This is a “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” moment

Whitmer help

Jeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Above is a picture of some of the men protesting at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing.  Yes, you do see machine guns.

Michigan mayor Gretchen Whitmer will not open the state to business yet and continues to stand behind her stay-at-home order in the midst of the protesters call to “lock her up.” Whitmer is trying to save lives. But some people in Michigan believe that their rights are more important. They seem to be defending their “right” to die from the coronavirus.

I am guessing many of these protesters would say that they are Christians. But Christian faith teaches that we must submit our own interests–as a mark of our kindness and love of neighbor–with the needs and suffering of others. Jesus is our model here.

As I have written before, there is also a secular political tradition–it is called civic humanism–which calls the citizens of a republic to occasionally sacrifice self-interest for the public good. The founding fathers of the United States, many of whom wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, called this “virtue.”

It does not look like the protesting crowds are very large. Most residents of Michigan appear to be obeying Whitmer’s order. But what if such protests degenerate into a riot? What if these men with guns stormed the Capitol building or tried to depose the governor by force? It would seem at a moment like this, Whitmer (or any governor for that matter) might need military help from the federal government to protect her. Would she get such help from a U.S. president who is encouraging the protesters?:

Trump is not just encouraging protests in Michigan. In Virginia, he is connecting his call to protest with guns:

And let’s not forget the political angle here. Whitmer is a Democrat. Michigan is a battleground state that Trump desperately needs to win in November.

There is also an anti-intellectual/anti-science dimension to these protests. Andrew Sullivan’s captures this well in a tweet covering protests in Texas:

Yes, you heard them correctly. They are chanting “Fire Fauci”–a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the lead scientist on the White House coronavirus task force.

Whitmer deserves our support and prayers right now. So do all of the governors–Democrat and Republican– trying to lead their states in this time of crisis. Most of them are trying to save lives.

As for the protesters, they also need our prayers.  Father forgive them.

And where are all of Trump’s evangelical supporters? Trump has announced he will be watching the church service tomorrow at Rev. Jack Graham‘s Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas:

I am not a fan of politics in the pulpit. But sometimes the church must speak out–either directly or indirectly–against a President who is fomenting armed rebellion. (These court evangelicals seem to love Romans 13. Does it apply to governors as well?). Jack Graham has the ear and eyes of the president tomorrow morning. How will he respond?

ADDENDUM (Sunday, April 19, 2020 at 1:15pm):  Apparently some folks are upset because I have said that these men are carrying machine guns.  I apologize for the confusion.  They look like machine guns to me, but I don’t know anything about guns.  But those who are criticizing me for getting the model of gun wrong are missing the point.

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Does the United States Have the Moral Fortitude to Respond to the Coronavirus?

Coronavirus cell

I hope so.  But I am not very optimistic.

As Dahlia Lithwick writes at Slate, social capital is at all-time low. We don’t trust each other or the government. Science and truth are under siege. The free press is under attack. We have a president with an approval rating under 50%.  Can we step-up?  Here is Lathwick:

Virtually every thoughtful epidemiologist I have read on this says that the absolute worst thing to be done right now is hoarding surgical masks and putting yourself first. Conversely, the decision to put altruism before panic would redound not just to our own benefit, but to the actual benefit of the entire herd. The choice to stay home, to care for the elderly and the sick (and help them stay home), to figure out systems to look after children whose parents cannot take time off—all of that would be good for everyone. Yet it comes after years, if not decades, of being told constantly that vaccines cause autism, poverty should be punished and criminalized, and every government system is “rigged” to harm you and help others. Tell people that everyone’s a criminal and grifter long enough and it’s awfully hard to get them to look out for each other.

David Roberts at Vox has been writing thoughtfully about the political science literature around “social trust”; the phenomenon, as described by Kevin Vallier, wherein one has a “generalized trust” that extends to “strangers, persons within one’s society with whom one has little personal familiarity. Social trust can thus be understood broadly as trust in society. But trust to do what? Social trust is trust that persons will abide by social norms.” Social trust, writes Roberts, is a sense that “we are all in this together,” whoever “we all” may be, and without it, no law or policy or institution can be effective. With social trust and political trust working to undermine one another, societies can enter a “doom loop” that allows us to increasingly distrust both systems and each other.

It is that infection that makes us far more susceptible to the coronavirus; a preexisting social and psychological condition that allows critical medical truth to be suppressed in the name of politics, which in turn allows an entire society to doubt the veracity of both government institutions and the press. And as we grow mistrustful of two central pillars of liberal democracy, we become inclined to mistrust the very people around us, whether they’re grabbing the last rolls of toilet paper at the supermarket or walking around among us despite exposure to the virus. We’ve spent the past three years fine-tuning the notion that the other half of the country hates us. It’s hard to imagine turning on a dime now to be mindful of the needs of strangers.

Read the entire piece here.

Benjamin Rush on Religious Education

6e84c-rushIn 1786 Benjamin Rush wrote “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.”It is a classic example of what historians and political theorists call “civic humanism.” At one point Rush states that goal education is to “convert men into republican machines.” Religion and Christianity is mentioned a lot in this essay, but Rush often mentions it in a utilitarian way.  In other words, religion is good when it serves the needs of a virtuous republic.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the document:

I proceed in the next place, to enquire, what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of youth; and here I beg leave to remark, that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. “But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.”

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 2

MetaxasYesterday we started a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

One of the main themes of If You Can Keep It is the founding fathers’ belief that a republic is only sustainable when the people of the republic are virtuous. Metaxas is correct in pointing this out.  The founders of the United States were students of history.  They knew that Western Civilization offered very few examples of successful or long-lasting republics. They also knew that republics only worked when people were willing, at times, to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the republic.  “Virtue” was the name that they, and the ancients whose books they read, gave to this kind of self-sacrifice. Modern-day historians have also called it “republicanism” or “civic humanism.”

Metaxas believes the founders were correct when they said that a thriving republic needs virtuous people.  He joins the large chorus–a chorus that can be traced back to the 1780s–of concerned citizens who worry that the country’s failure to act virtuously is undermining the republic.  Metaxas thus challenges his readers to pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make “the business of the republic” their business.(p.4)

Though I am not sure he or his followers will appreciate the comparison, Metaxas is tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency.  This is not the message of “Make America Great Again” or the libertarian/Tea Party message of individual freedom without duty, but rather a message deeply rooted in a commitment to virtue and the common good.

But unlike Obama, Metaxas’s vision of a virtuous republic is almost entirely connected to religious belief and, if one reads carefully enough, to Biblical Christianity.  On p. 62, Metaxas asks “What would make someone behave virtuously?”  He concludes: “the answer–both practically speaking and theoretically–must be religion.”  Granted, there are many Americans, like Metaxas, who believe that virtue is impossible without religion, but the founding fathers did not fall into this camp.  Metaxas’s understanding of the founders’ view of virtue is problematic for several reasons.

First, the founders did believe that religious people made good citizens because they knew how to sacrifice their own interests for something greater, namely their god. But the founders did not believe that religion, or particularly Christianity, was the only source of virtue.  Metaxas is wrong when he says that “virtue and morality divorced from religion was unthinkable” to the founders (p.60).  Most of the founders, including John Witherspoon, the evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who was the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, believed that virtue could stem from the conscience or the “moral sense.”  Granted, many of them–whether Christian, Deist, or something in-between–believed that the conscience or moral sense was instilled in human beings by God, but they did not believe that a religious experience, the practice of a a specific faith, or the imbibing of particular religious doctrines was necessary to live a virtuous life.  (I have argued this in two of my books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and The Rural Enlightenment in Early America and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

On p.66. Metaxas states that the “religion” that the founders thought was inseparable to a virtuous republic was not the religion of the “clockmaker God of Deist imagination,” but the religion of the Bible. (He quotes the Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster on the importance of the Bible in creating citizens). Metaxas implies that “Deism” was not a religion that the founders thought could contribute to a virtuous republic because it did not adhere to the teachings of the Bible. But while Deists did not believe that the Bible was inspired, they did believe that the ethical teachings of the Bible could serve as a guide–one of several–to a virtuous life.  In other words, Deism was certainly one of the so-called “religious” beliefs that the founders believed could contribute to the greater good of the republic.

Second, Metaxas argues that religion was essential to the success of the republic because it brought “order” to liberty.  This was indeed a widely held view among many founders, especially those, such as John Adams and his Federalist friends, who wrote state constitutions (see the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution for example) that maintained religious establishments or state churches for the purpose of preserving moral order. Liberty was not licentiousness.  A self-governing people needed to be reminded of the limits of their freedoms.

But while religion (and one gets the impression that whenever Metaxas refers to “religion” he really means Christianity) was one way to curb the dangers of liberty, it was not the only way.  Again, one could look to the conscience, the moral sense, or cultural habits to bring order to one’s life and curb the passions associated with liberty.  (On p. 56 Metaxas notes that Ben Franklin turned to these things as a means of bringing moral order to his life).  One could even argue that the United States Constitution, with its system of balanced government designed to keep the passions that come with liberty in check, was a means of accomplishing this task.  As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a strong central government (as opposed to the weak Articles of Confederation) was necessary to keep the factionalism and rampant self-interest of the wild 1780s under control.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it is actually important in light of Metaxas’s use of the founders to make his case for the revitalization of the American republic today.  The claim that the founders believed Christianity to be the only (or even the primary) source of virtue in the republic is not an accurate one.  Yet Metaxas runs with this idea and uses it to diagnose what he perceives to be our current malaise.  In other words, he argues, we need to return to the founders’ idea that the republic will only survive if we become a nation of Christians again.  On this point, Metaxas is not far removed from the views of GOP activist David Barton and his call to “return” America to its Christian roots.  To be fair, Metaxas rarely says that we need to return to “Christianity” per se (he prefers the term “religion”), but I am guessing that most of his largely evangelical and conservative readers will miss this distinction.  Does Metaxas believe that Islam, for example, can also serve as a source of republican virtue?  I don’t know.

In the end, Metaxas may be correct.  Perhaps only God can solve whatever problems we face in this country.  But his appeal to history to make this point does not work.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to remember that when the founders wrote about the role that religion might play in strengthening the republic they were writing as statesmen charged with building a nation, not as theologians or ministers charged with the responsibility of advancing the Kingdom of God.  For the founders, religion served as a means toward a very secular end.  If religion would help the republic to thrive, then they were willing to promote it. Whenever the founders wrote about religion in their work as nation-builders they wrote about it in this context.  Their goal was not to use the United States to advance the cause of God, but to use religion to advance the cause of the state.  I am guessing that some Christians may find this problematic.

More to come…

Bernie Sanders, the Founders, and Faith at Religion News Service

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego, California on March 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-COLUMN, originally transmitted on March 23, 2016.

Religion News Service is running my essay on Bernie Sanders’s religion under the title “In Bernie Sanders’ deeply religious message, an echo of the Founding Fathers.”

Here is a taste:

(RNS) Bernie Sanders’ political revolution rolled on Tuesday night with crushing victories over Hillary Clinton in Utah and Idaho. While it will be difficult for the Vermont senator to catch Clinton in the delegate race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (Sanders lost to Clinton in Arizona on Tuesday), he continues to preach a political message that is resonating with large numbers of voters.

It is a message that is deeply religious.

Over the last several months, reporters have asked Sanders to explain his religious beliefs. Here is how he responded to such a question from CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a recent town hall meeting:

“Every great religion in the world — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — essentially comes down to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ And what I have believed in my whole life (is) that we are in this together. … The truth is, at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt.  And when my kids hurt, you hurt.”

Sanders’ approach to faith and our life together in this world is different from what we are hearing from nearly all the people who are still running for president.

The Republican candidates talk about faith in terms of self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing up Methodist, in terms of the common good.

Sanders’ comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices.

Read the rest here.

NOTE:  This piece also appears today at the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Why Nothing Will Change With a Hillary Presidency

HillaryLast night I watched the CNN town hall meeting featuring the Democratic candidates for president. I think all three of the candidates did well.  Hillary showed that she knows something about Abraham Lincoln.  Sanders remained on message.  I’m still not sure why O’Malley is still running, but every time I see him I am more impressed.

A member of the audience asked Hillary what she would say to Republican voters if she won the general election.  Hillary responded with a Barack Obama-like answer about reaching across the aisle and finding common ground. It is an anti-culture wars message of unity, nationalism, and civic humanism.

Obama has lamented how his republican/civic humanist vision for a politics informed by the common good did not work during his two terms in office.  (Yet he continues to preach it, as evidenced in his recent State of the Union address).  Despite the soaring rhetoric of his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention, the country will be more divided than ever when he leaves office next year.

If Obama could not pull it off, is it realistic to expect that Hillary will have greater success in finding common ground and ending the divisiveness?

I really don’t think so.

Hillary has far too much historical baggage.  Many conservatives despise her.  I mean a deep hatred.  One might say that our so-called culture wars began in the 1970s or 1980s, but they really reached a fevered pitch in the 1990s during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Many conservatives and evangelicals have not forgotten these years and they associate Bill’s indiscretions and lies with Hillary.

 

Humanities and Civic Life

Paula Krebs is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University (MA) and a member of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  In a recent piece at Inside Higher Ed, she reflects on the relationship between the humanities and the cultivation of civic and community life.  Here is a taste:

Through my role in public humanities, I have come to understand that the humanities are what allow us to see ourselves as members of a civic community. Public history, public art, shared cultural experiences make us members of communities. This link has not been stressed enough in defense of the academic humanities. It’s past time to make this important connection — to help our boards of trustees, our communities, and our legislators to know what the humanities brings to civil society and gives to students as they enter the workforce.

The Antihistory Presidency

obama-and-historyThere is a lot to digest from last night’s State of the Union Address.  The pundits will be out in force today talking about all of the new initiatives Obama proposed, particularly the stuff he had to say about immigration and gun control.  And how about 102-year old Desiline Victor? As the grandson of a 102-year voter, Desiline’s story tugged at my heartstrings.

Obama also talked about education last night.  And once again, he celebrated the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Here is a quote from the speech:

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math–the skill’s today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

We need young people who are trained in the STEM disciplines.  But we also need our president to get behind the humanities, especially history.

Obama’s statement that STEM disciplines provide skills that “today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future” is only partially true.  Anyone who attended the recent Wake Forest conference “Rethinking Success” (or watched the conference presentation online) knows that companies and employers are just as interested in humanities and liberal arts majors as they are college graduates trained in STEM fields.  In fact, some of them are MORE interested in humanities majors than those trained in traditional STEM disciplines.

Obama’s support for STEM last night also extended to higher education. He called for a new “College Scorecard” that would reward colleges and universities that provide greater access to “the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Again, I have no problem with colleges training students in STEM disciplines.  I work at a college that does a good job at this kind of training.  But I also teach at a college committed to the humanities and the broader liberal arts–disciplines that teach skills, ways of thinking, and ways of being that are essential to the cultivation of a civil society and a thriving democracy.

Obama’s speech last night–at least the parts dealing with education–sounded eerily similar to the Republican governI do not have the time or the space here to defend the the value of history and humanities.  If you are a regular reader of he Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I have done this many times before. (In addition to the previous link see my piece at Patheos:  “Education for a Democracy” or take a quick glance at my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series)

I will, however, call your attention to the irony of it all.  In his public addresses Obama has effectively used history to make his political points.  Ever since his famous breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he has been making appeals to the Declaration of Independence.  Last night he appealed, on multiple occasions, to the ideals and values that define America.  He referenced the responsibilities of the Congress to place the nation over partisan interest.  He talked about the meaning of citizenship. He asked Americans to join him in writing the next “great chapter” in national history.

Obama must be aware that Americans cannot respond to these exhortations without knowing something about the past.  How can our children write the next “great chapter” in national history when they have little knowledge of the previous chapters?

Obama’s historic rhetoric soars.  He has appealed to the civic humanism of the founding fathers and their commitment to the common good.  In his Second Inaugural Address he talked about Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  But I wonder how many young people knew the meaning of these references.  And I wonder how many will know them in ten years. If his track record of funding history in schools is any indication, I don’t think he cares.

Barack Obama has done virtually nothing to promote a renewed sense of civic identity through the study of history.  Just ask the 2010 Washington-era teacher of the year Kenneth Bernstein.  In a recent piece in The Washington Post he decried the lack of civic education in our schools.  Rather than addressing this issue head-on, Obama has cut funding for the successful Teaching American History program and has defined educational reform entirely in terms of STEM disciplines.

Barack Obama is no friend of history.  If I am looking for an ally on this front I will take George W. Bush any day of the week.

The Founding Fathers, Barack Obama, and “Taking Care of Our Own”

 

Here’s a piece that I wrote after Obama’s acceptance speech last Thursday night.  We were not able to place it as an op-ed (still trying), so I have posted it here.  –JF
The Founding Fathers would have been proud of Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night in Charlotte.  Ever since the Chicago-based community organizer broke onto the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with his famous “Red State, Blue State” address, he has been preaching a message of civic responsibility that reflects the political vision of the American founding.
As Obama accepted his party’s nomination for the President of the United States, and reminded the American people of the accomplishments of his first term, he did not let us forget about the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Obama was right when he said that “citizenship” is a “word at the heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.”
The Founding Fathers knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good.  Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship can sound foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”
If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic:  “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”  Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society.
Barack Obama’s speech, drawing upon this older American tradition of civic humanism, was a stark contrast to the vision of America that the Republican Party put forth at their convention in Tampa. The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but Obama, echoing the Founders, made it clear that a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.
The Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream that we heard during the GOP convention fails to recognize that we are not autonomous individuals.  Citizenship requires a long view–an understanding that we have been shaped by the circumstances of the past, we have obligations to each other in the present, and, to quote Obama, we are responsible to “future generations.”
Of course the GOP rhetoric of individualism will appeal to people who do not like government intervention or the idea that they must sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness to the common good. But such a view of America would look foreign to our Founding Fathers.
As Obama finished his speech on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” began to blare through the sound system of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.  The song is a republican anthem.  It provided a perfect exclamation point to Obama’s speech.  I am not sure what the Founding Fathers would have thought about Springsteen’s music, but they could certainly relate to the stirring chorus: “We take care of our own/We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own.”
 

The GOP’s Moral Creed

One of the most revealing moments of this week’s GOP convention came during Paul Ryan’s speech on Wednesday night:

Our different faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life.

We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.

Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government – to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society. They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding. They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.

On paper, I agree with almost everything Ryan said in this excerpt. The Romney campaign did a nice job of handling religion this week. Romney talked about religious liberty.  There were moving speakers who testified to his Mormon faith, but they did so not in terms of doctrine or theology, but in terms of compassion, love, and service.  These kinds of generic religious virtues can be embraced by most religious Americans.

Much of what the GOP had to say about religion this week reflected the ideas of the American Founders.  The Founders believed that religion was good for the Republic. They championed religious liberty and refused to endorse any specific religious creed.  I don’t think I heard anything about a “Christian nation” this week, although it was clear that the “moral creed” Ryan and others espoused was informed by a mix of Protestant evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Mormonism.  (Where is the next Will Herberg or Kevin Schultz to write a book called “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Mormon“?  The “Mormon Moment” has truly arrived).

Yet it was difficult to mesh all of this rhetoric about a moral nation with what was the most prominent theme of the convention–American individualism.  

Nearly every speaker referenced their roots in either poverty or the working class.  According to his wife Anne, Mitt Romney ate tuna-fish on an ironing board in a basement apartment. Tim Pawlenty’s father was a truck driver.  Chris Christie’s Dad worked at the Breyer’s ice cream plant.  Paul Ryan extolled his humble roots in Janesville, Wisconsin. 

The story that the GOP told this week was informed less by the ideas of the American founding and more by the nineteenth-century myth of the self-made man.

When the Founders thought about a moral or virtuous republic they thought about it not only in terms of individual liberty, but in terms of sacrifice. Their vision was not only about pulling oneself up from poverty and the working class, but about living in a benevolent community in which people will sometimes temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good. 

I think we got a glimpse of this from the members of Mitt Romney’s Mormon congregation who testified to his compassion and pastoral care, but unless you were watching PBS or C-SPAN you did not see these powerful testimonies.  (I am still, however, trying to balance Mitt Romney the loving pastor with Mitt Romney the venture capitalist, but I will leave that for another post)

Ryan’s words about “responsibilities, one to another” were helpful, but if his voting record is any indication, this kind of rhetoric only applies to abortion. What if Ryan applied his commitment to care for the weak and vulnerable to all Americans?  His stand for the life of the unborn is admirable, but his application of Catholic social teaching to public policy is very limited.  (If Joe Biden bones-up on the tenets of Catholic social teaching the VP debate might be very interesting).

The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.  Moreover, the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream fails to recognize a fundamental fact of history, namely that people–even Americans–have struggled to make this dream a reality.  Certainly people have contingency to direct their lives along the paths they want to go, and this is something that makes America unique, if not exceptional, in the annals of modern history, but we cannot ignore the fact that people are also shaped by the circumstances of their past. We are not autonomous individuals.

I do not think I heard the word “common good” at any point during the GOP convention.  I heard nothing about the cultivation of a civil society in which people learn from their differences and forge a national community.  It was all personal stories of rising from poverty or the working class to “make it” in America.

Of course such rhetoric will work well among people who do not like government intervention.  And it works particularly well when you are trying to unseat a president who believes that the government has an active role to play in people’s lives.  But such a view of America only gets the Founders half-right.  As the grandchild of immigrants, a first-generation college student, a son of the working-class, and a beneficiary of the American Dream, the message I took away from the GOP convention left me hollow.  I think it would have left the Founders hollow as well.

Patheos Book Club Review of Os Guinness, "A Free People’s Suicide"

I was recently asked to do a short review of Os Guinness’s new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.  The review was part of the Patheos Book Club, which is featuring Guinness’s book this month.  Also check out reviews by Jana Riess, David Swartz, and Craig Detweiler.

Here is a taste:

About twenty years ago Os Guinness published The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith.  In that book, written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Guinness warned against the temptation of letting our international triumph blind us to the moral and cultural decay occurring at home.  He argued that America was facing “its own time of reckoning, an hour of truth that will not be delayed.”  He called it the “American Century’s American Hour.”

Guinness’s latest book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, also suggests that we are in the midst of the “American hour.”  As he did in 1993, he reminds us that Americans won their freedom (in 1776), ordered their freedom (in 1787 and 1791), and is now faced with the task of sustaining their freedom.  Two decades later, the issues remain the same.

Read the rest here.

Online Learning and Civic Engagement Do Not Mix

This is the opinion of a community college dean who writes a regular blog at Inside Higher Education.  He raises a very good point:  “Colleges are being pushed to increase ‘service learning’ and ‘civic engagement’ initiatives at the exact same time that they are being pressured to move online.  These don’t have to be opposed, necessarily, but in practice they generally are.”

Here is a taste:

Service learning and civic engagement projects — I’ll float between the terms, though they aren’t identical — are high-touch. They’re labor-intensive, and they require close community connections.  In fact, their labor intensity and rootedness in place seem to be keys to their success. To the extent that they tend to pay off in improved rates of retention and graduation, that seems to be tied to a sense of belonging to a community.

Online instruction and service provision are built specifically to make place (and, to some extent, time) irrelevant. Good online teaching is labor-intensive, to be sure — some of its major boosters, and major bashers, don’t know that — but it’s still based on the assumption that students can be anywhere, including in their homes logging in after the kids are in bed.

The former is about doubling down on place. The latter is about escaping it.

As I said before at this blog–the day I am forced to teach all my courses online will probably be the day I leave academia. 

Is there anybody alive out there?

This Week’s Anxious Bench Post at Patheos: "Finding Hope at a Middle School Graduation Ceremony"

My daughter graduated from eighth grade tonight.  I was very proud of her.  As the president of her middle school’s student council she had the opportunity to address the audience and introduce the evening’s festivities.

After a few inspirational charges from school administrators, much of my evening was spent, as is the case with most of the graduation ceremonies I have attended, watching the members of my daughter’s class parade across the stage and receive a piece of paper akin to a diploma.  Such an exercise requires patience.

As each student’s name was read, teachers and guidance counselors said a few things by way of biography. For example: “Mary’s favorite thing about middle school was playing in the orchestra.  She wants to get good grades in high school and get accepted to a good college.”  Listening to the reading of these biographies (which as far as I could tell were written by the students)  helped me pass the time, but also provided a very telling glimpse of the goals, dreams, and aspirations of my daughter’s classmates.

Read the rest here.

Progressives Need to Reclaim Citizenship

It is good to see a progressive journal such as Democracy: A Journal of Ideas call its readership to the responsibilities, even the duties, of citizenship.  In an editorial leading off a special issue on citizenship, the editors of Democracy make a three fold case for why liberals need to be more responsible citizens of the United States:

1.  Citizenship is simply the right thing to do.  It demonstrates the kind of loyalty to country that the founders would have wanted.

2.  Citizenship is one of the areas in which progressivism has “yielded vast territory to the right.”

3.  Americans will not respond to a “rights-centered” message that does not also emphasize civic responsibility

Here is a taste:

We at Democracy, while not for a second denying the need for constant vigilance with regard to rights, have long felt that progressives frankly don’t care enough about the other side of citizenship: responsibility. Here, we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. These obligations can sound quaint and as fusty as something delivered by the Wells Fargo Wagon. But they’re real: the need to contribute to one’s community and country; to understand that one’s rights must exist in balance with other prerogatives; to commit oneself to the idea that political disputes should be resolved more or less amicably; to pledge loyalty to the ideals of reasoned debate, majority rule, protections of minority rights, and so on.

How can we enhance the idea of citizenship from our own areas of work and vocation?  As I have argued here and here and here (among other places), we need to make education for citizenship in a democracy more of a priority than education for the marketplace or the capitalist economy.  And I think the study of the humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, has the potential to do this quite well.