Commonplace Book #153

“…the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong? It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which has had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties, and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend….He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden his physical suffering tenfold. 

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych

Is the American mind closing?

College-classroom

James Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, makes some important points about intellectual inquiry in this piece at The National Review. 

I found this section useful:

Begin with higher education, the institution traditionally charged with presenting much of our youth with different perspectives and with asking them to explore alternative points of view. University mottoes often boast of just this kind of commitment, be it Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth,” Yale), Emet (“Truth, Even unto Its Innermost Parts,” Brandeis), or Scientia et Virtus(“Knowledge and Virtue,” Middlebury College). Many universities and colleges have become renowned for suppressing such inquiry, reversing course on plans to award honorary degrees, as Brandeis did to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or allowing their students to prevent, through disruption, an invited speaker from giving his talk, as with Charles Murray at Middlebury. Such actions are taken today in compliance with decisions of university presidents or in acquiescence to student-activist demands. The institutions now insist on their new unlimited right to indoctrinate, not their old obligation to present uncomfortable ideas. The greater problem in universities is not, however, in the limits they place or allow on outside visitors, which can prove embarrassing for the media coverage they attract. The deeper challenge is found in the day-in, day-out operation of the institution itself, where the left-leaning positions of the faculty and administration are pervasive. Higher education has become a monoculture, serving as a plantation for progressive and leftist ideas. Conservative perspectives are rarely heard. Just a decade ago, when the imbalance of viewpoints was becoming more obvious, lip service was paid to making an effort to bring to campus a greater diversity of opinions. This concern has now gone by the wayside. The term “diversity” itself now carries a completely different meaning, no longer referring to different ways of thinking but to the gender orientations and ethnic and racial characteristics of the faculty. Applicants for many faculty positions are today required to present diversity statements, testifying to their views on this subject, as a condition for employment, while existing faculty in many institutions are asked to offer a report on their equity activities. 

Read the entire piece here.

I find myself in general agreement with this part of Caesar’s piece. I actually wrote something similar here. (If you want to see proof of what I am talking about, read the comments).

I have always enjoyed working at a Christian institution because of the academic freedom I enjoy. Do Christian colleges and universities limit academic freedom? Of course they do. I have to affirm the Apostles Creed to teach at Messiah University. But for those who teach from the perspective of faith, a Christian college can be an incredibly liberating place.

But when I read pieces like Caesar’s, I wonder where conservatives draw the line in their arguments for open inquiry and academic freedom. This is an honest question. I understand that there are different views on abortion and sexual ethics. Some faculty are Republicans or, dare I say, Trump supporters. I would argue, as I did in the Aeon piece above, that there should be plenty of room for diversity on these things. I wish there was more intellectual pluralism in universities. (I also wish there was more intellectual pluralism, within the Christian tradition of course, at Christian colleges and universities. But that is another matter for another post).

But what about a scholar who denies the existence of the Holocaust? Should a white supremacist be allowed to teach on a university campus? Someone who thinks COVID-19 is not real? What about a professor who denies systemic racism? How about a climate change denier or someone who teaches a Trumpian view of American history or thinks the earth is 3000-years-old or believes the past is best explained in a history course by invoking divine providence? Certainly free inquiry can’t be completely free, can it?

Since I do not teach at a secular university, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about how to draw such boundaries. Most of my battles on this front take place from within the Christian tradition. But whenever I hear conservatives complaining about a lack of free inquiry, I seldom hear anyone offering positive visions for what they want the university to look like or how to navigate some of the questions I raised above. If there are examples of this, and I have a hunch that there are and I am just not familiar with them, I would like to learn more.

By the way, the National Review is running what looks like an interesting series on American identity, but I can’t read it or engage it because of the paywall. Authors include David French, Joseph Epstein, Allen Guelzo, and Yuval Levin.

A historian imagines how a history textbook would cover 2020

c7e71-textbooks

Historian James West Davidson is one of the authors of Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, a popular college and high school history textbook. Over at The Atlantic, he imagines what a chapter on 2020 might look like in a future textbook.

Here is a taste:

When a large crowd of demonstrators gathered around the White House in Washington, the Secret Service ushered President Trump into an underground bunker. Worried about appearing weak, and determined to “dominate” the situation, Trump spoke several days later. “I am your president of law and order,” he declared. At the same time, police and D.C. National Guard units were ordered to clear peaceful protesters from an area facing the White House, so the president could walk to a church and be photographed holding a Bible. General James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, joined other military leaders in condemning the president for being divisive and using military force to disperse and control citizens.

In the two weeks that followed, the protests grew larger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Perhaps more astonishing, similar demonstrations spread around the world to France, Sweden, and Britain, as well as Germany, Kenya, and Australia. “I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said one Australian. “I want to and need to be here,”commented a Denver marcher.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice hit home because they seemed urgent, matters of life and death. “I can’t breathe,” chanted marchers, echoing George Floyd’s cry of pain. COVID-19, too, denied life’s breath. Though 2020 may have been the breaking point for America’s public-health system and the country’s institutionalized racism, these twin crises had been building over decades, if not longer.

The threat of a viral pandemic had surfaced several times in the 21st century, as diseases that originated in animals found new opportunities to infect humans. An earlier deadly outbreak of a coronavirus occurred in 2003, in a disease known as SARS. None spread as widely as the virus that caused COVID-19 would later, but with each new strain, scientists warned that it was only a matter of time before a more serious pandemic struck. The Ebola virus of 2014 persuaded then-President Barack Obama to establish an Ebola task force and an emergency fund designed to prepare for future outbreaks. The Trump administration disbanded the global-health security team in 2018.

Read the entire piece here.

Most popular posts of the last week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. Wednesday night court evangelical roundup
  2. What happened in Gettysburg this weekend?
  3. What is going on at Wheaton College?
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on stupidity
  5. Monday night court evangelical roundup
  6. Harper’s Magazine publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”
  7. Tuesday night court evangelical roundup
  8. Mike Pence visits First Baptist-Dallas for “Freedom Sunday.” He and Robert Jeffress show us what idolatry looks like.
  9. Is Donald Trump an Antichrist?
  10. What the largest news magazine in Europe is saying about the President of the United States

More reporting on the ousting of Wheaton College’s chaplain

wheaton1

We did a post on this last week. On May 26, 2020, Wheaton College fired Tim Blackmon, the college chaplain. Blackmon has threatened to sue the school, prompting Wheaton officials to reveal more information about his firing.

Here is Emily Miller McFarland at Religion News Service:

CHICAGO (RNS) — The Rev. Tim Blackmon allegedly referred to a colleague repeatedly by a racial slur and had “The Idiot’s Guide to Kama Sutra” left on a female colleague’s desk while he was chaplain at Wheaton College.

Those are among the allegations that led to Blackmon’s firing late last month, according to a statement Wheaton provided to Religion News Service early Thursday morning (July 9).

Wheaton, an evangelical flagship school in suburban Chicago, initially declined to comment on the details of Blackmon’s firing, referring only to “inappropriate comments and actions of a racial and sexual nature” that the former chaplain made toward other staff.

The college’s written statement comes in response to what it called Blackmon’s “recent public attempts to exonerate his behavior and suggest that the College has treated him unfairly.”

Read the rest here.

And here is a taste of Kevin Schmit’s reporting at The Daily Herald:

“To be clear, I was completely blindsided by this Title IX investigation,” Blackmon said. “Moreover, there were no allegations of flirtation, inappropriate relationships, sexual misconduct or any sexual action towards anyone. At no time did anyone, either the complainant or any witness, communicate offense or discomfort.”

But Joe Moore, Wheaton College’s director of marketing communications, disputed Blackmon’s account late Wednesday night.

“We sincerely hoped not to share details regarding the termination of Reverend Tim Blackmon’s employment at Wheaton College,” Moore said in a statement. “However, in light of the recent public attempts to exonerate his behavior and suggest that the college has treated him unfairly, the college must provide further information about the conduct at issue.”

Moore’s statement alleges Blackmon used an ethnic slur against an Asian American employee, made graphic sexual comments to a married female employee, circulated a lewd meme, and arranged to have an illustrated manual of sexual positions placed on a female staff member’s desk.

Read the entire piece here.

Thursday night court evangelical roundup

COurt evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

They are still coming for Jesus:

Graham is responding to this tweet by Mike Huckabee:

I was listening to CNN when Lemon said that Jesus “wasn’t perfect.” I think this was more of a simple theological misunderstanding by Lemon, or perhaps he really doesn’t believe Jesus was perfect. We live in a religious diverse country after all. Don Lemon is free to believe that Jesus was not perfect. (By the way, do Jewish conservatives on Fox News believe Jesus was perfect?) In other words, I did not see this as an attempt to attack Christianity. Lemon was trying to show that our founding fathers were not perfect. He was even calling out liberals. Watch for yourself:

Apparently Robert Jeffress is not happy about this either. But this should not surprise us. He has long believed that we live in a Christian nation, not a pluralistic democracy.

According to Jeffress, anyone who does not believe Jesus was perfect is peddling “fake news.”

Court evangelical journalist David Brody of Christian Broadcasting Network agrees:

Again, the point here is not to argue whether or not Jesus was perfect. That is a theological discussion. 3 points:

  1. The court evangelicals do not care about the larger context of Lemon’s statement because the context does not suit their political agenda.
  2. It is fine to tweet that Lemon does not understand the beliefs of Christianity. I am criticizing how his views (or his mistake) were turned into culture war tweets.
  3. The court evangelicals do not believe in a pluralistic society. The idea that Jesus was imperfect may be a “lie” to all serious Christians, but this is not an exclusively Christian nation. Jews, Muslims, atheists, and people of all kinds of religions watch CNN. Non-Christians work at Fox News (I think). The belief that “Jesus was perfect” is an article of faith and it is perfectly fine in a democracy for people to disagree with this claim. As a Christian, I believe in the incarnation, but I am not offended that Don Lemon may not. These kinds of tweets just make Christians look foolish.

Gary Bauer is using his Facebook page to share an article on the American Revolution that appeared yesterday at The Federalist. Jane Hampton Cook’s essay is a historical and theological mess. It blurs African slavery, political slavery, and the biblical idea of liberty from sin. But at least she was able to take a shot at the 1619 Project! That’s all that really matters. Bauer writes:”>Rather than teaching our children a lie — that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery as the 1619 Project falsely claims — this is what our children should be learning in school.”

Hey Ralph, all you need to do is say “Happy Anniversary.” That’s it:

Eric Metaxas is trying to get his book If You Can Keep It in the hands of “every high school history teacher in the country. Before your school adopts Eric Metaxas’s book, please read this article and this series of posts.

Tonight David Barton will be making a case for why Washington D.C. should not be a state. I don’t have time to watch it, but I am guessing it has something to do with Christian nationalism.

Seven Mountain Dominion advocate Lance Wallnau is at it again. He also wants to destroy public education.

Is it really true that Democrats don’t care about law and order or the Constitution? Jenna Ellis of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center thinks so:

Commonplace Book #152

The goal of Christian faith is to subject the total life to God, to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” All life is under God, depending upon and subject to Him. Indeed, the very things which the natural mind makes the objects of its idolatrous worship become, for the mind of faith, instruments in service to God. The idolatrous man may worship the state as thought it were divine. Against this idolatry, exemplified in Roman emperor-worship and modern totalitarianism, Christianity has always protested. 

Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, viii.

Stone Mountain: Monument to white supremacy

Stone Mountain

Rebecca Onion writes at Slate: “The Confederate memorial carving at Georgia’s Stone Mountain is etched with more than a century of racist history. But tearing it down won’t be easy.”

Here is a taste of her piece, “Hatred Set in Stone“:

The mother of all Confederate monuments looms in Georgia. It’s etched on the side of a 280-some-million-year-old monadnock: Stone Mountain, seven miles around at the base and covering 1,000 acres. The Confederate memorial carving—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback—is on the north face, comprising 3 acres in area. It’s 400 feet above the ground; it’s the largest bas-relief carving in the world—blah, blah, blah, this thing is big.

The armed, mostly Black protesters who peacefully marched in Stone Mountain Park demanding the removal of the carving on the Fourth of July hit social media hard, but the idea that the carving, big (and legally protected) as it may be, needs to go has been gaining traction in recent years. In 2017, Stacey Abrams, then running for governor of Georgia, called for the carving to be removed. Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Debra McKinney in 2018, called the carving “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world,” and said it should be brought down.

Read the rest here.

“You can’t apply these scriptural ideas about loving your neighbor until you first understand that actually wearing a mask is to protect you neighbor.”

President_Trump_is_joined_by_Vice_President_Pence_for_an_Executive_Order_signing_(33803971533)_(2)

Yes, I said this.

Check out Peter Nicholas’s article on Mike Pence at The Atlantic.

A taste:

In public, Pence takes pains to ensure that he and the president are aligned. On June 26, at the task force’s first public briefing in two months, he delivered the Trumpian message that “truly remarkable progress” had been made fighting the coronavirus, despite a worrisome rise in cases in dozens of states.

I asked the task-force member why, at times, Pence hasn’t worn a mask in public to model responsible behavior. Is it because he doesn’t want Trump to see and take umbrage? “That’s the only reason,” this person said. “He’ll wear it in a microsecond. He doesn’t want to egregiously look like he’s opposing the president.” (Asked about Pence’s mask-wearing message, John Fea, a historian and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, referenced Pence’s Christian identity: “You can’t apply these scriptural ideas about loving your neighbor until you first understand that actually wearing a mask is to protect your neighbor.”)

Read the entire piece here.

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Trump’s new campaign ad in historical context

Have you seen Trump’s new campaign ad?

As Bruce Springsteen once said, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Fear has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic. In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery and robbery.

In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words “Native Americans: Beware of False Influence.”

nativist flag

In modern America, campaign ads keep us in a constant state of fear–and not always from right-wing sources either. I still get a shiver up my spine when I watch “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign advertisement. Watch:

And here is Richard Nixon in 1968, another “law and order” president:

Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population. For example, there are groups who want to defund the police. Television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us. They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transforms them “into imminent threats.”

Jason Bivins, another scholar of fear, has noted that “moral panics” tend to “rely on presumptions more than facts; they dramatize and sensationalize so as to keep audiences in a state of continual alertness.” For example, Joe Biden does not want to defund the police. Nor do most Democrats. Yet Trump has managed to convince his followers that Biden and the Democratic Party are imminent threats to the country because of their supposed views on this issue.

Many of the people who will be scared by this new Trump ad are evangelical Christians. I wrote about their fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Confederate statues by year dedicated

Lee Monument

FiveThirtyEight created a graph showing when America’s Confederate monuments were erected. The peak came in 1911 with a general upswing between 1900 and 1940.

The data also show that there was a spike in schools and colleges named after Confederates in the years between 1955 (a year after Brown v. Board of Education) and 1965 (a year after the Civil Rights Acts was passed).

The removal of Confederate monuments began in earnest after the massacre of Mother Emanuel Church and reached a peak in 2017 after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Here is a taste of Ryan Best’s piece:

In recent weeks President Trump has railed against tearing down statues across the country — and has been particularly dogged in his defense of Confederate monuments. But his argument that they are benign symbols of America’s past is misleading. An overwhelming majority of Confederate memorials weren’t erected in the years directly following the Civil War. Instead, most were put up decades later. Nor were they built just to commemorate fallen generals and soldiers; they were installed as symbols of white supremacy during periods of U.S. history when Black Americans’ civil rights were aggressively under attack. In total, at least 830 such monuments were constructed across the U.S, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a comprehensive database of Confederate monuments and symbols.

Read the rest here and explore the data.

Wednesday night court evangelical roundup

Court evangelicals prayer

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

John Hagee invited Fox News commentator, conspiracy theorist, disgraced Christian college president, and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza to speak at the Sunday evening service at his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Watch:

D’Souza tells the audience that American exceptionalism is ordained by God and it is under attack. He then moves into his usual critique of socialism. This then devolves into a rejection of systemic racism. If the camera shots of the audience members nodding their heads and cheering is any indication, D’Souza seems to be getting through to them. This is what pro-Trump megachurches have become. It’s pure fearmongering.

The Supreme Court made an important religious liberty decision today, but some court evangelicals and other Trump evangelicals are still fighting. They continue to stoke fear about threats to religious liberty.

“Christian” politico Ralph Reed turns a SCOTUS victory into a chance to get revenge against his enemy.

Johnnie Moore, the self-professed “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” responds to the SCOTUS decision in a way Bonhoeffer would not have recognized as Christian. Perhaps Johnnie needs to read The Cost of Discipleship.

This is what blind court evangelicalism looks like:

And this (notice “ALL” in all caps):

When you think David French is an “irrational woke liberal” and mock someone’s military service it speaks volumes about you and the institution you work for. In Jenna Ellis’s case it is Liberty University. Remember, not all Christian colleges are the same.

Jenna Ellis was on the Eric Metaxas Show today talking about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech. Metaxas, who is also a spokesperson at the Falkirk Center, says anyone who criticized the speech is “loony.” He mocks the Sioux leaders who pointed out that Mount Rushmore was on Lakota land: “They have benefited from this country.” Ellis thinks that Trump gave the nation an “honest history lesson” during the speech. Again, this should be offensive to any serious classroom teacher who is working to give American young people honest history lessons. In one of the more comical moments of the interview, Ellis praises Trump for his love of the nuclear family and commitment to the institution of marriage.

Wait a minute, I thought Biden was working with Black Lives Matter to undermine America?:

Richard Land is spewing Christian nationalism:

There is a lot that is wrong with this thread. I don’t have time to respond directly right now, but if you want to dig deeper:

  1. Read this blog. It has subject tags, category tags, and a search engine. I’ve been addressing this stuff for years.
  2. Read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction
  3. Read my post on Os Guinness’s similar claims about the American and the French Revolution.
  4. Read two books on American exceptionalism: John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea and Abram Van Engen’s City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism.

Jack Graham issues a warning:

Graham’s words remind me what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump about the Election of 1800 and the evangelical response to the threat of the Deep State Illuminati in the early republic.

Until next time.

When Evangelicals open churches early

Evangelicals 2

Evangelicals like to think of themselves as people of faith. Faith is often irrational, but there is a fine line between faith and stupidity. As the title character of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany reminds us, “I DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING THAT POPS INTO MY HEAD–FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT.”

The New York Times has done some good reporting on what has been happening in churches and other evangelical ministries that have been opening too early.

Here is a taste:

But as new cases and clusters have emerged in recent weeks from Florida to Kansas to Hawaii, public-health experts have emphasized that, even with social distancing, the virus can easily spread through the air when hymns are sung and sermons preached inside closed spaces. One of the world’s first mass coronavirus outbreaks occurred in a secretive South Korean church.

“It’s an ideal setting for transmission,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, referring to church gatherings. “You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want.”

The Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, West Virginia, had resumed Sunday services, with masks optional, just 10 days earlier when congregants began to fall ill in early June. There have been at least 51 confirmed cases and three deaths tied to the church, local health officials said.

Charles Hiser, 82, was the first of three churchgoers to die after contracting the virus.

His daughter, Libby Morgan, said her father had lived alone and had spent the last few months cooped up at home to stay safe. She brought him groceries and talked to him regularly on the phone so he was not lonely. But Hiser missed going to Graystone Baptist, where he had attended services for 30 years or so, his daughter said. So as soon as regular services resumed at the end of May, he went right back, eschewing a mask.

Within two weeks, he had tested positive for the virus.

“I felt like, gosh, I was thinking he’d be safe there,” Morgan said. “You know, you’re in church. Just like a child that goes to school is supposed to feel safe.”

The church is now reopened, again, after a two-week closure.

There were just six recorded cases of the coronavirus in Union County, in rural northeastern Oregon, when the Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church announced its reopening on May 22 in an Instagram post that also cited Trump’s remarks about reopening churches.

Now, the county has recorded 356 cases, many of them traced to the church.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past. It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

When the *imago Dei* gets politicized

I Am a Man

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign.

I have noticed a lot of conversation of late about the Judeo-Christian idea that human beings are created in the “image of God” (imago Dei). In his speech at Mount Rushmore last weekend, Donald Trump said “Every child, of every color–born and unborn–is made in the holy image of God.”

What do Christians mean when they say that men and women are created in the image of God?

Genesis 1:26-27 teaches Jews and Christians that humanity is created in the image of God. The Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight shows us, translates the word behind “image” with the word eikon.  Icons are paintings, statues, or figures that aid us in our devotion to God. Genesis 1 teaches us that we are living eikons. Much in the same way that monuments try to help us understand more fully what happened in a particular historic place, the creation story teaches us that our lives are monuments–eikons that should point people toward a deeper understanding of God.  We are image bearers. Genesis 1 and 2 will always remind Christians of their true identity.

We are created in the image of God and called to pursue relationships with God and His “good” creation. But Genesis 3 teaches us that we are also sinners who have abused the human freedom God has given to us. “Sin,” theologian Birch writes, “is the word we use to describe how shalom, wholeness, gets broken.” Or to use McKnight’s phrase, we are “cracked eikons.”

Today I am hearing Christians on the political Right invoking “the image of God” to argue against Black Lives Matter and systemic racism generally. They say “all lives matter” because “all lives” are created in God’s image. This is theologically true, but it is impossible to understand American history without thinking about the imago Dei in the context how sin has disrupted God’s shalom. For over four-hundred years, white Christians have not treated African-Americans as fellow image-bearers. As a result, racism pervades many of our institutions.

I think the violence needs to stop. It was wrong during the time of the American Revolution when it was mostly white patriots involved, and it is wrong now. There has been too much collateral damage. And I am not talking here about monuments, I am talking about human lives. But the peaceful protests, the righteous anger, and the many demands for racial justice are all, at some level, defenses of human dignity.

Those Christians who reference the imago Dei to fortify their “all lives matter” mantra  need to read more American history, develop a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of human sin, and pray for empathy. In the meantime, stop politicizing this foundational doctrine.

“Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.”

College classroom 3

McSweeney’s strikes again! Check out Bethany Keenan’s “Discipline-Specific Guidelines For Classroom Social Distancing.” Here are a few:

History

Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.

Political Science

Students will explore the intersection of personal sentiment and American political life by spending the semester ten paces apart and in the same positions taken during the Hamilton-Burr duel.

Religion

Have students map out the genealogical trees of the Old Testament until they are all stationed fifteen begots apart.

Read the others here.

When the Supreme Court engages in bad history

Supreme Court

Willamette University law professor and historian Steven K. Green makes a compelling case that the Supreme Court was “sloppy” in its use of history in the recent Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

More broadly, the opinions in Espinoza raise questions about the Court’s use of history, particularly when it becomes a rule of constitutional law. History is “complex,” as Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged and Justice Breyer echoed, yet an adversarial legal forum is not the optimal place for settling the complexities of a historical event. The efforts of Catholic immigrants to find acceptance in nineteenth-century America have been documented, as has the resistance of Protestants who were suspicious of the commitment of a foreign-born Catholic hierarchy to American democratic values. 

That this episode coincided with the development of American common schooling has only added complexity to the historical narrative. Proponents of common schooling sought to create an institution where children of various faiths could acquire a commitment to republican values, while ensuring the financial security of the fledgling public schools. Public school advocates were also concerned about ensuring public accountability and public control over school funds. 

Funding a competing system of religious schooling—at the time, not solely Catholic but also Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist schools, among others—would have stunted the development of public education, its advocates believed. Witnessing the rapid growth of Catholic immigration and its rising political influence in many cities, public education advocates also feared that funding religious schools would lead to religious competition and divisiveness. 

Embracing some of those arguments, nativists then added a layer of anti-Catholic prejudice that was guaranteed to appeal to some, but not all, Protestant Americans, including those who faced economic dislocation resulting from the influx of immigrant workers. At the opposite end of the spectrum was a cohort of liberal Protestants and freethinkers who opposed funding of religious schooling on grounds it violated church-state separation and the rights of conscience of those who didn’t want their tax dollars to support religious beliefs with which they disagreed. 

I could go on because there’s more to the story, but that’s precisely the point. This history is too complex to be decided in a judicial forum. In writing opinions, judges commonly draw on the information contained in the briefs of the parties and their supporting amici curiae. These briefs are written by lawyers (typically not historians) who advocate for particular outcomes and provide arguments and cherry pick data to support those resultsThis process is far removed from the enterprise of historical scholarship. 

Not only is legal adjudication not the optimal forum for unpacking the nuances of history, but a judge’s interpretation of a historical event takes on a greater significance. By “declaring” the defining meaning of a particular historical episode—something that historians refrain from doing—that interpretation becomes a constitutional rule. 

Read the entire piece here.

Should Donald Trump dump Mike Pence?

Pence Liberty

Ed Kilgore wonders if Trump might consider making such a move.  Here is a taste of his piece at New York Magazine:

First, Trump is in very serious danger of not being reelected. He needs a game-changer to reset the race, and a fresh veep is a time-honored way to do that, even if it involves (to quote the words said to John McCain in 2008 about choosing Sarah Palin ) “high risk [and potentially] high reward.” Indeed, if, like Trump, you have no real second-term agenda to tout and no capacity to “pivot to the center” and pursue swing voters via messaging or policies, it’s one of the few cards in the deck. In a podcast at FiveThirtyEight in which Nate Silver, Claire Malone, and Perry Bacon Jr. batted around various emergency steps Team Trump could take to turn it all around, a switch in running-mates was the one that made the most sense to them.

Second, Trump could perhaps try to blame Pence for his administration’s deadliest and most politically damaging error, its mishandling of COVID-19 from the get-go. The veep is, after all, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, even though he has consistently given up the spotlight to Trump and to public health advisers like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. In an administration with constant personnel changes and little sense of reciprocal loyalty, it wouldn’t be that out of the ordinary for the Sycophant-in-Chief to be asked to step aside as one last act of service to the Warrior-King: taking the fall for a public health disaster.

Read the entire piece here.

What would white evangelicals think if Pence replaced Trump with someone like Nikki Haley? I don’t know, but it would sure be interesting and revealing to watch their reactions.

Changing vice-presidential candidates after a single term has happened several times in United States history. The most recent example was 1976 when Gerald Ford replaced Nelson Rockefeller on the ticket with Bob Dole because the conservative wing of the GOP thought Rockefeller was too liberal.