More on History and Hope

Last week I wrote a couple of posts in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece “Hope and the Historians.”  I began by posting a quote from the article.  I then published a reader feedback post with some commentary on Coates’s piece.  Here is what I wrote:

I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis.  I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present.  I would not call these people “historians.”

I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here.  His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them,  Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.


My tentative suggestion that “hopefulness” is not a “category of historical analysis” got the attention of Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman.  Chris writes: “John tentatively declines to describe hopefulness as a ‘category of historical analysis’ and instead concludes that ‘Coates is making a theological statement here.’  I’m not sure it’s that easy, at least for historians who adhere to a religion that holds hope to be one of its three cardinal virtues.  

Gerhz goes on to make an argument for why Christian historians should integrate the theological idea of hope into their work:

So what does this mean for the Christian historian? If, to paraphrase the same apostle, we may not interpret the past as others do who have no hope, what would that look like? Christian hope has meaning precisely because it requires us to be honest about the need of sinners for redemption and restoration. But hope both reaches back before the Fall, to God’s good intentions for Creation, and reaches out past the Cross, to the impossible reality of the Resurrection….
Even if I could convince Coates that my theological conviction does not preclude professional integrity, he might just retreat to an earlier line in his essay: “Hope may well be relevant to their personal lives, but it is largely irrelevant to their study.” In short, he’d suggest that I can do no more than keep private belief in a separate compartment, out of the way of public practice.
Since we don’t even share a belief in God, I’m not sure I could make any further progress with Coates. (Whom I really do admire, this important disagreement notwithstanding.) But for fellow Christians, let me suggest that we not abandon “hope-learning integration.”
Consider how we read the birth accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. To a significant degree, they provide evidence undergirding a Coatesian interpretation of history: the bureaucratic caprices of a distant emperor whose local client engaged in mass murder with no apparent repercussions suggest the tenacity of injustice. But in the seemingly irrelevant story of a poor young woman, her carpenter husband, and their newborn son, those sources also support a very different interpretation of the movement of history.
Of that child’s “kingdom there will be no end,” his mother was promised. But it’s not like the kingdoms of Caesar and Hitler, writes Ben Corey: “It’s an upside-down kingdom that grows in upside-down ways.” In a blog post reprinted by Mennonite World Review the same day that The Atlantic published Coates’ essay, Corey found hope in the decline of an American Christianity wedded to political power and nationalist ideology.
Time will tell if Corey is right that “we are at an interesting point in history and are standing right in the middle of a death/growth cycle,” but isn’t it possible that his principle might work in retrospect as well as prospect? If so, then Christian historians ought to be attentive to the past signs of growth for a kingdom that “operates on principles that are contrary to anything else we find in the world.” Such a truthful-hopeful interpretation will likely make much of evidence that may seem to be beneath our notice — evidence the size and significance of a mustard seed, or a bit of yeast.
I agree entirely with Gerhz’s thoughts about hope.  I believe in hope.  I like how Christopher Lasch described hope (and distinguished it from optimism) in The True and Only Heaven:
Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trusted in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. 
If Eric Miller is correct in his magisterial Hope in a Scattering Time, Lasch was not a Christian.  He did not view hope as a theological concept.  I do.  I cannot understand hope apart from a Christian understanding of redemption.  The kingdom of God is both now and not yet.  As a Christian I am called to work toward building that kingdom by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my Creator.  My faith also teaches me that because of the brokenness of this world, even the best attempts at reform or change or moral progress will have limited results.
So let me revisit a question raised by Gehrz:  What does hope mean for the Christian historian?  I think it means a lot for a historian interested in historiography, the philosophy of history, or what theologians offer refer to as eschatology.  But I am not sure how useful it is for the practice of doing history, of resurrecting the past (so to speak), of understanding human activity as it exists over time. 

I think historians should interpret, describe, write about, etc. people in the past who had hope. For example, I don’t see how one understands the history of slavery without understanding the meaning of hope.   Historians should not shy away from hope as a concept that has motivated millions and millions of people in the past.  They should take it seriously in their work.
I also don’t want to be understood here as saying that there are no resources in the Christian faith to help the historian in her work.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the theological concept of “sin” is a very useful (and to some degree verifiable) idea to help explain human behavior.  So is the Imago Dei, the idea that all human beings have worth and value and should thus find a place in the stories we tell about the past.  These theological beliefs seem more useful because they explain, from a Christian point of view at least, the identity of the human beings we study.  Hope, on the other hand, is something we strive for, we pray for, we seek.   

In the correspondence and comments I have received about my original posts several folks have suggested that as Christians they cannot embrace Coates’s hopelessness. I agree with them.  But like the doctrine of “providence,” I am not sure how a belief in “hope” gets us any closer to understanding the past.

Others have brought up the teaching of history as a hopeful act.  Again, I agree that teaching students to hope (and work) for meaningful change in this world is a very good thing.  I also think that students can be inspired by hopeful people who they encounter in the past.  But I don’t see how a historian’s belief in hope–Christian or otherwise–helps us make sense of the past.

I know my thoughts here are very scattered and rough (please remember that this is a blog). I am willing to be persuaded.  In fact, there is a part of me that wants to be persuaded.  I remain hopeful that someone can convince me that hope might be a useful tool in my Christian historian’s toolbox in the same way that it is a Christian virtue I want to cultivate in my life.

What If Ken Burns Produced *Star Wars*?

I know nothing about Star Wars.  I will not be seeing the new film (I honestly do not know the title of it–I will have to look it up).  I have never seen any of the Star War films.  Isn’t there some guy in it named Obie Juan Kenowbee?

I actually have met people who think “Empire Strikes Back” is a better film than The Godfather and Godfather II.  I am deeply offended by this comparison.

So when a few people shared this video (below) I hesitated to post it.  And then I realized that some folks who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home might be fans of both Ken Burns and Star Wars.

This video is thus a blatant attempt to get more readers.  I think the kids call it “click bait.”

//www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/2ed8ccaa-a5a4-11e5-8318-bd8caed8c588

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 117

I think the manuscript is finally out of my hands.  The next time I read it will be in book form.  The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society will appear in print in late March 2016.

About twenty minutes ago I submitted corrections to the book’s galley proofs.  I made over 100 changes to the manuscript (mostly spelling and other small errors).  I always try to get as many folks as possible to read the galleys.  This time around I had two of my most trusted research assistants–Katie Garland and Katy Kaslow–read them over.  Oxford University Press also hired a professional proofreader.

Hitting “send” on an e-mail with the galley corrections attached is always a bit nerve-wracking.  Did we catch all the mistakes?  Or will we be embarrassed when the book appears?  Only time will tell.

It is now time to start thinking about publicity.  We are promoting this book in several ways:

1.  The American Bible Society will be connecting me with Christian media outlets.

2.  Oxford University Press has two publicists working on the book in conjunction with the publicity team at the ABS.

3.  We are scheduling speaking engagements for Spring 2016 and beyond.  If you are interested, let me know.  We are targeting colleges and universities and churches and religious organizations.

4.  We are thinking about appropriate media outlets, websites, and blogs for short written pieces related to the content of the book.

All of this is coming together nicely.  Stay tuned.

James Dobson Endorses Ted Cruz

Some of you may have heard this news.

One of the elder-statesman of the Christian Right has made his endorsement.  James Dobson, the former leader of Focus on the Family, has endorsed Ted Cruz for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Dobson became an evangelical celebrity by offering parenting and marriage advice to evangelicals, but sometime during the 1990s he turned toward politics and began endorsing candidates.

Over the years Dobson has endorsed George W. Bush (2000, 2004), Mike Huckabee (2008 primaries), John McCain and Sarah Palin (2008 general election), and Rick Santorum (2012 primaries).  It is not clear whether he gave an official endorsement to Mitt Romney in 2012 after Santorum bowed out. (Perhaps someone could clarify this for me).

Historians will also view him as one of the first evangelical leaders to encourage single-issue voting based on moral issues, particularly a candidate’s view on abortion.  I think it is fair to say that he had more influence than any other member of the so-called Christian Right, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  We need a critical biography of him.

Dobson believes that Ted Cruz is the strongest candidate on matters of religious liberty, traditional marriage, and abortion.

There was a time when Dobson’s endorsement meant something.  Some baby-boomer evangelicals will take his endorsement of Cruz seriously, but most millennial evangelicals have never heard of him.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?: Christian Theologians Weigh-In

If you are following the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College you know that she was placed on administrative leave by the college not for wearing a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim “sisters,” but because she said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  

I am not a theologian, but one cannot deny that historically both Christianity and Islam trace their roots to Abrahamic faith.  So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some big distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and view His plan for His creation.  (And these distinctions, as I argued in the post I linked to above, are extremely important and should be paramount at evangelical Christian colleges).  I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei.  So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.  Unfortunately, this nuance is often lost on much of the constituency of evangelical colleges.

But I digress…

In the last twenty-four hours, two respected Christian theologians have made a case that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.

Here is Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian cited by Hawkins, in The Washington Post:

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.
For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.
Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?
Read the entire piece here.
And here is a post from Francis Beckwith, a Baylor theologian/philosopher and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society who had to resign his post when he converted to Catholicism:
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? To answer it well, we have to make some important philosophical distinctions. First, what does it mean for two terms to refer to the same thing? Take, for example, the names “Muhammed Ali” and “Cassius Clay.” Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa. (By the way, you can do the same with “Robert Zimmerman” and “Bob Dylan,” or “Norma Jean Baker” and “Marilyn Monroe”).
So the fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.
But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”
Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. In the same way, Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? Again, of course not. The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.
For these reasons, it would a real injustice if Wheaton College were to terminate the employment of Professor Hawkins simply because those evaluating her case cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions.
Read Beckwith’s entire post here.

Reader Feedback on "What’s Going on at Wheaton College?"

We received a lot of feedback from yesterday’s post, “What is Going on at Wheaton College.” Most of it brings additional clarity, context, and insight to this issue.

George from Missouri writes:

 I don’t have an opinion on Wheaton placing this professor on administrative leave. (It’s rare that I don’t have an opinion, but in this case it’s true.) What bothers me is the request that women don a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, when donning the hijab is a theologically loaded practice within Islam itself. As I understand it, Islam does not require women to wear jihab, so donning one aligns the wearer with the most conservative forms of that religion. In some countries, donning hijab is imposed on women, Muslim or not, whether they want to wear it or not.

Given that, this request is, frankly, bizarre:

“I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters–for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas #wish this year.

“Perhaps you are a Muslim who does not wear the veil normally. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who finds religion silly or inexplicable. Perhaps you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian like me. Perhaps you already cover your head as part of your religious worship, but not a hijab.”

How can her request be seen as anything but reactionary by Muslim women who are fighting the veil as well as by Christian women in Muslim-majority countries (e.g., Iran) who are forced to wear the veil?

Janine from Montana writes:

I would say that the hijab is both theologically loaded and theologically empty–it depends how important you think clothing is within the worship of God. Are my Western-styled button-down blouse and pants theologically loaded? From one perspecitve, they make a long list of statements on what I believe are the differences (or non differences) between men and women. On the other hand, they mean nothing at all. So also, priest vestments,…. etc.

To me, the hijab here is a signifier for Muslims and nothing more than that. I also choose to see the American flag as a signifier for the US nation rather than a symbol of the military industrial complex during the 1890s, for example.

Becky from New York writes:

I do not wish to speak for Muslims in general or Muslim women in particular, but among my acquaintance Hawkins’s announcement was met with both annoyance and appreciation. Some of my friends were annoyed because they saw her appropriation of the hijab as uninformed and not undertaken in the spirit of faith in which most Muslim women who wear hijab (outside of countries where it is required) choose to do so. On the other hand, many among my acquaintance were also heartened that a Christian woman would recognize the particular challenges that hijabis face daily in the US–the routine discrimination, nasty remarks, and often even violence (among women I know this has ranged from being spat on to being punched)–and be willing to share that. So, response was mixed, but I suspect Wheaton’s action on this will actually bring Hawkins more support from Muslim women.

David from New York writes:

I was taught by Larycia Hawkins and she is excellent, thoughtful, and empathetic in the best ways. I do not believe the hijab itself is at issue with Wheaton. Many western Christians in the middle east wear them and not many see it as oppression. By comparison, she didn’t put on a burqa. I agree that drawing the parallel between the God of Islam and Christianity is most likely the issue and is the only one that made me initially uncomfortable reading the post. The justification of a scholarly debate and a Catholic pontiff can’t stand on a leg to evangelical critics. The parallel between the two deities by extension draws a parallel between the special revelation of each (the Koran and the Bible). This is problematic as Richard argued.

The statement was well-intentioned, but rashly and naively given and was a minefield of controversy among potentially everyone, parents, alumni, faculty, board members. I’m very surprised she would have said something like that without a foreseeing a consequence. I think some evangelicals like to think that Muslims worship our God misunderstood through the lens of the Koran. A judeo-christian influenced gnosticism/heresy.

It is unfortunate that I think the media will now only see the issue as the hijab itself in the absence of a more specific statement from Wheaton. I sincerely hope that she will stay at Wheaton and all will be cleared and forgiven.

Caryn from Illinois writes (see her complete post at Patheos here).

I can’t help but think that race, both the racialization of Islam and the race of the suspended faculty member, is a factor. 

Jay from Tennessee writes:

I think Wheaton made it clear that they have no position on a Christian wearing hijab.  I’m sure they would have preferred she hadn’t, but it’s not what ruffled feathers.  The issue that got her suspended was (carelessly) conflating Muslim and Christian notions of God, calling them “brothers and sisters,” gesturing toward a broad pluralism/universalism.  

It’s the groundswell of support for her that I find most interesting.  Wheaton students  are rising up in anger.  Poor Ryken has people riled and angry in every direction!  Conservative alumni who are upset that someone like this was on faculty in the first place, an groundswell on social mediate who have conflated the issue of solidarity with doctrine, and enraged students (and faculty) who love their professor (and colleague).  Yikes.

The Author’s Corner with Markku Ruotsila

Markku Ruotsila is Associate Professor of North American Church History at the University of Helsinki in Finland. This interview is based on his new book, Fighting Fundamentalist: Carl McIntire and the Politicization of American Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Fighting Fundamentalist?

MR: There was no biography of Carl McIntire in existence and I felt rather strongly that one was needed. It just wouldn’t do that this legendary figure, almost mythic to many of us all around the world, featured in most historians’ accounts only as a caricature or a clown. Since I have always been interested in the interface between religion, conservatism and anticommunism (which McIntire arguably embodied to a larger extent than any other person), I was eager to tackle the task as soon as I heard that Princeton Theological Seminary was ready to release their collection of McIntire materials. There are more than 600 archival boxes of McIntire’s correspondence and publications preserved in that collection, plus previously untapped data on almost every aspect of religion in the twentieth century that one can think of. I knew full well that McIntire was a larger-than-life figure, a symbol and a lightning rod in America’s ongoing culture wars, but I was determined to investigate as an outsider what was actually behind the symbol and whether the caricature was actually fair to the facts. It isn’t. Also, in many ways, the McIntire story brought together all the stands of my previous scholarship – I’ve studied all kinds of anticommunists, evangelicals, fundamentalists and conservatives for a long time – and it allowed me to tap into the expertise that I had gained on all the interrelated issues involved. I wasn’t about to do a traditional biography, rather one that illumined through the McIntire story much broader themes in the religious and political history of the modern United States.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Fighting Fundamentalist?

MR: Carl McIntire was the principal founding father of the Christian Right, a pivotal transitional and transformative figure in the history of the fundamentalist movement who more than any other person pioneered the public theologies, the means of public protest and the political alliances that came to cohere the contemporary Christian Right. It was under his inspiration and direction that the Christian Right began to emerge, not in the 1960s but in the 1930s, in that era’s fundamentalist and evangelical opposition to the New Deal that was later perpetuated under the rubric of Cold War anticommunism but actually always included the moral issues that then belatedly broke into national consciousness in the 1970s.

JF: Why do we need to read Fighting Fundamentalist?

MR: The issues covered – the rise and agenda of the Christian Right, faith-based apologias for free enterprise and the limited state, religious freedom, global and transnational activism by U.S. fundamentalists – remain exceedingly topical ones. I revisit them in a fashion that (I trust) is fresh and provides new perspectives (the book certainly provides new documentation that shatters the McIntire caricature in many respects). I have consulted more than fifty archival collections in three different countries for this book, including previously unreleased FBI files. Also, the issues covered are now increasingly transnational, and my book provides new documentation on how this came to be so, on the very important role played in the process by McIntire’s worldwide organization, the International Council of Christian Churches. Besides, this is a book that tells the intrinsically interesting story of a very colorful man, always absolutely authentic, utterly persistent over his sixty-year career in church and public life yet often quite unexpected in the twists and turns he took in pursuing his agenda. You will be entertained as well as informed by that life story.  Or how about this snippet as an enticement: Carl McIntire was actually the first person investigated, on the personal orders of J. Edgar Hoover himself, when the FBI started searching for the person responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The investigation was ordered personally by J. Edgar Hoover himself.

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

MR: When an undergraduate history student in Finland I was fortunate enough to be taught by several leading U.S. historians who were visiting my institution as Fulbright professors. I suppose it was this experience that inspired me to choose between the two options in my mind – U.S. history of British history. Those were really the only two countries that interested me, since I already felt a rather strong cultural and philosophical affinity towards both. Becoming a historian was already settled in my mind and in the end I chose the country’s history that matters the most for us in the rest of the world today. I hope I can provide an outside perspective that isn’t suffused with this cultural anti-Americanism and a certain arrogance that unfortunately is so prevalent in much of Western Europe when it comes to narrating the United States.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: I am now working on a project on the global history of Christian fundamentalism during the Cold War. This investigates the fanning out into the rest of the world of U.S. fundamentalists, the message they purveyed, the networks they created and the reception they received from other conservative Christians elsewhere in the world. More specifically, I look at the networks of fellowship and mutual interchange that were created around the International Council of Christian Churches and affiliated agencies. There are no documented studies in existence that investigate the global activities and intercultural exchanges of that specific section of U.S. evangelicalism that has identified as fundamentalist, so I think a definite need exists for a study of this kind. U.S. fundamentalists had a much bigger impact on the history of many other countries (including my own) than most people realize, and in the process of exerting their influence they were themselves shaped in ways that we have only barely started.

JF: Thanks, Markku!

Liberty University Has a Long Way to Go Before it Becomes the Evangelical Notre Dame

Check out this Washington Post article about Liberty University’s ambition to become a major football power.  According to the article, Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to move Liberty football into the upper echelons of NCAA Division I football and are ready to respond positively to an NCAA invitation to join the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) in 48 hours.  

Here is a taste of the article dealing with Liberty’s aspirations to be an evangelical Notre Dame:

Notre Dame’s reputation, of course, is driven by much more than football. Hesburgh spent much of his presidency building the university into an educational powerhouse. He also ensured that the Vatican did not meddle with Notre Dame’s academic freedom.
Liberty’s reputation still rests largely on the Falwell name and on the school’s prominence in the political world. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s founder, was a famous television preacher and a key figure in the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 90s. Now, Liberty is a frequent stop on the campaign trail for Republican politicians, and occasionally for Democrats. When Falwell Jr. spoke out this month about his desire for more Liberty students to carry concealed weapons on campus, as a safety measure to deter terrorists, his comments reinforced the sense that Lynchburg is a frequent dateline for political stories.
But Falwell said that he does not want to make news. He said his speech on Dec. 4 about guns was unplanned — an impromptu set of remarks after the Heritage Foundation’s president, Jim DeMint, finished a speech earlier than planned.
“We’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,” he said. “We’re a university.” 
I have visited and even spoke on the Liberty campus.  It is an impressive place.  If the facilities are any indication, Liberty has a lot of money.  With such resources they just might be able to become another Notre Dame.  But in order for that to happen, Liberty will need to do several things.
First, it will need to be a more open place.  Here is another quote from the Washington Post article:
Falwell said the university has no political or religious litmus tests. “I’d say Liberty is Christian with a capital c, conservative with a small c,” he said. Many of its students lean to the right, politically. “It’s not required. It’s not what we seek,” Falwell said. “It’s what we attract.”
It seems like Falwell Jr. is being a bit disingenuous here.  Liberty does have religious litmus tests for its faculty members.  I also wonder how an outspoken liberal Christian who affiliated with the Democratic Party would fare at Liberty?  Students enroll at Liberty because they believe it is a safe place where professors will not challenge their core conservative values.  It is hard to believe that Liberty does not “seek” these kind of students.
If Liberty wants to be a world-class university, it will need to be more open to Christian scholars who do not subscribe to the conservative brand of evangelical religion that Liberty currently peddles.  This would not only include moderate and liberal evangelicals, but mainline Protestants and Catholics.  I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Second, Liberty will need to hire research faculty and support them in their work.  Liberty does not have to give up its commitment to teaching in order to do this, but it will need to start funneling money into its academic programs.  It will need to provide some kind of tenure system for faculty, establish well-funded endowed chairs, and lighten the heavy teaching loads that faculty currently experience. This is a huge financial commitment. It also requires, as I noted above, loosening the doctrinal restrictions at the university so that they can attract this kind of quality faculty.
Third, Liberty will need to do something about what appears to be the autocratic hand of Jerry Falwell Jr.  When I was doing research for my recent post on Falwell and guns, I was amazed at how many Liberty faculty and students I contacted were unwilling to talk (even off the record) about their distaste for Falwell’s remarks on this issue.  I can’t say for sure why they were unwilling to talk. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to the institution.  Or maybe it was out of a fear of losing their jobs. Such a culture needs to change if Falwell is serious about Liberty becoming the evangelical Notre Dame.
My advice to Liberty University would be stop worrying about Division I football, lobbing grenades into the ongoing culture war, and monitoring the views of its faculty, and start shoring up the quality and diversity (within the limits at a Christian university) of its academic programs. When this happens I just might believe Falwell Jr. when he says that “we’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,..we’re a university.”

What Is Going On At Wheaton College?

Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college in Wheaton, Illinois, recently decided to wear a hijab during the Advent season to show her solidarity with her Muslim neighbors.  

Here is what Hawkins wrote on her Facebook page about her decision to wear the hijab:

I don’t love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.
I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.
I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind–a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity.
As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.
I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters–for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas ‪#‎wish‬ this year.
Perhaps you are a Muslim who does not wear the veil normally. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who finds religion silly or inexplicable. Perhaps you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian like me. Perhaps you already cover your head as part of your religious worship, but not a hijab.

***I would like to add that I have sought the advice and blessing of one of the preeminent Muslim organizations in the United States, the Council on American Islamic Relations, ‪#‎CAIR‬, where I have a friend and Board colleague on staff. I asked whether a non-Muslim wearing the hijab was haram (forbidden), patronizing, or otherwise offensive to Muslims. I was assured by my friends at CAIR-Chicago that they welcomed the gesture. So please do not fear joining this embodied narrative of actual as opposed to theoretical unity; human solidarity as opposed to mere nationalistic, sentimentality.
 
Also see an interview with Hawkins at The Christian Post


Here is the Wheaton statement in response:


December 15, 2015:


In response to significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements that Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins has made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, Wheaton College has placed her on administrative leave, pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member.
Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.
The statement does not say anything specific about why Wheaton placed Hawkins on leave. Christianity Today suggests that she was placed on leave for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. 
I am not a theologian or an expert on Islam and do not feel qualified to discuss the issues related to the common history shared by these two Abrahamic religious traditions.  But after listening to Hawkins speak in a video posted by The Chicago Tribune it seems to me that her “project” is a direct expression of her Christian faith.  Think about it–how many political science professors in the United States engage in what Hawkins calls “Advent worship?” Better yet, how many evangelical Christians–the kind of folks who could sign Wheaton’s statement of faith–participate in “Advent worship?”  On this front, Hawkins appears to be a model faculty member.

To what extent should an evangelical college carve out space for the celebration of the universal values that apply to all human beings (as created in the image of God)?  And how should such space exist alongside, or in conjunction with, the more particular or specific doctrinal beliefs that define evangelical Christian faith and the identity of an evangelical college?  These questions seem to go to the heart of the matter.

I think that the particular doctrines and faith commitments of evangelical Christianity (however they are defined by the institution) should always be paramount at an evangelical Christian college, These commitments should inform the life of the institution in every way–from student life to faculty hiring.  But I also think that the kind of expressions of human solidarity that Hawkins is exemplifying in this situation–expressions rooted in Christian theology (the Imago Dei)–are also appropriate at times.  

Though Hawkins doesn’t specifically frame it this way, her project also represents a commitment to religious liberty at a time when this value is under attack from some outspoken GOP presidential candidates.  Her response is certainly different, and I would say more Christian, than the way the president of Liberty University recently handled this issue.

So why did Hawkins’s act of “Advent worship” blow up to the point that Wheaton placed her on administrative leave?  I don’t know.  But I have a good guess.  I am guessing that some Wheaton alumni–many of whom are conservative politically and theologically–are very upset.  If some of my social media feeds are any indication, this is definitely the case.

Reader Feedback: A Review of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?*

I receive a lot of e-mails from folks who have read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Some of these writers want to thank me for my work and others want to argue with me.  But I have never had a reader e-mail me with an entire book review.  
Until now.

The other day I received an e-mail from Dan McElhinny, a public historian who has run historical societies in Alaska and Oregon and is now working for the State of Oregon.  He wrote:


“I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your web site. I took the liberty of writing a review of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.” Your work has piqued my interest in American Religious history…I missed history so I did the review to try to satisfy my love of history. I purchased your book at Colonial Williamsburg while vacationing in D.C. area a few years ago. 

Here is his review:

Was America Founded as A Christian Nation? reminds me that we need history more than we may realize. Some stories are so important they need to be remembered, told, and reexamined. Undertaking the difficult effort to understand the past provides us a better understanding of ourselves. This re-examination, if done with intellectual courage and rigor, allows historians to fulfill the basic human need of finding meaning. I say rigor and courage because these behaviors put spine in historical writing which is especially needed in times of national and/or personal crisis. In these troubled times, lack of spine may lead some to misused history with at least a lazy if not specific malicious intent. 

John Fea produces a historical primer with spine for “anyone who wants to make sense of America’s early history and its relationship to Christianity”. By selecting a subject of profound civic importance and examining it with passion, Fea demonstrates the value of professional historical practice. Using care in topic selection and applying key concepts called the Five C’s of historical scholarship, Fea expresses a genuine faith in human’s use of history. By example, he helps the reader understand and use skills to identify bad from good history. 

Fea examines modern day evangelicals’ claims the United States was founded as a Christian nation. In evaluating the claim, he takes us back to Early America when Evangeical Protestants held control of the American cultural atmosphere. Explaining the complex history of Christian evangelicals’ effort to hold and then take back the mantel of steward of our national culture, Fea illustrates a long and complicated time-line. Melding the influential Second Great Awakening with the American Revolution and the Civil War, Fea illustrates a timeline which anchors a complex yet enigmatic history. 

Illustrating strands of New England founding, critical analysis of founding documents, motivations of the founding fathers as well as describing minority opinions such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, Fea provides a glimpse into the events and people who, when subject to historical inquiry, at least suggests the contingent nature of nation founding and cultural development.

By applying these tools of historians, Fea challenges recent Christian Evangelical claims and clarifies our shared history. Quoting Historian David Armitage, Fea places the Declaration of Independence within the context of 1776. Armitage clearly asserts the documents’ purpose of declaring American political sovereignty. The original intent of the document was not to write a theological document but to announced the birth of the United States. Fea explains, it’s an example of a theistic document which focuses more on Enlightenment political theory than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance was necessary.

Fea continues his examination by suggesting the United States of America was not “founded “ by Pilgrims, Puritans and Jamestown settlers per Evangelical nationalistic claims. These groups planted English colonies. These colonies remained fiercely loyal to the English monarchy until a few years before the American Revolution. 

He highlights the complex nature of religious thought of some of the founding fathers and suggests the motives of these founders not only included using religion to provide order to society but also to respect the religious beliefs of all to insure their creation would survive. Washington clearly was more concerned with unifying the nation than seeking an evangelical goal. Jefferson also worried about the corrosive nature of religious intolerance and its threat to the new republic. These facts undermine the Protestant Evangelicals’ claim that the Founding fathers were Protestant and Evangelical. They were much more.

Fea challenges readers to sharpen their critical thinking skills as applied to historical study. Additional examination of the steps of critical thinking would have strengthened the primer’s goal. Just as he described the Five C’s of historical inquiry, he could also have included critical steps of thinking clearly as a basis of historical thinking. 

Specifically, much effort has been made to understand the value and practice of critical thinking. An example of the best of this effort is Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s The Art of Thinking: A Guide to Critical and Creative Thought. Ruggiero explains that thinking is not done automatically. In this information age the amount of information available to a student or historian is multiplied. Critical thinking allows the historian to select and interpret the information he needs to illustrate meaning. 

Ruggiero suggests that meaning is derived from making moral judgments. Ruggiero states: the most reliable basis for moral judgement, the basis that underlies most ethical systems, is the principle that people have rights existing independently of any government or culture. The most fundamental is the right to be treated with respect and left undisturbed as long as one does not infringe on others’ rights. Good historical writing is a process with a purpose. Coupling this or similar critical thinking volumes with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation would encourage students and the public to understand the awesome, intellectually stimulating power of practical critical thinking skills and how these skills can enrich the practice of historical scholarship.    

I agree with Ruggiero when he says: “no matter how difficult it may be to judge such moral issues, we must judge them. Value judgement is the basis of our social code as well as our legal system.”  Is it legitimate for us to pass judgment on the moral standards of other times or places?” No, for critical historical study seeks to understand a past in the view of those who lived that time. However, an accurate representation of the past allows citizens to make informed moral judgments to better our own lives. I enjoyed reading this fine example of historical scholarship.      

Thanks for this great review, Dan!  I am glad that the book is prompting people to think and engage!

Correspondents Wanted: Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta

Anyone interested in a writing a post or two (or three or four or five…) from the AHA in Atlanta (January 7-10)?  Once again, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is looking for writers/correspondents to report from the conference.

What am I hoping for out of these posts/reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend, job market updates, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about. 

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want. If at all possible I would like to get some stuff as the conference is going on, but general summaries would also work. Feel free to write as few or as many as you would like. I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

If your interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu and we can get the ball rolling.  I the meantime, check out our posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association to get an idea of what some of our correspondents at that conference wrote about.

The Founding Fathers and Muslims

Juan Cole, the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, reminds us that the founding fathers had Islam in mind when they talked about religious freedom.

Here is a taste of his piece at HNN:

…Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here is the whole quote:
‘And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service. ‘
Not only did Ben Franklin not want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he wanted to invite them!
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom:
‘ that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right . . . ‘ 
As I observed on another occasion, it was Jefferson’s more bigoted opponents in the Virginia legislature who brought up the specter of Muslims and atheists being elected to it in the world Jefferson was trying to create. He was undeterred by such considerations, which should tell us something.
British social philosopher John Locke was extremely influential on the Founding Generation, and on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. John Locke had already advocated civil rights for non-Christians, including Muslims, in his Letter on Toleration:
‘ Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors [believers], all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. ‘ 
Here is Jefferson again: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”
– Thomas Jefferson, note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816.
Or: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
Read the rest here.  I made a similar argument in this lecture.  (I come on at about the 20:00 minute mark).

"Spectral Historical Revisionism" or Andrew Jackson Apologizes For His Entire Life

What if the ghosts of famous dead people–George Washington, George Fox, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun– were to communicate with us and offer advice about moral improvement?  And what if Ben Franklin edited this collection of communications? 

In 1852, Hicksite Quakers Isaac and Amy Post wrote (or maybe “compiled” is a better word) Voices from the Spirit World.

Over at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Brooke Palmieri explains what it is all about:

In it, the ghosts of famous dead people contact the authors, who then translate the “spirit rappings” they receive into a series of letters from the spirit world with advice for the living. “Benjamin Franklin” is the editor, who writes in the preface in typical Ben Franklin fashion that “Spirit life would be tiresome, without employment.” Franklin is also credited with contacting the other luminaries of public life, although Thomas Jefferson complains: “I find more difficulty in arranging my communication than when embodied.” The purpose of these spectral communications is, again, in typical Ben Franklin fashion, improvement. “Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends …. It is our object to spread light in the pathway of those who have been blinded by their education, traditions, and sectarian trammels. We come not to blame any; we present these truths, that man…may realize what he is, and what he is to be; to tell him by what he is surrounded.”

It is an incredibly literal way to enact the basic truth that history does offer precedents that can be built off of in the name of progress. But the aims of Voices from the Spirit World go deeper still: Franklin claims his purpose is that “death will have no terrors” for the living who are aware of the spiritual world. That is the best that the Spiritualist Movement had to offer: it was about facing death without fear, it was about ensuring that those who had died had not done so in vain, that their lives could offer wisdom and guidance in times of difficulty. The table of contents is a mixture of founding fathers, famous thinkers, Quaker leaders (the Posts were Quakers), close personal friends, and anonymous ghosts moved to speak…

But overwhelmingly the spirits speak with one voice: they denounce war, the slave trade and women’s inequality from cover to cover. In a “Communication from G[eorge] Washington. July 29, 1851” the first president condemns slavery: “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery.” A communication, surprisingly, from John C. Calhoun admits: “It is very unexpected to me to be called upon by Benjamin Franklin, informing that you desired to hear from me…It seems to me unaccountable that my mind should have been so darkened, so blinded, by selfishness, as to live to spread wrong, while I endeavored to persuade myself I was doing right.” Andrew Jackson publishes an apology for his entire life: “I was wrong in almost everything.”

Read the rest here.  HT: Tony Grafton, via Facebook



The Author’s Corner with Joseph T. Reiff

Joseph T. Reiff is Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion Department at Emory & Henry College. This interview is based on his new book, Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Born of Conviction?

JR: I grew up in Mississippi Methodism and knew a couple of the signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement when I was a child in the early 1960s. Though I did not know about the statement then, I was certainly aware of tensions in the white church related to the race issue and the civil rights movement, and in October 1963 I witnessed an interracial group of visitors get arrested at the front steps of my church simply for attempting to worship there. In the mid-1970s at Millsaps College I became friends with two fellow students who had family members involved in the Born of Conviction controversy. I first saw the statement in 1983 when I was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi, and I photocopied it. When I began teaching, I used the statement as a case study of the clash between a dominant culture and the Christian faith, or more accurately, between cultural Christianity and an attempt to be faithful to the Christian gospel even when such a stance challenges the cultural status quo. When historians Wayne Flynt, Andrew Manis, and Joel Alvis presented papers at a symposium on Southern religion on my campus in 2002, I was inspired to pursue the project, and I began interviewing surviving signers of “Born of Conviction” in 2003.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Conviction?

JR: Though its language seems mild now, the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement by 28 white Mississippi Methodist ministers in January 1963 caused a significant crack in the false façade of white unanimity in support of segregation in Mississippi. Most of the many brief published mentions of the statement have summarized it as “the signers spoke out and were forced out of Mississippi,” but that is too simple for a number of reasons: the signers received a good deal of affirmation for their stand, though much of it was private; the 20 signers who left Mississippi did so for a wide range of reasons, often involving free choice; and eight of the signers remained in the state for the rest of their careers.  

JF: Why do we need to read Born of Conviction?

JR: It is a powerful story of some white Methodist clergymen who spoke against the tide when massive resistance in Mississippi was at its peak. The white church there usually not only failed to support the black freedom struggle, it also often actively resisted it; here is an alternative narrative: ministers who spoke to a statewide audience in support of change. The negative response to their effort was predictable, but the book offers a complex view of white attitudes on race relations in 1963 Mississippi by examining the responses to the statement: from individuals and congregations in public and private ranging from negative to ambivalent to positive. It is a thick description of white Methodism in Mississippi in the civil rights era and also looks at church efforts to help create the “new Mississippi” after 1964.

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

JR: My training and experience is in practical and pastoral theology as well as qualitative
religious research. When I started a religion Ph.D. program after five years as a local church pastor, I wanted to center my work on pastoral and ecclesiological issues. My dissertation was a study of an unusual United Methodist congregation in Atlanta’s historic Grant Park neighborhood; the church came back from near death in the mid-1980s due to an influx of “cultural left” Baby Boomers and their children, and I was there to study it as an observer-participant. Because the church was founded just after the Civil War, I wove historical research into my consideration of social ethics, ecclesiology, and Christian formation in that congregational subculture. The fundamentally interdisciplinary character of history makes it an excellent platform on which to explore a variety of ethical, pastoral, and ecclesiological issues in Born of Conviction.  

JF: What is your next project?

JR: I am planning to write a biography of Roy C. Clark, a Mississippi Methodist pastor who left the state in 1963 and was eventually elected a United Methodist bishop. Clark grew up in Mississippi as the son of a Methodist Episcopal Church, South pastor and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1944. He was a great preacher and classic Southern theological moderate/liberal; Davis Houck and David Dixon included a sermon of his in the second volume of their Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement. I look forward to interviewing people who knew Clark in Mississippi, Memphis, Nashville, and South Carolina, and to diving into his voluminous papers in order to tell his story and explore his theology, preaching, and leadership in the embattled context of the mid-20th century South.

JF: Thanks, Joseph! 

Have You Heard About the American Renewal Project?

David Lane (NY Times photo)

I recently talked to Reuters journalist Michelle Conlin about David Lane and the American Renewal Project.  You can read her finished piece here.

The American Renewal Project is a network of 100,000 ministers and pastors (as far as I can tell they are mostly white, conservative evangelical, middle-aged men) who are trying to get 1000 pastors to run for office in 2016.


One look at the American Renewal Project website reveals that this is yet another wing of the Christian nationalist movement.  There are stories about revolutionary-era clergy who supported the American Revolution,  defenses of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and discussions of pastors running for political office to “save the soul” of America.  Lane is a Christian Right activist who believes that we need to “wage war to restore a Christian America.”  His use of history comes straight out of the David Barton playbook.  In fact, Barton is a supporter of this movement.


Here is a taste of Conlin’s article:


Aiming to motivate conservative Christians, they are focusing on smaller political races, local ballot initiatives and community voter registration drives.
At the center of the effort is the American Renewal Project, an umbrella group that says it has a network of 100,000 pastors. It is headed by evangelical Republican political operative David Lane, who wants to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for elected office in 2016.
So far, roughly 500 have committed to running, Lane told Reuters.  
“This is a fundamental shift in strategy,” said John Fea, a history professor at Christian Messiah College, who is nevertheless skeptical the effort will produce the desired results. “Rather than forcing this from the top down, this is about a grassroots approach to changing the culture by embedding ministers in local politics from the ground up,” he said.
In some instances, pastors are trumpeting their candidacies or those of other evangelicals directly from the pulpit, in violation of Internal Revenue Service rules governing tax-exempt churches. Some are launching church-wide voter registration drives.
The American Renewal Project website dabbles in the American past.  It is obvious that Lane has been inspired by the so-called “Black Robe Regiment,” a name given to the eighteenth-century Protestant ministers who used their pulpits and influence to support the American Revolution.  We have written about this movement, and tried to debunk some of its myths, here and here.  The American Renewal Project website has references to Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg and Rev. Jacob Duche. These are clear indicators that Lane and his supporters are drawing on this “black robe” history.
Of course David Lane has every right to encourage ministers to run for office.  But I would urge him to stop manipulating American history to do it.  Frankly, the American history portrayed on his website is a mess.
For example, much of what we know about Muhlenberg comes from mid-to-late nineteenth-century sources, not from eighteenth-century documents. And while Duche did pray before the Continental Congress, he later turned his back on the American Revolution and George Washington and became a Loyalist.  

One part of the website claims that “America’s Founders” established “Christianity as the official religion of America in the State Constitutions of the 13 original colonies.”  In fact, only a few states had religious establishments after the American Revolution (I am thinking here of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and, in a less official capacity, South Carolina).  Moreover, how could the “official religion of America” (whatever that means) be found in the individual colonies or states?”  I am confused.

It is also worth noting that many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices.  These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution

That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.

Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:

The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.

It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America.  I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics. 

Of course there were other states that did not prohibit clergy from running for office. As I have said many times–especially in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introductionthe founding era does not conform very well to the agenda of contemporary politicians. By manipulating the past in this way David Lane and the American Renewal Project look foolish, fail to tell the entire truth, and thus diminish the church’s witness in the world.

Reader Feedback: Coates on Historians and Hope

Yesterday our “quote of the day” came from Ta-Nehesi Coates’s reflections on historians and hope.

Here is the quote I chose:


.. I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.


The best response/question to the post came in a tweet (@johnfea1) from Aaron Cowan, a history professor at Slippery Rock University:



Great point.  I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis.  I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present.  I would not call these people “historians.”


I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here.  His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them,  Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.

Muslims Are the New Catholics

Yesterday we linked to John Turner’s Anxious Bench essay “Muslims are the New Mormons.” Turner is not the only one making historical analogies these days.  In a recent essay at Religion Dispatches Patricia Miller reminds us that 19th-century Americans were not always very friendly to Catholics.

Here is a taste of her piece: “When Catholics Were the Muslims“:

A well-known national figure tries to rally Americans to the danger posed by a poorly understood minority religious group that’s increasingly making its presence felt in the country. He charges that their faith is a “political” religion inimical to American concepts of civil and religious liberty. He speaks darkly of how it treats women, cloistering them from the world. And he claims the press is held captive to its agenda and is failing to alert Americans to the growing threat at their door.
No, it’s not Donald Trump talking about Muslims, it’s a prominent Presbyterian minster talking about Catholics in the 1830s, and it serves as a reminder that when it comes to political demagoguery, Catholics were once the Muslims.
Robert Breckinridge was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians and the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, a city that had one of the largest Catholic populations in the country in the 1830s. He hailed from a politically prominent Kentucky family (his father was Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general), which gave him national clout even early in his career.
Breckinridge, along with his brother John, the previous pastor at Second Presbyterian, used the pulpit to whip up concern about the growing population of Irish and German Catholic immigrants, who he held couldn’t be good Americans because they owed their fealty to the pope.
Read the rest here.

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehesi Coates on hope and historians:

… I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.