Are the NFL Protests Religious?

Kap

In the movie “Concussion,” Dr. Bennett Omalu, the medical researcher who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopahty (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players, is told that he is going to war with a corporation that “owns a day of the week, the same day the church used to own.”  Here is the scene

I thought about this scene as I read Tara Isabella Burton’s piece at Vox titled “Football really is America’s religion. That’s what made the NFL protests so powerful.

She writes:

But, for better or for worse, football — like many American sports — has always been, if not political, then at least politicized. The popularity of American sport culture is deeply rooted in the history of a particular kind of American “muscular Christianity,” a conflation of nationalism, nostalgia, piety, and performative masculinity. From the football stadium to the basketball court, American sports have been as much about defining a particular kind of male and typically Christian identity as they have been about the game itself.

For participants and spectators alike, sport culture is quite religion-like. As professor and theologian Randall Balmer put it in an article for Sojourners, “the sports stadium has replaced the church sanctuary as the dominant arena of piety at the turn of the 21st century, especially for American men.” And that makes the decision of athletes to protest during the “sacred” time of the game, rather than off the field, all the more powerful.

To better understand how American sports culture developed, we should turn to Victorian England, where “muscular Christianity” originated as backlash to the culture of the time. The rise of the middle class and the development of industrialization meant that your average Victorian gentleman wasn’t exactly physically active. And Victorian religion tended to focus on women and female piety. Women were generally seen as the “angels in the house” who would domesticate their men — and make them better Christians.

Read the entire piece here.

This brings a whole new perspective on “taking a knee.”

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

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Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend.  I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience.  Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry.  Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.

If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.

On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.

I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State.  Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

Read the entire post here.

Why Did First Baptist Church of Dallas Have “Freedom Sunday” on June 25?

Perhaps it had its worship America Sunday morning service this weekend because Court Evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress will be busy on 4th of July weekend:

freedom-concert-djt

DALLAS—President Donald Trump will join Pastor Robert Jeffress to honor our veterans at the “Celebrate Freedom” Concert at 8 p.m. July 1 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The event, which is being co-sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Dallas and Salem Media, will be a night of hope, celebration and commemoration. President Trump will deliver a powerful address honoring our veterans, hundreds of whom will be coming from D.C. area to attend the event, including patients from the Walter Reed Medical Center.

“The Kennedy Center, known for presenting the greatest performers and performances from across America and around the world, is the perfect location for an unforgettable patriotic evening that honors our veterans, celebrates our country, and proclaims a message of hope,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress. “We are honored the president of the United States will be joining us, but we are not surprised. We have in President Donald J. Trump one of the great patriots of our modern era and a president who cherishes the sacrifice and service of those in our armed forces.”

Stirring patriotic music will come from the renowned choir and orchestra of First Baptist Dallas, under the direction of Dr. Doran Bugg. The First Baptist Dallas Choir & Orchestra is no stranger to our nation’s most prestigious concert halls, having been the first church music ministry invited to perform at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas and host of the radio and television program “Pathway to Victory,” seen in 195 countries, will also bring a message of hope and encouragement.

The “Celebrate Freedom” Concert is free and open to the public, but tickets must be reserved in advance by going to http://www.ptv.org/washington.

The “Celebrate Freedom” Concert rally will be the capstone of a weeklong series of events Pastor Robert Jeffress will host through the nation’s capital including speaking at a Bible study for Congressional staffers in the Capitol, a tour of Washington highlighting our country’s Judeo-Christian foundation, and personal visits with various others numbered among our nation’s leadership.

“I’m grateful that President Trump has created an atmosphere in which Evangelical Christians feel at home once again in our nation’s capital,” said Pastor Jeffress.

What Was Being Worshiped Yesterday at First Baptist Church in Dallas?

Jeffress 1

Yesterday was “Freedom Sunday” at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.  The pastor of First Baptist is Robert Jeffress.  He is a Trump supporter, Christian nationalist, and prominent court evangelical. As the pictures attached to this tweet indicate, it was a day of patriotic celebration in the church sanctuary.

People waved American flags during the service.

The last time I checked, the waving of the American flag was a sign of support or loyalty to the nation.  Jeffress had no problem allowing such an act to take place in a church sanctuary–the place where Christians worship God as a form of expressing their ultimate loyalty.  Patriotism is fine. Flag-waving is fine.  But I wonder if any of the congregation felt uncomfortable that all of this took place in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

Jeffress 2

There were fireworks.  Yes, fireworks.  Somehow the pyrotech crew at First Baptist figured out a way to pull this off without burning the place down.  I assume that these fireworks did not represent the pillars of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness in the Old Testament. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone during the service connected these patriotic fireworks to God’s leading of his new “chosen people”–the United States–through the desert of extreme religious persecution). I also don’t think the fireworks were meant to represent the “tongues of fire” present on the day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2.  (Also, from what I am able to tell from the church website, First Baptist did not celebrate Pentecost Sunday on June 4, 2017).

It also looks like the congregation of First Baptist sung the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.”  I am guessing they did not sing all of the original verses.

How can this not be a form of idolatry?

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Abraham Lincoln’s “Martyrdom”

Clements Library, Brian Dunnigan

In case you haven’t seen it all over social media, today is the 152st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  It is also Good Friday.  Lincoln was killed on Good Friday in 1865, making today one of those years when the commemoration of Jesus’s death lines up with the assassination of the so-called “savior” of the Union.

Over at his blog Faith and History, Wheaton College history professor Tracy McKenzie urges Christians to be careful of making too much out of the fact that Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday.

A taste:

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Read the rest here.

The Mixed Blessings of Civil Religion

civil-religion

The editors of The Christian Century see the positive and negative affects of American civil religion. Their recent editorial was prompted by the lack of civil religiosity in Donald Trump’s inaugural address last month.

Here is a taste:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Philip Gorski

american-covenantPhilip Gorski is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write American Covenant?

I began writing the book nine years ago, during the 2008 Obama campaign. My initial aim was to place Obama’s campaign rhetoric within the civil religious tradition originally identified by Robert Bellah a half century ago, in his 1967 Daedalus article. It then evolved into an attempt to recover that tradition and to distinguish it from its historic rivals: radical secularism and religious nationalism. 

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

America’s civil religious tradition is a synthesis of prophetic religion and civic republicanism or “prophetic republicanism.” Although it has evolved and expanded as America has become diverse and powerful, prophetic republicanism has always been the vital center of our public life.

JF: Why do we need to read American Covenant?

The Trump Presidency represents a mortal threat to the vital center.  Only a broad alliance of committed democrats that cuts across the usual cultural and political divides will be strong enough to withstand his efforts to abolish the American Republic and replace it with an un-American regime of authoritarian populism. This book identifies the core values that are at stake in the present conflict and places the current struggle within a deeper context.  The analysis of religious nationalism also helps uncover the deeper roots of Trumpism and illuminates the puzzling appeal to a certain sort of Christian conservative. Likewise, the critique or radical secularism should remind secular progressives of the religious roots of many of their most deeply held values and commitments — and of the dangers of denying them. 

Though the book was always intended as a public intervention aimed at a broader audience of educated Americans, it is also a work of serious scholarship that will, I hope, outlast the Trump regime, and appeal to academic specialists as well. As such it will appeal to American religious historians as a deep history of the modern culture wars; to political philosophers interested in the proper role of religion in public life, and to theological ethicists concerned with the role of civic engagement in religious communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to study American history/social history?

I was originally trained as an early modern Europeanist. I began studying the US in preparation for a comparative project on the divergent religious trajectories of the US and Western Europe since the late 19th Century.  I then got “sidetracked” by this project on civil religion.

JF: What is your next project?

I am currently working on the connection between religion and populism. Populism is usually thought of as a “secular” phenomenon, rooted in class conflict, cultural pluralism and party competition. While economic inequality, mass immigration and political gridlock are surely part of the explanation for the current populist resurgence, religious factors are also crucial.  This is true not only in notoriously religious countries such as India and the United States, but also in Eastern and Western Europe. 

JF: Thanks, Philip!

Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast

Watch it here:

At the 11:25 mark he thanks Senate Chaplain Barry Black and says “I am appointing you for another year, what the hell.”

12:32: Trump starts talking about how bad “The Apprentice” is now that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting.  He asks to pray for Arnold and the show’s ratings.

14:21:  He he thanks the American people for their “words of worship” for him.

16:00:  Asks for prayer for the military.  Good.  Although as he keeps going he seems to connect religion with American ideals.  Of course the Founding Fathers did this all the time.

17:17: “American is a nation of believers.  In towns all across our land it’s plain to see what we easily forget…the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.”  Amen.  I just wonder if Trump really believes what he is saying here.

19:45:  Trump quotes Jefferson on religious liberty and then rips into the Johnson Amendment.

20:41: Trump says religious liberty is under threat in the world and the nation.  “The world is in trouble and we are going to straighten it out.”  Interesting statement in light of his recent Muslim ban.

22:00: Trump couches his fight against terrorism in the language of religious freedom.

24:00: Trump now lays out his plan for immigration restriction and couches it in religious liberty.

28:00:  Trump praising the decision to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Religion and “Hamilton”

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In his review of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton,” Peter Manseau, the new curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, writes: “Miranda’s ingenious retelling of Revolutionary-era U.S. history studiously ignores common eighteenth-century notions of the role religion should play in society, replacing them with the fully privatized faith of today.”

But wait!  Perhaps religion does play an important role in “Hamilton.”  Civil religion that is.

Here is Manseau again:

Yet despite the play’s stalwart separation of church and founding statesmen, there remains something about Hamilton that strikes a religious nerve: namely, the way that its various canny subversions of the popular imagery of the Founding era ultimately reaffirm the American creation myth. The musical’s off-the-charts popularity stems from more than Miranda’s catchy hooks and inventive lyrics. As Hamilton continues to swell into a bona-fide reflection of the zeitgeist, one underlying factor seems most responsible for its rise: Miranda’s fable of the republic’s founding offers a way to take part in the cult of sacred history without the usual birthright credentials and ritual obeisances. This is no mere hip-hopera; it’s an altar call for would-be patriots previously too burdened by ambivalence to fully embrace the American faith.

The favored avatars of this faith may change with the times, but its creed does not. The birth of the nation remains our One True God. The Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers serve as something of a trinity establishing the culture’s unquittable cosmology and incontestable truth. Seen this way, Hamilton is less a new vision of the past than a translation of the sacred stories of American civil religion into the vernacular—in this case, the lingua franca of contemporary pop culture, a mashup of hiphop, R&B, rock, and show tune samples. And like any vernacular rendering of a text considered holy and immutable, it is at once radical on the surface and retrograde underneath—the best example in years of how a dominant worldview adapts to survive social change.

Read Manseau’s entire piece at The Baffler.

The Author’s Corner with John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).

JF: What led you to write American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

JW: This project arose out of my dissertation on the Christian America thesis from 1977-2007 that I finished back in 2010. When I encountered the idea of American exceptionalism in the context of the Christian America thesis, I knew I wanted to explore it further. I was intrigued because the Christian America thesis at the turn of the 21stcentury clearly entailed American exceptionalism. Furthermore, after reading Anthony Smith’s incomparable Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, it became obvious that most Western civilizations since the fourth century believed themselves to be, in some way, God’s chosen nation.

I could only mention exceptionalism briefly in the dissertation. But once the dissertation was finished, I revisited the idea, presenting a paper on it at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in 2012. The presentation went awful (I thought). I remember taking a moment to myself after my panel was concluded and wanting to have a good cry. But it forced me back to the drawing board—I read an article by James W. Ceaser on the origins of American exceptionalism, and the light turned on for me. It was a key moment in my thinking about exceptionalism, and I think Ceaser’s article made the difference when I wrote the book proposal.

On a more personal level, I grew up surrounded by a strong military tradition on both sides of my family. But I was intrigued by the whole idea of God and country. What happens when we use God-talk to self-identify as a nation? And what are the theological entailments in American exceptionalism? These remain fascinating questions to me, and the intersection between nationalism and religion in history is a busy one indeed!

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?

JW: American exceptionalism has historically entailed several theological assertions, and can thus be an idea that is exclusionary, imperialistic, and contrary to Christianity from which it is indebted. But exceptionalism can also be construed in political/social terms, and when it is, the idea forms the groundwork for sound patriotism and healthy civic engagement.

JF: Why do we need to read American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?

JW: American exceptionalism is a very old idea. It can be traced back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and it evolved around the contours of all the major crises America faced from the colonial period to the present. And everyone is talking about it. A casual Google search of “American exceptionalism” yields 775,000 results. President Obama—a president whose patriotism is often questioned—frequently refers to it in his rhetoric, most notably perhaps in his response to the Syrian crisis in 2013, his commencement address at West Point in 2014, and in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march earlier this year.

But hardly anybody defines their meaning when they use the term. Most people think that the term is concrete, and universally agreed upon and understood. But it is an ambiguous term that demands precision.

Exceptionalism is also an article of faith. Interestingly, when people consider exceptionalism, they often speak about it in terms of either “believing in” American exceptionalism or not. This way of thinking about exceptionalism seems to suggest that the idea is often more than a political idea—it is a tenet of a civil religion.

Because Americans employ the term so frequently, so ambiguously, and so often as an article of faith, I think it is important that we explore the history and theology of the idea. What are we talking about when we invoke American exceptionalism? What have Americans in the past meant when they have expressed nationalistic feeling in ways consistent with what we call exceptionalism?

And most importantly, what damage does American exceptionalism do to the Christian religion? What harm has the idea wrought within our own national community, and in the world? And is there any way the idea can be put to positive use in the ways we Americans self-identify and engage one another and other peoples of the world? I think America is an exceptional nation, and I also think that exceptionalism can serve as a model for healthy civic engagement—provided that we define it in open, political/social terms and reject its strong theological assertions.

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

JW: I was inspired to study history by my grandfather, Jasper N. Dorsey, my high school history teacher, Doug Frutiger, and my professors at Furman University, particularly Marian Strobel and Lloyd Benson. And David Puckett, my church history professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was another important person in my development as a student and as a scholar. American history is terribly fascinating to me, and since our history is so comparatively short, it is amazing how close we are to the events that shaped our nation. I’m not sure when I decided I wanted to make the study of history my life’s work, but I’m sure glad I did!

JF: What is your next project?

JW: Presently, I’m editing, abridging, and writing an introduction for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press. I’ll finish that project by the end of the year, and then I’d like to pursue a study of W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on American identity as his views evolved from his early to middle to late career.

JF: Thanks, John! Sounds like some great stuff.

Two Forms of Exceptionalism: Foner and Cheney

Over at The Anxious Bench blog, John Wilsey, a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores the various ways that Americans think about the United States as an “exceptional” nation. He compares the form of American exceptionalism espoused by Eric Foner in a recent article in The Nation with the view of exceptionalism recently put forth by Dick and Liz Cheney in the Wall Street Journal and in their new book Exceptional.  Here is a taste:

Foner argued that, if American exceptionalism has any basis of truth to it at all, that basis is found in the concept of birthright citizenship. He noted in his piece that the idea of birthright citizenship arose out of the injustice of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Americans had not always acted justly toward non-whites, as seen in the Dred Scott case of 1857 and in attempts to exclude Chinese people (among others) from citizenship in the late nineteenth century. But regardless of those violations of justice, Americans ultimately came to believe that, as Foner wrote, “anyone born here can be a good American.” Foner wrote that Republican presidential candidates now calling for an end to birthright citizenship in the name of American exceptionalism are really betraying it.
The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism differs significantly from Foner’s. While the Cheneys and Foner both talk about American ideals as being central to exceptionalism, the Cheneys see those ideals in terms of a global mission and responsibility. For the Cheneys, America is a superpower “because of our ideals and our power, and the power of our ideals.” America has championed causes of “freedom, security and peace for a larger share of humanity than any other nation in history” and is “the most powerful, good and honorable nation in the history of mankind.” And while America did not necessarily seek greatness, greatness was thrust upon her—and America has a profound duty in the world to champion righteousness and freedom wherever these are threatened.
Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is exemplarist. It is a conception that admits flaws, but conceives of those flaws as opportunities for correction. Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is rooted in the founding ideals of individual rights, basic human equality, and the human dignity on which those ideals are based. Foner’s articulation of American exceptionalism is open, inclusive, and expansive. While Americans do not always get it right, Americans remain perpetually unsatisfied with wrong, and seek, by fits and starts, to promote the ideals with which they began their national career.
The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism goes beyond mere example. To be sure, the Cheneys wrote that America began as an example, but after World War II, “we became freedom’s defender.” (We could quibble with their historical accuracy—they leave out America’s contribution to Allied victory in World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s messianic vision of American leadership in the Versailles peace, a vision that birthed the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism in the first place. But I digress.)
Two qualities animate the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism—missionary zeal and American innocence. The idea that America has been charged with a global mission to “defend freedom” anywhere and everywhere is not new. It can be traced back to the colonial Puritans in the seventeenth century, American revolutionary sermons in the eighteenth, the manifest destiny of “Young America” in the nineteenth, and Wilson’s messianism of the early twentieth. In the Cold War, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in Manichean terms, part of a cosmic conflict of good versus evil. And everyone remembers Reagan’s “evil empire speech” of 1983. Reagan was fond of loosely quoting Abraham Lincoln, calling America “the last best hope of humanity” and advocating for America’s indispensability and innate goodness in a world perpetually threatened by forces of wickedness.
In this closed form of exceptionalism—this form of exceptionalism that is largely informed by religiosity and nationalism—America has two things that no other nation has, or ever has had. The first is immense power, and the second is innate innocence. Only America has the ability to defeat threats to freedom, and only America has the righteous credibility to do so.
Read the rest here.
I encourage you to check out Wilsey’s forthcoming book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

The Author’s Corner with Gary Scott Smith

Gary Smith is Chair and Professor of History at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents?

GS: My book is a sequel to Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford, 2006). Both volumes, which analyze the religious convictions of eleven different presidents, were written because biographers and other scholars have paid scant attention to this important subject.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Religion in the Oval Office?

GS: My book explains how John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all exhibited a deep and meaningful faith that shaped their world views and characters. It analyzes how their religious convictions strongly influenced their political philosophy, analysis of issues, decision-making, and performance in office.

JF: Why do we need to read Religion in the Oval Office?

GS: A complete understanding of their lives, actions, and administrations of these eleven interesting and influential chief executives is impossible without considering their personal religious convictions. For example, their religious commitments strongly affected John Quincy Adams’s efforts to fund roads, canals, and educational institutions and promote diplomacy; William McKinley’s decisions to declare war against Spain and take control of the Philippines; Herbert Hoover’s quests to reform prisons and defend civil liberties; Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel; Bill Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty; Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and gay civil rights; and the crusades of several presidents to advance world peace. Moreover, their presidencies cannot be fully comprehended without analyzing the role religious factors and issues played in their elections to office or the relationship these chief executives had with religious leaders and constituencies. Many presidents have asserted that their faith in God helped them cope with immense challenges and gave them courage and equanimity in the midst of the storms that swirled around them. Several insisted that their faith grew stronger during their years in office. No other books explore these matters in depth.

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

GS: Although I became very interested in American history in junior high school, I did not decide to become an American historian until I was working on a M. Div. degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in my mid-twenties. At that point, I felt a call from God to pursue a Ph.D. in American religious history. That call was confirmed by an offer to work with Timothy L. Smith, one of the most respected scholars in this field, at Johns Hopkins University.

JF: What is your next project? 

GS: My wife and I are writing a book on children and poverty. It will be a popular rather than an academic book and will focuses on how Christians can help impoverished children around the world. We will discuss the problems of hunger, water, disease, violence, and human trafficking as well as child sponsorship, adoption, microfinance, parenting, and education. The book will focus on best practices and include interviews with practitioners and inspirational stories of people, businesses, churches, and aid organizations that are making a difference.
JF: Good stuff, thanks Gary!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

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

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.

Are Sarah Palin’s Remarks About Waterboarding Anti-Christian?

Yes.  



A few thoughts about this video.


1. She calls all liberals “hypocrites.”  I assume that this is just political rhetoric to get the crowd fired up, but she just might believe this.  This kind of generalizing only enhances divisiveness.  It also violates several dozen New Testament commands about judging others.


2.  She seems to imply that it is the responsibility of government to “put the fear of God in our enemies.”  How does she reconcile this with Romans 12:9?


3.  She endorses waterboarding– a form of torture


4.  She uses the Christian sacrament of baptism to make her point about waterboarding.


I could develop these points, but I don’t think I could do any better than Christian conservatives (or conservative Christians) Rod Dreher and Joe Carter.


Dreher at The American Conservative uses the term “sacrilegious” to describe Palin’s comments:


OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.


Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.


Here is Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition:


For anyone to confess Christ as their savior and to compare one of the means of God’s grace to an act of torture is reprehensible. I hope members of Gov. Palin’s local church will explain to her why her remarks denigrate the Christian faith. Such remarks bring shame on the Body of Christ and to our witness in the world. Even more shameful, however, is the fact that so many Christians would cheer her support of torture (and yes, waterboarding is torture).
Gov. Palin was attempting to appeal to the basest political populism (nothing in her remarks could be construed as genuinely conservative) by claiming that current U.S. counterterrorism policy is  overly-tolerant and empathetic toward our enemies. She contends that proper policies would “put the fear of God into our enemies.”
Unfortunately, what Palin is proposing is a mixture of pagan ethics and civil deistic religion. She could have provided a more useful recommendation by supporting a Christian view, for on this issue in particular, Christian anthropology not only provides the correct view but the only one that can provide an adequate framework in which to form our conception of our “enemies.”
I know that we have some readers from the Assembly of God Church, the Pentecostal denomination of which Palin is a part.  If you are one of those readers I would love to get your take on this.

"God Bless America" in Presidential Speeches

Nixon was the first one to say it.  Reagan made it popular.  David Domke and Kevin Coe have studied the use of the phrase in presidential speeches and have recorded their findings in The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.  I have not read the book, but I found this Huffington Post piece to be interesting.  Here is a taste:

The first president to say it was Richard Nixon, who dropped the phrase during an attempt at damage control for the burgeoning Watergate scandal on April 30, 1973.“Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything I do throughout the days of my presidency,” he said. “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”
The phrase didn’t catch on during the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter years, but Ronald Reagan’s presidency definitively ushered in the era of “God bless America.” Reagan used the line when accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1980, and made it his standard sign-off once in the White House. Since then, it’s become a standard part of the language of the American presidency.

A Civil Religion Vacation

Gettysburg: Hallowed ground?

Over at The Christian Century, Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm describes his “civil religion vacation” to some of America’s most “sacred” places–the Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg, and Hyde Park.  Here is a taste of his reflection on the trip:

Christians have always had a complicated relationship with nations and with the whole project of peace and prosperity. St. Augustine, whose biography I happened to be reading at the time, understood the peace of the Roman Empire as ultimately false when measured against the peace of the City of God. People in my line of work have always struggled to re­mind our patriotic faithful that the nation, however great, is not to be worshiped. We have imagined that Christian­ity embodies something both below the nation, in the poor and marginal who have always been left out of the great stories, and above the nation in virtues and hopes that civil religion cannot produce or explain.

Lincoln would later be reasonably accused of making the nation into a sort of church. Augustine’s earth was hallowed by the martyrs, while Lincoln’s ground was consecrated by the soldiers who strove for a new birth of freedom.

And yet the bone-deep longings and halfway triumphs of our own bloody national history are not lightly transcended, as one might move from Billy Joel to Chopin. The breaking of chains, literal and figurative, is an event full of religious meaning—as both Old and New Testa­ment in­sist. The wall-sized painting of Washington crossing the Delaware—“Whoa,” my son said when we came into its gallery at the Met—is grandiose and inaccurate in the manner of any icon. Which is to say that it is trying to express a truth that goes deeper than appearances.

In taking this trip with my family, I was trying to escape briefly my own hallowed piece of earth and my own high-minded vocation. Instead we found ourselves on ground littered with relics, hallowed with a liberal mixture of blood—and alive with all the memory and meaning we could bear.

Robert Bellah’s Civil Religion

Robert Bellah, 1927-2013

As you may know by now, sociologist Robert Bellah passed away last week at the age of 86.  Many know Bellah as the lead author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), a seminal study of the relationship between religion and the common good.  But most people don’t realize that Bellah also coined the term “civil religion” in a 1967 article in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Over at The New Republic Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin reflects on Bellah’s use of the term “civil religion.”  Here is a small taste:

But liberals and leftists in the U.S. have frequently embraced the same tradition, usually to make the case that protesting the status quo can be as legitimate as, and more virtuous than, defending it. During the 1890s, leaders of the radical People’s Party, composed mostly of evangelical Protestant farmers, compared their determination “to restore the republic to the hands of the plain people with which class it originated” to the second coming of Christ. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience of bus boycotters in Montgomery, “we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.” Obama struck a similar chord early in his Second Inaugural Address when he referred to the Declaration’s “exceptional” view of “unalienable rights” and quickly added, “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

Paul Harvey on "Lincoln," Race, and Civil Religion

Paul Harvey, historian of race and religion at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and blogmaster at Religion in American History, shares his thoughts on Spielberg’s Lincoln at Religious Dispatches.  Here is a taste:

But there is another level to consider here, as well—the civil religious myths that the film invokes, and the very limited growth in public understanding of those myths that the film ultimately suggests.

After the emotion evoked by the film subsides,  sober consideration begins here: why, in the supposedly “post-racial” age of Obama, is there no space in movies to imagine the historical story of African Americans creating the conditions of their own emancipation?

Is it because in the context of our civil religion of “great white men who end up doing the right thing,” we as a culture cannot yet imagine such a thing?

Historian Kate Masur, among others, has pointed out that the story historians have dug out of the archives—the story of African American actions which virtually forced enlistment in the army, emancipation, and reconstructing the Union with blacks in the polity—finds almost no place in the film.