When historians on the Left and the Right engage in “the pleasures of condemnation”

Yesterday I wrote about the White House’s conference on American history. Read that post here. Conservatives are cheering the event. Those on the Left–particularly academic historians–are trashing the event.

There are a lot of reasons to be critical about what happened at the White House last Thursday (again, read my post). But I often wonder if those on the academic left are engaging in the same kind of anti-intellectualism, rigid fundamentalism, and cancel culture as those on the right.

Meanwhile, there is a very large intellectual center in America made-up of people on the Left and the Right who are not willing to be pulled to the fringes. I think this large center–a place of open discourse and academic freedom–is articulated best in the recent letter published in Harpers magazine and signed by the likes of Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jeet Heer, Matthew Karp, Randall Kennedy, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Cornel West, Sean Wilentz, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

These signers and other like-minded academics, intellectuals, and thinkers, are calling for the “free exchange of ideas,” which the letter describes as the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” Read the statement here.

Western Washington historian Johann Neem, the author of several books including What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, reflects the spirit of the Harpers letter in a recent twitter thread:


What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.

David Blight: An “educated and civil society” is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama”

Blight 2

Yale historian David Blight talks about the differences between history and the past on the “Live the Best Version of You” podcast. It is a nice introduction to how historians work and how the work historians do must contribute to our democratic life.

Listen:

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A few great lines:

  • Historians always work with their “umbilical cord” connected to the archives, but all research must be “rendered into a narrative.”
  • Good historical story-telling is always going to “convince” some people and “offend” others. This, Blight says, is the “beauty” and “fun” of history writing, but it is also contributes to the “perils” of history writing.
  • “It is the obligation of the trained historian to get close to truth as we can.”
  • In this world of subjectivity and opinion, “every now and then people seem to want a historian” to tell us “what really happened.”
  • “Some of the best history is written by people who have a good hunch.”
  • “History is what historians do,” but “memory is what the public possesses.” Everybody “has a sense of the past in their head” and it usually comes from family and roots.
  • “Stories take hold in the public mind that may or may not be directly connected to the history historians write, and hence memory can be therefore much more sacred than it is secular because people tend to say ‘I believe in this story.'”
  • “We have to find ways to reduce” the distance “between public memory and history….This is the historian’s duty.”
  • Blight calls for a “tolerant, educated, civil society” that is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama and human experience.”
  • Blight quotes William James: “The enemy of any one of my truths, is the rest of my truths.” We are obligated to challenge our own beliefs.

Listen to the entire interview here.

 

Ed Ayers: The “past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes”

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Here is the University of Richmond historian‘s piece at Medium:

History is best explained by supple narratives of sequence, change, and consequence. We call those narratives stories. All humans understand stories and explain themselves and their worlds in stories. Even children can handle ambiguity and change, mistake and result, growth, and triumph. We intuitively turn to stories in novels, films, and video games to explain history. We should do the same in our classrooms.

The story of the American Civil War, for example, can be told even to young students with three main characters and plot lines. First, the states of the Confederacy wanted to establish their own nation where the future of slavery could never be infringed upon or threatened. The second plot line is that of the United States, which went to war to defend its existence and eventually discovered that it could not do so without destroying slavery.

The third plot line is that of enslaved people, who did everything they could to escape and then destroy slavery from the first moments of the war until after formal battles had ended. Two-hundred thousand African American men played critical roles in preserving the United States, as well as in winning black freedom. Other enslaved people, of all backgrounds, risked their lives to free themselves.

Students presented with variables rather than solutions quickly see that the principles describing the physical world do not apply to the multivariate and chaotic world of history. While that might be alarming at first, it will engage and teach them in more profound ways. Trying, and even failing, to solve a problem is more satisfying than finding the correct answer in the back of the book — especially if that answer only appears to be correct.

Read the entire piece here.

*The New York Times* covers the “clash of the historians” at SHEAR

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Jennifer Schuessler has written a fair report on what happened last weekend during (and following) the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) ZOOM panel titled “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.”

Schuessler quotes from the second blog post I wrote about the session and its aftermath. (I did not speak with her). I also invite you to read my initial response to the panel here. I am returning to the topic now because my message boxes are starting to fill again.

Anyone who has followed the SHEAR controversy will be familiar with much of Schuessler’s piece, but she has also done some additional reporting, including an interview with Dan Feller.

Here is a taste:

In an interview, Mr. Feller, 69, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said it wasn’t the historian’s job to defend or condemn. What he questioned, he said, was the insistence on seeing Jackson purely as someone “who just wanted to kill everybody,” as well as what he sees as a politicized approach to writing history.

“The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy,” Mr. Feller, who called himself a lifelong Democrat, said. “But because both sides have identified him with Trump, for opposite reasons, we are now reading Jackson through the lens of Trump.”

And he was unapologetic about the panel, which he noted had been approved by the society’s programming committee and Mr. Egerton last fall, as one of 39 at a planned conference. (The others have been postponed until next summer.) The paper had been circulated weeks in advance, he said, adding that he had received no criticism before the panel.

As for his use of the phrase “redcoats and redskins,” he said it was a reference to a common phrase in older scholarship, and had “implied quotation marks” around it. “I have never volitionally used the word ‘redskin’ in my life, period,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

After reading Schuessler’s piece, re-reading Feller’s paper (including a close reading of the footnotes), and listening to the Q&A for the third time, I honestly don’t see why what happened at this session merited the removal of the SHEAR president and such a backlash.

  1. I did not see Feller trying to defend Jackson, as some have accused him of doing. It seemed like he was trying to understand him, which is what historians are supposed to do. As Feller writes, “The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy….”
  2. For example, Jackson was indeed a white supremacist. But isn’t it possible that Jackson understood the status of Lyncoya differently than he did his Black slaves? Is it wrong for a historian to suggest this kind of complexity? If such nuance existed in Jackson’s mind, then shouldn’t the historian call attention to it? Or are such arguments now out of bounds?
  3. If Feller doesn’t believe that Jackson’s Indian Removal was “genocide,” should such a view result in a public condemnation by the SHEAR Advisory Council, the SHEAR Nominating Committee, or the SHEAR Program Committee? Isn’t this a matter of interpretation?
  4. If Feller argues that Jackson’s use of the word “pet” to describe Lyncoya is more complicated than what a few younger scholars have suggested, does that merit the kind of trash talking directed at him on Twitter and the public shaming of the man? I imagine that the public shaming will be a lot worse now that The New York Times has covered this.
  5. Was Feller dismissive of younger scholars and women scholars? Well, he was certainly hard on them. But he also disagreed with their interpretations. It appears that he read the work of these scholars and found them wanting. Where then do we draw the line between “disagree” and “dismiss?” If Feller had disagreed with these scholars more politely would that have been okay? Or is Feller being condemned simply because he disagrees with female and junior scholars? If the latter is the case, then I see this as a problem. If we are trying to find out what is true about Andrew Jackson, and the leading authority on the subject has a different opinion than junior scholars, shouldn’t his views be taken seriously?
  6. Of course it is also essential for senior scholars to treat other people–especially junior members of the field– fairly and respectfully. If members of SHEAR feel marginalized we should take their voices seriously and listen. As a white male, I have learned a lot of hard lessons on this front, especially in my own academic institution. Indeed, SHEAR has always been an old boys network. This needs to change and it is changing. Feller was a lot harder on younger scholars than I would have been, but I am not sure that this rises to the level of demonizing him and ousting the organization’s president.
  7. In my opinion, the entire point of historical scholarship is to make an argument based on the rigorous reading of the evidence. Historians will disagree on how to read such evidence. Sometimes newer scholars will challenge long-established scholarly orthodoxy and in the process give us a better understanding of what happened in the past. But just because an argument is new doesn’t mean we have to automatically accept it. Of course many who believe that scholarship should always be progressing onward and upward, leaving all older interpretations behind in a manner that C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery,” will disagree with me here. And that’s OK. But let’s debate and exchange ideas instead of turning out the mob. As Johann Neem wrote yesterday, we need more and and a little less or.
  8. Of course any such debate must take place with charity and a sense of intellectual hospitality. This is a lesson for Feller, Twitterstorians, the SHEAR leadership, and all of us in the academic profession.
  9. Feller told Jennifer Schuessler that the use of a racial slur at the end of the Q&A was meant with “implied quotation marks.” This is what it sounded like to me as well. Those final couple of minutes were very confusing, but I will once again refer to the last paragraph of Andy Shankman’s response to the plenary session. It seems that both Feller and Harry Watson were familiar with this phrase and were using it in their discussion of the “slaughtering” of British soldiers (“redcoats”) at the Battle of New Orleans. Feller was trying to make a point about Jackson as a general in the War of 1812. He only used this phrase because he thought one of the panelists had said it earlier.

As some of you know, I have also written on Trump’s use of Jackson, particularly in the context of white evangelical support for Trump in 2016.

This then leads me to the quotation that Schuessler pulled from the blog:

The SHEAR debacle has very little to do with history and a whole lot to do about politics. This is why many Americans–including the thousands of people I engage with on a daily basis– don’t trust us and our scholarship.

On the first sentence of the quote:

As I noted above, it seems as if SHEAR has decided that certain approaches to historical scholarship are unacceptable. Current president Amy Greenberg is quoted in the piece. She says that Feller’s paper does not representative SHEAR’s “standards of scholarship.” I am surprised by this. I thought Feller’s paper was an excellent piece of scholarship. Of course it is SHEAR’s prerogative to draw its own boundaries, but this seems like political censorship to me.

A quick word about my use of “political” here.  All historical scholarship is political. I will be the first to argue that our social and cultural location in the present shapes how we view the past.  As David Novick reminded us several decades ago, “objectivity” is a “noble dream.”

But when I said that this was all “about politics” I was talking about SHEAR as a professional organization. In any professional organization, those in power decide what arguments are acceptable and unacceptable. Since every member of the Advisory Board, Nominating Board, and Program Committee agreed on the decision to condemn Feller and oust Doug Egerton, and I have heard privately from dozens of SHEAR members who disagree with one or both of these decisions, it tells me that this was a political power play, whether the leadership of SHEAR understands it that way or not.

CORRECTION (July 28, 2020): It has come to my attention that the Advisory Council of SHEAR never took a position on condemning Feller and has not done so.  Moreover, the Ex Officio (and voting) members of the Advisory Council did not sign the letter calling for Egerton’s ouster. This latter point is explained in a statement from current SHEAR president Amy Greenberg).

And now on to the last line of the quote.

I have spent much of my career trying to bridge the gap between the work of professional historians and the public. I spend a lot of time talking to history teachers. I also train 7-12th grade history teachers.

I also speak and write to evangelical Christians, a group with a long history of anti-intellectualism that desperately needs to think more deeply about American history as it relates to race, gender, and the relationship between church and state. (For example, if you read this blog, you know I have been working hard to teach my audience that systemic racism is a real thing). The number of negative messages I received from SHEAR members and other scholars this week pales in comparison to the number of e-mails I get each week from those who attack me from the Right or question my religious faith.

When I started this blog I made a commitment to entering the fray. As I wrote at The Panorama in late 2019, this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. I’d like to think I have remained consistent in my convictions throughout it all. Or at least I have tried.

I got into this mess (or as Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat called it “SHEAR MADNESS“) because at least ten of my readers asked me to comment and help them make sense of what was going on. They watched it all unfold on Twitter and were left with many questions about Andrew Jackson, Trump’s use of Jackson, slavery, public discourse, and the nature of the historical profession. Many of my readers love history and think it is important, but they come from all political stripes. A lot of them–liberals and conservatives– don’t trust academics because they seem to sing only one political note.

Finally, let’s put things in perspective. Let’s remember that while SHEAR is cleaning house and marking boundaries, there are millions of people deciding right now whether they will pull a lever for Donald Trump in November. They are listening to the very bad historical arguments about “Making America Great Again” emanating every day from their car radios and computer screens. They are having history-based debates with their families and friends. They are trying to make sense of the American founding and how it relates to our current political moment. They want to know what to say at a town hall meeting devoted to tearing down a monument or renaming a school. They are trying to use history to build community in the places where they live, work, and have their being.

There are K-12 teachers who need help trying to figure out what to do with the 1619 Project, how to talk to parents about what should and should not be happening in a history classroom, or how to start a conversation with students about race in America. Some are just trying to defend the study of history against school boards intent on giving it short shrift in the curriculum.

There are parents asking about what kind of materials to use as they try to teach history to kids who may not be going back to school in the Fall due to COVID-19. They want to know if there are one or two books they can read that will help them.

While some historians are on Twitter bashing Dan Feller, there are history professors standing face-to-face with white supremacists at Civil War battle sites trying to convince them the war was about slavery. Others are fighting for their professional lives because their administrations are cutting tenured faculty.

I know these people exist because they have reached-out to me (or I have reached-out to them) in one way or another over the course of the last few months. As an educator–both in the classroom, the church, and online–I have worked hard to build their trust.

I hope those who remain in SHEAR will strive to develop a professional society that celebrates diversity, lifts up the voices of  junior scholars and graduate students, respects the work of seasoned members of the profession, embraces honest debate and conversation, and tries to reach as many people as possible with good early American history.

 

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton opposes “cancel culture.” Unless, of course, it is the 1619 Project

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I just learned today that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is trying to pass legislation to prohibit schools from using federal funds to teach the New York Times‘s 1619 Project. (If you are unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, read our coverage here. We’ve collected most of the pertinent articles).

This week I am doing Q&A sessions with about 100 hundred high school teachers enrolled in my Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History course on British North America. They are watching a series of lectures I recorded with Gilder-Lehrman back in 2015 and I am meeting with them live via ZOOM to answer their questions.

Yesterday, we talked about the colonial Chesapeake and, as might be expected, most of the conversation revolved around race, slavery, and the 1619 Project. My comments about the Project focused on several points:

  1. The 1619 Project has some serious historical problems, especially in its claim that the American Revolution was primarily about preserving slavery.
  2. We cannot ignore the relationship between slavery, race, and the American founding. (Several teachers, for example, had read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom).
  3. We should not hesitate to use the 1619 Project in our classrooms if we think it might help students understand issues of systemic racism.
  4. Very few essays in the 1619 Project are written by historians.
  5. The claim that the 1619 Project should be the final word in the classroom concerning the subject of slavery, race, and the historical roots of American identity is a claim that is insulting to history teachers. Which leads me to my final, and most important point:
  6. Much of the debate over the 1619 Project in the classroom fails to grasp the nature of good history teaching. While citizenship and equitable coverage is certainly important, the primary goal of the history classroom is to get students to think and read historically. This requires a sensitivity to bias, context, authorial intent (sourcing), close reading, and complexity. As Sam Wineburg says in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, students should not only learn what a document is saying, but also what a document is doing. If this is our goal, then why should we be afraid of the 1619 Project? Use it in class, interrogate it, and teach your kids to read it like any good historian would read a document.

Read Cotton’s “Saving American History Act.  Here is an opinion piece at Forbes.

What I wrote about John Lewis in *Believe Me*

Lewis dead

p.176: “But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than unite them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how ‘America first’ was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of ‘law and order,’ he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: ‘Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.’

p.185: “As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

Believe Me 3d

How does a historian think about the past?

Why Study HistoryAdapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The past is everywhere. Take some time to think about the many ways you have encountered the past today. Perhaps you shared a memory with a family member or looked at some old photos on Facebook. Or maybe you spent some time thinking about how the past has shaped who you are today. The past serves our needs in a variety of ways. We consume the past in hopes that it will inspire us, provide an escape from modern life, and tell us who we are as individuals and communities. We enter the past in search of people like us, and we invoke the past in our political and cultural debates. We cannot escape its presence in our lives. So why not embrace it? As we will see below, attempts at making the past relevant must be done with caution, but we should not be shy about linking the past to the present.

If you are a historian, part of your responsibility is to inform the general public about the way the past connects to our contemporary lives and to help the members of your community use the past to make meaning of their lives. As those living in the “here and now,” we are in constant dialogue with the past, whether we realize it or not. As long as we remain products of an American culture that celebrates the individual and his or her quest to bring order to life, we will live in a paradoxical relationship to what has come before us. The past will always serve as a temper to the progressive vision of a better world, but we will appeal to it endlessly in order to make that world a reality.

We must also always remember that the past is akin to a foreign country. Historians have the important task of visiting this world and explaining it to others through the books we write, the lectures we give, the lessons we plan, and the exhibits we curate. It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own.

Historians are tour guides. It is important to always keep this in mind as you engage the past. Your success as a historian or a student of history will depend on how effectively you are able to use your research paper, essay, or presentation to bring lost worlds to life for your readers and hearers. But this will not be easy since our natural inclination–our “psychological condition at rest”–is to consume the past for our own purposes to try to remake the past in our own images.

As an exercise in understanding, any serious study of the past requires us to attempt to humbly walk in the shoes of people who have inhabited this earth before us. This is why Stanford University history pedagogy expert Sam Wineburg has called the practice of historical thinking an “unnatural act.” It it this role of the historian–the role of a tour guide through foreign cultures–that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.

David Blight gives Joe Biden some advice about monuments

Juneteenth_Memorial_Monument_-_George_Washington_Carver_Museum_-_Austin_Texas

David Blight has been a voice of reason on this whole monument debate. In a piecepublished yesterday at The New York Times, he offers Joe Biden some historical advice. He suggests that Biden should establish a task force devoted to “our roiling national confrontations over monuments, memorialization, and the learning and uses of history.” A taste:

The Biden campaign might take its cues from the Congressional Black Caucus. In recent weeks under the leadership of Representatives Karen Bass, Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee, among others, the caucus has proposed a commission on reparations for slavery and segregation, a separate commission on the “legacies of slavery,” a quest to remove all 13 Confederate monuments from the Capitol, and a robust bill on criminal justice reform and policing that includes an appeal for a federal anti-lynching act, an idea now 99 years old.

Mr. Biden and his campaign should support this effort, not by endorsing one specific measure after another, but by creating a serious task force or commission that would first comparatively study the issues of “repair,” monuments and memorialization, and promoting a richly pluralistic version of American history to the largest possible public. A wide array of cultural institutions have been doing so for many years.

Mr. Biden could name someone like Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian and the founding director of the National African-American Museum of History and Culture, to lead such a task force. Representative Bass would make a great co-chair, as would Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico. If Mr. Bunch considers the role a conflict at this point given his position, perhaps former President Barack Obama could take the initial role as chair. He possesses a demonstrated sense of history and would lend tremendous prestige.

Appoint to the commission museum professionals, historians, curators, art historians, writers, practicing artists, some members of Congress and perhaps some citizens who have long demonstrated informed interest in advancing a proud but diverse and contradictory American story for the ages. The chaotic process of the monument wars needs national leadership, not to tell local leaders and groups what to do, but to provide research, informed guidelines, best practices, new and imaginative ideas — a history — to the challenge of making a “new” national memorial landscape.

The task force should not merely provide lists of new “heroes,” nor any “gardens” of monuments. Perhaps we need to think of memorializing ideas, concepts, epic historical movements and events. Men on horseback had their day aesthetically. Let’s have the courage to imagine government as a source of creative engagement with our most difficult pasts, our most harrowing tragedies, our renewals and our enduring values. Let’s not look for purity in past or present, but let imaginations soar. Assemble people who have already been doing this for much of their lifetimes, however messy, conflicted or strained the task.

Read the entire piece here.

When the Supreme Court engages in bad history

Supreme Court

Willamette University law professor and historian Steven K. Green makes a compelling case that the Supreme Court was “sloppy” in its use of history in the recent Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

More broadly, the opinions in Espinoza raise questions about the Court’s use of history, particularly when it becomes a rule of constitutional law. History is “complex,” as Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged and Justice Breyer echoed, yet an adversarial legal forum is not the optimal place for settling the complexities of a historical event. The efforts of Catholic immigrants to find acceptance in nineteenth-century America have been documented, as has the resistance of Protestants who were suspicious of the commitment of a foreign-born Catholic hierarchy to American democratic values. 

That this episode coincided with the development of American common schooling has only added complexity to the historical narrative. Proponents of common schooling sought to create an institution where children of various faiths could acquire a commitment to republican values, while ensuring the financial security of the fledgling public schools. Public school advocates were also concerned about ensuring public accountability and public control over school funds. 

Funding a competing system of religious schooling—at the time, not solely Catholic but also Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist schools, among others—would have stunted the development of public education, its advocates believed. Witnessing the rapid growth of Catholic immigration and its rising political influence in many cities, public education advocates also feared that funding religious schools would lead to religious competition and divisiveness. 

Embracing some of those arguments, nativists then added a layer of anti-Catholic prejudice that was guaranteed to appeal to some, but not all, Protestant Americans, including those who faced economic dislocation resulting from the influx of immigrant workers. At the opposite end of the spectrum was a cohort of liberal Protestants and freethinkers who opposed funding of religious schooling on grounds it violated church-state separation and the rights of conscience of those who didn’t want their tax dollars to support religious beliefs with which they disagreed. 

I could go on because there’s more to the story, but that’s precisely the point. This history is too complex to be decided in a judicial forum. In writing opinions, judges commonly draw on the information contained in the briefs of the parties and their supporting amici curiae. These briefs are written by lawyers (typically not historians) who advocate for particular outcomes and provide arguments and cherry pick data to support those resultsThis process is far removed from the enterprise of historical scholarship. 

Not only is legal adjudication not the optimal forum for unpacking the nuances of history, but a judge’s interpretation of a historical event takes on a greater significance. By “declaring” the defining meaning of a particular historical episode—something that historians refrain from doing—that interpretation becomes a constitutional rule. 

Read the entire piece here.

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.)

 

On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.

 

Monday night court evangelical roundup

TrumpJentezenprayer1

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Greg Laurie is still suggesting that the United States was “born out of a revival.” I addressed the many problems with this view here. In fact, religious attendance and membership was at an all-time low during the Revolution.

Johnnie Moore, who calls himself a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” loves Trump’s idea for a “National Garden of American Heroes.”

I wrote about this proposed garden here.

Moore also believes that “primary sources” exist in a vacuum. Most first-year history majors can debunk this approach to reading:

Ralph Reed, as always, is sticking to the playbook:

David Barton and his son Tim are on the Jim Bakker Show talking about monuments. For years, Barton ignored the parts of American history that did not fit with his Christian nationalism. Now he is talking about how we need to see the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. At one point, David Barton compares himself and his son to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. He praises Tim for training young people to go to their campuses and convince their professors to reject “cultural Marxism” and “cancel culture.” I have now said this several times–the small number of people who are tearing down non-Confederate monuments are providing fodder for this kind of stuff.

Any history teacher who watches this video, and hears the Bartons attack the “dumb” and “stupid” ideas being taught in schools, should be offended. I wonder how many times either David or Tim Barton have set foot in a public school history classroom.

This video is a clear example of the Barton’s Christian nationalist mission. And they are well-funded.

The Bartons came back for a second day on the Jim Bakker Show and basically told viewers that if they don’t vote for Trump the United States will become socialist. The fear-mongering continues. In this interview, they double-down on the idea that anyone who does not vote for Trump is not “thinking biblically.” According to Tim Barton, only about 10% of self-professed Christians are actually “thinking biblically.” The rest “love Jesus” but are ignorant.

Eric Metaxas is still playing to the extremes in order to scare his listeners. Most people in the United States are not engaged in the tearing down of monuments. Most local governments are not trying to remove non-Confederate monuments or erase history.  He plays to these extremes because he wants Trump re-elected and he needs to keep his show on the air. This is what cultural warriors do.

Metaxas keeps pushing his seriously-flawed book If You Can Keep It. He says that the American history kids are getting in schools today is making them ignorant. As I said above in relation to David and Tim Barton, this is a sad attack on hard-working history teachers who are teaching students how to read primary sources, weigh evidence, detect bias, think contextually, appreciate complexity, and grasp how things change over time. When was the last time Metaxas talked with a K-12 history teacher or visited a history classroom?

The fear-mongering continues with Metaxas’s guest John Zmirak. Their discussion of the history of the French Revolution takes so many liberties with the facts that I am not sure where to begin with my critique. Perhaps a European historian can listen to this and comment. Zmirak then refers to political scientist Mark David Hall’s book defending a Christian founding. I haven’t read this book, but you can see a discussion of it here.

The Metaxas-Zmirak conversation moves to a full-blown rejection of systemic racism and a defense of Robert E. Lee monuments. The kind of hate that is now propagated on the Eric Metaxas Show–a show on “Christian” radio–looks nothing like the teachings of Jesus Christ. I don’t understand how Metaxas could have read so much Bonhoeffer and still engage in this garbage. I’ll stick with Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer: here and here. I would also encourage you to read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and compare his words with what you hear on the Eric Metaxas Show.

In one of the more ironic lines of this episode, court evangelical Metaxas criticizes the Democratic Party for refusing to “stand against the madness.”

That’s all for today. Until next time.

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

 

Trump Rushmore

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.

 

Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Mount Rush

In case you missed it, Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota on the night of July 3, 2020.

Read the text here.

Watch the entire event here:

Thoughts:

1. Mary Hart

2. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem introduced Trump by appealing to America’s founding ideals. She said, “Let’s not destroy history.” This is in interesting exhortation from the governor of South Dakota. What is Noem doing to fund the teaching of history in South Dakota schools? In 2015, the state dumped early American history. I am not sure if things have changed since 2015, but back then I wrote this piece.

3. Noem said that her state prides itself “on the close-knit nature of our community.” She praised all the South Dakotans for showing-up and then said that the crowd included people “from across the nation.” The crowd was packed like sardines into what looked like a small space. I saw very few masks.

4. Noem and Trump did not mention anything about the tearing-down, removal, and defacing of Confederate monuments. The focus was entirely on the monuments to the “founding fathers.” Does anyone know how many non-Confederate monuments were defaced or torn down in the last month?

5. If we want to talk about American history, let’s remember that this entire event occurred on Lakota land. And yes, Trump talked about “manifest destiny” in his speech.

6. Historian Seth Cotlar tweeted this: “I can’t stress enough how angry and reactionary this speech is, on a day that celebrates the violent, statue-destroying revolution that birthed America.” Is Cotlar right? Let’s start here. You may also want to read this book.

7. Trump tried to make the case that Democrats and protesters are trying to “erase American history.” Meanwhile, millions of Americans were ignoring his speech because they were watching a movie about the American founding on Disney+.

8. At one point Trump said, “George Washington will never be removed, abolished, or forgotten.” I am sure the good folks at Mount Vernon are on it.

9. At another point of the speech, Trump threw thousands of history teachers under the bus when he said, “Our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” The only people who would believe this are Fox News viewers or people who have never set foot in a real history classroom.

10. As I watched the speech, I could not help but wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump invoking his name. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.

11. It sounds like white supremacist Steven Miller wrote this speech. There is a reason why he is one of the few people who have been with the administration since the beginning.

Here is Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic:

It sounds like Trump was at it again earlier this evening:

When it comes to American history, Trump is the one who has “absolutely no clue.” He doesn’t even read the teleprompter in an inspiring way.  And then he has the nerve to attack history teachers.

Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

…the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.” The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office. Our best presidents thought about their four or eight  years in power with historical continuity in mind. This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it. Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity. This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

 

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

COurt Evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since yesterday’s update?

Franklin Graham is on the stump for Trump. This is from his Facebook page :

In the last presidential election in 2016, I reminded people across the country that the election was not about Donald Trump’s previous lifestyle or Hillary Clinton’s lost emails, but it was about the courts—Who do you trust to appoint conservative judges to the courts? Donald J. Trump won the election, and in the next few days he will be making his 200th judicial appointment. That’s more than any president in the last four decades during the same time frame. Thank you Mr. President! This will be a legacy that truly will keep on giving—in the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

And Twitter:

Al Mohler is questioning science and COVID-19 experts and promoting a Trumpian populism:

Charlie Kirk is running a “Students for Trump” convention in Arizona featuring Donald Trump.

A few observations:

  • In the opening prayer of this convention, the minister thanked God that “All Lives Matter.” The prayer was filled with Christian nationalism, law and order, and Trump talking points. The crowd cheered during the prayer at the appropriate points.
  • Ryan Fournier, the founder of Students for Trump, calls the event “the most aggressive political outreach movement in political presidential campaign history.” Wow!  That’s specific.
  • Florida Matt Gaetz spoke. So did Donald Trump Jr.
  • Trump said nothing new to the 2000 students who showed-up. It was just another campaign rally.

Eric Metaxas interviews one of his “mentors in terms of thinking of race in America,” conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Elder talks about his new documentary film “Uncle Tom.” Elder makes the common claim that the Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law for African.Americans), and 15th Amendment (African American right to vote). This is largely true, but he fails to consider that the Democratic Party of the 1860s and 1870s is not the Democratic Party of today. See Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s debate (if you can all it that) with conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. This entire argument ignores a fundamental element of historical thinking: change over time. Metaxas totally endorses Elder’s approach, claiming that Americans “don’t know the facts.” Elder and Metaxas are peddling some really bad history here.

Elder claims that racism “is no longer a problem” in American life. This reminds me of a family member who recently told me that I was “living in the past” by suggesting that the history of racial discrimination in America might have something to do with race in America today.

In his second hour, Metaxas and his crew argue that the division in the country is the work of Satan, “the accuser.” Metaxas has the audacity to say that Satan “takes things that are true and twists them into a lie.” Wait, I thought Metaxas supported Trump! 🙂

Metaxas wants a view of history that celebrates all that is good in America. He extols all the Bible-believing Christians who were abolitionists. Yes, this is true. There were many good Christians who fought against slavery. But the present always shapes how we think about the past. As the country is trying to come to grips with racism–both individual acts of racism and the deeper problem of systemic racism–now is the time to take a deep, hard look at how we got here. That will mean taking a hard look at the dark moments of the white evangelical past. This is not the time to get defensive and engage in whataboutism. (Hey, what about Harriet Beecher Stowe!).

Metaxas then interviews Jenna Ellis of the Liberty University Falkirk Center.  In this interview, Metaxas says that “the only reason we abolished slavery is because of the Bible.” This is not entirely true, as I argued in Believe Me.  Slaveholding southerners actually used the Bible to justify slavery and accused northern abolitionists of not being biblical enough. As multiple historians have shown, the Bible was used to fortify racial discrimination to a much greater extent than the Bible was used to end slavery or advance racial justice in America. But Metaxas doesn’t care about that. He needs a usable past. Everything else can be conveniently ignored.

Speaking of the Falkirk Center at Liberty University:

And Lance Wallnau brings the fearmongering:

Until next time.