Why don’t white evangelicals vote for Democrats?

Historian Daniel Williams, in a thought-provoking piece at The Anxious Bench, asks:

Why have white evangelicals been so antipathetic to Democrats, even before their disagreements with Democrats over abortion or LGBT issues emerged?  And can anything ever convince them to support a Democratic presidential candidate?

And here is part of his answer:

I am convinced that as far as evangelicalism is concerned, there are deeply rooted theological and cultural reasons for white evangelicals’ rejection of the Democratic Party.  In other words, white evangelicals who vote Republican really are acting consistently with their own theological worldview, as can be seen in at least three areas where evangelical theology has clashed with liberal Protestantism and, by extension, with a Democratic Party that is today a largely secularized form of liberal Protestant theology.

Here are the three areas Williams identifies:

  1. White evangelical commitment to individualism means that they do not except political policies that address systemic or structure inequity.
  2. White evangelicals are suspicious of the state.
  3. White evangelicals do not view inequality as a social problem

I totally agree with Williams’s assessment here.

But then, if I read him correctly, Williams suggests that the “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” movement embodies these ideals as well.

He writes:

Trump, they argue, is not a moral leader for the nation.  His racially charged rhetoric is dividing the church and making Christian racial reconciliation more difficult.  While the website for Pro-Life Evangelicals does note some areas in which pro-life Christians should support the policies of the Democratic Party (except, of course, on abortion), the explanations given by leading evangelical pastors as to why they joined the group focus much more on familiar evangelical arguments about individual character than on policy proposals.  “I’ve never seen someone so divisive and accusatory,” Joel Hunter, who voted for Trump in 2016 and now regrets it, declared. “We’re becoming divided and angry, and it’s the opposite of pro-life.”

In other words, the argument of many members of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden is that in a world of imperfect political choices, the Democratic presidential nominee this time around would be better than the Republican incumbent for the cause of the gospel.  Whether a majority of white evangelical voters will accept this argument and vote Democratic is highly doubtful.  But even if they don’t, it’s hard to imagine an argument that has a greater claim to being authentically evangelical.  If any argument could conceivably convince white evangelicals who genuinely believe in their own theological tradition to consider breaking with the Republican Party in this election, an argument about individual moral leadership and the cause of the gospel is the one that should.

This is a fair critique of the statement on the Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden website, but I am not sure it accurately describes the positions of the men and women who signed this statement.

  1. I don’t know the policy positions of all of the signers, but John Perkins, Ron Sider, and Richard Mouw certainly believe in systemic injustice.
  2. I don’t think any of the signers of the statement are suspicious of the state.
  3. I would imagine everyone who signed this statement believes that inequality is a social problem.

Read Williams’s entire piece here.

What COVID-19 exposed about the United States

Corona Healthcare

All of these points come from Ed Yong’s recent piece at The Atlantic: “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”

  • We under-fund public health.
  • Our health-care system is weak.
  • Too much of what we do spend on healthcare is wasted.
  • We have not dealt sufficiently with systemic racism.
  • Our attempts to shred our nation’s social safety net has failed us
  • Social media is destroying us.
  • We are a nation of anti-intellectuals who do not believe in expertise.
  • The media only enhances our anti-intellectualism, rejection of expertise, and belief in conspiracy theories.
  • Individualism has its limits.
  • Our country lacks leadership, especially in the White House.
  • Our president lies to us.
  • Politics is more important than truth.
  • We don’t believe in climate change.
  • We don’t care about the natural habitats of animals.
  • We are xenophobes.
  • We fail to heed warnings.
  • Our prisons are overcrowded.
  • Our nursing homes are woefully understaffed.
  • We view health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.
  • 20th century advances in medicine have made us complacent in the 21st century.
  • We treat the elderly as “acceptable losses.”
  • We treat people with intellectual disabilities and dementia as second-class citizens.
  • There are Americans who ignore the government and follow science.
  • Our failure to cultivate strong international alliance has failed us.

Read the Yong’s piece here.

Citizenship is More Than Just the Facts We Learned in Civics Class

Citizenship

History News Network is running my piece on history and citizenship.  Here is a taste:

Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within  civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs. 

Read the entire piece here.

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Trump and “Expressive Individualism”


Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

Some good analysis here by Ronald E. Osborn:

In a 2011 article in First Things, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart pondered why so many literary depictions of the devil present him as attractive, witty, stylish and debonair. If there is a devil, Hart ventured, he is a thug and a bore, “probably a monomaniac who talks about nothing but his personal grievances and aims, and in the bluntest, most unrefined language imaginable—the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party.”

Hart recalled a legal case from 1993 in which a poor, elderly New Jersey woman, Vera Coking, fought to keep her home while a ruthless developer used all his power to have the land seized by eminent domain so he could buy it at a discount and turn it into a limousine parking lot for one of his Atlantic City casinos. Hart then offered the following verdict on that developer and on the nature of the diabolical: “Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.”

Osborne continues:

Conservatives have long decried the relaxing of sexual ethics and the loss of codes of etiquette as markers of liberalism’s moral impoverishment and as political perils to Western civilization. Yet with the rise of Trumpism, they are themselves now deeply and irreversibly implicated in the expressivist turn. All of the old pieties, it turns out, are completely fungible for most conservatives as well. Basic principles of rationality, truth-telling, civility, decency and restraint have been laid waste by the reality television star’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and ascent to the White House on a tsunami of emotive tweets and hyperbolic promises of “better deals.” Yet an astonishing number of Americans, abandoning their own earlier proclamations of the necessity of virtuous character for wise and just political leadership, now cheer the unraveling—and the cruelty.

Read the entire piece at America.

W.H. Auden on Catholicism and Protestantism

Auden

W.H. Auden

Here is another Protestant Reformation post.  This one is stolen from Alan Jacobs’s blog Snakes and Ladders.  What follows is a quote Jacobs posted today from Auden‘s review of Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther:

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

Is Freedom a Biblical Concept?

Liberty

Earlier today I posted a piece from Rod Dreher’s blog about patriotic worship.  At the end of the piece I was struck by Dreher’s “update” in which he published a message he received from one of his readers.  Here it is:

“Freedom” is not a Bible concept. Nowhere are we exhorted to throw off oppression and liberate ourselves. To the contrary, the Jews were under real oppression at the time of Christ, and he told them to pay taxes to Caesar and obey a soldier’s command to carry his pack. There were many revolutionary bands at the time, men who could not bear the Roman oppression who were determined to fight for independence. And Jesus never supported them or their cause. He really did have no kingdom in this world. The Apostles failed to get this so consistently that even at the Ascension they asked, “Will you at this time restore the fortunes of Israel?” He didn’t. He had no stake in whether Israel was enslaved or free.

This huge emotional connection between throwing off the British yoke, and being grateful for our beautiful country, all there is to legitimately celebrate and express thanks to God for–between that, and the core teaching and message of Christianity, is false.

“Freedom” is not a Biblical concept, but it’s a capitalist concept–it keeps us “free” to choose teal or autumn gold, leather or aluminum, etc, all those tiny forced choices that really are no choice, as Matthew Crawford says. But it feels “free,” and we enjoy the choosing so much, that we emotionally link it with our faith. Bah humbug.

Interesting.  There were many Loyalists in America during the age of the American Revolution who made a similar arguments.

Don’t get me wrong, I think freedom, and particularly religious freedom, can be rooted in a Christian view of human dignity.  But when I hear my fellow evangelicals talk about “religious freedom” it often sounds like a baptized version of American individualism. Rights and freedoms must always be understood in relationship to the common good. Yet many evangelicals understand religious liberty solely in terms of protection against the potential of government interference with their right to make political statements from the pulpit.  True religious “freedom” also comes with duty, service, and care for others and the creation.  I know many evangelicals believe this, but how come they never frame things this way?

Thoughts on this?

A Religious Case for Opposing Religious Liberty?

Fractured RepublicAfter reading Darryl Hart’s post on Yuval Levin‘s views on religious liberty I have placed Levin’s book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism on my reading list.

Here is a taste of Hart’s post:

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Read the rest here.

"Why Study History" on Mars Hill Audio

The new Mars Hill Audio Journal is out.  In the opening interview, I chat with host Ken Myers about the relationship between individualism and the study of history.  

Here is the synopsis:

Guests on Volume 124: John Fea, on how American individualism fuels indifference to the study of history, and how K-12 education can counter that apathy; Robert F. Rea, on how engagement with Church history deepens our faith and enriches our capacity as faithful servants; John C. Pinheiro, on how anti-Catholic prejudice in mid-nineteenth-century America was intertwined with beliefs about the virtues of Republicanism, “Manifest Destiny,” and the Mexican-American War; R. J. Snell, on how newer ideas about natural law focus less on moral propositions and concepts and more on the thrust for meaning and value; Duncan G. Stroik, on how architectural styles function as languages that speak to us and enable buildings to speak to each other; Kate Tamarkin and Fiona Hughes, on the healing power of music.

The Right to be Unlimited

Andrew Bacevich reviews George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University.  Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

According to Bacevich, Packer’s book examines “what happens to a society that privileges unencumbered individual autonomy over all other values?”  Here is a taste of the review:

Surveying the last several decades of life in the United States, the author recounts the demise of what Packer calls the Roosevelt Republic, the arrangements dating from the New Deal and World War II that had provided the foundation for the postwar era. However imperfectly, those arrangements had benefited ordinary Americans, most notably in the realm of economic life. A steady job that paid enough for your average working stiff to buy a house and raise a family—this defined the signature of the Roosevelt Republic. As long as the norms governing that republic prevailed, the leaders of basic institutions, public and private alike, displayed a modicum of responsibility and self-restraint. It wasn’t utopia, but for tens of millions of beneficiaries, it wasn’t half bad.

Those norms have now collapsed, the resulting void being filled by a predatory combine of Big Money partnering with Big Government, with doleful consequences for society as a whole. To illustrate those consequences, Packer charts in sympathetic detail the struggles of ordinary people hammered by bewildering economic upheaval, social dislocation and moral anomie. His principal protagonists—a single mom in a dying Rust Belt city determined to do right by her kids, the son of a tobacco grower vainly pursuing up-by-your-own-bootstraps dreams of entrepreneurial success, a college kid fired by a determination to redeem politics who ends up a self-loathing K Street lobbyist, a newspaper reporter clinging to the belief that blowing the whistle on wrongdoers ought to generate outrage and action—demonstrate a sort of stubborn gallantry. But faced with a system rigged in favor of those who already wield the power and have the money, their heroics prove futile.

Interspersed in this bleak chronicle are shorter profiles of those who preside over and sustain the new order. Although Packer adds little to what we already know about these figures—among them, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin and Oprah Winfrey—his account affirms the mediocrity, shallowness and mendacity of what passes today for an American elite. Once admitted to its ranks, members of this elite play by a different set of rules. “The establishment,” writes Packer, “could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino.” To the game’s beneficiaries, the rules—and the protective provisos they enshrine—make perfect sense.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

Lasch-Quinn

Lasch-Quinn describe her latest visit to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University Of Virginia, an institute run by James Davison Hunter.

But what makes IASC stand out so much for me, what makes it so distinctive, is its conscious guarding against much of what have been the dominant trends of modern academe as well as the larger intellectual climate of our times. To allude to just a few, these trends have included a kind of cv-oriented careerism, an unquestioned assumption that what academic life is about at its root is individual advancement and success conceived of in the narrowest possible terms of the present age, a partitioning of the pursuit of learning into separate fiefdoms with their own small-minded gatekeepers, an emphasis on quantity over quality, the abandonment of the humanistic and democratic aims of education for upscale vocational training for the privileged classes, stultifying bureaucratization and overweening administration, carelessness about style and form, forgetfulness about the public trust, the replacement of the contemplative and the search for meaning and excellence with the functional imperative and profit-seeking, posturing and back-biting in pursuit of personal status rather than collective engagement toward shared purposes, the bracketing of ethical or so-called “normative” concerns–once considered at the very heart of scholarship, teaching, and learning. 

Read the entire piece at U.S. Intellectual History blog.

Was William Penn a Self-Made Man?

Jim Cullen continues blogging his series on the rise and fall of the “self-made man” in American culture.  Yesterday’s entry was on William Penn.

Cullen argues that Penn was a bit of paradox.  He was a champion of Quaker equality, but never rid himself of his upbringing in the English aristocracy.  Nevertheless, the success of Pennsylvania, a society based on equality and freedom, was the product of his dogged determination to model the colony on Quaker principles.  The result was a colony that was unique among the provinces of British-America.

Here is a taste:

Part of Penn’s problems stemmed from a seeming contradiction that probably appears a lot more glaring to us than it did him and many of his contemporaries: he was a Quaker aristocrat. Though he embraced many of the egalitarian tenets of his faith, Penn always acted with the serene confidence of a member of a small national elite, and expected others to recognize him as such. Regarding other people as spiritual equals did not necessarily mean you regard them as a social equals, and even if you do regard them as social equals, that doesn’t necessarily mean you regard them as a political or economicones. Quakers were not communists, especially as they grew more prosperous, and while many opposed slavery, for example, it’s also clear that many did not. (Slavery didn’t even begin to become illegal in Pennsylvania until 1780, on a basis of gradual abolition.) Notions of equality are always relative. 

That said, Penn never seemed to realize that a substantial and growing number of his fellow Quakers had a wider and deeper notion of equality than he did. He was surprised and hurt when they did not simply passively accept his leadership – or in many cases actively rejected it, as when they refused to pay taxes to defray the costs of his colonial experiment. Penn’s heirs (he had eight children with two wives over the course of his long life) proved less interested than he was in Quakerism. In the decades before the American Revolution the omnipresent Benjamin Franklin took the lead in resisting what many residents regarded as the family’s high-handedness. 

And yet for all this, Pennsylvania was a fabulous success. Penn’s decision to make his colony a uniquely open place made it the magnet he hoped it would be, and though it was the penultimate of the 13 colonies to be founded (Georgia came along in 1732) it was among the largest in population by the time of the Revolution. He had been dealt a very good card in its access to the Delaware Bay, which he exploited in personally laying out the broad avenues for the city of Philadelphia, which became the biggest city in America by the time of the Revolution, second only in the Anglo world to London. After the Revolution, the state became the linchpin of the nation, a major source of its agricultural productivity and industrial prowess.

 It would be inaccurate to say that William Penn single-handedly brought this about – for one thing, he was the product of a religious culture that profoundly shaped his choices. But few individuals have acted in ways that have had more profound and durable consequences. In an evocative 1983 essay Edmund Morgan summed up his life: “He made his mark because what he wanted and argued for, pleaded for, almost fought for was not quite outside the possible. He left his mark because he knew how he world worked and was prepared, in spite of its denunciations, to work within its terms.” [147] Penn chose an identity, and with it he fashioned a world.

Roger Williams: Self-Made Man

At some point I hope the Christian Century will publish my review of Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.  But if you cannot wait that long for a Williams fix, I would encourage you to check out Jim Cullen’s post: “Tolerating Roger Williams.”  Cullen writes about Williams as part of his ongoing American History Now blog series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.  Here is a taste:

He founded – and in a half-century as a tireless administrator, solidified and protected – Rhode Island as a haven of tolerance. It’s important to make clear, however, that this was simply a means to an end: Williams wanted the right to worship as he (and he alone, as he refused to pray even with his wife) saw fit. He did help establish the first Baptist church in America, but his solitary spirit – what he himself described as “the restless unsatisfiedness of my soul” (Gausted 182) – a quickly asserted itself and he left it. Williams has long been recognized for his unusually good relationships with Native Americans, in part because he learned their language and bargained with them in good faith. But at some level he was comfortable with Indians because in their paganism they posed no risk of Christian hypocrisy. Figuratively speaking, he belonged to a congregation of one.

The Founding Fathers, Barack Obama, and “Taking Care of Our Own”

 

Here’s a piece that I wrote after Obama’s acceptance speech last Thursday night.  We were not able to place it as an op-ed (still trying), so I have posted it here.  –JF
The Founding Fathers would have been proud of Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night in Charlotte.  Ever since the Chicago-based community organizer broke onto the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with his famous “Red State, Blue State” address, he has been preaching a message of civic responsibility that reflects the political vision of the American founding.
As Obama accepted his party’s nomination for the President of the United States, and reminded the American people of the accomplishments of his first term, he did not let us forget about the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Obama was right when he said that “citizenship” is a “word at the heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.”
The Founding Fathers knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good.  Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship can sound foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”
If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic:  “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”  Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society.
Barack Obama’s speech, drawing upon this older American tradition of civic humanism, was a stark contrast to the vision of America that the Republican Party put forth at their convention in Tampa. The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but Obama, echoing the Founders, made it clear that a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.
The Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream that we heard during the GOP convention fails to recognize that we are not autonomous individuals.  Citizenship requires a long view–an understanding that we have been shaped by the circumstances of the past, we have obligations to each other in the present, and, to quote Obama, we are responsible to “future generations.”
Of course the GOP rhetoric of individualism will appeal to people who do not like government intervention or the idea that they must sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness to the common good. But such a view of America would look foreign to our Founding Fathers.
As Obama finished his speech on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” began to blare through the sound system of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.  The song is a republican anthem.  It provided a perfect exclamation point to Obama’s speech.  I am not sure what the Founding Fathers would have thought about Springsteen’s music, but they could certainly relate to the stirring chorus: “We take care of our own/We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own.”
 

This Week’s Anxious Bench Post at Patheos: "Finding Hope at a Middle School Graduation Ceremony"

My daughter graduated from eighth grade tonight.  I was very proud of her.  As the president of her middle school’s student council she had the opportunity to address the audience and introduce the evening’s festivities.

After a few inspirational charges from school administrators, much of my evening was spent, as is the case with most of the graduation ceremonies I have attended, watching the members of my daughter’s class parade across the stage and receive a piece of paper akin to a diploma.  Such an exercise requires patience.

As each student’s name was read, teachers and guidance counselors said a few things by way of biography. For example: “Mary’s favorite thing about middle school was playing in the orchestra.  She wants to get good grades in high school and get accepted to a good college.”  Listening to the reading of these biographies (which as far as I could tell were written by the students)  helped me pass the time, but also provided a very telling glimpse of the goals, dreams, and aspirations of my daughter’s classmates.

Read the rest here.

What Do Our Bathrooms Tell Us About Amercian Culture?

Philip Bess teaches in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and is the author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the SacredCrisis Magazine is running an excerpt from this book in which Bess reflects on multi-bathroom homes, suburbia, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, and Tocqueville.  Here is just a small taste:

Bigger and more luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms seem to me just one physical manifestation of that shrinkage of the public realm happening reciprocally and in tandem with America’s true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self. Like the decline of the street and square as active public spaces—and the demise of the alley, the ubiquity of the driveway, the transformation of the garage door into the front door, the demise of uninterrupted curbs on residential blocks, the relocation of domestic life to yards and family rooms at the rear of the house, and the creation of complex suburban roofs apparently intended to simulate small villages—the growing number and importance of domestic bathrooms and bedroom suites indicates yet another way we materialize in our built environment our culture’s turn from the civic to the private.

This turn to the private would have dismayed but not surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, Tocqueville recognized individualism as a peculiarly democratic proclivity. His 1840 characterization of individualism (“a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to . . . draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself”) goes far toward describing a social reality that has taken physical form in the American suburb.

Johan Neem on the "Individualist Fallacy" of Online Education

I have never met Johann Neem, but I really like his work.  I refer regularly to an essay he wrote a few years ago on Thomas Jefferson’s famous Danbury Letter and I have learned a great deal from his book Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

In today’s Inside Higher Ed, Neem argues that online education ignores the role that institutional culture and the face-to-face classroom instruction plays in the way students learn.  He writes:

There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.

Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students…

There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.

Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.

Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.

The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts. 

Read the rest here.