No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)

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A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Readers Respond

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Several folks have been commenting in the last week or so.  Here are some of the best:

In response to my post “This Video Proves Why Robert Jeffress is the Court of Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals“, reader Tomek Jankowski writes:

But this shows just how much Trump is a symptom, not a cause. He himself is a buffoon and dangerous in some respects, but he is the prop for a segment of this country who sees in him Messianic powers to stop change, to stop the social change, the economic change that they don’t understand and don’t want. They are like latter-day Amish, who want to freeze-dry history at some point in the 1950s and just continue living like we’re in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. They believe that Trump can deliver that world for them. If he’s removed or steps down, they’ll just find another shaman, another magic man who will defeat the evil Liberals who surely brought about all this post-1950s change and take us back to the way things ought to be — the pre-Civil Rights era Southern lifestyle that God clearly wants all humanity to embrace.

Sam Smith comments on my post “Court Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. Doubles-Down on His Court Evangelicalism“:

John, I have a question. Which bothers you most, Trump’s crass and un-presidential ways, or the many “jokes”about his death, his beheaded likeness, an outdoor drama depicting his assassination, etc.? These vicious things and more have been going on for months, and you say little to nothing about them (at least comparatively). Yet, when some admittedly sophomoric and wrong tweets come along, you go into your own version of culture warrior mode and call for absolute and unqualified condemnation and besmirch (over and over) all “court evangelicals” who will not join you. Allow me to throw the question back to you. Where are you? Why are you comparatively silent on these hateful attacks against our president? It’s not like you don’t have a platform. Even as much as you dislike Trump (and there is plenty to dislike), I know that as a Christian you do not approve of this unrelenting vileness perpetuated against him. Why not step out of your own possible “group think” mentality and show a little more balance?

And John Haas responds to Smith:

I wasn’t asked, but I have a few thoughts on that.

1. The president’s spokespeople have offered various versions of “The American people elected a fighter. They knew what they were getting, and he won overwhelmingly” (Sarah Huckabee Sanders), implying that President Trump was a known quantity, and that if the American people didn’t want a foul, juvenile, self-centered embarrassment for their president, they wouldn’t have voted for him.

Let’s grant that that argument isn’t entirely without merit (though the “and he won overwhelmingly” is false). The Americans who did vote for Trump did, indeed, know exactly what they were getting, and it’s safe to assume this is exactly what they wanted–that they found in Trump an accurate reflection of their own values and character, and hence they embraced him as their best representative. The Americans who didn’t vote for Trump likewise had plenty of evidence of what he was like, and should have understood this is what his presidency would be like.

This is a man, after all, who has proudly compared his own sexual promiscuity and the risk of STDs his behaviors incurred with the heroism of Americans risking life and limb in Vietnam, he is constantly telling people that there is a way of getting 48 hour STD/chlamydia test results so there should not be any excuses when it comes to your sexual health. Apparently some 62 million Americans find that kind of crude and disrespectful braggadocio appealing.

But if that’s true, it’s even truer that any aspirant to the presidency knows exactly what they are getting when they assume the highest office of this fractious, partisan, democracy. Presidents since Washington have been subjected to all manner of relentless attack (often unfair, ridiculous, or just mean–opponents spread the rumor that Washington was actually a British agent, eg; our politics has become only baser since then) from every direction. (Trump himself, of course, was the chief promoter of such outlandish attacks during the Obama presidency.) Criticism, sarcasm, etc. is simply part of the job description. Not responding in kind–valuing the office, and the republic it represents, higher than your own feelings; refusing the allure of pettiness and demonstrating that democracy need not devolve to rancor–is also part of the job.

If the American people can’t plead ignorance regarding Trump, neither can he, his spokesmen, or his internet defenders regarding America. Trump knew exactly what he was getting into when he asked for the job.

2. It goes without saying–or it should–that a public intellectual such as Professor Fea has a greater responsibility to speak to events and actions that reflect America than he does to those that reflect the opinions or attitudes of private individuals or groups. They speak for themselves or for some limited segment of the wider society which has embraced them, if it has. No one, eg, has elected Kathy Griffin to anything, and she represents no one (I just now had to Google the incident to even get her name, she’s that important). The president is the only man or woman in the land that, with everything they say or do, in public or in private, reflects on America, for now and for all time. The words and acts of a president command scrutiny for that reason in a way that nothing else does.

3. We constantly hear that the president is a “fighter,” and so we are told we must accept, even celebrate, his words and actions. I confess I don’t see it. As far as his discourse is concerned, the president is a name-caller and a petty insulter, not a fighter. A fighter shapes the political environment in a way that promotes his or her agenda for the American people or the American interest. President Trump has done very little of this. In policy debates, a fighter works–in front and behind the scenes–to get legislation passed that furthers that agenda. Lincoln was a fighter, FDR, Reagan, even Obama. Each had to find ways to accommodate opponents, and resist their own supporters or advisers, to get important things accomplished. In every important area–from the Republican health care reform proposals to the showy but symbolic missile attack on Syria–I see a president who takes the easy route, opting for a mere “win” whatever it may be, or worse, just a headline, but who is far from a real fighter who gets solid accomplishments for the American people.

OK, I think that’s reader feedback enough for now.  I think you have enough to chew on here.

Reader Feedback on "What’s Going on at Wheaton College?"

We received a lot of feedback from yesterday’s post, “What is Going on at Wheaton College.” Most of it brings additional clarity, context, and insight to this issue.

George from Missouri writes:

 I don’t have an opinion on Wheaton placing this professor on administrative leave. (It’s rare that I don’t have an opinion, but in this case it’s true.) What bothers me is the request that women don a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, when donning the hijab is a theologically loaded practice within Islam itself. As I understand it, Islam does not require women to wear jihab, so donning one aligns the wearer with the most conservative forms of that religion. In some countries, donning hijab is imposed on women, Muslim or not, whether they want to wear it or not.

Given that, this request is, frankly, bizarre:

“I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters–for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas #wish this year.

“Perhaps you are a Muslim who does not wear the veil normally. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who finds religion silly or inexplicable. Perhaps you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian like me. Perhaps you already cover your head as part of your religious worship, but not a hijab.”

How can her request be seen as anything but reactionary by Muslim women who are fighting the veil as well as by Christian women in Muslim-majority countries (e.g., Iran) who are forced to wear the veil?

Janine from Montana writes:

I would say that the hijab is both theologically loaded and theologically empty–it depends how important you think clothing is within the worship of God. Are my Western-styled button-down blouse and pants theologically loaded? From one perspecitve, they make a long list of statements on what I believe are the differences (or non differences) between men and women. On the other hand, they mean nothing at all. So also, priest vestments,…. etc.

To me, the hijab here is a signifier for Muslims and nothing more than that. I also choose to see the American flag as a signifier for the US nation rather than a symbol of the military industrial complex during the 1890s, for example.

Becky from New York writes:

I do not wish to speak for Muslims in general or Muslim women in particular, but among my acquaintance Hawkins’s announcement was met with both annoyance and appreciation. Some of my friends were annoyed because they saw her appropriation of the hijab as uninformed and not undertaken in the spirit of faith in which most Muslim women who wear hijab (outside of countries where it is required) choose to do so. On the other hand, many among my acquaintance were also heartened that a Christian woman would recognize the particular challenges that hijabis face daily in the US–the routine discrimination, nasty remarks, and often even violence (among women I know this has ranged from being spat on to being punched)–and be willing to share that. So, response was mixed, but I suspect Wheaton’s action on this will actually bring Hawkins more support from Muslim women.

David from New York writes:

I was taught by Larycia Hawkins and she is excellent, thoughtful, and empathetic in the best ways. I do not believe the hijab itself is at issue with Wheaton. Many western Christians in the middle east wear them and not many see it as oppression. By comparison, she didn’t put on a burqa. I agree that drawing the parallel between the God of Islam and Christianity is most likely the issue and is the only one that made me initially uncomfortable reading the post. The justification of a scholarly debate and a Catholic pontiff can’t stand on a leg to evangelical critics. The parallel between the two deities by extension draws a parallel between the special revelation of each (the Koran and the Bible). This is problematic as Richard argued.

The statement was well-intentioned, but rashly and naively given and was a minefield of controversy among potentially everyone, parents, alumni, faculty, board members. I’m very surprised she would have said something like that without a foreseeing a consequence. I think some evangelicals like to think that Muslims worship our God misunderstood through the lens of the Koran. A judeo-christian influenced gnosticism/heresy.

It is unfortunate that I think the media will now only see the issue as the hijab itself in the absence of a more specific statement from Wheaton. I sincerely hope that she will stay at Wheaton and all will be cleared and forgiven.

Caryn from Illinois writes (see her complete post at Patheos here).

I can’t help but think that race, both the racialization of Islam and the race of the suspended faculty member, is a factor. 

Jay from Tennessee writes:

I think Wheaton made it clear that they have no position on a Christian wearing hijab.  I’m sure they would have preferred she hadn’t, but it’s not what ruffled feathers.  The issue that got her suspended was (carelessly) conflating Muslim and Christian notions of God, calling them “brothers and sisters,” gesturing toward a broad pluralism/universalism.  

It’s the groundswell of support for her that I find most interesting.  Wheaton students  are rising up in anger.  Poor Ryken has people riled and angry in every direction!  Conservative alumni who are upset that someone like this was on faculty in the first place, an groundswell on social mediate who have conflated the issue of solidarity with doctrine, and enraged students (and faculty) who love their professor (and colleague).  Yikes.

Reader Feedback: A Review of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?*

I receive a lot of e-mails from folks who have read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Some of these writers want to thank me for my work and others want to argue with me.  But I have never had a reader e-mail me with an entire book review.  
Until now.

The other day I received an e-mail from Dan McElhinny, a public historian who has run historical societies in Alaska and Oregon and is now working for the State of Oregon.  He wrote:


“I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your web site. I took the liberty of writing a review of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.” Your work has piqued my interest in American Religious history…I missed history so I did the review to try to satisfy my love of history. I purchased your book at Colonial Williamsburg while vacationing in D.C. area a few years ago. 

Here is his review:

Was America Founded as A Christian Nation? reminds me that we need history more than we may realize. Some stories are so important they need to be remembered, told, and reexamined. Undertaking the difficult effort to understand the past provides us a better understanding of ourselves. This re-examination, if done with intellectual courage and rigor, allows historians to fulfill the basic human need of finding meaning. I say rigor and courage because these behaviors put spine in historical writing which is especially needed in times of national and/or personal crisis. In these troubled times, lack of spine may lead some to misused history with at least a lazy if not specific malicious intent. 

John Fea produces a historical primer with spine for “anyone who wants to make sense of America’s early history and its relationship to Christianity”. By selecting a subject of profound civic importance and examining it with passion, Fea demonstrates the value of professional historical practice. Using care in topic selection and applying key concepts called the Five C’s of historical scholarship, Fea expresses a genuine faith in human’s use of history. By example, he helps the reader understand and use skills to identify bad from good history. 

Fea examines modern day evangelicals’ claims the United States was founded as a Christian nation. In evaluating the claim, he takes us back to Early America when Evangeical Protestants held control of the American cultural atmosphere. Explaining the complex history of Christian evangelicals’ effort to hold and then take back the mantel of steward of our national culture, Fea illustrates a long and complicated time-line. Melding the influential Second Great Awakening with the American Revolution and the Civil War, Fea illustrates a timeline which anchors a complex yet enigmatic history. 

Illustrating strands of New England founding, critical analysis of founding documents, motivations of the founding fathers as well as describing minority opinions such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, Fea provides a glimpse into the events and people who, when subject to historical inquiry, at least suggests the contingent nature of nation founding and cultural development.

By applying these tools of historians, Fea challenges recent Christian Evangelical claims and clarifies our shared history. Quoting Historian David Armitage, Fea places the Declaration of Independence within the context of 1776. Armitage clearly asserts the documents’ purpose of declaring American political sovereignty. The original intent of the document was not to write a theological document but to announced the birth of the United States. Fea explains, it’s an example of a theistic document which focuses more on Enlightenment political theory than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance was necessary.

Fea continues his examination by suggesting the United States of America was not “founded “ by Pilgrims, Puritans and Jamestown settlers per Evangelical nationalistic claims. These groups planted English colonies. These colonies remained fiercely loyal to the English monarchy until a few years before the American Revolution. 

He highlights the complex nature of religious thought of some of the founding fathers and suggests the motives of these founders not only included using religion to provide order to society but also to respect the religious beliefs of all to insure their creation would survive. Washington clearly was more concerned with unifying the nation than seeking an evangelical goal. Jefferson also worried about the corrosive nature of religious intolerance and its threat to the new republic. These facts undermine the Protestant Evangelicals’ claim that the Founding fathers were Protestant and Evangelical. They were much more.

Fea challenges readers to sharpen their critical thinking skills as applied to historical study. Additional examination of the steps of critical thinking would have strengthened the primer’s goal. Just as he described the Five C’s of historical inquiry, he could also have included critical steps of thinking clearly as a basis of historical thinking. 

Specifically, much effort has been made to understand the value and practice of critical thinking. An example of the best of this effort is Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s The Art of Thinking: A Guide to Critical and Creative Thought. Ruggiero explains that thinking is not done automatically. In this information age the amount of information available to a student or historian is multiplied. Critical thinking allows the historian to select and interpret the information he needs to illustrate meaning. 

Ruggiero suggests that meaning is derived from making moral judgments. Ruggiero states: the most reliable basis for moral judgement, the basis that underlies most ethical systems, is the principle that people have rights existing independently of any government or culture. The most fundamental is the right to be treated with respect and left undisturbed as long as one does not infringe on others’ rights. Good historical writing is a process with a purpose. Coupling this or similar critical thinking volumes with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation would encourage students and the public to understand the awesome, intellectually stimulating power of practical critical thinking skills and how these skills can enrich the practice of historical scholarship.    

I agree with Ruggiero when he says: “no matter how difficult it may be to judge such moral issues, we must judge them. Value judgement is the basis of our social code as well as our legal system.”  Is it legitimate for us to pass judgment on the moral standards of other times or places?” No, for critical historical study seeks to understand a past in the view of those who lived that time. However, an accurate representation of the past allows citizens to make informed moral judgments to better our own lives. I enjoyed reading this fine example of historical scholarship.      

Thanks for this great review, Dan!  I am glad that the book is prompting people to think and engage!

Reader Feedback: "Was Philip Vickers Fithian a Pompous Ass and a Schlemiel?"

People have become regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home at various different points in the history of the blog.  Many of our new readers often browse past posts to get up to speed on what we are trying to do here.

For example, Kent W. from East Lansing, Michigan recently wrote us to comment on Andrew Shankman’s book review of my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I wrote about Shankman’s review in a post on September 23, 2009 under the title “Was Philip Vickers Fithian a Pompous Ass and a Schlemiel?”  

Now, over six years later, Kent has written to tell me how unhappy he was with Shankman’s review.  A taste of his e-mail:

John, I am afraid I don’t share your light-hearted response to most of Andrew Shankman’s review of your treatment of Rev. Philip V. Fithian’s Journals.  Mr. Shankman mistakenly assumes that Mr. Fithian’s Journal was in fact something it was not, namely a treatise on social justice. 

Mr. Shankman seems to have missed that Mr. Fithian lived in eighteenth century British colonial North America and that he wrote his Journal on the very eve of the American Revolution. Fithian can perhaps be forgiven for not being all consumed by the social justice agenda of the 21st century in light of his primary concerns with his new role of minister of the Gospel.

Since young Mr. Fithian had no involvement in, or likely impact upon establishing, modifying, or repealing British law, he may have failed to recognize that he would one day be held to account for a lack of obsession with the subject of that form of slavery with which he had no hand in creating, administering, or fostering. 

I, for one, admire those, like Mr. Fithian who placed themselves in harm’s way at the onset of the great American Revolution thereby challenging with one’s life, the very political institution responsible for establishing a common law right of property as concerns the Africans brought to North America by the Dutch, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Mr. Shankman rightfully points out that “Many enlightenment thinkers wrestled with the problem of slavery in an age of revolution.”  Mr. Shankman wrongfully concludes, by inference, that Mr. Fithian’s brief Journals contain all that was of concern to Mr. Fithian, which seems to me to constitute a fairly weak case for indicting a man’s character so harshly as he does. 

It is axiomatic that it is not generally reasonable to judge a man using novel standards of a vastly different time and place.  Mr. Fithian was admittedly concerned, in the main, with the two areas for which he had recently prepared himself at Princeton, that is the ministering of the Gospel for the saving of men’s souls, and education.  It seems entirely reasonable therefore that he was not consumed with the agendas of nineteenth century New England abolitionists, nor with twentieth century Marxist-Leninists.,.

My thanks again to you for your most enlightening book, and to Mr. Fithian, posthumously, for giving posterity an important look-see into an earlier and important time and place.

Thanks for the feedback Kent. And for reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Andy Shankman’s review of it so carefully.  I think you make some good points here about historical thinking.