Penn State–New Kensington Recap

New Kensington

On Tuesday night I was at Penn State University–New Kensington in western Pennsylvania.  I spoke to John Craig Hammond‘s Religion in American Culture course (he is using both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Believe Me in this course) and I gave a public lecture on some of the themes covered in Believe Me.

The students in the class had just read chapter 2 of Believe Me and many of them came to class with plenty of questions for me.  A few students asked about how I navigate my Christian faith and my work as a historian.  Another student wanted to talk about the inerrancy of the Bible.  One student wondered why I focused Believe Me on “white” evangelicals.

After class I met with two evangelical students and a Hindu student who wanted to talk more deeply about religion and politics in America.  After this short chat we headed off to dinner with ten of Hammond’s first-year honor students.  After dinner we talked about the fate of American Democracy and how these students might contribute to a flourishing republic.  If you want to hear more about this conversation, I talked about it briefly on Episode 49 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Download the episode when it drops next week.  (Our guest is Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer).

My evening lecture drew a mixed group of students, anti-Trumpers, and pro-Trump evangelicals.  The pro-Trumpers were most vocal during the question and answer session.  An older African-American woman said that God led her to vote for Trump after she spent a long period of time in prayer.  She also said she voted for Trump because she was pro-life and believed Trump would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, believed in traditional marriage, and thought that God was still working through the nation of Israel. I told her that if I believed Roe v. Wade was the best way to reduce abortions, same-sex couples should  be denied civil rights, and the Bible taught that the return of the Jews to Israel would usher in the return of Jesus Christ, then I might consider voting for Trump as well.  (I don’t believe any of these things).  This woman was also disgusted with some of Trump’s racist remarks (especially in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017) and told me that she was planning to write the president a letter about this.  In the end, however, she thought abortion, marriage, and Israel were more important than race when she entered the ballot box in November 2016.

A white evangelical woman also pushed-back hard against my lecture.  She did not like the way I characterized all of the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump as supportive of everything the president does and says.  She was disgusted by Trump, but in the end she felt Trump would deliver on her preferred social issues in a way that Hillary Clinton would not.

I am now very familiar with these criticisms of Believe Me, but I have not been convinced by them.  Trump is bad for America and Trump is bad for the church.  I still stand by the central argument of my book.

Thanks again to Craig Hammond for inviting me to campus!  I will be at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. on April 8.

A Tale of Two Progressives in State College, Pennsylvania

Bruce at PSU

As I type this, Bernie Sanders is giving his stump speech to a packed house at Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State University.

Sanders draws very large crowds at his rallies.  But there was another progressive in State College this week who draws even larger crowds.  Rec Hall holds just under 7000 people, but it is not the largest indoor space at Penn State.  Bryce Jordan Center, home of the Nittany Lions basketball teams, holds over 15,000 people.  Bruce Springsteen filled it last night.

I don’t know who Springsteen is supporting in November, but I would not be surprised if he is backing Sanders. It seems as if their politics are identical.  Both men are angry about inequality and the control that special interests have over the democratic process.  They both blast the fat cats.

Right now, as I watch on C-SPAN, Sanders is railing on the “greed” and “illegal behavior” of Wall Street that “seriously hurts the lives of our fellow Americans.”  He just said that the “business philosophy of the major financial organizations in the United States is fraud.”

And here is the Boss from his song “Shackled and Drawn“:

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
Woke up this morning shackled and drawn

On social issues, Sanders is adamantly pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.  Recently Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in Greensboro, NC in protest against the state’s law requiring trans-gendered people to use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificates.

But last night in the Bryce Jordan Center, Springsteen did not talk politics.  He did not mention the Greensboro cancellation.  Instead, he played an old-fashioned rock and roll show.  I was there.  And it was incredible.

During this tour Springsteen is playing his entire 1980 double album  The River. Bruce describes The River as an album he wrote as he was trying to figure out “where he fit in” in a world of  fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, good comradeship, love, sex, faith, lonely nights, and teardrops.”  He defines it as a “big record that felt like life.”

This was the third Springsteen concert I have attended with my entire family.  My wife and daughters are casual Springsteen fans, so I prepared everyone by playing the entire album on the 90-minute drive up to State College. For the first time I can remember, everyone listened intently.

Here are the highlights:

  • Meet Me in the City,” an outtake from The River, is quickly becoming one of my favorite (top 25) Springsteen songs.  He has opened every concert on this tour with the song.  (Although I thought he might break with tradition and open with his lesser-known “Lion’s Den” in the way that he did in his 2012 show at Penn State).
  • Penn State students love Springsteen, even when they don’t know the words to the songs.  We had a pack of them around us in the pit.  The whole night felt like a college show.  A lot of 18-22 year-old kids were wearing red, white, and blue bandannas.   (You don’t usually see this at 21st century Springsteen shows).  During the encores Springsteen played “Born in the USA” for them.  When Max Weinburg hit the drums on this song it felt like the entire arena shook..
  • A Springsteen concert is very white and very middle class, but the age diversity is striking.  From our spot on the floor I saw several elementary school-aged kids as well as people who were probably, by my best guess, in their 70s.  Yet it was the college students who led the way.  Bruce was energized by them and on several occasions praised the crowd.
  • As is often the case, the 66-year-old rocker did a little crowd-surfing on “Hungry Heart.”
  • The River is not my favorite Springsteen album, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the songs in the order that they originally appeared on the album.  In an age of ITunes, I worry that no one listens to albums anymore.  Springsteen albums tell stories.  And he told one last night.
  • After finishing The River, Springsteen played hit after hit: Badlands, Promised Land, Because the Night, and The Rising.  Then it got even better.  In response to a sign in the audience, the Boss and the E Street Band played the epic ballad Jungleland. This was the moment that my daughters were hoping for.  They love Jungleland and until last night they had never seen it performed live.  Jake Clemons has a long way to go before he plays the sax solo as well as his uncle Clarence, but it was still very good. Jungleland was followed by Thunder Road, Born in the USA, Born to Run, Dancing in the Dark, Rosalita, and Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.  What a run!

Springsteen did not play any songs from his last few social-justice oriented albums. Instead he turned to his old song book–songs about girls and boys, cars, love, ambition, brokenness and fun.  Sometimes this is all we need.

Bernie is still speaking.

Lecture at Penn State-New Kensington

On Thursday I will be giving a lecture on religion and the American founding and meeting with a few history classes at Penn State-New Kensington (greater Pittsburgh area).  Thanks to John Craig Hammond of the History Department at PSU-New Kensington for the invite.  If you are in the area I hope you will stop by.  Here is the press release:


UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – The never-ending debate of whether the Founding Fathers created a Christian or secular country will be the topic of a presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at Penn State New Kensington. Historian and scholar John Fea, professor of history and department chair at Messiah College, will deliver a public lecture based on his book, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”
The book explores the relationship between religion and America’s founding. Fea approaches the question from the perspective of the middle, and presents valid arguments from both sides. He doesn’t ascertain the answer (he says, “It’s a bad question”), but takes a critical view of the query from the perspective of a historian. The author was invited to campus by John Craig Hammond, associate professor of history.
“John Fea is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars on religion in the American founding,” said Hammond, who earned the campus’ Excellence in Teaching award in 2012. “He brings a fresh, scholarly look to this important and probing question.”
In addition to the evening lecture, Fea will meet in the morning with students in an honors seminar class, and in the afternoon with students in the Civil War and Reconstruction class. Hammond teaches both courses.
For the honors seminar, Fea will discuss his book, which the honors students read this semester. Students will give Fea their own interpretations of the relationship between church, state and religion in the United States.
For the Civil War class, Fea will discuss interpretations of race, slavery, politics and the American Civil War.
“He is also a lively and engaging speaker,” Hammond said. “This will be a great, informative lecture for both students and the broader Alle-Kiski Valley community.”
Seating is limited in the Conference Center. Reservations are encouraged but not necessary. Guests will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call 724-334-6032.