Reflections on the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

The 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is over.  As program chair, I spent most of the weekend pinch-hitting for folks who were unable to come and making sure our plenary speakers were comfortable.  This is what program chairs do.  If I passed you in the hallway at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College and did not stop to chat please forgive me.  I hope we can catch-up soon.

I wanted to blog a lot more than I did this weekend.  I got off to a good start on Thursday night, but then fell silent.  If you want to learn all the cool things that happened this weekend check out the conference Twitter feed: #cfh2018.  I am sure Chris Gehrz will eventually have a wrap-up post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Here are some of my highlights:

On Friday morning I chaired Session 12: “Christian Historiography: Kuyper, Ellul and O’Donovan.”  As I listened to Richard Riss’s excellent paper on Jacques Ellul, I realized that I should have read more of this French philosopher as I prepared to write Believe Me.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University.  Elisabeth’s plenary address, “The Art of Living, Ancient and Modern,” challenged us to consider the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus as a way of countering the therapeutic culture of modern life.  Lasch-Quinn pushed us to move beyond the pursuit of the “good life” and consider what it might mean to live a “beautiful life.”

Lasch Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn delivers here Friday afternoon keynote address

Following Lasch -Quinn’s lecture and before the evening banquet, I got to spend time with my favorite Calvin College history major

Ally at CFH

Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University is the new president of the Conference on Faith and History and the organization’s second female president.   Her presidential plenary drew heavily on medieval sermons on the roles of women in the Church as a way of thinking about the place of women in the today’s church and the Conference on Faith and History.  She encouraged the conference to respect the past and move toward the future by listening to the voices of the record number of women in attendance.

Barr

Beth Allison Barr delivering her 2018 presidential address

On Friday evening, I got together with some old friends at a Grand Rapids funeral home that has been converted into a bar and grill.  As you see from the photo below, much of the stained glass from the funeral home chapel was preserved.

Bar

With Eric Miller (Geneva College), Jay Green (Covenant College), and Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)

Saturday began with a panel on Messiah College’s Civil Rights bus tour.  It was a great session and it made me proud to be part of Messiah’s work in the area of racial reconciliation.  It was also a privilege to chair a session with three of my Messiah colleagues.  Next time I won’t put them at 8:00am. (Sorry guys!)

After the Civil Rights session I had coffee with our latest sponsor of The Way of Improvement Leads Home PodcastBob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group.  If you are a community leader, a historical site administrator, or a museum professional, the Lyndhurst Group can help you with your public history outreach.  Bob is a great guy with lot’s of energy, enthusiasm, expertise, and experience. We are so happy that he is sponsoring the podcast.

After the CFH board meeting, I dropped in on Robert Orsi‘s plenary address, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.”  Orsi argued that scholars of religion must learn to pay attention to the relationship between religion and “horrors” such as pogroms, crusades, slavery, racism, misogny, and other “brutalities of everyday life.”  He suggested that “there may come a time when the human being who is also a scholar of religion reaches a limit of disgust.”  Beyond this limit, Orsi argued, “distinctions, qualifications, countervailing evidence, parsings, and other theoretical or hermeneutical subtleties fail.”  Orsi spent most of his time reflecting on “disgust” as a category of analysis in the context of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.  It was a tough session to sit through, but many felt it was necessary.

Orsi at Calvin

Late Saturday afternoon I chaired a session that may have been one of the best CFH panels I have ever attended.  Session 53, titled “Theology and Spirituality in the Doing of History,” included three magnificent papers on the place of love and Christian spirituality in the doing of history.  Wendy Wong Schirmer, a newcomer to the CFH, argued that Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love can help us think Christianly about the historian’s craft.  Brad Pardue of College of the Ozarks talked about how he integrates Christian practices into his history courses.  Mark Sandle of The King’s University (Alberta) delivered a powerful paper on loving the dead in the context of the archives. I hope all three of these papers will be published in Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.

It is not easy putting a 56-session conference together, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Joel Carpenter, Ellen Hekman, Jay Green, Eric Miller, Devon Hearn, and Robin Schwarzmann.  Thank you.  I am now going to take a nap.

Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

The Mayor of a Midwestern City Takes a Civil Rights Tour

Selma

Jim Throgmorton, the mayor of Iowa City, Iowa, recently took a tour of major Civil Rights Movement sites in the South.  Here is a taste of his brief reflection at the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

After departing the parsonage, we visited the recently opened Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A “narrative museum,” it tells the history of black Americans from enslavement, through the Jim Crow era of lynching and racial segregation, through the heroic actions of the Civil Rights Movement, to the present moment of mass incarceration and retrenchment.

Again, imagine yourself with us. Shortly after you enter the museum, you turn down a darkened pathway lined with replicas of slave cages. Looking into the first of the cages, you see a hologram of an enslaved black woman waiting to be sold at the nearby auction block. She begins speaking directly to you. You feel like you’ve just encountered the ghost of a mother who was about to lose her husband and children. It is an emotionally shattering experience.

Every American would benefit from exploring it slowly and telling friends about what they learned.

Read the entire piece here.

As some of you know, I took a similar tour in June 2017.  It inspired the final chapter of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

University of Virginia Theologian Charles Marsh is Quoted at the Royal Wedding

Beloved CommunityBishop Michael Curry, the head of the American Episcopal Church, preached the sermon at the royal wedding this morning.  During the sermon Curry quoted Charles Marsh’s book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today.

Ruth Graham has it covered here.  A taste:

The scripture he quoted included the Old Testament prophet Amos, a favorite passage of King’s: “Let justice roll down like a mighty stream, and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.” The lyrics he chose included the black American spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” which he introduced by noting that slaves in the American South had sung it “even in the midst their captivity.” The official transcript of Curry’s sermon does not include the mention of slavery, suggesting he was riffing just a bit—not unusual for a preacher, but notable considering Curry riffed in the direction of referencing slavery in front of the queen, not to mention hundreds of wealthy British dignitaries, some of whose family fortunes surely were built on the backs of enslaved people.

The scholars he referenced included the 20th-century Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom the Vatican has long held at arm’s length. Curry also quoted Charles Marsh, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia. “Jesus had founded the most revolutionary movement in human history,” Curry quotes Marsh writing, “a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love.” The quote comes from Marsh’s 2005 book, The Beloved Community, which traces the influence of faith on the Civil Rights movement and argues that the spiritual underpinnings of that movement can serve as a source of moral energy today.

Marsh’s book is essentially an argument for the enduring power of progressive Christianity. So was Curry’s sermon, whose central argument was the world-transforming power of love….

Read the entire piece here.

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Two New Sites Dedicated to the History of Lynching Open in Montgomery, Alabama

Lynching

April 26, 2018 marks the opening of two public history sites in Montgomery, Alabama:  The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  Both sites are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal services to prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.  You can learn more about Stevenson here.  He is perhaps best known for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here is a round-up of articles devoted to the grand openings of these two sites:

NPR

Washington Post

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

The Conversation

VOX

Time

Montgomery Advertiser

CBS News

Martin Luther King and the Televangelist

Michaux

Elder Michaux (on the far right) at the White House with boxer Jersey Joe Walcott (second from left)

This is a fascinating piece.  Over at Religion & Politics, Washington University professor Lerone Martin shows how the FBI used Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a popular black radio preacher and televangelist, to discredit Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

Here is a taste:

In an FBI memo following the historic March on Washington, the FBI labeled King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” and the nation’s top domestic security risk. The bureau had no evidence that King was a communist; in fact, the FBI concluded King and the civil rights movement he led were too religious to be influenced by communism. Contrary to the evidence, though, Hoover persisted in believing King had fallen under the influence of godless communism. King was leading the nation “in a form of racial revolution,” so he had to be stopped. On the same day the memo was drafted, the FBI sought Michaux’s help. The evangelist immediately launched a coordinated public critique against King and the gospel the civil rights minister preached. Michaux preached a radio sermon from the nation’s capital on CBS Standard and FM radio affiliates. The homily opposed the March on Washington and King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Michaux used the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Luke as his sermon text, proclaiming that King’s dream of racial equality would only materialize when God’s rule was established in the hearts of men. “Yes, righteousness will flow like a mighty stream,” Michaux said, quoting King. However, he qualified, it would only happen “when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—but not until then according to God’s Word.” Advocating for legislative change was futile, according to Michaux; changing hearts was the only way to bring about racial equality. He closed the sermon by telling his listeners to cease marching and simply “seek to do the will of God and be blessed.” It was one thing to hear this from white evangelists like Billy Graham, but it was a weightier matter to hear it from a pioneering black cleric.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is an example of Michaux in action:

When RFK Announced the Death of MLK

This week–April 4th to be exact–is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Over at Smithsonian.com, historian Alice George reflects on Robert Kennedy’s announcement of King’s death.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Kennedy knew King’s death would generate bitterness and calls for vengeance: “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

After the initial shock, the audience listened silently except for two moments when they cheered RFK’s peace-loving message.

“It’s a very un-speech speech,” says Harry Rubenstein, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “When you watch Kennedy giving the news of King’s assassination you see him carefully and hesitantly stringing his ideas together. Ultimately, what makes the speech so powerful is his ability to share the loss of his own brother to an assassin, as he pleas with his audience not to turn to violence and hate.” Rubenstein concludes.

“It’s the first time he talks publicly about his brother’s death and that he has suffered the angst and anguish of losing someone so important to him, and they were all suffering together . . . . everyone on the stage as well as in the crowd. And there was a real vulnerability in that,” adds curator Aaron Bryant from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It was such a risky thing for him to do as well because he was confronting a crowd that was ready to retaliate for the death of Martin Luther King, but he was ready to confront any retaliation or anger that people might have felt over King’s death. That took a certain amount of courage and spiritual power and groundedness,” says Bryant.

Read the entire piece here.

Was There a Civil Rights Act of 1960?

Civil Rights 1960Yes.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill historian William Sturkey explains in a piece titled “The Hidden History of the Civil Rights Act of 1960.”

Here is a taste:

You might be asking: “Was there a Civil Rights Act of 1960?” Yes indeed there was. And it was quite significant, but only if understood through the convoluted system of voter disfranchisement during the era of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 helped prove racially, discriminatory voter-registration practices and provided evidence used to help pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This post explains how and why.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were the first pieces of federal civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction. Initially conceived to better enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, the 1957 Act was met with fierce resistance from southern white segregationist senators. During months of hearings and debates—including the longest filibuster to that point in the Senate’s history—the bill was effectively stripped of concrete federal mechanisms to enforce school desegregation or protect southern Black voting rights. The most important accomplishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the establishment of a (then) temporary investigative unit named the Commission on Civil Rights and the creation a new assistant attorney general for civil rights.

African American pundits immediately criticized the limitations of the 1957 bill. Journalist Ethel L. Payne, the “First Lady of the Black Press,” called the final version a “battered, almost unrecognizable version of the civil rights bill passed by Congress after virtually all the teeth had been pulled.” A Chicago Defender editorial concluded, “this legislation proves to be much weaker than we had previously expected.” And NAACP leader Roy Wilkins later labelled the act “A Small Crumb from Congress.” Even Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped usher passage of the bill, famously acknowledged the legislation as “half a loaf” of bread. Although some have celebrated the historical significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, historians have largely agreed with the sentiments of its contemporaneous critics, generally concluding that the bill was ineffective and unenforced, except in a few rare instances.

Read the rest here.

 

Witnessing and Winning

King prayingCheck out Ruth Braunstein‘s piece at The Immanent Frame: “Good troublemakers.”  It is an interesting piece on humility and the “prophetic voice.”

She writes:

American history has been punctuated by the actions of modern prophets who have called society to account for its sins, which, they have argued, constituted a breach of Americans’ covenant with God. Some of these men and women are remembered as cranks or retrograde theocrats, while others have been enshrined as champions of democracy and human rights. Yet even those who fall in the latter camp were often viewed in their time as crazies, troublemakers, and extremists, crying out in the wilderness, speaking truth to power, however unpopular it made them. They persisted because they believed they were called to do so—by God.

Confidence in one’s convictions is necessary under such conditions. Yet this same moral righteousness can also lead people to stop listening to others, to become so confident they have all the answers that they become unwilling to admit they may be wrong. Even if these prophets privately harbored doubts about their calling, once they decided to “follow the prophets,” as Nora put it, this involved playing a role. And performing prophecy means performing certainty.

Public performances of moral certainty (like many forms of protest, religious and otherwise) stand in tension with prevailing visions of how democratic citizens should interact with one another across their differences. These visions emphasize intellectual, orepistemic, humility, embodied in practices like public debate, deliberation, and negotiation, which convey an openness to the possibility that one could learn something new by listening to people whose views differ from one’s own.

Today, as political arrogance, partisan polarization, and information tribalism threaten to engulf our public life, it is crucial that we recover the political skills, spaces, and practices that encourage greater humility. This is not only necessary to strengthen democracy; it can also be an effective strategy for achieving practical goals. Indeed, even many activists who are driven by strong moral convictions believe they can achieve more by being pragmatic rather than prophetic—they wish to “win and not just ‘witness.’”

Read the rest here.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

The Civil Rights Movement and the Search for a Usable Past

TheoharisOver at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviews Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis about the various ways the Civil Rights Movement has been used in present-day politics.  Some of you may recall that this issue of the Civil Rights Movement and “usable pasts” was on the forefront of my mind this summer when I took a Civil Rights-era bus tour.

Theoharis is the author of the forthcoming A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.  Here is a taste of the interview:

JS: Before we get into some of these specific examples, I’m just wondering about your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.

JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.

And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.

And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so, as you’re implying politicians, citizens, constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions, to chastise contemporary movements; whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.

Read the entire piece here.

Jill Lepore on the Ironies of the Free Speech Movement

Stokley-black-Power-Berkeley

Check out her piece at The New Yorker.  Both the left and the right have been on the side of “free speech.”

Here is a taste:

In the half century between the elections of Governor Reagan and President Trump, the left and the right would appear to have switched sides, the left fighting against free speech and the right fighting for it. This formulation isn’t entirely wrong. An unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech are among the failures of the left. Campus protesters have tried to silence not only alt-right gadflies but also serious if controversial scholars and policymakers. Last month, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was shouted down by students at Howard University. When he spoke about the importance of conversation, one protester called out, “White supremacy is not a debate!” Still, the idea that the left and the right have switched sides isn’t entirely correct, either. Comey was heckled, but, when he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. The same day, Trump called for the firing of N.F.L. players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. And Yiannopoulos’s guide in matters of freedom of expression isn’t the First Amendment; it’s the hunger of the troll, eager to feast on the remains of liberalism.

Read the entire piece here.