When the *imago Dei* gets politicized

I Am a Man

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign.

I have noticed a lot of conversation of late about the Judeo-Christian idea that human beings are created in the “image of God” (imago Dei). In his speech at Mount Rushmore last weekend, Donald Trump said “Every child, of every color–born and unborn–is made in the holy image of God.”

What do Christians mean when they say that men and women are created in the image of God?

Genesis 1:26-27 teaches Jews and Christians that humanity is created in the image of God. The Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight shows us, translates the word behind “image” with the word eikon.  Icons are paintings, statues, or figures that aid us in our devotion to God. Genesis 1 teaches us that we are living eikons. Much in the same way that monuments try to help us understand more fully what happened in a particular historic place, the creation story teaches us that our lives are monuments–eikons that should point people toward a deeper understanding of God.  We are image bearers. Genesis 1 and 2 will always remind Christians of their true identity.

We are created in the image of God and called to pursue relationships with God and His “good” creation. But Genesis 3 teaches us that we are also sinners who have abused the human freedom God has given to us. “Sin,” theologian Birch writes, “is the word we use to describe how shalom, wholeness, gets broken.” Or to use McKnight’s phrase, we are “cracked eikons.”

Today I am hearing Christians on the political Right invoking “the image of God” to argue against Black Lives Matter and systemic racism generally. They say “all lives matter” because “all lives” are created in God’s image. This is theologically true, but it is impossible to understand American history without thinking about the imago Dei in the context how sin has disrupted God’s shalom. For over four-hundred years, white Christians have not treated African-Americans as fellow image-bearers. As a result, racism pervades many of our institutions.

I think the violence needs to stop. It was wrong during the time of the American Revolution when it was mostly white patriots involved, and it is wrong now. There has been too much collateral damage. And I am not talking here about monuments, I am talking about human lives. But the peaceful protests, the righteous anger, and the many demands for racial justice are all, at some level, defenses of human dignity.

Those Christians who reference the imago Dei to fortify their “all lives matter” mantra  need to read more American history, develop a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of human sin, and pray for empathy. In the meantime, stop politicizing this foundational doctrine.

Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

A Time for Empathy, A Time for History

Black Lives Matter 2

I published this piece at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016. It seems relevant today:

On Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

Tonight in the Rose Garden and at St. John’s Church, Trump Announced His 2020 Re-Election Strategy

Trump St. Johns

It’s hard to know where to start writing about what we all just witnessed earlier this evening.

Donald Trump was scheduled to speak in the Rose Garden at 6:30pm. Shortly before his speech, Attorney General Bill Barr came out to inspect the crowd. Then federal police used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to drive-out peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square Park, located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

Trump’s speech was short. He said that he was an ally of all peaceful protesters. This is another Trump lie. I wrote about that here, but the act of driving these protesters out of the park today was a sign that he does not support peaceful protesters. More on this below.

His speech did not address the racial tensions in America that led to these protests. There was no empathy for the plight of African-Americans in the United States. Trump is incapable of this.

Trump rightly condemned the destruction of property and the outside rabble-rousers who, by all reports, are causing this damage. But rather than trying to bring the country together, he blamed state governors for the riots and destruction in major urban areas.  (He did the same thing on a call with governors this morning). At one point in the speech, Trump said that he wants “healing” not “hatred.” Please look in the mirror Mr. President. You are an agent of hate in this country. There is nothing you have done in your presidency thus far to bring any kind of national healing whatsoever.

When Trump said “America always wins,” he was not referring to a much-needed victory over the evil of racial injustice, but was rather referring to the use of military force and violence to stop the riots. This, for Trump, is the only way he understands a “win” for America. Trump plans to mobilize the U.S. Army in cities around the country through the use of the 1807 Insurrection Act (I will write more on this in another post) to “dominate the streets.” He also sent a dog-whistle to his base by referencing his protection of Second Amendment rights. Some will no doubt see this as the president telling them to take matters into their own hands.

When Trump talked about justice in this speech, he meant quelling the riots through force. He did mention justice for George Floyd, but these words have no meaning until his presidency reverses course on the issue of race. Trump must not only stop the race-baiting, but must support policies that will address systemic racism in America. I don’t see this happening because Trump does not understand the true meaning of justice.

I wrote about justice this morning, with the help of 20th-century German moral philosopher Joseph Pieper: “…the claim implicit in the principle of justice [is that we] must confirm the other person in his otherness and procure for him that which is due.” Justice starts with empathy and understanding, but Trump is a narcissist and he does not read.

Throughout the speech, Trump kept saying that he is a “law and order” president. This is another dog-whistle. Here is what I wrote about this phrase in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

For most Americans, “law and order” is associated with Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. According to historian Michael Flamm, “law and order was the most important domestic issue in the presidential election and arguably the decisive factor in Richard Nixon’s narrow triumph over Hubert Humphrey.” As might be expected, the need to bring law and order to American streets was a response to a significant rise in crime during the 1960s, particularly among African Americans and juveniles in American cities. The high crime rate among black men brought fear to white working-class Americans. Flamm notes that “by the late 1960s, white Americans overwhelmingly associated street crime with African Americans, who were more than seventeen times likely as white men to be arrested for robbery. The worst fears of white Americans materialized in the summer of 1967, when race riots broke out in Detroit and Newark. The violence continued in 1968 following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daly ordered his police officers to shoot looters on sight in the street. In Washington D.C. , race riots, led by black activist Stokely Carmichael, came within blocks of the White House, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to dispatch federal troops armed with machine guns to quell the violence. Later in the year, the Chicago police used tear gas to control protesters at the Democratic National Convention.

The Nixon campaign capitalized on the chaos. Nixon promised that, if elected, he would end the riots–using force if necessary. His campaign blamed the lack of law and order on the Democrats and portrayed his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, as weak on crime. Nixon consistently denied he used the phrase “law and order” to send a message to white voters who feared African American violence, but many of his conservative supporters clearly heard the message. Nixon walked a fine line on matters related to race. He was aware, from watching his independent opponent, George Wallace, that calling attention to racial difference worked very well in presidential campaign, especially in the South. Yet Nixon was not Wallace: he opposed segregation and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, when he was not in front of the cameras, he was not reticent about his disdain for the “damn negroes.” He confided to his counsel, John Ehrlichman, that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs would not help African Americans because “blacks were genetically inferior to whites.” After filming a campaign advertisement calling for law and order in public schools, Nixon said to his aides, “Yet, this hits it right on the nose…it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.

Like Nixon, Donald Trump claims that his use of the term “law and order” has nothing to do with race. Yet when he combines the phrase with a steady drumbeat of attention to “Muslim terrorists” or illegal Mexican immigrants that he claims were committing violent crimes, he is sending a message to his largely white working-class constituency that he hears, shares, and prioritizes their fears. Trump wants to restore law and order to America much like Nixon promised to do in the 1960s. Is this what he has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?

After Trump’s speech, he walked out the front door of the White House to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. It is known as the “Church of the Presidents” because every American president, beginning with James Madison, has attended the church (presidents sit in pew 54). During some of the protests on Sunday night (March 31) a fire started outside the church and spread into the basement of the parish house. It was extinguished quickly and there was no major damage. The words “The Devil is across the street” was sprayed on the church in graffiti and windows were smashed.

Trump walked to St. John’s for a photo-op. The church did not know he was coming and both the Episcopal bishop of Washington D.C. and the rector of the church have condemned the visit.

Trump stood before the church and held-up a Bible. When a reporter asked him if he was holding his Bible, Trump said it was “a Bible.” He then invited several members of his cabinet and staff to join him. (Interestingly enough, Mike Pence was not present).

And that is all he did. He stood there, held-up the Bible at a couple of different angles, and then left. He did not pray. He did not offer words of comfort or healing. He did not pray for the coronavirus victims. The message was clear. Trump’s law and order response–an approach with deep roots in racism and violence–is somehow informed by the Old and New Testament. (Once again, let’s remember that Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye”). Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a U.S. president who has used a Bible–a material object representing the word of God–in this way.

Here a good rule of thumb. Whenever a public official uses the Bible to justify law and order during times of unrest, expect the worst. I think history offers some good lessons on this front, from politicians in the antebellum South to Nazi Germany. One should also be concerned when a president uses tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to remove peaceful protesters in front of a church for the purpose of using this sacred space to fortify such a show of power.

What we witnessed today was the president using this moment of racial strife and social unrest to announce his November 2020 campaign strategy. He will present himself as a strongman who will protect fearful white people. In this sense, he is like the Savage in C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regressa Nietzschian warlord who tells Vertue that “If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.” And he will justify all of this using the Bible–a direct appeal to his fearful white evangelical base who believe Trump is their divinely-appointed champion. It was all staged, not unlike a reality television show.

The court evangelicals, as expected, support what Trump did today. If you believe that America is a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed as such, then anytime the president lifts a Bible, and especially if it is done at a historic church, it is a great thing.

Here is Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

Fox News has Robert Jeffress lined-up for an early morning appearance:

Expect Jeffress to talk about this.

Tony Perkins just retweeted:

Here is Marc Burns:

I am reminded of a quote I added to the Commonplace Book this morning:

All moral laws derive from one law: that of truth” [Goethe]…A person who is incapable of viewing things impartially, uninfluenced by the affirmations or negations of the will, a person who is incapable, for a time, of simply keeping silent and perceiving what is there, and then of converting what he has seen and learned into a decision, is incapable of achieving the good, or in other words is incapable of performing an ethical act in the full sense of the term.  —Joseph Pieper, “The Art of Making Right Decisions,” *Civitas* (1970) in The Weight of Belief: Essays on Faith in a Modern Age, 212.

For the sake of the country, Trump needs to keep silent and start “perceiving what is there.”

When a Populist President Can’t Offer the People “an honest basis for hope.”

Trump iN Dallas

What happens when a president with a strong base among white working class people is incapable of cultivating empathy and hope in a time of crisis?  Here is Juliette Kayyem at The Atlantic:

In a crisis as severe as the coronavirus pandemic, government officials owe the general public two things: reliable numbers and an honest basis for hope. That’s what citizens get if politicians step aside from the microphone and let experts speak. When Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, testified before a House committee yesterday, he warned that COVID-19 has a death rate 10 times that of the seasonal flu; that the worst is yet to come; and that, without more aggressive containment measures, “many, many millions” of Americans could become infected. This was a sobering message, but his audience could at least take comfort in knowing where things stand.

That has not been true of President Donald Trump, who has pooh-poohed the danger of the new disease, played down case counts, and insisted that the new disease will soon taper off. In a televised address last night, he was visibly uncomfortable and talked about the pandemic not as a deadly health problem but as a venue for global competition. His portrayal of the new pathogen as a “foreign virus” and his boast that the United States had the “best response” to the virus did nothing to alleviate fears Americans might have about their health and the massive disruptions now occurring in society. His showiest move—his announcement of a ban on travel from Europe—showed little regard for the fact that COVID-19 is already spreading in the United States.

For some time, Trump and his White House have acted as if they only have a public-relations problem to contend with. When Trump designated Mike Pence as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, the vice president promptly moved to tighten messaging and take control of public appearances by government experts. Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is insisting that top-level coronavirus meetings be treated as classified—a designation that inhibits scientific transparency and excludes important experts without security clearances.

But a lack of message discipline is not what caused the stock-market crash this week. Investors see all too clearly that the federal response to the coronavirus has been disjointed, lagging in even providing the basic test kits to determine the magnitude of the threat.

And this:

As for giving hope, that job can’t be delegated. Trump—who went golfing both days last weekend—appears simply incapable of grasping the magnitude of the situation before us. Calm and cool have their benefits in stressful times, and making sure that the public does not overreact is an important job for elected leaders. But Trump’s efforts to minimize the disease look delusional against everything we know about it. The United States is just entering the mitigation stage of this crisis, during which cities and states will severely curb movement and social interactions to slow the spread of the disease and relieve burdens on our health-care system. For weeks to come, Americans will become accustomed to this jarring sense that time and basic social norms are suspended.

After falsely saying the coronavirus is essentially contained, then not seeming to show much interest until the stock market took notice, Trump has shown no empathy for what the nation is now suffering. By all evidence, he is deeply concerned with how the pandemic will make him look. But as Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used to tell his teams, the best way to get good press is to do a good job.

Americans need to brace for impact. Trump’s standard tactics—blaming immigrants and outsiders, promising fantastical walls, wearing red hats with slogans—are powerless against a global pandemic. While the coronavirus is by far the most dangerous crisis that the United States has faced since Trump took office, he has not participated in its resolution in any meaningful way.\

But a president isn’t allowed to be irrelevant at a moment of national crisis. Or, to put it another way, an irrelevant president is a harmful one. Last night Trump felt obliged to intervene more strongly—just not with the kind of information and leadership that will prepare Americans for a disturbing new reality.

Read the entire piece here.

From the Mailbag: Help a History Teacher Address Difficult Sources With Students

College-classroom

A high school teacher, who is very up-to-date on recent scholarship in history teaching and learning, writes:

I’m writing to ask if you have or know of any resources our department can use as we craft a statement and collect possible materials to use with students in introducing them to best practices re: handling charged or difficult language in primary sources and historical context.  I’ve had two classes this year pretty much reject use of the Jourdan Anderson letter (as you know, I”m sure, he was a formerly enslaved person, free in Ohio in 1865, who responded to a letter from his former master asking him to return and work for him) because Anderson used the term “Negroes.”  I’m not sure if you’ve come across anything that could help us do some introductory sessions with students, reviewed at the start of each year and perhaps periodically, to help them approach and best contextualize and understand such language in primary source documents.  

I’ve looked at Southern Poverty Law Center materials, particularly their doc on Teaching Difficult History (primarily about slavery, with an interesting intro by David Blight). What’s most relevant for this conversation is their emphasis on context and using more primary sources.  We’ve also looked at Facing History, Facing Ourselves, and one of the principles we’re giving greater emphasis is that history is supposed to make us uncomfortable.  Our students have conflated comfort and wellness and made wellness an absolute good.  The logical conclusion is that discomfort is bad, and that making someone uncomfortable is an offense.  But we need to know about the Holocaust, for example, and there’s something very, very wrong if learning about this doesn’t make one uncomfortable. I’ve also lifted some of your writing on the importance of developing historical empathy, from the blog, and see that as obviously connected with context, language, and respect for others (respect as causing us to listen and work to understand before judging).  In regards to discomfort, I found the comments re: Robert Orsi’s keynote especially provocative and helpful.  Still in process here and thanks for the helpful grist for the mill.

Any suggestions for this teacher?  I realize the comments are closed, but feel free to e-mail or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

I Am a Man

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

Kalamazoo to mechan

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

“Out of the Zoo” is Back!

Springhill trailer

Each Springhill day camp team has a trailer they haul from site to site. Inside you’ll find anything from bins of tie-dye shirts, to high adventure equipment, to inflatable water slides.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Here is Annie’s first dispatch from the 2019-2020 academic year.🙂  –JF

 

After a long nine hour drive east from my hometown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’m finally settled in at Messiah College for the upcoming academic year. While I’ll miss the Mitten, I’m excited to be back in the Keystone State for another couple semesters of learning and growth. Before I share what’s on the horizon for me this fall, I thought I’d take this blog post to write a little bit about my adventure this past summer, and how it reminded me of what I’m learning here.

I spent the summer working for Springhill Camps, a half-century old Christian ministry that serves several thousand kids each year. Springhill has two sizeable overnight camp locations in Michigan and Indiana, but the organization also has over ten day camp teams. These teams, based out of West Michigan, Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio, partner with churches primarily around the Midwest to bring the Springhill experience directly to their communities. This past year was my second summer working with one of these day camp teams. I was West Michigan One’s high adventure area director, so I spent ten weeks setting up, inspecting, and tearing down the mobile rock wall we hauled between locations.

Throughout the week at day camp kids participate in a wide variety of adventure activities. Then, after each activity, whether it’s the rock wall or tie-dye or paintball, summer leaders guide their campers through debriefs. During debriefs, campers have three tasks. Their first is to share what they liked about the activity. Secondly, they cite what they didn’t like. Lastly, and most importantly, they find ways to relate the activity back to what they know about God and their relationship with Christ.

Debriefs are my favorite part about Springhill. We tell our counselors that without debriefs, Springhill just wouldn’t be Springhill. It’s true–because while the kids do come to camp to have fun and to try new things, they’re really there to learn what God has done for them, how much he loves them, and how desperately he desires to be in a relationship with them. They’re there to discover that whatever they do, whatever they learn, can be brought back to Jesus.

The best thing, in my opinion, about studying history here at Messiah College is that our instructors also find ways to relate everything we learn back to our relationship with Christ. Our professors here don’t just teach us history for its own sake, but rather they show us how reconstructing the past can relate to our faith. Studying history provides opportunities to practice empathy and compassion, and encourages us to turn our attention to all human beings–not just the ones we agree with or understand. It reveals the presence of sin in the world and the reality of its consequences. It also forces us to humble ourselves and accept the fact that no matter how much we know, there still might be something about the past only God can fully comprehend.

I could go on further, but you probably get the picture. Messiah’s history department does an excellent job of training young historians. If my school failed to show me how to do research or teach a history class, I would have transferred a long time ago. What’s more important to me, though, is that our professors ensure our education remains centered on Christ. Because while we may receive knowledge, a degree, or a fun college experience here at Messiah, we’re really here to bring everything we do, everything we learn, back to Jesus.

Garrison Keillor on Plaza Life

Flatiron Plaza

Another great piece from Garrison Keillor:

There has been a proliferation of plazas in the past twenty years, here in New York City but also elsewhere in America, even in Minnesota, where I’m from. Maybe in the zoning laws there is provision for the apportionment of sunshine, or maybe it’s just leftover space waiting to be developed, but here it is, an open ­plaza where people can mingle freely, enjoy face-­to-­face encounters, take a break from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram—­the national unconscious with its fevers of conspiracy and ancient hatreds and malignity—­and walk out into the fresh air of democracy, where the general looseness—­no security personnel, no ropes, no questions—­testifies to the inherent good manners of one’s fellow citizens. There is no sign reading: your consideration of your neighbors is appreciated. thank you for not engaging in abusive talk or elaborate paranoia. People just behave without being told, as if their mothers were watching them.

My mother told me to be polite to strangers as a matter of self-­respect and also because they may be enduring some personal tragedy you will never be aware of, so be kind. Civility is based on empathy, and it is at the heart of democracy. Even the panhandler who asks me for change, when I shake my head, says, “God bless you, have a good day.” So I reach down and pull out a bill, a ten, more than I wanted to give, but there it is. He sees it. I give it to him. He says, “Thank you very much.”

The idea of plazas is as old as cities, and I’m glad to be in this one, looking up at that skinny historic building on 23rd Street in Manhattan, grateful not to be in a cubicle on the fifteenth floor but to be sitting down here in the land of the free. The preachers and buskers and rappers and guys in superhero costumes go elsewhere: this is a quiet ­plaza, its quiet enforced by its occupants, using the power of the New York stare that can stifle interruptions and kill small flowering plants.

Read the rest here.

Searching for Roots in San Felice-Circeo

San Felice 1

My cousin Jerry schools us in family history outside the old convent where my grandfather was born in San Felice-Circeo, Latina, Lazio, Italy

Last week I visited, for the first time, the place where my paternal grandfather was born.  San Felice-Circeo is an Italian village (comune) on the Mediterranean (Tyrrhenian) Sea about 100 km south of Rome.  In the 1930s Mussolini claimed large portions of the San Felice-Circeo shoreline and created a massive national park, the largest in Italy.  The centro storica (historic center) dates back to the Roman era and during the Middle Ages the Templars were in possession of the town.  San Felice-Circeo sits upon a hill overlooking the sea and many of its medieval features, including some of the old city walls, are still in place.

My grandfather–Giovanni Fia (sic)–was born in 1910.  A few months earlier his father, Andrea (Andrew) Fia, left San Felice-Circeo to join his half-brother in the United States, leaving his young wife Ermelinda (DiProspero) Fia and his daughter Angelina back in the village.  Like many Italian immigrants, Andrea was going to find a job and establish himself in America before he sent for his family.  Ermelinda was in good hands.  The DiProspero family was large and established in San Felice-Circeo.

(Andrea, I might add, was not from San Felice-Circeo.  He was a sheep-herder from the mountain town of Collepardo who often brought his sheep to San Felice-Circeo’s warmer climates in the winter.  He spent these winters living in a cave by the sea.  This was not uncommon.  Apparently people lived in caves in this region well into the 20th century).

What Andrea did not know when he left Italy was that Ermelinda was pregnant with twins.  Giovanni and Sisto Fia were born in the San Felice-Circeo convent.  Though the DiProspero lived literally next door to the convent, the nuns had the best medical facilities in town.  The convent served as a local hospital.  Three years later, Ermelinda and the children were reunited at Ellis Island and eventually settled in West Orange, New Jersey.  Three more children would come.

On June 19, 2019, my family met up with my father’s first cousin Jerry and his wife Jean for a tour of the old town.  Jerry lives in Connecticut, but he has been coming to San Felice-Circeo for three decades.  We all consider him to be the family historian.  His mother Anna (soon to turn 100) was my grandfather’s youngest sibling.  (My grandfather passed away in 2014 at the age of 103).  As it turns out, Jerry and Jean were in the final days of a one-month vacation in the San Felice-Circeo.  The timing could not have been any better.

Jerry schooled us in family history as we walked through the town.  He showed us (from the outside) the apartment where my grandfather was born, took us to the site of the church where he was baptized (and where Andrea and Ermelinda were married) and bought us an incredible lunch at a local restaurant located outside what was once the convent.

I am not much a traveler, and it often takes time for me to adjust to new surroundings, but San Felice-Circeo felt like home.  The proprietors of the restaurant were eager to hear our story.  They opened the dining area early for us and even gifted us with a tiramisu and pear torta. Another woman we met, who splits her residency between San Felice-Circeo and San Diego, California, bought us coffee.  We received a warm welcome.

A visit to San Felice-Circeo has been on my bucket list for a long time.  And while I am still processing the visit, I know that I have been somehow changed by it.  The experience of visiting this ancient village by the sea with my family, and with my cousin as a guide, was deeply emotional for me.

I can say one thing for sure. The visit to San Felice-Circeo brought me face to face with the power of the past.  It is one thing to lecture and write about historical continuity and contingency in relationship to the events described in a history textbook or interpreted at a historical site, but it is quite another thing to reflect on the connections with the past, and the human choices made by people in the past, when it has a direct impact on your own identity.

As I looked-up at the window where my grandfather was born and walked the grounds that my ancestors walked, I was acutely aware that I was part of a human story–a family story–that transcended my present moment.  My life, while certainly defined by the choices I have made and the paths I have chosen to follow, has also been shaped by the choices of others who lived in a particular place in a particular set of social, economic, and cultural circumstances that I have had no way of controlling.

And I am humbled by it all.

History as “Moral Science”

The City-State of BostonCheck out this article on Mark Peterson, author of The City-State of Boston and history professor at Yale.  A taste:

Yale historian Mark Peterson believes that history is best told by abiding by the Golden Rule.

The accurate representation of the past is “a kind of moral science,” says Peterson, the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History, adding that the age-old adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is as relevant in writing history as it is in our daily behavior.

Historians should represent their subjects accurately and take their stories and their positions seriously. They were just as human, just as fallible, and just as uncertain of what was going to happen in the future as you and I are, and we owe them the kind of respect that we would want future historian to have towards us,” says Peterson. “This is not to say that we can’t be critical of the actions and beliefs of historical figures, but rather to remember that our capacity to assess the limitations and shortcomings of historical actors can help us to become conscious of our own.”

We frame our sense of identity in part by drawing on the stories we tell about ourselves — each of us has a historically structured sense of identity and purpose, says Peterson, a specialist in early North America and the Atlantic world. “I think the same is true with respect to societies and cultures. There is a kind of social sanity, an ability to operate effectively in the world, that comes from knowing who we are, how we got here, and what kinds of human decisions — or lack thereof — were made that framed the circumstances, the limitations and opportunities, in which we live our lives.”

Read the rest here.

Out of the Zoo: “Special Olympics”

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about her work with the Special Olympics.  Enjoy! (Note:  The video posted below is from the Messiah College Special Olympics event in 2018.) –JF

My favorite track meet of the year in high school was always the Parchment Relays. For one, the meet consisted solely of relays–both the traditional races that we ran at every normal meet, and several atypical events, like a hurdle relay and a long distance medley. The best part of the Parchment Relays, though, was the Special Olympics meet that was always held half way through the event. High School athletes would pause their warm-up or cool-down routines to line up along the track and cheer eagerly for Special Olympics athletes as they ran, walked, or wheeled their way to the finish line. My team would always cheer extra loud for our coach’s little brother Todd, who competed faithfully in the Special Olympics meet every year with an excited smile on his face.

I was thrilled when I found out several weeks ago that the Parchment Relays wouldn’t be my last interaction with Special Olympics. To my excitement, I learned that it is a tradition at Messiah College for all first-year students to serve as Special Olympics buddies when the school hosts the Area M Games–a massive Special Olympics event with well over a thousand athletes–on Service Day every year. We lined up with our Created and Called for Community classes early Thursday morning as we waited to be paired with an athlete for the day.

My Special Olympics buddy (we’ll call him Robert) was a second grader from a local elementary school. After being paired with Robert, his teacher greeted me with a warm smile, handed me his event card, and was quick to tell me that he was nonverbal. To be completely honest, this threw me for a loop at first. When I met Robert that day I didn’t know one bit of sign language; by the grace of God I ran into someone who taught me the signs for yes, no, and bathroom. Eventually, though, we settled into a rhythm–Robert stuck faithfully by my side as we wove through crowds to his different events, and put up with my repeated high-fives and fist bumps after his races. Even though I never heard his voice, I still learned about Robert that day.  I learned that his favorite color is red, he loves to dance, and he can eat two whole sandwiches before I finish one. Not only did I learn a lot about Robert that day, but I learned a lot from him too.

Robert taught me that there are myriad of ways someone can communicate, even if they don’t use their voice. As historians, the people we interact with the most in our research usually can’t talk to us–a lot of times because the ones we work with and study are people who lived and died a long, long time ago. As much as we wish we could, we can’t sit next to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Amelia Earhart and converse with them for hours on end; we can’t physically hear their voices, or listen to them tell us their favorite color or kind of tea or way to pass the time. But even so, we can still learn from them. We look at their writings, their records, the things they leave behind and learn to communicate in a different way. Sometimes it takes a little more work than we anticipated–sometimes we don’t understand them right away, or aren’t equipped with the right tools to maintain a conversation at first. Sometimes we get frustrated because the people we try to understand are much different from us. When we’re patient, though, and persistent, we can come from our historical conversations having learned more than we ever thought we would.

Out of the Zoo: “Listening Ears”

Saturday Serve

gracespring Bible Church students pour coffee for Kalamazoo’s homeless population

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her experience working with the homeless and how it connects with her study of history.  Enjoy! –JF

When I was in high school, my youth group went into Kalamazoo every month or so to serve our community’s homeless population. We would meet at gracespring Bible Church  bright and early on a Saturday morning, pray together, and head into the city armed with coffee, notebooks, and sometimes a pot of chili or a garbage bag full of winter clothes. When we got downtown we would set up camp next to the railroad tracks between The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission and Ministry With Community, pulling a tent and table from the back of one leader’s truck and loading it up with the supplies we brought from church. Some students stayed at the tent to serve coffee by the railroad tracks, while others split off in satellite groups and wandered down the streets with a pitcher, to pour a cup for any of the homeless men and women who remained scattered throughout the city.

We didn’t usually have much more than a cup of coffee to give the people we met on those cold Saturday mornings. Sometimes we had chili or doughnuts to offer, but we usually ran out pretty quickly. Other times we brought donations of warm clothes to give out, but those didn’t last much longer. We did have coffee though, and lots of it, a notebook to write down prayer requests, and several listening ears.

My youth pastor Kenneth Price taught me a lot through high school, but I’ll always remember his emphasis on learning people’s stories and learning their names. He showed me that the most important part of our interaction with the homeless isn’t the food we serve them or the clothes we offer them, but rather the conversations we have with them. Kenneth challenged us to not only learn the names of our homeless brothers and sisters, but to say them and remember them. We were not there to make ourselves look good or even to save fellow Kalamazooans from poverty, but rather to hear voices that aren’t often heard. By our listening, we offered the dignity, respect, and love inherent in being sincerely listened to.

I know a cup of coffee probably won’t change someone’s life, no matter how I wish it could. As believers, though, I think we are obligated to do what we can to hear people’s stories and to learn their names, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.

As historians I think we’re compelled to do the same thing. No, we don’t serve coffee or hand out warm gloves, but we do go out of our way to hear people’s stories, whether they’re still living or they died centuries ago. We learn their names, and we do our best to remember them. We listen to voices that have been ignored for years, and dig up others that were buried for years. We make eye contact with the ones some might choose to avoid, and uncover parts of our past that others would rather forget. Good historians are good listeners; they don’t have an agenda or some ulterior motive, they aren’t there to save lives or to make themselves look good. They listen.

What if Trump Were a Democrat?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

George Marsden teaches us all an important lesson in historical empathy.  Here is a taste of his guest post at The Anxious Bench:

For those who are (as I am) puzzled and sometimes troubled by how so many fellow believers support and even celebrate Donald Trump and so seem to be ready to subordinate some of their religious and moral convictions to political expediency, I suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that in some slightly altered historical circumstances, Trump, or someone a lot like Trump, had decided he had a better chance playing the role of a populist Democrat.

Then, by promising everything to almost everyone, he had unexpectedly been elected.

Even if the Democratic Trump would have had to hide his racism, he would have been the same in his essential dishonesty, his constant attacks on the line between fact and fiction, his narcissism, his background of corruption, his record of exploitation of women (despite the Democratic Trump claiming to champion of equality and male accountability), his lack of discernible principle, his disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law, his intimations that his critics in the press should be suppressed, his vilification of his enemies, and his ignorance combined with reckless and ungenerous “America first” ventures in foreign policy.

At first, we can imagine, many principled Democrats would have deeply opposed his nomination and some would have declared themselves to be in the “NeverTrump” camp. But the rank and file would have been energized and many of the working classes would have been brought back to the party.

And then let’s say that the Democratic Trump administration would have succeeded in establishing a single-payer health-care system, tightened environmental regulations, instituted sensible gun-control laws, and appointed several Supreme Court justices who would ensure protections of progressive views for the next generation.

Read the rest here.

More on Empathy and Disgust (and Lament)

Why Study HistorySome of you will remember my response to Elesha Coffman’s blog post about Robert Orsi’s recent plenary address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Here is a taste of that post:

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Yesterday, Wheaton College historian Karen Johnson entered the fray.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Anxious Bench:

Empathy, in short, helps us to see. I find, for instance, that students who might be resistant to talking about race in other contexts are willing to embrace the conversations in my history classroom because we are puzzling over sources together, trying to craft true stories about what happened. I’m not telling them they have to be disgusted, or that they are participating in a racialized society, or leading with theory. We discover how race has functioned in the past and how it functions today together because we’ve set aside judgment.

But there is room for disgust, if we, the historians, position ourselves rightly. And disgust, in many cases, is a right response because of the humanity involved. After all, we’re not just disembodied observers or minds on a stick. We’re human, with emotions, thoughts, and visceral responses. Further, Shanley is also a person, one who is made in the image of God and therefore meant to embody the goodness of God’s kingdom, and also one who is depraved. To not respond to the evil he committed may be a form of condescension, because he could have known better, could have done better.

Coffman pondered historians’ hesitation to judge: “Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I think she’s right. I’ll speak for myself here (but does anyone see this in themselves?): I hesitate in part to judge not just because of my professional training but because I don’t want to be judged. I don’t think I’m that bad of a person, or embedded in that bad of a context.

But that perspective has a pretty weak understanding of sin. Because of the Fall, it’s not a question of if we are missing the mark, but how we’re missing the mark. Of course we’re falling short today. Of course we’re part of systemic sin. Why should historians in the future not name that sin? Why should we not name sin in the past — after we’ve done the hard work of contextualizing that sin, seeking to understand as best we can what happened, why, and the consequences? I take Orsi’s argument that disgust rightly breaks down a good/bad distinction in religion, making us realize that one cannot separate the evil caused by religion from the good, as a reminder of the evil and the good within all people, institutions, and systems.

I have found that a helpful way to respond to the sin is with the spiritual discipline of lament, to talk with God about the suffering. (I’ve written about this here and in a forthcoming article in Fides et Historia.) Lament is political and not neutral; it names actions as evil, as hurtful, as suffering. But, as Soong-Chan Rah discusses in Prophetic Lament, it requires humility. It’s also not just intellectual, but should involve all of who we are. When the prophet Jeremiah laments his people’s sin and God’s destruction of them, he situates himself (perhaps the only righteous man in Israel) as part of the people who have sinned.

I like Johnson’s piece because it seems to give priority to understanding and empathy in the history classroom.  Lament, disgust, or any other emotion is fine, but I don’t believe it is the primary goal of a history classroom.  This is the crux of my argument in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

If my students who study American history under my direction come to the end of a semester without a solid grasp of how white supremacy and slavery defined everyday life in the 19th-century South, I have failed them as a history professor.

Do I want my students to be disgusted with white slaveholders?  Of course.  Do I want my students to lament the sin of the South (and perhaps see their own sin in the process)?  Absolutely.  Do I want them to learn to love the dead?  Yes.  But if they do not end the semester feeling lament, disgust, joy, or love, but still have a solid grasp on how to think historically about the world (in terms of complexity, context, contingency, causation, and change over time), I have done my job as a history professor.

In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

Should Conservative Professors Be Leading the Way in Identity Politics?

identity

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.

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.”

Do Universities “Police the Imagination?”

RisingMadison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College, a writer, and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Policing the Imagination” with this story:

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. Newscoverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of “cultural appropriation,” which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

He then describes, as a white male, how he has spent his entire career writing fiction from the point of view of African Americans and Haitians.

He concludes with his thoughts on liberal arts education:

…an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom … but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

So I wonder how this works in the history classroom?  I think it is fair to say that even though I am not a scholar of American slavery, I know more about slavery than nearly all of my students.  Does this mean I am not in a position to teach about the subject?  I don’t think any historian would say this, but it does seem to be the logical end of the kind of identity politics Bell is talking about here.

I want my students–all of them–to be able to see the world from the perspective of someone who is different.  As Bell puts it, I want to “broaden their capacity for empathy.” Sometimes this requires an act of the imagination.  I want my white students to engage deeply with the story of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, the life of Frederick Douglass, the plight of 19th-century African American Philadelphia businessman James Forten, and the sorrow of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

I want my male students to encounter the boldness of Anne Hutchinson.  I want to expose them to the late 18th-century female community on the Maine frontier that was cultivated by the midwife Martha Ballard.  I want them to understand colonial America from the perspective of “Good Wives” and see the American Revolution through the eyes of Judith Sargent Murray or Phillis Wheatley.

I want my African American students to understand Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on their own terms, not through some kind of twenty-first century grid that makes them one-dimensional characters that lack complexity.  The same could be said about Western Civilization more broadly.

I do all of this not primarily because I think the ideas of these men and women are right or wrong, but because the encounter with their voices and their stories forces students to think in a more nuanced way about these historical figures–a way that recognizes their humanity and their brokenness.  This kind of reflection might even help my students to reflect more deeply on the social and cultural issues that they believe to be important in their everyday lives as they seek to live justly in this world.