Barack Obama on the possibility of America

Barack Obama believes in America. Conservatives who think he is a socialist may not believe him. The champions of identity politics who have given-up on America will be angry with him. Christian nationalists will not like how he thinks about the “possibility of America.” Neo-Anabaptists will offer critiques of his nationalism.

The Atlantic just published an excerpt of Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land. I find myself in agreement with most of these words:

Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didn’t fully anticipate was the way events would unfold during the more than three and a half years that have passed since that last flight on Air Force One. The country is in the grips of a global pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis, with more than 230,000 Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.

This contest is not new, of course. In many ways, it has defined the American experience. It’s embedded in founding documents that could simultaneously proclaim all men equal and yet count a slave as three-fifths of a man. It finds expression in our earliest court opinions, as when the chief justice of the United States bluntly explains to Native Americans that their tribe’s rights to convey property aren’t enforceable, because the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered. It’s a contest that’s been fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox but also in the halls of Congress; on a bridge in Selma, Alabama; across the vineyards of California; and down the streets of New York—a contest fought by soldiers but more often by union organizers, suffragists, Pullman porters, student leaders, waves of immigrants, and LGBTQ activists, armed with nothing more than picket signs, pamphlets, or a pair of marching shoes. At the heart of this long-running battle is a simple question: Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few?

I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth—that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. And I confess that there have been times during the course of writing my book, as I’ve reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.

I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. 

Read the entire excerpt here.

Song of the Day

“We Take Care of Our Own”:

Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about this song at my old Patheos column:

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”

Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.

But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.

At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.

Springsteen asks:

“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?

“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”

“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?

“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”

Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.

The Author’s Corner with Ann Tucker

Newest Born of NationsAnn Tucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Newest Born of Nations?

AT: The question of southern identity has intrigued me since my childhood; how and why did the South develop such a strong sense of regional identity? In college, I also developed a passion for Italian history when I studied abroad in Venice, where I became increasingly interested in the making of the Italian nation. This book grew out of my attempt to combine these interests in Italy and the South. Through my Italian studies, I had already identified some key parallels between the US and Italy, as both nations had undergone wars about nationhood in the mid-nineteenth century, and both nations had faced conflict between a more industrial North and an agricultural South. With these similarities in mind, as I started researching, I wanted to know what white southerners thought about Italy, and how those thoughts on Italy might have shaped the complicated concept of southern identity. It only made sense to me to start in the Civil War Era, when both Italy and the US fought to defend their nationhood, and when white southerners sought to create a separate southern nation.

I found a much more complex, varied, and, ultimately, significant story than I had initially imagined. White southerners’ thoughts on Italy, and on European nationalist movements more broadly, were not incidental, nor were they straightforward or homogenous. My research uncovered several strands of white southern thought on European nationalist movements, sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing, but always playing a critical role in shaping southern thought on their own nationhood. White southerners used comparisons with new and aspiring European nations like Italy to clarify their beliefs about their own nationality, and they used these international perspectives to develop and defend the idea of a southern nation.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Newest Born of Nations?

AT: White southerners in the antebellum and Civil War periods used their analysis of nineteenth century European nationalist movements to shape their idea of what a nation could and should be, to begin to conceive of the South as different than the North on issues of nationhood and to develop the idea of the South as a potential nation, and to defend and legitimize secession and the Confederacy. The international perspectives that white southerners developed by drawing comparisons and contrasts with new and aspiring nations in Europe thus played a critical role in the shaping of southern nationalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Newest Born of Nations?

AT: Newest Born of Nations reframes the American Civil War as part of the larger nineteenth century age of revolutions and nationalism. White southerners saw their actions as part of the ongoing struggle for national independence and reform that played out throughout the Atlantic World. Far from an exclusively domestic conflict, the American Civil War had profound implications for the evolving nineteenth-century Atlantic World ideas of freedom, rights, and nationalism, and white southerners used this international context to develop southern nationalism and the Confederacy.

The internationalization of the Confederacy was not straightforward, even at the time; by identifying three competing international perspectives that white southerners used to defend their preferred visions for the South’s nationhood, Newest Born of Nations reveals how complicated and complex the process of creating a southern nationalism was. While secessionists developed both liberal and conservative international perspectives to justify secession, southern Unionists also used international comparisons to argue for a continued American nationalism for the South. Although white southerners were divided on the lessons that an international context taught for the South, they agreed that the South’s nationhood could best be understood and defined through international perspectives. By placing secession, the Confederacy, and the American Civil War within this transnational context, Newest Born of Nations expands and complicates our understanding of the Confederacy and Civil War.

This work also challenges our understanding of the Age of Nationalism by showing that the ideas of liberal nationalism that inspired revolutions throughout the Atlantic World could also be manipulated and re-defined in attempts to justify movements very different than the original revolutions.

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

AT: I have always been interested in history as a way to understand how and why our world developed as it did. As a southerner, I have been particularly interested in issues of southern identity. I wondered why the South had such a strong regional identity, and I wanted to understand the inconsistencies within that southern identity. I chose to study American history in order to answer my questions about the development of a distinct regional identity in the South.

As I began my studies as an academic historian, however, I found myself equally intrigued by Italian history and the parallels I saw between Italy and the US. These parallels and interests encouraged me to approach American history through a transnational perspective. Although I am an American historian, I am also a transnational historian, because, to me, American history, and history in general, is best understand in a larger transnational framework.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: My next project is the “sequel” to Newest Born of Nations! I am interested in understanding how former Confederates’ international perspectives helped them shed their Confederate national identity, and adopt and remake their American national identity, during Reconstruction and in the decades following the Civil War. I have already found some very interesting results; in particular, I have found that in the immediate aftermath of Confederate defeat, former Confederates used comparisons with defeated nations in Europe to draw limits around what they would accept as legitimate actions by the government during Reconstruction. (This first portion of my next project was published as “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’: Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon, Routledge, 2018). I am excited about continuing my research and considering the use of international perspectives to shape and influence issues such as Confederate monuments, the Lost Cause, and Confederate memory.

JF: Thanks, Ann!

Incoming Princeton University Students Will Explore American History, Nationalism, and Civic Ideals

LeporeI am waiting for the day when the Messiah College administration asks all incoming first-year students to read a history book and then publishes a press release to tell the community about it.

Today, Princeton University announced that all incoming students will read Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation.  Here is the press release:

The Pre-read is a Princeton tradition that introduces first-year students to the intellectual life of the University by offering opportunities to engage with a book that students, faculty and staff read.

Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast “The Last Archive.”

“This America” was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2019. The book investigates the ideas and principles that animate the American nation in particular and free nations in general. It is a follow-up to Lepore’s 2018 international bestseller, “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

In a foreword to the Pre-read edition of “This America,” Eisgruber wrote that one reason he chose the book was because “It addresses big questions, including one of the most important ethical issues of our time: How can Americans, and the people of other nations, see themselves as united in a shared quest for the common good despite differences and disagreements that might pull them apart?”

In a video message to the Class of 2024, Eisgruber noted that it is an especially important book to discuss in the midst of a presidential election year in the United States, and as the public health crisis of COVID-19 requires us to work together across the globe “as peoples and as humanity.”

“This America” is “a terrific Pre-read for another reason,” Eisgruber said, in that “it explores what it means to be a scholar and hence what it means to be a college student (especially at Princeton, where we expect all of our students to do research). Lepore, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, argues that the best history ‘tells the truth’ about ‘the hideous mistakes, the frightful wrongs, and the great and beautiful things that nations do,’ and also ‘foster[s] a spirit of citizenship and environmental stewardship and a set of civic ideals, and a love of one another.’”

Reflecting on the current crisis, Lepore added: “What it means to belong to a place always matters, but a global catastrophe calls upon each of us to think harder about the consequences of belonging to a nation, in a suffering world.” 

A prize-winning professor, Lepore teaches courses on American history, evidence, historical methods and humanistic inquiry. She is the author of more than a dozen books, including “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 1999, and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which won the 2015 American History Book Prize. Her next book, due to be published this year, is titled “IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” She is the author of numerous articles and book reviews, with recent topics spanning the census, the coronavirus and loneliness.

This summer, the incoming class will receive a copy of “This America” in time to prepare for discussions in the fall. “This America” also will be distributed to incoming first-year graduate students and faculty, and will be available to staff and other community members by request.

Discussions with students about the Pre-read book are among the highlights of the academic year for him, Eisgruber said, noting: “A book like ‘This America’ invites conversation. It demands active engagement and thoughtful argument, rather than uncritical veneration.”

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Says “Turning the Other Cheek” is No Longer Sufficient

Liberty U

We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before.  The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity.   Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:

Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.

You read that correctly.  Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk, the leaders of the Falkirk Center, are suggesting that we should ignore Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek.”  Just for the sake of clarification, Jesus said, “You  have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Mt. 5:38-40).

Any why are the words of Jesus “no longer sufficient?” Because the “soul of the nation”–the United States of America– is more important.  Later in the mission statement, Falwell and Kirk say that the Falkirk Center was created to defend “Judeo-Christian” principles.  What is more Judeo-Christian than the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me”? (Exodus 20:1-3).

ADDENDUM (8:50 pm, January 16, 2020):

Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement.  They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals.  Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”

I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement.  For that I am sorry.  But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above.  While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.

A few thoughts:

First, it appears that Jerry Falwell and Charlie Kirk believe that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for engaging the larger culture.  If I read them correctly, they are saying that we should “turn the other cheek” in “our personal relationships with our neighbors,” but we should “not turn the other cheek” on the “cultural battlefield.” This assumes that our interaction with “neighbors” does not count as cultural engagement, as if the people we encounter everyday at our workplaces and in our communities are not part of culture.

Second, some have suggested that Falwell and Kirk are promoting a “2 Kingdoms” view of the relationship between the church and government.  Those who espouse this view might say that we cannot expect the government to act in accordance with the Sermon in the Mount.  In other words, according to this view, the idea of “turning the other cheek” is something individual Christians should do, but certainly not governments.

But even if we allow for such a 2 Kingdoms view, we must remember that such a view, which is often associated with Martin Luther, is about the relationship between Christians and GOVERNMENT.  Liberty University’s Falkirk Center IS NOT the government.  It is the product of a private Christian school–Liberty University.

Third, and finally, is it possible to engage public life in such a way that upholds the spirit of “turning the other cheek?” The statement’s use of the term “cultural battlefield” seems to champion an approach to public life–for an individual Christian or a group of Christians such as the Falkirk Center–that is antithetical to Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

Don’t get me wrong–I am not making an argument here against public engagement. Instead, I am making an argument here for a kind of public engagement that might take seriously the idea of “turning the other cheek.”  (I will let the Christian political and moral philosophers wrestle with what this might look like).  I am not sure if I am willing to “abdicate” the idea of “turning the other cheek” as a useful idea for Christians engaging in public life.

Nationalism and Worship

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Nationalism and Worship Panel (Left to right): Wright, Maiden, Hummel, Bivins, Haberski and Turek

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

This morning at ASCH I chaired a roundtable on Nationalism and Christian Worship. This gathering was my idea. It forms part of a project I am working on this year funded by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The grant is given as part of the CICW’s new Teacher-Scholar grant program that encourages scholars to find ways to connect their discipline, the study of Christian worship, and the practice of local worshipping communities. I have been doing various things during the grant year including reading good books on worship and nationalism, and starting to write a book of my own on Evangelicalism and Nationalism. I have also been working with Dr. Jim Samra, pastor of Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, to lead a church-based study group on the history and practice of nationalism and worship.

As a scholar whose main research interests focus neither on nationalism nor the United States I wanted to conduct a fact-finding mission to learn from experts in the field. The roundtable this morning was the result. I was very pleased with the top-flight team who assembled, and I learned much from their lively and multi-dimensional responses to my questions.

Lauren Turek (Trinity University, San Antonio TX) explored how Evangelicals have appropriated the internationalist language of human rights to serve nationalist ends, particularly in regard to construing the global campaign for religious freedom as a refraction of their own allegedly embattled place within American culture. Jason Bivins (North Carolina State University) picked up this theme of the imagined marginality of American Christians, and I look forward to his new book Embattled Majority which plots these issues in detail. Bivins also gave arguably one of the most passionate orations I have heard at an academic conference about the need for scholars to be plain-speaking prophets for these perilous times. Raymond Haberski Jr. (Indiana-Purdue University) reflected on the link between rhetoric and “operationality” of religious nationalist discourse, thinking particularly about the way in which Catholic just war theorists engaged the public sphere in the 1980s against a tendency toward ecclesial withdrawal from public life in the wake of the  Vietnam era.

Dan Hummel (University of Wisconsin-Madison) opened up the multivalent connection between worship and nationalism in regard to Christian Zionism, in particular the adoption of Jewish liturgical practices by Evangelical Christians. But he also wanted to warn against seeing Christian Zionism as simply a refraction of American nationalism, pointing us to the international nature of the Christian Zionist movement. Ben Wright (UT Dallas) explored the issue of national formation in the antebellum era, and affirmed the point made by some other panelists that nationalism differs across space and time, and is, to some extent, always a site of contest and evolution in which Christian communities have played strategic and varying roles. John Maiden (Open University, UK) offered a British perspective, arguing that the British Evangelical community has in one sense lost its older commitment to national religion (the 27% of Evangelicals that voted for Brexit stand in marked contrast to the 81% that voted for Trump), while retaining some of its imagery, particularly in regard to Britain’s special status and anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Several overarching themes emerged which I will want to reflect on further. First, a hunch I had developed going into this project received some affirmation. Nationalism, while on the one hand belligerent and self-satisfied, is in many ways fragile and uncertain. Indeed, its most strident manifestations may come from positions of weakness – or imagined weakness – as much as from strength. Second, the question was raised at several junctures concerning for whom the discourse of Christian nationalism is intended. Is Christian nationalist rhetoric primarily aimed at the Christian community, or is it directed to achieving defined goals within the nation-state? Third, I was interested in the relationship between individualism and community raised in the discussions, especially as this seems a very germane link with issues of worship. Is nationalism, especially in the American context, something experienced (ironically) in isolation or, at best, as a kind of personal experience of a cultural mood or sentiment? Or is it genuinely about community and civic engagement? This seems important as it connects with a standard critique of Evangelical worship that privileges sentiment and individual experience over the formation of an ekklesia. This leads me to the fourth reflection, which is the sense of moral imperative that several participants conveyed for the church to do better at helping Christians think and act well about these issues. Much of the literature on worship and liturgy stresses the educative function of worship. The question my whole project is asking this year is (a) whether churches are equipped to fulfill this function in a way that sufficiently addresses and overcomes the other powerful liturgies that form Christian identity and community within the national-state, and  (b) if, as I suspect, the answer is often not, then what role can Christian thinkers — including us Christian historians—have in helping the church “imagine the Kingdom” and “unmask the powers” more fully.

One question after the panel from an audience member reminded me of a question I also still want answered: are there any historical studies of when the flag when into the sanctuary, or when and why it left the building? Flags in sanctuaries seem to be a great example of what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism” – the slow and almost unnoticeable daily drip-feed of national identity symbols. My only answer to the question is anecdotal. Perusing the minutes of a church in Grand Rapids I found that this particular church raised the flag in 1976—a symbolic date that requires no explanation. But it would be interesting to know if this was the start or just a renaissance of the flag in the sanctuary, and to explore the mechanisms that encouraged churches to hoist the flag in this year. Was there a concerted national campaign, or was it spontaneous local initiative? As the audience member suggested, it would be useful for those trying to encourage the removal of the flag from the sanctuary if historians could show the context and reasons it went in.

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!