Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

Trump Does Not Have the Character to Lead the Country Through a Pandemic

Trump corona

Leadership during a pandemic requires character.  It requires honesty and humility. A president should speak the truth to the American people, regardless of how it will affect him politically.  A president must rid himself of his narcissism, swallow his pride, and listen to the scientists and disease-control experts. Trump has done neither of these things. He seems more concerned about his image, his political brand, the 2020 election, and the stock market.

Here is David Remnick at The New Yorker:

The first official act of the Trump Administration was the Inauguration—and, within hours, a lie delivered from the White House press room about how this had been “the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” That episode seems so long ago, and many thousands of lies ago. But as the world now faces a pandemic, it has never been more essential to recall that norm-setting performance and to admit what has been demonstrated on a daily basis about the public official who carries ultimate responsibility for the public safety of American citizens: Donald Trump is incapable of truth, heedless of science, and hostage to the demands of his insatiable ego.

Recall, since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the litany of bogus assurances, “hunches,” misinformation, magical thinking, drive-by political shootings, and self-stroking:

“We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

“By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

“The Obama Administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be detrimental to what we’re doing . . . ”

“We’re going very substantially down, not up. . . . We have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.”

“As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test [can have one], that’s the thing, and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect—the transcription was perfect.”

“They would like to have the people come off [the Grand Princess cruise ship, off the coast of California]. I would like to have the people stay. . . . Because I like the numbers being where they are.”

Read the rest here.

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

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 Denise 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 my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of 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 ground 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 and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

****

Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the 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 no 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 women and men 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 about 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 assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in 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 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 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 those 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 thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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 hope 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 face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

*****

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 the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, 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 of 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 great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, 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, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

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

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, covered with 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, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual 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 what 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 to 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 whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

****

Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University

I spent a little time last night watching Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University.  I have learned a lot from both of these men and I love watching them talk with one another.  This conversation is no different.  These kinds of conversations give me hope.

A few comments:

  • The first minute of this video speaks volumes.  The Liberty University convocation, which is touted  in the video as the “largest gathering of Christian young people in the world,” begins with Liberty University football highlights.
  • I would like to know more about how West balances his prophetic voice with his  commitment to civility.  West comes across as gracious and civil here, but he has spent much of his career railing against the kind of conservative, politically-oriented Christianity that the Liberty University leadership represents.
  • This leads me to ask:  Where is Jerry Falwell Jr.?  Doesn’t he usually host these events?  This is a great conversation about ideas, the pursuit of learning, and intellectual humility.  I am glad that the Liberty University students could experience it.  But the things West and George are talking about here seem to be the antithesis of how Jerry Falwell Jr. engages public life from his perch in the Liberty president’s office.
  • Things get good around the 1:04:30 mark when they West and George start debating public schools.
  • The quiz at the end is hilarious.

Spirituality for Broken Public Discourse

Basil

In the spirit of my recent post “Rules of Engagement,” I want to call your attention to Nicholas Denysenko‘s piece on spirituality and public discourse in the recent issue of The Cresset.  I read it last night and found it useful and inspiring.  Here is a taste of “Engaging My Opponent“:

Throughout history, Christians have attempted to apply Jesus’s teachings as rules for communal living and engagement with the other. These examples occur in a variety of contexts, from Cappadocian monks in late antiquity to twentieth-century laity responding to dangerous ideologies.

One early example is the philosopher, bishop, and ascetic known as Basil the Great (330-379). In the Christian world, Basil is beloved because of the prayers attributed to him, his theological family ties (having an equally gifted brother and a saintly sister), his theological treatises that became the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and his ascetical writings. Instructive for our purposes is Basil’s homily on humility. The context of this homily suggests that Basil was addressing people who lived in the late-antique city. Basil critiques those who indulge in the glory and honor that comes with political success:

But also because of political honors do men exalt themselves beyond what is due their nature. If the populace confer upon them a distinction, if it honor them with some office of authority, if an exceptional mark of dignity be voted in their favor by the people, thereupon, as though they had risen above human nature, they look upon themselves as well nigh seated on the very clouds and regard the men beneath them as their footstool. They lord it over those who raised them to such honor and exalt themselves over the very ones at whose hands they received their sham distinctions. 
(Basil, trans. Wagner, 476)

Basil seems to be warning those in the public sphere against the kind of elitism that comes with rank or stature in the political hierarchy, and the temptation to view others as simply “their footstool.” Basil describes the steps needed for the exalted to rightfully see themselves and others:

If you appear to have something in your favor, do not, counting this to your credit and readily forgetting your mistakes, boast of your good deeds of today and grant yourself pardon for what you have done badly yesterday and in the past. Whenever the present arouses pride in you, recall the past to mind and you will check the foolish swelling of conceit. If you see your neighbor committing sin, take care not to dwell exclusively on his sin, but think of the many things he has done and continues to do rightly. Many times, by examining the whole and not taking the part into account, you will find that he is better than you. Such reminders as these regarding self-exaltation we should keep reciting constantly to ourselves, demeaning ourselves that we may be exalted, in imitation of the Lord who descended from heaven to utter lowliness and who was, in turn, raised to the height which befitted him. (Basil, trans. Wagner, 483)

Basil proposes an ascetical practice that speaks directly to the kind of exaltation to which one enjoying a high rank might be prone. Recalling one’s past errors can help one avoid the temptation to exalt one’s self and treat others like a footstool. Basil employs hyperbole when he suggests that we are to demean ourselves, but the point of adopting this habit is twofold: to learn how to see good in one’s interlocutor, and to adopt the pattern of Christ himself. Our descent into utter lowliness is not for self-torture. Rather, it is to follow the pattern of Christ, whose lowliness was in service to others. The two practices work together: we find fault in ourselves first to confront our own ugliness; only then is one able to see that the person one engages is, in fact, naturally good.

Cultivating the habit of humility is designed to be relational and dialogical. In a longer passage, Basil advises hearers to be modest in all ways of life, to avoid embellishment of speech, and to be “free from pomposity” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). Adopting a habit of modesty in the way that we talk and think of ourselves leads to new ways of dialoguing with others. Basil offers simple instructions: “Be obliging to your friends, gentle toward your slaves, forbearing with the forward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). He goes on to instruct his hearers to avoid even listening into a conversation involving gossip; adopting the habit of attending to one’s own sin sharpens the senses of seeing others and dialoguing with them. One learns how to act with radical charity toward the other through practice, but the root of this action is pursuing humility and refusing to exalt one’s self, reserving that praise and glorification for God alone.

Read the entire piece here.

David Brooks: “A Complete National Disgrace”

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

Witnessing and Winning

King prayingCheck out Ruth Braunstein‘s piece at The Immanent Frame: “Good troublemakers.”  It is an interesting piece on humility and the “prophetic voice.”

She writes:

American history has been punctuated by the actions of modern prophets who have called society to account for its sins, which, they have argued, constituted a breach of Americans’ covenant with God. Some of these men and women are remembered as cranks or retrograde theocrats, while others have been enshrined as champions of democracy and human rights. Yet even those who fall in the latter camp were often viewed in their time as crazies, troublemakers, and extremists, crying out in the wilderness, speaking truth to power, however unpopular it made them. They persisted because they believed they were called to do so—by God.

Confidence in one’s convictions is necessary under such conditions. Yet this same moral righteousness can also lead people to stop listening to others, to become so confident they have all the answers that they become unwilling to admit they may be wrong. Even if these prophets privately harbored doubts about their calling, once they decided to “follow the prophets,” as Nora put it, this involved playing a role. And performing prophecy means performing certainty.

Public performances of moral certainty (like many forms of protest, religious and otherwise) stand in tension with prevailing visions of how democratic citizens should interact with one another across their differences. These visions emphasize intellectual, orepistemic, humility, embodied in practices like public debate, deliberation, and negotiation, which convey an openness to the possibility that one could learn something new by listening to people whose views differ from one’s own.

Today, as political arrogance, partisan polarization, and information tribalism threaten to engulf our public life, it is crucial that we recover the political skills, spaces, and practices that encourage greater humility. This is not only necessary to strengthen democracy; it can also be an effective strategy for achieving practical goals. Indeed, even many activists who are driven by strong moral convictions believe they can achieve more by being pragmatic rather than prophetic—they wish to “win and not just ‘witness.’”

Read the rest here.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

Postdoctoral Fellow in “Humility & Conviction in Public Life” at UCONN Humanities Institute

 

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First, let me say how impressed I am that the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute is devoting itself to these kinds of questions.  Bravo!

Second, I hope you might consider applying.  I am told by the powers-that-be at UCONN that it is not too late.

Job Title: Postdoctoral Fellow, Humanities Institute
Job ID: 2017625
Location: Storrs Campus
Full/Part Time: Full-Time
Regular/Temporary: Temporary

Job Posting

The University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, is accepting applications for a postdoctoral researcher with an anticipated start date of August 23, 2017. The researcher will work under the auspices of Humility & Conviction in Public Life (HCPL), an applied research project generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation aimed at understanding and revitalizing meaningful public discourse over such topics as morality, politics, science and religion. The initial appointment is for one year, with the possibility of renewal for a second year. For more information on the project, please see its website.

MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS

Completed requirements for a Ph.D. (or foreign equivalent) in a humanities field (broadly construed) by start date of employment; evidence of a strong research/publication trajectory; and active research and public engagement interests integrating well with the stated aims and interests of the HCPL project.

PREFERRED QUALIFICATIONS

Evidence of excellence in research; a research profile that indicates strong interest in applied research relevant to public discourse, interest in or knowledge of research on intellectual or epistemic humility, public deliberation and dialogue; and the ability to contribute through research, teaching, and/or public engagement to the diversity and excellence of project and Institute missions.

APPOINTMENT TERMS

This is an 11 month, annually renewable position. The successful candidate’s primary academic appointment will be in the Humanities Institute on the Storrs campus.

TO APPLY

Select “Apply Now” to be redirected to Academic Jobs Online to complete your application. Please submit the following materials: 1) cover letter with description of how your research and qualifications mesh with the HCPL project, 2) CV, and 3) a sample of scholarly writing. Additionally, please follow the instructions in Academic Jobs Online to direct three reference writers to submit letters of reference on your behalf. 

Evaluation of applications will begin immediately, and continue until the position is filled. Preference will be given to applications received by August 1, 2017. Employment of the successful candidate is contingent upon the successful completion of a pre- employment background check. (Search # 2017625). 

Inquiries may be sent to Jo-Ann Waide at: uchi@uconn.edu .

All employees are subject to adherence to the State Code of Ethics which may be found at http://www.ct.gov/ethics/site/default.asp.

The University of Connecticut is committed to building and supporting a multicultural and diverse community of students, faculty and staff. The diversity of students, faculty and staff continues to increase, as does the number of honors students, valedictorians and salutatorians who consistently make UConn their top choice. More than 100 research centers and institutes serve the University’s teaching, research, diversity, and outreach missions, leading to UConn’s ranking as one of the nation’s top research universities. UConn’s faculty and staff are the critical link to fostering and expanding our vibrant, multicultural and diverse University community. As an Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity employer, UConn encourages applications from women, veterans, people with disabilities and members of traditionally underrepresented populations.

 

Comey Channels Reinhold Niebuhr

Comety

James Comey and Reinhold Niebuhr (from The Episcopal Cafe)

We have done some posts this year on the James Comey-Reinhold Niebuhr connection. You can read them here and here and here.  I have followed Comey on Twitter @projectexile7, but his tweets are protected and he hasn’t accepted my follow request yet.  Stay tuned!

Comey is a big Neibuhr fan.  He wrote about Niebuhr in his senior thesis at The College of William and Mary. Frankly, I really wish I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with Comey.  I would love to talk with him about how and if Niebuhr’s still shapes his thinking about public life.

So was Niebuhr’s ghost present during Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee?  Yes.

1. Niebuhr valued humility.  It was clear to me that Comey does too.

When asked “do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?”  Comey responded with this:

My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself so I’m not going to. I think people should look at the whole body of my testimony. As I used to say to juries, when I talked about a witness, you can’t cherry pick it.

2.  Niebuhr loved irony.  Though historian Julian Zelizer‘s tweet does not apply directly to Comey, it is still worth noting.

3.  Niebuhr was pessimistic about human nature.

When Mark Warner asked Comey what led him to take notes after his first meeting with Trump, Comey replied:

A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first — I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president.

The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president — the president-elect personally — and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.

4.  Niebuhr spoke truth to power.

Here is a taste of Comey’s opening remarks:

And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.

I only wish he would have been more Niebuhrian to Trump’s face during their meetings. But I guess that’s where the humility comes in.  Reinhold is smiling.

I Could Be Wrong

Intellectual-humility-distict-from-general-humility-study-finds

Over at the Inside Higher Ed blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” Matt Reed writes about the relationship between leadership and intellectual humility.  It’s a nice reflection on an important virtue:

In a sense, intellectual humility strikes me as the everyday equivalent of the scientific method. You make the best call you can at a given moment, knowing full well that new information may come along later that will change your view. Keeping an eye open for that kind of information makes it likelier that you’ll avoid barreling headfirst into an iceberg.

But intellectual humility is often an awkward fit, at best, with the styles of leadership to which many people respond.

They respond to tub-thumping certainty. They like clear, simple, confident rallying cries. They perceive changing positions — if they notice — as a sign of corruption, hypocrisy, or weakness. They want answers, and they identify people with the answers they give.  

In other words, a certain kind of follower rewards either dishonesty or shallowness in a leader. The very trait likely to lead to better decisions can carry a direct political cost.

Some leaders lack intellectual humility altogether, so for them, the conflict is external. They keep wondering why the world frustrates them. You can spot them by their remarkable lack of self-awareness.

Some, like the younger George Wallace, consciously choose closed-mindedness specifically because of its political payoff. When the political math changes, you can always declare that you suddenly see the light.

Others resolve the tension through charisma and/or patronage. If you’re likeable enough, you may be able to charm your way through some strategic pivots. I think of that as the Reagan strategy, named after its master practitioner. (If you prefer, you could say something similar of Bill Clinton.) If you can charm or buy your way out of the political downsides of shifting positions, then you can respond to the world as it changes. Nixon can go to China.

Read the entire post here.

 

#Whystudyhistory Invades the World of Marketing

market-analystsDo you want to be an effective marketing analyst?

Then study history.

If you are a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know about Cali Pitchel.  She has written a lot for the blog and has been featured in at least three different So What CAN You Do With a History Major? posts.

Cali is the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, WA. She studied history as an undergraduate at Messiah College, received her M.A. in American Studies at Penn State, and spent two years working on a Ph.D in American history at Arizona State before dropping out to “channel her inner Peggy Olson.”

Cali does a lot of writing about how her study of history has made her a better marketing analyst.  In her most recent piece, which appears at LiftOff blog, she urges her fellow marketers to “approach your data like a historian.”  Her study of history has taught her important lessons about humility, empathy, and  interpretation that she uses every day in her current work.

Here is a taste:

I’m a trained historian. I spent the better part of the past 10 years studying the past, collecting some graduate degrees, and thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. Almost four years after what was supposed to be a brief respite, I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

This might not seem like a natural career move. What does the humanities have to do with web and mobile app analytics? At first the transition felt a bit awkward. I had never taken a business class, let alone looked at a Google Analytics dashboard. But what I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that historians and growth marketers have a lot to learn from one another.

Here are three things I think historians can teach marketers who make data-driven decisions:

1. Be humble.

A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can—and almost always will—challenge your assumptions.

Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of an historian. If you think you know all the answers when you approach the data, it’s likely you’ll confirm your bias. (This is a very human thing to do, by the way.)

When asked about truth, data, and analysis, Historian John Fea suggested that, “Data means Why Study History Covernothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.”

A growth marketer must first acknowledge his or her position and then meet the data appropriately—fully aware of the bias that is just part of being human. It’s trite, but true: knowledge is power. And just knowing your subjectivity can (and should) come to bear on the interpretation of data.

It’s easy to choose pride over humility, especially as a marketer prized for your acumen and industry expertise. But pride and relying on your instinct can have negative implications for your users’ experience. One way to combat this and ensure you’re creating a good (and high-converting) online experience, is to create a culture of testing. Testing not only allows you to optimize a user’s experience, it can substantiate and challenge your assumptions. When you trust the data—and not just your gut—you can pivot and respond to the needs of your audience, creating a cost savings or generating more revenue. In other words, humility is good business.

2. Empathy is everything.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a historian was the importance of empathy. The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors.

One of the difficult tasks of the historian, according to Fea, is to get rid of his or her “contemporary understanding of the world and [try] to see the world from another perspective—the perspective of someone living in what many historians refer to as the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Historians empathize with dead people and in the process we learn how to empathize in our contemporary lives as well.”

Empathy must also inform the way in which we interpret data. In its simplest form, the goal of empathy is understanding. And understanding a client—their challenges, their objectives, their business—is essential to any engagement.

Read her entire post here.

It is very rewarding to see the themes of Why Study History? find their way into the business world.  My goal is to make Why Study History? required reading in all college and university marketing classes!  🙂

Thanks, Cali.

Have You Listened to the Latest Episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

podcast-icon1Public historian Chris Graham has.

He has a nice review and analysis at his blog Whig Hill.  His post is entitled “Humility and Acts of Understanding.”  Here is a taste:

John Fea has a podcast and it is good. I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fea’s work, particularly his efforts to bridge the divide between disciplinary history and the public (in his case, chiefly, the evangelical public.) In the current episode Fea lays out approaches to history education that he has encountered in his work in the classroom and beyond: some folks want “just the facts,” others go for history as civics education, and many promote the value of historical thinking skills to life and society in general. These are not exclusive categories, but I prioritize the historical thinking aspect. I believe Fea does, too. You scratch the surface on him and you see the influence of Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, interviewed in this latest episode. Fea calls the interview provocative and I suspect it’s because of Wineburg’s strident critiques of the Teaching American History program.

Read the rest here.

And don’t forget to subscribe, download episodes, and write a review at ITunes

Barack Obama’s Amazing Prayer Breakfast Speech

At the risk of once again getting in trouble for my commentary on what Barack Obama said at a National Prayer Breakfast, let me say a few things about what Barack Obama said about religion and violence at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Here is the pertinent part of the speech:

Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges — certainly over the last six years.  But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. 
As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 
So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. 
And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.  And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both. 
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.
So humility I think is needed.  And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments.  Between church and between state.  The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world — far more religious than most Western developed countries.  And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.  Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.  And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion — so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it’s real.  You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to.  It’s from the heart… 
That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith.  It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself.  So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.
Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another.  And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred.  And this is the loving message of His Holiness, Pope Francis.  And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable; to walk with The Lord and ask “Who am I to judge?”  He challenges us to press on in what he calls our “march of living hope.”  And like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.  (Applause.)…
Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common, greater purpose — not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully.  And this is perhaps our greatest challenge — to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another.  As children of God, let’s make that our work, together
This is a great speech.  A moving speech.  A Christian speech. An American speech.  Obama’s statements about the relationship between religion, violence, slavery and racism are historically accurate.  His remarks about how history reminds us of our sinful condition should please any evangelical Calvinist.  I don’t think that there has been such an appeal to humility and mystery by a President of the United States since Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  Obama’s defense of religious freedom reminds me of my earlier post today on Russell Moore’s defense of religious liberty.

Is radical Islam a threat? Of course. Must it be stopped?  Yes. Does Obama want to stop it?  I believe he does. When he tells Americans to get off their “high horses” and realize that sin has been present throughout human history, even American history, he reminds me a lot of Lincoln.  When Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural he knew that the Confederates had killed tens of thousands of Union men and women over the course of his first term as president.  Lincoln wanted the Confederacy punished for their crimes, but he also urged Americans to have “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”  

Lincoln turned to American history to remind his Northern listeners that both North and South were responsible for “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.”  He wanted the people of the North to recall their past sins before they began to cast judgment on the South.  It seems that Obama, by reminding Americans about the Crusades and slavery in his Prayer Breakfast remarks, was doing something similar.

Google is Looking for Potential Employees Who Demonstrate "Intellectual Humility"

This a very interesting post on why Google does not often hire college graduates from the so-called “top schools.”  Here is a taste:

Google looks for the ability to step back and embrace other people’s ideas when they’re better. “It’s ‘intellectual humility.’ Without humility, you are unable to learn,” Bock says. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

This reminds me of something I once read in a book called Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

As historian John Cairns notes, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.  Empathy requires the historian to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they sit within it…

The practice of empathy will inevitably lead to humility.  It does so in one of three ways.  First, an engagement with the past in all its breadth and fullness, the entry into such a “foreign country,” should decenter us.  It makes us realize our own smallness in the vast course of human history….Second, the practice of history cultivates humility because of the limited nature of the discipline.  Since historians are often so far removed from the past they study, there is no way of ever knowing for sure that their interpretations are correct.  Because of the “pastness of the past,” the historian must come to grips with his or her own finiteness, realizing that he or she can never fully understand it in all its fullness and complexity….Third, history teaches humility in the sense that the past can sometimes shame us.  In the process of seeing ourselves as part of a larger human story, we also see that the people who have gone before us were capable of tremendous atrocities.  The story of human history is filled with accounts of slavery, violence, scientific racism, injustice, genocide, and other dark episodes that might make us embarrassed to be part of the human race.  If our fellow human beings can engage in such sad, wrong, or disgraceful acts, then what is stopping us from doing the same?  History reminds us of the inherent weakness in the human condition and the very real possibility that our fellow human beings are capable of horrendous things.  This should humble us, for “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

Let’s hope someone at Google reads this and starts hiring some well-trained history majors.

Sam Wineburg on Historical Thinking

I always need to remind myself of this quote by Wineburg.  I have it on my office door.

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

David Brooks at Messiah College–October 3

He will be here on Thursday, October 3.  Here is the press release:

David Brooks

“The Importance of Humility and Civil Discourse in American Life”


Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 – 7:30 p.m.Parmer Hall

All tickets are $25. To purchase, please contact the Messiah College Ticket Office at (717) 691-6036 or visitmessiah.edu/tickets after Aug. 1, 2013.


David Brooks has a gift for bringing audiences face to face with the spirit of our times with humor, insight and quiet passion. He is a keen observer of the American way of life and a savvy analyst of present-day politics and foreign affairs. Brooks is author of two books of what he calls “comic sociology” — descriptions of how we live and “the water we swim in” that are as witty and entertaining as they are revealing and insightful: “Bobos in Paradise” and “On Paradise Drive.” “Bobos in Paradise” was a New York Times best-seller. His current book, titled “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” focuses on why neuroscience and sociology are so important to thinking about politics, culture and the future of America in world society. Brooks has worked at The Weekly Standard, joining the magazine at its inception and serving as senior editor. He has been a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for nine years in a range of positions, including op-ed editor. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, The Washington Post and many other periodicals.

David Brooks’s Course on "Humility"

Yes, you read that correctly.  David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, is teaching a course on the subject of “humility” at Yale University.  He is aware that there might be some snickers:

But yes, he knows how it sounds. “The title of the Humility course is, obviously, intentionally designed to provoke smart ass jibes, but there’s actually a serious point behind it,” Brooks explained via e-mail last night. “People from Burke to Niebuhr, Augustine to Dorothy Day, Montaigne to MLK and Samuel Johnson to Daniel Kahneman have built philosophies around our cognitive, moral and personal limitations. The course is designed to look at these strategies as a guide for life and politics and everything else.”

One of those people snickering is Scott Ross, the author of Backslash Scott Thoughts.  He attended the first lecture.  Here is his take:

When it was first announced that NYT columnist David Brooks would be teaching a class at Yale on humility, a lot of people were quick to point out how ironic it was. When the syllabus was first posted this week, Twitter just about exploded as people pulled quotes like “We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” from the syllabus (keep in mind, it’s a course on humility, at Yale, taught by David Brooks). The syllabus includes readings by or about famous-but-humble minds like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Moses, Augustine, and none other than David Brooks.

So I decided to go to the first class yesterday with no intention of actually staying. While it wasn’t that excitingly terrible or good, I did end up making a few observations, and of course there were a few points of “you can’t make this stuff up.” Like when we were trying to cram into the room and he needed to get passed dozens of students to get to his seat, and he raised his hands and (I kid you not) said “I feel like Bono!” Or when he was explaining office hours (which are Monday nights at either a cafe or a bar) and said that meeting with students individually was exciting “certainly for them but also for me.” 

Ross storified some more of his snarky observations here.

Frankly, for all the sarcasm and irony, this looks like a great course.  Is it heavy on dead white men?  Yes.  But I would love to take a course in which I interpret primary documents on vocation chosen by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass and read Peter Brown on Augustine, Edmund Burke on revolution, Dorothy Day on social justice, and Niebuhr on American history.

Here are some of the big questions Brooks will be asking:

How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country?

Why did America reject the values of the Protestant Establishment? What replaced it?

What have been the effects of this cultural shift? Has there been a rise in narcissism? Is the culture less effective at transmitting a character code? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this culture?

What was the Homeric Honor Code? How did Greeks conceive of hubris?

How does the bible portray heroism?

How did Augustine conceive of pride and sin?  How did he build a moral code around the virtue of humility?

How did Montaigne believe we can best understand ourselves? How did his way of observing the world differ from grander and more systematic methods?

Given his tendency to distrust reason and rapid change, how did Burke believe politics and reform should be pursued?

How did Francis Perkins and Day turn Christian humility into political service?

How did Niebuhr believe power should be used? Why did he oppose idealism? How was MLK and the civil rights movement influenced by Niebuhran thought?

Is it proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car?

Oakes: "I try not to be overly committed to anything I’ve put in print."

James Oakes, distinguished professor of history at CUNY-Graduate Center, wants us to know that sometimes historians change their minds.  Here is a taste of his article in the current issue of Perspectives in History:

In a seminar I took during my first year in graduate school Kenneth Stampp read us a paper entitled, something like, “My Life with Lincoln.” I don’t remember many of the specifics, only that he traced the process by which he had over the years changed his mind about the 16th president. He never became a Lincoln worshipper, but over time Stampp had become less critical; he found more to admire. Some years later, while I was teaching at Princeton, I read a book that had recently been published by my colleague, Lawrence Stone, in which he argued that one reason the English aristocracy had persisted for so long was that the emerging bourgeoisie, rather than repudiating aristocratic values, had actually embraced them. Call this the aristocratization of the bourgeoisie. When I bumped into Stone on campus one day I pointed out that his new book contradicted a claim he’d made in his earlier study of the family, in which he’d argued that bourgeois notions of “affective kinship” had triumphed in part because those notions had been taken up by the traditional landed elite. This was the more familiar embourgeoisment of the aristocracy. Stone smiled at me and said, something like, “Well you can’t just keep saying the same thing. You read more, you do more research, you think more about it, and sometimes you have to change your mind.” One last story: In January 2012 I was on a panel at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago celebrating the career of Jim McPherson and in his talk he explained that when he began writing back in the 1960s he had absorbed the abolitionist criticism of Lincoln but that over the years he—like Stampp—had changed his mind and come to admire Lincoln for qualities that the abolitionists did not always appreciate. Stampp, Stone, and McPherson were all important influences on me, so it’s hardly surprising that in my own graduate teaching I find myself every once in a while pointing with dismay to this or that historian whose latest book suggested that, alas, they had been saying the same thing for decades. 

I really like what Oakes has to say here.  Historians must always strike a balance between trendiness and a willingness to respect the scholarship of the past.  Sometimes trendy new scholarly work helps us to better understand the past.  Sometimes it does not.  For example, Oakes wonders if African-American history today is any better than the stuff that John Hope Franklin and Benjamin Quarles wrote in the 1950s.

Historians must be open-minded and willing to change their views as they read more, conduct more research, and encounter new views of the past, but they also must be careful about embracing new theories and ideas simply for the purpose of being cutting edge or cool. 

Oakes concludes:

And so it goes. I try not to be overly committed to anything I’ve put into print. Print captures my thinking at the moment of publication. Sometimes all it takes is evidence, new or newly persuasive evidence, to get me to change my mind. At other times I become aware of dubious premises I had unconsciously assumed, and so back away. Occasionally I’m impressed by what Jürgen Habermas calls “the unforced force of the better argument.” And there’s always something new to learn. The more documents I read the more nuances I’m likely to notice in the next one I read. It’s like learning a language I didn’t even know existed. It’s hard to figure it out, but it’s also fun; serious, but joyful. It’s why I love what I do. Because every day the past seems just a little bit different to me than it seemed the day before.

What is Intellectual Humility?

Robert Roberts, an ethics professor at Baylor, explores this question at the newly designed Big Questions Online website.  I was attracted to this piece because I just finished writing about the virtue of humility, as it relates to the study of history, in my current book manuscript on historical thinking.  Here is a small taste of Roberts’s piece:

Intellectual humility will be a trait of our character when we care so much about knowing, understanding, and getting to the truth of some big question that we become oblivious of how we rank, of what we are “worth” vis-à-vis the other status-striving agents in our circle. The apostle Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and we might add that love of knowledge can build us up in humility.

Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open. The process requires that we be able to “listen,” either literally or figuratively, to what others say. If what they say shows them to be superior to us in knowledge, we will be hampered in our learning if our first reaction is to try to show that we know as much as they or more. The process also requires that we be corrigible, that we be open to the possibility that our opinions are in some way misguided. If, whenever our status as knowers is threatened by the specter of correction, we feel that we must prove ourselves to have been in the right, we will have closed off an avenue of knowledge and crippled ourselves as inquirers. It can be particularly galling, if one lacks intellectual humility, to be corrected in a public forum; and the galling can obstruct the process of learning.