The Author’s Corner with Niels Eichhorn

liberty and slaveryNiels Eichhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Liberty and Slavery?

NE: The project started in my freshman year in college when I took a Civil War history class (senior-level class), where I became interested in German-U.S. relations. I was especially curious about Rudolph Schleiden, Bremen’s diplomatic representative in the United States. Schleiden, a former 1848 revolutionary, who had tried in April 1861 with a visit to Alexander Stephens in Richmond to stop the war, seemed to have a unique story to tell. I wanted to know more about him. As I continued in graduate school, I expanded to include other Schleswig-Holstein revolutionaries of 1848 and how they translated their experiences from Europe to the United States. Aware that this was still a narrow subject matter, I went even larger and decided to also include Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, who shared a similar set of arguments about political and national oppression with the U.S. South. All four of these migrant groups had important leaders involved politically or militarily in the U.S. Civil War. Born was Liberty and Slavery, European revolutionaries facing southern secession.

JF: In three sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Liberty and Slavery illustrates that separatism was a universal experience across the Atlantic World during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the various movements intellectually and personally influenced each other. European separatists who had feared political or national enslavement in Europe frequently looked to a southern minority forcing its will on, enslaving, the United States, whereas the vast majority of European migrants supported the Union against an aristocratic-looking minority intend on destroying or at least dominating the United States, eliminating the beacon many European separatists had looked to for help and inspiration during their own rebellions. Their European background and interpretation of the sectional struggle influenced their decision to side with Union or Confederacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Because it is a really important book … humor aside, Liberty and Slavery illustrates that residence alone did not determine allegiance. Only because Hungarians resided in the North did not mean they automatically sympathized with the United States. The book aims to illustrate the complexities of the ideological baggage migrants brought with them to the United States, especially revolutionaries, and their difficulty of translating their arguments and experiences into the United States. Furthermore, while the Irish are a relatively well-known group fighting in the Civil War, the Hungarians and Polish are much less familiar. The book has a heavy dose of European history in the first two chapters because scholarship of 1848 revolutionaries in the United States often overlooks the background these revolutionary migrants bring with them, their language and experiences, creating the perception that they are Union-loving, liberty-embracing anti-slavery advocates when they get off the boat. It was not that simple. Liberty and Slavery illustrates the complexities of nationalism and the construction of identity, especially when in a foreign country.

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

NE: Well, there are some out there who have openly wondered if I am actually a U.S. historian, I do think so, even if my approach is rather unique. The first spark came when my VHS recorder gave out on the last hour of Gettysburg–I had school the next day and could not stay up until midnight. It was incredibly tough finding any literature about the U.S. Civil War in German bookstores. That is where I started to read about U.S. history, mostly books brought home from vacations in the United States. The decision to pursue history professionally, came in my freshmen history class when I realized that German-U.S. relations had no literature. Thus I went from military history-interested to diplomatic history to transnational history.

JF: What is your next project?

NE: The difficulty here is that Liberty and Slavery has two concurrent projects. While working on this book, I have also been working with my friend and colleague Duncan Campbell at National University in San Diego on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, the first-ever study placing the Civil War in a global context. I also have forthcoming later this year The Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century (Palgrave), which takes a broad look at the Atlantic region and how people, ideas, commodities, and money continued to crisscross the Atlantic during the nineteenth century and how that helped to create a coherent and vibrant Atlantic community. These three were concurrent projects. About two months ago, I asked myself the same question you asked, what next. I am/was torn between two projects that really interest me going forward: a nineteenth-century history of the South to illustrate continuities within the region or my long thought about work on Civil War diplomacy. I have opted for the latter for the moment since I have most of the research in hand, but as I am going through the thousands of microfilm scans and archival-material photographs, I am not sure where this project will lead yet.

JF: Thanks, Niels!

Is the United States of America in the Bible?

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Short answer: NO.

Bible scholar Pete Enns explains:

America is not in the Bible.

In no way, shape, or form.

Not a hint. Not a whiff.

America is not in the Bible, not even here:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

This verse gets cited a lot in American politics. But “my people” refers to the people of Judah, the survivors of the 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile, who have returned to their homeland and are humbly seeking God to rejuvenate their kingdom.

This passage has nothing to do with America or any political entity other than the ancient theocracy of Judah.

It is not proof of God’s stamp of approval on our political actions, no matter how many speeches end with “God bless the United States of America.”

It cannot leap over the millennia and simply be mapped onto American democracy.

It is not a blueprint for how to ensure that God will “Make America Great Again.”

It is not justification for privileged Evangelicals to impose their moral vision through political means.

It is not an invitation to perpetuate tribal thinking and see ourselves as closer to God than, say, Canada or Mexico.

If anyone wants to bring this passage into the present, let it be on the level of their own lives and the life of their church (if I may restrict my comments to the Christian tradition).

See this passage as a call for followers of Jesus and public Christian leaders to be humble, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from their wicked ways. Let it be, in other words, a call to inner spiritual transformation.

When that inner work is taken to heart, it will be hard indeed to see how anyone could ever countenance thinking that the Infinite Creator of the infinite cosmos could be pinning the divine hope on one small landmass in the western hemisphere that decides to write itself into an ancient Jewish story.

Read the rest here.

Is There a Relationship Between Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy?

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Two reporters contacted me this week to talk about Christian nationalism and the shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  I told both of them that Christian nationalism does not necessarily have to result in white supremacy.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, much of the civil rights movement and the social gospel movement believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  The abolitionists and social reformers of 19th century believed that the United States was a Christian nation.  (Of course their understanding what it means to be a “Christian nation” looked very different from the current manifestation of Christian nationalism espoused by the Christian Right).  It is also true that throughout American history Christian nationalism fueled white supremacist groups such as the KKK and the Confederacy.

The first reporter I engaged was Carol Kuruvilla of HuffPost.  Here is a taste of her piece, “How a Nationalist Strain of Christianity Is Subtly Shaping America’s Gun Debate“:

“For Christian nationalists, human attempts to fix social problems (like gun control legislation) without addressing the underlying ‘moral decline’ of the nation are misguided and an affront to the Christian God,” [Clemson sociologist Andrew] Whitehead said. 

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College who studies Christian nationalism, said that this belief is evident in how some of Trump’s top evangelical advisors responded to the recent mass shootings. 

Pastor Greg Laurie, who leads the evangelical Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and Pastor Jack Graham, of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, taped an Instagram video on Sunday where they talked about how “something bigger” was at play: Rather than blame the availability of guns, the pastors claim that what happened in Dayton and El Paso was the result of a “spiritual battle.”

“The Bible tells us that the final hours of human history, that perilous times will come, difficult, dangerous times will come,” Graham said in the video. “Not to minimize what’s happened, because it’s a tragedy … But we need to remember that ultimately, it’s a spiritual solution. We can’t politicize this.” 

“Many evangelicals, not just Christian nationalists, indeed believe that the *real* problem is a spiritual one. In order to solve the gun problem in America we must evangelize more,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “By saying that ‘we can’t politicize’ this, [Laurie] and Graham are sending a message to their followers that gun control will not help these problems.”

And my conclusion:

“I cannot think of anything that would make them open to gun control measures,” he wrote. Christian nationalists believe “these are rights that are ENSHRINED in the Constitution by God.”

Read the entire piece here.

And here is a taste of Micah Danney’s piece at Religion Unplugged: “What is Christian Nationalism? Shootings Spark Renewed Debate“:

If the debate about what Christian nationalism is, or whether it exists, inevitably leads to the intent of the country’s founding, history doesn’t uncomplicate things. John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, wrote the book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

“It’s a complicated question, but largely it’s a very hard case to make that the founding fathers of this country wanted to privilege Christianity over all other religions,” Fea said.

Demographically, Christianity certainly was dominant well into the 19th century, and it did shape the culture, he said. It is still the largest religion. Yet legal bulwarks against its codification in public life were part of the nation’s founding. The First Amendment is clear that there is to be no established religion, and Article 5 of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for those serving in government. 

Richard Gamble, a historian at Hillsdale College, said opposing views of Christianity’s role in public life actually share a key characteristic. “Both sides of the debate have understandings of Christianity that are very politicized,” he said.

What used to be a debate about how churches engage in politics has given way to a broad consensus that churches must take an active role in society. Historically, there was a louder argument for staying focused on maintaining religious traditions. 

Read the entire piece here.

The Endorsers of “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” Speak Out

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Many of you are familiar with “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” I signed the statement and wrote about it here and here.

Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz calls our attention to a podcast in which some of the endorsers of the statement talk about their opposition to Christian nationalism.  Here is a taste of Chris’s post:

But if any readers are skeptical about the statement, I’d encourage them first to read signer John Fea’s response to such concerns — and then to check out a new series of podcasts on Christian nationalism from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In the first episode, BJC director and statement organizer Amanda Tyler alludes to “some troubling signs that Christian nationalism may be stuck at high tide.” While she’s bothered by violent attacks on individuals and houses of worship, she warns that “Christian nationalism also reveals itself in less dramatic ways” — e.g., as bills in state legislatures that would require biblical literacy courses in public schools and post the statement “In God we trust” in such public spaces. The Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative, she explains, “is not in response to any one of these incidents, but rather as a way to counter what we view and perceive as a growing threat.”

In the remainder of that first episode, listeners hear from five of the initial twenty endorsers of the statement. It struck me that most of them not only talked about current events, but appealed to religious history. In different ways, all drew on their particular Christian movements’ historical experiences as religious minorities who learned that “[c]onflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.”

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with David Dzurec

DzurecDavid J. Dzurec is Chair and Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton  This interview is based on his new book Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThis project began when I came across the captivity narrative of Revolutionary prisoner of war John Dodge.  Initially I had planned to write about the experience of captivity during the American Revolution, but as my researched progressed it became clear to me that the impact of these Revolutionary captivity narratives stretched well beyond the 1780s and ultimately played a role in shaping American politics and culture in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  In addition to expanding chronologically, my research also broadened geographically ultimately including narratives from captive Americans in both Africa and Europe.  In examining these narratives, I was struck by how stories of captivity, even at a great distance, still had an impact on the politics and culture of the early United States.  It was an attempt to understand what role these stories played in shaping American political culture that led me to write this book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThe threat of foreign captivity in the decades following Independence simultaneously served to bring the American people together in defense of their fellow countrymen while dividing them along partisan lines.  Ultimately, the efforts of both Federalists and Republicans to claim the mantle of defender of American liberty abroad, while playing on fears of American insecurity, helped to create a language of American nationalism that would define American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Our Suffering Brethren?

DD: American nationalism (and nationalism more broadly) is often associated with bellicosity and empire.  Our Suffering Brethren demonstrates how the roots of American nationalism and the political culture that goes with it, sprang from a profound sense of insecurity in the early existence of the United States.  While a number of historians have examined how Cold War fears of the Soviet threat shaped American political culture in the 20th Century, I demonstrate that the exploitation of American insecurity abroad was present in the earliest days of American politics—and that it was employed across the political spectrum to advance political agendas.

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

DD: While there wasn’t one “aha” moment, I have been fortunate to have a number of great history teachers over the years who have helped me to develop a love of both the subject and the process of historical research.  The first “research paper” I ever wrote was on Thomas Jefferson when I was in fifth grade.  Thirty years later, I’m still essentially researching the same thing.  My high school history teacher, Mr. Cowan, brought an irreverence and energy to the study of the past that was infectious and inspired me to become a history major when I went off to college.  As both an undergraduate and graduate student I was fortunate to work with outstanding faculty who helped me become the historian I am today.

JF: What is your next project?

DD: Growing out of the research for this book, I’ve become interested in how the Federalists dealt with not only losing political power, but how they responded to the ultimate collapse of their party.  I’ve made an initial foray into this topic with my article “Of Salt Mountains, Prairie Dogs, and Horned Frogs: The Louisiana Purchase and the Evolution of the Federalist Party 1803-1812” and I’m excited to see where this project goes. 

JF: Thanks, David!

Jill Lepore’s “New Americanism”

These TruthsHarvard’s Jill Lepore is calling for a new national history in a piece at Foreign Affairs.  I am assuming much of this piece draws from her most recent book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste of “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation…. 

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism. 

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?…

“The history of the United States at the present time does not seek to answer any significant questions,” Degler told his audience some three decades ago. If American historians don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will, he warned. They’ll echo Calhoun and Douglas and Father Coughlin. They’ll lament “American carnage.” They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other states “shithole countries.” They’ll adopt the slogan “America first.” They’ll say they can “make America great again.” They’ll call themselves “nationalists.” Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

Read the entire piece here.  I find myself largely in agreement with Lepore, although I still need to read her book.  (It’s sitting on my nightstand as I type!)

Do We Need More Nationalism?

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Yoram Hazony, the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and the author of The Virtue of Nationalism, believes that we do.

Here is a taste of his piece at Time:

 

Today, we hear the sloppy, misconceived term “white nationalism” more often than we hear about American nationalism. And whenever the term nationalism is raised, it is often quickly conflated with racism. For instance, at an Oct. 23 rally, President Donald Trump declared that he was a nationalist. He used the term in contrast with globalist, who he called “a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much.” Many commentators quickly deplored the President’s statement as a dog-whistle admission that he truly supports “white nationalism,” once again suppressing legitimate debate over the value of American nationalism, while insisting that racialist “white nationalism” is what we really should be talking about.

This is a problem. Because it’s American nationalism that the U.S. needs right now. Never in our lifetimes have we seen America’s various tribes so divided, so intolerant of one another, so quick to delegitimize and even threaten violence. The mutual loyalty that has bound Americans together as a nation seems like it is disappearing. The bitter argument over ongoing large-scale immigration is only a proxy for this deeper issue: Can Americans ever unite again around a shared national story? Can they ever see themselves as brothers again?

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Benjamin Park

51IvPjLeQNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBenjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his new book, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write American Nationalisms?

BP: As I was beginning my graduate education in 2010, I was struck by how the Tea Party appropriated ideas of the nation in their attempt to “take back” the country. I became interested in dissecting how conceptions of a national body fed into political action and partisan movements. American Nationalisms was my chance to trace how national imaginations and parochial conflicts were tethered together since the country’s founding.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Nationalisms?

BP: Today we assume that the term “nation” is directly correlated to a federal government, but that has not always been the case. American Nationalisms demonstrates how the first five decades of our country’s existence witnessed a plethora of competing forms of “national” definitions—including regional, ethnic, and religious bodies—that in turn drew from both local contexts and transnational debates.

JF: Why do we need to read American Nationalisms?

BP: We like to think that, in moments of cultural division, our national values can hold us together, that the very notion that we’re all American can bridge unfathomable chasms. Yet my book shows that the very definition of what our “nation” means, let alone what our national values include, have been contested ever since our political independence from Britain. How we define “America,” and even how we define one’s national belonging, reveals a lot about our own biases, interests, and priorities. Our very understanding of togetherness, then, is itself a tool for division.

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

BP: I was raised in the Mormon faith and, as a college student, became interested in my religion’s past. My interest in Mormon history, however, soon became a Pandora’s Box as I then became fascinated with religious history writ large and, eventually, American history in general. Along the way, I had a series of teachers who demonstrated that a proper understanding of the past can help us better understand the present.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I am currently working on a history of the Mormon city of Nauvoo, an 1840s settlement on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River that featured 20,000 converts, bloc voting, clandestine polygamous arrangements, and secret political bodies. I aim to use the story as a microcosm of democratic angst during the antebellum period, as Americans feared the nation’s commitment to self-rule left them vulnerable to cultural oppression. The book is under contract with W. W. Norton/Liveright, and a full manuscript is due in November. I offer more of an overview here.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

 

 

Did Robert E. Lee *Really* Put State Over Country?

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Caleb McDaniel of Rice University takes on the John Kelly’s Civil War comments from a different angle. Most historians writing for the public have focused on Kelly’s suggestion that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”  McDaniel addresses Kelly’s claim that Robert E. Lee “was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important country.”

As McDaniel writes in his recent piece at The Atlantic:

Kelly’s comments reflect a widespread misunderstanding of the power of nationalism in the antebellum era and the ways that loyalty to nation, rather than to state, had served slaveholders’ interests before the war. The notion that state loyalty was “always” stronger is a popular, if simplistic, interpretation of the conflict’s roots—one that’s been reinforced by Hollywood films, monuments to the Confederacy, and documentaries like Ken Burns’s Civil War.

He adds:

The truth is that Lee and his fellow slaveholders were ardent nationalists in the decades leading up to the Civil War, as the Princeton historian Matthew Karp described in his recent book This Vast Southern Empire. And no wonder: For most of its history, the nation had usually protected and served the interests of slaveholders. 

Read the entire piece here.

More “Good Feelings”

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Last week we did a few posts on Sara Georgini’s series at the U.S. Intellectual History blog on “The Era of Good Feelings.”  Today we call your attention to Erick Trickey’s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

Monroe won the 1816 election in a landslide and developed a plan to, in his words, “prevent the re-organization and revival of the federal party” and “exterminate all party divisions in our country.” His motives were mixed. Like Washington, he believed that political parties were unnecessary to good government, but he was also furious at the wartime Federalist secessionist movement. He froze out the Federalists, gave them no patronage, and didn’t even acknowledge them as members of a party. But publicly, Monroe made no partisan comments, instead appealing to all Americans on the basis of patriotism. “Discord does not belong to our system,” he declared in his inaugural address. “Harmony among Americans… will be the object of my constant and zealous attentions.”

 

Emulating Washington’s tours of the nation as president, Monroe set out on his first goodwill tour on June 1, 1817. He spent all summer touring the nation, traveling by steamboat and carriage and on horseback. Like politicians today, he shook hands with aging veterans and kissed little kids. He toured farms, hobnobbed with welcoming committees, and patiently endured endless speeches by local judges.

Boston was the biggest test of Monroe’s goodwill. Massachusetts was the nation’s citadel of Federalism, and it had voted for Monroe’s opponent, Rufus King, in 1816. But Boston seized the chance for reconciliation, greeting Monroe with boys clothed in mini-versions of Revolutionary attire and 2,000 girls in white dresses, decorated with either white or red roses, to symbolize the reconciliation of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

The night of his victorious appearance on Boston Common, Monroe attended a dinner hosted by Massachusetts Governor John Brooks. To his surprise, other guests included John Adams, the Federalist ex-president, and Timothy Pickering, the former Federalist secretary of state who had recalled Monroe from his diplomatic post in Paris in 1796. “People now meet in the same room who would before scarcely pass the same street,” marveled Boston’s Chronicle and Patriot newspaper.

Boston swooned. On July 12, the Columbian Centinel, an ardent Federalist newspaper, published a headline, “Era of Good Feelings,” that would define Monroe’s presidency. “During the late Presidential Jubilee,” the story began, “many persons have met at festive boards, in pleasant converse, whom party politics had long severed.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

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Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend.  I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience.  Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry.  Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.

If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.

On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.

I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State.  Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

Read the entire post here.

The Problem With Mixing Christianity and Nationalism

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Kyle Roberts is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  He explains, from the perspective of Christian teaching, some of the problems with what happened last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am glad that a theologian has commented on this story.  As a historian, my level of analysis is limited.

According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.

  1. It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
  2. It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
  3. It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
  4. It undermines the separation of church and state
  5. It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
  6. It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
  7. It undermines the cross
  8. It replaces transcendence with immanence
  9. It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
  10. It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.

Click here to see how Roberts develops each of these points at his blog Unsystematic Theology.  Great stuff.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Hatter

citizens-of-convenienceLawrence Hatter is Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Citizens of Convenience?

LH: Citizens of Convenience, like most first books, is based on my doctoral dissertation. I first encountered the Canada merchants who are the main actors in my study while working as a graduate research assistant at the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. I discovered the edited volumes of a prominent Detroit merchant, John Askin. I wrote a seminar paper on Askin during my first year at UVa. and the project grew from there to embrace research in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Citizens of Convenience?

LH: The American people were not present at their birth; rather, the imperial projects of U.S. policymakers and their agents on the ground used the border to distinguish the American people as a distinct sovereign community during the early nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Citizens of Convenience?

LH: Because it will put my kids through college(?!).  More seriously, my book helps to reveal the ways in which American nationhood and empire were intertwined during the Founding. It is clear that the American Revolution was not an expression of national awakening; rather, my book shows how the United States realized nationhood by colonizing the West. Citizens of Convenience explains how U.S. imperialism worked at different scales, from the local to the international. This is why the Canada merchants at the heart of my study are so revealing: their transatlantic lobbying apparatus and transcontinental commercial networks influenced politics from high level diplomacy in the great European capitals to everyday interactions between traders and U.S. agents in places like Detroit and Saint Louis.

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

LH: I abandoned plans to become a barrister when I was about 16 and decided that I wanted to be a lecturer. I read mostly 17th and 18th century British and American history as an undergraduate in the U.K., so it was an unthinking decision to become an Americanist (though, like many of my generation, I tend to look outward from the thirteen colonies, rather than inward).

JF: What is your next project?

LH: I am beginning work on a study of American overseas merchant communities during the Age of Revolution. Looking at how merchants managed to negotiate the dangers and opportunities of Independence in places like Algiers and Canton will hopefully offer new insight into how the United States managed to establish its credentials as a sovereign nation in the global community of nations.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Eric Dyson on Identity Politics

dysonIn light of some of the things I have been writing on identity politics lately, someone on Facebook who disagrees with much of what I have written so far asked me to respond to this New York Times article by Michael Eric Dyson.

First, let me say that I have learned a lot from Dyson over the years. I would love to host him at Messiah College some time.

Last Winter I was driving through Alexandria, Virginia listening to C-SPAN radio and heard Dyson talking about his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  I found the interview so compelling (I have written about this before here at the blog) that the following week I bought a copy of the book at Hearts and Minds Books, Byron Borger’s bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I took it home and read it in two sittings.  It helped me to better understand the Obama presidency and the subject of race in America more broadly. (You can see that interview with Dyson here).

Here are some thoughts on Dyson’s current piece:

  1. I think it was unfair of Kanye West, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to say that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”  Dyson apparently disagrees.
  2. I also think it is unfair to equate Donald Trump’s views on race with the views of liberals and progressives such as Bernie Sanders or (implied) Mark Lilla. (More on Sanders below).
  3. Dyson does not distinguish between the universal ideals at the heart of the American Revolution (or at least the way these ideals were used by social reform movements through American history) and the failure of white people to apply them in American life.  For example, the idea that “all men are created equal” was used in arguments on behalf of women’s rights, abolitionism, the opposition to Jim Crow, and other reforms.  See, for example, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  So here is my question: Do the ideals of equality and human rights transcend race?  I would answer yes.  In other words, they are universal Enlightenment ideals that all human beings share.  And if one wants to argue that they are “white” ideals, then it seems that we should be thanking white people for introducing them into global history.
  4. But there is more to the story.  I largely agree with Dyson’s account of American history.  Yes, these universal ideas were not consistently applied in American history. (And we should not be thanking white people for that).  This is the history any American with a conscience must confront.  This is why I think the deep connections between American Slavery and American Freedom (as Edmund Morgan put it) must play a prominent role in the teaching of American history.  It is also why I think history is needed more than ever as a means of teaching people empathy for the stories of all Americans within a national narrative.  As a historian my vocation is to tell the story.  It is then up to my students and my audience to decide what to do about the story. (The latter work can take place in the history classroom, but it is not this is not the exercise that drives what happens in the history classroom). After telling the story my work as a historian is done.  (Of course my work on this front as a human being, a Christian, a citizen or a community member should not end, although one’s involvement in the cause will vary from person to person).
  5. So let me say a word about moving beyond the classroom.  Should we throw out these American ideals just because they were not consistently applied in the past? Some would say yes. They would say that the weight of racism (the failure to apply these principles) in America cannot be lifted.  They would say that the idea of “we shall overcome” is a relic of the past.  I must part ways with such thinking.  I will cast my lot with Martin Luther King and other early leaders of the Civil Rights movement who longed for and prayed for an integrated society.  My America, like the America King talked about in Washington and in a Birmingham jail cell, is a nation where we must continue in the long hard struggle to apply the principles that our founders put in place in the eighteenth-century.  As a Christian who believes in sin, I doubt we will ever get there on this side of eternity, but that is no excuse to stop working.  (And we have a lot of work to do–I have a lot of work to do–when opportunities arise). We are called to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth and, with a spirit of hope, await its ultimate fulfillment,.
  6. I like what Dyson said about Obama in the C-SPAN interview I cited above: “When black people’s backs are against the wall as American citizens…the president should take the side [of black people]….When they are being gunned down in the streets…and especially vulnerable to racist rebuff, you must use your billy pulpit to amplify their cause and their claims and you must do so not simply as the ‘first black president’–that may be inessential at this point.  What is essential, however, is that you as the representative of the state must speak on behalf of all citizens including African American people.” (Italics mine, although Dyson does inflect his voice on these words).  Here Dyson is appealing to the ideals that bind us together as a people. He is making what appears to be an appeal to the ideals of the nation and the responsibility of the POTUS (and by implication all of us) to apply them to the cause of racism.
  7. I agree with Dyson that the administration Trump is assembling is not equipped to handle race in America and will not be up to the task as I have just described it.
  8. As you might imagine by this point, on the question of “identity politics” I find myself siding with Bernie Sanders.  I believe that Bernie is correct when he says that we need to move beyond identity politics and toward a more national vision that seeks to address the things that affect all Americans–economic equality, the power of Wall Street, and climate change.  These things affect people of all colors.  I see a lot of Eugene Debs in Sanders–or at least the Debs that Nick Salvatore writes about in his book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  What I take away from Salvatore’s treatment of Debs is the way that this prominent turn-of-the century socialist invoked the civic humanism of the American founding.  Debs’s civic humanism was certainly limited.  Our does not have to be.
  9. To suggest Sanders is a racist is wrong. (I don’t think Dyson is saying this).  To say that he does not care about black people or race in America is wrong.  (And I don’t think Dyson is saying this either, but he may come close).  I also don’t think a Sanders presidency would have ignored race.
  10. In the end, I see Sanders reaching beyond racial identity to make an appeal–primarily–to the things that all  Americans must address.  Isn’t this what the POTUS should be doing?  Isn’t this the politics we need to move forward?  Citizens of the United States must continue to frame their arguments about race in the context of the national ideals.

OK–there are some quick thoughts.

Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

three-immigrantsIn my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I wrote:

Philip’s “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one.  His passion for “home,” which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey) and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry), frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement.  In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical.  It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain.  Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism.”  However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting.  His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”  My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated.  It could be lived locally–even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

As some of the readers of this blog are aware, The Way of Improvement Leads Home argued that people living in the eighteenth century could not easily separate their cosmopolitan ambitions from their local attachments.  In an earlier piece I published in The Journal of American History (2003) I wrote:

Fithian’s story reminds us that the abstract, urban, and elite-centered republic of letters that has so captivated early American historians over the past two decades had a real impact on individual human experience. While the Thomas Paines and Benjamin Franklins of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world could move freely within that republic, there were others who struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for their commitments to family, friends, faith, tradition, and place. Throughout his short life, Fithian asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries.

On one level, Fithian’s attempt to live Enlightenment values in a given place define24172-fithian2bbookd by a given tradition resonates with recent theoretical work on contemporary cosmopolitanism. Today, scholars have largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called home or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Theorists now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism, or a truly “placeless” individual, does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship–the highest of all moral values–and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually existing cosmopolitanism.”

Many middling, relatively unprivileged, and educated early Americans living in places teetering between the medieval and the modern, however, understood local attachments–not world citizenship–as the necessary starting point in the construction of a modern self. Rather than rejecting commitments to the particularities of place and tradition, as Wood has suggested, good patriots and republicans such as Fithian strove to participate in the eighteenth-century equivalent of intellectual and cultural globalization in the context of their locales. Fithian’s Christianity, networks of friends, letter-writing circles, admonishing societies, and reading groups were all means of being cosmopolitan in a given place. He thus pursued a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” In the end, Fithian’s life challenges us to be ever more mindful that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could have a profound influence on the remote precincts of British America and the social worlds of the people who inhabited them. For him, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.

I have been thinking a lot about this in light of some minor push-back I have been receiving on my recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?” Some of that push-back has come in response to my suggestion that American historians should not abandon a national narrative.  Here is what I wrote in that post:

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

This, of course, raises a lot of questions about how the field of American history is moving. Don’t get me wrong, I think that some of the resistance to a neo-Whig view of American history is useful, especially when we are teaching students that a civic-minded approach to history can often result in a form of presentism.  For example, I spend an entire week every summer at Princeton trying to get K-8 teachers to think about British-America on its own terms rather than as a forerunner to a “revolution” that no one in the eighteenth century really saw coming until the 1760s and 177os.

But the American Revolution did happen and I think it goes without saying that it triggered a conversation about American national identity that we are still having today.  It seems like those of us who teach broader surveys of American history cannot ignore a national narrative.  (I say more about this in my exchange with California history teacher Leslie Smith).

I have also been thinking about the relationship between national history and globalization/cosmopolitanism in light of historian Johann Neem’s 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age.”  Here is a taste:

neem

Johann Neem

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Teaching national history is vital to ensuring a public that is capable of sustaining our democracy. National history promotes patriotism. Readers inclined to dismiss patriotism as a regressive and aggressive ideology may be inclined to dismiss national history for that very reason. We all know the violence that has been committed in the name of nationalism over the past two centuries.

National stories should be both celebratory and critical. Teaching national history does not mean promoting a glorious narrative of America, nor does it mean focusing exclusively on its worst moments. Like the history of any nation-state, American history is full of glory and high ideals as well as their all-too-frequent betrayal. Celebratory stories foster love for one’s nation, while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion. It is the combination of love of one’s nation and awareness of its failures that makes acts of citizenship possible. Without love, who cares? Without critical awareness, how will citizens ascertain the truth about their nation’s actions and seek to make things better?

Read Neem’s entire piece here.  I think his final paragraph is on the mark:

The nation is not the only source of one’s personal identity. We each belong to religious, ethnic, professional, and other communities that shape us and to which we feel responsible. These communities make us complex beings, capable of balancing our obligations to our nation with those to others locally and around the world. But even as we Americans become more aware of our responsibilities to the larger world, democratic politics relies on our shared responsibility to each other.

The Author’s Corner with Rebecca Barrett-Fox

God HatesRebecca Barrett Fox is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University.  This interview is based on her recent book God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University of Kansas Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write God Hates?

RBF: I graduated from Juniata College, in rural central Pennsylvania, in 2000. During my time there, I was spent a lot of time visiting and observing conservative churches, many of which were very worried with the upcoming turn of the century and Y2K. We giggle at that now, but, at the time, people were concerned enough to stockpile supplies. I knew people buying land in the area and building bunkers and cabins in preparation for the impending end of the world. I found it just fascinating. And so, when I moved to Kansas to pursue graduate school at the University of Kansas, I knew I had to add one of the country’s most conservative and fringe churches to my list of observations. In hindsight, I should have been more intimidated than I was, because the theology was relatively unfamiliar and also because the church is frequently the target of vandalism as well as violence.

I wasn’t prepared for the level of vitriol coming from the pulpit. I’d seen it on the picket line, but I didn’t expect it in sermons, which are, after all, directed at people who presumably share your beliefs. I didn’t understand why someone would keep coming back, and I wanted to figure that out. So, first, this was a project micro in scope, focusing on the interaction of church members and how the church worked. Very quickly, though, I saw the need to put it in the bigger context of American religious history and culture. It is easy to dismiss Westboro Baptists as lone weirdos. But they are actually within a long line of American religionists. Fred Phelps, the founding pastor, liked to say that the church hadn’t changed–America had changed. And he was, to a great extent, right about this. I wanted people to understand that this kind of thinking and behavior didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted to help people see that none of our beliefs really do, even the ones that seem bizarre.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of God Hates?

RBF: Westboro Baptist Church, a church of under 100 people, nearly half of them children, has outsized influence on conversations on how Christians do and should engage with questions of queer sexuality and LGBTQ rights–and not because they are so loud, media savvy, and resilient (though they are). The part of this book that is about Westboro Baptist Church is interesting (especially for those of us who geek out on religious history and theology), but the more important part is about how people who see themselves as much more civil, kind, faithful, and loving respond to Westboro by invoking a more civil and kind but, in the end, just as damning, rejection of LGBTQ people.

JF: Why do we need to read God Hates?

RBF: Westboro is often used as a foil by Christians who do not want to fully welcome or include queer people in civil or religious life, people who say, “We’re not like those Westboro Baptists” but can do even more harm to LGBT people because they are more respected in our society. Every Christian who sniffs at Westboro and says, “They’re not a REAL church” or “They’re not REAL Christians” should read this because, I hope, the book lays out the argument that Westboro Baptists occupy a line in America Christianity that is very old and that continues to share much in common with more mainstream Christianity.

I hope, too, that the book humanizes the members of Westboro Baptist Church, many of whom are kind, gentle, generous people who genuinely believe they are doing the work of God. These two parts of the story–that this church is not unique in American history but rooted in it and that its people are, by and large, wonderful, with the huge exception of when they are absolutely terrible–is a reminder to me that it is very easy for many of us to do awful things in the name of our religious traditions. Many of us hold opinions and prejudices that hurt people–we’re just not as committed to living them out as Westboro Baptists are. I hope this books helps some of us to be a bit more self-aware.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a scholar of American religion?

RBFThe summer between fourth and fifth grade. I’m fairly sure it was just to get out of the house, but my mother sent my siblings and me to every Vacation Bible School in a 15 mile radius. I hated Vacation Bible School, but I was intrigued by why there were so many different churches in a place that seemed so homogenous. (Of course, I didn’t know the word “homogeneous” at the time. I just knew that some of my friends were Methodists and some Presbyterian and some Mennonite and that they were all my friends but went to churches that saw themselves as distinct.) I was at VBS at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church, which had been founded in 1727, and I thought, “I want to know why people have been going to this church for 250 years.”

JF: What is your next project?

RBF: I’m working with Dr. John Shuford, the director of the Hate Studies Policy Research Center, to edit The Encyclopedia of Hate: A Global Study of Enmity, Forgiveness, and Social Change, which will provide an overview of the major hate groups operating in the world today as well as essays on the state of hate studies today. I’m also editing a special issue of The Journal of Hate Studies, which is housed at the Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University. My focus remains on religion and hate–specifically in conservative and fringe Christian groups, with an interest in gender and sexuality. For example, I’m currently an investigator on a grant from the National Institute of Justice to study the online presence of the Army of God, a violent anti-abortion effort. My next book-length project will focus on the place of women and families–and especially white womanhood–in religiously-inspired hate groups and extremist movements. And I remain interested in how those extremist groups overlap with more mainstream groups, especially in theology and politics.

JF: Thanks Rebecca!

The Author’s Corner With Robert Parkinson

Robert Parkinson

Robert Parkinson is Assistant Professor of history at Binghamton University.  This interview is based on his new book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Common Cause?

RP: It started with a comment Peter Onuf threw off in a class, about the continued association with British and Indians on the frontier for years after the end of the Revolution. I thought that needed some research, but I had no idea where to start. So I figured, newspapers were as good as any place to begin. There I found a tremendous amount of material about British agents fomenting slave and Indian resistance against the “cause.” As I read more, I began to find the same stories repeated in different newspapers over and over and over again, and I began to wonder a) how that happened, and b) what did it mean? The central argument of The Common Cause came from the newspapers themselves.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Common Cause? 

RP:In order to achieve and sustain union among the 13 jealous colonies after the shooting started, patriot leaders elaborated upon the “common cause” argument: all Americans should resist British tyranny because imperial officials were inciting the enslaved, Indians, and foreign mercenaries to destroy them. Spreading these ideas through weekly newspaper articles, patriot leaders (especially Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington) made the “common cause” about racial exclusion.

JF: Why do we need to read The Common Cause?

RP: For a long time now, scholars have gnashed their teeth and lamented about the impasse in Revolution historiography: ideas vs. interests, top-down vs. bottom-up, no synthesis only stasis since the 1970s. I didn’t set out to write an interpretation that merged the two, but I think I have. Unlike Wood’s Radicalism, I not only show how ideas actually move, but I explain just how prevalent and present African Americans and Indians were to the everyday strategizing, planning, and publicizing of the American Revolution.

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

RP: As for most of us, it started at a very young age. I remember being enthralled at reenactments at Lexington Green and demanding to go to Plymouth Plantation every Saturday. I didn’t decide to be a professional historian, though, until my senior year in college, doing serious research in social history in local historical societies, cemeteries, and county courthouses in Pennsylvania. In other words, because of public history.

JF: What is your next project?

RP: I am currently working on a short project and then taking on another long study. About a decade back, while doing research for The Common Cause I came across the elaborate funeral in NYC of the renowned frontiersman (and notorious Indian killer) Michael Cresap, and I wrote up my findings in a WMQ piece. I’m returning to that research now, writing a short book on the Cresap family and the consequences and legacies of the 1774 murders on Yellow Creek that I am aiming at an undergraduate/survey audience. We need more short books on the Revolution (look who’s talking!), especially ones that incorporate natives and the frontier, for the survey.

The long study is at this point not much more than a question: how do you write an environmental history of the Constitution? I am trained as a political historian, not an environmental one, and I think that has the chance to offer fresh insights and blend those two fields. Many of the questions in environmental history revolve around law and legal practice; how human rules intersect with, get inscribed onto, and shape nature. I think the supreme law of the land deserves study in this way. But the task is daunting, thus my phrasing: how do you write it?

JF: Thanks,Robert!