My 2013 Piece on Christmas at the *Pacific Standard*

Another magazine has bit the dust.  Read Lloyd Grove’s piece at The Daily Beast on the end of the Pacific Standard.

I wrote a piece for the Standard website back in December 2013.  I don’t know if it will disappear or not, so I am re-posting it here.  Here is “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?“:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.

Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.

From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.

For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.

And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?

Not really.

The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.

There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.

The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”

Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.

Breen: “George Washington Would Hate Trump’s July 4 Parade”

Trump 4th

T.H. Breen brings the thunder:

President Trump has invited the American people to what he claims will be the biggest and best Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s history. Influenced by the huge nationalist displays he witnessed in Europe, Mr. Trump promises “a really great parade to show our military strength.” And he will treat the country to a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

All Americans should be appalled. Even during an era of extreme hyperbole, the unabashed narcissism driving the parade plans is astonishing. It runs counter to the explicit aims and faith of the ordinary Americans who founded the United States.

The focus on a single leader — on the construction of a cult of personality — would have incensed the men and women who sacrificed so much to create a new nation. As Capt. Joseph Bloomfield explained to a company of New Jersey troops preparing to fight in the Revolutionary War, the American states had “entered a new era of politics.” He warned the soldiers to be on guard against the rise of an “aspiring Demagogue, possessed of popular talents and shining qualities, a Julius Caesar, or an Oliver Cromwell” who “will lay violent hands on the government and sacrifice the liberties of his country.”

At a moment when exclusionary forms of national identity are on the rise, we should remember that the ordinary people who suffered so much during a long war believed that their sacrifice legitimated a system of government in which ordinary people like themselves had a meaningful voice. There would be no more doffing the cap to noblemen. No more claims to special privilege. In the independent republic all citizens would be equal under the law.

Make the Fourth of July Safe Again!

fireworks

Over at Smithsonian.Com, history student Michael Waters tells the story of early 20th-century reformers and activists who were concerned that Independence Day celebrations were too dangerous.  They championed a “Safe and Sane Fourth.”

Here is a taste of his Waters’s piece:

Charles Pennypacker, a lawyer and legislator from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was fed up with Fourth of July. The holiday, he insisted in 1903, was hopelessly out of control. Hundreds of people across the U.S. were dying from a mix of firework explosions and poorly shot toy guns, all in the name of celebrating their country’s founding.

“A spurious patriotism has brought a day of terror, misery, noise, destruction, and death,” Pennypacker lamented in a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He urged citizens to focus on a “quiet and sane observance of the Fourth” that prioritized family gatherings.

Instead of setting off fireworks, Pennypacker begged the people of West Chester to take a trolley ride, spend “a quiet day under the trees,” or at the very least bake “cake with deviled eggs” and “bread with lemon butter.” In a speech that the Louisville-based Courier-Journal reprinted under the headline “Avaunt! Toy Pistols; Enter Cake and Eggs,” Pennypacker lectured his fellow Americans: “Spend your money for sandwiches instead of squibs,” referring to the explosive devices. “The price of five skyrockets will buy a hammock, whose swing delights youth and old age in all lands,” he said.

Pennypacker’s crusade enraged locals. A year later, the Inquirer reported that his continued push for reform in West Chester “had been resented by the young men of the town.” Late the night of July 3, 1904, a “large number of young men” gathered outside Pennypacker’s house, clutching Roman candles and other combustibles. When midnight hit, “there was a sudden flash and roar that jarred all the houses in the neighborhood,” the paper said, and for at least 15 minutes the men set off explosives outside of Pennypacker’s window—all to punish the legislator for trying to reform the most patriotic holiday.

Read the rest here.

The Politicization of July 4th is as Old as the Republic

Trump 4th

Is Trump politicizing Independence Day with his military parade and “Salute to America” speech?  Of course he is.  And, as historian Shira Lurie reminds us, this practice dates back to the country’s founding.  Here is a taste of her Washington Post piece, “Why Democrats are wrong about Trump’s politicization of the Fourth of July“:

In the hours after The Washington Post broke the news, Democrats pounced on Trump for politicizing the national holiday. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) denounced the president for “injecting partisan politics into the most nonpartisan sacred American holiday there is.” Three prominent congressional Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), wrote a letter to the president describing the Fourth as a “nonpartisan and apolitical” day. “It is, therefore, unfortunate that you are considering a conflicting event, which would create the appearance of a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at the public expense.”

But these claims are wrong. The Fourth has never been apolitical or nonpartisan. Americans have always used Independence Day to disguise political messaging in the cloak of patriotism. And often, these messages have contained the divisiveness and acrimony we have come to associate with Trump.

Politicization of the Fourth of July began even before the United States was a country. During the War of Independence, officials used the anniversary of Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence as an opportunity to bolster anti-British sentiment. They rallied support for the Patriots’ cause with toasts, orations, militia drills and fireworks. In the postwar years, the day transformed into a civics lesson, with Americans extolling the benefits of republican government and, later, the Constitution.

As soon as political parties developed in the 1790s, partisans began capitalizing on the nation’s birthday as well. Local leaders hosted rival Fourth of July celebrations and positioned their parties as the “true” inheritors of the American Revolution’s legacy. Occasionally they came to blows as each side vied for control over the crowds and public spaces in their communities.

Read the rest here.

Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

king grave

An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Lisa McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  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 fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

Happy New Year!

We are back after an extended holiday break!  I hope all our readers were able to spend some quality time with friends and family over the holidays.  I always look forward to the holidays as a time of relaxation, worship, family-time, and getting caught-up on reading.  Here are a few things that happened over break:

On Christmas Eve I visited Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I bought some books for members of my family and I bought some books for myself:

Hearts and Minds Book Haul

I am almost done with Wolterstorff’s memoir.  It is excellent.

On December 26, 2018, I was quoted in Carol Kuruvilla’s piece at the Huffington Post: “Americans Trust Clergy Less Than Ever, Gallup Poll Finds.”

On December 30, 2018, I published a piece at History News Network: “Trump’s White Evangelicals are Nostalgic for an American Past that Never Existed for Blacks and Others.”  Most of the piece comes from my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

I learned that my piece “Why is Christian America Supporting Donald Trump?” was one of History News Network’s most popular posts for 2018.

I was thrilled to learn Believe Me inspired two of Jared Burkholder’s “Top Ten posts of 2018” at The Hermeneutic Circle.

On January 2, 2019, I was quoted in Greg Sargent’s Washington Post op-ed, “The walls around Trump are crumbling.  Evangelicals may be his last resort.”

On January 2, 2019, I contributed to Jerome Socolovsky’s National Public Radio story: “Evangelicals Seek Detente With Mideast Muslim Leaders As Critics Doubt Motives.”

And don’t forget our coverage of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  We have a great team of correspondents and will begin posting on January 3, 2019.  Stay tuned!

The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

Turkey Hill Road

I grew up in this North Jersey house.  My parents will move out today after 50 years

Our annual Thanksgiving tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008.  Hard to believe that was ten years ago. Today I republish it on the same day that my parents move out of the house in which they have lived for the past fifty years.  –JF

It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contractor and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

 

Dolley Madison Did Not Institute The White House Easter Egg Roll

Mrs James Madison (Dolley Madison), by Bass Otis

J.L. Bell debunks the myth at Boston 1775.  A taste:

Even the White House Historical Association passes on that factoid, though fobbing it off on others: “Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll…”

In fact, that’s all a myth. As the Dolley Madison Papers explain, there’s absolutely no evidence behind it. 

During the Founding Era,…religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?

Read the entire post here.

N.T. Wright on Christmas

WrightThis Advent season, on the recommendation of several The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers, I am reading Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

I don’t know Wright’s body of work very well, but I am sure that somewhere he has written about the incarnation.  But in Surprise by Hopethe focus is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even to the point of taking a few shots at the church for spending far too much time commemorating Christmas and not enough time celebrating Easter.

A taste:

Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year–a move that completely reverses the New Testament emphasis.  We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing.  We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day.  Easter, however, should be the center.  Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left. (p.23).

And this:

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind.  This is our greatest festival.  Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else.  Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.

I think Wright may have overstated his case here about “taking Christmas away” because it is only referenced in two chapters in two Gospels.  But I get his point.

The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

GratitudeOur annual Thanksgiving tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008–JF


It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

The *Great Pumpkin* and Donald Trump

Great Pumpkin

Donald Trump has changed the way Jon Malesic watches It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  He no longer sympathizes with Linus.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

 

Linus believes according to the logic of Pascal’s Wager: put your faith in the thing that offers the biggest payoff, even if it’s less likely to be true. I can appreciate why someone would make that bet. The Great Pumpkin promises not just candy, but toys, maybe money. Linus’s adoring companion Sally seemed to me like the person whose faith is less sincere, but who nevertheless represents many believers as they actually are: tentative, conflicted, self-interested.

After a year in which I followed the obsessive investigations into the mind of the Trump voter, my sympathy turned sour. I now see self-defeating credulity in Linus and Sally. They seem like the white working-class and evangelical voters duped into thinking Trump was anything more than a resentful plutocrat. Linus’s belief is unwavering only because it’s blind to reality. “If you are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” he writes in a letter to the Great Pumpkin. He lives in a thick bubble of fantasy.

Linus values sincerity, because he believes the Great Pumpkin values it. He’s gratified as he looks around the pumpkin patch on Halloween night and says, “there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Of course, sincerity and truth are quite different things, and Linus favors the wrong one. Trump lies constantly, but to his die-hard supporters, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t mince words; his bluntness absolves him of hypocrisy.

Read the entire piece here.

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Happy New Year from Samuel Mickle, 1798

woodbury

Woodbury Friends Meetinghouse

An excerpt from the diary of Samuel Mickle, a 52-year old Quaker farmer from Woodbury, New Jersey.

How human folly descends from 1 generation to another!  The infant’s rattle and adult’s guns and drums; as if glad time made such haste away and a new year arrived: witnessed by the noise this evening.  Some feasting and frolicking most of all the day.  Not so with me, but on the contrary (though unusual) not a single person under our roof, beside my own family, all the day and evening…

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

We are taking a few days off here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but before we do I want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and thank you for a great year.  It’s been a pleasure to continue delivering content at the “intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.”

As many of you know, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is more than just a blog (or a book).  It is a multi-faceted effort to bring history and historical thinking to the public.  Here are some highlights from 2016:

  • In January we launched The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  After sixteen episodes and two seasons we have established what appears to be a relatively strong listener base.  Please, please, please consider partnering with us at our Patreon site. We need your help to keep the podcast going.
  • We wrote many pieces, both here and elsewhere, on the 2016 presidential election. We published dozens and dozens of posts on the election here at the blog and another fifteen at other venues, including Religion News Service, the Harrisburg Patriot-NewsChristianity Today, the Washington Post, USA Today, Sojourners, Fox News, and History News Network.
  • We offered extensive coverage, with our team of correspondents, of both the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.  (Stay tuned for our coverage of the AHA in Denver early next month.  We can still use correspondents!)
  • We produced twenty-six “Virtual Office Hours” videos.  This year we focused on the question of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” and on my Fall 2016 course on the American Revolution.
  • We interviewed eighty-one authors this year as part of our “Author’s Corner” series.
  • We added two more features to our “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series.
  • I hit the road eighteen times this year to promote our work, including a trip to Oxford University in January.  I also appeared on eighteen radio shows (and C-SPAN!) to talk about everything from the Bible in America, religion and politics, and the role of history in public life.
  • In July we spent a week in Princeton leading a seminar for history teachers on Colonial America.  This Gilder-Lehrman summer seminar is always one of the highlights of the year.
  • I was also pleased with the release of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  It appeared in April with Oxford University Press.

Some of you may notice that I often use the first-person plural pronoun “we” to refer to what happens here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  That is because I could not do all of this alone.  So let me end this post by saying thanks to everyone that made it all happen this year: Joy Fea, Caroline Fea, Allyson Fea, John Fea Jr., Joan Fea, Kim Phipps, Randy Basinger, Pete Powers, Christine Walter, Barb and Dwayne Dobschuetz, Abby Blakeney, Katy Kaslow, Nate McAlister, Abigail Koontz, Devon Hearn, Drew Dyrli Hermeling,  Mikaela Mummert, everyone who wrote for us this year as correspondents and guest posters, our podcast guests, and everyone who invited me to come and speak at their schools, colleges, universities, churches, museums, historical sites, and other organizations.

See you in 2017 (if not sooner!).

John