College of the Ozarks Offers a Class on “Patriotic Education and Fitness”

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Everyone is making a big deal about a Christian college offering this course.  Here is a taste of the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s piece:

The small Christian institution in rural Missouri made headlines last month for refusing to play sports against any team whose members kneel during the performance of the national anthem. Now it’s getting attention for requiring all of its freshmen to take a new course, “Patriotic Education and Fitness.”

“The college attracts a lot of publicity because it’s so very different,” said Jerry C. Davis, who is in his 30th year as president of the 1,500-student college. “And I think it has lately because it’s willing to make a public statement about what it represents and what it thinks is best for the culture and the country.”

In requiring the new course, the college is signaling that patriotism is largely synonymous with the military, to judge from its materials. The required course debuted last year as a retooled version of previous courses in physical education and patriotism — this time, with a more-intentional emphasis on the military.

“We’ve always had some aspect of the military. Usually we try to cover rank structure and how the military is kind of organized,” said the college’s director of patriotic activities, Bryan Cizek. “We’re just getting a lot more intentional with the military curriculum.”

Students in the course will “learn map reading, land navigation, rifle marksmanship, rope systems and knots, and rappelling,” a news release says. They will also study the formation of American government and politics, military customs, task organization and courtesies, and flag protocol and procedures.

Read the entire piece here.

Is this course any different than ROTC?  Wheaton College, the flagship liberal arts college of American evangelicalism, has had ROTC for years.  So does evangelical Houghton College. So does the University of Notre Dame.  Jesuit schools like Loyola (MD), Marquette, Santa Clara, Xavier, Scranton, and Boston College have it.

Or perhaps the program at the College of the Ozarks is something different.  Whatever the case, the refusal to play sports against teams that kneel seems odd.

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism

Neighborhood

I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

Catholics and Patriotic Worship

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Apparently it is not just evangelicals who have a problem with patriotic worship services.  This weekend a priest was quite surprised when a patriotic song was played during the communion mediation at mass.

Here is a taste of Father James Martin’s America magazine piece “Should we sing patriotic songs at Mass?  Probably not”:

Yesterday I heard an excellent homily at Mass. The Gospel reading (Mt 10:37-42) had Jesus telling his followers, with the uncompromising language he often used, that nothing comes before God. God comes first, and everything else is secondary—even the love for a mother and a father. In a line that undoubtedly shocked listeners in first-century Palestine and still has the power to shock, he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

As the homilist told the congregation this Sunday, everything must be subordinated to God. Agreed.

That is why it was so jarring to hear the Communion meditation just a few minutes later. It was a song, which I had not heard before, in which the singer pledged her heart to America. Not to Jesus but to the United States of America.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. It was the Sunday before the Fourth of July, and I have come to expect patriotic songs in Catholic churches in the United States, around that time of year, as well as around Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

But it was hard not to think: Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus said in the Gospel? Surely we should all be good Americans and love and honor our country. But especially during the Mass, shouldn’t our hearts be pledged to something, or someone else?

Read the rest here.

Brother Jonathan

Brother_Jonathan_1876

Before Uncle Sam became famous, the United States had to “endure” the antics of Brother Jonathan.  Who was this guy?  Adee Braun explains at Atlas Obscura.

Here is a taste:

He was ill-mannered and ill-spoken—a boor, a braggart, a ruffian, a bigot, a hick, and a trickster. His name was Brother Jonathan.

Today he is all but forgotten—eclipsed by his upstanding uncle, Sam. But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was the personification of the newly independent American people: clever, courageous, not all that sophisticated and proud of it. He was the everyman incarnate. It was the everyman who had led America to victory. And now America looked to the everyman to lead them out from the bloated shadow of Great Britain.

During the nation’s first hundred years, America tried on many characters in search of the perfect fit for its new independent status. There was the feminine Columbia, the indigenous bald eagle, the stoic Lady Liberty, and the bumbling Yankee Doodle. Out of this personification soup, only a few emerged that had some staying power.

Many of these national stereotypes were depicted in popular ballads and stage comedies before America had even achieved its independence; Yankee Doodle was among them. He was originally a British invention—a caricature of a naive, upstart American colonist who was created as a foil for John Bull: the imposing personification of England. Though he never completely faded out of existence, after the Revolutionary War Yankee Doodle was mostly assimilated into another stage character: Brother Jonathan.

Read the rest here.

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

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Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire post here.

What Was Being Worshiped Yesterday at First Baptist Church in Dallas?

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Yesterday was “Freedom Sunday” at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.  The pastor of First Baptist is Robert Jeffress.  He is a Trump supporter, Christian nationalist, and prominent court evangelical. As the pictures attached to this tweet indicate, it was a day of patriotic celebration in the church sanctuary.

People waved American flags during the service.

The last time I checked, the waving of the American flag was a sign of support or loyalty to the nation.  Jeffress had no problem allowing such an act to take place in a church sanctuary–the place where Christians worship God as a form of expressing their ultimate loyalty.  Patriotism is fine. Flag-waving is fine.  But I wonder if any of the congregation felt uncomfortable that all of this took place in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

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There were fireworks.  Yes, fireworks.  Somehow the pyrotech crew at First Baptist figured out a way to pull this off without burning the place down.  I assume that these fireworks did not represent the pillars of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness in the Old Testament. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone during the service connected these patriotic fireworks to God’s leading of his new “chosen people”–the United States–through the desert of extreme religious persecution). I also don’t think the fireworks were meant to represent the “tongues of fire” present on the day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2.  (Also, from what I am able to tell from the church website, First Baptist did not celebrate Pentecost Sunday on June 4, 2017).

It also looks like the congregation of First Baptist sung the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.”  I am guessing they did not sing all of the original verses.

How can this not be a form of idolatry?

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James Grossman: History for Patriotism

Jim Grossman

In this month’s Perspectives on History, AHA Executive Director James Grossman describes why he thinks history education in the United States should be “patriotic.”  I love his answer.  Here is a taste:


Whether history education should be “patriotic”…begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others?…

Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just “happen.”

All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions.

But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” reads as mere rhetoric.

I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

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

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.

Religion, Politics, and Patriotism Today on the Amy Bass Radio Program

Amy Bass is host of “Conversations with Amy Bass” on WVOX

Today Amy Bass is focusing her radio program on patriotism and religion.  Amy hosts “Conversations with Amy Bass” every Tuesday morning at 10:00am on WVOX-AM (1460 on your AM dial) in Westchester County, NY. You can listen live here.

I will be joined on the program by Daniel McCarthy of the College of New Rochelle (NY) and Ed Blum of the San Diego State University. It should be fun.  I hope you tune in.

The Original Lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner

Rebecca Onion of Slate’s The Vault blog provides us with an early draft of Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner and offers some historical context.  I’ll bet most of you did not know about all of these extra verses.  Here is a taste of Onion’s piece followed by her transcript of one of Key’s earlier drafts of the song:

Of the three less-familiar verses, the third is the most interesting. It taunts the British Army, referring to the invaders as the “band who so vauntingly swore/that the havoc of war & the battle’s confusion” would strip Americans of “a home & a Country.” By calling them a “band,” rather than an army, Key diminishes the status of the British forces, whose “blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

Key’s association of the British Army with “hirelings and slaves” was meant to be an insult. As historian Kevin Levin writes, the British Army liberated enslaved people in the Chesapeake region and recruited them as soldiers during the War of 1812. To Key, “freemen,” as he calls Americans, were to be lauded for their patriotic convictions, while slaves who enlisted to gain their personal liberation were to be disdained. 

The transcript:

Oh say can you see through by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming
Whose broad stripes & bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war & the battle’s confusion
A home & a Country should leave us no more ?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling & slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when freeman shall stand
Between their lov’d home & the war’s desolation
Blest with vict’ry & peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made & preserv’d us as a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the Star-Spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave. 

Independence Day Roundup

Did the founders call it “Independence Day” or the “Fourth of July?”

The Statue of Liberty is open

A British emigre reflects on the Fourth of July.

Connecting Independence Day and Gettysburg

Top five myths about the Fourth of July

Franklin and Adams share a bed in New Brunswick, NJ.

Unexpected July 4th facts

The cost of Revolution 

Robert Tracy McKenzie reviews James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.

Religion in America on July 4, 1776

Was the American Revolution a just war?

Why a Brit should teach the American Revolution.

American Christians and patriotism

Are conservatives more patriotic?

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Civic Virtue

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

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


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

He concludes:

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

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

"America the Beautiful": The Ray Charles Version

Luke Hill, writing at “dotCommonweal,” reflects on the Ray Charles version of the popular anthem, “America the Beautiful.” As Hill notes, the “Charles interpretation is so popular that it’s easy to overlook how radically he revamped [the song]–both lyrically and theologically.”

Here is a taste of Hill’s piece:

In Ray Charles’ vision, this country was from the beginning blessed by God, and that blessing has never stopped.  All the sins that followed—the 250 years of legalized slavery, the century of Jim Crow, the racism enduring into the 21st century (and you could go ahead and add your own list of America’s sins)—take place against the backdrop of that original and ongoing blessing.

Ray Charles preaches (and make no mistake, by the final chorus of this song that’s exactly what he’s doing) that, to the extent that you participate in or benefit from those social sins, you ought to thank God for not striking you dead already.  You ought to lay down the heavy burden of continuing to try to justify or excuse those sins.  You ought to thank God for His mercy in giving you another day to live, another chance to recognize the gifts already bestowed upon you, another chance to do right.  God’s grace has been there all along and is still available to you.  That’s “America the Beautiful”.

Lunch with the Harrisburg Daughters of the American Revolution

I was the lunch speaker today at the annual meeting of the Harrisburg Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  This is my second presentation to this group.  I was there in Spring 2010 talking about The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

The Harrisburg DAR is always a great experience.  The people are friendly, warm, and very hospitable.  (And they buy a lot of books!).  Where else can one, in the course of two hours, eat a catered dinner at swanky country club, recite the pledge of allegiance, sing the national anthem, recite the “American Creed,” recite the 23rd Psalm, pray the Lord’s Prayer, chat with a woman who sent all three of her sons to Choate, and see a group of women deeply moved to the point of tears over a report about a historical restoration project.

The folks in attendance were mostly receptive to what I had say, which, of course, came from Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical IntroductionThanks so much to Karen Schmidt for the invitation. 

God bless America!

This Week’s Patheos Column: September 11th, Patriotism, and the Human Spirit

I grew up in northern New Jersey, about thirty miles outside of Manhattan; but on September 11, 2001 I was living in Valparaiso, Indiana. I was a long way from home. I felt helpless. A feeling of homesickness came over me. I wanted to return to the place where I grew up and experience a sense of solidarity with those suffering in what New Yorkers call the tri-state area.

During the course of that day, and the several days that would follow, I realized that I was not the only one seeking communion with the people of Manhattan. Students and faculty at Valparaiso University, the school where I was teaching, would stop me in the hall and on the sidewalk to ask me if I knew anyone who was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. (I did not.) Others told me that listening to my “New York accent” (which is actually a New Jersey accent) allowed them to feel more connected to what was happening at Ground Zero.

Ten years later, as I reflect back on that day, I realize just how strange it really was. Midwestern Lutherans in Valparaiso, Indiana longed for a sense of communion with urban cosmopolitans and ethnic civil service workers in the “big city.” There were no culture wars on September 11th. There was only a sense of our common humanity. And in the immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, such a feeling of common humanity quickly took on a nationalist flavor.

Read the rest here.