What Happens When an Evangelical Pundit, Armed Only with 58K Twitter Followers and a Reference to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Takes on a Historian

On Thursday night a very interesting, revealing, and somewhat disturbing Twitter exchange took place between religion writer Jonathan Merritt and historian Thomas Kidd.  Here is what happened:

It began when someone retweeted Kidd’s Gospel Coalition post on eighteenth-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.

Here is a taste of Kidd’s post:

Wheatley’s most popular poem was her 1770 elegy to George Whitefield, who died in Massachusetts that year.

Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal’d accents flow’d!
While emulation in each bosom glow’d;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore!
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more;
He leaves this earth for Heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown, receive him from our sight;
There WHITEFIELD wings, with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion, through vast seas of day.

Then she implored her fellow African Americans to accept Whitefield’s savior.

Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.


A variant edition of the poem ended that line with, “He’ll make you free, and kings, and priests to God.” This undoubtedly reflected Wheatley’s desire for her fellow slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Merritt entered the conversation when he took issue with Kidd using the word “evangelical” to describe Wheatley.  (Kidd uses the term in the title of the post).

Kidd requests an explanation:

These are all legitimate questions. The meaning of the word “evangelical” has been debated by historians for a long time.  And this debate is raging again in the age of Trump.

But then Merritt tells one of the most prolific American religious historians of this generation to “think on this some more.”  I guess this is the kind of bravado that comes when Outreach Magazine names you one of the “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership.”   Just for the record, here are just some of Kidd’s books:

  • The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)
  • George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2016)
  • God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010)
  • American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press).

I think its fair to say Tommy Kidd has done some “thinking on this” topic.

At this point in the exchange Merritt has wandered into the deep end of the pool only to prove that he is not a very good swimmer. He follows his “think about this” line with a bold, strange, and inaccurate claim to his 58K Twitter followers:

After reading this tweet a day later, I decided it was time to insert myself into the conversation:

By the way, I just spent a week in my colonial America class at Messiah College reading Yale historian’s Harry Stout’s Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism with my students.  One of the central premises of the book is that the “evangelical” movement in the eighteenth-century was characterized by those who, to use Merritt’s phrase, endorsed “Whitfield’s (sic) new birth.”

And here is a description of Peter Choi’s recent book on Whitefield titled George Whitefield: Evangelists for God and Empire (foreword by Mark Noll):  “GEORGE WHITEFIELD (1714–1770) is remembered as a spirited revivalist, a catalyst for the Great Awakening, and a founder of the evangelical movement in America.”

And here is Frank Lambert in Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1994): “By printing and preaching throughout the colonies Whitefield standardized evangelicalism.  He created a common language of the new birth that evangelicals everywhere employed to distinguish themselves from those who had not undergone a spiritual conversion.”  (p.131).

Perhaps Merritt doesn’t “know” these scholars.

But back in real time, Kidd responds to Merritt’s “exactly zero scholars” line with references to some of the best American religious historians working today.  He could have cited his own books, but instead he cites Catherine Brekus and Bruce Hindmarsh.

And then former Books & Culture editor John Wilson enters the fray:

Back to Kidd:

Wilson adds this:

Merritt turns the conversation back to definitional issues:

Wilson, a veteran of these conversations about the definition of evangelicalism, is tired:

And then he awakens and tweets:

Merritt responds to his 58K Twitter followers. Remember, Merritt fashions himself as a public intellectual who “trains hundreds of young writers” and is a “sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches.”  (Also, don’t forget he writes for The Atlantic). He decides to pontificate with a vast and universal claim:

Wilson brings the conversation back to the original issue.

Merritt has some choice words for Wilson:

I can’t let such disrespect slide without pushing back:

Kidd has had enough:

But Merritt is in attack mode:

Kidd is a bigger man than I am. I can’t let Merritt get away with this:

Later, Kidd places it all in a larger cultural context by quoting a review of Thomas Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters:

By the way, here is the Kirkus review of The Death of Expertise:

As a veteran governmental adviser and think-tank participant, Nichols (National Security Affairs/U.S. Naval War Coll.; No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, 2013, etc.) has experienced firsthand the decline of respect accorded specialists in many disciplines, as the internet has leveled the playing field to the point where all opinions are more or less considered equal, and a Google search substitutes for decades of research. “These are dangerous times,” he writes. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything,” However, the author sounds less like an alarmist than like a genial guide through the wilderness of ignorance. There are no startling revelations. Media in general and social media in particular tend to function as echo chambers, reinforcing biases. Some of those whose conclusions are the shakiest tend to shout the loudest, basing their arguments on spurious evidence. Credentials are suspect in an age when university degrees are everywhere, grade inflation runs rampant, and colleges woo prospective students as customers and clients. Little wonder, then, that “if in a previous era too much deference was paid to experts, today there is little deference paid to anyone at all.” Students challenge teachers, patients challenge doctors, and so-called experts argue with other so-called experts (often in territory beyond the expertise of either). “People who claim they are ‘experts’ are sometimes only about as self-aware as people who think they’re good kissers,” he writes. Not that Nichols lets the experts off the hook—some hide behind the impenetrability of academic jargon; others have even faked the data or cooked the books. The answer to this pervasive problem lies in greater media literary and in citizens having a better idea as to what they can trust from whom.

And now I want to give Jonathan Merritt “something to think about.”  Kevin Kruse tweeted this in the context of his ongoing debate with Dinesh D’Souza about race and the Democratic Party.  The content of their debate is different from the Kidd-Merritt debate (and Merritt is not a Trump supporter), but the message is the same:

More on Empathy and Disgust (and Lament)

Why Study HistorySome of you will remember my response to Elesha Coffman’s blog post about Robert Orsi’s recent plenary address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Here is a taste of that post:

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Yesterday, Wheaton College historian Karen Johnson entered the fray.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Anxious Bench:

Empathy, in short, helps us to see. I find, for instance, that students who might be resistant to talking about race in other contexts are willing to embrace the conversations in my history classroom because we are puzzling over sources together, trying to craft true stories about what happened. I’m not telling them they have to be disgusted, or that they are participating in a racialized society, or leading with theory. We discover how race has functioned in the past and how it functions today together because we’ve set aside judgment.

But there is room for disgust, if we, the historians, position ourselves rightly. And disgust, in many cases, is a right response because of the humanity involved. After all, we’re not just disembodied observers or minds on a stick. We’re human, with emotions, thoughts, and visceral responses. Further, Shanley is also a person, one who is made in the image of God and therefore meant to embody the goodness of God’s kingdom, and also one who is depraved. To not respond to the evil he committed may be a form of condescension, because he could have known better, could have done better.

Coffman pondered historians’ hesitation to judge: “Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I think she’s right. I’ll speak for myself here (but does anyone see this in themselves?): I hesitate in part to judge not just because of my professional training but because I don’t want to be judged. I don’t think I’m that bad of a person, or embedded in that bad of a context.

But that perspective has a pretty weak understanding of sin. Because of the Fall, it’s not a question of if we are missing the mark, but how we’re missing the mark. Of course we’re falling short today. Of course we’re part of systemic sin. Why should historians in the future not name that sin? Why should we not name sin in the past — after we’ve done the hard work of contextualizing that sin, seeking to understand as best we can what happened, why, and the consequences? I take Orsi’s argument that disgust rightly breaks down a good/bad distinction in religion, making us realize that one cannot separate the evil caused by religion from the good, as a reminder of the evil and the good within all people, institutions, and systems.

I have found that a helpful way to respond to the sin is with the spiritual discipline of lament, to talk with God about the suffering. (I’ve written about this here and in a forthcoming article in Fides et Historia.) Lament is political and not neutral; it names actions as evil, as hurtful, as suffering. But, as Soong-Chan Rah discusses in Prophetic Lament, it requires humility. It’s also not just intellectual, but should involve all of who we are. When the prophet Jeremiah laments his people’s sin and God’s destruction of them, he situates himself (perhaps the only righteous man in Israel) as part of the people who have sinned.

I like Johnson’s piece because it seems to give priority to understanding and empathy in the history classroom.  Lament, disgust, or any other emotion is fine, but I don’t believe it is the primary goal of a history classroom.  This is the crux of my argument in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

If my students who study American history under my direction come to the end of a semester without a solid grasp of how white supremacy and slavery defined everyday life in the 19th-century South, I have failed them as a history professor.

Do I want my students to be disgusted with white slaveholders?  Of course.  Do I want my students to lament the sin of the South (and perhaps see their own sin in the process)?  Absolutely.  Do I want them to learn to love the dead?  Yes.  But if they do not end the semester feeling lament, disgust, joy, or love, but still have a solid grasp on how to think historically about the world (in terms of complexity, context, contingency, causation, and change over time), I have done my job as a history professor.

Trump’s Failure to Honor WW I Soldiers in France Was Yet Another Sign of His Narcissism

100th anniversary commemoration of the Armistice, in Paris

Here is Fred Kaplan at Slate:

The most disturbing thing about President Trump’s disgraceful performance in France this past weekend is the clear signal it sent that, under his thumb, the United States has left the West.

He came to the continent to join with other world leaders to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But the significance of the armistice is not so much to commemorate the fallen in an absurd and ghastly war as it is to celebrate the special peace—grounded in a democratic European Union and a trans-Atlantic alliance—that grew in its wake and the greater war that followed.

And yet, after flying nearly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, Trump stayed in his room in Paris on Saturday rather than making the additional 50-mile trip to the Aisne-Marne cemetery, where 50,000 American soldiers were laid to rest a century ago. His excuse for not attending was lame, to say the least. His aides said, after the fact, that rainfall precluded a trip by helicopter—a claim refuted by the writer James Fallows, an instrument-certified pilot who, as a former White House official, is familiar with this helicopter.

Read the rest here.

By not showing up to honor these soldiers, Trump once again showed us his narcissism.  He cannot see himself as part of a larger story of American sacrifice.  Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

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 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 non-violent 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.”  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….

Believe Me 3d

David Brooks: “A Complete National Disgrace”

Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing For Brett Kavanugh To Be Supreme Court Justice

There is little I disagree with in David Brooks’s analysis of Kavanaugh hearings.  Here is a taste:

These hearings were also a devastating blow to intellectual humility. At the heart of this case is a mystery: What happened at that party 36 years ago? There is no corroborating evidence either way. So the crucial questions are: How do we sit with this uncertainty? How do we weigh the two contradictory testimonies? How do we measure these testimonies when all of cognitive science tells us that human beings are really bad at spotting falsehood? Should a person’s adult life be defined by something he did in high school?

Commentators and others may have acknowledged uncertainty on these questions for about 2.5 seconds, but then they took sides. If they couldn’t take sides based on the original evidence, they found new reasons to confirm their previous positions. Kavanaugh is too angry and dishonest. He drank beer and threw ice while in college. With tribal warfare all around, uncertainty is the one state you are not permitted to be in.

Read the rest here.

Brooks’s point about intellectual humility is an interesting one, especially for historians.  How do we treat out sources?  How do we use those sources to find out “what happened?”  What can and can’t we know?  Any historian knows that this is a difficult task and one in which knee-jerk reactions and political rhetoric are not always helpful in getting at the truth.

Texas Social Studies Standards: Here We Go Again!

Hillary Congress

Should Texas students know something about Hillary Clinton?

The Texas State Board of Education voted last week to “streamline” the state’s social studies curriculum because there are too many historical names to memorize.  Here are some proposed changes:

  • Remove “San Jacinto Day” and replace it with “Constitution Day” in a first-grade unit on customs, holidays, and celebrations of the community, state and nation.
  • Remove Hellen Keller from a third-grade unit on “citizenship”
  • Amend the Civil War standards to recognize “the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing the Civil War and other contributing factors including sectionalism and state rights.”
  • Require students to learn about the “heroism” of those who “gave their lives” at the Alamo
  • Reinsert the phrase “Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law) into a 7th grade unit on “major intellectual, philosophical, political, and religious traditions that informed the American founding.”
  • Reinsert “Moses” and remove “Thomas Hobbes from a 7th grade unit on “individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding.”
  • Remove Hillary Clinton from a unit on “the contributions of significant political and social leaders in the United States.”

Some things to think about:

1. Teachers can do whatever they want to do in the classroom.  If they want to talk about Hillary Clinton they can talk about Hillary Clinton. If they want to talk about San Jacinto Day, they can do it.  If they want to talk about the Old Testament as a source of the American founding, they can do so. (Although I would urge them to do it carefully and responsibly, perhaps along the lines of Dan Dreisbach here).

2. These decisions are less about history and education and more about politics.  This is pretty obvious from the examples above.

3. It is important that students are exposed to a variety of voices in American history.  I say this not because I believe in political correctness, but because I believe that all human beings have dignity and thus have voices that should be heard.  If an American history course contains all white voices, this would be a problem.  If an American history course contains all black voices, this would a problem.  For more on my approach here see my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

4. In many ways, this entire conversation about standards and who is “in” and who is “out” misses the point of history education.  It favors “coverage” over historical thinking.  Rather than develop this idea here, I point you to other places where I have written about it:

John Fea, “Don’t taint teaching of history in Texas,” Houston Chronicle, July 26, 2009

John Fea, “The Texas Social Studies Standards Debacle,” The Way of Improvement Leads Home, January 15, 2010.

John Fea, “Why study history: A bill before the Pa. Senate is only part of the answer,” Harrisburg Patriot News, July 6, 2017.

Thanks to my colleague Cathay Snyder for bringing this story to my attention.

Alan Jacobs on “Recency Bias”

McCain in bed

Great stuff here from Jacobs.  I did not know the practice of taking the long view–a mental habit historians know well—could be viewed as the antidote to a phenomenon with such a technical name.  “Recency bias.”

Here is a taste:

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.

This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.

Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.

Read the entire post at Snakes and Ladders.

A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

Reagan and Thurmond

I know a lot of you have been following Kevin Kruse‘s twitter take-down of right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza.  Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is challenging D’Souza’s claim that today’s Democratic Party is the party of racism because it had championed racism in the past.

Any undergraduate history major knows that political parties change over time.  On matters of race, the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s is not the Democratic Party of today.

Jeet Heer calls attention to the Twitter debate at The New Republic:

D’Souza has made a specialty of highlighting the undeniable racism of the 1960s Democratic Party as a way to tar the current party. His arguments ignore the way the two political parties switch positions on Civil Rights in the 1960s, with the Democrats embracing Civil Rights and Republicans, under the guidance of national leaders like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, exploiting racist backlash.

Read Heer’s entire post, including some of the tweets between Kruse and D’Souza.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to our interview with Kevin Kruse at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The interview focuses on Kruse’s use of Twitter to bring good history to the public.

Will Future Generations Condemn the Recent Supreme Court Decisions?

Sotomayor_AP_2018-06-26

Who knows?

Historians are not prophets and history, despite what Barack Obama and other progressives say, does always lead toward justice as understood by the person making the claim.  I have been saying this for a long time, but I really like how Jacob Bacharach puts in his New Republic piece “Don’t Count on History to Judge Wisely.” Bacharach writes in the context of Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting remarks in the Trump v. Hawaii travel ban case.  Sotomayor said that “history will not look kindly on the court’s misguided decision today, nor should it.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

History’s superseding judgment also crept into the left’s responses in the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates case, the other decision announced on Tuesday, in which another narrow conservative majority ruled on free speech grounds that anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” can, in effect, deceive people about the services they provide, overturning a California state law that compelled certain disclosures. The court, much of lefty Twitter agreed, had once again found itself on the wrong side of history. This presumes that the left, broadly defined, will be the ones writing it, because the left will prevail.

This is magical thinking. The Democrats are completely out of power in Washington and across most of the country, and the Supreme Court is one retirement or heart attack away from a 6-3 conservative majority (and a chief justice who is just 63). It may be reassuring to quote King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that famous line was, in context, an explicitly theological consideration, not a statement about the inevitability of temporal social justice. Moreover, that refrain obscures the difficult fact that King grew increasingly pessimistic in his final years, increasingly doubtful that history was predisposed to justice at all.

Moral superiority in the absence of political power is useless, and self-reassurance in the inevitable upward motion of progress—that it may be interrupted or delayed, but rises inexorably—is self-indulgence. The GOP has spent the last half-century methodically and patiently laying an infrastructure for the acquisition and, more importantly, for the exercise of power. Its broad capture of the American judiciary is one of the great political feats of the modern era. The ostensible opposition party lacks a clear strategy for the coming legislative midterms, let alone for the incremental grooming of a cohort of jurists to place on the bench two to three decades down the road.

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Jeffress Would Like Us to Believe He is a Historian

jeffress

Yesterday, court evangelical Robert Jeffress talked to Fox News Radio about his Freedom Sunday service.   (The interview is only about four minutes long).

A few points:

  1. Note Jeffress’s smugness.
  2. Jeffress claims that the phrase “America is a Christian nation” was used many times, by many political leaders, in American history.  He is right.  I spent the first four chapters of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? writing about all the ways people understood America to be a Christian nation.
  3. As I wrote at this blog yesterday, Jeffress has no clue about how to use the past responsibly.  He wants to go back to the 18th or 19th century when most Americans were Christians and pretend that we are still living in those times.  His understanding of the relationship between Christianity and government is frozen in time.  He fails to understand that American culture has changed over time.  Again, if you want the proper context for many of the Supreme Court decisions and founding fathers he cited in his sermon on Sunday, get a hold of a copy of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
  4. Another example of his failure to understand change over time relates to the historic images from the history of First Baptist Dallas shown at “Freedom Sunday.”  I did not get a very good look, but I am guessing that the images were the same ones I wrote about in this post.  First Baptist-Dallas was a segregationist congregation under its former pastor W.A. Criswell.  I imagine that Jeffress would say that the congregation has changed over time and now rejects segregation.  (Criswell, later in his life, changed his mind on this issue).  But if Jeffress treated the history of segregation at First Baptist in the same way that he handled the history he talked about in his “Christian America” sermon on Sunday, he would have to also preach a sermon titled “First Baptist Church of Dallas is a Segregationist Congregation.” He could quote Criswell and many of the founding documents in his sermon to try to convince you that First Baptist is a segregated church.  But in the end, his assertion would be wrong because First Baptist-Dallas is not a segregationist congregation.  It was at one time, but it has changed over time.  Jeffress wants to take us back to a time when the United States was mostly Christian, but I am guessing he does not want to take us back to a time when his own church was upholding Jim Crow.
  5. And in perhaps the most egregious part of Jeffress’s interview with Fox Radio he says: “In one of the interesting articles I read yesterday, a liberal was talking about this and he said, ‘you know, we probably have to concede that Jeffress has a historical point to make.  That the early courts and founders did say “America is a Christian nation,” but they also embraced slavery. And we repudiated that and we ought to repudiate this.’  You know that shows the perversion of the liberal mind to equate obeying God, and making God the center of our life, with slavery.”  Actually, this is not a product of the liberal mind, but a product of the historical mind.  Why?  Because it was evangelical Christians–those who claimed that they were “obeying God” and making “God the center of our life” who were the foremost defenders and supporters of slavery.  They were slaveholders because they believed they were “obeying God” and making God the center of their lives.  For someone who preaches sermons about the American past, one would think Jeffress would realize this.  I wonder if Jeffress, as pastor of one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the country, is aware that the Southern Baptist church was founded because it defended the institution of slavery.

I am not sure what was worse–watching Jeffress’s historical incompetence from the pulpit of First Baptist-Dallas or watching thousands of people in the pews cheering him on and waving their American flags.

A Museum Veteran Writes About Historical Thinking at Historical Sites

cover-higher-resMy friend Tim Grove spent the first part of his career working for the Smithsonian.  He recently left his post at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and started a history consulting business.  This will also give him more time to write.

You may also remember Tim from Episode 5 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Check out Tim’s article on the importance of historical thinking at History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History.  Here is a taste:

Clearly, a part of the past can include baggage. Historian John Fea writes that the past can shame us. “The story of human history is filled with accounts of slavery, violence, scientific backwardness, injustice, genocide, racism, and other dark episodes that might make us embarrassed to be part of the human race. If our fellow human beings can engage in such sad, wrong, or disgraceful acts, then what is stopping us from doing the same?” As part of our job, public historians need to help the public navigate the complex reactions that come with telling and processing truth. Fea writes of a certain humility that comes with studying the past. History done well helps people to be empathetic with people from the past, an attempt to step into their shoes and try to look at the world as they did. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, “Getting into other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perceptions of the world and where they fit within it.”

As we attempt to understand another person’s world, we gain empathy for them. Empathy, of course, is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion or sadness for someone’s hardship. Empathy is an understanding of a person’s motivations for a decision or action—not necessarily an agreement with their motivations. It is striving to understand their point of view.

Thanks for the plug, Tim! Read the entire article here.

Yes, I am Biased!

Watch this:

At about the 3:40 mark, one of the hosts on The View asks Tapper if he has a liberal bias. Tapper says: “I am absolutely biased against lies.  When there are people lying, I am absolutely 100% against it.”

In some small way I can relate to what Tapper said here.  In case you haven’t noticed, I occasionally take some heat for criticizing my fellow evangelicals who ardently support Donald Trump.   So am I biased?  Yes.  To paraphrase Tapper, I am biased against politicians who use bad or misleading history to win political points.

The entire Trump evangelical coalition is built on the dubious claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.

I know I have been promoting my forthcoming book on evangelicals and Donald Trump, but I wrote this book in 2011 and a second edition was republished in 2016.  It may be more relevant than ever.

was-america-kindle

More American History Lessons for Kanye West

kanye-west

Yesterday we posted a link to Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse’s history lesson for rapper Kanye West.  Today it is Jim Cullen‘s turn to provide a lesson.  Cullen teaches history at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York.  Here is a taste of Zach Schonfeld’s interview with Cullen at Newsweek:

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican?

Kanye West, American rapper and 40-year-old eighth grade history student, just found out. And boy, is he shaken.

West, who seems to be experiencing some sort of political and philosophical awakening in real time since praising President Trump and declaringthe 45th president “my brother” six days ago, tweeted out a text exchange on Monday with someone named “Steve.” In the texts, Steve notes that Lincoln “freed and protected the slaves and he was Republican. Republicans were the ones who’s [sic] helped black people.” (The tweet—which prompted an avalanche of people trying to explain grade-school history to a major rapper—has since been deleted, but you can find it archived here.)

This is fairly common Republican rhetoric: By proclaiming itself the party of Lincoln and the Abolitionist movement, the modern GOP easily obfuscates the ways in which its racial politics and political coalition drastically transformed throughout the 20th century. In other words: It’s a long, long road from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump. And West’s friend Steve seems to have confused the rapper by failing to give any historical context for political party realignment. (West subsequently tweeted out some texts from John Legend trying to explain some of this, but that tweet has also been deleted.)

We asked Jim Cullen, a high school history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and the author of The American Dream, among other books, to explain the changes in the Republican and Democratic parties to West. (Please, can somebody text this link to Kanye?)

Kanye has just discovered that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. He tweeted an exchange saying that “Republicans were the ones [who] helped black people.” Do you think his tweet is misleading, given the two-party system as it exists today

Well, it’s factually correct. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln and it was the party of African Americans for at least a half century after the Civil War. That didn’t really begin to change until the 1930s and didn’t finish changing until the 1960s. To illustrate the point, the reverend Martin Luther King Sr. was a Republican, as most African Americans were.

Can you give a brief summary of how the GOP voting coalition has changed since the Civil War and Reconstruction era?

For about 70 years after the Civil War, African Americans were a key voting bloc for the GOP, both in the South, and increasingly in Northern cities, which could be very competitive in local, state and federal elections. This was especially true for middle-class and entrepreneurial African Americans. The first wedge in this coalition appeared during the New Deal, notably with the Executive Order 8802, signed by FDR to prohibit discrimination in the defense industry. Black flight to the Democrats intensified over the course of the 1960s, and was largely complete by the end of the century.

Read the entire interview here.

Has Politics Ever Been This Ugly in the United States?

Of course it has been.

I recently showed this video to my U.S. Survey course:

Over at NPR, writer Jon Meacham backs me up.  Here is a taste of his interview with Steve Inskeep:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The election of President Trump got Jon Meacham thinking. Meacham is a journalist and historian. He’s written biographies of presidents. He wrote a book about faith. The 2016 election prompted him to combine those two subjects and more in a book called “The Soul Of America.” It’s an exploration of the history of a country whose soul, he says, includes Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan and much in between.

JON MEACHAM: The question I get asked all the time is, has it ever been this bad? And the answer is yes. In fact, it’s been worse. We are in a very, I believe, perilous moment because of the president of the United States. I will state that. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that Andrew Johnson announced that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government.

INSKEEP: This is the president after the Civil War.

MEACHAM: He was a bully. He was self-absorbed. He gave self-pitying speeches. Any of this sound familiar? You know, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said – history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The story of American history is that we have, in fact, moved forward. And what we’ve done – and the reason I wanted to look back at these moments – is what have been the moments where presidents have either been really right and led us forcefully and proactively? And what about the moments where they’ve been really wrong? And how did we overcome that?

Read the rest here.

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

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Thurmond eventually joined the GOP

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is sick and tired of Trump supporters claiming that the Democrats are the party of racism and white supremacy today because they were the party of racism and white supremacy 100+ years ago.  This twitter thread is a masterful lesson in change over time.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Kruse and the way he has used twitter to teach us how the past informs the present, listen to our interview with him in Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Read the thread here.   A taste:

Since @kanyewest‘s tweets have apparently made this topic unavoidable, some thoughts on the history of the parties’ switch on civil rights.

First, it’s important to note that, yes, the Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and, in the early 20th century, the party of segregation, too.

(There are some pundits who claim this is some secret they’ve uncovered, but it’s long been front & center in any US history.)

Indeed, as @rauchway once noted, one could argue that *the* central story of twentieth-century American political history is basically the evolution of the Democratic Party from the party of Jim Crow to the party of civil rights.

At the start of the 20th century, the Democrats — dominated by white southern conservatives — were clearly the party of segregationists.

President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, instituted segregation in Washington and across the federal government. (See @EricSYellin‘s work.)

That said, both parties in this period had their share of racists in their ranks.

When the second KKK rose to power in the 1920s, it had a strong Democratic ties in some states; strong GOP ones elsewhere.

Read the rest here.

Remembering and “Misremembering” 1968

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Robert Greene II, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, has a nice piece at Religion & Politics on the way we remember the careers and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  Both were assassinated in 1968.

A taste:

Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump and Witch Hunts

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Donald Trump has said multiple times that the Robert Mueller investigation into his presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia is a “witch hunt.”  The use of this phrase invites historical analysis.  I took a crack at such analysis last May.

In the latest issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president and veteran early American historian Mary Beth Norton provides some historical analysis of her own.  Norton is the author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Here is a taste of her piece, “An Embarrassment of Witches: What’s the History behind Trump’s Tweets?“:

WITCH HUNT!”

That’s how President Donald Trump’s tweets tend to refer to the investigation led by Robert Mueller into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

Except for modern adherents of the Wiccan religion, people today do not believe in witchcraft—and Wiccans do not believe in the sort of witchcraft that became the subject of prosecutions in early modern Europe and America. The consensus among historians now is that witches did not exist in the past, and so by employing the term “witch hunt,” the president is implying that he is as innocent today as were the persecuted “witches” of centuries ago.

He is assuming, probably correctly, that Americans today understand his phrase in exactly that way. Anyone raised or resident in the United States has surely heard of the most famous “witch hunt” in American history, that which occurred in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692–93, named for the town in which the trials occurred: Salem. Indeed, many high school students today must read Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play, The Crucible, which effectively used the vehicle of the Salem trials to comment on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the 1950s, which had ensnared Miller and many of his acquaintances. Even though Miller changed many historical details to make his points—for example, turning the elderly John Proctor into a younger man and the child Abigail Williams into a femme fatale who seduces him—his image of the trials retains its hold on the American imagination.

Read the rest here.

Someone Give the Governor of Alabama a History Lesson

We need historians more than ever.  Yesterday Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, released this campaign ad:

Ivey says “we can’t change or erase our history.”  She is correct.  But just because a particular community has a past doesn’t necessary mean that the celebration of that past is the best way forward.  Sometimes our encounters with the past should shame us.

She adds: “To get where we are going, we need to understand where we’ve been.”  Again, this is true.  But I don’t think she means that we need to “understand where we’ve been” because “where we’ve been” was racist and because it was racist we must repudiate it. Let’s remember that we are talking about monuments to white racists here.  Ivey is telling us that the best way for Alabama to move forward is to celebrate a history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and segregation.  Ivey’s usable past is a past of white supremacy.

After the ad was criticized, Ivey defended it.  According to The Hill, she called out “folks in Washington” and “out of state liberals” for trying to take away Alabama’s Confederate monuments.

Here we go again with the “outside agitators” coming into racist Alabama and trying to change their precious way life.  This is what they said about the so-called “carpetbaggers in the 1860s and 1870s and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and 1960s.

Someone get Governor Ivey a copy of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

How Do We Assess Student Learning in History?

 

Gilbert_Historical_Museum_Classroom_Exhibit

Historians make a lot of claims.  We claim that the study of history produces a set of transferable skills that students can use in the marketplace.  We claim that history teaches principles necessary for a democratic society.  We claim that history teaches critical thinking and might even be an antidote to fake news.

But can we prove it?

This is the question that Sam Wineburg and his team are asking today at Inside Higher Ed.  A taste:

“What are you going to do with that — teach?” Uttered with disdain, it’s a question history majors have been asked many times. Clio’s defenders have a response. The head of the American Historical Association says that the study of history creates critical thinkers who can “sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it.” A university president asserts that the liberal arts endow students with the “features of the enlightened citizen” who possesses “informed convictions … and the capacity for courageous debate on the real issues.” Historians pride themselves on the evidence for their claims.

So, what’s the evidence?

Not much, actually. Historians aren’t great at tracking what students learn. Sometimes they even resent being asked. Recently, however, the winner of the Bancroft Prize, one of history’s most distinguished awards, washed the profession’s dirty laundry in public. The article’s title: “Five Reasons History Professors Suck at Assessment.”

Anne Hyde described what happened when accreditors asked her colleagues to document what students learned. They paid little heed to the requests — that is, until Colorado College’s history department flunked its review. Committed teachers all, her colleagues “had never conducted assessment in any conscious way beyond reporting departmental enrollment numbers and student grade point averages.”

Among many college history departments, this is routine. To address the issue of assessment, the American Historical Association in 2011 set out on a multiyear initiative to define what students should “be able to do at the end of the major.” Eight years, dozens of meetings and hundreds of disposable cups later, the Tuning Project produced a set of ambitious targets for student learning. But when it came to assessing these goals, they left a big question mark.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 3

Last temptation

Click here for previous installments of this series.  Click here to read Gerson’s article in The Atlantic.

Here is Gerson on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.

The consequences, especially for younger generations, are considerable. According to a recent survey by Barna, a Christian research firm, more than half of churchgoing Christian teens believe that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” This may be one reason that, in America, the youngest age cohorts are the least religiously affiliated, which will change the nation’s baseline of religiosity over time. More than a third of Millennials say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 points since 2007. Count this as an ironic achievement of religious conservatives: an overall decline in identification with religion itself.

Of course we can’t be sure what would have happened if fundamentalists decided to wage war against eugenics or social Darwinism, but this is interesting to think about.  Historians talk a lot about “contingency,” the idea that the past can be understood by choices that people make.  What would evangelicalism look like today if the fundamentalists decided to focus on race?

Gerson does some interesting historical thinking here.

More to come.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.