Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

A Day at Boston Trinity Academy

BTA students

I don’t think there are many places in the country like Boston Trinity Academy (BTA).

Located in the Hyde Park section of Boston, BTA is:

  1. A very strong private school (grades 6-12) that consistently sends its graduates to some of the top colleges and universities in the country.
  2. A school with a faculty loaded with Ph.Ds and M.A.s who are deeply committed to excellence in the humanities and liberal arts.
  3. A school with a strong sense of mission rooted in a broad and generous evangelical Christian faith and the integration of faith and learning.
  4. A school with a diverse urban student population that is 34% white, 30% black, 19% Asian, and 10% Hispanic.

This blend of academic excellence, Christian commitment, and racial and ethnic diversity makes BTA unique.  More people need to know what is happening at this school!

In May 2014, I delivered the commencement address at BTA.  Yesterday, I was back in Boston to help the school launch its 2018 J-Term week.  Each January, BTA spends an entire week exploring a particular place in the world.  This year the theme was “Rural America.”  Students enrolled in special seminars with titles like:

“Jug Bands of the Early Southern United States”

“Poverty and Opportunity in Appalachia”

“Rust Belt Realities”

“Life at the Border”

“Black Odyssey: The Great Migration & African American Rural Narratives”

“Wampanoag and Eastern Woodlands Nations”

“Musical History of Appalachia: Roots and Rhythms”

“Race, Reconciliation, Awareness: The Rural Urban Divide”

“Environmental Issues Across the American Farmland.”

Students also spend time during J-Term working on projects related to rural America.  In my wanderings through the classrooms I saw students working on Amish quilts, playing Jazz music, studying literary narratives of rural America, and exploring rural America through popular culture.

From the moment I entered the building at 7:30am on Tuesday morning I felt the energy of students fully engaged in their education.  Frankly, I was a bit jealous that my own girls could not attend a school like this.

BTA

I was there to help BTA kick off its J-Term with a plenary chapel talk on rural America.  (I will post my 15-minute talk later today–stay tuned).  I also taught two seminars on the history of rural America.  Throughout the day, I participated in conversations about my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my 2011 book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

In Fall 2017, American history teacher Dr. Mike Milway assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to his senior students.  The students spent five or six class periods dissecting my argument and their Fall exam required them to write a 2-hour book review.  Needless to say, they knew the text very well and challenged me with a variety of questions and critiques.  I was flattered, exhilarated, humbled, and frankly in awe of the their level of engagement.

Thanks so much to Frank Guerra, Tim Belk, Judy Oulund, and especially Terri Elliott-Hart for bringing me to BTA!  (And it was also great to meet math teacher Shelby Haras, a member of the Messiah College class of 2013!).

Christian School Will Not Let Pregnant Teen Walk With Her Classmates at Graduation

This story has been out there for a few days now, but that doesn’t make it any less awful.

Heritage Academy, a Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland, will not allow senior student Maddie Runkles to walk with her classmates at graduation on June 2.  According to the administrator of the school, David Hobbs, Runkles “is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral.”

Here is the official statement:

Heritage.png

Several things strike me about this letter, but I will mention four here:

  • Hobbs says that he does not want the “Heritage family” to see the members of the Board as “harsh, cruel, hard-hearted men.”  Interesting.  I wonder if Maddie Runkles would be walking with her class at graduation on June 2 if there were some women on the Board.  And yes, the action of the board IS “harsh, cruel, and hard-hearted.”
  • Hobbs is concerned that “God is glorified in a dignified manner” on the night of graduation.  OK.  And God will not be glorified if Maddie Runkles walks?  The Christian God is a God of forgiveness and grace.
  • Notice the school logo: “Knowledge, Patriotism, Bible Truth.”  This school clearly falls into the Christian nationalist camp.  I wonder if Hobbs thinks Maddie Runkles’s behavior is both sinful and un-American.
  • The reference to three “compromises” is fleshed out more fully in the CBS News video below.  Apparently Hobbs had to fight-off parents and members of the Heritage community who wanted Runkles expelled for her transgressions.

Maddie Runkles needs Christian love and support right now.  Like Hobbs, I am glad that she has decided to keep her baby.  I commend her for making a decision for life.  But I also worry about how long she will identify with a Christian community.  Incidents like this tend to turn young people away from the faith pretty quickly.

 

John Wilsey is on Fire

John Wilsey teaches history at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Houston.  He is a real jack of all trades.  He is the interim pastor of a Houston-area Baptist church.  He teaches courses in history and theology to traditional seminary students, undergraduates, and prisoners in a maximum security prison.  He has written a good book critiquing the “Christian America” thesis and has a forthcoming book on American exceptionalism.

But I am writing about John today because he has recently written two great blog posts.

The first post, which appears at John’s blog “To Breathe Your Free Air,” is an honest account of the struggles and triumphs of writing his book on American exceptionalism.  His exhortation to “write, write, write” was something I needed to hear as I continue to push forward with my American Bible Society project.  If you need some inspiration to jump start a writing project, head over to Wilsey’s post.

The second post, which was recently published at Religion in American History, offers an assessment of American exceptionalist rhetoric in Christian school and home school American history textbooks. In the process he invokes the term “Americolatry.”  Here is a taste:

Combine the idea of American exceptionalism with the Christian America thesis—the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation—and you have a potent brew indeed, a super-charged nationalism which has an exceptional quality all its own. 

I have a word for this powerful ideological combination—Americolatry. Americolatry consists of a form of civil religion that entails the doctrine of American greatness, innocence, and superiority (e.g., Reagan’s “the last, best hope of mankind,” Albright’s “indispensable nation,” or David Gelernter’s America as “one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known”(2)). Americolatry also entails the practice of religious devotion to America by inextricably linking Christian devotion to patriotism. In other words, to be a devoted Christian equals the uncritical acceptance of America as superior and morally regenerate. 


Thanks for some good writing, John!

Did Hippies Worship Satan?

I am guessing that some of them did, but I don’t think the authors of an eighth grade textbook used by voucher schools in Louisiana and Indiana included this little historical nugget in their treatment of hippies because they wanted to present a full and accurate picture of the 1960s counterculture.
The textbook, America: Land I Love is published by A Beka Books, a publishing house affiliated with Pensacola Christian College that I discussed briefly in chapter four of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

America Blog recently posted an image of the pertinent page of the textbook:

Apparently this Louisiana voucher program has gotten into trouble before by using textbooks that praise the Ku Klux Klan, teach that human beings and dinosaurs walked the earth together, and affirm the existence of fire-breathing dragons. 

I am sure there is a larger critique of school voucher programs in all of this.

Stony Brook School Appoints New Headmaster

The Stony Brook School, a place where Joy and I lived and worked for six years in the 1990s, seems to be opening a new chapter in its storied history by appointing Joshua Crane as its next headmaster.  Congratulations to Mr. Crane and the Stony Brook School community.  Here is a taste of the formal announcement:

The Board of Trustees of The Stony Brook School is pleased to announce that Mr. Joshua Crane has been appointed as the next head of The Stony Brook School, effective July 1, 2013. In assuming the School’s leadership post, Mr. Crane will be the sixth head of school in the 91-year history of The Stony Brook School. 

The Stony Brook School Board of Trustees Chairman Sierd Tilma said, “The Board of Trustees was unanimous in accepting the recommendation of Mr. Crane by the Search Committee. I am delighted that he has accepted our offer to become the next head of school at Stony Brook. He has outstanding giftedness that will enable him to steward the twin pillars of our school: excellence in academics and faithfulness to the School’s historic mission.” 

Mr. Crane received his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in 1995 and a Master of Philosophy in European Romanticism from the University of Glasgow in 1996. More recently he earned his master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Covenant College in 2011. Since 2005 he has served as head of school at Central Christian School in St. Louis, Missouri, a Christian school founded in 1957 by Central Presbyterian Church. Joshua met his wife, Jennifer, after graduating from Vanderbilt University, and the two were married in 1998. Jennifer earned a degree in architecture from Princeton and owns and runs a commercial and residential interior design company. Jennifer and Joshua have four daughters. 

In accepting the position, Mr. Crane said, “It is with deep respect for its storied past and unbridled optimism about its exciting future that I accept Stony Brook’s offer to become its next head of school. It will be my great privilege to serve its students, faculty, staff, and alumni as we move together to new heights of mission effectiveness. Stony Brook is a school of world consequence, and the world needs a strong Stony Brook to demonstrate that the integration of faith and learning is just as relevant today as it was when Dr. Frank E. Gaebelein pioneered the School over 90 years ago. My family and I greatly look forward to joining the SBS community.”