Court evangelical James Dobson invokes the Civil War in a letter to followers on the November elections

Dobson and Trump

Read the entire letter here.

Let’s break it down:

Dobson:

As I write this newsletter, voters across this nation are only a few short months away from the next general election. What an ominous time this is for our 244-year-old republic. Its future hangs in the balance. The choices we make on November 3rd will send this nation down one of two dramatically different paths. The wrong decision will be catastrophic. I agree with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who said recently that the next election will be “the most important since 1860.” He also warned that if we appease or ignore the violence and anarchy occurring in the streets, it might be the end of civilization as we have known it. Those are sobering words coming from a man who has stood at the pinnacle of national power.

This is standard Christian Right rhetoric. Dobson quotes Gingrich’s claim that this coming election is the most importance election since 1860. Gingrich has been using this line (or something similar) for a long time. He said the exact same thing about the 2016 election (go to the 1:55 mark of this video). And before that he said the exact same thing about the 2012 election. In 2008, he said the outcome of the election “will change the entire rest of our lives.” In 1994, he said that the midterm elections “were the most consequential nonpresidential election of the 20th century.” Every election is consequential. How long are we going to listen to Gingrich before we call this what it is: fear-mongering.

Dobson:

Mr. Gingrich referred to the significance of 1860 because that was the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president. I’m sure the Speaker would agree that the following election of 1864 was also critical to the future of the nation. Lincoln and his opponent, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, were in a hotly contested campaign for the White House that could have gone either way. The “war between the states,” as it was called, had been raging for three ghastly years, and the entire nation was staggered by reports from the bloody battlefield.

Lincoln was running for a second term, and he campaigned on the promise of finishing the war and preserving the Union. These were momentous times for the young nation. During the first week of January 1863, the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.

Democrats and their presidential candidate, Maj. Gen. McClellan, initially campaigned on a “peace platform,” pledging to end the war and send soldiers home. As the election approached, he talked more about negotiating to let the South establish a separate government whose cornerstone would be slavery. If McClellan had been elected, there would have been no foreseeable end to the inherent evil of buying and selling human beings and treating them like cattle. Thus, the Civil War was a struggle for the soul of America.

Dobson then mentions why he spent so much time on the Civil War in this newsletter:

Why have I recounted our Civil War history and the election of 1864 at this time in our history? It is for two reasons. The first is to consider some striking similarities between then and now. Our nation is divided like no time since the Civil War. Lawlessness and anarchy stalk the cities as angry mobs riot, burn, loot, rob, and kill innocent bystanders. Cultural monuments are being destroyed. Scores of people have been shot. Our courageous police officers are being brutally attacked by the same people they have vowed to protect. A man and his son stopped to ask for directions, and he was gunned down on the spot. A one-year-old baby was shot in the stomach while he sat in his stroller. The child died at the hospital.

What began as a justified and lawful protest in response to George Floyd’s senseless murder by a rogue police officer has morphed into violence for the sake of violence. Hatred flows in the streets, including vitriol directed at the President of the United States or anyone who dares to support him or his policies. Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religious liberty are being trampled. There is also widespread belief that violence and anarchy are being organized and funded by powerful forces that are maneuvering America toward a socialist dictatorship. There is always a kingmaker behind such lawlessness. Most disturbing is open talk of another civil war. It is troubling to even utter those words. The last time Americans faced off against each other, 600,000 soldiers died. May God forbid it from happening again.

Please don’t tell me that I am wrong about the role fear plays in the Christian Right view of politics.

What is happening in our country right now is disconcerting to many of us. But it pales in comparison with what the country faced during the lead-up to the Civil War and the war itself. There is no chance that an actual civil war will erupt in this country. Dobson is using the past to scare people. But this is what culture warriors do. These kinds of historical analogies are not helpful.

Instead of scaring people by referencing “600,000” lost lives, Dobson should spend more time critiquing the president for his handling of the coronavirus. If he really cares about families he will condemn Trump’s failure of leadership, his ambivalent rhetoric on masks, his treatment of Anthony Fauci, and his appeal to doctors who believe the virus comes from demon sperm. Nearly 155,000 Americans have died of this virus and the number is growing every day. Perhaps these are the deaths Dobson should be worrying about right now.

Dobson goes on:

During the revolution of the 1960s, I recall a ubiquitous bumper sticker that read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” It was a catchy phrase that made sense to those who opposed the Vietnam War. But my reaction to it then and now is “What if they gave a war and only one side came?” That question keeps me awake at night. There are multiple millions of passive Americans out there today, many of them Christians, who are clueless about what is happening to their homeland. They are losing something precious and irreplaceable. Do they not understand that their children and those who are yet to be born will live in tyranny if we fail them on our watch? Countless young men and women have laid down their lives on battlefields around the world to protect liberty and our way of life. Now, what they purchased for us with their blood is slipping away. Disengaged people won’t lift a finger to preserve this great land. They won’t take even a few minutes to go to their polling places to vote. There are also thousands of pastors who won’t allow voting registration tables in the lobbies of their churches. Don’t they know or care that America is on the ropes? Hordes of angry anarchists are salivating over the next election, hoping to push America over a cliff. If they succeed, as Newt Gingrich said, Western civilization will never recover. Is there anyone left who believes some things are worth dying for? Aren’t there patriots out there such as Patrick Henry who said in defiance of British tyranny, “Give me liberty or give me death!”? That was the spirit during his day. The Declaration of Independence closed with these words endorsed by the signers, “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” They knew they would be hanged if they lost the war. Why did they do it? Because they loved their country enough to die for it.

Dobson has been watching too much Fox News. The average American family is worried about their jobs, whether to send their kids to school, and keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. They are less concerned about the “hordes of angry anarchists…salivating.” In one speech on July 22, 2020, Biden showed more empathy and concern for American families than Donald Trump has shown in his entire presidency thus far.

By the way, kudos to all those pastors who refuse to bring electoral politics into their churches.

Dobson invokes Patrick Henry. But where is his acknowledgement of men like John Lewis, a man whose entire life was defined by the phrase “give me liberty or give me death?” Lewis loved his country and was willing to die to defend its promise. Perhaps he should watch Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at Lewis’s funeral. (I doubt that will happen).

And now Dobson is calling us to vote for a man–Donald J. Trump– who knows nothing about true patriotism, Christian faith, or the promise of America.  Dobson’s president couldn’t pull himself away from his Twitter feed long enough to pay his respects to Lewis. This Christian Right culture warrior has a lot of nerve dropping this fundraising newsletter during a week that we remember a true American hero.

More Dobson:

How I pray for the emergence of silent, intimidated Americans who will come out of their hiding places to let their voices be heard on Election Day 2020. There must be tens of thousands of ministers in our midst who, like the Black Robed Regiment of the Revolutionary War, will strip off their clerical garb and fight valiantly for religious liberty. If these men and women of faith and conviction don’t come to the rescue of their country, it is doomed.

Dobson doesn’t realize that the violence in the streets propagated by 18th-century patriotic ministers–the so-called “Black Robed Regiment”–makes what is happening in Portland right now look like a county fair.

Dobson closes his letter with “seven critical issues”:

1. The Next Generation

There is a fierce battle being waged now in the nation’s classrooms for the hearts and souls of our children and grandchildren. Those of us who are passionately committed to the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs are losing our kids right before our eyes. They are being force-fed a radical curriculum that is godless, anti-American, and sexually perverse. Make no mistake, the left and secular culture are manipulating the minds of your sons and daughters every day of the year. I urge you to be extremely careful about those whom you set in power over your children. Protect them with your very lives.

Let’s remember that Dobson founded an organization called “Focus on the Family.” What does it say about the state of the white evangelical middle class family if its kids are incapable of navigating our current cultural waters from the perspective of Christian faith? Perhaps Dobson should be asking this question. If white evangelicals and their churches were doing their jobs in educating young people how to engage the spirit of the age, there would be nothing for them to fear in the public schools.

2. The Sanctity of Human Life

All life is sacred and is a gift from Almighty God. But as you know, America has the blood of innocents on its hands. Since 1973, more than 60 million babies have been murdered through abortion and countless lives have ended by euthanasia. This is the most tragic holocaust in the history of the world! Some states have even passed laws allowing wounded and suffering infants to lie alone on porcelain trays after somehow surviving unsuccessful abortions. They will die without the comfort of their mothers’ breasts. If that doesn’t touch your heart, you are without compassion. I hope you will not cast a single vote for any politician who supports such wickedness.

Neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden can stop abortion in America. Trump’s Supreme Court justices might one day overturn Roe v. Wade, but this will merely send the issue back to the states. Does anyone expect California, New York, and other so-called “Blue” states to make abortion illegal? If you care about abortion, why not vote for a candidate with a plan to address poverty and racial injustice? Such a focus will keep abortions in America on a steady downward trajectory. Dobson needs a new political playbook.

Abortion rates

3. Marriage and Family

The family is God’s original building block for society. Marriage continues to serve as the foundation for every dimension of human life. Everything of value rests on it, including procreation and the care and training of children. If that ground floor is weakened or undermined, the entire superstructure of civil society will come crashing down. But listen carefully: powerful and highly funded forces, including LGBTQ and other leftist entities, are determined to destroy the family as an institution. It is already on its knees, and its future is grim. Before you vote, find out what position the candidates have taken on this issue. Then vote accordingly.

This emphasis on the family comes from a man who said little or nothing when Trump separated families at the border, put children in cages, and threatened to deport DACA recipients. Parents shield their kids from this president because they don’t want to expose them to his lies, tweets, vulgarity, and general manner of treating people. Trump has brought pornography into the mainstream of our culture and has made a mockery of the civic virtues we try to teach our kids. Please, Dr. Dobson, consider that the man you support undermines everything you have spent your life defending. Your support of him is dripping with hypocrisy.

4. Religious Liberty

The first item listed in the Bill of Rights addresses the issue of religious liberty. All the other enumerated rights flow from that fundamental freedom. That is why it is alarming to recognize that this right to worship and honor God as we choose is under vicious attack today. The courts have done the greatest damage, but now an entire sub-culture is trying to bring down the Christian faith. Whether it has invaded your private world or not, it is at your front door. It was this primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War in 1776. We can’t compromise one jot or tittle within that fundamental right. Fight for it with every ounce of your strength and determination. Don’t let the government close the doors of your church or tell you when you can sing praises to the Lord Almighty. They have a devious agenda, and it is dangerous. Be ready to go to the mat in defense of what you believe. And let this passion influence how you cast your ballot in November. Here I stand. Will you join me?

This paragraph is wrong on so many levels. While real threats to religious liberty do exist, especially for faith-based schools, hospitals, and other institutions, this kind of rhetoric does little to help the country reach a genuine pluralism. (Here is a more thoughtful approach to the matter).

First, let’s be clear about the meaning of the American Revolution. An attack on Christian faith and religious liberty was not the primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

Second, the rights of Christians to worship when such gatherings might lead to the illness and death of other people is not a very Christian approach to public life. Does Dobson really think that governors trying to protect the health of all of the people in their state are operating with some kind of “devious agenda” to extirpate Christianity from the land? This is absurd. One could even make an argument that the care these governors are taking to protect citizens from COVID-19 is actually more Christian in character than this selfish appeal to individual rights.

5. Capitalism v. Socialism

It is difficult to believe that for the first time in American history, our nation appears to be thinking about trading our democratic way of life for the tyranny of socialism. I can hardly catch my breath. Could we really consider abandoning the beloved system of government that was designed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people? Is it true that up to 40 percent of millennials and others are prepared to surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state? Democracy and capitalism have made ours the most powerful and successful nation in the history of the world. Are we really considering scuttling the system that has served us for 244 years in exchange for what some people call “free stuff?” I pray not! But that option awaits you in the polling booth.

Joe Biden is not a socialist. Joe Biden believes in democracy. (By the way, I am not sure Trump believes in democracy). I don’t know of anyone who is willing to “surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state.” Another scare tactic.

6. The Judicial System

Given recent rulings, we know that judicial overreach has almost ruined this great nation. Justices and judges are constitutionally charged to interpret the law, not make law. But again, and again, they have overstepped their authority and brought us atrocities such as abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and the so-called “separation of church and state,” which doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Most recently, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most egregious rulings since Roe v. Wade. It is the case of Bostock v. Clayton County. This decision was not based on constitutional law but on the whims of six justices. It created a new legal definition of sex out of thin air. Lawyers tell us that this ruling will affect every dimension of culture and haunt the nation as long as it endures. Please don’t vote for politicians who will expand, rather than limit, the power of the judiciary.

When the Supreme Court rules in Dobson’s favor he loves it. When it does not rule in his favor, he says they have “overstepped their authority.” If the Supreme Court suddenly decided to make gay marriage illegal, overturn precedent in Roe v. Wade, or pass an Amendment declaring the United States to be a “Christian nation,” Dobson would cheer such judicial activism.

7. The Nation of Israel

Scripture tells that those who bless Israel will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Our prayer is that the next Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. will continue to promote and cultivate a vibrant bond of friendship with the nation of Israel, which is our only ally in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism and all forms of racial discrimination are inherently evil, and we condemn them categorically. We are a nation that is dedicated to “freedom and justice for all” (The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance).

Is Dobson willing to extend “freedom and justice for all” to all Americans? Does he give his highest loyalty to Israel or to fellow Christian believers–members of the worldwide body of Christ–in Palestine? It is possible for Christians to reject anti-Semitism and still find solidarity with fellow believers. Dobson’s binary thinking does not allow for such a position.

I have written about this here before, but as I read Dobson’s newsletter, and saw the big orange “DONATE” button on the top of the web page, I was reminded of what Moral Majority veterans Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (no relation) wrote about the Christian Right fundraising formula in their 1999 book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or to impose their morality on the rest of the country. Third, the letter assures the reader that something will be done…Fourth, to get this job done, please send money.”

The Author’s Corner with Daniel B. Rood

the reinvention of atlantic slaveryDaniel B. Rood is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This interview is based on his book, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Great Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: Arguments over the role of enslaved people in the growth of modern western capitalism had always intrigued and inspired me, but I found contemporary scholars often lapsed into abstract phrases when actually making the case.  Sugar plantations were “industrial,” planters were “rational” and “innovative,” there were railroads and machines in slave societies, etc., etc. I felt like, in depending on these loaded terms, there was a bit of a black box effect going on. What does “industrial” mean, exactly?  What is that machine in the artist’s rendering of a plantation?  What is it doing there?  Why do we care? So, I wanted to open that box back up and re-build arguments about slavery and capitalism from the ground up, i.e. from examining and reflecting upon the micro-processes of labor, technology, and ecology on plantations and in workshops, factories, warehouses, transport systems, and markets.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: In an age of industrial growth and expanding antislavery movements, ambitious planters in the Upper US South, Cuba, and Brazil forged a new set of relationships with one another to sidestep the financial dominance of Great Britain and the northeastern United States. Hiring a transnational group of chemists, engineers, and other “plantation experts,” they sought to adapt the technologies of the Industrial Revolution to suit “tropical” needs and maintain profitability, while depending on the know-how of slaves alongside whom they worked.

JF: Why do we need to read The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: First, my book shows that a cotton nexus connecting the Deep South to Lancashire mills and Liverpool banks was far from the only story to tell about antebellum slavery and capitalism. I also demonstrate that sustained attention to how commodities are made and moved around can generate broader insights into the histories of slavery, the African diaspora, and race. Among other things, the book shows that changes in racist ideology were profoundly entangled with changes in capitalist productive technologies.  Modern “white” commodities like sugar and flour emerged together with transformed “white” and “black” racial categories in the same mid-19th century Atlantic World matrix. It is a flashy thing to assert, but I work hard to substantiate it. I think the journey is worthwhile for the reader, whether or not they are always convinced.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DR: I’m not sure I ever did. I was an English major as an undergrad. I only remember taking one history class; I mostly remember reading lots of Keats and Wordsworth.  A faculty mentor encouraged me to do American Studies at NYU, which was a deeply generative, if sometimes cringe-inducing, time for me. That was when I first spent a lot of time with Marx’s writings, and where I was introduced to scholars like Eric Williams, CLR James, and Sidney Mintz who centered the African Diaspora in the making of the modern world. I was fascinated by the questions they were asking, and wanted to explore more.  Becoming a historian, and becoming an Americanist, happened accidentally on the way.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: I am currently writing a book on the history of plantations from 1500-present. I have also been working sporadically over the past few years on a micro-history of post-emancipation black landowners in and around Athens, Georgia. Finally, I plan to write a history of southern forests from pre-Columbian times to the present. After that it’s back to Keats and Wordsworth.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

White Supremacy, Capitalism, and a New Book on the History of St. Louis

Broken HeartIs capitalism racist? If you answer yes, you are one of the cool kids in the historical profession right now. Scholars working on the connections between capitalism and slavery have produced some interesting, helpful, provocative, and controversial work. Much of the debate over The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has focused on the strengths and weakness of this historiographical trend.

The relationship between capitalism and race also frames Nicolas Lemann‘s New Yorker review of Walter Johnson‘s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Historically, Johnson doesn’t find many people to admire. Among whites, the main exceptions are a few Communists and radically inclined labor organizers. He takes a dim view, too, of mainstream black organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Liberal politicians hardly attract his notice, except when, as in the case of Lincoln, their reputations require revising downward. But after laying out a relentlessly bleak history he ends, jarringly, on a hopeful note. During the unrest following Michael Brown’s death, he tells us, “the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history.” Since then, a number of activists—Johnson provides thumbnail sketches of them—have launched efforts in poor black neighborhoods meant to reverse, or at least resist, the pernicious workings of racial capitalism. Today, Johnson writes, “I have never been to a more amazing, hopeful place in my life.” Underlying his stated optimism is an implicit conviction that it wouldn’t do much good to look for help from the larger society; the victims of oppression must find a way forward by themselves.

As a child in the Jim Crow South during the civil-rights era, growing up in a conservative white milieu, I often overheard bitter adult conversations about the hypocrisy of white liberals in the North. Were they really any better than Southern segregationists, to go by their lived behavior? Walter Johnson, coming from the left, offers a good deal of empirical support for opinions like that. His account discourages us from drawing much hope from past events like the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the major civil-rights victories of the sixties, or the election of Barack Obama as President; the regime of racial capitalism, in his vision, always manages to reconstitute itself. Broader reforms that aimed, at least, to smooth the roughest edges of capitalism—like the regulation of business excesses or the creation of Social Security and Medicaid—are, we gather, no match for white supremacy.

Democratic politics, especially in a country with a racial history like ours, is necessarily messy, impure, and capable of producing no more than partial victories, and, even then, only when pushed hard by political movements. But deflating and deriding the progress it has made in the past and the promise it might hold for the future invites the hazards of defeatism. It distracts from the kinds of economic, educational, and criminal-justice reforms that mainstream progressives hope to enact. These are the tools we have at hand. It would be a shame not to use them.

Read the entire review here.

Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

Churches Will Not Be Open on Easter. But What If They Were?

Trump and Easter bunny

Donald Trump is hoping to celebrate three resurrections on April 12, 2020.  Here they are in order of how I believe the president has prioritized them:

  1. His own political future
  2. The American economy
  3. The resurrection of Jesus

Trump knows that he needs evangelicals to beat Joe Biden in November. By saying that he wants the country “opened up” and “churches packed” on Easter Sunday he is linking his profane political fortunes to the most sacred day on the Christian calendar. Trump wants Easter worshipers to think about him on the morning of April 12, 2020.  Some churches may even mention his name and give him credit for such an “opening.” It is a brilliant political strategy.

If the nation is indeed “open” (to be honest I am not sure what this actually means) on Easter Sunday, there is a danger of replacing the true meaning of this day–the resurrection of the son of God–with a celebration of capitalism.  This is not a new thing. Easter and the success of the American economy have been closely connected for a long time. This sacred day has always been associated with parades, chocolate, sugar, fashion, and flowers. (See Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites on this front).

It is certainly appropriate to give thanks to God for improved economic conditions.  Easter baskets filled with jelly beans and chocolate bunnies are fun. When this pandemic is over, I hope the churches will be places where we can express both gratitude and lamentation. But all these things–a better economy, sugary treats, and pandemics– ultimately distract us from the true meaning of the day. Easter services should not be about the recovery of the economy.  A Christian’s hope is rooted in the belief that “if Christ has not been raised” our “faith is futile” and we are “still in our sins.” On April 12, we will celebrate that belief. We should not celebrate the fact we can go to Walmart again.

Moreover, Easter is not about our common life as citizens of a democracy. In the Christian tradition, the resurrection inaugurates the Kingdom of God. Citizenship in this Kingdom–a Kingdom defined by love, compassion, justice, mercy, etc.–is not the same thing as citizenship in the United States. Trump wants to turn Easter into a patriotic celebration of the American spirit in the face of adversity.  It is not.

In the end, however, it is unlikely Trump is going to get his Easter celebration. Christians are going to have to celebrate the resurrection in different ways this year.

David Bentley Hart Reviews Eugene McCarraher’s *The Enchantments of Mammon*

McCarraherAnd he loves it.  Here is a taste of Hart‘s review of McCarraher‘s new book:

The Enchantments of Mammon is a magnificent book. It is, before all else, a sheer marvel of patient scholarship, history on a grand scale and in the best tradition of historical writing: a comprehensive account of the rise and triumph of capitalism in the modern age, not only as an economics, but also as our most pervasive and dominant system of ultimate values. But the book is far more than that. It is also a work of profound moral insight: a searing spiritual critique of a vision of reality that reduces everything mysterious, beautiful, fragile, and potentially transcendent in human experience to instances of—or opportunities for—acquisition and personal power, and that seeks no end higher than the transformation of creation’s substantial goods into the lifeless abstraction of monetary value. It is, moreover, a work delightfully subversive of the standard story of how this vision of things progressively became the very shape of the world we all now share (or, I suppose it would be better to say, the world we do not really share at all).

In McCarraher’s telling, capitalism as it has taken shape over the past few centuries is not the product of any kind of epochal “disenchantment” of the world (the Reformation, the scientific revolution, what have you). Far less does it represent the triumph of a more “realist” and “pragmatic” understanding of private wealth and civil society. Instead, it is another kind of religion, one whose chief tenets may be more irrational than almost any of the creeds it replaced at the various centers of global culture. It is the coldest and most stupefying of idolatries: a faith that has forsaken the sacral understanding of creation as something charged with God’s grandeur, flowing from the inexhaustible wellsprings of God’s charity, in favor of an entirely opposed order of sacred attachments. Rather than a sane calculation of material possibilities and human motives, it is in fact an enthusiast cult of insatiable consumption allied to a degrading metaphysics of human nature. And it is sustained, like any creed, by doctrines and miracles, mysteries and revelations, devotions and credulities, promises of beatitude and threats of dereliction. McCarraher urges us to stop thinking of the modern age as the godless sequel to the ages of faith, and recognize it instead as a period of the most destructive kind of superstition, one in which acquisition and ambition have become our highest moral aims, consumer goods (the more intrinsically worthless the better) our fetishes, and impossible promises of limitless material felicity our shared eschatology. And so deep is our faith in these things that we are willing to sacrifice the whole of creation in their service. McCarraher, therefore, prefers to speak not of disenchantment, but of “misenchantment”—spiritual captivity to the glamor of an especially squalid god.

Read the rest at CommonwealThe Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity is a book is on my reading list.

The Author’s Corner with Scott Huffard

Engines of redemptionScott Huffard is Program Coordinator of History and Associate Professor of History at Lees-McRae College. This interview is based on his new book, Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Engines of Redemption?

SH: The book had its roots in a graduate seminar at the University of Florida where I explored the spread of yellow fever along Florida’s rail lines in 1888. This led to more and more reading about the New South and it really seemed like there was a dark history of railroad disasters that had not really been told. While southern historians had already noted the importance of railroads in the rise of Jim Crow, I felt that other aspects of the South’s railroad experience needed to be explored.

I also was in grad school during the depths of the Great Recession and the issues I write about in the book–about the power of distant corporations, danger of new connections, and importance of narrative to capitalism–were everywhere. A book is inevitably shaped by the historical moment in which it was conceived and Engines of Redemption is no exception. For example, at the same time I was reading sources calling the Southern Railway an “octopus,” commentators were calling Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Engines of Redemption?

SH: In the decades after the Civil War, the South was transformed by the expansion, standardization, and increased connectivity and circulation of the railroad network. Boosters used these new railroads to support the New South story, that capitalism redeemed the South, but this story obscured the ways in which the railroad and capitalism were uniquely destructive in the region.

JF: Why do we need to read Engines of Redemption?

SH: It helps re-center big business and capitalism as key forces in shaping the New South era and it implicates these forces in aiding the rise of white supremacy and many of the era’s disasters and crises. We have seen plenty of recent works (the “New History of Capitalism”) that argue for the capitalist nature of the Old South but Engines of Redemption extends this story into the late nineteenth-century. One of the more resilient aspects of capitalism is how it writes its own history and creates the narratives–like the New South story–that sustain it. We are in a historical moment where we can now more critically assess capitalism and its many disasters and the book hopes to contribute to these conversations and fold new characters and events into the history of capitalism. For example, I write how Railroad Bill, a black train robber active in Alabama in the 1890s, was a fearsome embodiment of the dangerous forces of capitalism for white southerners.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: My interest stretches all the way back to my elementary school years, when I became obsessed with the Civil War. I grew up in Pennsylvania and got really into the narrative of the war and the horrors of different battles. The idea of a war fought on American soil intrigued me and I remember always trying to get my family to stop at battlefields in Virginia while we were on the way to beach vacations. I saw the South as this foreign and haunted space and I think this fed into my desire to study the region (and its dark past) in graduate school. Now I like how the South has a way of challenging some of the myths and narratives we hold dear about America.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am working on a project that looks at the biography and legend of the railroad conductor Casey Jones. He ran the Illinois Central’s fastest mail train and died in a wreck in Mississippi while trying to make up lost time. He has since become perhaps the most famous conductor in America thanks to a whole host of ballads and songs. How did this conductor become the most famous railroad man in America and enter the pantheon of American folklore legends? It should be a fun project to work on and I am excited to jump into more research and writing.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

I’ll End This Debate Right Here: Jesus Was Not a Socialist

kirk

It looks like Liberty University’s Falkirk Center wants to stage a debate between Charlie Kirk and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove over whether Jesus was a socialist.  Here is a taste of Jack Jenkins’s piece at Religion News Service:

Charlie Kirk says no. But the Rev. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says Jesus is more complicated than that.

Kirk and Wilson-Hartgrove may square off soon at a proposed debate to be hosted by the new Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty at Liberty University. 

On Thursday (Dec. 12), the Twitter account of the newly created conservative think tank posted a challenge to Wilson-Hartgrove, a progressive faith leader in North Carolina, offering to host a debate over whether Jesus was a socialist.

The tweet stipulated that the debate would be conducted between Wilson-Hartgrove and Kirk, the 26-year-old co-founder of the Falkirk Center and head of the conservative group Turning Point USA.

The tweet said both parties would also include one other participant of their choosing.

Wilson-Hartgrove, a pastor and author of “Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good,” responded by accepting the challenge and offering up prominent progressive activist the Rev. William Barber II as his partner.

However, he also appeared to reject the premise of the debate.

“Socialism emerged in the 19th (century) as a critique of capitalism, which didn’t exist in 1st century Palestine,” he tweeted. “But if (Charlie Kirk) & Falwell are up for a public conversation about what the Lord requires of us in public life, (the Rev. William Barber) & I are ready.”

Read the entire piece here.

Was Jesus a socialist?  No. Socialism did not exist until the 19th century.  I thus agree with Wilson-Hartgrove.  The entire premise of the debate is flawed.  It looks like the Falkirk’s Center’s attempt to re-educate Americans about United States history is off to a good start.

Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Anticapitalism

Debs

Eugene Debs

Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece at The New York Times is worth your time.  It is important to remember that many socialists in United States history, including Debs and Sanders, believed they were defending American ideals.

Here is a taste of “The Enduring Power of Anticapitalism in American Politics“:

But Debs didn’t just condemn his class enemies. He also called on his audiences to imagine a better world — to realize the democratic and egalitarian promise of the American Revolution through collective action. “We live in the most favored land beneath the unbending sky,” he said in a speech in 1900. “We have all the raw materials and the most marvelous machinery, millions of eager inhabitants seeking employment. Nothing is so easily produced as wealth, and no man should suffer for the need of it.” Debs’s appeal, noted the historian Nick Salvatore in his 1982 biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” was “frequently described by contemporaries as evangelical, and transcended at that moment factional disagreements and led each in the audience to glimpse a different social order.”

Or, as one self-described “hard-bitten socialist” said to the journalist Heywood Broun at the time: “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.”

I mention all of this because I saw something of that Debs during Sanders’s Saturday rally in Queens, N.Y., where 25,000 people gathered to hear Sanders and many of his most high-profile supporters, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a show of force for Sanders, who was recently hospitalized following a heart attack.

Read the entire piece here.

Kate Bowler on Evangelical Women Celebrities

Preachers WifeDuke Divinity School’s Kate Bowler keeps churning out books.  Her latest is The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities.

Over at Christianity Today, Liberty University’s Karen Swallow Prior interviews Bowler about her new book. Here is a taste:

Despite the title of your book, The Preacher’s Wife, your work is not solely about pastors’ wives. In a larger sense, it’s a metaphor that gestures toward the way in which the influence of evangelical women is almost entirely dependent upon men, whether those men are husbands, pastors, or the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

The title is a shorthand for my thesis: Modern megachurch ministry does not authorize women to be spiritual leaders based on their education, credentials, or experience. Instead, they are billed as wives and mothers, famous for spiritual gifts that do not directly interfere with pulpit preaching (like singing and leading other women or children). As such, the easiest path to fame is to be the wife, mother, or daughter of a famous godly man—someone, in other words, who offers complementary spiritual sustenance to audiences that he is not directly targeting. For instance, megachurches frequently need a woman to run their women’s ministry, and the pastor’s wife is one of the most obvious choices.

Just look at the small gestures, like her Twitter bio or the way she is announced as she goes on stage: Taffi is Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie is Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla is Tony Evans’s daughter. There are many scrappy women who built ministries from scratch, but it is a far smoother road to be married to the ministry.

Speaking of the marketplace, your analysis sheds light on what you describe as “the dark logic of the marketplace,” one based on a “limited spiritual economy” that encourages women to create platforms built on competition, resentment, and comparison. Can you talk about how the sexism and entrepreneurism present in both evangelicalism and the broader American culture have turned insecurity into a source of power for evangelical women?

When conservative women are barred from the pulpit—or any situation in which they appear to be teaching men—they must find other ways of reaching an audience, ways that center on stereotypically gendered tropes. For this reason, women in ministry might build their platform on their expertise in parenting, cooking, nutrition, weight loss, or beauty. Those who directly take on the work of preaching and teaching will call themselves “Bible teachers” instead. No matter how closely their work resembles that of a senior pastor, women in megaministry will be introduced as authors or speakers, television hosts or parachurch founders. It is a delicate balance of professed submission to authority and implied independence from it.

One might think that the power and influence of women within mainline denominations is less precarious simply because those traditions tend to embrace more egalitarian views. Yet you point out that the absence of “celebrity culture” within these denominations is also a factor. Can you elaborate on the difference that celebrity culture makes for women’s power and influence within evangelicalism?

The role of celebrity culture in the mainline is muted for a few reasons. First, mainline seminaries care very little about charisma and are far more focused on a procedural form of vetting for theology and prose. (I say this with ambivalence as a mainline seminary professor myself. Surely we want more engaging people in the pulpit?) Second, while there are numerous mainline megachurches, they are typically smaller and more denominationally focused, so they are not leaders in engaging the broader culture. And lastly, their cosmopolitanism makes them reluctant evangelists for their own “brand,” unwilling to engage in the marketing and promotion that the market requires.

If we take seriously Daniel Vaca’s argument in his forthcoming book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America—and we should!—much of evangelicalism’s self-understanding is internally shaped by its consumer practices. Evangelicals are what they buy. And conservative Christian women have created a coherent set of consumer products—books, music, conference tickets, podcast ad buys, and so on—that give the culture its worldview. The mainline utterly lacks this consumer identity that animates the conservative subculture. By contrast, conservative Christian women are stepping into a capitalist wonderland when they decide to set up shop there.

Read the entire interview here.

Slavery Was America’s First Big Business

COtton

Cornell University history professor Ed Baptist talks with Vox‘s P.R. Lockhart about his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismHere is a taste:

P.R. Lockhart

When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?

Edward E. Baptist

One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.

And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.

Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.

But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.

The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.

The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.

So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US.

Read the entire piece here.

Moral Capitalism

Bryan

Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin points us toward a better way:

What kind of economy do Democrats believe in? Joe Biden calls for “stronger labor laws and a tax code that rewards [the] middle class.” Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich and guarantee every adult a job. Elizabeth Warren has a slew of plans that include giving employees seats on corporate boards and breaking up giant firms like Facebook and Amazon. Kamala Harris urges a big tax cut for ordinary families and “stricter penalties for companies that cheat their workers.”

Recent polls show that the public is increasingly supportive of proposals like these. Yet no one who hopes to become the nominee has yet come up with a larger vision that would animate such worthy ideas. And without an inspiring way to tie them together, they may come across to voters like items on a mediocre takeout menu: tasty enough but forgettable.

So let one loyal, if anxious, Democrat offer a solution: “moral capitalism,” a system that, in the words of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, would be “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.”

It is a goal that, by different names, national Democratic leaders have articulated since the party first emerged almost two centuries ago. They understood that most voters liked the general idea of a market economy in which they would have a fair chance to rise, but also resented an economy that failed to live up to the rosy promises of its defenders in business and government.

The tradition began in the 1830s when Andrew Jackson vetoed a renewed charter for the Second Bank of the United States, declaring, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Grover Cleveland renewed the offensive in his attack on the protective tariff in the 1880s, as did William Jennings Bryan in his crusade against the “money power” at the end of the 19th century, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his assault on “economic royalists” in the 1930s.

For all these Democratic leaders, moral capitalism was an aspiration for a system that would balance protection for the rights of Americans to accumulate property and start businesses with an abiding concern for the welfare of men and women of little or modest means who increasingly worked for somebody else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

Where Does History Go From Here?

End

Over at the Boston Review, historian and essayist Maximillian Alvarez argues that both pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers are still operating within Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument.  Here is a taste:

Fukuyama’s take on the “end of history,” to be fair, has been questioned for decades. And for a number of reasons: from its Eurocentrism to its unshakeable faith in the world-historical stability of a neoliberal apparatus securing and enforcing the global marriage of “free trade” and Western liberal democracy. The past decade alone would seem to pose as great a challenge as we have seen to the Fukuyaman conceit. From the 2008 global financial crash to the rise of authoritarian-minded, far- right, Trump-style “populism,” the neoliberal order has shown quite a lack of, well, stability. 

The very same empire that is supposed to lord over this end of history, forever and ever amen, can no longer seem to keep its story straight. Even as Donald Trump lauds himself as the very best president ever—an end-of-history sentiment if ever there was one—his presidency is nonetheless anchored to the message that the United States must be made great again. Something has slipped; the end of history has gone too far, and we must try to go back, it seems—to Reaganism, to the cradle of the Greatest Generation, to the Confederacy, to Jacksonianism, and on and on. 

It is no coincidence that, in response to the historical recidivism of the Trump-led right, all that the amassed forces of the Resistance™ have been able to muster is a Fukuyaman defense that, in many ways, mirrors that of their opponents. From Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that “America never stopped being great” to the milquetoast Democratic obsession with being on the “right side of history,” the essence of the great political slap-fight of our day seems to amount to a debate between Democrats and Republicans over when, exactly—not if—history ended, which parts of our society are still stuck “in history,” and what they need to do to catch up. Either way, the presumption is that, regardless of what happens over the next two to six years, the great historical edifice of neoliberal rule will hold.

This is why the Democratic and Never-Trump Republican resistance has been largely incapable of challenging Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part. Instead, the horror and hysteria unleashed by the ascendancy of Trump has been couched in pearl-clutching fear over what “norms” and “traditions” the MAGA movement has destroyed and expunged from our social world. If the neoliberal world order remains the embodied truth of the “end of history,” then, for all its concerned showmanship, the neoliberal establishment has yet to demonstrate any widespread belief that history, as such, is at stake.

Read the entire piece here.

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Harry Stout

51RRD1lazEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHarry Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2017).

JF:  What led you to write American Aristocrats?

HS:  In 2012 I was awarded a year-long fellowship to the Huntington Library. I was free to pursue any subject that I wanted that was included in their archives. On my first day there I discovered a frontier family named Anderson whose patriarch, Richard Clough Anderson was a Revolutionary War hero and subsequently the Surveyor-General for the Virginia Military District, a vast body of land in present-day Kentucky and Ohio reserved for Virginia military veterans. There are nearly 2,000 letters and papers in collections at the Huntington and elsewhere. I began reading the day of my arrival on Labor Day and did not stop until I left for home Memorial Day. In many ways they were very different from my world but I sensed a strong connection that drew me to them in very powerful ways.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Aristocrats?

HS: While this is a family history, it differs from my family histories in that its focus—and my argument—features land as the central protagonist and anxiety as the interpretive theme that drives the narrative. Anderson family members participated in the greatest middle class land grab in world history and private property surfaced as the magnet that would draw Andersons and countless other millions to American shores in pursuit of an unprecedented American dream.

JF:  Why do we need to read American Aristocrats?

HS: Many Americans correctly see political republicanism as the primary driver of independence and nation-building in American history. But for republicanism to work it also required material abundance and capital leverage to “reward” republican self-government. Many countries today are unable to establish successful republics because they lack the underlying wealth necessary to make the “dream” come true. America’s unrivaled abundance in land, sea, and minerals meant that striving American citizens would be rewarded for their experiment in democracy in unprecedented ways that made the nation compelling attractive and, at the same time, incredibly anxious over gaining and preserving their abundance.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HS: I had always enjoyed history and in my sophomore year in college determined on a career in history. Like many historians, I was drawn to the profession by the example of compelling professors who modeled a way of life and work that I found compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

HS:  In addition to this book, I also served as General Editor of a Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia that was published within a week of American Aristocrats. Between the two of them I’m quite busy and the “next project” is still in process. One possibility is a work on World War II that features a diary of my late father that I just discovered for the first time last year. It outlines his experiences in the Battle of Okinawa and offers a compelling example of the sacrifices and sufferings that ordinary sailors experienced in that horrific war.

JF: Thanks, Harry!

 

Congressional Budget Office: 22 Million People Will Lose Healthcare By 2026

mitch_and_paul_faces

The Washington Post reports on this.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The defenders of the Senate bill to replace the Affordable Care Act believe that the free market is the answer to all of our problems.  They are free to believe this.  But they also have to sleep at night realizing that 22 million people will lose health insurance as a result of this bill. It is very difficult to pull a social safety net out from under people once they already have it.  Ideas have consequences.
  2. The defenders of the Senate bill to replace the Affordable Care Act will inevitably argue that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is wrong in its conclusions.  OK, let’s grant this point. Let’s just say that the CBO is off by 10 million people.  The GOP defenders of this new bill will have to go to sleep at night realizing that 12 million souls will lose healthcare by 2026.
  3. The defenders of the Senate bill to replace the Affordable Care Act will hurt some of the most vulnerable people in American society, including seniors and the poor. The GOP defenders of this new bill–many of them say that they value the life of vulnerable members of society–will have to sleep at night.

“Inconspicuous Consumption”

Veblen

Is Thorsten Veblen’s category “conspicuous consumption” still useful in an age when consumerism has become so democratized?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the James Urban Chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California, believes we have moved from an age of “conspicuous consumption” to an age of “inconspicuous assumption.”  She discusses this transition in her Aeon essay “Conspicuous My SitesConsumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now.”

Here is a taste:

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

Read the rest here.

History of Capitalism Month at “Process”

Cap

The history of capitalism is hot right now.  Over at Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, June is “History of Capitalism Month.”  Here is a taste of the announcement:

It’s history of capitalism month at Process! Inspired by The American Historian’s May issue on consumption, we will be featuring posts on the history of labor, taxation, infrastructure, consumption, and more.

If you are interested in contributing a post on American history and capitalism for this month, please contact us.

The latest post is Ryan Patrick Murphy’s “Labor History and Passenger Outrage in the U.S. Airline Industry.”