Ernie Boyer for Peace

You cannot spend any length of time at Messiah College without hearing about Ernest L. Boyer.  Boyer was a Messiah alumnus, the Commissioner of Education in the Carter Administration (this was before the creation of the cabinet position known today as the “Secretary of Education”), the Chancellor of the State University of New York system, and the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.”

As Devin Manzullo-Thomas notes at his excellent blog, “The Search for Piety and Obedience,” Boyer was also a member of the Brethren in Christ Church.  Manzullo-Thomas has posted a clip of an interview with Boyer in which he discusses the importance of peace.  I am guessing it was conducted sometime in the early 1980s.

This Week’s Patheos Column: America, a Great and Flawed Nation

Of all the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the most complex. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence—the document that declared that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was the founder of one of our great public universities—the University of Virginia. He defended the rights of the common man and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Although he made several efforts to try to bring the “peculiar institution” of slavery to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to maintain his Virginia planter lifestyle—complete with all its consumer goods and luxury items. He was in debt for most of his adult life. And he is likely the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Jefferson’s story reminds us that history is complicated. As Christians, we must always remember that there are no heroes in history. We are flawed, sinful human beings in need of redemption. Even the great ones, like King David, fail. But there are also no villains in history. All of us have been created in the image of God and thus possess dignity and worth. History reminds us that when we put our confidence in people, whether they lived in the past (such as the founding fathers) or live in the present, we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed.

Read the rest here.

Are We a Nation of Individuals or a Community?

Duke University history professor William H. Chafe asks the age-old question in an op-ed in the Seattle Times.  He reminds us that the tensions between individualism and community have been around for a long time.  Here is a taste:

THE partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person’s ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 in search of religious freedom, their leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said their mission was to create a “city upon a hill,” a society that embodied values so noble that the entire world would emulate them.

Winthrop wrote, we would need to strengthen, defend, preserve, comfort and love each other, and bear one another’s burdens. “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the community as members of the same body.”

Massachusetts was governed in its early decades by a sense the communal good must prevail. “Just prices” were prescribed for goods, and punishment was imposed on businesses that sought excess profits.

Soon enough, a surge of individualism challenged such regulations. Entrepreneurs viewed communal rules as shackles to be broken so they could pursue individual aspirations — and profits. The “just price” was discarded.

While religion remained a powerful presence, secularism ruled everyday business life, and Christianity was restricted to a once-a-week ritual. Class distinctions proliferated, economic inequality increased, and the values of laissez-faire individualism displaced the once enshrined “common wealth.”

No Star Spangled Banner at Goshen College

In February 2010, we did a post on Goshen College’s decision to play the Star Spangled Banner before sporting events.  You may recall that Goshen is a Mennonite college and Mennonites have historically been both pacifist and opposed to public displays of nationalism.  Yet, back in February, the college concluded that playing the Star Spangled Banner before games was OK for the following reasons:

  • We believe that playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another.
  • We believe playing the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one’s citizenship. We have shown that in the past in a variety of other ways, such as flying a flag on campus, praying for all men and women serving our country, welcoming military veterans as students and employees, annually celebrating the U.S. Constitution, and encouraging voting.
  • We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus – the ultimate peacemaker – loving all people of the world.
  • We believe playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique – if need be – as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism, and human rights abuses.

It now appears that the Goshen administration has changed its mind.  Yesterday the college issued a press release stating that it will no longer play the Star Spangled Banner before games and will look for an “alternative to playing the Star-Spangled Banner that fits with sports tradition, that honors country and that resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.”

Goshen should be applauded for remaining true to its roots, but this decision by the college Board of Directors also seems to present a small roadblock for president James Brenneman’s attempt to make the Mennonite college appealing to students of other Christian faith traditions.  (Or at least this is how I read the press release).

Here is a taste:

The Board expressed a strong commitment to advancing with President Brenneman the vision for Goshen College to be an influential leader in liberal arts education with a growing capacity to serve a theologically, politically, racially and ethnically diverse constituency both within and beyond the Mennonite church. The Board concluded that continuing to play the national anthem compromised the ability of college constituents to advance the vision together.

“The Board has a diversity of views on this issue as reflected throughout the process of considering the anthem,” said Rick Stiffney of Goshen, the chair of the Board. “The Board itself struggled with significant differences and conflicting perspectives, so this decision was not easy and took many hours of discernment and prayer. Our resolution represents our best effort to find a path of wisdom that we could endorse together.

“We recognize that some people may not be satisfied with this decision, but we believe it is the right one for Goshen College. We also believe this decision will enable the college and the board to move forward and prepare with joy for the 2011-2012 academic year.”

Responding to the decision, President Brenneman said, “I am convinced that Goshen College is on a challenging and rewarding journey toward becoming a more diverse institution that serves an increasingly diverse community. I am hopeful that this resolution will help Goshen College move forward together, and focus on finding new ways to welcome students from our local and regional community.”

Carlos Romero, executive director of the Mennonite Education Agency and an ex-officio member of the Board, affirmed the decision and the message he said it will communicate to the college’s constituents, Mennonite Church USA members and other people of faith.

“Goshen College has been and remains a ministry of Mennonite Church USA with an enduring peace tradition,” Romero said. “The Board’s decision reflects a belief that faith and honoring country can co-exist without disturbing higher allegiances to God and that Goshen College will become increasingly diverse and will welcome diverse viewpoints.”

Romero also commended the Board, President Brenneman and the President’s Council for carefully studying, discussing and prayerfully deciding the anthem issue. “The willingness to listen and learn from one another has indeed modeled a process to the wider church and community about how to engage difficult issues. In today’s polarized culture, that is indeed an important gift,” he said.

U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A

The Atlantic asks “What accounts for the ubiquitous cheer of U-S-A following bin Laden’s death?  What is the history of this cheer? 

According to The Atlantic, the first U-S-A chant took place on October 26, 1979 when the United States men’s soccer team defeated Hungary 2-0 in Budapest.

It next appeared in 1980 during the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.  The cheer was first uttered during the United States-Czechoslovakia hockey game and then became “a perfect soundtrack to the triumph over the Soviets.”

The cheer appeared again in 1984 as part of both the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles and Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign.

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan brought the chant to the World Wrestling Federation in 1987.   It was also used during the Gulf War in 1991 and then throughout the 1990s on the Jerry Springer Show (after the crowd chanted “Jerry! Jerry!).

The chant has been an ongoing joke on the Fox animated show, The Simpsons.  It returned again after the 9-11-2001 attacks.  Conan O’Brien often uses it when he flubs a joke.  It was chanted as well at a Pittsburgh Pirates game when a drunken fan was Tasered and clubbed by police.

Well, there you have it–a short history of the U-S-A chant.  Did The Atlantic miss anything?

Why Have American Historians Stopped Writing About National Character?

David Kennedy addresses this question in his recent review of Claude Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.  (You may recall that we discussed this book in previous posts here and here

Kennedy offers a very insightful overview of the way in which today’s American historians tend to write more about what happened in America and less about the meaning America.  This, however, has not always been the case.  Kennedy places Fischer’s book in the context of other works about America written by Francis Parkman, Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, Gunnar Myrdal, Daniel Boorstin, H. Richard Niebuhr, David Reisman, Henry Nash Smith, Robert Bellah, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert Putnam.  These writers made “the nation” the most important focus of the study of American history.

Why the move away from the nation?  Kennedy explains, with some help from the late John Higham:

Unfortunately, historians have made no significant contributions to that body of work for nearly two generations (Bellah is a sociologist, Putnam a political scientist; Lipset, who died in 2006, was also a sociologist). Higham dated the termination of historians’ interest in national character to the 1960s and attributed it to two factors. One, he said, was “a profound revulsion, initially against the state”—the most obvious institutional representation of the nation—“for the inhumanities it perpetrated or protected at home and overseas. ” The second, and probably more dispositive, reason was a new historiography, largely European in its origins, dedicated to l’histoire totale and especially to the project of bringing onto history’s stage the stories of marginal or submerged peoples and communities, “rather than the uniqueness of any great community.”

That robust historiographical movement was further energized in the American case—where it was called “social history,” or “history from the bottom up”—by the striking emergence of black nationalist and separatist ideologies in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, the dramatic rise of an articulate feminist movement, and the no-less dramatic resumption of immigration after the repeal of the National Origins statute in 1965. In light of these anti-authoritarian developments and quests for racial, ethnic, and gender identity, it became not merely unfashionable, but professionally suicidal, for historians to suggest that the encompassing character of a society was itself a fit subject for study. In the scholarly vernacular, historians became a guild of splitters, not lumpers. In the popular vernacular, they retreated to their many separate silos and gave up the quest for a synthetic principle that might impart some measure of coherence to their prolific but woefully hermetic studies of race, class, and gender. Diversity became the guiding mantra of contemporary culture and historical scholarship alike. What unifying elements might have historically contained, connected, or shaped all that diversity were questions that went unasked. 

Read the entire review in Boston Review.

Evangelicalism and National Idolatry

Over at Patheos, Timothy Dalrymple is running a forum on this subject.  He is asking experts from the evangelical community to reflect on these questions:

1.  When does patriotism pass over into idolatry?  How do we define America-worship?  What is the difference between loving, honoring, and worshiping America?

2.  What are the healthy and unhealthy ways of relating politics and religion?

3.  What is the evidence that politically conservative evangelicals have become guilty of America-worship and wrongly relating their politics to their faith?

If I get the time, I would like to take a crack at these questions here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. In the meantime, how would you answer any or all of these questions?

What Evangelicals Really Think of Glenn Beck

Time‘s Elizabeth Dias writes that not all evangelicals are on the Glenn Beck bandwagon. Here is a taste:

Leith Anderson, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, told TIME that Saturday was no watershed moment harnessing evangelical power under a new conservative leader: “I think it was one more Washington rally.” David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, said evangelicals are wary of partnering with a vague God of civil religion or Mormonism: “Neither one of those is specifically the same God that evangelicals believe is true and worship.” And as Amy pointed out earlier this week, Russell Moore, Dean of the School of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, nailed the rally as a scandal and called pastors to teach their churches “[…] to know the difference between the kingdom of God and the latest political whim.”

Despite Beck’s proclamations that the rally had no political agenda, portraying the Constitution or Declaration as common “sacred texts” immediately lands him in an evangelical political-theology minefield, where evangelicals debate whether their allegiance stands first with the flag or the Eucharist table. Anderson cautions that faith in God—not politics or morals—has the highest place for evangelicals. “The attempt to elevate political and other persuasions to anything close to the level of the importance of the Bible or faith in Jesus Christ is to deeply misunderstand evangelical faith and truth, and a lot of people [read: Beck] try to do that,” he says.

America: God’s BFF

Karen Spears Zacharias claims that “God does not love America.” I think she is right, although I probably would not have put in those terms. Here is a taste of her blog post:

God does not love America.

If that offends you, you have a problem.

God does not love Israel.

Israel as a nation is a construct of the Truman Administration and some legal wrangling within the United Nations.

I know we have been taught — truly indoctrinated — to think otherwise. I get it. It’s a hard truth to realize that as a nation God is no more devoted to us than he is to Afghanistan or Iraq, Iran or North Korea. It’s like learning that your mama loves your brother as much as she loves you. It’s disappointing to not be the favorite.

But when it comes to nation-building, God does not play favorites.

I understand how we got to this place — the place where we believe that we are God’s BFF.

We packed up our wooden trunks, left Granny and the chickens behind, because it was obvious to us, if not to our neighbors, that Europe was morally and religiously corrupt. We were going to be a better people than they were. We were going to go all out for God. We were going to worship him in a way that was denied us in Europe. We were going to create the pure society. We’d teach the world what being sold out to God really looked like. Oh. Yeah, we’d teach the world to sing, too…

Read the rest here.

A New Consensus?

Some of my students or former students reading this blog might remember me harping in class about the “Consensus View” of American history. Consensus scholars–the political scientist Louis Hartz and historian Daniel Boorstin come immediately to mind–tended to focus on the ideas that defined a uniquely American character. Those ideas usually boiled down to some form of economic (capitalism) or political (freedom) liberalism.

The Consensus view of America is still with us today and it experienced a bit of a revival in the wake of September 11, 2001. The followers of the late Samuel Huntington, author of the controversial Who Are We” The Challenges to America’s National Identity come to mind, but I am sure you can think of others.

In academic circles this view of American history was crushed by social historians and New Left historians in the 1960s and 1970s who began seeing national character as problematic. These historians focused more on diversity and pluralism. By concentrating their scholarly attention on African-Americans, women, the working-class, native Americans, farmers, and other people who were not part of the Consensus story, a new, more complex narrative of American life emerged.

The liberalism of Hartz, Boorstin, and others was also challenged by a group of historians–led by Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood–who suggested that it was actually civic humanism or “republicanism” and not liberalism that was at the core of the American character. Unlike the New Left historians, the historians of civic humanism did not deny the existence of a distinct American character, they just thought it rested in an intellectual tradition that found it roots in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and not in the liberalism of the English or French Enlightenment.

I decided to revisit this lesson in historiography because the Consensus view of American life is making another comeback in the form of sociologist Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. (We have blogged about this book before). Here is a snippet from an excellent review of the book by Vanderbilt historian Sarah E. Igo:

Concerned as it is with the contours of American character as well as culture, it is hard to read Fischer’s book as other than an argument for consensus history. If Made in America is a reminder of the perils of that tradition, it also brings to mind what is compelling about it: clear storylines with the power to shape what Commager might have called the national imagination. There is an audience for such work and thus an opportunity for it to enter into public conversation and understanding. It is on this score that Fischer’s accessible book is most valuable, upending much conventional wisdom about American history, from the religiosity of the founding generation to the lack of community spirit in our own.

Churches and the 4th of July

I was sitting in my living room earlier this evening, talking with my wife and relaxing after mowing the lawn, when the topic of tomorrow morning’s church service came to mind. Just how patriotic was it going to be? The last time the 4th of July fell on a Sunday I was visiting a church where a military officer spoke, there were images flashed across the screens of soldiers in combat, and patriotic songs were sung with great gusto and verve.

This may be why I was attracted to David T. Koyzis‘s post at Evangel entitled “Civil Religion and National Holidays.” Here is a taste:

More than two decades ago I walked into the building of a megachurch near Chicago on the Sunday nearest the Independence Day holiday. I sat down prepared to worship the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, but I was disappointed by what I saw when I opened the bulletin. Every “hymn” was a national song of some sort, including the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At one point in the service the congregation was expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, apparently substituting for the Creed, which was nowhere in sight. I chose not to remain for the service, got up and left, feeling somewhat cheated.

I am not opposed to expressions of patriotic loyalty, which have their place and time. But I strenuously object to devoting an entire Sunday liturgy to what in effect is a glorification of nation. Nor am I keen on the presence of a national flag in the sanctuary and other symbols of nationhood.

My sentiments exactly. Thanks David.

As to whether or not a church should fly a flag in the sanctuary I learned a lot from Charles Drew, A Public Faith: A Balanced Approach to Social and Political Action.

Texas, Stalin, and History Textbooks

BBC News Magazine is running an opinion piece by David Cannadine on writing history “to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” It has some interesting comparisons between Stalin’s approach to history and the approach taken recently by the majority members of the Texas Board of Education.

Now before you jump down my throat, I want to be clear as to what I am saying here and what I am not saying here. I am not saying that the conservative members of the Texas Board of Education are Stalinists. But I am saying that both the Soviets and the Texas Board, though they differ ideologically, both seem to want to promote a kind of history in schools that celebrates heroes, downplays the negative, and exalts the nation.

Here is a taste:

According to a newspaper report last week, the Russian authorities have recently gathered together a group of academics to draw up a school textbook that would present an approved version of the complex and controversial events that make up Russian history.

The aim is to play down the deplorable excesses of the Communist regime: the show trials, the purges, the gulags, the abuses of human rights and the denial of individual freedom.

As one official explained, “we understand that school is a unique social institution that forms all citizens”; which means it is essential they should be taught history, especially the right kind of history. “We need a united society,” the apparatchik goes on, and to achieve that end, “we need a united textbook”.

This isn’t the first time such an enterprise has been undertaken in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, an earlier leader who had exactly the same idea is one of the people who must be causing this recent gathering of academics the greatest difficulties.

For in 1934, it was Stalin himself who convened an earlier meeting of historians to discuss the very same issue, namely the teaching of history in Russian schools. He disapproved of the conventional class-based accounts then available, which were strongly influenced by Marxist doctrines, and which traced the development of Russia from feudalism to capitalism and beyond.

“These textbooks,” Stalin thundered, “aren’t good for anything. It’s all epochs and no facts, no events, no people, no concrete information.”

History, he concluded somewhat enigmatically, “must be history” – by which, in this case, he meant a cavalcade of national heroes, whose doings might appeal more broadly to the Russian people than the arid abstractions of class analysis and social structure.

As such, Stalin’s earlier enterprise in national history writing sounds rather similar to what’s happening now. Yet in any country which aspires to a measure of academic freedom, and it is to be hoped that such is the case in Russia today, it’s very difficult to produce an agreed account of the national past.

HT: AHA Today

Is There a Difference Between the Christian Right and the Texas GOP?

Dan Quinn at Texas Freedom Network does not think so and it appears that he is correct. Quinn links to an Austin Statesman-American video report on the prayer rally at the Texas GOP Convention. The woman connecting Psalm 74 to the the protection of the U.S.-Mexico border is downright scary in her interpretation of this Old Testament passage. When American flags are waved at a worship service something is not right. See for yourself:

The National Anthem at Goshen

A few weeks ago we blogged about the decision made by Goshen College, a Mennonite school, to play the national anthem at sporting events.

Now, over at Religion in American History, Goshen alum and American historian Steven Miller offers his take on this decision. His post is called “Goshen College Gets (Civil) Religion.”

Here is a snippet:

The criticism of the new anthem policy within Goshen circles has some interesting parallels to how the “young evangelicals” of the early 1970s interpreted Robert Bellah’s famous “civil religion” thesis. That is, they focused almost exclusively on the priestly, rather than the prophetic, side of American civil religion. Such an approach might work as theology, but it does not suffice as history. In the classroom this semester, I have tried to get my students thinking about the multiple meaning of American-ness (and claims to American-ness) by using a modified form of Gary Gerstle’s civic vs. racial nationalism rubric, which I’ve long thought also is relevant to the study of American religion.

I’m intrigued to hear criticism of the anthem policy coming from other than Mennonite circles. It’s as if Goshen had some sort of obligation to be the foil for Christendom. Where did these high expectations come from? My best guess is the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a vocal fan of Mennos who hitched his highly influential post-liberal vision to the spirit of the very Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

As the above thoughts might suggest, I’m not terribly bothered by the new policy—a fact that puts me in the minority among my alumni friends. In deciding to play the anthem before most sporting events, the college unquestionably is abandoning a source of Mennonite distinctiveness. On the other hand, no one who attends a Goshen baseball game—and hears an announcement of the school’s core values (three of which are “Global Citizenship, Servant Leadership and Compassionate Peacemaking”), followed by a musical version the anthem, followed in turn by the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi—will mistake the place for Patrick Henry College. Besides, our nickname is not “Crusaders,” not “Flames”; it’s “Maple Leafs.”

Goshen College Allows National Anthem at Sporting Events

As many of my readers know, I teach at a college with roots in the Anabaptist tradition. This tradition plays itself out in a variety of ways on campus, but perhaps none more obvious than the college’s decision not to fly an American flag. It is a longstanding Anabaptist belief that symbols of nationalism suggest a commitment to nation above God.

Messiah College does make some exceptions to this rule. As a member of the NCAA, it is required to display a flag at sporting events and play the national anthem before games. Only a small percentage of students come from strict Anabaptist churches.

Messiah has a loose and historic connection with a small denomination known as the Brethren in Christ. Theologically, the Brethren in Christ incorporates various strains of Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism.

Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana also has Anabaptist roots, but it is a much more self-identified Mennonite college than Messiah. Flag-flying and national anthem playing are largely frowned upon at Goshen. Yet recently the college decided that it would play an instrumental version of the Star Spangled Banner before certain sporting events. The decision was made for the following reasons:

  • We believe that playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another.
  • We believe playing the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one’s citizenship. We have shown that in the past in a variety of other ways, such as flying a flag on campus, praying for all men and women serving our country, welcoming military veterans as students and employees, annually celebrating the U.S. Constitution, and encouraging voting.
  • We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus – the ultimate peacemaker – loving all people of the world.
  • We believe playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique – if need be – as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism, and human rights abuses.

According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, the decision has been controversial among some students and alumni.

The Agrarian Recovery of the Human Person

Last night I read a great essay by social critic Allan Carlson entitled “Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Recovery of the Human Person.” It appears in an equally great book: Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, edited by Wilfred McClay (Eerdmans, 2007).

Carlson writes about Berry’s attempt to build an alternative culture to the liberal capitalism, individualism, competitiveness, and bourgeois sensibilities that define the world today. He wants “small economies built on productive households.” He has “rejected American nationhood, embracing instead a local patriotism celebrating his small corner of rural Kentucky.” (Berry lives on an 85 acre hillside in Kentucky where he farms and writes). He summons his readers “back to the burdens and responsibilities of wifery, husbandry, marriage, and community building.” Carlson describes his alternative culture as “anti-materialist, self-sufficient, localist, communal, familistic, and agrarian.”

Carlson writes from a conservative or traditionalist perspective. (I should add here that Berry is loved by both liberals and conservatives). He connects Berry’s ideas to the kind of “distributionism” of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc as well as the Vanderbilt agrarians of the 1930s who wrote I’ll Take My Stand.

Carlson writes: “In one respect, Berry rejects here the idea of a universal human nature. Ties of place and memory mean that the nature of the human person will take on different characteristics in different places. To be human is to be in one of these local particular settings.” Such a rooted and place centered view of human nature leads Berry to reject the universalism of nationalism. As Berry once said about Port William, the fictional community he created in his many novels and short stories: “No more can I think of Port William and the United States in the same thought…A nation is an idea, and Port William is not.”

Carlson’s essay is a worth reading. He likes Berry and has spent the better of his career promoting some of his ideas about the place of the family in American life. But if you want to experience Berry without the so-called “middle man,” go pick up one of his novels or collection of essays and experience his radical ideas for yourself. I recommend starting with Jayber Crow.

Another Day With Lincoln and Teachers

Today was the second day of my “Teachers as Scholars” seminar: “Abraham Lincoln and American Nationalism.” We spent most of the morning talking about Lincoln’s understanding of the Union as it related to the Emancipation Proclamation, his belief in “total war,” and the Gettysburg Address. I lectured for an hour or so on the way in which the Emancipation Proclamation allowed Lincoln to accomplish his goals of preserving the Union and freeing the slaves. I then showed the teachers the section on Sherman’s March and the Battle of Franklin in Ken Burns’s PBS series, “The Civil War.” After watching this, I gave them a host of quotes about nineteenth-century warfare. We discussed McClellan’s “civil” approach to war, Sherman and Grant’s “total war” approach, and a few paragraphs from Charles Royster’s excellent The Destructive War. The goal was to portray Lincoln as a president who was absolutely committed to total war as a means of preserving the Union.

After lunch in Messiah College’s Lottie Nelson Dining Hall we did some exegesis of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address with help from Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. We talked a great deal about Lincoln as a “theologian” and we examined the 2nd Inaugural alongside the comments on the war made by some of the period’s leading Christian clergymen.

I always learn something from the teachers I am supposed to be teaching. Today was no exception. Thanks to Steve, M.J. Chrissy, Kristi, and Ann for spending ten hours with me exploring the ideas of Abraham Lincoln.

Oh Let Us Turn Our Thoughts Today to Martin Luther King

Today I taught Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was part of the “community” unit in Messiah College’s first-year CORE course: Created and Called for Community. I am by no means an expert on King or the Civil Rights movement, but I always enjoy teaching things outside of my area of expertise.

This time around I was struck by King’s nationalism. True national community, according to King, is rooted in “just laws. He defines a “just law” as a “man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” An “unjust law” is a “code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Just laws “uplift human personality” or respect the inherent dignity and worth of human beings. Unjust laws do not. Thus King’s vision for America is a Christian one. Equality, freedom, and liberty can only be sustained when a society’s laws measure up to the law’s of God.

But sometimes, King argues, Christians fail to promote just laws. This was certainly the case with churches of the 1960s American south. (See David Chappell’s great book, A Stone of Hope , on this issue). The fact that the church does not “come to the aid of justice” does not worry King because justice is also embedded in the values and ideals that have defined the nation throughout American history. As King puts it, “the goal of America is freedom.” And it always has been.

King believes that the only way to end segregation is to embrace these universal principles that define Christian and American views of justice. King takes on the local ministers in Birmingham who perceive him as an outside agitator. He makes no apologies for his visit to this heavily segregated city. He represents the ideals of the United States of America and Christianity against the localism of Birmingham–a localism defined by racism and segregation.

I left class today thinking, once again, about the relationship between place and cosmopolitanism. (For my thoughts on this idea in an eighteenth-century context click here). King’s “Letter” reminds me that a commitment to localism, regionalism, place, and tradition has sometimes resulted in the worst forms of injustice. This was certainly the case with the history of the American south.

The Republic in Print

About ten years ago, during my stint as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, I met Trish Loughran. Though we both spent the 1998-1999 academic year together in residence at Penn, I did not get to know her that well. (We did occasionally chat about our New Jersey roots). I was, however, very impressed with her research project–a study of print culture and nationalism in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I was thus pleased to see that her book, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, appeared a couple of years ago with Columbia University Press. It is due out in paperback later this month.

Well, I have finally gotten around to reading it. In this forcefully argued book, Loughran concludes that print culture is overrated as a way of explaining the emergence of American nationalism. In doing so, she challenges scholars such as Michael Warner and Benedict Anderson who have argued that print culture was the key to the development of national identity. Instead, Loughran focuses on the weaknesses of the print/communication infrastructure in early 19th century America. Without this strong infrastructure, print culture could not play a prominent role in Americans’ understanding of their national identity until, ironically, just before the Civil War.

My favorite section of the book deals with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Loughran concludes that Paine’s influence on the American Revolution was not as strong as historians make it out to be. In fact, there is no way possible, she argues, that Common Sense sold as many copies (over 100,ooo) as Paine claimed that it did. The communication networks throughout the British colonies were far too weak and fragile for this to happen. (Loughran’s argument here has been challenged by Robert G. Parkinson in his review of the book in the recent Common-Place, but I would encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, Loughran seems pretty convincing. I actually made a similar argument about print and the spread of the First Great Awakening here).

I wish Loughran would have explored religious print culture a bit more. Nathan Hatch, for example, has argued that religious print played a powerful role in what he calls The Democratization of American Christianity. What role did religious print play in the construction of American nationalism and, particularly, the sense of providential or Christian nationalism that permeated early 19th life. I also wonder how the appearance of Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, with its focus on the development of a communication infrastructure, may have influenced Loughran’s interpretation? I suspect it may have confirmed many of her conclusions.

Read this book.