the most positive overall ratings from Americans as a whole, receiving a warmth rating of 61 points of a possible 100. Jews, the highest-rated group, had a 63.

However, when evangelical respondents were removed from the calculation, the group's rating fell to 52. Additionally, the evangelical community's mean rating of 25 from atheist respondents represented the most negative assessment given from one religious group to another in the entire survey.

While acknowledging the evangelical label can be polarizing, Prior said she doesn't shy away from claiming it. In fact, by working for more than 15 years at Liberty University, which was founded by evangelical televangelist Jerry Falwell, and serving as a research fellow for the ERLC, she's affiliated with some of the most visible evangelical institutions.

Prior said people sometimes ask her what it's like to be an outspoken female leader at Liberty, as well as in evangelical culture at large. She said the question can be frustrating because it often fails to acknowledge progress that's already happening.

When the ERLC announced her research fellow role on Twitter, Prior remembers, many critical responses decried that there weren't more women in leadership positions. "I got no words of congratulations" from the same people calling for change, she said.

"There are barriers that need to be broken and I don't mean to minimize that," Prior said. "But I don't think they get broken by complaining and stirring the pot."

Throughout her career, Prior has focused on searching for common ground, an approach that often has her straddling two worlds.

For example, her long-term pro-life advocacy (Mother Teresa once sent her a letter thanking her for her efforts) is par for the evangelical course, but the article she once wrote addressing what "American Horror Story" has to say about abortion exemplifies her unique style.

Kate Shellnutt, the editor of Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog for which Prior often writes, highlighted Prior's ability to be innovative without disrespecting tradition.

"(Prior) shows that you can be part of a traditional institution and love the church and the 'old school' parts of Christianity and still be very active, empowered and confident," she said.

Shellnutt remembers a post Prior wrote that put a list of the worst Christian book covers into conversation with a list of famous Playboy covers, illustrating her way of using silly or small moments in popular culture to reflect on larger theological concepts.

"Bad Christian art that reflects a lack of investment of time, commitment, craft or skill presents the illusion that the Christian life is not worthy or requiring of the same. Pornography offers a similar illusion about sex," Prior wrote.

On sites ranging from The Atlantic to Think Christian, Prior writes commentaries on anything from her own faith to hashtags, from literature to "What Not to Wear," leaving few topics untouched. She explained that her variety of interests are admittedly hard to summarize, but that they all stem from her Christian beliefs.

"(Theologian) Abraham Kuyper once said, 'There's not one square inch of this earth that God doesn't say is his, Prior said. "I think God cares about leggings and T.S. Eliot and abortion."

A life in the classroom

Roy Prior doesn't remember the parking lot fight scene well but said the story doesn't surprise him.

"Could I have held her back? Yeah, you should try that sometime," he said, chuckling.

Formerly a touring musician, Roy met Karen when she came to one of his rock concerts. They married when she was 19 and still an undergraduate student at Daemen College in Amherst, New York. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in January.

At Daemen, Karen became an English major after shifting from her initial focus on social work. Two years later, she applied for an English Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and realized that her career path was taking an unexpected turn.

"There were two things I never wanted to do: nursing and teaching," Prior said.

She eventually accepted that teaching had been her calling all along, no matter how often she daydreamed of writing a syndicated column like George Will.

Brandon Ambrosino, one of Prior's former students who is now a close friend, said her talent and flair for teaching were obvious from the start of his first class with her.

"Her classes were very much a mix of literature and some theology and also a lot of pop culture references," said Ambrosino, a religion and culture writer for Vox. He remembers her celebrating an essay he wrote that brought literary terms into conversation with the television show "Will and Grace," noting that she always made an effort to stay engaged with the books, music and movies her students loved.

And in spite of being unable, as Shellnutt attested, to set up a Powerpoint, Prior's love for her students made her an early and active user of social media. She signed up for a Facebook page the first year the site existed, finding ways to keep conversations with students going online.

"I wanted to use it as an expanded classroom to reach my students where they were," Prior said.

She also regularly posts to her Twitter and Instagram pages, the latter of which Shellnutt described as a kind of ministry.

"She takes beautiful snapshots of the Blue Ridge Mountain countryside," Shellnutt said. "(Instagram) has made me see how she truly has this eye for beauty in the world. I'm so encouraged by the beautiful things she captures there."

Prior, who serves on the Faith Advisory Council of The Humane Society of the United States, often uses her Instagram photos to feature the animals she and Roy raise on their Virginia farm, which include dogs Ruby and Lucy, Des the horse and a flock of chickens.

Her animals and Liberty students are, in many ways, like children to her. Prior wrote about her infertility last year for Christianity Today, describing how she came to accept it as part of God's plan.

"As the invitations to write and speak increase I realize that this is what I'm supposed to be doing," she said in a recent interview. "I certainly couldn't do it all. I want to do what God put me here to do."

It's an attitude Roy Prior said has come to define her career, which has included many unexpected but exciting adventures.

"I couldn't have predicted" her rise to fame, he said. "But she always had an incredible amount of talent and drive and was really open to God's leading."

Fierce convictions

As a professor and writer, Prior is protected from the controversies that can surround other, more political evangelicals. Both Moore and Ambrosino were hard-pressed to name anyone she should count as an enemy.

Moore said he regularly meets people who've been touched by her work at events ranging from the March for Life to a meeting with animal welfare activists.

"She models convictional kindness," he said. "She doesn't give any ground, but she also doesn't see people who disagree with her as her enemy."

In her twenties, when she was active in the anti-abortion movement, Prior took the time to co-author a pamphlet with a former abortion clinic director in order to help search for common ground between the two sides of the abortion debate.

Ambrosino attributed actions like these to Prior's ability to see areas of tension as just one part of people's personalities, rather than their defining feature. He wrote an essay for The Atlantic about how she supported him when he came out at Liberty University, in spite of the fact that the two of them disagreed on the Bible's teachings about homosexuality.

"That's a testament to her character: That I've never once questioned how she felt about me," Ambrosino said.

Prior said her desire to build bridges rather than create conflict comes from her focus on recognizing other people's perspectives, a skill she learned from the many hours of her life she's spent lost in books.

Additionally, as someone who takes her faith and her work very seriously, she said she respects anyone with strongly held beliefs.

"I respect strong convictions," Prior said. "I respect someone who has strong convictions that oppose mine more than somebody who doesn't have convictions."

That's one reason she wrote her book about Hannah More an 18th-century religious writer and activist who helped bring about an end to slavery in England and it was also the inspiration for one of her first published pieces: A letter to the editor about a neighbor who was being widely criticized for letting his lawn grow long and wild.

"Here was a guy who just wanted to have a lawn. It wasn't hurting anybody," Prior said, remembering her impassioned defense of his behavior. She didn't share the man's distaste for mowing, but supported his right to live out his belief.

"I admire and respect all passionate people who want to make a difference, who are trying to improve the world, even if we disagree on how to do that," she said.
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