Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

Thoughts on Trump’s Proposed “National Garden of American Heroes”

 

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At his July 3, 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump said:

More here.

And here is the text of the executive order:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Purpose.  America owes its present greatness to its past sacrifices.  Because the past is always at risk of being forgotten, monuments will always be needed to honor those who came before.  Since the time of our founding, Americans have raised monuments to our greatest citizens.  In 1784, the legislature of Virginia commissioned the earliest statue of George Washington, a “monument of affection and gratitude” to a man who “unit[ed] to the endowment[s] of the Hero the virtues of the Patriot” and gave to the world “an Immortal Example of true Glory.”  I Res. H. Del. (June 24, 1784).  In our public parks and plazas, we have erected statues of great Americans who, through acts of wisdom and daring, built and preserved for us a republic of ordered liberty.

These statues are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.  They preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten.  These works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation.  These monuments express our noblest ideals:  respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union.  They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes.  In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come.  To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.

To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance.  In recent weeks, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments have been vandalized or destroyed.  Some local governments have responded by taking their monuments down.  Among others, monuments to Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, leaders of the abolitionist movement, the first all-volunteer African-American regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, and American soldiers killed in the First and Second World Wars have been vandalized, destroyed, or removed.

These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn.  My Administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.  In the face of such acts of destruction, it is our responsibility as Americans to stand strong against this violence, and to peacefully transmit our great national story to future generations through newly commissioned monuments to American heroes.

Sec. 2.  Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes.  (a)  There is hereby established the Interagency Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes (Task Force).  The Task Force shall be chaired by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary), and shall include the following additional members:

(i)    the Administrator of General Services (Administrator);

(ii)   the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA);

(iii)  the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH);

(iv)   the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP); and

(v)    any officers or employees of any executive department or agency (agency) designated by the President or the Secretary.

(b)  The Department of the Interior shall provide funding and administrative support as may be necessary for the performance and functions of the Task Force.  The Secretary shall designate an official of the Department of the Interior to serve as the Executive Director of the Task Force, responsible for coordinating its day-to-day activities.

(c)  The Chairpersons of the NEA and NEH and the Chairman of the ACHP shall establish cross-department initiatives within the NEA, NEH, and ACHP, respectively, to advance the purposes of the Task Force and this order and to coordinate relevant agency operations with the Task Force.

Sec. 3.  National Garden of American Heroes.  (a)  It shall be the policy of the United States to establish a statuary park named the National Garden of American Heroes (National Garden).

(b)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Task Force shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that proposes options for the creation of the National Garden, including potential locations for the site.  In identifying options, the Task Force shall:

(i)    strive to open the National Garden expeditiously;

(ii)   evaluate the feasibility of creating the National Garden through a variety of potential avenues, including existing agency authorities and appropriations; and

(iii)  consider the availability of authority to encourage and accept the donation or loan of statues by States, localities, civic organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals, for display at the National Garden.

(c)  In addition to the requirements of subsection 3(b) of this order, the proposed options for the National Garden should adhere to the criteria described in subsections (c)(i) through (c)(vi) of this section.

(i)    The National Garden should be composed of statues, including statues of John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

(ii)   The National Garden should be opened for public access prior to the 250th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026.

(iii)  Statues should depict historically significant Americans, as that term is defined in section 7 of this order, who have contributed positively to America throughout our history.  Examples include:  the Founding Fathers, those who fought for the abolition of slavery or participated in the underground railroad, heroes of the United States Armed Forces, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Freedom, scientists and inventors, entrepreneurs, civil rights leaders, missionaries and religious leaders, pioneers and explorers, police officers and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, labor leaders, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged, opponents of national socialism or international socialism, former Presidents of the United States and other elected officials, judges and justices, astronauts, authors, intellectuals, artists, and teachers.  None will have lived perfect lives, but all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.

(iv)   All statues in the National Garden should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.

(v)    The National Garden should be located on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America’s history.  The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community.

(vi)   As part of its civic education mission, the National Garden should also separately maintain a collection of statues for temporary display at appropriate sites around the United States that are accessible to the general public.

Sec. 4.  Commissioning of New Statues and Works of Art.  (a)  The Task Force shall examine the appropriations authority of the agencies represented on it in light of the purpose and policy of this order.  Based on its examination of relevant authorities, the Task Force shall make recommendations for the use of these agencies’ appropriations.

(b)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law and the other provisions of this order, Task Force agencies that are authorized to provide for the commissioning of statues or monuments shall, in expending funds, give priority to projects involving the commissioning of publicly accessible statues of persons meeting the criteria described in section 3(b)(iii) of this order, with particular preference for statues of the Founding Fathers, former Presidents of the United States, leading abolitionists, and individuals involved in the discovery of America.

(c)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law, these agencies shall prioritize projects that will result in the installation of a statue as described in subsection (b) of this section in a community where a statue depicting a historically significant American was removed or destroyed in conjunction with the events described in section 1 of this order.

(d)  After consulting with the Task Force, the Administrator of General Services shall promptly revise and thereafter operate the General Service Administration’s (GSA’s) Art in Architecture (AIA) Policies and Procedures, GSA Acquisition Letter V-10-01, and Part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, to prioritize the commission of works of art that portray historically significant Americans or events of American historical significance or illustrate the ideals upon which our Nation was founded.  Priority should be given to public-facing monuments to former Presidents of the United States and to individuals and events relating to the discovery of America, the founding of the United States, and the abolition of slavery.  Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.  Priority should be given to this policy above other policies contained in part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, and revisions made pursuant to this subsection shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.

(e)  When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.

Sec. 5.  Educational Programming.  The Chairperson of the NEH shall prioritize the allocation of funding to programs and projects that educate Americans about the founding documents and founding ideals of the United States, as appropriate and to the extent consistent with applicable law, including section 956 of title 20, United States Code.  The founding documents include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  The founding ideals include equality under the law, respect for inalienable individual rights, and representative self-government.  Within 90 days of the conclusion of each Fiscal Year from 2021 through 2026, the Chairperson shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that identifies funding allocated to programs and projects pursuant to this section.

Sec. 6.  Protection of National Garden and Statues Commissioned Pursuant to this Order.  The Attorney General shall apply section 3 of Executive Order 13933 of June 26, 2020 (Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence), with respect to violations of Federal law regarding the National Garden and all statues commissioned pursuant to this order.

Sec. 7.  Definition.  The term “historically significant American” means an individual who was, or became, an American citizen and was a public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history.  The phrase also includes public figures such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and the Marquis de La Fayette, who lived prior to or during the American Revolution and were not American citizens, but who made substantive historical contributions to the discovery, development, or independence of the future United States.

Sec. 8.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Does Trump think he is building another Trump Tower?

I digress.

Just to reiterate, there will be statues of: John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Quick thoughts:

1. We should not get too worked-up about this order because there is a chance Trump will be voted out of office in November 2020. In other words, this national garden may never happen.

2. Let’s not get too caught-up in debating who should be “in” and who should be “out.” This is actually what Trump wants to happen. Historians should just ignore these plans. By giving too much attention to this we lend credibility to the proposal. (I know–I should be taking my own advice here!).  This is not a debate over state history and social studies standards.

3. How much will this national garden cost the American taxpayer? If Trump really cares about history he should fund its study in schools. His budgets should provide more money for already existing historic sites and teacher training.

4. Let’s say Trump wins in 2020 and this national garden becomes a reality. Would I visit it? Maybe. But I would not go there to teach my students about the lives of these so-called “heroes.” I rely on my classroom lectures and discussions, primary sources, legitimate public history sites, and good books and articles to do that. I would, however, consider taking students to this place to teach them about the Trump administration much in the same way that I take students to Confederate monuments at Gettysburg to teach them about the Lost Cause. This is what historians mean by contextualizing monuments. Like the Confederate monuments we are fighting over today, monuments often tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in history that they commemorate. Confederate monuments were erected in the early 20th century as symbols of white supremacy and Jim Crow. Some of the figures Trump wants to memorialize in his national garden seem like random choices, but others speak volumes about Trump’s America and his 2020 re-election bid.

For example, the founding fathers are revered by Trump’s white conservative base. Good history teachers visiting this garden might say something to their students about founders chic. They might note that on the very day of this executive order millions of Americans were watching a movie-version of a Broadway play about Alexander Hamilton. All of this explains why George Washington, John Adams,  Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were chosen. (I don’t know why Dolley Madison was chosen over Martha Washington and Abigail Adams). I am sure Abraham Lincoln was chosen as an honorary founding father.

The African American selections (there are no native Americans) are Martin Luther King Jr.,  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Jackie Robinson. These are all safe choices, although a good history teacher might show this video in preparation for the class trip. There are reasons why W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, or Barack Obama were not chosen. (Future students will certainly wonder why the first Black president in American history was not selected). When viewed in the larger context of the Trump presidency, a legitimate argument could be made that these men and women were picked in an attempt to show Trump is not a racist.

Trump and his people are obsessed with military strength. We thus get Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Audie Murphy, George Patton, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.

And Trump needs his white evangelical base in November. He hopes a statue of Billy Graham, or at least the announcement of such a statue, might help deliver these votes.

Trump has an obsession with space and aviation. (Trump mentioned going to Mars during his Mount Rushmore speech). I would have my students read or watch his recent Cape Canaveral speech before we visited the national garden. We thus get Christa McAuliffe, Amelia Earhart, and the Wright brothers. Frankly, I am surprised he did not pick Charles Lindbergh, an early proponent of “America First.”

Was Henry Clay, the architect of the American System, chosen because of Trump’s infrastructure plans? Future history teachers will tell students that these plans never got off the ground, despite multiple “infrastructure weeks,” because Trump undermined them with tweets and other self-initiated scandals.

And, of course, any historian would have a lot to say about why Antonin Scalia made the cut instead of John Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hugo Black, or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But in the end, I would put money on this national garden of heroes going the way of Trump’s border wall and many of his other grandiose plans.  It won’t happen.

 

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the 1849 Cholera Pandemic

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Nancy Koester, a writer and historian, is the author of an informative religious history of Harriett Beecher Stowe titled Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.  If you are interested in how Stowe’s faith informed her activism, I recommend Nancy’s book. See our interview with Koester here.

In her recent piece at The Christian Post, Koester discusses how Stowe dealt with the death of her son Charley during Cincinnati’s 1849 cholera epidemic.

Here is a taste:

…cholera came to town in January 1849.  It started among the poor. African Americans and immigrants often lived in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation.  They suffered disproportionately then as now. 

But by late spring the disease was spreading.  Calvin was out of town, so Harriet wrote often. Doctors were getting “used up,” she said. There weren’t enough hearses to haul away the bodies, so farm wagons and furniture trucks were used.  On the streets people burned coal fires, laced with lime and Sulphur to combat the miasma.  One hundred and sixteen people died in a day.  Although the mayor proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, the bars were so packed that drinkers went out to the streets and imbibed next to coffins awaiting transport.

Then Charley got sick….

Read the entire piece here.

The Beechers

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Walter Woodward, the Connecticut State Historian, discusses the most accomplished family in Connecticut history.  A taste:

The son of a New Haven blacksmith, Lyman Beecher (1775 – 1863) became one of America’s most influential Second Great Awakening ministers while fathering 13 children who helped profoundly transform 19th-century America’s views on slavery, education, women’s rights, and religion. Beecher himself was a complex figure: though virulent in his anti-Catholicism, he was co-founder of the American Temperance Society and an outspoken anti-slavery voice who modeled the concept of passionate advocacy for his children, many of whom followed in his footsteps.

All seven of Lyman Beecher’s sons who survived to adulthood became ministers and anti-slavery advocates. Edward (1803 – 1895) organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. Charles (1815 – 1900) moved to Florida at war’s end to minister to newly freed slaves.

Read the rest here.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

The Author’s Corner with Nancy Koester

Nancy Koester holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Luther Seminary and currently lives in St. Paul, MN. This interview is based on her new book, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, January 2014).

JF: What led you to write Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: I’ve always been fascinated by the anti-slavery movement, especially the contributions of women. In a conversation with an editor, I learned that Eerdmans Publishing Co. wanted a volume on Harriet Beecher Stowe for their “Library of Religious Biography.” They wanted a book that would work more deeply with Stowe’s religious faith than some of the existing biographies. I followed up with a will!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life?

NK: Stowe’s fight against slavery and her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, expressed the moral vision of New England Calvinism: a society reflecting the love of God. But after she was a famous author, the death of her unconverted son made her question her inherited Calvinism, leading her on a quest through spiritualism to the Communion of Saints.

JF: Why do we need to read Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed history by turning public opinion against slavery. To know Stowe’s life story is to enter into defining conflict of our country, and also to explore some fascinating byways of 19th century life. Readers have told me that as the story unfolds, Harriet becomes real to them, and seems to remain with them long after they close the book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

NK: When I was growing up, my parents took me to historic sites, and gave me books to read about American history. History has always seemed alive to me, and (paraphrasing Lincoln) I am almostready to say that this is probably true: time travel is possible if you have a disciplined imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

NK: Right now I am revising and expanding my Fortress Introduction to the History of Christianity in the U.S. After that, I hope to write a biography of Sojourner Truth. I love writing biographies, because it is rewarding to get to know someone from the past as deeply as you can.

JF: Thanks, Nancy

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner. 

Reviewing "The Abolitionists"

A couple of days ago I did a post at The Anxious Bench on the new PBS three-part series on abolitionism.  It focuses on the lives of five prominent nineteenth-century opponents of slavery: Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriett Beecher Stowe.

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen (with whom I had an invigorating conversation this weekend in New Orleans about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania) review the series

They are not very impressed.

Here is a taste of Wilson’s analysis:

So Part I of The Abolitionists leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m still thinking of using it in my course. Mostly, a good teacher should be able to fill in the gaps. Taken as the story of certain abolitionists rather than “the” abolitionists, this part of the film leads in some promising directions. It just doesn’t go there itself. I found the dramatizations effective; I think they will make it much easier for students to visualize life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (Tim Cragg’s cinematography is downright pretty.) And I consider that to be one of the most important — and difficult — things to get right in a history classroom.

And here is a taste of Owen’s analysis:

While the abolitionists are brought strikingly to life, 19th century society seems strangely flat. In contrast to Jonathan, I was disappointed by the portrayal of religion. The beliefs of all the key participants were mentioned, but (brief cameos from Stauffer and Gilpin aside) seemed to be skated over quickly, rather than explained in greater detail (positioning this within a wider movement of religious revival would have been helpful). The ideology of paternalism, in all its hypocrisies, was never adequately explained. Perhaps this highlights the biggest difficulty in portraying slavery to a modern audience. The complicated story to us today isn’t why Garrison, Grimke, Brown and Douglass despised slavery and campaigned so vigorously against it – it is why so many other people remained complicit with the slave system. Hopefully the next installments will go some way to creating a more vivid and dynamic world in which the institution of slavery became more strongly challenged.

In addition to these thoughtful reviews, this post also includes links to seven other reviews of the documentary. Check them out.

Books That Shaped America

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Tim Lacy reflects on the Library Congress exhibit: “Books That Shaped America.”  The exhibit includes 88 books that have been important to Americans.  It is based on an online survey in which participants are asked to choose three books “written in America by Americans, and had a profound impact on our nation.”

Check out the survey and get back to us.  Which books did you choose?  

I picked Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Private Life of Benjamin Franklin (also known as Franklin’s Autobiography.