Since 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.