Should We Take Presidential Campaign Narratives at Face Value?

Cruz speakingSince my post earlier this morning, Stan Guthrie, a critic of my Christianity Today piece on Ted Cruz, has jumped into the conversation on Twitter.  While Twitter is not always the best place to debate and discuss these kinds of topics, I do appreciate his willingness to engage in this way.  Follow @johnfea1.

The Twitter exchange with Guthrie forced me to think some more about his original post. Guthrie wrote:

…my friends at CT could have gotten readers a lot closer to what Cruz actually believes by taking the time to interview him rather than present those beliefs through John Fea’s filter.

I wonder–would Christianity Today readers REALLY get a “lot closer to what Cruz actually believes” by letting him shape the narrative?  Maybe.

Let’s remember that Ted Cruz and every other candidate in this race is a politician.  What they say on the campaign trail  about any topic must be understood in the context of their political ambitions.  I am not saying that politicians always lie, but they do spin a narrative of events and issues–especially in interviews–that are carefully constructed by the men and women running their campaigns.

As a historian, I deal with primary sources.  Sometimes those sources are political speeches or the words of a particular political figure or candidate.  I am trained to be skeptical of such sources by interpreting them in context.  I teach my students to never accept a primary source at face value.  I want them to read critically.

Guthrie describes my piece as a “filter.”  He is right.  All good history and commentary serves as a kind of “filter.” (I prefer “interpretation”).   Does Guthrie really want us to accept a candidate’s positions at face value (through the kind of CT interview  with Cruz he proposes) and then base our decisions about that candidate on those official statements (especially during a campaign) without critical analysis?   I have problems with this approach as a historian and a citizen.

On one level, I want to take a particular source seriously.  I want to understand the source and  even empathize with its author.  I want to let the source speak. I hope I have done that with Cruz.  I even linked to his sermon at Community Bible Church so that readers can hear his words for themselves.  I hope Christianity Today can land an interview with him.

But on another level, a historian is involved in the work of interpretation.  In my work I engage sources, understand them the best that I can, and then offer an interpretation of them.  I hope that my Christianity Today opinion piece reflects that kind of historical thinking.

One final point:  I actually think Cruz would agree with much of what I said about him in this piece.

3 thoughts on “Should We Take Presidential Campaign Narratives at Face Value?

  1. Where is your smoking gun? I don’t see it.

    Neither do I think plucking isolated words and phrases out without full context

    <blockquote He wants to “restore,” “return to,” or “reclaim” the “Judeo-Christian values” that he believes are “the foundation of this nation.”

    is particularly helpful or respectful of “primary.”

    And FTR, nor do I think your evidence is particularly damning in either a Christian, political, or historical context.

    “I don’t think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child’s mind the moral code under which we live.

    The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.

    If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state.”

    Harry Truman, 1950.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=13707

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  2. When historians attack…

    It’s a difficult question because the historian is certainly invoking the color of his scholarly authority, presumably elevating his opinion above those of normal people. But is his or her analysis of current events any more accurate or less partisan and biased than anyone else’s?

    Indeed,

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/9/14/1329698/-Tom-Frank-Smacks-Pol-Sci-Experts-and-Democrats

    As for the current spate of attacks on Ted Cruz, it would be better if primary sources were used more often, either his direct quotes or if you don’t believe them, his actions. Mere guilt by association is a tricky business: Al Sharpton has visited Barack Obama’s White House over 70 times

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2973067/Al-Sharpton-returns-White-House-73RD-visit-Obama-discuss-problems-facing-minorities.html

    but we should not assume President Obama is the tax-dodging, race-baiting, lying swine that the Reverend Sharpton is.

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