Michael Gerson: Conservative reaction to the “1619 Project” is “disappointing”


If you want to get conservatives riled-up these days, just mention the “1619 Project.”  Last week I published an op-ed about the The New York Times  project designed to commemorate 400 years of slavery in America and all hell broke loose.  You can read my piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here. (Read some of the 155 comments).

Since the appearance of this piece I have received multiple negative voicemail messages on my office phone.  It took one guy three messages to tell me that I was wrong.  His rant was cut off by the “beep” and then he continued mid-sentence in the next message.  Another caller insisted that I call him back and defend myself against his criticisms. Apparently the piece was republished in a Grand Rapids, Michigan newspaper.  How do I know this?  Because somebody approached me at my daughter’s volleyball game  (she goes to college in Grand Rapids) and wanted to politely debate me.  My posts on the 1619 Project here at the blog drew some intense push-back from commentators.  Some of the comments were so ugly I refused to post them.  Eventually I just decided to close down the comments section.

Not all conservatives are opposed to the way the 1619 project frames American history.  One of them is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach — that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to “delegitimize” the American experiment. In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses — or at least mitigations — for the moral failures of the Founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the Founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the Founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

Read the entire piece here.

Conservatives Are at Each Other’s Throats. Alan Jacobs Weighs-In


I have not been following this whole David French–Sohrab Ahmari dust-up happening right now conservative circles, but I am guessing it has something to do with Trump.

But I did get a kick out of this exchange between an editor at First Things and David French.

But wait, there’s more:

As I noted above, I am not really following this debate.  But when Alan Jacobs weighs-in on something I read it.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

A story commonly told these days on both the left and the right says that American Christians, and especially evangelicals, are solidly behind President Donald Trump. The real story is far more complex, and has led many Christians to some fairly serious soul-searching, and others to ask hard questions about whether we even know what an “evangelical” is. Among Christians, as among so many other Americans, one of the chief effects of the rise of Trump has been to widen some fault lines and expose others that we didn’t even know existed. It is at least possible that some good will come from this exposure.

You can see some of these fault lines opening up in a recent controversy that has greatly occupied many journalists, scholars, and ordinary people who care about the relations between Christianity and conservatism. The controversy began when Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, tweeted, “There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war”—referring to the lawyer, former soldier, and senior writer of National Review who has often made the case that Christians in the public arena need to practice civility. Ahmari then expanded that tweet into a full-scale attack on French, and since then, the conservative world has been fairly obsessed with adjudicating the dispute.

It’s important to note that Ahmari sees the differences between him and French as rooted, ultimately, in their different Christian traditions: Catholicism for Ahmari—who recently published a memoir of his conversion—and evangelical Protestantism. But whether this is indeed the heart of the matter, the dispute so far hasn’t fallen out that way. Some Catholics are with French, some Protestants with Ahmari. And in any case, I’m more interested in the ways this dispute illuminates questions that all Christians involved in public life need to reckon with than in choosing sides. How Christians choose to reckon with these questions will have consequences for all Americans, whether religious or not.

Read the rest here.

CPAC: “Victimhood” and “Paranoia”


The Republican Party is now the party of victimhood, paranoia, and fear.  Sadly, much of its support comes from evangelical Christians–people who are commanded to “fear not.”  There is no hope.  There is no humility.  There is a lot of nostalgia, but very little history.

Over at The Nation, John Knepfl writes about CPAC‘s “red hot rage.”  Here is a taste:

Trump repeatedly warned the crowd that if Democrats were elected they would repeal the Second Amendment, and at one point asked the attendees to cheer if they preferred the Second Amendment or tax cuts. It was a bizarre moment, one of many, but suffice to say the Second Amendment received very loud support. That defensive posture in the midst of a seeming sea change in the gun-control debate was not a coincidence, and a clear sign that the CPAC doesn’t see itself as responsible for the prevalence of mass shootings.

What makes the rancor especially absurd is that not only is the Republican Party in charge of the Executive Branch and both chambers of Congress, but, by all honest accounts, the Trump administration is succeeding in implementing a hyperconservative agenda. CPAC favorites Ted Cruz and Shapiro acknowledged that they had no substantive disagreements with Trump. Nevertheless, the entire event was defined primarily by victimhood and paranoia. The enemies are everywhere: Democrats, socialists, college professors, regulators, black athletes, reporters, “fake news,” the FBI. “They try like hell, they can’t stand what we’ve done,” Trump said ominously.

Read the entire piece here.

Should Conservative Professors Be Leading the Way in Identity Politics?


Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, thinks that conservative professors should embrace identity politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

When I was in college, I took a class in logic. There I learned that one should never reject an argument because of the characteristics of the person making it. Instead, one should assess the argument itself on its rational merits. And while I agree that the power of an argument should not depend on the person making it, nonetheless, it does.

I learned that lesson during my first year as a visiting professor at Cornell University. I taught a course on American evangelicals, which attracted a mix of secular and religious students. When we discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a 1994 book by Mark A. Noll about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical tradition, my evangelical students were critical of it. But they were willing to take the book’s thesis seriously because the author was an evangelical.

Perhaps Noll’s identity shouldn’t have mattered. His historical evidence and the power of his arguments would be worth considering even if he were Catholic, Jewish or secular. But his identity did matter. It mattered because my evangelical students could not simply assume bad faith on the author’s part. They knew Noll cared about evangelicals as a group of people. Instead of dismissing Noll as a bigot, my students thoughtfully engaged with his work.

Since then, I have taken identity into account every time I have assigned new books for one of my courses. I currently teach a course called Black Intellectuals, which is focused on debates about racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. It tends to attract progressive students who, in analyzing racial inequality, are drawn to arguments that stress structural obstacles to equality and the enduring power of white racism, especially in our criminal justice system.

Read the rest here.

Shields may have a point.  As readers of this blog know, I am a big advocate of historical empathy–walking in the shoes of others.  It would seem that middle-class white kids need to learn how to empathize with people who do not share in their identities.  But I wonder if we can expect students who are not white and middle class to do the same thing?  Education in the Latin means “to lead outward.”  Yet today much of education today is about self-discovery and “finding oneself” in the curriculum.  If we really want to educate our students they must read things written by people who are not like them.

Does"Born in the USA" Finally Reflect Conservative Values?

Some of you may recall my piece on Rick Perry’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at a rally last month.  You can read it here.  It is entitled “Why Rick Perry Should Think Twice Before He Makes ‘Born in the USA’ His Theme Song.” I basically argued, using Ronald Reagan’s use of the song in the 1984, that despite its patriotic chorus “Born in the USA” is hardly a patriotic song.

Today Daniel Scotto, a writer and history graduate student, has responded with a piece of his own entitled “‘Born in the USA’ Now Fits the Conservative Message.”  Here is a taste of his piece at The Federalist:

Writer and professor John Fea recently wrote a thoughtful piece for RealClearPolitics cautioning Rick Perry against using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign song. Fea recalls the issues that Ronald Reagan faced after using the song during his 1984 re-election bid. The Reagan campaign was wrong and its critics were right; the song isn’t about hope, and the frustration it depicts was ill-suited for “Morning in America.” But in the context of America today, “Born in the USA’s” critique of America fits much better on the Right than the Left.
Springsteen’s politics are well-established; he’s quite liberal and a fixture on Democratic presidential campaigns. As Fea writes, Springsteen engaged directly with Reagan’s use of his song by dedicating a performance of the bleak “Johnny 99” to Reagan in the run-up to the 1984 election…
…As the opposition party in an era of reform conservatism, Republicans can engage with the themes of “Born in the USA” in 2015. The song is a blistering criticism of four parts of American society that Republicans can critique fluently: a poorly led war, the treatment of veterans, inequality of opportunity, and a weak job market. These are best examined in pairs.
No time to respond at the moment, but I am curious what Springsteen fans think about Scotto’s argument.

Do Ph.D Programs in the Humanities Teach a Secret "Liberal" Handshake?

Many conservatives think that they do.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik discusses Neil Gross’s new book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?  Based on sociological research, Gross concludes (big surprise here) that most professors “lean to the left.”  But he also concludes that “most faculty members are not as radical as many believe and there is a larger center-left following in the academy.”

Here is a taste of Jaschik’s piece:

Gross also considers why the idea of a liberal professoriate is so powerful with some conservatives. He includes history of the William F. Buckley critique of professors as liberal and anti-religion, and notes that much of the frustration has come from people who care about ideas and who (in the case of Buckley and some of the National Review crowd) can hardly have been called populists.

But he also notes the strong resonance for many in the general public with the idea of professors as elite, liberal and disconnected. While he reviews the extent to which conservative foundations have funded organizations that have made a big deal out of professorial politics, he suggests that the views of many people about academics operate independently of anything David Horowitz said or did.

In an interview, Gross discussed why he sees it as crucial for academe to have a better handle on issues of faculty politics — and it’s not because it answers critics who say that academe imposes an ideological litmus test on professors. Rather, he thinks the findings pose challenges for those across the ideological spectrum.

For those who are conservative, and profess to care about a partisan imbalance in academe, Gross said, there is the question of whether their own statements are discouraging young conservatives from going to graduate school to prepare to become professors. The conservative undergraduate who reads about alleged liberal academic outrages all the time may simply come to view academe as a less-than-hospitable employer — even if that’s not necessarily the case.

Darryl Hart: "The evangelical temperament is inherently progressive"

Over at Books and Culture, Christopher Benson reviews Darryl Hart’s latest: From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. (Eerdmans, 2011). 

Here is a taste of Benson’s review:

Nevertheless, Hart awakens evangelicals to five factors that put them at odds with conservatism: (1) habitual appeal to the Bible as the prescriptive standard for national affairs, which abuses the Reformation principle of sola scriptura; (2) failure to differentiate the norms and tasks of the “little platoons” in society (e.g., family, work, church, neighborhood association, political party); (3) conflation of ultimate and proximate realities, thus neglecting “an older Augustinian view of the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man”; (4) naïveté about human depravity, beholden to a perfectionist model of sanctification; and (5) an anti-formalist attitude, which regards “the American political tradition’s conventions of federalism, republicanism, and constitutionalism [as] merely formal arrangements that may be discarded if a better option surfaces.”

I hope to get a chance to read Hart’s book.  From what I have seen so far his thesis is on the mark.   Benson closes his review by stating:

With an Augustinian emphasis on the limits of politics, a Lutheran sensibility for the paradox of Christ and culture, and a Burkean wariness about revolutionary change, Hart’s iconoclastic thesis arrives just in time as a presidential contest heats up, tempting many evangelicals with statist ambitions and utopian fantasies.

8 Ways Conservatives Misremember American History

Too often the past is used and manipulated for partisan gain.  Bernard Bailyn once called this “indoctrination by historical example.”  This week The Nation is running a piece by Zachary Newkirk, a senior history major at Cornell University, listing eight ways that conservatives have misremembered American history.  Since we strive to be “fair and balanced” here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” I would like my readers to head to the comments section and offer examples of the ways liberals have misremembered history as well.

In the meantime, here is Newkirk’s list:

1.  Michelle Bachmann on the founding fathers and slavery.
2.  Secession was fine, dandy, and legal.
3.  Forgetting September 11?
4.  Mike Huckabee’s “Learn Our History” cartoon series.
5.  The New Deal did harm.
6.  David Barton (Thanks for the plug, Zachary!)
7.  Textbook Textbook Revisions
8.  Jim Crow wasn’t that bad.

I should note that we have addressed #1, #4, #6 and #7 here at the blog.

And now for the liberal misuses of history.  Who is up for the challenge?

Dinesh D’Souza is the New President of The King’s College

Back in 2008, when I was blogging more regularly at Religion in American History, I wrote a post about the changing face of The King’s College–a school that had, during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, been one of the flagship faces of evangelicalism in the New York metropolitan area.

In that short piece I wrote about the way King’s had transformed from a “pietistic, evangelistic, subcultural” and relatively “apolitical” Christian college to a campus, now located in the Empire State Building, with a “more pronounced culture war agenda.”

Since its move to New York City, King’s has definitely ramped up its Christian intellectual profile. It has also become more overtly conservative in its political sensibilities, hiring World Magazine‘s Marvin Olasky, the man behind the term “compassionate conservatism,” as its provost. Last Spring it sponsored a lecture series that included some of the country’s leading conservative voices, including Dick Armey, Rich Lowry, Robert George, Norman Podhoretz, Ed Feulner (president of the Heritage Foundation) and Rick Santorum. (To be fair, the college has also hosted Stanley Hauerwas and N.T. Wright).

The Young America’s Foundation has picked The King’s College as one of the country’s “Top Conservative Colleges,” a list that includes Hilldale College, Grove City College, Liberty University, Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and Patrick Henry College.

The shift from apolitical evangelical college to conservative Christian college was solidified this week when King’s announced that best-selling author and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza has been chosen as its new president.

What is most surprising about this choice, and perhaps a bit refreshing, is that D’Souza is a Roman Catholic. I am not sure Percy “Youth on the March” Crawford or Robert “walk with the King today and be a blessing” Cook would have made this selection, but we are now living in a time when conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics have found common ground on many issues.

D’Souza told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he wanted to expand the college from 450 students to “four or five thousand.” Ambitious indeed.

When asked if his Catholicism would be a problem at an institution rooted in the “Protestant evangelical tradition,” D’Souza claimed that he was a “believing Catholic but a poorly practicing one.” It looks like D’Souza may need a PR lesson. Those rooted in the “Protestant evangelical tradition” who may still be suspect of Catholics leading their colleges might be even more suspect of a “poorly practicing” Catholic.

It will be interesting to see how The King’s College develops over the years. I hope they succeed–New York City needs some smart people with a collective alternative voice to shake things up a bit and bring some intellectual diversity to the place. Tim Keller can’t do it alone.

NPR on James Dobson’s Last Day at Focus on the Family

Today was James Dobson’s last day on the air as host of Focus on the Family radio show. He will soon join his son Ryan on a new syndicated radio show called “Family Talk with James Dobson.” Though Dobson downplays it, his new radio show will compete with Focus on the Family programming.

On today’s NPR “Morning Edition,” Dan Gilgoff of CNN suggests that Dobson’s decision in recent years to make his old radio show more political may have alienated listeners to “Focus on the Family” who tuned in primarily for advice on how to build healthy families. He also notes that the new leader of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, is much more of a “Rick Warren” type of evangelical. In other words, he is not the same kind of cultural warrior that Dobson had been.