Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the piece here.

A distinguished professor of religion at a church-related, non-evangelical liberal arts college writes:

Well done, John. Though I’d want to push on the anti-intellectualism a bit. We want to go beyond attention to verifiable evidence to also encourage clarity of analysis and sound interpretation.

This scholar and church-person is absolutely correct.

But as someone who spends a lot of time with evangelicals and evangelical students, I am finding it more and more necessary to go back to square one.  Last week I was a guest on a NYC-area radio program talking about this very thing.  I  told the host, a fellow academic, about my experience last Fall teaching students how to write Chicago-style footnotes. What was once a rather mundane part of my course took on a new sense of urgency.  Yes, analysis and interpretation is much needed, but it always begins with good evidence and the dogged pursuit of truth.

What Do I Mean When I Use the #AgeofTrump Hashtag?


John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture, has some serious issues with my use of the hashtag #AgeofTrump and he let me know about it in no uncertain terms during a few twitter conversations this week.  You can read the entire exchange at my Storify site. It also includes tweets from some other very smart tweeters.

I should note that when I use the #AgeofTrump hashtag I am not suggesting that we are living in a new historical era–like the “Middle Ages” or the “Age of Jackson.”  That would be irresponsible for a historian.  Although future historians, with the benefit of distance, may just conclude that this is a unique era of some type.  I will leave that to them.

I am also not suggesting that the things we are seeing in the United States since the emergence of Trump–disunity, fear, racism, lack of evidence-based arguments, the lack of concern with character, and especially fake news–do not have precedents in American history.

But I do think that Trump is unique in a lot of ways and I will continue to point those out using the hashtag #AgeofTrump.  (If you can think of a better hashtag to describe the Trump phenomenon/campaign/presidency let me know).  There ARE some things happening right now that are unique.  And the last time I checked historians are in the business of chronicling both continuity with the past and change over time.

On one level, Wilson is correct.  Not every stupid or offensive thing that someone does is connected to Trump.  Neither is Trump to blame for every piece of fake news. Sometimes we have a smoking gun that directly connects the stupidity to  Trump Tower or a Trump surrogate and sometimes we do not.  But Trump’s campaign has sent a clear message to the American people that facts, evidence, and character, among other things, do not seem to matter to him.

Historians are in the business of chronicling the past.  I have done that in at least three of my five books and multiple published articles and book chapters and I will continue to do it.  (Stay tuned).  But, as I have said multiple times on this blog, historians also offer a way of thinking about the world that has always been useful and is especially useful in times likes these.

Read the tweets and let me know what you think.

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Last summer I called out POTUS candidates for their failure to make evidence-based arguments in a post entitled “Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks.”

My decision to support “Historians Against Trump” had little to do with making a political statement or suggesting that the use of historical analogies is helpful in predicting the direction that a particular candidate like Trump might take the country.  Historians can provide context to our present-day political debates but I am not sure that history can always predict the future based on what happened in the past.

 I supported the Historians Against Trump movement out of my concern over the Trump campaign’s failure to make evidence-based arguments, display the kind of empathy necessary for a democratic-republic to survive, and exemplify even the most basic skills of historical thinking.  (My original “Jedi Mind Tricks” post also called out Hillary Clinton for her failure in this area).

This interaction between CBS journalist Bob Schieffer and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge illustrates my point about evidence-based arguments.  By the way, the last time I checked evidence-based arguments were important to historians and historical thinkers.  At least that’s what I try to teach my students at Messiah College.

No Katrina Pierson, Obama Did Not Bring the United States into Afghanistan

It is not always easy to keep facts straight when one is thinking on his or her feet.  As someone who does a fair share of public speaking, I understand this.  Recently on CNN, Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson got herself tangled up with some historical facts.


As I watch Pierson completely change the timeline of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (and this is not the first time this has happened), I am concerned.  Yes, she is wrong about her history and has manipulated the past for her (and Trump’s) political purposes. But what bothers me more is that many of Trump’s followers won’t care. The goal is to get Trump elected, whether what Pierson says is true or not. In other words, facts don’t matter.  I am guessing that the idea of checking a reputable source to see if what Pierson has said is true rarely crosses the minds of those who consume cable news.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the average American, but historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg reminds us in this post, is evidence-based thinking.  We have reached a point in our democracy in which this kind of basic stuff needs to be said over and over again.

The Conscience of the Nation

Many of you have already seen George Stephanopolous’s recent interview with Donald Trump about the Khan family.  Watch it here:

A lot has been said about this video.  I don’t want to rehash all of those issues.  But, as many of you know, I have been making an argument against Trump based on his failure to embrace some of the very basics of historical thinking.  I am not saying that Trump or any political candidate should be professional historians (although it wouldn’t hurt).  I am, however, trying to use Trump’s popularity to call attention to the contribution that historical thinking (and, for that matter, other types of critical thinking) might make to our democracy.

With that in mind, I want to call attention to one of the more controversial parts of Trump’s remarks.  Trump suggests that Ghazala Khan did not speak at the DNC because “she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”  The implication here is that Ghazala Khan’s Muslim faith and its view of women had something to do with her silence.  I am not an expert on Islam, so I don’t know if Trump is right about this.  I do know that Khizr Khan has said on multiple occasions that Ghazala did not speak at the DNC because of her grief. And Ghazala Khan turned to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to explain this.

Trump claimed that his view on Ghazala Khan’s silence was probably correct because “plenty of people have written that” and “a lot of people have said that.”  I don’t expect Trump to cite his sources in an interview, but I also don’t want my president making public statements to national audiences about the parents of war heroes based on the notion that “a lot of people have said that.”  This reveals Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut until he has some assemblage of facts about a particular issue.  When my POTUS speaks I want his or her arguments to be based on solid evidence.  The last time I checked, historians were in the business of making arguments based on evidence.  Again, you don’t have to be a historian to make statements based on solid evidence, but historians tend to do it better than most.

And then there is this:

In this clip Trump claims that there is a video of United States authorities transferring cash to Iran.  Trump does not just mention the video in passing, but he builds an entire argument about Barack Obama’s foreign policy on what he claimed he saw in this video. Trump claims that the tape was released by Iran for the purpose of embarrassing the United States.

The video Trump is referring to does not exist.  Trump was making it all up.  He used this blatant lie about something that happened in the recent past to stir up his supporters and win votes.

Hillary Clinton is also having her problems on this front.  It’s time to stop the Jedi mind-tricks.

This is why I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Another Reason to Study History

The study of history teaches us to make evidenced-based arguments. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, people do not seem to have a problem with making bold statements in public speeches and interviews that are not backed up by evidence.  Does evidence matter any more?  We need history more than ever.

Watch this:

Just as an aside, I am continually amazed at how influential Bernie Sanders has been in this election.  When was the last time a POTUS candidate (especially a GOP candidate) tried to separate himself or herself from Wall Street money.