Happy 10th birthday to Religion in American History! Read my birthday message here.
Happy 10th birthday to Religion in American History! Read my birthday message here.
A strange new movement has formed at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend. It seems that something called “The Paul Harvey Fan Club” is taking the conference by storm.
No, not that Paul Harvey.
This is a fan club devoted to the noted historian of American religion and race. Harvey is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (See our Author’s Corner interview with him here). I know from reading his books that he is a gifted scholar. I hear that he a gifted teacher. I also hear that he has a weak jump shot. Oh yes, and did I mention that he founded one of the most influential blogs in the American history blogosphere?
Evidence of this movement is cropping up all over the place:
Paul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. This interview is based on his new book, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Bounds of Their Habitation?
PH: First, I was approached by the historian John David Smith, editor of a particular series called “American Ways” published by Rowman & Littlefield (in this series is also a wonderfully fun book called How America Eats, basically a history of American foodways, that I highly recommend for holiday serious/fun reading). He asked me if I wanted to write a book for the series. Previously I had published a book called Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity with Rowman & Littlefield, so I was pleased they wanted me to do another.
At the same time, I was beginning work on an edited volume for Oxford University Press on race and religion in American history. I thought writing this book, a “long-range” view of race and religion in American history, alongside editing the Oxford Handbook of Race and Religion in American History, which involves corralling 35 authors doing various essays, would be a fun and interesting experiment. And so it was/has been, and continues to be as we (my co-editor Kathryn Gin Lum and myself) finish up the Oxford volume. I wrote up a book proposal for Bounds, it was enthusiastically accepted, and it is now published pretty closely to how it was conceived in the first place.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bounds of Their Habitation?
PH: Religious ideas created racial categories and imposed race upon individual human bodies – what scholars refer to as “racialization.” But religious ideas also helped undermine racial hierarchies.
JF: Why do we need to read Bounds of Their Habitation?
PH: In this book, I aim to show how the terms “religion” and “race” (both highly malleable terms undergoing constant change), while always contested, ultimately solidified into social formations that fundamentally shaped American life. However constructed “race” may be, it acts as a real force in history; and however much the term “religion” is always being redefined and reformed, it has been a central ordering force in the most basic conceptions of American nationalism. My book tries to translate this story through piecing together the individual biographies of diverse people over four centuries. In this way, I hope it “translates” higher-order scholarly discussions of religion and race into narratives that any ordinary reader could pick up and understand.
Racial constructions remain a central ordering fact of religious life. Americans remained united by an unusually high association with faith, with religious belief, but divided by faith since the institutions reflecting those beliefs are still largely divided by race, culture, and politics. Given the history of race and religion in America, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And yet, given that history, it is possible to envision it being otherwise.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PH: I was for 2 years a biology major in college, intending to go to law school (don’t ask). One day I was perusing the college catalog, and the light from Damascus hit me – I was going to be an historian. I can’t explain it, other than it was just blindingly obvious. I have pursued that love ever since, in college, graduate school, postdocs, periods of unemployment, and now as Chair of a History Department. My colleague at the University of Colorado, when asked if we could offer a particular course that a visiting person could teach, said “sure, of course, I’m in favor of the history of anything.” I totally accord with that – I find the history of virtually anything to be fascinating.
JF: What is your next project?
PH: I want to write a book on the history of race, religion, and citizenship in American history, from 1790 to the present. The last election campaign obviously brought those issues up in full force, but the long history of how citizenship has both a narrow legal and a broadly social component in its definition is of great interest to me. I’ve also been asked to write a short (200 p.) biography of Martin Luther King Jr., for Rowman & Littlefield’s African American Lives biography series. I might take that one on next year, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.
JF: Thanks, Paul!
Check out his thoughtful and nuanced review at Religion Dispatches.
Here is a taste:
…A work of history is often about what its sources are about. And when the sources come directly from the archives of the institution, the language of the text inevitably recapitulates some of that voice. Fea places his story in a broad national context. He does so particularly effectively in earlier portions of the book, which cover the ABS’s early glory years. He ties the aims of the ABS to the broader culture of early nineteenth-century Federalist sympathizers who created national organizations in part to unite the new Republic and create the “Christian nation” they longed to see, but knew was not there, at least not yet.
The historical distance from the subject lessens at precisely the point when humanizing anecdotes appear. The emotional narratives of people collapsing in joy at receiving the promised texts, cherishing and never misusing them and so forth, raise questions of interpretation difficult to answer from within the requirements of the genre of institutional history. The answers that might emerge would have to come from questions and interpretive choices that necessarily breach the historical decorum required to produce an institutional history.
Put more simply, you are not supposed to bash the institution you have been commissioned to write a history about. Except that, actually it is possible. Fea critiques the ABS skillfully in parts of the text. For example, Fea describes the “Colored Agency” that emerged in the late nineteenth century. It was to replace a failed local auxiliary system that by definition could not work to supply Bibles to African Americans. But in doing so, the ABS “also revealed its willingness to embrace the status quo of a ‘separate but equal’ America.” I would say “separate and unequal,” but the point is well taken.
Another example comes from the passages in which Fea traces the various permutations the ABS has undergone as an organization. It has been all societies for all people at various times—a benevolent society in the nineteenth century, a service organization for much of the twentieth century, a business always because it sells Bibles, and today branding itself as a “ministry,” modeling the language of contemporary evangelicals. Throughout, and regardless of the type of organization it conceived itself as, the goal has been to spread the gospel through distributing Bibles, and “to build a Christian civilization.”
At its 150th anniversary meeting in 1966, Billy Graham spoke on the need to “Return to the Bible,” and endorsed the ABS’s historic raison d’être of distributing scriptures. The ABS subsequently moved into a new building in New York City, and resumed its work: “Scriptures needed to be distributed. Morality needed to be restored. And the United States needed to be returned to its biblical heritage.” Into the 1970s, the ABS sought to “reassert its historical connection to Christian nationalism” by realigning itself away from mainstream Protestants and more towards conservative evangelicals. This is Fea at his best—narrating a story effectively, and implicitly interpreting itprecisely by adopting the voice of the institution’s founders and followers but retaining a gently ironic distance in style….
Paul Harvey, one of the deans of the ever-growing field of American religious history, wondered back in 2012 if David Barton’s influence among evangelicals and the Republican Party was on the wane due to the failure of his book The Jefferson Lies.
Here is a taste of what he wrote at Religious Dispatches:
And yet, perhaps the summer of Barton’s discontent suggests a cresting of his influence, and the ability of legitimate writers and scholars of various political persuasions to come together in defense of basic norms of reason and credibility in a way that seems increasingly impossible in the political realm.
Now, about three years later, Harvey laments how Barton still appears to be going strong.
Here is a taste of his recent piece at Religion & Politics:
Last Thursday, Bloomberg Politics reported that David Barton will be heading a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Named “Keep the Promise,” the political action committee and its affiliated groups already have a highly successful track record of raising money (reportedly $38 million thus far)…Keep the Promise issued a statement saying that “Barton’s involvement is an important step signaling that the effort will not be run by a D.C. consultant but by a grassroots activist.”
Given Barton’s close relationship to former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, some expressed surprise that he had cast his lot so fully with Cruz. But the Texas connection here between Cruz and Barton is strong, and Cruz has made appearances at conferences organized by Barton through his organization WallBuilders. Moreover, in the early primary scrimmaging it appears that Cruz has outmaneuvered Huckabee in securing a place as the frontrunner in the implicit primary of the evangelical right. Cruz is unlikely to move far enough beyond that base to threaten seriously the frontrunners for the nomination, but he is securing a significant stake in the Republican political future.
And Barton has emerged as central to that long game. What might that suggest about the future of the Republican right?
For one thing, it certainly means a doubling down of the Christian Nation rhetoric on which Barton has built has career as an ideological warrior, and on which Cruz… is staking his career as a political warrior…Whether it can ever translate much outside of that world remains a question. But the adoption of the rhetoric of religious liberty, in court cases against the Affordable Care Act and elsewhere, seems a promising vehicle to carry this struggle.
But all this may have a more limited valence within that world than the politician Cruz or the ideological entrepreneur Barton may think. For one thing, while Cruz built a reputation earlier in his life as a serious constitutional scholar, Supreme Court clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and lawyer who made nine appearances before the Supreme Court, his association with Barton threatens to undermine his credibility among serious conservative thinkers and scholars who have dissociated themselves from Barton and urged Christians to do likewise.* The well-connected evangelical scholar John Fea, on his blog, has intimated that he has been receiving messages from veteran Christian conservatives precisely to this effect.
On the other side, Barton will be making an appearance with Huckabee at an event sponsored by “The American Renewal Project” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth this fall, suggesting his continued networks of influence (not to mention the significant influence of David Lane, one founder of the Project and a Christian right activist within the Republican party). And with his association now with big-time money coming into the super PAC supporting Cruz, the comeback is in full evidence. Barton is making Banquo’s ghost look like a quitter.
Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy. In the past, Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax. The more recent controversies over religious liberty seem to have provided new issues for the cause. Cruz has an intellectual view ready-made for presenting a position strongly appealing to Christian conservatives on these present-day controversies, and Barton has the historical analogies (some true, many not) to buttress the case.
And so Ted Cruz’s candidacy—along with Hobby Lobby, Kim Davis, and debates over the Affordable Care Act—have given David Barton new life in the public eye, and new political relevance. Cruz brings intellectual credentials and conservative fire to the table, but he also brings a strong faith in original textualism and the desire for his party to nominate a “true conservative.”
The irony, of course, is that Barton’s lack of respect for the contingency and complexity of the past is the opposite of what would be held by any “true conservative.” As long as David Barton has nine (or more) lives, Edmund Burke will be rolling over in his grave. Historians and many thoughtful conservatives want him out, but Barton keeps pulling us back in.
John Schlembach of Victoria, Texas is not happy that David Barton was mentioned by his hometown newspaper, the Victoria Advocate. I have posted his letter to the editor below. Frankly, I had no idea that Randall Stephens was a “prodigy historian.” Congrats, Randall.
Editor, the Advocate,
To my dismay as both a historian in training and a member of the community interested in the truth, two recent letters, “Reader finds same-sex marriage ruling wrong, immoral” by Stan Reinke on July 6 and “Writer says we need to go change our course” by Nic Harrison on May 13 have mentioned David Barton and his organization, Wallbuilders.
For those who are unaware, Barton is known for “teaching” history. However, his degree is a bachelor of arts in religious education, and by his own admission, does not consider himself to be a historian. While in some instances, non-academic experts have excelled in fields outside of their learning, Barton is not one of them. His self-reflective assessment is echoed by professionals.
For example. Christian historian John Fea, writing at Patheos, has said, “He is not [a historian]…Christians should think twice before they rely on David Barton for their understanding of the American founding.”
Likewise, professor and author Paul Harvey, in a piece for Religion Dispatches noted, “Barton’s intent is not to produce ‘scholarship,’ but to influence public policy.”
Similarly, historical prodigy Randall J. Stephens, at Religion in American History declared, “Nearly any trained historian worth his or her salt who takes a close look at Barton and his hyper-politicized work will see glaring gaps in what he writes and talks about. In history circles this is what we call “bad history.”
For a penultimate example, Baylor University professor Barry Hankins, as quoted by Warren Throckmorton, remarked, “David Barton’s history of the American founding is out of step with even the most conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical historians in the Christian college world. It is sad that anyone in the evangelical world would continue to promote his work.”
Last, we can’t forget that one of Barton’s recent books was pulled by his publishers because “basic truths just were not there.”
It is not my intent to discourage people from examining Barton’s ouevre. On the contrary, only by looking at is in a broader academic context can it be understood just how deep are the flaws in his work.
John Schlembach, Victoria
Paul Harvey, historian of race and religion at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and blogmaster at Religion in American History, shares his thoughts on Spielberg’s Lincoln at Religious Dispatches. Here is a taste:
But there is another level to consider here, as well—the civil religious myths that the film invokes, and the very limited growth in public understanding of those myths that the film ultimately suggests.
After the emotion evoked by the film subsides, sober consideration begins here: why, in the supposedly “post-racial” age of Obama, is there no space in movies to imagine the historical story of African Americans creating the conditions of their own emancipation?
Is it because in the context of our civil religion of “great white men who end up doing the right thing,” we as a culture cannot yet imagine such a thing?
Historian Kate Masur, among others, has pointed out that the story historians have dug out of the archives—the story of African American actions which virtually forced enlistment in the army, emancipation, and reconstructing the Union with blacks in the polity—finds almost no place in the film.