Commonplace Book #25

You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nature, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, 208.

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

Debs: Socialism is “merely Christianity in action”

Debs

Jill Lepore, in a piece at The New Yorker, argues that Eugene Debs‘s socialism was deeply rooted in values that were both American and Christian.  God and country!

Here is a taste:

But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

Read the entire piece here.

My favorite biography of Debs remains Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  It is worth your time.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Miracles

No, this is not a post about sportscaster Al Michaels and his famous call of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team victory over the Soviets.

This is a post about actual miracles.  Over at Commonweal, noted biblical scholar and Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson makes a case for them.  Here is a taste:

The fourth element in recovering a sense of wonder about God’s presence and power in the world is embracing the truth-telling capacity of myth. Secularity’s success in shaping Christian consciousness is nowhere more evident than in the double-minded discomfort of educated believers with mythic language. We have been taught by our learned theologians that such language, in which divine forces are said to operate within the world, may have been appropriate for ancient people who knew no better, but cannot in good conscience be reconciled with a “scientific” worldview. Whatever is good and lasting in Scripture, they say, must be stripped of what is false about the construction of the world, so that what is true about God and humans might be saved. Others have gone further, observing that “God” is just as mythic as the three-decker universe, and all that Scripture ultimately teaches us is about the cosmic projection of human alienation and longing. All this is long past argument for religion’s contemporary critics; for them, “religious myth” is a redundancy, since religion is as false as the stories it tells.

Discomfort with the language of myth pervades the religious life of the double-minded. Listening to the stories of fellow-believers eager to share how God is working in their lives is positively painful, and recounting such narratives to others embarrassing. Teaching or preaching on the miracles found in the Torah or in the gospels becomes an excruciating exercise in avoidance or explaining-away. Even the public prayer of the church gives the sophisticated pastor pause, if he or she really pays attention to the wonders for which liturgy gives thanks and the wonders it seeks from God. This discomfort with mythic language forms a huge stumbling block, and believers need to challenge secularity’s pretense that its discourse is sufficient to understand human existence in the world. We need to demystify, and reverse, secularity’s epistemological overreach.

Read the entire piece here.

Skype Interview Nightmares

Skype

From Stephanie Hull of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation:

  • One candidate allowed her hamster to run loose in her home. During her interview, it ran up the back of her shirt and popped out on her shoulder, next to her collar.
  • During one candidate’s interview, a floor lamp toppled, spraying glass shards. She was cut and bleeding on camera.
  • Another candidate chatted with a committee while sitting on her bed, propped up by ruffled pillows. (Fully dressed, but it was still a little disconcerting.)
  • Then there was the candidate who was seated in front of a firearms-training target that showed several bullet holes grouped around the heart and the center of the forehead.
  • A candidate with a large dog failed to secure said animal in another room, so it came bounding in and leapt onto her lap mid-interview, knocking everything over — and howled loudly for the rest of the interview when finally forced to stay in the adjoining room.

Do you want to avoid these problems and look good on camera during your next interview? Check out Hull’s full piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An Anti-Racist Syllabus for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

Northam

American University historian and National Book Award-winner Ibram X Kendi offers a reading list to embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in the wake of his blackface scandal.

Here are some of the books on Kendi’s list:

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh

Leon Litwack, North of Slavery

Eric Foner, Reconstruction

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis

Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Read Kendi’s entire piece at The Atlantic

Commonplace Book #24

..The Kingdom-inaugurating public work of Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection…isn’t just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion.  Nor it is just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction.  It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives.  It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.  Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happened on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they ca n in turn be rescuers.  To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project.

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

A Night in Colorado Springs

UCCS Campus from the Bluffs

I’m on the road (or in the air) today trying to find my way back to Pennsylvania through the snow, but I wanted to say a very quick word about last night’s lecture in Colorado Springs.

Jeff Scholes of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) Philosophy Department and Director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life was a wonderful host.  The UCCS History Department also sponsored the event and I am pretty sure my friend Paul Harvey was the point person on that front.  We had a great turnout for a lecture titled “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”  Thanks for everyone who came out last night and I am sorry I could not hang around longer to answer all of your questions and here are all of your stories.  Feel free to follow this blog or my twitter feed to keep the conversation going!

Commonplace Book #23

And if God’s good creation–of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstream–really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications.  It is totally and utterly wrong.  It is colluding with death.  It is  conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish)  thought that the really important bit of ourselves  is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter!  As we have seen, the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense. It is, however, what most Western Christians, including most Bible Christians of whatever sort, actually believe. This is a serious state of affairs, reinforced not only in popular teaching but also in liturgies, public prayers, hymns, and homilies of every kind.

N.T. Wright, Suprised by Hope, 194-195

When a Popular and Powerful First Lady Opposed the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Sarah Polk

Her name was Sara Childress Polk, the wife of President James Polk (1845-1849).  Read Anna Diamond’s piece at Smithsonian.com:

In July 1848, as hundreds of women suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls to demand the right to vote and assert their right to participate in the public sphere, one prominent woman in Washington, D.C., was busy shaping the nation’s policy and guiding its direction at the highest level of government. Unfortunately for the activists, she didn’t share their politics.

First Lady Sarah Polk formed half of an unusual political partnership with her husband, President James Polk, during his sole term in office from 1845 to 1849. Despite his brief time in office, Polk had an outsized influence on American history, particularly with regard to the Mexican-American War.

As president, Polk sought his wife’s counsel on decisions, relied on her smart politicking and benefited from her popularity. Her active role in his presidency made her the most powerful woman of the era, asserts Amy S. Greenberg, professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the new book Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.

Religious and conservative, Polk didn’t support the suffragists’ campaign; she had no need for what they sought. Polk had leveraged her privileges as a white, wealthy, childless and educated woman to become “the first openly political First Lady, in a period when the role of women was strictly circumscribed,” explains Greenberg, whose book hits shelves amidst a wave of feminist political activism. 131 women were sworn into Congress this January and the race for the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential election features multiple women candidates.

Read the rest here.

Why Did God Allow the Great Boston Fire of 1760?

Boston Fire

Not familiar with the Great Fire of 1760?  J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame offers a short introduction here.  One the Bostonians who tried to make sense of the fire was Rev. Jonathan Mayhew.  Here is a taste of Bell’s piece on Mayhew’s response to the fire:

Given Boston’s religious heritage, the Great Fire of 1760 naturally caused people to ask what God meant by it. 

On 23 March, the Sunday after the fire, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew preached about the calamity at the West Meetinghouse. That sermon said the destruction must be the result of divine will: 

When this fire broke out, and for some time before, it was almost calm. And had it continued so, the fire might probably have been extinguished in a short time, before it had done much damage; considering the remarkable resolution and dexterity of many people amongst us on such occasions. 

But it seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined to let loose his wrath upon us; to “rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in his hot displeasure [a riff on Psalm 38:1].” In order to the accomplishing of which design, soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual: though there seems to have been no want, either of any pains or prudence, which could be expected at such a time.

The Lord had purposed, and who should disannul it? His hand was stretched out, and who should turn it back [Isaiah 14:27].[”] “When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face, who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only [Job 34:29].” 

It had been a dry season for some time; unusually so for the time of the year. The houses, and other things were as fuel prepared for the fire to feed on: and the flames were suddenly spread, and propagated to distant places. So that, in the space of a few hours, the fire swept all before it in the direction of the wind; spreading wider and wider from the place where it began, till it reached the water. Nor did it stop even there, without the destruction of the wharfs, with several vessels lying at them, and the imminent danger of many others.

Read Bell’s entire post here.

Were the “20. and Odd Negroes” Slaves or Indentured Servants?

jamestownvasign

Is this sign factually correct?

In an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”

Blogger Kevin Levin has a short post on Northam’s comment here.  A taste:

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Rebecca Goetz‘s tweet thread is worth reading.  She is a history professor at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.  Here it is:

Addendum from reader Matt Gottlieb:

While I appreciate the post, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retired this sign and put in a replacement in 2015. The updated marker includes newer research that emerged since the original’s 1992 installation. An image of it may be seen here: https://www.latimes.com/dp-pictures-african-landing-day-commemorated-on-fort-monroe-20150820-photogallery.html

Please contact me if you have any questions. Physical markers, to borrow the cliche on political polling, are snapshots in time.

Why NBC Dumped Bob Costas

Costas

It has to do with his outspoken criticism of the NFL in relation to the league’s concussion crisis.  Here is a taste of some great long-form sports journalism from Mark Fainaru-Wada at ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”:

By this point, Costas’ line at Maryland — This game destroys people’s brains — had gone viral, raising hackles in the NBC offices. The New York Daily News asked NBC for comment, and a spokesman responded, “Bob’s opinions are his own, and they do not represent those of the NBC Sports Group” — prompting a story from Raissman under the headline, “NBC throws Bob Costas under the bus and in the process sends warning to rest of its talent.”

Sensing a budding problem with his employer, Costas says he decided to appear on CNN on Saturday morning to make it clear he wasn’t being critical of NBC. So, for the third time in a week, Costas was talking publicly about football and brain damage. He didn’t soften any of his comments — in fact, he reiterated them — but he did attempt to defend the network.

“I’ve been saying these things for the better part of a decade, and often on NBC, in front of the biggest audience not just in all of sports, but in all of television — ‘Sunday Night Football,'” Costas told host Michael Smerconish. “And I think NBC Sports deserves credit for this.”

Within an hour, Costas says he received a text from Flood, who oversees sports production for NBC.

“I think the words were, ‘You’ve crossed the line,'” says Costas, who says he no longer has the text.

“My thought was, ‘What line have I crossed?'”

Later, Costas says he pointed out that he had been saying these things about football for years — often on NBC. That didn’t matter; it seemed this was one time too many.

Costas was told he was off the Super Bowl LII broadcast.

“I recall the phrase, ‘It’s a six-hour, daylong celebration of football, and you’re not the right person to celebrate football,'” Costas says. “To which my response was not, ‘Oh please, please, change your mind.’ My response was, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.'”

Read the entire piece here.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Writing rules to ignore

Making communion wafers

Lord Dunmore and slavery

A history of blackface

Graduate school takes its toll

The Great Commission

Virginia and race

Medical school yearbooks

Women’s suffrage and white supremacy

Do you want to read more books?  Here are some tips

Reduced teaching loads make better teachers

Midwestern history

The Alliance of American Football

Identity politics has been around for a long time

Eric Foner on Plessy v. Ferguson

Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse: 20 Years, 700 Victims

0ed47-southern-baptist-convention

The Southern Baptist Convention has its hands full today.  A piece of investigative journalism from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals a serious problem of sexual abuse in the denomination.  Here is a taste of their reporting:

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Read the rest here.  This is the first of a three-part report.

Commonplace Book #22

Politics related to immigrants, refugees, and citizenship are the heart of current identity debates, but the issue is much broader than that.  Identity politics is rooted in a world in which the poor and marginalized are invisible to their peers, as Adam Smith remarked.  Resentment over lost status starts with real economic distress, and one way of muting the resentment is to mitigate concerns over jobs, incomes, and security.

Particularly in the United States, much of the left stopped thinking several decades ago about ambitious social policies that might help remedy the underlying conditions of the poor.  It was easier to talk about respect and dignity than to come up with potentially costly plans that would concretely reduce inequality.  A major exception was President Obama, whose Affordable Care Act was a milestone in U.S. social policy.  The ACA’s opponents tried to frame it as an identity issue, suggesting sotto voce that the policy was designed by a black president to help black constituents.  But it was in fact a national policy designed to help less well-off Americans, regardless of their race or identity.  Many of the law’s beneficiaries include rural white in the South who have nonetheless been persuaded to vote for Republican politicians vowing to repeal ACA.

Francis Fukuyama, Identity, 178.

What Did Trump Mean by Capitalizing the Word “TRAIL” in a Tweet About Elizabeth Warren?: Some Historical Context

Donald Trump tweeted this today:

Thoughts:

  1.  Trump is definitely worried about Warren’s candidacy.
  2.  Why did Trump capitalize the word “trail?” As an American historian, one thing comes to mind when I see the word “trail” emphasized in a tweet about native Americans.  That is the “Trail of Tears.” Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this tragic event in our history.  Learn more here.
  3.  Andrew Jackson initiated the Trail of Tears.  He believed native Americans were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent.
  4.  Jackson called Indian removal a “just, humane, liberal policy towards the Indians.”  This reminds me of Trump’s statements about his “humane” border wall. He has said on numerous occasions that the wall will protect both American citizens and the immigrants.
  5.  Jackson understood the removal of these Indian groups in the context of democracy.  In the 1830s, of course, democracy was white.  The white men who voted Jackson into office wanted Indian land.  Jackson heard their voice and gave then what they wanted by forcibly moving native Americans to present-day Oklahoma.
  6. Andrew Jackson’s portrait hangs prominently in Trump’s Oval Office.
  7. Is Trump really smart enough to know that capitalizing the word “trail” would send such a message?  If he is, this is blatantly racist and yet another appeal to one of America’s darkest moments.  (I mention other such appeals in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).  If he does not know what this tweet implies, then it is just another example of the anti-intellectual clown we have in the Oval Office right now–a man who is completely unaware of the national story to which he has entered as president.

Commonplace Book #21

The creedal national identity that emerged in the wake of the American Civil War today needs to be strongly reemphasized and defended from attacks by both the left and the right.  On the right, plenty of new white nationalist voices would like to drag the country backward to an identity once again based on race, ethnicity, or religion.  It is urgent that these views be firmly rejected as un-American, much as Ben Sasse sought to do.

On the left, identity politics has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are somehow intrinsic to the country’s DNA.  All these things have been and continue to be features of American society ,and they need to be confronted in the present.  But a progressive narrative can also be told about the overcoming of barriers and the ever-broadening circles of people whose dignity the country has recognized, based on its founding principles.  This narrative was part of the “new birth of freedom” envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, and one that Americans celebrate on the holiday he created, Thanksgiving.

While the United States has benefited from diversity, it cannot build its national identity around diversity as such.  Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality.  Americans respect these ideas; the country is justified in excluding from citizenship those reject them.

Francis Fukuyama, Identity, 170-171

Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”