Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!

The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

Loyalism in the Age of Revolutions (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School on Gurnee, IL is doing yeoman’s work from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is latest.  Enjoy!  (Read all of Matt’s posts here).  –JF

I wrote a research paper last semester on the ways in which evangelical women used religion to interpret and defend the American Revolution.  I included a section on Phillis Wheatley, but rather than rekindle the debate here over whether or not she was an evangelical, I’ll save that for my post on Saturday’s session, “Who is Evangelical?  Confronting Race in American Christianity.”  The original plan for my paper had been to include Loyalist women, whose evangelical faith led them to the opposite position, but space and time constraints forced me to narrow my focus to Patriots only.  Thus, I was thrilled to see two sessions titled “Loyalism in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions” on the agenda today at AHA19.  Both sessions were arranged by AHA President Mary Beth Norton.

I’d be remiss at this point to not put a plug in for my graduate program, which is offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in cooperation with Pace University.  The program offers K-12 history teachers, such as myself, the chance to earn an MA in American History online for a fraction of the cost of most graduate programs, and best of all, the lectures are all led by preeminent historians in their respective fields.  The professor of my course last semester on women and the American Revolution was none other than Carol Berkin, who chaired the second session today on new research.

Timothy Compeau started that session off with his paper “Retributive Justice? Loyalist Revenge and Honorable Manhood in the American Revolution.”  It offered a fascinating look at the ways in which Christian virtue and masculine honor culture were in conflict during the Revolutionary Era and how this acutely affected Loyalist men.  According to Compeau, these men provide an excellent window into studying that culture.  He pointed out how Patriots specifically attacked the manhood of Loyalist men, such as when Alexander Hamilton claimed that Samuel Seabury was impotent or when Thomas Paine wrote that Tories were unfit to be husbands or fathers.  He also explained how due to the war, Loyalist men were limited in the ways that they could respond to such questions of honor.  Many chose Christian responses of forgiveness and restraint, out of necessity if not desire.  But some did find ways to square the use of retributive violence with their Christian faith.  In the end, many Loyalist men were able to claim that their choice had been the more masculine one, as it took greater manhood than the Patriots had to suffer all the indignities that were forced upon them.  As Compeau succinctly put it, “by defending the Crown, loyal men gained nothing put honor.”

Elite, white, Loyalist women of the Delaware River Valley were the focus of Kacy Tillman’s paper and she brought up names that were familiar from my own research, such as Grace Growden Galloway and Elizabeth Drinker.  Tillman sought to parse some of the differences among such Loyalist women.  Some were what she called active Loyalists, others were passive Loyalists.  Some assumed the label while others had it attached to them.  And many of them were Loyalist by association, be it familial, religious, or both.  Tillman’s thesis was that all of these women faced violations of their bodies and their writings (“stripped and script,” as the title of her paper aptly put it) as a result of their Loyalism.  One of the things she noticed in her research was that one can learn just as much from what these women didn’t write than what they did.  Perhaps that’s why I had such difficultly using those sources for my own paper.  “It’s hard to read for silence,” Tillman said.  “But we have to be able to do so when reading the letters of Loyalist women.”

James Sidbury rounded out the session with some words of reassurance related to my own experience in researching Loyalists.  He started off his talk by defending the truism that history is often written by the winners, but then qualified that observation.  “There’s been a whole lot written about the Revolution,” he said.  “It’s inevitable that something is going to be written about [Loyalists].”  His paper focused on the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia who helped found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Those colonists, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, led an uprising against the company that ran the colony and attempted to create an autonomous enclave within the colony by using many of the Enlightenment ideals of rights and governance they had learned in Anglo-America.  As Sidbury’s talk made clear, despite the Nova Scotians’ embrace of some American ideals, the new United States explicitly excluded non-whites from political participation.  Thus, it makes sense that monarchical government still held much ideological appeal for Black Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Thanks again, Matt!

Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

Teaching History With Podcasts (#AHA19)

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I am happy to have Matt Lakemacher writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Matt is one of the most engaged middle school teachers I know.  He teaches at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, Illinois and is a veteran of numerous summer history seminars and institutes.  Here is his first dispatch:

Can podcasting help to stem the tide of declining enrollment in history departments?  For the panelists and audience members in an opening American Historical Association roundtable today on “History Podcasting as Graduate Students,” the answer was a resounding, if qualified, yes.  Producers and hosts from two historical podcasts, Sexing History and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, gave brief remarks on their experiences with history podcasting and then opened it up for audience members to share the ways that they’ve used podcasts in the classroom and with students.  In the end, it became clear that while podcasting (as well as blogging) might not be the silver bullet that saves history education, it can be another tool in the history teacher’s arsenal to make the subject relevant, keep students’ interest, and in jargon that all K-12 educators know their administrators want to hear: promote 21st century skills.

Two dual themes emerged from the panel: podcasting is good for history and history is good for podcasting.  Each panelist related in one way or another how working on a podcast actually improved their work as grad students and as historians.  According to Saniya Lee Ghanoui, podcasting with Sexing History taught her the importance of story-telling and has greatly improved her dissertation writing.  In a similar vein, Devin McGeehan Muchmore shared how blogging for Notches and working on Sexing History got him to think about ways of narrating the past outside of the traditional historical monograph or journal article.  And Drew Dyrli Hermeling credited his work on The Way of Improvement Leads Home with getting a job at the Digital Harrisburg Project. As a whole, the panel embraced the role that podcasting can play in public history – bringing the past to those outside of the academy (although it was conceded that podcasting is still very much a niche medium and can be somewhat of an echo chamber).  Ghanoui offered some advice to her fellow grad students: “It does take away time from your dissertation . . . but it’s a welcome distraction.”  She added, “I love how collaborative it is . . . it is worth it.”

Hermeling set the table for the audience discussion that followed and the pivot to history being good for podcasting, by sharing how he had students in his J-Term class on indigenous culture at Messiah College create a podcast as one option for a project assignment.  He, as well as the audience, made clear that audio quality and production values should not be heavily weighted on any rubric used for grading such an assignment.  But Hermeling was surprised by the quality of the research and sources that students used in their podcast.  “It’s a good way of tricking them into using a lot of citations.”  One audience member admitted that compared to other assignments, grading student podcasts was a pleasure.  Another said that Wisconsin Public Radio was looking to possibly use some of his students’ short pieces on the air.  And everyone who shared during the session had positive experiences doing a podcasting assignment in class, thought the students were engaged, and plan on doing them again.

So, can podcasting turn around sagging interest in history as a K-12 subject and as a major?  Perhaps the jury is still out.  But if it provides another way of getting students to apply historical thinking skills to a (relatively) new technology and opens another venue for bringing historical literacy to the public at large, then it’s an effort well worth pursuing.  As the roundtable’s chair and host of Sexing History Lauren Gutterman stated, “graduate students are at the forefront of history podcasting,” and for that this history teacher and fellow grad student is grateful.  Of course, as Hermeling put it in one final word of advice for potential history podcasters, “At the risk of being flippant, I’d go the Sexing History route.”