Is Pete Buttigieg’s Religious Rhetoric Any Different Than the Rhetoric of the Christian Right?

Buttigieg

Peter Wehner makes a pretty good case at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

..And yet, precisely on the question of religion as an instrumental good, there is real cause for concern about Mayor Pete. His insistence that “Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction” is a bright-red flag, and ought to worry Christians regardless of their politics.

To say that Christianity points you in a progressive direction is in effect to say that Christianity and progressivism are synonymous. They aren’t. Neither are Christianity and conservatism. Christianity stands apart from and in judgment of all political ideologies; it doesn’t lend itself to being put in neat and tidy political categories. That doesn’t mean that at any particular moment in time a Christian ethic won’t lead people of faith to more closely align with one political and philosophical movement over another. But the temptation, always, is to politicize faith in ways that ultimately are discrediting.

Read the entire piece here.

Wehner’s piece is similar to the argument of James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Hunter calls out both the Religious Right and the Religious Left for turning to electoral politics to advance their missions.  He offers another way defined by “faithful presence.”

The Faith of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a major upset in yesterday’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th District.  She defeated Joe Crowley, the 10-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives who many believed would be the heir-apparent to Nancy Pelosi as the House Minority Leader.  Ocasio-Cortez is a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who ran on universal health care and the abolition of ICE.  She is also a Catholic.

On the day after her victory Ocasio-Cortez started writing, but not for The New York Times or The Progressive or The Nation or Jacobin or In These Times.  Nope. She turned to the web pages of the Jesuit magazine America.

Here is a taste of her piece, published today:

Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Solutions are already beginning to take shape, which include unraveling the War on Drugs, reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing and embracing a growing private prison abolition movement that urges us to reconsider the levels at which the United States pursues mass incarceration. No matter where these proposals take us, we should pursue such conversations with an openness to change and an aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.

Read the entire piece here.  She apparently disagrees with her church, however, on abortion and marriage.

The Cornel West–Robert George Road Show Discuss MLK

West and George

Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State University, January 2018 (Creative Commons)

Check out Adelle Banks’s piece at Religion News Service on a recent event sponsored by Baylor University’s program in Washington D.C.  I am encouraged when I hear conservative Robert George and progressive Cornel West working together to find common ground.  At this event they discussed the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of Banks’s article:

West said he’s had to answer critics who can’t understand how he travels around the country with George: “I say, ‘Have you met him? Have you sat down and talked with him?’”

They sat onstage, comfortably taking turns highlighting how King had crossed divides in search of his goal of a “beloved community.”

West and George agree that the emphasis on King should be on his role as a Christian minister, though his civil rights activism is also grounded in his being a product of the black community.

“The last thing we ever want to do with Brother Martin is view him as some isolated icon on a pedestal to be viewed in a museum,” said West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. “He’s a wave in an ocean, a tradition of a people for 400 years so deeply hated, but taught the world so much about love and how to love.”

Read the rest here.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also enjoy West and George discussing the liberal arts and the purpose of education:

 

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

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

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

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.

Ben Carson, Bear Killings, Welfare, and Faith

I got in late last night and missed Dr. Ben Carson’s appearance on the CNN GOP Town Hall. Earlier today I finally got a chance to see Carson’s answer to a question about faith and the welfare state. It has been making the rounds on social media:

I want to commend Jessica Fuller for this question.  It is the best question on faith and politics that I have heard asked in this primary season.  (And that includes the media and the moderators of debates).

I am partially sympathetic here with Carson.  It is the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor at the local level through voluntary societies such as churches.

But we also live in a broken world.  Sometimes voluntary societies fail. Sometimes the church fails.

Think about the Jim Crow South.  Where was the white church during segregation?  If you read Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or David Chappell’s treatment of the Civil Rights movement in Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow you have to come to grips with the fact that the white church did not do its job. And because it didn’t do its job, the government had to step in and desegregate.  (This is also part of Mark Noll’s argument in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History).

I wonder if the same thing can be said for poverty in America.  Would we need welfare programs if Christians were doing their job?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly something to think about.

I also wonder why caring for the poor always has to be framed in a “big government” vs. “civil society” way.  Yes, the welfare system needs reform.  But why can’t government also be involved in this kind of work?  Carson rattles off a bunch of problems with welfare.  But there are also stories of success.

And then there are the historical problems with Carson’s comments..

First, Carson is right about the Constitution.  The Constitution doesn’t say that it is the government’s job to take care of the poor.  In fact, I am not sure the Constitution says anything about taking care of the poor.

Second, I am sure that the kind of moral community Carson is talking about here was present in the “old days of America.” I have even written about it. (Although I failed to mention the bear-attacks).

But one also has to be cautious when suggesting that back in the good old days everyone cared for one another and there was no self-interest.  It is easy to romanticize this kind of community.  Carson is very nostalgic for a world that only partially existed.

Third,  Carson’s reference to Woodrow Wilson and progressivism comes straight out of the Glenn Beck playbook. In fact, when Beck and his writers attacked me a few years ago I had to deal with rabid Beck fans leaving messages on my office answering machine accusing me of being “Woodrow Wilson.” For Beck, Wilson’s racism is not a problem.  He is a problem for his “big-government” solutions to social issues.

But putting all the blame on Wilson and the Progressive Era fails to recognize that one of the brightest moments in American history–Lincoln freeing the slaves and the Radical Republican Reconstruction plan to bring racial equality to the South in the wake of the Civil War– was an example of an active federal government try legislating morality.

My Aeon Piece on Evangelicals and Secularism

flagSome of you may have seen the piece I wrote recently for Aeon, a relative new online magazine.  I wrote the article in an attempt to get intellectuals and other thoughtful observers to understand the mindset of some American evangelicals.

I understand, and in some cases sympathize, with the largely negative comments that are appearing in the comments section of the piece.  On the other hand, I am afraid that many of the comments confirm a lot of what I was trying to say in the article.

I hope readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will interpret the piece in the larger context of my work here at the blog and elsewhere.

Here is a taste:

Whether it be academia, popular entertainment, or some other sector of culture, secular progressivism is a real threat to evangelical Christian values. Christian culture warriors are often sloppy and usually inconsistent in the way that they apply Christian faith to public life, but not all of them are crazy. They are astute observers of modern culture who represent the values and fears of a significant portion of Americans. And, as long as secular progressives continue to remain intolerant about the deeply held religious convictions of these Christians, and refuse to understand them as part of a larger conversation about national identity and the common good, it will be difficult for US democracy to move forward.

Read the entire piece here.

History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki‘s excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:



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Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates’s Atlantic piece, “Hope and the Historians.”  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.


Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki’s essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:


I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.


A couple thoughts/questions:


1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He “worries” that Coates’s narrative will inevitably lead to an “approach to politics” that “falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.


2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to “imagination” and “hope?”  Again, here is Wirzbicki, “I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”


OK–I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki’s provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.

Jonathan Zimmerman Calls for a "Full Reckoning" with Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Legacy

A few years ago when I wrote what turned into a controversial piece about Barack Obama’s faith, my office voicemail was filled with angry calls from Glenn Beck supporters.  As it turns out, Beck mentioned my piece on his radio show and his website The Blaze made it front-page news.  Several of callers had some pretty nasty things to say.  They told me that I was just as bad Louis Farrakhan, Adolph Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson.  I at least understood the references to Farrakhan and Hitler. But Woodrow Wilson? At least four different negative messages (there were no positive ones) referenced the 28th President of the United States.

After a quick Google search of “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” I realized that Beck had been spending a lot of time on his radio program and in his writings attacking Wilson’s “progressive” political views.  In fact, as Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University points out in his recent piece at Politico, Beck was calling for the removal of Wilson’s name from buildings at Princeton University, the place where he served as college president from 1902-1910.

As many of you know, Beck is not the only one who wants Wilson removed from Princeton’s campus.  A few days ago I weighed in on the whole Wilson– racism issue going on at the historic New Jersey university. I joined several of my fellow American historians in sympathizing with the university’s African-American students, acknowledging Wilson’s racism, and arguing against removing his image and name from campus.

Zimmerman’s piece reminds us that despite his racism, Wilson remains an important figure in the history of American progressivism.  He is so important, that conservatives like Beck, and more recently a writer at The Federalist, thinks he should go.

Here is a taste of Zimmerman’s article:

...On balance, though, the federal government has been a force for justice and equality across the past century. That’s especially the case when it comes to African-Americans, who continue to suffer discrimination and poverty in our society. But they also vote in overwhelming percentages for the party of Big Government, the Democrats, because they understand that their circumstances would be many powers worse without federal programs and protections. Public housing, Medicare, occupational safety, mass transportation … the list goes on and on. And they’re all legacies of the Progressive doctrines espoused by Wilson, who understood that modern Americans needed the assistance of a larger, more supple national state.

That’s also why Glenn Beck despises him. So does the newly elected speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who blasted Wilson and his fellow Progressives in a 2010 interview with Beck. “I see Progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the Big Government problems that are plaguing us today,” Ryan told Beck. Progressives, Ryan added, “create a culture of dependency on the government, not on oneself.”

And just last week, the conservative Federalist website praised Princeton students for protesting Wilson. “Asking a private school to stop honoring an authoritarian hatemonger who also happened to be one of the most destructive presidents in the history of the United States is about the sanest thing I’ve heard happening on a college campus in a long time,” wrote senior editor David Harsanyi, in a rare right-wing tribute to the recent wave of campus demonstrations.

The Princeton students ended their sit-in after the university agreed to initiate a conversation about retaining Wilson’s name on its buildings. That’s exactly as it should be. But I hope the conversation includes a full reckoning with Wilson’s legacy, including his expansion of government regulations and services. His conservative antagonists certainly remember that. It would be a pity if liberals forgot it.

Read the entire piece here.

Andrew Bacevich on the Millennial Generation

Andrew Bacevich

Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, has nailed it once again.  In a recent post at The Front Porch Republic he chides Progressives, Baby Boomers, and Millennials for drinking too deeply from the wells of progress.  Here is a taste:

Fast forward a half-century and members of another notably self-assured generation of young people – my fellow Baby Boomers – discovered their own world bursting with new ideas, plans, and hopes.  In 1962, a Boomer manifesto laid out its blueprint for doing away with old and crusty things.  The authors of the Port Huron Statement envisioned “a world where hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance, violence, and exploitation are replaced as central features by abundance, reason, love, and international cooperation.”  Ours was the generation that would repair a broken world.
Yet several decades later progress toward fulfilling such grandiose aspirations remains fitful.  Boomer achievements have fallen well short of their own youthful expectations.  In practice, power harnessed to advance the common good took a backseat to power wielded to remove annoying curbs on personal behavior.  To navigate the path marked “liberation,” Boomers took their cues not from philosophers and priests, but from rockers, dopers, and other flouters of convention.
No doubt the Boomer triumvirate of radical autonomy, self-actualization, and contempt for authority, a. k. a., sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, has left an indelible mark on contemporary culture.  Even so, the old and crusty things against which they passionately inveighed persist, both at home and abroad.  Love and reason have not supplanted violence and exploitation.  Viewed in retrospect, the expectations that Boomers voiced back in the Sixties appear embarrassingly naïve and more than a little silly.
Now, with the passing of yet another half-century, another youthful cohort purports to see big change in the making.  With Progressives gone and forgotten and Boomers preparing to exit the stage, here come the so-called Millennials, bursting with their own ideas, plans, and hopes.  They too believe that the world was never so young (or so plastic) and they seem intent on making their own run at banishing all that is old and crusty.
Millennials boast their own triumvirate, this one consisting of personal electronic devices in combination with the internet and social media.  In addition to refashioning politics (the Progressives’ goal) and expanding personal choice (a Boomer priority), this new triumvirate offers much more.  It promises something akin to limitless, universal empowerment.
Today’s young welcome that prospect as an unvarnished good.  “You’re more powerful than you think,” Apple assures them.  “You have the power to create, shape, and share your life.  It’s right there in your hand.  Or bag.  Or pocket.  It’s your iPhone 5s.”
Here for Millennials is what distinguishes their generation from all those that have gone before.  Here is their Great Truth.  With all the gullibility of Progressives certain that Wilson’s Fourteen Points spelled an end to war and of Boomers who fancied that dropping acid promised a short cut to enlightenment, they embrace that truth as self-evident.  The power that they hold in their hand, carry in their bag, or stuff in the pocket of their jeans is transforming human existence.
To a historian, the credulity of the Millennials manages to be both touching and pathetic.  It is touching as a testimonial to an enduring faith in human ingenuity as panacea.  It is pathetic in its disregard for the actual legacy of human ingenuity, which is at best ambiguous.
In that regard, the so-called Information Age is unlikely to prove any different than, say, the Nuclear Age or the Industrial Age.  Touted as a vehicle for creating wealth, it increases the gap between haves and have-nots.  Promising greater consumer choice, it allows profit-minded corporations to shape the choices actually made.  While facilitating mass political action, it enhances the ability of the state to monitor and control citizens.  By making weapons more precise, it eases restraints on their use, contributing not to the abolition of war but to its proliferation.

The Progressive Roots of Mother’s Day

Writing at The Huffington Post, Diana Butler Bass reminds us that the idea of a national day to honor mothers came from radical female Protestant reformers.  Here is a taste:

In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations–like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association–picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.  

Heather Cox Richardson makes a similar point at the blog of The Historical Society.

Do Ph.D Programs in the Humanities Teach a Secret "Liberal" Handshake?

Many conservatives think that they do.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik discusses Neil Gross’s new book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?  Based on sociological research, Gross concludes (big surprise here) that most professors “lean to the left.”  But he also concludes that “most faculty members are not as radical as many believe and there is a larger center-left following in the academy.”

Here is a taste of Jaschik’s piece:

Gross also considers why the idea of a liberal professoriate is so powerful with some conservatives. He includes history of the William F. Buckley critique of professors as liberal and anti-religion, and notes that much of the frustration has come from people who care about ideas and who (in the case of Buckley and some of the National Review crowd) can hardly have been called populists.

But he also notes the strong resonance for many in the general public with the idea of professors as elite, liberal and disconnected. While he reviews the extent to which conservative foundations have funded organizations that have made a big deal out of professorial politics, he suggests that the views of many people about academics operate independently of anything David Horowitz said or did.

In an interview, Gross discussed why he sees it as crucial for academe to have a better handle on issues of faculty politics — and it’s not because it answers critics who say that academe imposes an ideological litmus test on professors. Rather, he thinks the findings pose challenges for those across the ideological spectrum.

For those who are conservative, and profess to care about a partisan imbalance in academe, Gross said, there is the question of whether their own statements are discouraging young conservatives from going to graduate school to prepare to become professors. The conservative undergraduate who reads about alleged liberal academic outrages all the time may simply come to view academe as a less-than-hospitable employer — even if that’s not necessarily the case.

Howard’s Zinn’s "Influential Mutilations" of American History

Today I finished teaching Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s marvelous Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 in my British colonial America course.  The book is now over thirty years old, but Ulrich’s lucid prose and clear argument make it a joy to teach. My undergraduates love it.

What I particularly like about the book is the way Ulrich’s complicates the progressive narrative of American women’s history.  At the end of the book she writes:

The story of female experience in America is not to be found in a linear progression from darkness to light, from constricted to expanding opportunities, from negative to positive valuation (or vice versa), but in a convoluted and sometimes tangled embroidery of loss and gain, accommodation and resistance.

If only Howard Zinn had learned Ulrich’s lesson about convolution, entanglement, loss, gain, accommodation, and resistance, his A People’s History of the United States might have been a better work of history.  It might not have sold over 2 million copies, but it would be a better work of history.

Over at The New Republic, David Greenberg of Rutgers University reviews Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Greenberg calls Zinn’s A People’s History as a “pretty lousy piece of work.”  Here is a taste:

What I didn’t realize was that the orthodox version of the American past that Howard Zinn spent his life debunking was by the 1980s no longer quite as hegemonic as Zinn made out. Even my high school history teacher marked Columbus Day by explaining that the celebrated “discoverer” of America had plundered Hispaniola for its gold and that, in acts of barbarism that would later be classified as genocide, Columbus’s men had butchered the native Arawaks, slicing off limbs for sport and turning their scrotums into change-purses. (This last detail stuck vividly in the teenage mind.) That Mr. MacDougall was conversant with radical scholarship such as Zinn’s suggests that much had changed from the days when Zinn himself had imbibed uncritical schoolbook accounts of the American story. True, in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today; and many cities around the country shielded their charges from such heresies. But as far as historians were concerned, the sacred cows that Howard Zinn was purporting to gore had already been slaughtered many times. As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”

Greenberg praises Duberman, a friend of Zinn who shared his politics, for trying to write “fairly and dispassionately,” but he also chides Duberman for ignoring some of Zinn’s “more outrageous or obtuse political positions.”

Here is another taste:

Upon its publication, A People’s History won some kind words from critics praising its author’s effort to transmit the new academic arguments of the 1960s and 1970s to wider audiences. But on the whole the reviews were not kind. The cultural historian Michael Kammen called the book a “scissors-and-paste-pot job” and deemed the book’s “bottom up” history to be “as unsatisfactory as ‘elitist’ history.” He pointed out that it was not too much to expect a book of 600 pages to include America’s “grandeur as well as tragedy, magnanimity as well as muddle, honor as well as shame.” In the New York Times, Eric Foner, something of a radical historian himself, explained why Zinn’s bugaboo of “balance” was a red herring: historians are obliged to explore the viewpoints of elite actors, however unattractive, not to parcel out sympathy in proper proportions, but to show, in a faithful account of the past, the interconnectedness of the rulers and ruled, and of all strata of society, and how one group’s experiences influence another’s. But Zinn reduced historical analysis to political opinion. He assessed a work of history by its author’s partisan loyalties, not its arguments about causation, influence, motivation, significance, experience, or other problems he deemed “technical” in nature.
Despite his soft spot for Zinn personally, Duberman doesn’t flinch from rehearsing these and other flaws. “Sometimes A People’s History lacks nuance,” he writes (ever so gently), “with the world divided into oppressors and oppressed, villains or heroes.” Not only did this division devolve quickly into Manichaeism; it also trivialized Zinn’s own heroes by depicting their labors as ineffectual. “The history of the U.S.,” Duberman notes, “is treated as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.” Even the civil rights movement is regarded in A People’s History as little more than a brief surge of activism that ended in burned-out ghettos, persistent inequality, continued racial conflict, and white indifference. 
Yet when it comes to Zinn’s demand for history to be judged for its political utility, Duberman is finally too indulgent. He can never bring himself to say that the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses. He aligns himself with the famous line from the British historian James Anthony Froude, who asked rhetorically if history “was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Froude made this observation in the middle of the nineteenth century….

Not in My Neighborhood

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway on why some New England progressives won’t tolerate evangelicals.  A taste:

Unable to maintain its 217-acre campus and 43 buildings, the board of Northfield Mount Hermon tried to sell the campus for $20 million in 2005. With no takers and prohibitive annual upkeep costs, the school sold the property to the Green family of Oklahoma City, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, for $100,000.

The Greens planned to give the property to the C.S. Lewis Foundation to launch a college with a Great Books curriculum. But the foundation’s fundraising fell short by the end of 2011 and the Greens began soliciting new proposals. The family does insist that whoever ultimately takes over the school promote Christianity in “the tradition of Moody.” That has people in Northfield worried about how well the new neighbors will fit in culturally.

More than 100 interested Christian groups toured the campus this year. When word got out that the contenders included Liberty University, founded by the fundamentalist Rev. Jerry Falwell, some school alumni launched a petition drive arguing that Liberty was a “homophobic and intellectually narrow institution” that would be “fundamentally incompatible” with the prep school’s principles. Some residents of Northfield, home to 128 alumni and 60 employees of the school, held meetings to fight the transfer of the property to Liberty.

After Liberty was ruled out by the Green family, residents continued to worry. In April, at a meeting of the Northfield Campus Collaborative—established by the Northfield Board of Selectmen to improve communication between interested parties—resident Bruce Kahn “brought up the ‘elephant in the room’ which was the concern that an extremist Christian campus might polarize and upset the peace and tranquility of the town,” according to meeting minutes. Resident Ted Thornton said it is a paradox that “we consider ourselves tolerant but we won’t tolerate intolerance.” 

Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator and the Green family’s representative tasked with finding a fitting recipient for the campus, attended the meeting. He suggested that fear of outsiders can be expressed by liberals as well as conservatives and should be discouraged by all communities.

By June, Mr. Pattengale narrowed down the finalists to Grand Canyon University and the domestic missions agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Residents expressed concern about both Southern Baptist doctrines and the impact of the 5,000 students that Grand Canyon proposed to bring to Northfield

In September, the Green family named Grand Canyon as the recipient of the campus. But five weeks later Grand Canyon walked away from the gift, citing millions in unanticipated infrastructure, environmental and other costs. Mr. Pattengale has said there is another candidate with the means to operate the campus, but “it’s hard to get excited” because the mystery school is as big and conservative as Liberty University.

At another public meeting earlier this year—one that included questions about the contenders’ views on creation and same-sex marriage—a Northfield resident argued that “the religious tradition of the area welcomes people of many faiths, belief or nonbelief. There is potential conflict with those who follow more restrictive teachings.”

Ironically, Northfield Mt. Hermon  was founded by late nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody.

Tim Lacy on Jackson Lears’s "Rebirth of a Nation"

Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America has been on my reading list for a couple of years now.  Tim Lacy’s recent reflection on the book at U.S. Intellectual History has convinced me to bring it closer to the top of my pile.  Here is a taste:

In my pre-reading of Rebirth (wherein I thoroughly study the TOC, Notes, and Index), I had identified chapter five as the pivotal part of the book. I do not mean, in any way, that chapters one through four are less valuable. All four are absolutely necessary to the story. But chapter five met my expectation of importance. It stirs militarism, violence, market culture, white male supremacy, and urban-rural tensions into a hot cauldron of 1890s crises. In this cauldron, crises were dissolved into a new language of reform, order, and regeneration, manifest in market consumption, the idea of a cooperative commonwealth, and empire. Every major character of the age appears in the chapter: Addams, Adams, Beveridge, Bryan, Burnham, Coxey, Darwin, Debs, Gompers, Herron, James, Morgan, Pullman, Roosevelt, Strong, Twain, and Willard. Lears shows how misunderstandings about Darwin were put to both good and evils (p. 204). The introductory discussion of  empire in this chapter (pp. 200-221) is first rate, supplanted only by the contents of chapter seven, titled “Empire as a Way of Life.” Lears’ discussion of civil religion in the chapter compared favorably, in terms of themes, to the contents of Ray Haberski’s God and War—though the later focuses on the post-World War II period and, to my knowledge, doesn’t reference Lears.

New Biography of Howard Zinn

As long as we are talking about Howard Zinn, it is worth noting that Martin Duberman has recently published Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New Press, 2012).

John Tirman reviews the book at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

But this intelligent book reminds us of titantic moral struggles in American history and those who engaged in them. It’s striking that the Zinn-Chomsky generation lacks a successor in public discourse, that our national political debate has narrowed so much. The book also reminds us of when people would collectively act as citizens, sometimes militantly, to be heard and get results. It spurs us to think, as Zinn did, of utopian ideas — a Constitution that guarantees economic rights, for instance, or a society that could sustain itself without a central state, the core belief of anarchists and one intermittently asserted by Zinn — and how mentally liberating those ideas can be.

Mostly, Duberman’s biography captures what was so attractive about this radical historian. “What will most certainly come down to future generations,” Duberman concludes, “is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance. Howard always stayed in character — and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.”

Did Feminism Kill Home Cooking?

Progressive food writer Michael Pollan thinks so and he is not the only progressive who does.  There is even a small movement of “punk neo-feminist housewives” who are reclaiming the role of homemaker.

Writing at The Atlantic, Emily Matchar argues that the current craze with all-natural domesticity–backyard chickens, localism, farmer’s markets, urban knitting circles, home births, and homeschooling–can result in progressives having some “very odd attitudes” about gender.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Crunchy progressives are arguing that quitting your job to become a homemaker is a radical feminist act, far-right evangelicals are talking about “women’s empowerment” via Etsy, lefty liberal writers are excoriating the First Lady for hating to cook, and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are giving birth in their bathtubs with midwives and self-hypnosis tapes.

Both sides of the political spectrum turn to domesticity for many of the same reasons: distrust in government and institutions from the EPA to the public schools to hospital maternity wards, worries about the safety of the food supply, disappointment with the working world, the desire to connect with a simpler, less consumerist way of life.

The fact that domesticity is so appealing speaks to the failure of these systems. Until these things are fixed, I predict we’ll see an increasing number of people from all parts of the political spectrum deciding to go the DIY route with their food, their homes, their children. And yes, this will mean more progressive people opting for lifestyles that seem uncomfortably retro. But maybe too we’ll see Rush Limbaugh at the farmer’s market.

Why Do Bad History Books Win Us Over?

Writing in The Atlantic, Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens reflect on the recent History News Network poll on the least credible history books in print. (See our post on this poll here).

The authors attempt to explain why “historians” such as David Barton and Howard Zinn are so popular. Certainly politics is part of the appeal, but there is more.  I will let Beneke and Stephens explain:

In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.

Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

Patrick Deneen does not think so.

The Georgetown University politics professor (soon to be a Notre Dame politics professor) believes that the phrase “progressive Catholic” does not make sense. He makes this argument in a very insightful piece that critiques his colleague E.J. Dionne’s use of terms such as “progressive Catholic” and “social justice Catholics.”

It seems that Deneen is right when he suggests that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not “map” very well on our current political landscape.  I have always wondered about this–both as a former Catholic and as a student of American religion.

Why don’t I ever hear so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics defend the Church’s teaching on abortion and gay marriage?  In the last year or so I have spent some time with administrators and professors at Catholic universities and colleges who sound no different on these moral questions than any liberal academic. They all talk a good game on the “social justice” front, but they are rarely proactive in discussing the Church’s position on some of the issues that have become talking points for political conservatives.

And why don’t I ever hear conservative Catholics, such as those of the First Things variety (where Deneen published his piece), talk about social justice issues.  Instead, they extoll the virtues of capitalism, defend a pro-life position on abortion, and rail against gay marriage and stem-cell research. I rarely  hear them speak about poverty, the role of government, or other issues that have become talking points for political liberals.

Deneen’s piece is helpful on this front.

A taste:

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic”—a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God—progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description—“Social Justice Catholic”—appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life—born or unborn—any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.