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!

Sam Haselby on Thomas Jefferson and American Religious Nationalism

The website Religion & Politics is running an adapted excerpt from Sam Haselby‘s excellent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.  Some of you may recall that we featured Haselby’s book in a recent “Author’s Corner” post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Our friend John Wilsey recently reviewed it here.


Haselby is senior editor at Aeon and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University.


Here is a taste of his excerpt on Thomas Jefferson and American religion:

For the inscription on his tombstone, Jefferson chose three accomplishments: the Declaration of Independence, the founding of the University of Virginia, and Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom. Each of these achievements is related to the problem of religion and nationalism. In the Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson characteristically brought high rationalism to the subject of religion and poetry to the scientific spirit. His testimony to the power of truth and free inquiry, closing the first section of the statute, is the very essence of the Enlightenment: “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” wrote Jefferson: “She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interpolation, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate—errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” Madison’s deft stewardship through the Virginia House of Delegates made the bill into law, and he wrote to Jefferson exulting that we “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Jefferson concurred, replying that “kings, priests, & nobles” had for centuries conspired to keep man in ignorant subordination. It was Virginia’s great honor “to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions.” In the context of early modern political philosophy, to state that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions was another way of stating the radical content of “all men are created equal.” The famous phrase did not mean that men possessed equal physical or intellectual capacities. It meant that all men could reason and were capable of acting as responsible, and accountable, moral agents. It was, and remains, a radical idea. 

Disestablishment and freedom of religion amounted to historic secular achievements, but Jefferson and Madison had intended them as simply creating the conditions of possibility, as the first steps, toward a secular society. Positive measures must follow. The most important were founding schools and libraries, educating qualified teachers, and providing the people with rudimentary scientific and literary education, especially in philosophy. Scientific and philosophical education was necessary to replace the moral influence, social programs, and historical teachings of the churches. So Jefferson proposed alternatives to Christian institutions. In the 1785–1786 session of the Virginia Assembly, his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” was bill number 82 of 126 proposed bills. Bills 79, 80, and 81 were also Jefferson’s. These bills proposed to create a nonreligious school system, organized by county and providing free education through the elementary grades; to sever the College of William and Mary’s church ties and make it a republican college; and to establish a public library system built around science, philosophy, and civics. An ally of Jefferson’s aptly described the ambition of the measures. They “propose a simple and beautiful scheme, whereby science . . . would have been ‘carried to every man’s door,’” he wrote. Emphasizing the need to reach and, through education, change the public, he wrote: “Genius, instead of having to break its way through the thick opposing clouds of native obscurity, indigence, and ignorance, was to be sought for through every family in the commonwealth.” Churches would have been the big losers of this “systematical plan,” but their opposition was not the only reason it failed to materialize. The nature of Southern plantation society did not permit potential alternatives, such as state-run school systems, to planter authority. Slavery was simply more important to American nation-building than secularism. The planters, however, cannot be held uniquely responsible. With notable exceptions, for example the French state education system, secularists generally failed to build institutions that offered alternatives to Christian social, political, and personal morality. 

The Author’s Corner with Sam Haselby

Sam Haselby is Visiting Assistant Professor of American Religion and Political Culture at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: I was reading the European literature on nationalism, Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchman, Linda Colley’s Britons, George Mosse’s The Nationalization of the Masses, and others. I found them fascinating, and asked Eric Foner who wrote the version for the United States. He said, no one, that’s a good idea. An argument I had with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity focused my interest in nationalism and changing class relations on religion in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: The American Revolution posed, rather than answered, the question of American nationality. The answer came with the colonization of continent, more specifically from the resulting crisis of governance on the frontier. Both the birth of popular American Protestantism and the advent of systematic Anglo-American missionary must be understood as responses to this crisis, and each had deep and enduring effects on American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read The Origins of American Religious Nationalism​?

SH: It gives a more historical understanding of the role of religion in forming American nationalism, and vice versa.

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

SH: As an undergraduate at Macalester College, reading The Education of Henry Adams. It provided me with a way of coming to terms with a certain ambivalence about the U.S.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: It’s about Anglo-American missionaries and the opium trade as an important chapter in the history of globalization.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about it! Thanks Sam.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #66

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I did not get much accomplished on the ABS project last weekend.  A Messiah College History Department picnic, a sabbatical proposal, grant-writing, the start of the NFL season, and family responsibilities kept me away from my desk.  But I am now back in the saddle.  In fact, this morning I put the finishing touches on Chapter Three and sent it off to Katie for proofreading and editing.  (She is very good at this). Tomorrow I will begin organizing my notes for Chapter Four.  Stay tuned

As I worked on the conclusion to Chapter Three this morning I revisited some of the vast literature on the construction of American nationalism in the early republic.  I continue to be impressed with the depth and scope of this literature.  I am a big fan of Waldstreicher on parades and festive culture, Larson and Howe on internal improvements, and Loughran and others on print. But it also strikes me that this literature (with the exception of Howe) is very weak on religion. Anyone who reads the records of the American Bible Society must be struck by the fact that the Society is also in the business of nation-building and it is using print, internal improvements, and an appeal to the public imagination to do it.  Yet the ABS and its officers–folks like Elias Boudinot, Francis Scott Key, John Quincy Adams, Lyman Beecher, Arthur Tappan, etc…—clearly see the construction of the nation in Christian and providential terms.  I realize that not everyone involved in the nation-building process wanted to construct a nation that was Christian in character, but it is hard to argue with the fact that the vision of the ABS (and other benevolent societies) was pretty mainstream in the early 19th century.

Since I am writing a a popular institutional history in which I must paint with broad brush strokes, I will not be taking a sidetrack into the historiography of American nationalism in the early republic. Such a sidetrack would be inappropriate in a volume of this nature.  But perhaps an article is needed on this subject.

What Should We Make of the Gettysburg Address?

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to south central Pennsylvania, about thirty miles from where I am sitting as I write this post, to dedicate a national cemetery in Gettysburg.  There were about 15,000 people in attendance to hear Lincoln speak.  As many of you know, he was forced to follow Edward Everett, one of his generation’s great orators. Everett delivered a two hour speech.  Lincoln followed with 272 words.  Four score and seven years ago…

I have taken students to the site of this address several times over the years.  This summer I got to wander the cemetery for a few minutes with my twelve-year old daughter.  She did not like the fact that I was pulling her away from her friends during a break in a basketball tournament she was playing at Gettysburg College, but sometimes when your Dad is a history professor you need to learn how to deal with these kinds of spontaneous field trips.  I hope she will remember it.

As I walked through the cemetery this past summer, trying to explain to my daughter the significance of all that happened at Gettysburg, I tried to reflect on the words of the Gettysburg Address.  Those famous words began to ring in my ears: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Amen.

And then I thought about how Lincoln understood what happened on the battlefield just a few months before he delivered this speech.  The people who fought at Gettysburg had died so the nation might live. He used religious terms such as “consecration” and “devotion.”  The soldiers at Gettysburg did not die in vain.  Instead, they spilled their blood and sacrificed their lives for a new nation, a free nation.

As Garry Wills argued over twenty years ago, Lincoln’s words “remade America” by redefining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  After November 19, 1863, one would be hard pressed to think about the Declaration as merely a foreign policy document designed to announce America’s independence to the world.  (This is how the founders perceived it).  Lincoln helped to make the Declaration into what the late Pauline Maier has called “American Scripture,” a sacred text that will forever more be seen as a definitive statement of American nationalism despite the fact that this was by no means the document’s original intent.  With U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman doing the dirty work in the months following the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s “nation, under God” was achieved. The Union would survive amid the difficult trial of war.

Yesterday, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I helped Megan Piette bring together Messiah College history students and faculty to read the Address in front of a camera. (Stay tuned:  We hope to have this mash-up video online soon).  As I quietly sat in the back of the room listening to my colleagues and students recite the Address, I could not help think about how such a speech might be received at a place like Messiah College, a school partly rooted in the Anabaptist tradition.  Because of these roots Messiah does not fly an American flag on campus (although you will find one in the gym and on the athletic fields–NCAA regulations), privileges pacifism and non-violence, and is very wary of American patriotism and nationalism. As I listened to everyone repeat Lincoln’s words before the camera I wondered if any of them were thinking about how ironic it was to be reciting this speech at this school.   I thought about the several students and colleagues who did not respond to my invitation to participate in this project.  Perhaps they were just too busy and did not have the time.  But I wonder if some of them did not want to participate on more theological grounds.  I could definitely understand why someone from a Mennonite or Brethren tradition might feel uncomfortable affirming publicly a statement from a United States president who waged war to save the Union and then gave a speech “consecrating” such an act.

There is, of course, another way of looking at the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln talked about “a new birth of freedom” he was probably referencing the renewed sense of equality that would eventually come to African Americans with a Union victory. (Remember, the Gettysburg Address was delivered over eleven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued).  Perhaps he was envisioning the legislation that would eventually become 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  By November 1863, Lincoln and his abolitionist friends had made this a war about both preserving the Union and ending slavery.  Should the fact that the Gettysburg Address remade the Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution for that matter) by offering a more inclusive nationalist vision make us, or my Anabaptist friends, feel any better about all the war, bloodshed, and patriotism?  I don’t know, but it certainly makes me feel slightly better about it, even if I am not entirely sure the Civil War was a just war.

3 conclusions:

1). I love my country and think, along with Ken Burns, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address needs to be commemorated, remembered, and perhaps even memorized.

2). I can’t help but wonder whether the death of over 50,000 people on the field at Gettysburg was really worth preserving the Union.

3).  If Lincoln’s understanding of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg (as articulated in this address) was about bringing the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence to former slaves then I am on board.

In the end, I think it is important to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today because it raises a lot of questions–questions worth discussing over and over again–about our relationship to American nationalism and how that nationalism was forged in the crucible of war.

Canada’s History Wars

Stephen Harper

In the United States we can’t get our president to say a word about the importance of history.  In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative, has declared that historical remembrances and commemorations will be a major part of his agenda in the coming years.  That’s right–Harper is throwing a lot of government money at historical institutions.

I don’t know much about the role that history plays in Canadian life, but if this article in the Ottawa Citizen is correct, New Left historians of the professional “establishment” have had a monopoly on the way Canadians learn about the nation’s past. Terry Glavin’s piece in the Citizen notes, paraphrasing Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History?,  that “Most Canadians weren’t aware that Canada is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t teach even a vaguely positive history of itself to its children.”  Instead, social history rules the day.  (This sounds like a case for the National Association of Scholars!). 

Academic historians are not taking the Prime Minister’s new initiatives lightly.  Harper, on the other hand, does not seem to care what these academics think.  It does not look like he will be consulting them as he moves forward with his promotion of the Canadian past.  The academics fear that Harper’s new national history will be defined by jingoism.

Here is a further taste of Glavin’s article:

“They’re right not to trust us,” Trent University historian Christopher Dummitt told me the other day. “They’re right. The historical profession has become kind of an activist organization. The result is we have lost authority, as a discipline, and we can’t talk about history writ large.”

There’s another reason.

“The profession is just not friendly to Conservatives,” Dummitt told me. “Conservatives don’t want to fund archives and libraries and they don’t want folks who don’t agree with them writing history.”

Dummitt is mainly a cultural historian, but he has broad interests and tastes. His first book, The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada, was published in 2007, and he’s currently working on a book about prime minister Mackenzie King. But Dummitt has also maintained an enduring interest in the way history is taught in Canada.

While you could say the 39-year-old Dummitt represents precisely the kind of historians Granatstein was hoping to hold back at the university gates during the History Wars of the 1970s-1990s, Dummitt insists that grand-narrative historians like Granatstein had a point back then, and it’s an especially important point now.

For all the necessary and useful contributions made by social and cultural historians over the years, something is missing at the core of Canada’s university faculties. “The biggest thing we’re missing is just the basic political history of Canada,” Dummitt said, “the basic history of our politics, and how things changed over time.”
It’s all because of a disconnect between the way academic historians imagine their purpose on the one hand and the notions of common sense that animate most “ordinary” people, on the other.

The dysfunction began with the New Left historians of the 1960s. It was all very liberating at the time — history was activism, and the old order was upended in order to focus on the marginalized and oppressed. But those New Left sensibilities have now run the gamut from class, race and gender to constantly multiplying identity studies, through Marxism, feminism, literary theory and post-colonialism, and the absurdities of postmodernism.

I am going to keep an eye on how all of this develops.  I think both sides in this debate could learn some lessons about history’s role in public life.  I hope the academic historians view this as an opportunity to bring good history to a larger Canadian public, even if it means tempering some of their activism.  I hope Prime Minister Harper and his administration learns that national history, even when it is used for civic and patriotic purposes, must not ignore the darker sides of the human experience.

In the end, Canadian historians should be thrilled that the Prime Minister wants to spend money on history and history education.  The result will be a national conversation on history and its relationship to civic identity. This is a good thing.

Thanks to Ian Clary for calling my attention to this article.

The Fuzziness of Canadian Nationalism

Do Americans know  their history better than Canadians do theirs?  David Koyzis, a politics professor at Ontario’s Redeemer University College, thinks so.  Part of the reason, Koyzis argues, is the myth of American exceptionalism and the cult of the American founding generation.  Here is a taste of his piece at Comment:

All of which is to say that, if we are not exactly a people without a history, the history we do have does not generally excite or inspire us. Americans endlessly re-enact Civil War battles, turning that country’s most trying hour into something approaching a national hobby—complete with costumes and toy muskets—engendering more camaraderie than division. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of . . . well, you do the math. Although the Battle of Stoney Creek is regularly restaged not far from where I live, one gets the distinct impression that the sponsors are attempting to repackage a complex two-and-a-half-year conflict that no one really won into an occasion for celebrating a nationhood of which both sides were dimly, if at all, aware at the time.

Yet this is what it means to be Canadian: We are compelled to settle for the residue of more than one national identity patiently filtered through a dense thicket of parliamentary statutes, orders-in-council, legal precedents, and committee minutes—all under the benevolent eye of something called the Crown to which we owe (some) loyalty. Will this be sufficient to carry us through the second half of our second century, which we will enter in five years? Only, I suggest, if we have the presence of mind to recognize the singular gift we possess in our exceptionally durable political institutions. In a world where paper constitutions function more as periodical literature, in the words of one observer, than as fundamental law, we in Canada have every reason to be thankful for a system that has worked so well for so long. It may not be an especially flashy or stirring basis for nationhood, but we could do considerably worse.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Civic Virtue

Ta-Nehisi Coates (who has become a favorite blogger of web-savvy American historians, myself included), wonders why liberals have such a hard time embracing civic virtue.  He writes:

...a lot of the problem on the left is deep skepticism of patriotism. We see flags and we think of militarism, exclusion and nationalism. But if you’re going to involve yourself in the politics of your country you had better see more in its symbols and rituals than all its historical failings. 


This is more than a cynical or utilitarian point. It’s also about the core mission of intellectual life–to see things as they are.

He concludes:

My point here is that when we hail ourselves as the “Land of the Free” it is not rooted in ether. It’s an actual thing. We worry about that kind of symbolism being employed by racist, militarists and demagogues. One way to ensure that outcome is to flee the field, to cede patriotism to people who talk of the “real Virginia.”

But that just strikes me as escapism. Aren’t all nations problems? Aren’t all families? Aren’t all people?
The answer to these questions is yes.  And here Coates is coming to grips with the tragic and broken dimensions of life.  These ideas are also things that good progressives do not like to talk about.
Read the entire post here.

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Olympic Team Lower the Flag?

I am sure Amy Bass knew this, but I did not.  During the opening ceremonies, the United States is the only country whose Olympic team does not dip its flag when passing the box containing the leaders of the host nation.  The tradition–a clear manifestation of American exceptionalism–goes back to 1908.

David Wharton explains it all at the LA Times.  Here is a taste:

Most Olympic teams briefly lower their colors as a sign of respect when they march past the box where the host nation’s leaders are seated. The U.S. does not.

When the Americans pick a flag bearer for the 2012 London Olympics this week, he or she almost certainly will be advised to uphold a tradition that dates back more than a century.

According to popular legend, shotputter Ralph Rose set the tone at the 1908 Summer Games — also held in London — when he supposedly proclaimed: “This flag dips for no earthly king.”

To the rest of the world, it seemed like blatant nationalism. The truth of the matter, and the history of America’s refusal to dip, is far more complicated than that.

I wonder if this non-dipping practice will have any deeper resonance this year.  After all, the Olympics are in England!  You know–1776 and all that.

Some Thoughts on David Barton’s "The Jefferson Lies"–Part Three

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

The next academic methodology that David Barton believes is threatening our understanding of Thomas Jefferson is “poststructuralism.”  This “ism” comes from 20th century French intellectual thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.  Poststructuralists are similar to postmodernists in the sense that they do not believe that the human experience or truth can be explained through universal laws of science or morality, but must be understood instead in terms of the “self” or what an individual person believes is true, right, or wrong. In this sense, Christians should be cautious when incorporating poststructural ideas into their views of the world.  In their purest form, these ideas can become a threat to traditional Christianity.

Barton’s biggest gripe with poststructuralism (or at least how he defines poststructuralism) is that it encourages people to see themselves not as members of a nation or a larger community, but as members of a particular interest group.  In other words, it celebrates individual diversity rather than national unity.  Here Barton is making a slightly veiled attack on multiculturalism and the decline of a national identity to which all true Americans–regardless of personal history, race, ethnicity, etc…must assimilate.

But Barton fails to see himself and his followers as one of the so-called interests groups that is undermining national harmony and community.  He has no desire for working with those with whom he differs to create the kind of national unity he wants to preserve or cultivate.  Instead he continues to immerse himself in the culture war rhetoric that has made him famous.

By decrying a sense of national unity, and blaming our loss of such unity on those scary poststructuralists, Barton will win points among his readership.  Here he has tapped into one of the major battlegrounds of the culture wars. 

He takes his argument even further by arguing that the logical result of poststructualism and deconstructionism is a failure to recognize that America is an exceptional nation.

Barton and I would probably agree on the idea that the United States is an exceptional nation.  As more and more nations come to model the United States, it becomes less and less exceptional, but this does not take away from the fact that the U.S. has led the way in many areas of political and economic life. I am making a historical argument here.

But as a Christian, and one who shares the same faith as Barton, I think the idea of American exceptionalism should be embraced with much caution. As I argued in my previous post on deconstructionism and elsewhere, we must be willing to critique the policies of the United States when they do not conform to Christian teaching in the same way that we praise the country when its policies do reflect Christian theological and moral views.  And yes, this includes Thomas Jefferson as well.

To put it differently, I feel more comfortable thinking about American exceptionalism in historical terms than in moral or patriotic terms. 

For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I heard that it’s pretty good 🙂