AHA Roundtable: Historians’ Perspectives on Web Ethics

I am participating in a roundtable on historians and web ethics at AHA Today.  Check out the roundtable posts by bloggers Ben Alpers (U.S. Intellectual History), Ann Little (Historiann), and Clare Potter (Tenured Radical). 

Here is my contribution:

At The Way of Improvement Leads Home I am constantly dealing with issues related to civility. Perhaps I have an overly pessimistic view of human nature, but I assume that people writing in the comments section of the blog or tweeting a response to a post I have written are going to be tempted to say things that they would not say to me (or another commentator) in a face to face setting.  As a result, the burden of cultivating civility in the blogosphere probably rests more with the blogger than the commentator. In my attempts at creating a productive and professional space for the exchange of ideas at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I often have to enter the comment stream in order to rebuke commentators for their incivility. I don’t care if commentators have ideological disagreements or if they want to take issue with a post. I welcome this kind of exchange and value those regular commentators who contribute dissenting perspectives on the things that I write. But I will not tolerate name calling, a failure to empathize with an opposing viewpoint, or a general rudeness or lack of manners. I usually give a warning to the perpetrators and, if they continue in their incivility, I remove their comment. I realize that this may sound undemocratic or heavy-handed, but The Way of Improvement Leads Home is my space on the web and I want to make sure that my readers—most of whom are not scholars—have a comfortable space to share their thoughts.

I am particularly troubled when historians engage in uncivil behavior in the blogosphere. We are trained to listen and understand before casting judgment. I hope that this applies to both the dead people we study and the living people we encounter in our everyday lives, both on and off the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of blogs are often conducive to sloppy historical thinking on this front.

Of course all web commentary is not the same. As an independent blogger unaffiliated with a larger website or online publication, I have the liberty to monitor my blog as I see fit. A majority of my readers are return visitors, thus creating an intellectual community whose members understand the culture of respect and civility I am trying to cultivate. The Way of Improvement Leads Home does not get anywhere near the number of comments as the large political or academic blogs, but I would like to think it is a safer place to create and share ideas. If historians are going to reach the general public on the web with thoughtful teaching and dialogue about the past and its relationship to the present, then we need to think hard about the spaces we have created for this kind of learning to happen. 

Thanks to Vanessa Varin of the American Historical Association for putting this roundtable together.  You can comment on the roundtable at AHA Today or @ahahistorians using the hashtag #webethics.  I look forward to the conversation.

Quote of the Day

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.  There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population.  Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.”  When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.  They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.”  Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”  This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

–Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 30.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Some Thoughts on Dr. Ben Carson’s Prayer Breakfast Speech"

Political conservatives are singing the praises of Dr. Ben Carson’s speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast.  Carson, a Johns Hopkins University pediatric surgeon and an evangelical Christian, used the speech to attack political correctness and Obamacare.  Oh, and did I mention that the President of the United States was seated a few feet to his right during the entire speech?

Watch the speech here.

Over at his blog “Clear, Expert, and Entertaining Connections,” Regent College (Vancouver, BC–not Virginia Beach) theology professor John Stackhouse is not happy with Carson or his speech: 

Some of our American cousins are a-twitter (so to speak) over the speech given by surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson at the National Prayer Breakfast before the President and 3000 other dignitaries. It will get whatever critique it deserves on its political merits from others, no doubt, and that’s the point of this brief theological musing: It was a political speech, not anything remotely resembling a theologically informed talk, let alone an actual sermon.

Yes, Carson began with four Scripture verses—to which he did not then refer throughout the rest of his 27-minute address. Yes, he mentioned God or Jesus a few times—much as President George W. Bush did, namely, as the source of his public policy ideas (notably the flat tax as directly deriving from the principle of the Old Testament tithe, a hermeneutical move no one who has passed an elementary course in Biblical interpretation would ever make), the rationale for his rhetorical choice to tell what he called “parables” (most speakers don’t feel obliged to invoke divine sanction for employing illustrations), and, indeed, his “role model.” Of course, we heard about “one nation under God.” And with that we got mostly the “gospel” of self-help.

I have to agree with Stackhouse…. 

Read the rest here.

Lessons from the Chick-fil-A–Shane Windmeyer Friendship

From Elizabeth Tenety at The Washington Post:

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the LGBT group Campus Pride, wrote a hugely viral blogpost for the Huffington Post this week in which he explained how he became friends with Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A 

The fast-food chain has drawn nationwide criticism from gay rights activists in recent months because of Cathy’s statements on marriage and Chick-fil-A’s support of anti-gay organizations. After Windmeyer’s group led a nationwide boycott of the chain with a “Five Simple Facts about Chick-fil-A” campaign in the summer of 2012, Cathy reached out to him. Campus Pride suspended its boycott; Windmeyer and Cathy’s subsequent, still-evolving friendship allowed the unlikely pair to enjoy a football game together on New Year’s Eve.


Windmeyer was raised Catholic, but although he still defines himself that way, he no longer attends church services regularly. “I don’t want to not feel welcome anymore,” he says.

Could Windmeyer’s popular column represent one possible way forward amid the bitter stalemate between gay rights activists and the — often religious — supporters of traditional marriage?

From an interview with Windmeyer about his friendship with Cathy, here are five lessons for people on both sides of the marriage argument:

1.  Let’s talk to each other 

2.  Let’s see each other as humans worthy of dignity

3.  Let’s understand what our differences really are and let’s seek to find common ground

4. Let’s not be serious all the time

5. Let’s all be willing to give a little
 

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "What Does Democracy Require of Us?"

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood before the crowd at the United States capitol building to deliver his second inaugural address.  Lincoln was addressing a nation nearing the conclusion of a long and bloody Civil War that took 600,000 lives.  The speech was far from triumphant.  It was a meditation on one of the most tragic moments in American history.  It would have been easy for Lincoln to cast scorn and punishment down upon the defeated Confederacy.   This, after all, is what the religious leaders of the day had been doing since the outbreak of war in 1861.  Northern ministers believed that the inevitable Union victory was confirmation that God was indeed on the side of the North.

But Lincoln wasn’t so sure.  After all, both sides in this conflict read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.  “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes.”  Lincoln would not settle for easy theological answers.  He appealed instead to the mystery of God.  And he made sure that no one in the North would use the Civil War to bring further division to the country he loved.  Lincoln knew that there were politicians in his own political party who were ready to exploit this tragedy for political gain.  These “Radical Republicans” were prepared to humiliate southerners by making it very difficult for them to return to the Union.  With this in mind, Lincoln urged the nation to approach the post-war settlement “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”  All Americans, Lincoln suggested, were to blame for this ugly war.  The hands of both the North and the South had been dirtied by slavery.  It was now time for national repentance.  Lincoln implied that his northern politician friends should be careful to take the plank out of their own eye before they passed Reconstruction legislation to remove the speck from the collective eye of the former Confederacy.  Citing Matthew 7:1, he was careful to remind the American people to be cautious about judging the South: “but let us judge not that we be judged.”

Read the rest here.

The Bush Test

As Mark Bauerlein notes, the name “George W. Bush” is a conversation stopper in most academic settings. As he puts it:

…the mention of the man’s name halts one conversation and ignites another one.  In gatherings with academic friends and colleagues, it has a visceral effect.  I’ve witnessed it time and again as people have talked about the economy or about education or about the Middle East and I recalled No Child Left Behind or the highway/transportation bill or Bush’s disgust with Arafat, always adding the ex-President’s name.

When Bauerlein finds himself in one of these conversation he invokes “The Bush Test.”  Here it is:

For awhile, I responded by invoking this or that fact, mildly raising a bit of evidence to complicate the Bush-was-100-percent-wrong judgment, such as the superiority of Bush’s appointments to the agencies closest to their work (the NEH and NEA).  But when the animus is so strong, facts and qualifiers can’t be heard.  Bush was so contemptible, stupid, heedless, stubborn, anti-intellectual, anti-science, cowboy-ish, and incompetent that any exculpatory point strikes them as a treacherous compromise.

It looks Elton John would pass the Bush Test:

Gerson: Obama Has No Right to Complain About the Lack of Civility

According to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, America is on its way to becoming “a nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.”  We have become so polarized that civility seems impossible.

If I got everyone on my Facebook wall together for a political conversation there is a good chance that Wrestlemania 29 might break out.  (OK–I had to look up that Wrestlemania reference.  Thank you Wikipedia).  Things are that bad.

I had a nice conversation with some of the folks in attendance at a lecture I gave on this subject last weekend at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Ocean City.  We were all pretty skeptical about a sudden cease-fire in the culture wars, but I still held out hope that something along these lines was possible. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills.  I have been known to do this kind of thing.

How can we expect a nation to move forward when we have a Republican member of the House of Representatives (Allen West from Florida) claiming that “about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party” are “members of the Communist Party.”  Or his Democratic colleague in the Florida delegation, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, claiming that all Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.”

Obama admits that he has failed to fix the divisive culture of Washington.  He had hoped that he would be able to “change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people.” It has not panned out.  And those of you who think that Obama is to blame for this nasty political climate, let’s remember that things were not much better when George W. Bush was in office.  In fact, they were not much better in the 1790s either.  (Sometimes we need a little history lesson.  It gives us perspective).

But according to Gerson, Obama, at least for now, is part of the problem. His attacks on Mitt Romney in recent weeks have been vicious, especially coming from a president who laments the fact that he has not made Washington a more civil and decent place.

This ad is politically effective, and the message might even be true, but it does nothing to fix the culture of American politics:

If Obama really wants to change the culture of Washington he will have to rise above the kind of negative campaigning that has defined American politics since before the Civil War.  Of course, if history is any barometer, this is not going to happen.  Obama is a product of a corrupt electoral system just like every other national political candidate.  In order to survive politically he must do what he has to do to win re-election.  Any attempt to transcend this system would be an act of morality and political bravery.  But it will also result in electoral losses. 

Gerson is right when he says that “political polarization is the product of democracy that undermines democracy.” 

Prothero on Jefferson

Stephen Prothero has a short column in today’s USA Today on Thomas Jefferson, David Barton, and American political and civil discourse.

He begins with David Barton and his attempt to turn Thomas Jefferson into an orthodox Christian and concludes with Jefferson’s efforts, in his first inaugural address, to move the country beyond the partisan divisions of the 1790s.  While many turn to Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a statement of reconciliation and national healing, Prothero reminds us that Jefferson had a similar vision when he became president in 1801.

Prothero argues that the way around the culture wars and “partisan creep” is what he calls “The American Bible.”  I will let him explain:

Americans have never agreed on a common creed of our public life, but we do share two things: a collection of core texts and the ritual of arguing about them. Just as Catholics come together to participate in the Mass, Americans come together to debate what these speeches, songs and stories tell us about “America” and “Americans.”

Two quick thoughts:

1.  I have not finished Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, but I do not think Barton ever tries, as Prothero describes it, to paint Jefferson as an “orthodox Christian.”  While Barton wants to show that Jefferson deeply valued Christianity and the contribution it could make to a republic, I think he is willing to admit that Jefferson was not orthodox or evangelical.  (Although I am sure that this is not a part of his public presentations to churches).

2.  Prothero says that he does not aim to criticize Barton, only to make sense of his many fans.  I wish his column would have developed his thoughts on this point a bit more.  There have been a lot of criticism on the content and methodology of Barton’s work, but very little written about why his approach to the American past is so attractive to so many people.  Perhaps I need to read Prothero’s The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide, and Define a Nation to learn more.

My Morning with the Fundraisers

This morning I got a chance to do something new.  I gave a talk about history, the humanities, and civility to the staff of the Messiah College Office of Development.  It was entitled “Beyond Glenn Beck: The Public Responsibility of the Christian Historian.”

I was invited to speak to this group at their annual retreat to discuss my recent run-in with Glenn Beck and talk about my vocation as a historian.  Since the folks on the fundraising side of the college had to deal with a lot of angry phone calls in the wake of the Beck incident, Jon Stuckey, the Director of Development, wanted his staff to put a name to a face and hear some of my thoughts on the relationship between humanistic learning and civil discourse in a democratic society.

First of all, the fundraising and alumni relations staff at Messiah College are a great group of people.  I had a lot of fun being with them today.  During their informal breakfast together they watched a tape of a recent Messiah alum competing for cash and valuable prizes on The Price is Right!

Second, I definitely saw the value in doing this kind of thing.  During the Q&A I got to learn a little bit about the challenges that the Office of Development faces in raising funds for the college. And I hope that they realized that professors who write controversial articles, op-eds, and blog posts are real human beings who can be passionate about the mission of Messiah College.

I think faculty at smaller colleges need to do these kinds of things more often.  It turns out that I had a lot in common with our fundraising staff.  I even learned about another book by Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual writers.

Barack Obama and Civility

Is Barack Obama exercising civic virtue when he excoriates his political opponents?  In other words, is he placing the good of the country–a country in which close to half of the people did not (2008) or will not (2012) vote for him–over his own ideas.  Mark Bauerlein thinks that Obama is not following the model of civic virtue set forth by our first president, George Washington.

Of course to compare any modern president’s commitment to civic virtue during an election year to George Washington is anachronistic.  Washington did not have to campaign for the presidency.  The political culture of late eighteenth-century America was quite different.  Washington could supposedly rise above the divisiveness of partisanship because he had no serious opponents.  Moreover, he did not have to appeal to common people because they could not vote.  In fact, the popular vote in presidential elections was not counted until 1824.

Let’s take this Washington analogy a bit further.  Washington should be commended for his “country-first” public persona, but at the same time, as some of the best Washington scholarship has noted, he was just as self-interested as anyone else when it came to his investments in land.  So let’s celebrate Washington’s commitment to civic virtue, but let’s do so with care.

But having said all that, I wonder if Bauerlein’s main point–that Obama has degraded his Republican opponents in an “unseemly” way–is true.  I also wonder if such attacks, as unseemly as they may be, are also inevitable in our current political climate.  This is less of an attempt to provide an excuse for Obama than it is a criticism of our democratic culture.

Here is a taste of Bauerlein’s piece at Brainstorm:

One of the elements of civic virtue, as stated above, is the capacity to lead opponents, to run for office as an incumbent but not let the campaigning undercut leadership of all.  The President, then, must meet a standard higher than anyone else’s on this issue.  The other party’s candidates will attack from the start.  Indeed, attacks on the president begin a few hours after the inauguration, that goes with the job.  But the president can’t respond in kind without alienating a good portion of the nation that he must lead.  Anger at the other side will now and then slip out, an occasional vent will happen, but aggressive and personal campaigning must be restrained (at least until the last weeks before the vote happens).

Sad to say, this isn’t the case with President Obama.  Since the beginning, he has shown a thin-skinned attitude toward his adversaries, an inability to sit down comfortably with the other side.  One reason, I think, lies in his dearth of executive experience.  Another reason lies in the idolatry that preceded his inauguration, one that was bound to collapse once the quotidian rigors of governance began.

And his conclusion:

We hear much about civility in public life, and many colleges now insert civility discussions into the curriculum.  More and more, President Obama’s speeches are worth studying as examples of incivility, of precisely what a president should not do this far out from the election.  Cheap and puerile, they offer the guilty pleasures of raillery, a moment’s chuckle and a lengthening contempt for people of different views.  Such rhetoric coming out of the president’s mouth poisons civic life, for every time he throws a cynical and insulting characterization to the audience, he licenses the blowhard talking head, the obnoxious columnist, and hordes of lesser incumbent politicians in their own campaigns to do the same.

Political Partisanship in Academia

Timothy Dalrymple, one of the content editors at Patheos, has proven to be a very thoughtful conservative voice.  In his most recent post at his blog Philosophical Fragments, Dalrymple reflects on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  (Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column on this book). 

Haidt argues that liberals form their political beliefs based on the values of caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty, while conservatives form their political beliefs based on the values of loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.

Here is a taste:

As Kristof puts it: “Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal,’ were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.”  Tom Chivers at the Telegraph goes on to say that the “very liberal” were “especially bad at guessing what conservatives would say about issues of care or fairness. For example, most thought that conservatives would disagree with statements like ‘One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal’ or ‘Justice is the most important requirement for a society.’”

If this is correct, then conservatives and moderates are better than liberals at understanding the views of those with whom they differ.  And I thought liberals were the one’s who celebrated the virtue of empathy?

Dalrymple blames much of the political polarization in today’s society on the liberal nature of the academy.  Another taste:

The liberalization of the American educational establishment has been a colossal failure.  Liberals overtook the universities because (reasonably) they saw them as the way to shape a more progressive society in the long term.  They insisted that they could set aside their own partisan beliefs and teach in ways that are fair to both sides.  It is abundantly clear, however, that a progressive political mindset prevails in the American university system, especially at the elite levels.  It’s more difficult for conservative professors to be hired or receive tenure, it’s more difficult for conservative students to speak up without fear of the consequences, and liberal students emerge from the universities with a terrifically superficial understanding of the conservative mindset — and American society is the poorer for it.

When you look at the three values that conservatives (according to Haidt) honor but liberals do not — loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity — these are precisely the values that are flouted in the precincts of American academe.  The result is a more impoverished moral imagination amongst students, a stubborn inability to understand the beliefs and the motives of conservatives, and thus the imputation of nefarious motives to those irrational conservatives who do not see things in the ways the illuminati do.  If you don’t believe that this has contributed to the partisanship we’ve observed in recent years — particularly the exceedingly nasty way in which liberals in general have responded to the Tea Party movement, to social conservatives and generally to anyone who refers too much to moral sanctity and loyalty to American traditions and institutions, then I think you’re wearing exactly the kind of blinders Haidt talks about.

OK readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, have at it.

Three Cheers for John DeGioia

Over at the website of Time, Jon Meacham praises Georgetown University president John DeGioia, a Catholic layperson, for coming to the defense of Sandra Fluke.  You may recall that Fluke is the Georgetown law student who Rush Limbaugh recently called a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her testimony before Congress in support of the Obama administration’s proposed requirement that religiously affiliated institutions cover contraception for their employees.

I have a hunch (and I am only guessing here) that DeGioia, as president of a Catholic university, may not agree with Fluke or Obama.  Nevertheless, his call for civility and his own example of civility is worth noting.  Here is a taste of Meacham’s piece:

DeGioia invoked St. Augustine to seal the point. “In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: ‘Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.’ If we, instead, allow coarseness, anger—even hatred—to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.”

All of us should take that stand with DeGioia.

Thanks Amy Bass!

For the past several years I have been subtly trying to get Amy Bass to invite me to work in the NBC research room at the Olympic Games. (I’m ready for London, Amy–just make the call!). Amy is a friend and a very accomplished historian.  For two weeks every other year she has the distinction of being the person who makes Bob Costas look good.  Maybe some day she will see fit to hire me for the research room and allow me to check “going to the Olympics” off of my bucket list.

Amy and I have our disagreements.  (I am sure that some of my posts here drive her crazy).  But I often reference my relationship with her whenever I talk to people about how two intellectuals with relatively different world views can still converse with one another and learn from one another.

Having said all this, I am very flattered that Amy has chosen to write about my recent kerfluffle with Glenn Beck at the blog of the University of Minnesota Press.  You can read it here.  And while your at it, check out :

Amy Bass, Not the Triumph But the Struggle: 1868 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Amy Bass, Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle Over W.E.B. DuBois.

Thanks

My mailbox, Facebook page, and blog have been filled today with encouraging and supportive comments about my run in with the Glenn Beck folks and my selection as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.  Thank you so much for your support. I hope I can get a chance to thank you all in person.  You don’t know how much this outpouring has meant to me.  I especially want to thank Chris Gehrz, Paul Harvey, and Jamie Boehmer for blog posts.

I pray that something good can come from this whole incident.  I hope we can put it behind us and move forward in the fostering a more benevolent and civil society.

Thanks again!

The Culture Wars Are Real

Anyone who thinks that the culture wars are over has not experienced what I went through today.  Last night Glenn Beck’s “news” website, The Blaze.com, published an article about my last Patheos column.  In that column I criticized Barack Obama for not following through on the faith-based initiatives he proposed in 2008.

But this was not the part of the piece that caught the attention of the folks at The Blaze.

Rather, the “powers-that-be” at The Blaze decided to focus their article on my statement that Barack Obama was “the most explicitly Christian president in America.”  Last night they decided to run a story entitled “Messiah College Professor: ‘Obama May Be the Most Explicitly Christian President in American History.'”  The piece has lit a fire under the Beck faithful. When I awoke this morning I had dozens of angry e-mails.  The voice-mail on my office phone was filled with nasty attacks.  The Blaze currently has 800+ comments and the originally piece at Patheos has about 160.  Most of them are attacks on my piece.  I also heard that Beck talked about me on his radio program today.

In the last 24 hours I have been called a lot of names.  I have been compared to Hitler, Louis Farrakhan, and Woodrow Wilson (yes, you read that last one correctly).  Several expressed wishes that I be cast into perdition.  A few demanded that the administration at the college where I teach fire me immediately.   The culture wars are real.

I do not want to dwell on this too much.  As a writer I realize that in the United States people are free to disagree.  I guess that comes with the territory.  But I would like to at least make two comments:

1.  I continue to stand by my argument about Barack Obama being the most explicitly Christian president in American history.  Perhaps I could have said this more clearly, but I do not know of any president (certainly not Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, the three presidents who I focused on in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?) who has talked more openly about his Christian faith than Obama.  If future historians judge Obama’s rhetoric in the same way that today’s historians judge the rhetoric of George Washington or John Adams or any other president, they will conclude that Obama has used his faith as part of his public rhetoric to a much greater extent than these Founders.  When I wrote this I was not making a statement about whether Obama utilizes Christian faith correctly or not.  I was rather making a statement about how explicitly Christian Obama’s rhetoric happens to be.

I do not agree with many of Obama’s policies.   Some of my disagreements stem from my Christian faith.  I tried to reference some of my disappointment with Obama in my Patheos piece.  But when Obama says he is a Christian, I take him at his word.  I think Jesus said something about he who is without sin cast the first stone.

2.  After what happened to me today I am even more deeply convinced about the need for civil dialogue in America.  You can read the comments for yourself, but I would say that most of the 800 comments on The Blaze have nothing to do with the argument of my piece.  They instead focused on the controversial headline.

But even if some of Glenn Beck’s followers did read the whole piece and concluded that they disagreed with my argument, the level of vitriol I have experienced today has made me concerned for our country.  How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding?  I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities.  It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.

My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian remind me that we are human beings, created in the image of God, and thus worthy of respect.  My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian calls me to listen to those with whom I might disagree and perhaps even learn something from them.  To do otherwise is a failure to love my neighbor (Mt. 22:39–I did not feel much love from my Christian brothers and sisters who wrote to me today).  My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian teaches me humility and reminds me that sometimes I may need to sacrifice my own deeply held convictions for a better opinion.

Democracy does not require us to abandon our most cherished beliefs.  Far from it.  Democracy implies that we bring our cherished beliefs to the public arena (and the Internet) with vigor.  A democracy offers the opportunity to debate others with whom we differ and try to convince them–rationally and civilly–to come over to our point of view.  As Christians, we are required by God to love our enemies, but in the process we might even learn something from them.  The cultivation of this kind of democratic culture is America’s best hope.

A Proposal: American History for a Civil Society

I was recently browsing the web and came across the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue & the Common Good.  From what I can tell, it seems to be a well-funded center devoted to the promotion of a “good society,” a “good economy,” and a “good life.”

Frankly, I am quite impressed with their mission.  I am interested in many of the questions the leaders of the Agora Institute are asking.  At this point, they seem to have a somewhat conservative bent (at least in terms of the speakers they have invited), but I know that Eastern University is a rather diverse place and questions of civic virtue and the pursuit of the common good are issues that transcend partisanship and left-right ideology.

As I looked at the Agora Institute website, I thought about a vision that I have had for some time about a center or institute devoted to the study of American history and its implications for the common good and civil society.  It is time to share this vision with my readers.

I am in the process of completing a book that, in part, explores the kind of civic virtues that the study of history can promote in American society.  (And any society, for that matter).  Anyone who has followed this blog or reads my Patheos column (especially here and here and here and here) is familiar with my ideas on this front.  My thirteen-year career as a history professor, and some of my own reading and study at the intersection of theology, history, and civil society, has led me to the conclusion that the study of the past, and the process of historical thinking, has the potential to produce citizens who not only understand how to think about the way the past informs the present, but also see the past as an encounter with a “foreign country” that can result in the cultivation of certain social virtues such as humility, reconciliation, intellectual and cultural hospitality, empathy, and solidarity.

What might such a center or institute look like?  First, it would be ideal if it could be connected to an institution of higher learning, but it does not have to be.  Second, it would offer programs on historical thinking and historical content to a wide swath of the public.  American history teachers would benefit from seminars in content, but also in historical thinking and pedagogy.  High school students would benefit from summer institutes or “history camps.”  Churches would benefit from workshops in church history and American religious history.  College students could benefit from intensive summer programs in historical thinking and its connection to civil society.  The general public could benefit from intellectually rigorous tours of historical sites.

Of course such a center would have a social media presence, a public lecture series, and perhaps even a radio program and podcast.

I know this is a big vision, but we history professors can dream, can’t we?

What do you think?

And if there is anyone out there who has a few million dollars to invest in such a project I would love to hear from you!!