GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

Another Day in Greensboro

Back in June 2017, my family joined several Messiah College colleagues on a Civil Rights bus tour through the South.  Our first stop was Greensboro, North Carolina, where we visited North Carolina A&T State University and the International Civil Rights Center.  In 1960, four A&T students desegregated the lunch counter in the Greensboro Woolworths 5&10 store.  Today the Greensboro Woolworths is home to the International Civil Rights Center.  I wrote about my Civil Rights bus tour here and used much of the material from these posts in the final chapter of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Yesterday, I was back in Greensboro to give the 56th Annual Ward Lecture at Greensboro College.  My topic, as you might expect, was “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” The Ward Lecture is sponsored by the Greensboro College Religion Department and funded by the wonderful Ward family.  My opportunity to eat lunch with the Wards was one of highlights of the day.

We had a good turnout for the lecture and a robust Q&A session.  It was nice to meet so many Greensboro College students (especially Abby Bugger and Mackenzie Burns) and several folks from the area who are longtime readers of this blog.  (I also met the brother of a long-time reader of this blog!).

Thanks to Jason Myers and Dan Malotky of the Greensboro College Religion Department for hosting me.  Jason also took me back to the International Civil Rights Center for another tour.  I also got to talk with the local NBC station about Believe Me. (See video above). And if you are ever in Greensboro and are looking for a good bed & breakfast, I highly recommend the Double Oaks!

Here are some pics:

Woolworth

When in Greensboro…

Ward

 With Jean Fortner Ward. The annual Ward Lecture at Greensboro College was made possible through Jean’s husband William, who endowed the lecture to honor her contribution to Greensboro College.  Greensboro College senior religion major Abby Bugger is photobombing 🙂

Greensboro Fea 2

Talking with Bill O’Neil of WXII 12 News (NBC)

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 1

As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job.  Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation.  This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!

We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning.  We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.

GReensboro1

We started the tour with some Oram’s donuts–a Beaver Falls, Pa. tradition,  Thanks Todd!

Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro.  On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10.  Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM).  (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993.  A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).

Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour.  The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located.  A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter.  Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room.  I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students.  I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.

If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit.  A lot of the original Woolworth building remains.  As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original.  I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey.  I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards.  There was no lunch counter.

The museum is small, but it packs a big punch.  The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn.  For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists.  The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow.  The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation.  An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits.  She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina.  We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.

We are off to a good start.  Stay tuned.  We are in Atlanta today.

A few more pics:

Greensboro2

The “Greensboro Four” Monument at North Carolina A&T University

GReensboro3

Front entrance to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM

GReensboro4

“Colored Entrance” to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM)