The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

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

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

Do We Really Live in a Disenchanted World?

DisenchantmentJason A Josephson-Storm, a religion professor at Williams College, thinks that disenchantment is a myth.  Over at Immanent Frame he writes about his new book The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of Human Sciences.

Here is a taste:

A great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

Read the entire piece here.

It sounds as if anyone who studies lived religion, or actually practices a religious faith, will resonate with this new book.

America’s First Anti-Slavery Statute

PujaraIt was passed in 1652 in Rhode Island colony.  It applied to Warwick and Providence. It banned lifetime ownership of slavery.  It was probably never enforced.

Olivia Waxman explains it all at Time.  Her piece centers around the work of Christy Clark-Pujara in Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.  Some of you may recall that Clark-Pujara visited the Author’s Corner in August 2016.

Here is a taste of Waxman’s piece:

Slavery in the United States wasn’t abolished at the federal level until after the Civil War, but on this day in history, May 18, 1652, the first anti-slavery statute in the U.S. colonies was passed in what’s now the state of Rhode Island. (The statute only applied to white and black people, but in 1676, the enslavement of Native Americans was also prohibited in the state.) While it sounds like Rhode Island was ahead of its time — and, in some ways, it was — what actually happened was complicated.

Though Rhode Island’s Quaker population was starting to question slavery and the relatively young colony was looking for ways to differentiate itself from neighboring Massachusetts, the statute was very limited. For one thing, the law, which only applied to Providence and Warwick, banned lifetime ownership of slaves. For periods of 10 years or less, it was still permitted to essentially own another person, as an indentured servent. And it’s not as if, 10 years after the statute was passed, people let their slaves go.

“There’s no evidence that it was ever enforced,” says Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island and professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One possible reason is that Rhode Island also couldn’t afford to enforce a ban on slavery. The colony dominated the North American trade of slaves, with Newport is the major slave-trading port in North America. New England farms at this point weren’t producing anything that England wasn’t already producing, so England didn’t need these things, which meant that the region served as supplier instead for the West Indies and the large slave population of that region. In return for the food and housewares sent from the U.S. to the West Indies, New England got molasses, which it used to distill rum, and Rhode Island actually became the number-one exporter of rum.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with William Hogeland

Black SnakeWilliam Hogeland is a writer and historian.  This interview is based on his new book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: When I stumbled over the story of the first war this nation ever fought, I had strong feelings that its obscurity had to be undeserved.  As I began to explore the story and its nuances, that impression only grew.  Not I think its one of the two or three pivotal events of the American founding, and that both its importance and its strange obscurity are revealing of the deepest themes in American life.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: Victory in the war of 1791-1794 to conquer what is now the Midwest — the war in which the nation’s army was first formed, against strong political opposition to forming a national army — ignited American empire. The desire of speculators and developers — George Washington is probably the most famous — to gain possession of that territory had been integral to American independence and American nation; defeating and removing the people of indigenous nations formerly occupying that region begins with the founding generation, and with the Washington administration, and is a hallmark of the republic’s founding. 

JF: Why do we need to read Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: It’s pretty hard for me to claim that anyone really needs to read my book. I hope the characters, action, and themes I’ve discovered in the story I tell will make it rewarding reading for anyone interested in the origins of the nation and the key issues we continue to struggle with today. 

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

WH: I began telling stories of the American past after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I didn’t think that project would necessarily continue after my first book, The Whiskey Rebellion, so an exact “why” is hard to come up with, but I was interested at that moment in violence and terror in the American origin story. 

JF: What is your next project?

WH: TBD

JF: Thanks, Bill.

America and the Ten Commandments

StoneOxford University Press blog is running an excerpt from Jenna Weissman Joselit‘s new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

Here is a taste:

Although we are told that Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, their presence has always been particularly strong in America. Regardless of who invokes them and for what purpose, the Ten Commandments have proved to be incredibly versatile and enduring in our cultural idiom. Below you’ll find ten moments in American history where the Decalogue has made its presence felt.

1. In June 1860, a man in Ohio named David Wyrick found an oddly shaped stone in one of the many Native American burial sites in the area which had indecipherable markings on it. He claimed to have found one of the stone tablets that God had bestowed upon Moses. Largely ridiculed at first, he then discovered another stone, shaped like the top of a church window which was covered in what was later confirmed as a variant of Hebrew script. When brought to experts the script did indeed feature a form of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated, but still the basic text. Was it authentic or an elaborate hoax? You can go to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coschocton, Ohio to see the stones for yourself.

2. In 1897, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan proposed that all immigrants be given a test to display mastery of the Ten Commandments in order to gain American citizenship. He claimed that it was not a religious test but rather a “test that goes to the constitution of society.”

3. In 1905, the Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco revealed the stain glass window of its newly constructed synagogue. At first glance, the window seemed to depict a traditional scene of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets in his hand. Closer examination, however, revealed that the mountain in the background was not Mount Sinai, nor were the flora and fauna that of Israel. Rather, El Capitan of the Yosemite Valley loomed in the background, complete with the plant and animal life of central California, refiguring the Golden State as the Promised Land.

Read the entire post here.

Public Intellectuals: Professors or Pundits?

PIOver at Commonweal, Eric Miller, the Christopher Lasch biographer and Geneva College history professor, reviews Michael C. Desch’s edited collection Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits (Notre Dame, 2016).

The book includes essays by Jeremi Suri, Andrew Bacevich, Mark Lilla, and Patrick Deneen. A few essays that caught my attention:

Suri, “Historical Consciousness, Realism, and Public Intellectuals in American Society.”

Paul Horwitz, “Of Mirrors and Media: The Blogger as Public Intellectual”

Deneen, “The Public Intellectual as Teacher and Students as Public: Declining and Falling Apart.”

Desch, “The Ethical Imperative for Some Scholars to Be Public Intellectuals and for the Rest to Let Them Do So.”

Read Miller’s review here.

Those of us who read Eric Miller can always expect him to end his pieces with a prophetic note–a way forward.

And here it is:

We citizens need a new core curriculum: that much this volume makes clear (even when it’s not trying to). And we need the active presence of that ancient Augustinian city, portending a new one. We need a civil society founded upon the bedrock of institutions that store up treasure capital cannot see. And we need teachers—intellectuals, if you will—who can help us to see and seize that treasure. Now.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Caldwell

TheologiesoftheAmericanRevivalistsRobert Caldwell is Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Ever since my seminary days, I have been fascinated at the interplay between theology and Christian experience or spirituality, most specifically related to Christian conversion. As a scholar working on the First and Second Great Awakenings, I found that many revivalists had a well-developed theology that combined soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with insights related both to how Christian conversion was supposed to be experienced and how the gospel is to be proclaimed. I found that from 1740-1840 there was a rich genre of literature that combined these three elements, which collectively I call “revival theology.” 

Evangelical churches today have given little theological reflection to the nature of Christian conversion and revival. Much of what they do understand is practically oriented and often pre-theological. In this book I examine the numerous schools of theology that evangelicals employed at a time when there was much more theological writing and preaching on the subject. My hope is that Christians today will be both informed and challenged by the various schools of thought presented in the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Theologies of the American Revivalists argues that American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote extensively on what I call “revival theology,” which I define as the three-fold combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. The book identifies, explores, and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

JF: Why do we need to read Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Revivals have been a fundamental feature of American evangelicalism. My hope is that the book has faithfully explored the multiple theological traditions that have undergirded the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Theologians and historians will find an in-depth account these various theological traditions and practices. General Christian readers will hopefully come to appreciate the theological backgrounds to evangelical revivals and see just how deep the interplay is between theology and corporate Christian practice. As I mention in the introduction, the book is “fundamentally a theological history about what it has meant to ‘become a Christian’ during the age of America’s Great Awakenings.” (10)

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

RC: I come to American history as a student of intellectual history and historical theology. I have always been fascinated by the interplay of thought and history. Numerous scholars shaped my work during my student days. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was drawn to the history of science and Isaac Newton’s theology while taking several courses from Dr. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs in the late 1980s. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School I benefitted greatly from courses by Drs. John Woodbridge and Douglas Sweeney, both of whom know how to situate theology deeply in its historical context. There, my interests shifted to the history of theology of American evangelicalism, especially that of Jonathan Edwards. Studying Edwards, his theology and legacy, as well as the First and Second Great Awakenings has required me to become more proficient as a historian. In many ways I still feel like I am becoming an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I am working on two smaller projects now. The first deals with the lesser-known antinomian controversy that surfaced in the late 1750s upon the publication of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio in England (1755). The controversy involved a broad cross-section of American and English non-conformists: New Divinity and traditional Calvinists, Sandemanians, Radical revivalists, Moravians, Methodists, and English Particular Baptists. Another study addresses Jonathan Edwards’s assessment of Isaac Watts. Both Edwards and Watts attempted to do theology while simultaneously engaging the enlightenment. Edwards found Watts’s strategies for doing this woefully inadequate, even though he admired Watts in many ways. Both studies illuminate some of the lesser-known intramural debates that existed among early evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

Religion in Museums

BuggelnLast week I posted about the American Bible Society’s proposed “Faith and Liberty Center.”  As they continue to build this center I would recommend that they take a look at a new book titled Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives.  The book is edited by Gretchen Buggeln, Crispin Paine, and S. Brent Plate, all leaders in the field of religion and material culture.

Here is a taste of Paine’s post about the book at the blog of American Association for State and Local History:

The book has just come out. Its aim is to look at what is going on in museums now, to point to some of the issues that arise when religion meets museum, and to speculate a bit about the future. We invited scholars from all over the world and from a variety of disciplines, but especially museum workers: curators, learning staff and conservators.

Why are museums nowadays taking religion so much more seriously? One reason is surely the urgent need in so many countries to help communities understand each other–and for many of us our religion is a vital part of who we are. Another is certainly the way religion has become such a huge topic in the media, and so enormously important politically. In my own part of the world the collapse of organized religion means that the vast majority of television-watchers or museum-goers have no familiarity with any sort of faith. Yet we all urgently need to understand, and this is happening against the backdrop of the extraordinary worldwide boom in museums and museum-going.

Topics covered in Religion in Museums include repatriation, conservation, architectural design, exhibition, heritage, missionary collections, curation, collections and display, and the visitor’s experience. We’ve tried, too, to include plenty of case studies covering all sorts of museums in all sorts of places.

The book includes 27 essays by contributors from all over the world, in six sections:

  • Museum Buildings
  • Objects, Museums, Religions
  • Responses to Objects, Museums, & Religion
  • Museum Collecting and Research
  • Museum Interpretation of Religion and Religious Objects
  • Presenting Religion in a Variety of Museums

Read the entire post here.

Was the American Revolution a Bad Idea?

RevolutionOver at The New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik explores this idea through a discussion of several new books on the American Revolution.

Here is a taste of his article “We Could Have Been Canada“:

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.

The thought is taboo, the Revolution being still sacred in its self-directed propaganda. One can grasp the scale and strangeness of this sanctity only by leaving America for a country with a different attitude toward its past and its founding. As it happened, my own childhood was neatly divided between what I learned to call “the States” and Canada. In my Philadelphia grade school, we paraded with flags, singing “The Marines’ Hymn” and “Here Comes the Flag!” (“Fathers shall bless it / Children caress it / All shall maintain it / No one shall stain it.”) We were taught that the brave Americans hid behind trees to fight the redcoats—though why this made them brave was left unexplained. In Canada, ninth grade disclosed a history of uneasy compromise duality, and the constant search for temporary nonviolent solutions to intractable divides. The world wars, in which Canadians had played a large part, passed by mostly in solemn sadness. (That the Canadians had marched beyond their beach on D Day with aplomb while the Americans struggled on Omaha was never boasted about.) Patriotic pageantry arose only from actual accomplishments: when Team Canada won its eight-game series against the Russians, in 1972, the entire nation sang “O Canada”—but they sang it as a hockey anthem as much as a nationalist hymn.

Over the years, we have seen how hard it is to detach Americans from even the obviously fallacious parts of that elementary-school saga—the absurd rendering of Reconstruction, with its Northern carpetbaggers and local scalawags descending on a defenseless South, was still taught in the sixties. It was only in recent decades that schools cautiously began to relay the truth of the eighteen-seventies—of gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population.Scars

The Revolution remains the last bulwark of national myth. Academics write on the growth of the Founding Father biographical genre in our time; the rule for any new writer should be that if you want a Pulitzer and a best-seller you must find a Founding Father and fetishize him. While no longer reverential, these accounts are always heroic in the core sense of showing us men, and now, occasionally, women, who transcend their flaws with spirit (though these flaws may include little things like holding other human beings as property, dividing their families, and selling off their children). The phenomenon of “Hamilton,” the hip-hop musical that is, contrary to one’s expectations, wholly faithful to a heroic view of American independence, reinforces the sanctity of the American Revolution in American life.

Academic histories of the Revolution, though, have been peeping over the parapets, joining scholarly scruples to contemporary polemic. One new take insists that we misunderstand the Revolution if we make what was an intramural and fratricidal battle of ideas in the English-speaking Empire look like a modern colonial rebellion. Another insists that the Revolution was a piece of great-power politics, fought in unimaginably brutal terms, and no more connected to ideas or principles than any other piece of great-power politics: America was essentially a Third World country that became the battlefield for two First World powers. Stirred into the larger pot of recent revisionism, these arguments leave us with a big question: was it really worth it, and are we better off for its having happened? In plain American, is Donald Trump a bug or a feature of the American heritage?

Read the entire piece here.

Needless to say, The Weekly Standard is not happy about Gopnik’s piece.  They don’t seem to understand that it is a review essay.

The Author’s Corner with David Harrington Watt

AntiFundamentalismDavid Harrington Watt is Professor of History at Temple University. This interview is based on his new book, Antifundamentalism in Modern America (Cornell University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Antifundamentalism in Modern America?  

DW: In the late 1970s—when I was still an undergraduate at Berkeley—one of my professors suggested that I read Ernest Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by Protestant fundamentalism in the United States.   Shortly after I read Sandeen’s book, I began encountering texts in which Muslims such as the Ayatollah Khomeini were referred to as religious fundamentalists.  Within a few years, I became accustomed to seeing texts in which the fundamentalist label was applied to Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists as well to Muslims and Christians.  Antifundamentalism in Modern America is the result of my trying to find out how and why such a broad array of believers—many of whom didn’t seem to have all that much in common with the people Sandeen wrote about—came to be thought of fundamentalists.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America?

DW: In the early 1920s North Americans began saying that certain groups of people were fundamentalists.  From then until the present day the concept of “fundamentalists” has been routinely deployed to conjure up a set of dangerous others: men and women who are said to constitute a threat to science, peace, justice, and progress.

JF: Why do we need to read Antifundamentalism in Modern America? 

DW: “Need” is an interesting word, isn’t it?  It raises the dread specter of a “required list of assigned readings.”  I don’t want anyone to feel as though they are being required to read Antifundamentalism in Modern America. Readers who want to know more about the history of fundamentalism might, however, enjoy reading it.  So might readers who want to know more about the creation and evolution of categories that are used to identify people whose beliefs and practices are thought to be problematic.  Readers who are interested in what is lost and what is gained when people who don’t think of themselves as fundamentalists get called that by others might also enjoying reading Antifundamentalism in Modern America. I certainly enjoyed doing the research on which the book is based.

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

DW: There is a sense in which I never did decide that.  As an undergraduate I focused on history.  In graduate school I took courses in American Studies as well as in history.  At Temple University—where I’ve taught for thirty years—most of my work has been in history rather than religion.  But I have warm and friendly relations with Temple’s Religion Department and the book series that Laura Levitt, Tracy Fessenden, and I edit for the NYU Press is (for the most part) devoted to works in religious studies rather than history.   This fall I’m going to begin teaching at Haverford College.  Most of my courses there will have to do with various aspects of Quaker Studies. 

Being a disciplinary nomad has presented a few challenges, but it has had some advantages, too.  For one thing, it has given me a chance to keep track of the truly extraordinary work on religion in the United States that is being produced by scholars in both religious studies and history.   It has enabled me to learn from scholars such as Judith Weisenfeld and Marie Griffith and from scholars such as David Hollinger and Matthew Sutton.   That has been deeply rewarding.

JF: What is your next project?

DW: My next project grows out the current one.  As I was studying the history of antifundamentalism, I repeatedly encountered forms of Protestantism that could be described as “liberal,” “progressive,” or “secular.”  Scholars have already taught us a lot about those forms of Protestantism.   But there is still much work that needs to be done.  I’m especially interested in liberal, progressive, and secular forms of Quakerism and the ways in which those forms of Quakerism have influenced U.S. culture as a whole.  In the contemporary United States many people who would never dream of joining a Quaker congregation gladly send their daughters and sons to schools that are committed to “Quaker values.”  One of the questions I’m interested in exploring is why it is that “Quakers values” sometimes seem to be far more appealing that Quakerism itself.

JF: Thanks, David! 

Historicizing Healthcare With Bancroft Prize-Winner Nancy Tomes

TomesEpisode 22 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast will drop on Sunday.  Our guest is Professor Nancy Tomes of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Tomes is the recipient of the 2017 Bancroft Prize for her book Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers.  We are thrilled to have her on the show not only because she wrote a very timely award-winning book, but also because she was a member of my doctoral dissertation committee. (Needless to say, this comes up in the episode!)

With Tomes as our guest, we are devoting the entire episode to the history of healthcare.  Stay tuned.

And if you like what we are doing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, please consider supporting our efforts by heading over to our Patreon site and making a pledge. Good American history is always needed, but it is especially important in times of great political and social change.

The production of a quality podcast can get expensive. Our goal is to get The Way of Improvement Leads Home on solid financial footing so we can move forward and continue to deliver solid American history programming with great guests.

If you can’t support us financially, please consider writing a review of the podcast at ITunes or your favorite podcast site, sending out a tweet or Facebook message telling your friends about our work, or subscribing to the podcast.

Thanks!

The Author’s Corner with Michael Rapport

the-unruly-city.jpgMichael Rapport is Professor of History at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. This interview is based on his new book, The Unruly City:  Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic Books, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Unruly City?

MR: I love walking – in the Scottish Highlands, in countryside and along coastline, but also in cities.  When you walk through a city with a long past, like Paris, London and New York (it has been pointed out that New York is older than Saint Petersburg or Versailles) you get a strong sense of the topography, which is often in itself the physical footprint of the past, no matter how much building and reconstruction has taken place over the decades.  And of course you can come across gems among the buildings and spaces – sometimes an entire street or neighbourhood – that bears an historic character.  All of this sparked my curiosity: what were these cities like two-and-a-half centuries ago?  And how did their citizens experience the upheavals and the fight for democracy in my own historical period, the age of the American and French Revolutions?  How were the buildings and the cityscape marked by these struggles?   I chose to write about Paris because it was the beating heart of revolutionary politics in France; New York because I wanted to explore the vicissitudes of revolution, war, occupation and reconstruction (after the fire in 1776)…and because of all American cities I probably know it the best; and London because it avoided revolution, so took an alternative political path.  These are also three cities that I love.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Unruly City?

MR: I start from an apparently obvious point, namely that revolutions take place in a physical space, that they of course erupt over ideology and culture, political power and social change, but that they are also in a very real sense struggles for the strategic and symbolic control of key places and spaces within the cityscape.  How revolutionaries, radicals and their opponents then adapted, embellished and used the buildings, streets and other sites in the city tells us a lot about the revolutionary process itself.

JF: Why do we need to read The Unruly City?

MR: Firstly, and foremost, I hope, out of pure curiosity: I cannot emphasise enough that this is a book that I wrote primarily to be enjoyed.  Secondly, I hope that readers will share in my own pleasure in walking the city.  While this is not a guidebook to Paris, London and New York, it does gently tell readers (either in the text itself or in the endnotes) how they can find each new site where the action unfurls.  Thirdly, the story of the American and French Revolutions, and of the British democratic movement in the same years, reminds us that many of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy were fought for in the past – and that they are still a matter of contest in many parts of the world today.  Finally, many of the streets, buildings and spaces described in the book still exist today, or their imprint does.  Although their association with the tumultuous events of the revolutionary epoch may now often be forgotten, or overlaid by other, more recent developments, they are – or could be – sites of memory, places that connect us directly with the eighteenth-century struggle for democracy.

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

MR: This will take some space to answer…because I am primarily a European historian.  So to begin with ‘when’, we are all, in different ways, students of history throughout our lives.  I’ve been interested in the past for as long as I can remember.  My father, George Rapport – who is, amongst other things, a keen historian – always encouraged my interests in history and, for a few years, he lived in Belgium, a cycle-ride from the battlefield of Waterloo.  As my interests developed – and because I have both Swedish and Russian heritage – I was drawn to European history.  Moreover, although I was born in the United States (in Bronxville, New York) I have lived almost all my life in Europe, particularly France, England and, for the most part, Scotland, so my identity is probably best described as transatlantic.  I’ve always loved the creative and intellectual challenges of writing – short stories, an historical novel, and, above all, history – and in my late teens was drawn to a career in journalism.  But at school I also had a truly inspiring history teacher – Jeremy Barker – who was a zealous devotee of European history, and particularly modern France and the French Revolution.  At the same time, my mother and stepfather Mike moved to Paris, so historical passion aligned with location: I had found my period, and my place, namely revolutionary France.  My mother Anita was always there to remind me that much of history was social history, so the discovery of ‘how people lived’, has become a mantra.  So I’ve always been absorbed, one way or another, in pursuing the past.  That’s the answer to ‘when’.

That leaves the answer to ‘why’: despite my focus on Europe, my American origins have always been in the background – and they were (and still are) regularly foregrounded by frequent return trips to the US.  When we were boys, my brother Allan and I travelled with my father around sites of the American Revolution.  We visited Civil War sites, too: since my father is an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute, it could not have been otherwise.  My father also wrote a novel about the Fetterman Massacre, during which time my stepmother, Jane, treated us to a trip to Montana and Wyoming as part of the research.  So I’ve had grounding in American history since at least my early teens.  As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I won the Class Medal in the sophomore survey course on American History and then went on the study, as part of my Honours programme, the social history of colonial America under Alan Day, who had pursued his doctorate under none other than Jack P. Greene.  It also so happened that Helen, a Scottish historian (and, it should be said, a specialist in Scottish urban history) and the woman who became my wife, was in the same seminar group, so (as they say) we were firing on all cylinders.  And though I went on to pursue doctoral work at Bristol University with Professor Bill Doyle on the French Revolution, my focus has always been on the revolution in a wider, international context.  I rapidly discovered that, in order to understand the transnational dimension of the French Revolution – its origins, course and legacy – one must also understand, amongst other dimensions, the Atlantic perspective.  So I find myself pulled, repeatedly, back to the young American Republic and the Americas.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: Rather alarmingly, there are four irons heating up in the furnace.  Firstly, in writing The Unruly City, I came across (rather belatedly) a series of theoretical approaches to space and place that has exercised some historians and cultural geographers, namely the ‘spatial turn’, which engages with the different ways in which space, place and location affected human behaviour.  So I am writing a book on revolutionary Paris which deploys the hardware in this arsenal.  Secondly, I am working on a book for Cambridge University Press, A Concise History of Europe.  Thirdly I’m editing The Oxford Handbook to Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914 and, fourthly, I have edited, with my excellent friend and colleague Ben Marsh of Kent University (and an American historian to boot), a volume on Teaching and Understanding the Age of Revolutions, a collection of essays published by the University of Wisconsin Press by leading and up-and-coming historians on a variety of cutting-edge, innovative approaches to teaching and learning about the many different aspects of the ‘age of revolution’ in the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Michael.  You are a busy man!

More on the Trump-Jackson “Bromance”

OpalThis piece comes from McGill University history professor J.M. Opal, author of the forthcoming Avenging People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation.

Here is a taste of his piece in the New York Daily News:

Bottom line: The Civil War began because of the aggressive expansion of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, not the tariff disputes of the 1820s and 1830s. If Jackson and the Democrats had continued to run the country, there might have been no Civil War — but there would have been a lot more slavery, for a lot longer. The United States would have become like Cuba and Brazil, weighed down by slavery well into the late 1800s, long after Britain (in 1834) and France (in 1848) had done away with it.

Why does this matter? Trump’s quasi-history hurts us in two ways. First, it glosses over the terrible fact of slavery. To hear it from Trump, Jackson had nothing to do with slavery, which is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has nothing do with real-estate or casinos. And when we forget about slavery, we overlook the terrible effects it had not just on black Americans but also on the overall development of our democracy.

Second, Trump’s version of history only allows men like him to make a difference. Only strongmen matter. Only they can make America great again.

That was not true in the mid-1800s, and it is not true now. Slavery was finally destroyed in our country because of the combined efforts of white abolitionists, black rebels, devout Christians, Yankee trouble-makers, and the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln was pushed to action by people less powerful and more radical than he was.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Another Historian Tries to Predict the Future

TyrannyTimothy Snyder, a historian at Yale and author of a new book, tells Chauncy DeVega of Salon that “it’s pretty much inevitable” that Donald Trump will attempt to stage a coup and overthrow democracy.  He thinks that we about one year left to save the country from this coup.

Here is a taste of the interview:

In your book you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?

Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.

This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.

Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.

My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.

What can citizens do? What would your call to action be?

The whole point of my new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is that we have a century of wisdom and very smart people who confronted situations like our own — but usually more demanding — and that wisdom can be condensed.

What my book does is it goes across the arc of regime change, from the beginning to the end, and it provides things ranging from simpler to harder that people can literally do every day.

The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than [in] a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that, it really can make a difference — but again only at the beginning.

What are some of the more difficult and challenging things that people can do?

The last lesson in On Tyranny is to be as courageous as you can. Do you actually care enough about freedom that you would take risks? Do individuals actually care about freedom? Think that through. I think if enough of us take the little risks at the beginning, which aren’t really that significant, this will prevent us from having to take bigger risks down the line.

We are still at a stage where protest is not illegal. We’re still at a stage where protest is not lethal. Those are the two big thresholds. We are still on the good side of both of those thresholds and so now is the time you want to pack in as much as you can because you could actually divert things. Once you get into a world where protest is illegal, then the things that I recommend like corporeal politics, getting out on the streets — they have to happen but they are much riskier. It’s a much different kind of decision.

//html5shim.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/html5.js

How much time does American democracy have left before this poison becomes lethal and there is no path of return? 

You have to accept there is a time frame. Nobody can be sure how long this particular regime change with Trump will take, but there is a clock, and the clock really is ticking. It’s three years on the outside, but in more likelihood something like a year. In January 2018 we will probably have a pretty good idea which way this thing is going. It’s going to depend more on us than on them in the meantime. Once you get past a certain threshold, it starts to depend more on them than on us, and then things are much, much worse. It makes me sad to think how Americans would behave at that point.

Read the entire interview here.  Pretty apocalyptic.  Snyder should sell a lot of books.

 

The Author’s Corner with Mark Lempke

My brothers keeper.jpgMark Lempke is a visiting instructor  at the University at Buffalo–Singapore. This interview is based on his new book, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: When I was an undergraduate at Houghton College- an evangelical school in New York’s Southern Tier- I wrote a research paper on the 1972 election for one of my history classes. I was just curious how anybody could lose forty-nine states—especially to Nixon! In the process, I discovered an intriguing tidbit: George McGovern’s father, a Wesleyan pastor, had been an early alum of Houghton. Back then, it felt like every evangelical I had encountered was a conservative Republican, so it seemed very strange to me that perhaps the most leftist figure ever nominated by a major party had ties to that tradition. Over many years, curiosity gave way to research, and I found that George McGovern’s life could serve as a useful narrative arc to study the fortunes of Christian social justice in American politics.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: Despite its reputation for secularism, left liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was deeply indebted to a religious tradition rooted in the social gospel and ecumenical activism. George McGovern’s use of the prophetic tradition on the campaign trail acted as something of a conduit, channeling support from both mainline and evangelical Protestants concerned with social justice.

JF: Why do we need to read My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: My Brother’s Keeper tries to shed some light on the question of why a “Christian Left” has been so elusive. One of the big differences between the postwar “Christian Right” and the “Christian Left” is that the latter views its activism as essentially prophetic in nature. That means eschewing nationalism while supporting the vulnerable and marginalized, but it also means a willingness to strike it out on your own as well. You can’t very easily tell a prophet what to do or who to vote for! In electoral politics, there is no such thing as a “caucus of prophets;” it’s a bit like herding cats.

Each faction of a theoretical Christian Left had its own understanding of what it meant to speak prophetically against injustice. And the problem was made worse by the longstanding political, cultural, and theological disagreements between mainline and evangelical Protestants. I spend a chapter on McGovern’s visit to Wheaton College during the ’72 campaign as an act of evangelical outreach. One reason why the visit is unsuccessful is because McGovern insisted on speaking as a theological liberal. When he used words like “redeem,” he purely meant social redemption, not redemption of the soul. Even evangelicals at Wheaton who were sympathetic to McGovernism would have found that message difficult to swallow. So when the Evangelical Left took shape under Jim Wallis and Ron Sider soon after the campaign, they went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the mainline. They often cast liberal theology as backsliding and heretical, even if they shared many of the political priorities of Clergy and Laity Concerned or the National Council of Churches. In a way, it was a form of identity politics, with evangelicals viewing themselves as a historically disadvantaged group that was just now learning to take pride in what made them distinctive.

As readers of TWOILH are probably aware, we’re had an outpouring of great scholarship on postwar social justice evangelicals recently, with David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway leading the way. Mainliners, too, have seen a revival of top-notch work—just look at Elesha Coffman, Kristin Du Mez, David Hollinger, Jill K. Gill, and many others. Each of these historians produced insightful scholarship that influenced my own, but I came to understand that the mainline and evangelical stories needed to be told in tandem. Their mutual distrust toward one another goes a long way toward explaining why Progressive Christians have struggled to be effective in the public square.

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

ML: Like most eventual historians, I was a pretty strange kid. When the Mini Page children’s newspaper published a special edition on the U.S. presidents when I was five, I took to memorizing the presidents and interesting facts about them. It was fun to learn, but it was just a cool parlor trick that my grandparents loved showing off to their friends. As I grew older, some great teachers helped me see the value of a more thorough understanding of the past. My social studies teachers in high school, Jeff Jennings and Danielle Hugo, pushed me hard to make connections and explain my reasoning. When I took a class at my local community college, the late Bill Barto mesmerized me with his compelling lecture style and strong focus on narrative. At Houghton, Cameron Airhart ran the First Year Honors Program, where two dozen or so undergrads spent a semester of their freshman year abroad learning the gamut of Western history using the city of London as a resource. When you have such sharp, incisive mentors in your life, it’s hard not to want to emulate them. Once I learned that history wasn’t just facts—it could be debated, observed, touched, or turned into a story—I knew it was the career I wanted to pursue.

JF: What is your next project?

ML: After all this time in McGovernLand, I think I would like to work outside of my immediate field for a short while. My next project will explore the questions that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame raises for public history. I think that one of the great challenges of our time is the seeming contest between populism vs. intellectual expertise. Every year, music industry insiders nominate and induct a set of rock and roll artists, usually from a diverse range of subgenres that include R&B, rap, alternative, and even disco. And just as surely, every year rank-and-file rock and roll fans are angered that their favorite bands have been snubbed, believing in their hearts that it is a travesty that Grand Funk Railroad or Styx isn’t in the Hall. There is a very public debate over who controls rock and roll which taps into the anti-elitism that seems so rampant today. While some common themes do emerge, this is certainly a very different project from George McGovern and the Christian Left!

JF: Thanks, Mark! 

Why Has This Blog Been Silent on Francis Fitzgerald’s *The Evangelicals*?

EvangelicalsSeveral of you have now asked.

It seems like everyone is writing about this book.  I have a copy and I am reading it, but I will not be commenting on this blog because I will be reviewing it at an academic journal.

I would say “stay tuned,” but anyone who knows anything about academic journals knows that the review will probably appear sometime in the next decade.

BTW, the same is true about Gideon Mailer’s new intellectual biography of John Witherspoon.

And as long as we are talking about reviews, I am also working on a review of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It for a more popular outlet.

The Author’s Corner with Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

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

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Drops in Two Hours

HartleyEpisode 21 will be here at midnight.

The episode is titled “Why We Need More History Majors in the Silicon Valley.” My commentary focuses on the National Endowment for the Humanities and we spend some time chatting with one of the show’s sponsors, Dr. J of Jennings College Consulting.

Our guest is venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Stay tuned.

 

*How To Think*

jacobsThis is the title of Alan Jacobs‘s forthcoming book.

Here is what you can expect:

Hi. This is the site for my forthcoming book, How to Think, which will be published in the U.S. by Convergent Books, and in the U.K. by Profile Books, in October of 2017

Why did I write this book?

Across the political spectrum, people speak with a single voice on one point and one point only: our public sphere is a great big mess. Mistrust and suspicion of our neighbors, anger at their folly, inadvertent or deliberate misunderstanding of their views, attribution of the worst possible motives to those whose politics we despise: these are the dissonant notes we hear struck repeatedly every day, especially on social media. And while none of this began with the big political stories of 2016 — the Presidential election in the U.S., the Brexit decision in the U.K. — those events seem to have increased the volume pretty dramatically.

All this agitated hostility has grieved me, especially since I know and love people on all sides of the current culture wars. As someone who lives in both academic and religious communities, I am reminded every day of how deeply suspicious those groups can be of one another — and how little mutual comprehension there is. I’ve reflected a great deal on the major causes of our discontent and mutual suspicion, and I’ve wondered whether there might be some contribution I could make to the healing of these wounds.

Eventually two points occurred to me. The first is that many of our fiercest disputes occur because the people involved simply aren’t thinking: they’re reacting or emoting or virtue-signaling or ingroup-identifying. The second is that I have spent my entire career thinking and trying to teach others to think.

When those points became clear in my mind I understood what I needed to do. So I wrote this book.

Here are some of my key themes:

  • the dangers of thinking against others
  • the need to find the best people to think with
  • the error of believing that we can think for ourselves
  • how thinking can be in conflict with belonging
  • the dangers of words that do our thinking for u

Read more here.

 

The “Strange Alliance” Between Modern Life and Nostalgia

Retrotopia2“Make America Great Again!”

If you interpret this phrase historically you need to identify the time period or era that is being invoked by our POTUS.  This is still not clear.  Is Trump referencing the 19th century? The 1950s? The 1980s?

Once the era is identified, historians can then tell us something about what that period or era was like.  Then we can decide, using some system of morality, whether or not the era was “great.”  The interpretation of such a phrase requires the work of both historians and moral philosophers.

Or we can interpret this phrase nostalgically.  This does not require a great deal of historical work and it is often the preferred method of politicians.  It merely requires that we tap into feelings of longing for a bygone era. We don’t think too deeply about such an era.  Instead we merely assume that it was better than the present–a kind of golden age to which we need to return.

Nostalgia can be a very selfish way of thinking in the sense that it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others.  For example, people nostalgic for an “Ozzie and Harriett” or “Leave it to Beaver” type of world may not be aware of the fact that other people, including some of the people actually living in this suburban “paradise,” were not experiencing such a world in a way that might be described as “great.” Or perhaps they do know that people were not experiencing such a “great” life in this era, but they just don’t care. Nostalgia can often give us tunnel vision.  It often goes hand-in-hand with a very selective view of what was happening in the past.

From a Christian point of view, nostalgia denies the fact that sin has always been a reality in this world. Golden ages are hard to find because human beings are inherently flawed.

I started thinking about nostalgia again after I read Alastair Bonnett‘s review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

For many, the past has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. In his last book, the eminent British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January, turned his attention to this nostalgic mood and labeled it “retro­topia.”

Throughout his long career, Bauman remained fascinated by the paradoxes of modernity. His most important works, such as Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 1989), are exemplars of empirically led critical social theory. In Retrotopia he explores the strange alliance of modernity with nostalgia. The book’s main intent is to dissect the way different nostalgic currents act to both create and cope with a dysfunctional and bewildering present.

Bauman begins by outlining what the late Harvard University literary scholar Svetlana Boym called the “nostalgia epidemic,” a condition that, Bauman tells us, is now “palpably felt at every level of social cohabitation.” He sets out his task as “unraveling, portraying, and putting on record some of the most remarkable ‘back to the future’ tendencies inside the emergent ‘retrotopian’ phase in utopia’s history.” These tendencies are grouped into four chapters: “Back to Hobbes?”; “Back to Tribes”; “Back to Inequality”; and “Back to the Womb.”

Read the entire review here.