If History is Any Indication…

Will Trump win the GOP nomination?

Who will win the Republican primary?  If recent history is any indication, it is far too early to tell. And with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary not taking place until February 2016, anything can happen

Let’s look at the past few election cycles:

In December 2012, Newt Gingrich was leading in the polls.  Mitt Romney eventually got the GOP nomination.

In December 2008, Rudy Giuliani was leading in the polls. Mike Huckabee was in second place. John McCain eventually got the GOP nomination.

In December 2004, Howard Dean was leading in the polls.  He was followed by Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark.  John Kerry eventually got the GOP nomination.

We have a long way to go.

From the Archives: Education for a Democracy

How did Jefferson understand the idea of an “informed citizenry?”

I originally published this piece in March 2012 when I was writing my Patheos column “Confessing History.”  I loved writing that column and still stand by most of what I wrote.

Eventually Patheos moved away from individual columns in favor of blogs.  The editors moved me over to a new blog (at the time) called The Anxious Bench, where I stayed for several months before deciding to leave in order to focus more attention on The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Much of what I wrote below found its way into my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I still think it is relevant today in light of recent cuts to the humanities in college and K-12 education.

Here we go.  Again, from March 2012:
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made news recently when he called Barack Obama a “snob” for saying that all Americans should get a college education. He supported his attack on the president with the now popular refrain, “college is not for everyone.” Some Americans, he said, might be better suited for vocational training, community college, or apprenticeships.
It took only a few hours for pundits to figure out that Obama had basically said the same thing in a recent State of the Union Address, but in the world of presidential politics Santorum’s remarks probably scored some points among the conservative faithful.
But let’s consider the position taken by Santorum and Obama on this issue. Are the President and the former Senator correct in asserting that a liberal arts education is not for everyone? Maybe another lesson from the founding fathers is in order.
Most of the founders did not trust the uneducated masses. Many of them believed that common people, because of their lack of education, were not fully equipped for citizenship in a republic. Thomas Jefferson said that a “well-informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” When Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” a 1776 pamphlet that proposed a new American government based on the “common sense” of ordinary people, John Adams called it a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass.” Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) that “government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.”
Were the founders right? The debate will continue, but the founders now have some psychological research on their side. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, a former Cornell graduate student, have found that incompetent people are unable to judge the competence of other people or the validity of their ideas. And their study implies that most people are incompetent. Dunning and Kruger conclude that “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.” They add: “To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people.”
Moreover, Dunning and Kruger have found that most people think too highly of their ability to understand complex ideas. They are self-delusional about their own knowledge. Even when they are judged by an outside evaluator as being poor at a particular task, they claim that their performance was “above average.”
If Dunning and Kruger are correct, then what does this say about American democracy? Perhaps the founders were right after all.
The founders believed that because people were ignorant by nature, and thus incapable of understanding what was best for the common good, education was absolutely essential to the survival of the American republic. This is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, the nation’s first public university. This is why George Washington, in his 1796 message to Congress, called for a national university that would teach the arts and sciences.
When the founders talked about education, they did not mean vocational training or apprenticeships. While this type of training was certainly important, they also wanted a citizenry trained in government, ethics (moral philosophy), history, rhetoric, science (natural philosophy), mathematics, logic, and classical languages, for these subjects made people informed and civil participants in a democratic society.
In other words, the founders understood that a liberal education was important to the democratic-republic they were building.
Now I realize that all of this might sound rather elitist. As the product of a working class family, it has always sounded elitist to me. I am the first person in my family to get a four-year degree. I have thus long appreciated and respected those who work with their hands. Our society needs carpenters and history majors, mechanics and sociologists. My brother is a plumber. My other brother is an interior trim contractor. My father was a general contractor and now, in his retirement, he is about to start working at Home Depot. Indeed, Santorum and Obama are right when they say that not everyone should get a four-year college education. In order for our economy to function we need people who are trained in professional schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and apprenticeships.
But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.
Here’s a thought: What if all Americans were required to take two years of post-secondary liberal arts training? Many high school teachers do excellent work in teaching liberal arts subjects, but others do not. The incivility of our culture wars and the toxic nature of our public discourse suggest that more training in these fields is needed. Our students need information, but they also need to learn how to critique an argument, speak clearly and with respect to those with whom they differ, and entertain opposing beliefs in a benevolent fashion. I would even suggest that this training should take place after a person reaches the age of 30, when citizens are more aware of the practical benefits of the liberal arts in their daily lives.
But let’s not stop there. What if we also required American citizens (who are able) to do two years of physical labor—on a construction site or a road crew or a farm or someplace else? Such a requirement would give us all a deeper respect for the virtues of work. It would connect us to the land. It would teach us humility. It would be good for our bodies. It would teach us to work—literally—together. Jefferson, the same founding father who called for an informed citizenry, also said that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.”
We should be worried about our democracy. We have replaced reasoned argument and debate with shouting matches. We need education—a liberal arts education rooted in the social sciences, hard sciences, and especially the humanities—to help cure our societal ills. We have proven that we can educate people for a capitalist economy, but we may have lost the founders’ original vision of education for a democracy.

What Mitt Romney Said About Russia

It looks like he was right.


From Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic:

In the course of the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney made a comment about America’s number one “geopolitical foe,” which Romney claimed was Russia. He was mocked by the president and many liberal commentators. Here are Romney’s remarks, in their full context, which came during a conversation with Wolf Blitzer: 
ROMNEY:  Russia…is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.  They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.
BLITZER:  But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that—is that what you’re suggesting, Governor?
ROMNEY:  Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors.  Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.  A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.
But when these—these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when—when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go—we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.
And—and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a—a massive nuclear power, Russia is the—the geopolitical foe.
This all seems…exactly right. 

Joseph Ellis on What George Washington Would Think About the 2012 Election

Frankly, this whole line of questioning by The Wall Street Journal is rather odd, but Joseph Ellis does a nice job of dealing with it.  Here is a taste:

What would be George Washington’s thoughts about the 2012 elections?
If by some magic we were able to transport George Washington to the twenty-first century, he would think he had landed on another planet.  As for the presidential election, he would regard it as an unseemly disgrace, believing as he did – as did most of the other prominent founders – that campaigning for office was akin to an act of prostitution that automatically disqualified the candidate for the office of president.

Are elections/politics nastier or tamer than they were in Washington’s time?
Believe it or not, the press during Washington’s presidency was just as partisan and scatological as today’s blogosphere.  Much as he preferred to levitate above the fray, during his second term the editors of the chief opposition newspaper, the Aurora, published forged documents purporting to reveal that he had been a British agent throughout the revolutionary war.  When he announced his retirement in 1796, the editors at the Aurora urged their readers “to devoutly pray for his immanent death.”

Stephen Hahn on Race and the Obama Re-Election

Stephen Hahn is a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian of race in the post-bellum South.  In Sunday’s New York Times, he reflects historically on race and Barack Obama’s re-election last week, particularly in the wake of the racial slurs cast on Obama by students at the University of Mississippi.  Here is a taste:

Over the past three decades, the Democrats have surrendered so much intellectual ground to Republican anti-statism that they have little with which to fight back effectively. The result is that Mr. Obama, like many other Democrats, has avoided the initiatives that could really cement his coalition — public works projects, industrial and urban policy, support for homeowners, comprehensive immigration reform, tougher financial regulation, stronger protection for labor unions and national service — and yet is still branded a “socialist” and coddler of minorities. Small wonder that the election returns indicate a decline in overall popular turnout since 2008 and a drop in Mr. Obama’s share of the white vote, especially the vote of white men.
But the returns also suggest intriguing possibilities for which the past may offer us meaningful lessons. There seems little doubt that Mr. Obama’s bailout of the auto industry helped attract support from white working-class voters and other so-called Reagan Democrats across the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, turning the electoral tide in his favor precisely where the corrosions of race could have been very damaging.
The Republicans, on the other hand, failed to make inroads among minority voters, including Asian-Americans, and are facing a formidable generational wall. Young whites helped drive the forces of conservatism and white supremacy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but now most seem ill at ease with the policies that the Republican Party brandishes: social conservatism, anti-feminism, opposition to same-sex marriage and hostility to racial minorities. The anti-Obama riot at Ole Miss, integrated 50 years ago by James H. Meredith, was followed by a larger, interracial “We Are One Mississippi” candlelight march of protest. Mr. Obama and the Democrats have an opportunity to bridge the racial and cultural divides that have been widening and to begin to reconfigure the country’s political landscape. Although this has always been a difficult task and one fraught with peril, history — from Reconstruction to Populism to the New Deal to the struggle for civil rights — teaches us that it can happen: when different groups meet one another on more level planes, slowly get to know and trust one another, and define objectives that are mutually beneficial and achievable, they learn to think of themselves as part of something larger — and they actually become something larger.
Hard work on the ground — in neighborhoods, schools, religious institutions and workplaces — is foundational. But Mr. Obama, the biracial community organizer, might consider starting his second term by articulating a vision of a multicultural, multiracial and more equitable America with the same insight and power that he once brought to an address on the singular problem of race. If he does that, with words and then with deeds, he can strike a telling blow against the political racism that haunts our country.

Life and the 2012 Election

Michael New of the The National Review reports that “life” fared pretty well in the 2012 election.  A taste:

…ballot measures dealing with sanctity-of-life issues fared well on election day. First Montana voters approved LR 120 by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. LR 120 would require parental notification for a physician to perform an abortion on a minor 16 or younger. Past efforts to enact parental involvement laws in Montana have been stymied by the courts. However, hopefully this referendum will survive the inevitable court challenges.

In Massachusetts, Question 2 which would legalize physician-assisted suicide was trailing 51 to 49 with 93 percent of the votes counted. Physician-assisted suicide was approved by voters in Oregon, but has thankfully spread to few other states since then. It was approved by Washington State voters in 2008, and the Montana supreme court effectively decriminalized physician-assisted suicide in 2009. However, efforts to enact physician-assisted suicide at the ballot box failed in Michigan in 1998 and in Maine in 2000. Massachusetts pro-lifers received some help from some unexpected sources. The Boston Globe editorialized against Question 2 as did Ted Kennedy’s widow. The fact that an ideologically diverse coalition came together in Massachusetts should give pro-lifers hope.


This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Why I Am Glad The Election is Over"

“As an American historian, what do you think about the 2012 presidential election?”

I am asked this question often and I am never sure how to answer it.  Ask me in another ten or twenty years and maybe I might have an answer.  Or maybe ask another historian one-hundred years from now.  Sure, historians can place the re-election of Obama in a historical context and compare this election to others that have occurred in the past, but historians, in order to do their work effectively, need to have some perspective.

With that in mind, I am not going to use my post this week to offer some historical or religious “insights” into Barack Obama’s victory last night.  Instead, I am going publish a list of why I am glad that this election is over:

Read the rest here.

Do Partisans Make Poor Citizens?

My Messiah College colleague Robin Lauermann has an op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer reflecting on the problems with political partisanship.  I think it is an important read this Election Day morning.  Here is a taste:

The problems our society faces are complex, and they require nuanced solutions. For example, policies that assume poverty is solely the result of circumstances beyond a person’s control – or, conversely, solely the fault of the poor – will miss the root causes. Like a physician who misdiagnoses an illness and prescribes the wrong treatment, voters and officials who are blinded by ideology will not effectively address our social and economic infirmities.

The skills of appropriate citizenship can help us deal with this. One constructive skill is critical thinking, which resists our strong natural tendency to reject whatever doesn’t suit our current sensibilities. Critical thinking, as defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.”

Voters who practice such thinking can listen to multiple perspectives, identify valid evidence, and make considered decisions that produce better results. That’s a far cry from the conflict that arises from emotional partisanship and selective perception.

Nice job, Robin!

Is America a Christian Nation? What Focus on the Family Gets Wrong


This piece never found a home in an Iowa newspaper, so I am publishing it here.  –JF
In the last twenty-four hours many citizens of Iowa have received a brochure in the mail from CitizenLink, a political affiliate of the evangelical Christian group called Focus on the Family.  The brochure calls attention to the fact that Barack Obama does not think the United States is a Christian nation.
As an evangelical Christian, someone who has learned much about being a father and husband from Focus founder James Dobson, and an American historian, I would ask you to think twice before making a decision on Tuesday based on some of the information provided in this brochure.  My concerns with this brochure are motivated not by politics, but by the irresponsible way that groups like Focus on the Family have twisted history, particularly the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, for political gain.
While the brochure is helpful in distinguishing Obama and Romney on questions related to life, marriage, and religious freedom, it assumes that such ideas can only flourish if the United States is a Christian nation.  
The quote attributed to Barack Obama at the top of the brochure is correct.  In 2008, while running for president, he said: “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least not just…We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”
What Obama meant was that we are a nation defined by religious freedom.   America belongs to everyone who abides by its laws.  The First Amendment does not support one religion over another and provides for the free exercise of religion by people of all faiths, or none at all.  
Granted, Christians today far outnumber people of other faiths, but the Founding Fathers set out to create a republic in which religious minorities could flourish.  The Founders were not interested in creating a nation built on religious “toleration.”  This implies that one religion is supported by the government or the culture and others are merely tolerated.  When translated into common language, “toleration” often means something like: “I don’t like you and your religion, but I will tolerate you.”
Religious freedom, on the other hand, implies religious equality for all.  Unfortunately, many conservatives are unwilling to accept this reality. Many of them are not yet ready to come to grips with the implications of the Immigration Act of 1965, a law that opened the doors of the United States to a host of new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.  The Act profoundly reshaped our religious landscape.
In other words, religious liberty—an idea that the Focus on the Family brochure praises Romney for upholding—implies that the United States is not a Christian nation.  Though Romney has not blatantly proclaimed this (to do so would be a bad political move), his views on the matter are quite similar to Obama’s.  The brochure is thus misleading.
In reality, the question of whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is a difficult one to answer.  I have spent a lot of time exploring this question and have concluded that the answer is complex.  It is an issue that cannot be decided by sound-bites or campaign brochures.   
But I do think that subsequent amendments to the Constitution (such as the 14th Amendment) and later Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that the United States, as it exists today, is not a Christian nation.  
On the other hand, I think that a pretty good argument could be made for the idea that we are not a Christian nation based on the coarseness of our popular culture, our rampant materialism, our disregard for human life, and our failure to care for one another and love our neighbors.
In fact, the question of whether or not the United States is, or ever was, a Christian nation, should be irrelevant to one’s views on life, marriage or religious freedom.  Christians are to promote life, family, liberty, peace, justice, care for the creation, care for the poor, and humility in foreign affairs whether we are a Christian nation or not.
Why do Christians need the nation to be Christian, or a leader who upholds the idea that America is Christian, to live faithfully in the world?  I think I remember something about the first-century Christian church thriving amidst a Roman government that no right-minded historian would call “Christian.”

Would Mitt Romney Use the Book of Mormon to Take His Oath of Office?

No, says Mormon expert (and editor extraordinaire) Jana Riess.  Mitt would probably use the Bible that his father used when sworn-in as Governor of Michigan.

Riess was interviewed as part of a CNN article, “What Would a Mormon White House Look Like?”  Here is a taste:

Should Mitt Romney win the presidency next Tuesday, it will mark an historic first: a Mormon couple moving into the White House.

What would this mean and look like?

Would there be “dry” state dinners, since faithful Mormons don’t do alcohol? Would Secret Service tag along to sacred ceremonies only open to worthy church members? What book would a President Mitt Romney use to take his oath of office?

We can’t be absolutely sure about all the answers. But if the practices and homes of devout Mormons like the Romneys – not to mention his history as governor of Massachusetts – are any indication, we can begin to paint a picture of what a Romney-inhabited White House might look like.

Read the rest here.

A Challenge to the Obama Narrative of 20th-Century Economic History

According to Brian Domitrovic, the chair of the history department at Sam Houston State University, Barack Obama needs a lesson in economic history.  Here is a taste of his piece at Forbes with some of my thoughts interspersed.

“Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” So said President Obama to his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in the debate last week.

How odd all of this is. The foreign policy of the 1980s was stellar. It ended the Cold War, one of the singular accomplishments in the history of American leadership.

As for the social policies of the 1950s, lest we forget, these were precisely the ones so progressive and overbearing that they convinced Ronald Reagan to launch a career in politics. Federal spending on “Human Resources,” as the government calls it, on health, education, “income security,” and the like went up 95% in real terms from 1949 to 1960.

Reagan watched the march of federal do-goodism in the 1950s and felt compelled to push on from his job at General Electric and look for a foothold in politics. Reagan explained as much in his political debut, his noted speech at the 1964 Republican convention, “A Time for Choosing.”

Then there are “the economic policies of the 1920s.” Which would be the economic policies that accompanied the single most celebrated decade of American prosperity of them all.

Just a couple of thoughts/questions:

1.  I largely agree with Domitrovic when he says “the foreign policy of the 1980s was stellar. It ended the Cold War, one of the singular accomplishments in the history of American leadership.” But we are not fighting the Cold War anymore.  I think that was Obama’s point.

2.  On the 1920s:  Didn’t some of these economic policies lead to the Great Depression?

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Ron Sider on Christian Political Engagement"

I recently read Ron Sider’s excellent The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World.  If you have not read it yet, you should.  If you have the time, I would strongly encourage you to read it before voting next week.   Sider’s book is not meant to be a voting guide, but as I read it I could not help but think about the things that I should consider when I choose a candidate.  They are:

The state is a gift from God.  It is meant to promote justice and the common good.  It should be limited to the extent that it does not interfere with institutions such as the family and the church.

Read the rest here.