Merkel: “Since German unification—no, since the Second World War—no challenge to our nation has ever demanded such a degree of common and united action”

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G7 Summit, Krün, Germany, June 2015

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G7 Summit, Krün, Germany, June 2015

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who many are calling “the leader of the free world,” is giving it to us straight.  Here is a taste of Justin Davidson’s New York Magazine coverage of Merkel’s recent coronavirus speech:

Angela Merkel doesn’t do drama and she doesn’t give speeches on TV. So the mere fact that the German chancellor faced the camera across a desk and spoke to the nation Wednesday evening made the gravity of the situation clear. “Es ist ernst,” she said—“This is serious”— and those three bland words had more power than a hellfire sermon. Then she pivoted from statement to plea: “Take it seriously.” Quickly, she moved on to historical context, the reason for her unprecedented impromptu appearance: “Since German unification—no, since the Second World War—no challenge to our nation has ever demanded such a degree of common and united action.”\

Read the entire piece here.

 

How Billy Sunday Handled the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

sunday

One of the first things I ever published was a journal article on evangelist Billy Sunday’s 1918 crusade in Chicago. The title played-off a line from a popular Frank Sinatra song about Chicago: “The Town That Billy Sunday Could Not Shut down: Prohibition and Sunday’s Chicago Crusade of 1918.” Here’s Frank:

But I digress.

Chicago was the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down.  But Providence was the town that shut Billy Sunday down, at least for three weeks.

During his Chicago crusade, which ran from March 10 to May 20, 1918, Sunday fought the city’s prohibition forces. He preached his now-famous sermon “Get on the Water Wagon.” He always began this sermon by describing a conversation he had with his wife: “Nell, when I am dead, send for the butcher and skin me and have my hide tanned and made into drum heads, and hire men to go up and down the land and beat the drums and say, ‘My husband, Bill Sunday still lives and gives the whiskey gang a run for its money.'” Sunday described the “booze interests” as a “rattlesnake that wriggled its miserable carcass out of hell, where there was a jubilee when the lager beer was invented.” When it came to the “liquor trade,” Sunday said, “I’ll fight them until freezes over than I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight ’em on ice.” For all Sunday’s sensational rhetoric, the “wet forces” in Chicago won the day, at least for the moment. Despite Sunday’s efforts, Chicago did not manage to get Prohibition on the ballot during the April 2018 election.  In the long run, however, the “dry” forces in Illinois contributed a national Prohibition amendment (the 19th), which was ratified in January of 1919.

Later in the year, Sunday conducted a revival in Providence, Rhode Island. As was his custom, Sunday (his advance men) built a temporary tabernacle in the city.  He held seventy meetings in that tabernacle between September 21 and November 17, 2018.  The Congregationalist and Advance, a religious journal of the era, noted that Sunday preached to a “quarter of a million listeners” during the course of the crusade. But he could have reached even more. Sunday only had seventy meetings in this three month period (he usually preached every night) because during the crusade the influenza epidemic hit Providence. Sunday did not preach for three weeks.

The influenza hit Providence hard. In October, 6000 people in the city got sick. 814 died of pneumonia in 1918. On October 5, the Board of Alderman closed schools, theaters, dance halls, and most religious services.  Prior to this, Providence newspapers ran stories about the death of Providence citizens alongside reports of Sunday’s crusade. The Congregationalist and Advance claimed that 10,000 people “grasped Mr. Sunday’s hand” during the crusade. Newspapers described people collapsing with the flu as Sunday preached.  As we look back today, during this time of “social distancing” during the coronavirus, one can’t help but wonder how much the Sunday crusade contributed to the spread of the epidemic.

Sunday’s foe in Providence was much stronger than the “wet forces” of Chicago, but that doesn’t mean that the evangelist did not go down without a fight. Before the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the crusade, Sunday, in his trademark style, informed his audience about the true cause of the epidemic rocking Providence and the nation:

We can meet here tonight and pray down an epidemic just as well as we can pray down a German victory. The whole thing is a part of their propaganda; it started over there in Spain, where they scattered germs around, and that’s why you ought to dig down all the deeper and buy more Liberty bonds. If they can do this to us 3000 miles away, think of what the bunch would do if they were walking our streets. There’s nothing short of hell that they haven’t stopped to do since the war began–darn their hides

The epidemic, of course, broke-out during World War I and Sunday was a master at blaming every American problem on the Germans, including German Higher Criticism of the Bible and the influenza. As historian George Marsden writes, “Although Sunday had little interest in the war until the United States joined it, he soon concluded that zeal for the Gospel and patriotic enthusiasm should go hand in hand. It apparently did not strain his principles…to conclude in 1917 that ‘Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous.”  Marsden continues:

As the war effort accelerated he used the rhetoric of Christian nativism to fan the fires of anti-German furor and was famous for sermons that ended with his jumping on the pulpit waving the flag. “If you turn hell upside down,” he said, “you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” Praying before the House of Representatives in 1918 he advised God that the Germans were a ‘great pack of wolfish Huns whose fangs drip with blood and gore.”

Today, one cannot help but think about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent suggestion that the coronavirus was a North Korean and Chinese attempt undermine Donald Trump and the various conspiracy theories we have heard on Fox News and elsewhere.

But when the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the city’s public venues in early October, Sunday submitted to its authority:

It is up to us to hope and pray. We are always willing to help anything that is for the public good and do it cheerfully. There is nothing drastic in the [Alderman’s] order, and it is issued in an attempt to stamp out this epidemic.

Eventually, the influenza faded, Providence re-opened schools and public places, and the Sunday crusade continued. The Christian Advocate, another religious paper, quipped: “We are not sure but that influenza is preaching to more people than Billy Sunday ever did….”

Did Bruce Springsteen Bring Down the Berlin Wall?

 

Of course he did. 😉

Here is Erik Kirschbaum’s piece at the Los Angeles Times:

Springsteen’s July 19, 1988, concert, the largest in East German history, reflected the growing thirst for freedom of young people inside East Germany, which, unlike other Eastern European countries warming to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, had continued to clamp down on its citizens.

Some 160,000 managed to get tickets to see the Boss, but more than 100,000 stormed the gates, Woodstock style, shortly before the show — an astonishing act of defiance at a time when East German police still routinely used force.

“The show in East Berlin was a major moment for us…. It was one of our greatest shows,” Springsteen said in an interview with German TV network WDR in 2016. “It was just the stakes involved. The band tends to play well when the stakes are very high. We knew going into East Berlin at that time that we were rolling the dice quite a bit. And then the amount of people that showed up … it was an epic evening for us. It just seemed like a very important show to play….”

In any case, authorities hoped Springsteen’s appearance would pacify restless East Germans clamoring for more reforms, freedoms and rock ’n’ roll.

But Springsteen decided he would try to set the record straight about his motive with a short, powerful speech in German, which he had scrawled on a piece of paper: “I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock ’n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

The crowd erupted in joy, fully understanding Springsteen’s reference. Some later said that it was a message they had been waiting their whole lives to hear.

Read the entire piece here.

On Book Exhibits and World War II Material Culture (#AHA19)

Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:

megan pics

I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.

The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective.  Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.

Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.

Thanks, Megan!

Is Bavaria a Christian State?

Bavaria

On Tuesday of this week I spent the afternoon with Seth Perry of the Department of Religion at Princeton University and Dave Krueger of Temple University working with international religion scholars from Argentina, Azerbaijan, Romania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sudan, India, Ukraine, Slovenia, Russia, Burma, China, Bulgaria, Tunisia, Mongolia, and Cameroon. They were selected by the U.S. State Department to spend six weeks in the U.S. for an institute on religious pluralism run by Temple University’s Dialogue Institute.

Our session was titled “Christian Nation or Nation of (Mostly) Christians: A Panel Discussion on the Role of Christianity in Founding Documents and the Early Formation of American Culture.” We had some great conversation and discussion about what it means to call America a “Christian nation.”

I thought about this conversation when I learned that the German state of Bavaria just passed a law requiring a cross to be placed at the entrance of service buildings.  The crosses are meant to serve “as a reminder of the historical and cultural influence of Bavaria.”

Here is Griffin Paul Jackson’s article on the new law at Christianity Today:

Markus Söder, premier of Germany’s Christian Social Union party (CSU), was the driving force behind the new law, which went into effect on June 1 and has caused a schism between church and state leaders.

Söder called the ruling an “affirmation of our cultural and historical, as well as spiritual values.” He acknowledged the cross is “primarily a religious symbol,” but also said it is foundational to the secular German state.

The law is viewed by many as an effort to lock down conservative voters in the run-up to state elections this October. The CSU currently dominates the state’s legislature, but some of its core constituency has been lured toward the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) in light of more than 1 million refugees—most of them Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa—who have flooded into Germany over the last few years.

The decision, which was accepted in April and has now been implemented, is a key component in an attempt to bring voters back.

In Bavaria, where more than half of the population is Catholic and 1 in 5 are Protestants (while 4% are Muslim), the move to promulgate crosses in public spaces is popular. More than 56 percent of residents favor the decision, though only 29 percent of Germans nationwide do likewise, according to a poll for the Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s largest Sunday newspaper, and cited in the Independent.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The “America First Exhibit” at the Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.”  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.

Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:

This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.

America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.

Read the entire review here.

*Fire and Fury* Surges to the Top of Best-Seller Lists

hansenMichael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is currently ranked #1 at Amazon.  But this post is not about that book.

According to The Huffington Post, a Canadian historian‘s book on World War II–Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945–also seems to be doing quite well these days.  His name is Randall Hansen and he directs the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Here is a taste of Liam Casey’s report at The Huffington Post:

“The book is 10 years out and it had been languishing for years and suddenly it was on three bestseller lists,” Hansen said.

Wolff’s book about Trump was the only logical reason for the sales bump, he thought. So he shared that thought with his Twitter followers and went to bed. When he woke up, the tweet had been shared more than 1,000 times and in came interview requests from international media.

He said he won’t know how many people ordered his book by mistake until his royalty cheque arrives in about a month’s time. But he only had a few people complain to him on Twitter that they meant to buy Wolff’s book instead.

“It’s not my fault people can’t tell the difference between a book about Trump and a book about the bombing of Germany,” Hansen said. “But most have been jovial and appreciated the moment of levity.”

Read the entire piece here.

Angela Merkel and the Future of Christianity In Europe

Mother AngelaI recently asked historian Benjamin Brandenburg to take some of his recent tweets on Brexit and Christianity and write them up for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am glad he agreed to do so.   

Brandenburg is an International Historian at Montreat College in North Carolina. His current project, “Evangelical Empire: Billy Graham’s Good News in the American Century,” investigates the politics of the gospel in the Global North and Global South. He tweets @benbrandenburg. Enjoy! –JF

As the aftershocks of Great Britain’s Brexit vote continue to reverberate across the globe, initial reactions focused on the future of capitalism, world order, and globalization.  The religious dimension was nowhere to be found. Contrary to what is often claimed on this side of the pond, Christianity continues to matter in European politics. When the returns signaled that a fear of immigration tilted the referendum towards Leave, it became obvious that voters had Mutter Angela on their minds. Europe’s current impasse was in no small part launched by the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite over one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers from the Middle East into the heart of the European Union. David Cameron, Britain’s lame duck Prime Minister, admitted as much.

So it is worth taking a deeper look at the ways Merkel’s Immigration Revolution of 2015 reignited Europe’s on-again off-again discussion about Christianity’s role in public life.

Europeans, it seems, have never quite stopped discussing the meaning of Christianity in Europe. Following the Second World War, debates about the future the European system resulted in the political phenomena of Christian Democracy. Harvard historian Samuel Moyn recently argued that this Western European ideology understood Europe to be nothing less than a Christian Civilization. Often misunderstood in the United States, the Christian Democratic movement is perhaps the most important ideological innovation of the postwar period.  With a surprising mixture of pan-Europeanism, Catholic social teaching, and anti-communism, the party took hold in Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries in the immediate aftermath of the war.  When Christianity began to lose its firm grip on postwar society Christian Democrats sought to push the conversation by inviting Billy Graham to the stadiums of Europe. Europeans debated whether America’s most iconic religious export could re-Christianize Cold War Europe. They later used Graham’s satellite TV events as a yardstick for discussing religious pluralism. More recently, the failed attempt at crafting a European Constitution in the early 2000s was dominated by discussions, with an assist by Jürgen Habermas, about whether Europe had an explicit Christian identity.

Enter Angela Merkel. In her eleven years in office, leaders within her conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) criticized the mild mannered politician for underemphasizing the “Christian” part of her party and for supporting relativism as she moved the party leftward. Her strongest belief, it appeared, was her effervescent love for Die Mannschaft, Germany’s national soccer team. Still, one can understand her reasoning for broadening the base, her CDU was one of Europe’s few remaining Christian Democratic strongholds.

And then Merkel made a momentous decision that would land her the cover of TIME’s person of the year.

She opened the German borders for Syrian refugees who were in limbo in Hungary. And she has stuck to her plan even as the price tag reached €94 billion. Some called the move a reaction to her upbringing in closed-border East Germany (Merkel’s father was a Lutheran official who earned the nickname “The Red Minister”). Others suggested it was a last ditch effort to save Europe’s borderless Schengen Zone or to bring in low wage labor. Perhaps a more accurate reading is to admit that Merkel attempted to reinvigorate a Christian Democratic understanding of politics on the continent. Merkel is forcing Christians in Europe to choose between her vision of Compassionate Conservatism and the Christian Nationalist vision of Fortress Europe that is cresting in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland, and Nigel Farage’s Britain. In response to a question on the Islamisation of Europe, Merkel responded:

We all have the opportunity and the freedom to have our religion, to practice it, and to believe in it. I would like to see more people who have the courage to say ‘I am a Christian believer’. And more people who have the courage to enter into a dialogue with our guests…Fear was never a good adviser. Culture’s that are marked by fear will not conquer their future.

This Wilkommenskutlure should be interpreted as a distinct vision of Christian hospitality. Historians will need to wait for decades to see how this conversation plays out, but it could lead—to borrow a phrase from Robert Wuthnow—to a Restructuring of European Christianity.