Commonplace Book #119

…human beings enjoy a dignity and value that no other creatures possess.  Too often we have arrogantly distorted this uniqueness into an unbridled license to trample and destroy the rest of creation.  Actually, the biblical text explicitly commands people to “work it and take care of” the rest of creation (Gen. 2:15 NIV).  But the truth remains–and it is fundamental to the whole project of civilization–that human beings possess a unique dignity and worth.

But what exactly does it mean to be created in the image of God?  There have been two major ways that Christians through the ages have understood the imago Dei: a substantial and a relational understanding.  Those in the substantial tradition (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) identify some essential capacity or faculty (e.g., our reason that makes rational thought possible or our will that enables us to choose freely) that distinguishes persons sharply from the rest of creation.  People in this tradition tend to put less emphasis on the way that the fall has damaged the imago Dei in sinful persons.

Those in the relational tradition (e.g. Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth) understand the imago Dei by analogy with a mirror that reflects some object.  The imago Dei, then, is not something inherent in persons, but rather the imago Dei is the relationship with God, which exists when one obeys God.  Through one’s right relationship with God, one truly reflects God’s will and thus bears God’s image.  In this view, sin largely or completely destroys the imago Dei in fallen people.  

Ronald Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, 52-53

Commonplace Book #118

Evangelical pronouncements on the role of government are often contradictory.  Sometimes when attacking government measures they dislike, evangelical voices use libertarian arguments that forbid almost all government programs to help the poor. (“Helping the poor is a task for individuals and churches, not the government.  Government should provide a legal framework, fair courts, and police protection but then leave almost everything else to the free choice of individuals.”)  But when the issue changes from the poor to the family, the definition of marriage, abortion, or pornography, the same people quickly abandon libertarian arguments that maximize individual freedom.  Instead they push vigorously  for legislation that involves substantial government restriction of individual choices.  It is possible that there are valid intellectual arguments for adopting libertarian arguments in the first case and nonlibertarian arguments in the second.  But a careful argument would have to be made.  Without such argument, flipping from libertarian to nonlibertarian arguments looks confused and superficial.

Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, 20.

Commonplace Book #117

The idea of secularism has been in play for centuries–some might say millennia.  At the assorted genius bars of Western Civilization, it has long been one of the regulars, and as such it has been defined in a lot of plausible ways….Yet the following definition seems powerful, precise, and the most conducive to its survival: Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.  It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion, and (2) a state’s need to maintain order.

Jacques Berlinerblau, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, xv-xvi.

Commonplace Book #116

…presidential musicals have only rarely shaped presidential politics. Sometimes a musical’s political impact is unexpected, as when a catchy musical number in the 1950s Ethel Merman vehicle Call Me Madam (“They Like Ike”) introduced a turn of phrase that would become one of the most effective political slogans of the twentieth century.  As the historian David Haven Blake has noted, “Long before Dwight Eisenhower had joined a political party, let alone agreed to run for office, Call Me Madam was advocating for an Eisenhower presidency.  Sometimes presidents have tried to shape musicals.  Richard Nixon sought the excision of certain musical numbers such as “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” (which depicted Revolutionary War era conservatives as financially motivated warmongers) from a special White House presentation of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776, the meticulous restaging of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence that opened on Broadway in 1969 and played to great critical and commercial success before being adapted to film in 1972.  The 1776 cast balked at Nixon’s edits, and the command performance proceeded without the requested changes.  However, when the film of 1776 was released several years later, studio head Jack Warner (an avid Nixon supporter) had “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” deleted from the film’s final cut.  It remains unclear whether Warner ordered the negative destroyed as a favor to Nixon or a result of his own antipathy to the son; a copy of the number was surreptitiously preserved, however, permitting a restored version of the film to be released in 2001.

Brian Eugenio Herrera, “Looking at Hamilton From Inside the Broadway Bubble,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton,  227.

Commonplace Book #115

Hamilton‘s brief forays into the place of women in the Early Republic suggests that Americans do not fully understand, or have not come to terms with, the idea that our founding happened with an instrument of gender domination like coverture in place.  Marriage under coverture was such an oppressive system that it can be hard for contemporary Americans to appreciate its scope and depth.  While  many of us are familiar with the phrase “second-class citizenship” to describe women’s place in the polity, the contrast in liberties for men and those for women was so great, and eighteenth-century make control over female bodies so absolute, that women’s legal status did, in fact, more closely resemble that of slaves than free citizens.

Of course, white women enjoyed some rights not available to enslaved people, women or men.  While enslaved people could never legally own property, some single women and widows of means could enjoy the protection of their property by law.  Wives had legal rights in extremis–a wife could divorce her husband or swear out a warrant against him if he committed a crime against her.  Slaves could not “divorce” their masters and the law provided no refuge for them against excessive physical force.  But when it came to their rights as specifically women and as wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife nor could he prostitute her out, and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.

Catherine Allgor, “‘Remember…I’m Your Man’: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton, 106.

Commonplace Book #114

But claiming Hamilton’s migration to North America as the ultimate immigrant story obscures two elements of the nature of migration in Hamilton’s era.  One is that that Hamilton is traveling within the British Empire as a British citizen, and this is not an immigrant from the Caribbean in the ways that we would imagine his status today….Hamilton is actually part of a small and elite group of migrants with significant cultural and financial capital.  Secondly, Miranda has also reinscribed the invisibility of one group of migrants in the story of American progress: enslaved Africans.  Few accounts of our immigrant past include the forced migration of African laborers, who were the majority of immigrants (migrants, in) to the Americas in Hamilton’s era.  Histories of twentieth-century U.S. immigration have only recently begun to include African-descended peoples’ migration to the United States from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean as part of the history of African forced migrations into the generally celebratory tone of traditional immigrant histories that are characterized by the desire for freedom: the vast majority of people of African descent arrived in the Americas between the sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries chained in the holds of stinking slave ships.

Leslie M. Harris, “The Greatest City in the World?: Slavery in New York in the Age of Hamilton,” Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton71-72.

Commonplace Book #113

Clearly, neither Jefferson nor Hamilton was only modern or premodern, right or wrong.  As tempting as it is to take sides in their battle–which frames most of Hamilton’s second act–they represented two sides of a broader conversation about American nationhood and national character that went far beyond these two men, and indeed, far beyond a handful of national politicians.  There was no single right answer to the period’s political problems, no one path to national power and prosperity.  Indeed, there was no guarantee that America’s political experiment would survive at all.  The American founding wasn’t the start of a straight path to the present.  It was a tense, trying, unstable, hopeful, fearful time of high ambitions, big risks, and even bigger stakes.  People of all kinds–not only elite leaders–were aware of the potential crises at hand, and were finding their way, one step at a time.

Joanne Freeman, “‘Can We Get Back to Politics Please?’: Hamilton’s Missing Politics in Hamilton” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton, 52.

Commonplace Book #111

In the nineteenth-century, the goal of the U.S. Postal Service was to make “knowledge and truth” available to more and more people.  By the end of World War I, this goal has been altered; the greatest user of the mails was now American business.  By 1920, government postal workers were carrying hundreds of millions of packages yearly to American doorsteps, as well as considerable amount of commercial advertising and correspondence.  If the express companies suffered at first, as did rural merchants and wholesalers, the mail-order houses–Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, along with the mail-order divisions of some department stores–reaped colossal dividends. Obstacles to their growth were virtually removed overnight, and their profits swelled from $40 million in 1908 to $250 million in 1920.  Over the next decade, Sears, Roebuck in particular, would owe its great profits and its “golden age” as a mail-order house to the federal government, or to what one historian has called “the greatest distributing system on earth.”

William Leach, Land of Desire, 185.

Commonplace Book #110

Unique to Western business practices, fashion merchandising was a theatrical strategy par excellence that embodied the quest for the new.  Like window display and the toy store, it democratized desire; it carried exciting meanings and introduced the mass of consumers to everything from the aristocratic glamour of Paris to the exotic allure of orientalism.  “Fashion,” a 1908 retailer said, “imparts to merchandise a value over and above it intrinsic worth” and “imbues with special desirability good which otherwise excite only languid interest.”  Its intent was to make women (and to a lesser degree men) feel special, to give them opportunities for playacting, and to lift them into a world of luxury or pseudo-luxury, beyond work, drudgery, bills, and the humdrum everyday.  Its effect was often to stir up restleness and anxiety, especially in a society where class lines were blurred or denied, where men and women fought for the same status and wealth, and where people feared being left out or scorned because they could not keep up with others and could not afford the same things other people had.

William Leach, Land of Desire, 91-92.

Commonplace Book #109

Glass was a symbol of the merchant’s unilateral power in a capitalist society to refuse goods to anyone in need, to close off access without being condemned as cruel and immoral (as he might have been condemned in a precapitalist feudal society when it was expected that powerful personages even as they extracted payments from peasants, had an obligation to give something in return).  At the same time, the pictures behind the glass enticed the viewer.  The result was a mingling of refusal and desire that must have greatly intensified desire, adding another level of cruelty.  Perhaps more than any other medium, glass democratized desire even as it dedemocratized access to goods.  There it is, you see it as big as life–you see it amplified everywhere, you see everything revealed–but you cannot reach it.  Unless you shatter the window or go in an pay for it. you cannot have it. In such a context, the breaking of glass could have easily become a class act.

William Leach, Land of Desire, 63.

Commonplace Book #108

In the decades following the Civil War, American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to a political democracy.  It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and of its moral stability…The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness, the cult of the new, the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.

William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Ruse of a New American Culture, 3.

Commonplace Book #103

These radicalized common New Jerseyans linked themselves to a much broader imperial crisis going on around them.  Although the colony had not suffered as much as others from the Navigation Acts and Townshend duties, it did not, as some earlier historians have argued, simply follow its neighbors into war.  The riots of the late 1760s and early 1770s show a healthy anti-imperial attitude growing before revolution. The rioters used Lockean ideas of liberty and tyranny to reimagine the defense of property, even calling themselves “Sons of Liberty” and “liberty boys .”  They learned from the Whig pamphlet literature from neighboring New York to articulate their feelings of oppression by the king’s apparent indifference to their economic plight and the gentry’s link to the imperial government.

James Gigantino II, William Livingston’s American Revolution38.

Commonplace Book #102

There is nothing–not even priesthood, episcopacy, or a religious profession–which cannot be perverted  into a mere means of appeasing a hungry vanity, into an instrument of constant self-service.  In an age in which the Church over the world has made a staggeringly compliant compromise with secularism we have special reason to recall the elementary revolutionary paradoxes of the Christian Message.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.  A poor woman, who has perhaps even done time in gaol for petty theft, and whose religious activities are restricted to hurried daily prayers and a snatched occasional faithfulness at the altar, may go through a life of scraping and scrubbing and comparative squalor to wake up one day a saint. (For so much she did was done in obedience.) While a brilliant divine may give his thoughts to religious study every day of his life, and write the most perceptive theological treatise of his age, only to wake up one day, in time or out of time, to the realization that it was all done in furtive self-service. (For the Judgement will show him this if he does not learn it before.)

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, 91-92.

Commonplace Book #101

The experience of physical disease and disability, the frustration of fine efforts and aspirations, the disappointment of long-cherished hopes–all these experiences, common and fundamental to human life, have their essential character and meaning determined for us and for all men by whether they are thought about christianly or secularly–whether they are conceived against the background of a limited finite existence which is but the prelude to eternity, or against the background of a human course on earth that is finally and exclusively man’s full destiny.

But, of course, just as the eternal perspective transforms the character of anything, which touches on death, of anything which is sad, painful, or disastrous–war, famine, earthquake, sickness, insanity–so too the eternal perspective transforms the character of earthly success, prosperity, and pleasure.

For the Christian mind earthly well-being is not the summum bonum, as pain and death are not the worst evil.  Eternal well-being is the final aim and end of things here.  This means that success and prosperity within the earthly set-up cannot be regarded as a final criterion.  Nor indeed can happiness within time be regarded as a final criterion.

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, 82-83.

Commonplace Book #100

Having emptied political life of moral content, we have as a nation been unwilling to accept the consequences.  If prophets tell us that our public life has been reduced to bare expediency stripped of altruism and idealism, we call them cynics.  We cannot endure to face cleanly and honestly what we have done in obliterating the moral criterion and the spiritual dimension from our manipulation of the people in the spheres of political, public, and institutional life.  We have therefore invented a pseudo-value which will throw over decisions and actions that are purely expedient and pragmatic an air of respectability.  I mean the alleged virtue of loyalty, which is useful to give a bogus moral quality to a slavish acceptance of the party line.

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, 23

Commonplace Book #99

Jesus and His disciples also demonstrated a profound mistrust of power–especially political power.  The focal point of Christ’s ministry–the objects of most of His energies and affections–were the downtrodden, the social outcasts, the powerless.  Regarding a Christian’s place in the world, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  None of the disciples led anything approaching what we would consider a political movement, and all of us are urged to be “strangers and pilgrims” in the City of Man.  Finally, there is Christianity’s most sacred symbol, the cross–an emblem of agony and humiliation that is the antithesis of worldly power and victory.

History, especially the history of the church, may seem to offer its own reasons for demarcating Christianity from the sphere of politics.  According to the social philosopher  Jacques Ellul, every time the church has gotten into the political game, it has been drawn into self-betrayal or apostasy. “Politics is the Church’s worst problem, ” Ellul wrote.  “It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her great disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this World.”

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era25.

Commonplace Book #98

Like other image tribes, reenactors believe they carry a burden of educating the public about the Civil War.  “Monuments and street names don’t work anymore,” a reenactor at the 130th anniversary pointed out.  “We’ve got to help[ them [tourists] learn and we do that be reenacting.”  Frequently they label themselves “historians,” referring to their often keen knowledge of details.  Tourists are invited to their camps at Gettysburg to mingle and ask questions.  A woman who talked to a Confederate reenactor in 1992 left with a “new respect for our country’s history.” At a Children’s Day Camp during the 1995 reenactment, reenactors set off a mortar, shot and sabered dummies, and blew up a small building to squeals of “cool,” and “awesome.”  Reenactors control the present by removing themselves from its, and control the past by counterpoising academic history with heritage.

Weeks, Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 213

Commonplace Book #97

Some of the boomer generation chose to embrace “heritage,” the personal quest for experiencing the past.  It was no coincidence that heritage emerged with the drive for authenticity.  Both held out hopes of holism through genuine subjective experience, both smoothly dovetailed commercial with sacred, and both provided entertainment, relying on the visual and tangible in an era soaked with images and an abundance of goods.  Both were equally “spiritual.”  Heritage, in fact, included a faith that required only belief with no appeal to the reasoned arguments of history.  And heritage also atomized believers, although into groups of image tribes such as collectors, heritage tourists, wargamers, preservationists, and reenactors.  Heritage offered therapy for a cynical postvictory culture where America’s long-running story of triumph had finally ended with Vietnam.  It reflected New Age religion, but it differed in its use of the temporal over the eternal.  Heritage attempted to slow change by manufacturing moments of the past.  A heritage moment could restore wholeness or provide a sense of control in an alienating world.  Despite society’s loss of national pride and purpose, heritage enabled its practitioners to descend into a private world of triumph, aided by increasingly sophisticated media technology.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 197.

Commonplace Book #96

A key future of heritage over history is the substitution of image for reality that turns illusions into authenticity.  The power of images lies in their evocation of feelings regardless of historical facts.  Public interest in the battle’s narrative had been met by vendors through a wide variety of mediums since the battle ended.  But with Gettysburg’s historical meanings largely gone, the quest to experience the original event became more urgent.  Moreover, images could shore up the pitiful inadequacy of monuments, the electric map, the cyclorama, or bird-eye battlefield views.  Beginning in the 1970s, “living history” demonstrations, large reenactments, realistic art, and other mediums attempted to tear through the veil intervening between present and past for a clear view of 1863.

New forms of graphic art, fiction, and popular history disseminated fresh and beguiling images of what the days of ’63 really looked like.  Realistic artists–two of whom eventually established studios in Gettysburg–painted seemingly endless interpretations of select battle scenes, with careful attention to minute details but not, thankfully, real carnage.  As pessimism deepened during the denouement of Vietnam, Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels championed the military through the lens of Gettysburg.  Sharra, a career soldier, wound together the fates of select officers at Gettysburg in a fictional tribute to bravery, self-sacrifice, and American character while ignoring the Civil War’s seminal issues.  The book proved extremely popular and won the Pulitzer Prize.  Its skillful character development generated new American heroes, the Confederate General James Longstreet and the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, for a society in need of heroes. 

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 175.

Commonplace Book #95

It might have been easy for boys like ten-year-old George Stafford, armed with a souvenir musket firing corks, to entertain himself at a shrine celebrating male vigor.  The gender socialization of girls, however, dictated that the space did not welcome girls’ play.  When Judith Green and her two younger sisters, five and three, were introduced to Gettysburg in 1958, their shepherding grandparents ushered them to the commercial area of town without entering the battlefield at all.  And in the days before the 1990s Gettysburg Barbie doll, virtually none of the available souvenirs, including pincushions or ceramic plates, could be turned into girls’ playthings.  Adults thought the lessons of Gettysburg of greatest importance for future warriors, and besides, the trip might provide an opportunity for father-son or mother-daughter bonding. 

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 160.