When it comes to presidents quoting scripture and spiritual writers, Joe Biden may surpass Barack Obama

In 2012, I asked readers of my now defunct Patheos column if they would vote for a man who:

…gives praise and honor to God before a public audience?

…wants to seek God’s face with other believers?

…admits that prayer humbles him?

…extolls the benefit of turning to our Creator and listening to Him?

…is motivated by faith and values in the midst of troubled times?

…wakes up every morning and prays, reads the Bible, and has “devotions?”

…is being spiritual mentored and discipled by evangelical pastors?

…claims that his Christian faith motivates him as a leader?

…tries to practice God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves?

…believes in Jesus’s words: “for unto much is given, much shall be required”?

…tries to follow the biblical call to care for the “least of these.”

…quotes C.S. Lewis in speeches?

…believes that Christians should be “doers of the word and not merely hearers?”

…wants to work toward building the kingdom of God on earth?

…is a loving husband and supportive father?

…prayed with Billy Graham?

…believes the Holy Spirit intervenes in his life, prompting him toward action?

I continued:

If you answered yes to a majority of these questions, you might consider voting for Barack Obama in November. Check out his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s all in there.

Obama may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history. If we analyze his language in the same way that historians examine the religious language of the Founding Fathers or even George W. Bush, we will find that Obama’s piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame on this front. I think there may be good reasons why some people will not vote for Obama in November, but his commitment to Christianity is not one of them.

Read the entire column here.

Joe Biden may give Obama a run for his money.

Here is Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service:

President-elect Joe Biden marked his Electoral College win with a religious flair, citing Scripture and the Prayer of St. Francis during his victory speech.

Members of the Electoral College voted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia on Monday (Dec. 15), formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win over incumbent Donald Trump. 

The president-elect marked the moment with a speech in Delaware, where he declared “the rule of law, our Constitution and the will of the people prevailed” over multiple efforts by Trump and his allies to challenge the results of the election. 

Biden’s rhetoric took a turn for the spiritual near the close of his speech, when he made reference to the biblical passage of Matthew 16:18.

“As we start the hard work to be done, may this moment give us the strength to rebuild this house of ours upon a rock that can never be washed away,” he said.

Biden, a Catholic, then invoked the Prayer of St. Francis by name, saying, “for where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith, where there is darkness, light.”

Read the rest here.

This year Biden also quoted Ecclesiastes 3, Psalm 28, referenced a song based on Isaiah 40, and said that human beings are created in the “image of God.” Not a bad start.

John Gehring of Faith in Public Life thinks there is more to come:

Historian Jon Meacham helped write Biden’s acceptance speech and then commented on it on MSNBC

Back in April 2019 I asked, “Is Joe Biden the Jon Meacham candidate?” The Biden campaign’s appeal to the “Soul of America” came from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Today The New York Times reports that Meacham has been writing speeches for Biden and worked on the victory speech the president-elect delivered on Saturday night in Wilmington.

The piece notes that MSNBC dumped Meacham as a paid contributor after the historian commented on the Biden speech without disclosing his role in its creation.

Here is a taste of Annie Karni and John Koblin’s piece:

Mr. Biden’s speech-writing process is run by Mike Donilon, the president-elect’s longtime adviser. But behind the scenes, Mr. Meacham has been playing a larger role than was previously known, both writing drafts of speeches and offering edits on many of Mr. Biden’s big addresses, including one he gave at Gettysburg last month and his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.

TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, downplayed Mr. Meacham’s role. “President-elect Joe Biden wrote the speech he delivered to the American people on Saturday night, which laid out his vision for uniting and healing the nation,” Mr. Ducklo said. “Given the significance of the speech, he consulted a number of important, and diverse, voices as part of his writing process, as he often does.”

A Biden official added that Mr. Meacham was involved in discussions about the themes in the victory speech.

Mr. Meacham, who has voted for presidents in both parties, played an unusual role during the campaign. He publicly endorsed Mr. Biden in an op-ed and received a prime speaking slot at the D.N.C. this year.

“To record history doesn’t mean you are removed from it,” Mr. Meacham said over the summer, noting he had been friends with Mr. Biden for a long time.

Mr. Meacham is currently not expected to join the administration. But his role helping to craft Mr. Biden’s biggest addresses has shades of the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Schlesinger worked for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign and as a member of his White House staff.

Mr. Meacham declined to comment on his role.

Read the entire piece here.

Thoughts on Biden’s speech tonight

This morning Joe Biden became the president-elect. Tonight he celebrated. Kamala Harris spoke first and then introduced Biden.

I live-tweeted:

Harris began with John Lewis. Who is John Lewis? Get up to speed with these posts.

Harris gave a shoutout to the real heroes of this election. Democracy survived this week because of the work of these women and men:

Kamala Harris was wearing a white pantsuit, presumably to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Here is historian Chris Gehrz:

Kamala Harris is the first woman VP in American history. I am the father of two daughters:

There was a pro-family vibe tonight that I have not seen since Obama:

Biden came out looking fit and ready to go. And yes, Springsteen was involved!

I wrote a piece about this Springsteen song back in 2012:

A great day for educators, especially those of us who study and teach in the humanities. Jill Biden is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. She plans to continue teaching during Joe’s presidency. One of our own is in the White House!

There was a lot of historical references–direct and indirect–in tonight’s Biden speech:

And some American civil religion:

Biden wants to bring the country together. He will have his work cut out for him:

In addition to Ecclesiastes, Biden referenced this popular Christian song:

And yes, this was sung at my wedding in 1994.

Evangelicals liked this song too, Kevin! 🙂 It was a fixture of the evangelical “praise song” movement:

It was a good day for the United States of America

I can’t think of many presidential statements more irresponsible than this

Watch Trump after he left Walter Reed and returned to the White House:

  1. “I learned so much about coronavirus.” If only had “learned so much about coronavirus” seven months ago.
  2. 200,000 dead and the president says “don’t let it dominate you,” you’re “gonna beat it.” Communities and institutions made up of ordinary people are following science, social distancing, and wearing masks. This virus has turned our lives upside-down. And the president tells us not to worry about it. “Don’t let it take over your lives,” he says. He doesn’t even tell us to continue to wear masks and social distance. Is this leadership? Members of Congress, members of his staff, his advisers, and at least one court evangelical now have COVID-19 because Trump decided he wants to be “a leader.” And who is he leading? About one-third of the American people?
  3. “Maybe I am immune,” Trump says. Perhaps I have been wrong these past four years. Maybe Trump is the “anointed one” of God called for “such a time as this.” 😉

Historian Manisha Sinha on a possible Trump “Gettysburg Address”

2e894-gettysburg10web

As we noted yesterday, Trump may accept the GOP nomination for president at Gettysburg battlefield. Manisha Sinha, a historian who is no stranger to followers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog and podcast, shares her thoughts at CNN.

Here is a taste:

Yet, Trump aspires to Lincoln-like greatness, clumsily suggesting to the pliant Republican governor of South Dakota that he would like his likeness on Mount Rushmore, which he used for his highly partisan and forgettable Fourth of July speech this year. That this is a desecration of sacred ground of the Lakota people, who protested his rally, predictably does not cross his mind.

Trump’s potential choice of Gettysburg for his acceptance speech is even more offensive given his fondness for Confederate leaders and generals like Robert E. Lee. He has defended the Confederate battle flag and “beautiful” Confederate statues and has included neo-Confederates and White supremacists among “very fine people.” So much so that a few political commentators have called him the last Confederate president.

Gettysburg, site of one of the biggest Confederate debacles of the war, is a standing monument to the defeat of a despicable cause. If Lincoln consecrated Gettysburg with one of the most famous speeches in American history, Trump would just as surely desecrate it by his proposed Republican convention address.

Agreed.

Read Sinha’s entire piece here.

Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Mount Rush

In case you missed it, Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota on the night of July 3, 2020.

Read the text here.

Watch the entire event here:

Thoughts:

1. Mary Hart

2. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem introduced Trump by appealing to America’s founding ideals. She said, “Let’s not destroy history.” This is in interesting exhortation from the governor of South Dakota. What is Noem doing to fund the teaching of history in South Dakota schools? In 2015, the state dumped early American history. I am not sure if things have changed since 2015, but back then I wrote this piece.

3. Noem said that her state prides itself “on the close-knit nature of our community.” She praised all the South Dakotans for showing-up and then said that the crowd included people “from across the nation.” The crowd was packed like sardines into what looked like a small space. I saw very few masks.

4. Noem and Trump did not mention anything about the tearing-down, removal, and defacing of Confederate monuments. The focus was entirely on the monuments to the “founding fathers.” Does anyone know how many non-Confederate monuments were defaced or torn down in the last month?

5. If we want to talk about American history, let’s remember that this entire event occurred on Lakota land. And yes, Trump talked about “manifest destiny” in his speech.

6. Historian Seth Cotlar tweeted this: “I can’t stress enough how angry and reactionary this speech is, on a day that celebrates the violent, statue-destroying revolution that birthed America.” Is Cotlar right? Let’s start here. You may also want to read this book.

7. Trump tried to make the case that Democrats and protesters are trying to “erase American history.” Meanwhile, millions of Americans were ignoring his speech because they were watching a movie about the American founding on Disney+.

8. At one point Trump said, “George Washington will never be removed, abolished, or forgotten.” I am sure the good folks at Mount Vernon are on it.

9. At another point of the speech, Trump threw thousands of history teachers under the bus when he said, “Our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” The only people who would believe this are Fox News viewers or people who have never set foot in a real history classroom.

10. As I watched the speech, I could not help but wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump invoking his name. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.

11. It sounds like white supremacist Steven Miller wrote this speech. There is a reason why he is one of the few people who have been with the administration since the beginning.

Here is Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic:

It sounds like Trump was at it again earlier this evening:

When it comes to American history, Trump is the one who has “absolutely no clue.” He doesn’t even read the teleprompter in an inspiring way.  And then he has the nerve to attack history teachers.

Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

…the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.” The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office. Our best presidents thought about their four or eight  years in power with historical continuity in mind. This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it. Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity. This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

 

Take the Trump Inaugural Address History Exam (My Piece This Morning at *USA Today*)

Trump inauguration

Here is a taste of “Did he free us from disease? 15 essay questions for a Trump inaugural address history exam”:

One day soon, students will read Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Good history teachers will understand the speech, as they do with all presidential rhetoric, in the larger context of the Trump presidency.

I recently revisited the speech amid this coronavirus pandemic. I imagined what kind of essay questions I would put on a future exam related to this period in American history. Here are a few:

Trump never had an approval rating over 50%. Considering this fact, how should we explain his calls for national unity? Other presidents saw their approval ratings soar in times of crisis. Why didn’t this happen to Trump?

Trump said that the “Bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Did this kind of spiritual harmony exist during Trump presidency? Did the church speak truth to power with a united voice? Discuss the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump.

Read the rest here.

What Should a President Say to Americans Who are Scared?

Today an NBC reporter asked Donald Trump this very question. Watch:

The reporter, Peter Alexander, later said that he was “pitching Trump a softball question.”  Watch:

If my memory serves, there was also a president who tried to calm the fears of the American people:

Here is another one:

Here is conservative commentator on Matt Lewis on Bill “I Feel Your Pain” Clinton:

 

Trump’s National Prayer Declaration in Historical Context

adams-proclomation

Here is Trump’s proclamation:

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7:  “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.

On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91:  “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”

As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

The founding fathers, of course, were divided over these kinds of proclamations.

On March 23, 1798, prior to the United States’s so-called “Quasi War” with France, president John Adams declared a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” for May 9, 1798. Here is a taste:

And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly Disposition, Conduct, and Demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by Depradations on our Commerce, and the Infliction of Injuries on very many of our Fellow Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the Seas.–Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the Mercy and Benediction of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its Inhabitants.

Here is what I wrote about this proclamation in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

Many perceived Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer to be little more than a political tool to win support for his own political party, the New England-concentrated Federalists.  The Federalists believed that government had the responsibility of enforcing public morality rooted in the Christian faith….Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was endorsed by the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was suspected by many to have secret ambitions of creating a national religious establishment.  The fast declaration was thus criticized by his Republican political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson, his eventual opponent in the next presidential election.  According to Adams, American religious denominations and sects, especially those who guarded their religious liberties closely and tended to vote Republican, cried out, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian president.” Adams was not a Presbyterian, but his firm belief that the president should promote religion and morality did not sit well with those Christians and others who feared that such government involvement in religious matters was the first step toward tyranny and the erosion of religious freedom.  Adams would later write that his decision to call for a religious fast day may have cost him a victory in the 1800 presidential election. 

While there is certainly a tradition of these proclamations in our country’s history, there is also a tradition of presidents using these proclamations to advance a political agenda. With this in mind, Trump is both calling the nation to turn to God in this difficult moment and strengthening his evangelical base as the November elections approach.

In 1808, in light of the British impressment of American ships and the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller asked president Thomas Jefferson to issue a day of fasting, humiliation, prayer. Here is a taste of his letter:

Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. Various means have been suggested for the attainment of this object. Among others, it has been proposed that the Clergy of our City, as a body, should make an application, more or less formal, to the President of the United States, requesting him, by Proclamation, to recommend such a public observance. I am not certain that such an application is determined on, even in the mind of an individual; but it has been proposed, and may possibly be made.—

The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise. I am sensible that a question may arise, both with regard to the constitutional power of the President to act in a case of this kind, and the occasions on which it is expedient to exercise such a power, supposing it to be possessed. But on neither of these points does it become me to offer any observation. It is possible that your views of the subject might forbid you to take such a step as that which is proposed, under any circumstances: and it is also possible that an application from a body of respectable Clergymen might be considered as, in some degree, removing your objections, if any exist; at least such of them as arise from an aversion to all interference, on the part of a civil Magistrate, with the religious concerns of the community.—

Miller knew that Jefferson was no fan of these proclamations. Here is part of Jefferson’s response to Miller’s letter:

I have duly recieved your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorised to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US. certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. it must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.   but it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. that is that I should indirectly assume to the US. an authority over religious exercises which the constitution has directly precluded them from. it must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it: not indeed of fine & imprisonment but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. and does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, its discipline or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies that the General government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. fasting & prayer are religious exercises. the enjoining them an act of discipline, every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets. and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. but I have ever believed that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. be this as it may every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

As you can see, Jefferson did not believe that the United States government had the authority to issue such days of prayer. Notice that Jefferson did not agree with Adams’s previous proclamations and thus refused to follow Adams’s precedent.

What about James Madison? On June 30, 1812, as the United States entered a war with England in 1812, president Madison received a letter from Jacob Jones Janeway, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and clerk at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which had met in Philadelphia the previous month.  Janeway wrote:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, during their sessions in May last, recommended to all the churches under their care, to observe the last Thursday in July next as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. The Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, which was sitting in this City at the same time, concurred in the measure: and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, which lately met at Albany, adopted it, and have recommended the observance of that day by their churches. And I have been informed that, at the request of the last body presented, through the Legislature of the State of New York, to the Governor, he has consented to recommend the observance of the same day to all religious denominations in that state. A petition is now preparing to be sent to the Governor of this State, requesting him to recommend a concurrence in the religious exercises of that day to the people throughout this state.

From the preceding statement, it will be seen, that a large portion of the citizens of these United States, will be engaged in the observance of the day already mentioned: and I take the liberty of suggesting, that it will be an accommodation to them, as well as secure a more general concurrence in the devotions of the day, if your Excellency should think it proper to select that as the day to be recommended to the people of the United States of America, as a day of humiliation and prayer to Almighty God. What has been written must be the apology for this intrusion, by Your Excellency’s humble & obedient servant.

Madison did not heed Janeway’s call for a July day of prayer, but he eventually did issue such a presidential proclamation for August:

Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint Resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request, that a day may be recommended, to be observed by the People of the United States, with religious solemnity, as a day of public Humiliation and Prayer:1 and whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed, to offer, at one and the same time, their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in which he has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States; I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next, as a convenient day, to be so set apart, for the devout purposes of rendering to the Sovereign of the Universe, and the Benefactor of mankind, the public homage due to his holy attributes; of acknowleging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance & amendment; and, especially, of offering fervent supplications, that in the present season of calamity and war, he would take the American People under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice & of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blesings of Peace. Given at Washington the ninth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twelve.

As historian John Ragosta argues in his book Religious Freedom: Jeffersonian’s Legacy, America’s Creed, Madison was always uncomfortable with these kinds of declarations. Ragosta writes,

[Like Jefferson], Madison…also struggled with proclamations.  During his administration, Congress asked for prayer proclamations at a time when the country faced the crisis of the War of 1812, a political crisis of confidence was almost overwhelming Madison, and dissolution of the union seemed a real possibility.  Even then, Madison was uneasy with the exercise. In 1813, he acquiesced to one declaration noting that Congress “signified a request” for a day of prayer, but he still moved cautiously, issuing “this my Proclamation, recommending to all, who shall be piously disposed…guided only by their free choice.” Later he explained: “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unit in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.”  Still, after the crisis passed, Madison regretted having issued even these qualified proclamations, viewing them as exceeding constitutional bounds. Government religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”  In addition to the problem of endorsement, Madison was concerned with the use (abuse) of religion to support political institutions (again, “priestcraft”).

If you’ve read this far, I hope this post give you some historical context for Trump’s proclamation today.  These proclamations have always been contested, political, and religious.

Naval War College Professor Describes Trump’s 4th of July Speech as a “Strange, Somewhat Soviet…Spectacle”

Trump on mall

This morning the New York Daily News published one of the best pieces I have seen so far on Trump’s “Salute to America” speech.  It comes from Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, a former Republican Senate aide, and the author of The Death of Expertise.

Here is a taste:

Let’s get an obvious point about President Trump’s Independence Day speech out of the way right at the top. It was a bad speech.

It wasn’t bad in the way most of Donald Trump’s speeches are bad, in that it was not overtly objectionable. It was relatively free of the populist claptrap and barely disguised racism that characterizes so many of the president’s rally addresses. In some ways, it was even anodyne, and certainly not even in the same league as his hideous “American carnage” inaugural address.

Instead, it was just a poorly written speech: a long, cliché-plagued, rambling trip through American history that tried to name-check battles and famous people as applause lines. Imagine “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if Billy Joel had been born in 1776 and his producers told him to take as much time as he needed to finish the song.

On that level, the “Salute to America” was a flop. Perhaps this was unavoidable, since it was never meant to salute America, but rather to provide the military display Trump has wanted for two years. Like any enforced celebration, it was flat and labored. There were no memorable phrases, no vivid images and no bold proposals — unless you count a promise to NASA stalwart Gene Kranz to plant a U.S. flag on Mars one day. It would have been a challenging speech to deliver even for a better speaker, and Trump, who hates reading from prepared remarks, plodded through it with a strangely detached presence and a certain amount of mushy enunciation, including a weird blip where he referred to the glorious military capture of some airports in colonial America.

And this:

Mining the glories of past military battles while flanked by defense chiefs is the kind of thing Soviet leaders used to do while droning from their reviewing stand in Moscow. It wasn’t patriotic or stirring; it was cringe-inducing. This is probably one of many reasons that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly — both retired generals — reportedly squashed this idea whenever it came up.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

David Siders thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Politico:

“Carter almost takes us out of the entire realm of what our politics has become,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Howard Dean. “He’s the anti-Trump … I mean, we have almost the polar opposite as president, somebody who is so an affront to everything that’s good and kind and decent.”

Maslin said, “I have felt for some time that a candidate who is not just good on the issues but can marshal a moral clarity about what our politics ought to be, in contrast to what it has become, that person … that could be the currency of 2020.”

In fact, Carter has become a constant point of reference early in the campaign for Democrats polling outside of the top tier. John Delaney, the little-known former Maryland congressman who by August 2018 had already campaigned in all 99 counties in Iowa, has likened his focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Carter’s.

And after her pilgrimage to see Carter this year, Klobuchar wrote on social media, “Wonderful lunch with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter today at their home in Plains. Tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches! Got some good advice and helpful to hear about their grassroots presidential campaign (when no one thought they could win but they did)!”

Read the entire piece here.

I still think Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” is one of the best presidential speeches I have heard in my lifetime.

  • Notice that Carter used the phrase “I feel your pain” before Bill Clinton popularized it.
  • The speech has a streak of populism in it.
  • It is deeply honest and humble. Can you imagine a president today reading criticism of his presidency before a national audience?
  • Carter identifies the loss of national purpose and a “crisis of confidence” as a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”  It is a forward-looking message of hope and progress.  Carter speaks with conviction, often raising his fist to strengthen his points.
  • Carter says that self-indulgence, consumption, and materialism undermines citizenship. According to historian Kevin Mattson, this comes directly from historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch and his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism.
  • Carter points to the many ways the country has gone astray–Vietnam and Watergate and economic dependence on Middle East oil.
  • Carter offers “honest answers” not “easy answers.”  Of course no one wants to work hard and make sacrifices, they want individualism and freedom instead.  A little over a year after this speech Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with just such a message of individualism and freedom.
  • Carter warns us about the path of self-interest and fragmentation.  This is what America got with Reagan.  See Daniel T. Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture.
  • Carter sees the national discussion of energy as way of bringing a divided nation together.  This seems more relevant than ever today.  Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.
  • When Carter talks about foreign oil and America’s dependence upon it, he is invoking founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who worked tirelessly to make the nation economically independent.
  • Interesting that in the 1970s Democrats still saw coal as a vital energy source.  He also champions pipelines and refineries.
  • Carter calls for a strengthening of public transportation and local acts of conservation.  This kind of self-sacrifice, Carter says, “is an act of patriotism.”  This reminds me of the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution.    To stop drinking tea or buying British goods was seen as a similar act of patriotism. See T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution.  Carter says “there is no way to avoid sacrifice.”
  • As I have noted above, this speech hurt Carter politically.  But it is deeply honest and, in my opinion, true.

David Swartz on Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” Speech

MalaiseOver at The Conversation, David Swartz, a historian of the evangelical Left, has a nice piece on Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech.  Here is a taste:

It was a penetrating cultural critique that reflected Carter’s spiritual values. Like the writers of the New Testament, he called out sin. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, he confessed to personal and national pride.

In the mode of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he noted the limits of human power and righteousness. In this moment of national chastening, he committed himself and the nation to rebirth and renewal.

As a scholar of American religious history, this so-called “malaise speech” (though Carter never actually used the word “malaise”) was, in my opinion, the most theologically profound speech by an American president since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Read the entire piece here.

I have long been a fan of Carter’s speech.  Back in 2009, I called it “one of the best presidential speeches in American history.”

David Frum Rips Trump’s Vegas Speech

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Neoconservative writer David Frum tells it like it is.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

Pre-presidential Trump was a man of many faults and vices, but one endearing quality: He was no hypocrite. He exaggerated his wealth, his success, his physical fitness, but he never pretended to religion or morality.

Trump’s speech to the nation after the Las Vegas atrocity, however, was steeped in hypocrisy. He is the least outwardly religious president of modern times, the president least steeped in scripture. For him to offer the consolations of God and faith after mass bloodletting is to invite derision. “It is love that defines us,” said President Trump, and if we weren’t heartbroken, we would laugh.

Those who praised the speech, as CNN’s John King did, are reacting on reflex. This is the kind of thing we are used to hearing from Republican politicians; Trump is a Republican politician; therefore this is what he should say.

But whereas Vice President Pence could have pronounced those words with sincerity, or a convincing simulacrum thereof, Donald Trump looked shifty, nervous, and false. Speeches are watched as well as heard, and the viewer saw a president who wished he were somewhere else because he had been compelled to pretend something so radically false to his own nature.

Read the entire piece here.

I think court evangelical Robert Jeffress might disagree with Frum:

 

Who Said It: Trump or Obama?

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Every quote below was uttered by either President Donald Trump in his Afghanistan speech last night or President Barack Obama at some point in his presidency.  Can you match the speech with the POTUS?

  • The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared sense of purpose. They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together and sacrifice together in absolutely perfect cohesion.

 

  • That is because all service members are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family. It’s called the American family.

 

  • I see what’s possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment. All deserving equal respect. All children of God. That’s the America I know.

 

  • They’re all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They’re bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other. The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget: that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. 

 

  • When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

 

  • As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas—and we will always win—let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name: that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

I will post the answers in the comments section below at the end of the day.

Is Donald Trump More “Politically Correct” Than Barack Obama?

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Peter Beinart of The Atlantic compares the speech Donald Trump gave yesterday in Riyadh to Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo.  He concludes that Trump was much more “politically correct.”

Here is a taste:

“Political correctness,” as it is used in common parlance, means avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you. And Trump made his hostility to political correctness a centerpiece of his campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of “radical Islam.” Again and again, Trump blamed America’s vulnerability to jihadist terrorism on President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s refusal honestly to speak about the pathologies of Muslims and Islam. At a Wisconsin town hall in March of last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you trust Muslims in America?” Trump responded, “We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don’t have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem.” In June, in defending his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump declared that, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly” to keep America safe from terrorism.

But for all the pillorying Obama received for supposedly whitewashing the problems of the Islamic world, his Cairo speech actually addressed them quite bluntly. Speaking at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University, Obama condemned Holocaust denial in Muslim countries, calling it “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” He denounced people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes about Jews.” He highlighted the oppression of women in Muslim lands, declaring that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.” He referenced the Middle East’s economic failures, arguing that “no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.” And in a clear challenge to his host, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he insisted that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Compare that to Trump, who said virtually nothing that caused his hosts any discomfort. Trump criticized terrorist groups like ISIS for their “persecution of Jews,” and he condemned Iran for pledging “the destruction of Israel.” But since ISIS and Iran are Riyadh’s most bitter foes, those condemnations won’t have bothered the Saudi monarchs at all. Unlike Obama, Trump avoided the broader problem of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Islamic countries, a problem in which his Saudi hosts are deeply complicit. Nor did he even hint at the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel.

On the question of women’s rights, it was much the same. Trump attacked jihadist terrorists for “the oppression of women.” But he described King Salman’s government as a virtual beacon of women’s rights. “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development,” Trump declared. You would never have known that women in the Kingdom still can’t drive.

Read the rest here.

Barack Obama Easter Prayer Breakfasts, 2010-2016

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2010:

I can’t tell any of you anything about Easter that you don’t already know.  (Laughter.)  I can’t shed light on centuries of scriptural interpretation or bring any new understandings to those of you who reflect on Easter’s meaning each and every year and each and every day.  But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.

For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye.  The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire.  The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves.  The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him.  We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity.  And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect.  Each of us errs — by accident or by design.  Each of us falls short of how we ought to live.  And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.

It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption.  But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ.  And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul.  Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season.  And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion.  He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today.  Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children. 

So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.  And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer. 

2011:

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. 

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well.  (Laughter.)  The inbox keeps on accumulating.  (Laughter.)
 
But then comes Holy Week.  The triumph of Palm Sunday.  The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah:  “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect.  And it calls me to pray.  It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short.  It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

2012:

Now, I have to be careful, I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon.  It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.  (Laughter.)  But in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning.   And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”

It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace.  And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being. 

For like us, Jesus knew doubt.  Like us, Jesus knew fear.  In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection.  It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!” 

So the struggle to fathom that unfathomable sacrifice makes Easter all the more meaningful to all of us.  It helps us to provide an eternal perspective to whatever temporal challenges we face.  It puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems He was dealing with.  And it gives us courage and it gives us hope. 

We all have experiences that shake our faith.  There are times where we have questions for God’s plan relative to us — (laughter) — but that’s precisely when we should remember Christ’s own doubts and eventually his own triumph.  Jesus told us as much in the book of John, when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”  I heard an amen.  (Laughter.)  Let me repeat.  “In this world, you will have trouble.”

AUDIENCE:  Amen!

THE PRESIDENT:  “But take heart!”  (Laughter.)  “I have overcome the world.”  (Applause.)  We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live.  And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation. 

2013:

In these sacred days, those of us as Christians remember the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for each of us –- how, in all His humility and His grace, He took on the sins of the world and extended the gift of salvation.  And we recommit ourselves to following His example –- to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s the eternal spirit of Easter.  And this year, I had — I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land.  And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth. 

It brings Scripture to life.  It brings us closer to Christ.  It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.  

And so for Christians to walk where He walked and see what He saw are blessed moments.  And while I had been to Jerusalem before, where Jesus healed the sick, and cured the blind, and embraced the least of these, I also had a chance to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  And those of you who have been there know that entering the church is a remarkable experience, although it is a useful instruction to see how managing different sections of the church and different clergy — it feels familiar.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just put it that way.  (Laughter.) 

And as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, “the place where heaven and Earth met.”

And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection.  I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing — giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 

I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next.  I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know. 

And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal.  His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions.  When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us. 

So this morning, let us pray that we’re worthy of His many blessings, that this nation is worthy of His many blessings.  Let us promise to keep in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, on this day and on every day, the life and lessons of Christ, our Lord.

2014:

So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.  We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.  And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life. 

And more than 2,000 years later, it inspires us still.  We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”      

2015:

For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective.  With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us.  And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.

And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday.  The story keeps on going.  On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior. 

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.”  Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love.  Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so. 

Through God’s mercy, Peter the Apostle said, we are given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  It’s an inheritance that calls on us to be better, to love more deeply, to serve “the least of these” as an expression of Christ’s love here on Earth.

2016:

And Pastor preached on this this weekend, and I know all of you did, too, as I suspect, or in your own quiet ways were reminded if Easter means anything, it’s that you don’t have to be afraid.  We drown out darkness with light, and we heal hatred with love, and we hold on to hope.  And we think about all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed on our behalf — scorned, abandoned shunned, nail-scarred hands bearing the injustice of his death and carrying the sins of the world. 

And it’s difficult to fathom the full meaning of that act.  Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Because of God’s love, we can proclaim “Christ is risen!”  Because of God’s love, we have been given this gift of salvation.  Because of Him, our hope is not misplaced, and we don’t have to be afraid.

And as Christians have said through the years, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”  We are Easter people, people of hope and not fear. 

Now, this is not a static hope.  This is a living and breathing hope.  It’s not a gift we simply receive, but one we must give to others, a gift to carry forth.  I was struck last week by an image of Pope Francis washing feet of refugees — different faiths, different countries.  And what a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we’re not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe.  That is something that we have to give.

Click on the year to read the entire message.

Donald Trump is Historically Challenged

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Here is a taste of my recent piece at History News Network:

Four days before Inauguration Day 2017 Civil Rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis questioned, in light of Russian hacks that seemed to hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.  As is his custom, Donald Trump responded via Twitter: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S….”  It happened on the day before America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As expected, this exchange of words fueled the usual partisan politics in Washington.  Some thought Lewis was out of line to say that Trump was not a legitimate president.  Others were appalled that Trump would respond in the way he did to a living legend who almost gave his life in the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson tried to steer a middle course in the debate, but in the process he put his finger on a serious problem with the Trump presidency.  Trump’s response to Lewis, Gerson wrote, suggested that he “seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.”  Gerson added, “He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover it’s ideals; and that was only redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed.”

Gerson is right about Trump’s failure to understand his presidency as part of a larger American story.   His inaugural address only reinforced this point. Trump made no attempt to situate his vision for the nation in a shared past.  In this sense he echoed the revolutionary Thomas Paine who told the British-American colonists in 1776 that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  

Read the rest at HNN.

 

“America First” In Historical Context

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Pundits are calling Donald Trump’s inaugural address the “America First Speech.”  Thanks to the work of historians, many Americans are now aware of the history behind this phrase.  But just in case you have not had a chance to get caught up on the meaning of “America First,” I want to call your attention to Krishnadev Calamur’s recent piece at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

The phrase in itself might provide comfort for those of Trump’s supporters who have long railed against what they see as lawmakers in Washington catering to special interests, corporations, and other countries at the expense of, in their view, the American worker. But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.

The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune,but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.

“It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay,” Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.

But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.

Read the entire piece here.

It is also worth noting that the cartoonist Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” published several cartoons critical of “America First” in the pages of the left-leaning, interventionist New York newspaper PM.

Here are a few of those cartoons:

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