Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Make the Fourth of July Safe Again!

fireworks

Over at Smithsonian.Com, history student Michael Waters tells the story of early 20th-century reformers and activists who were concerned that Independence Day celebrations were too dangerous.  They championed a “Safe and Sane Fourth.”

Here is a taste of his Waters’s piece:

Charles Pennypacker, a lawyer and legislator from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was fed up with Fourth of July. The holiday, he insisted in 1903, was hopelessly out of control. Hundreds of people across the U.S. were dying from a mix of firework explosions and poorly shot toy guns, all in the name of celebrating their country’s founding.

“A spurious patriotism has brought a day of terror, misery, noise, destruction, and death,” Pennypacker lamented in a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He urged citizens to focus on a “quiet and sane observance of the Fourth” that prioritized family gatherings.

Instead of setting off fireworks, Pennypacker begged the people of West Chester to take a trolley ride, spend “a quiet day under the trees,” or at the very least bake “cake with deviled eggs” and “bread with lemon butter.” In a speech that the Louisville-based Courier-Journal reprinted under the headline “Avaunt! Toy Pistols; Enter Cake and Eggs,” Pennypacker lectured his fellow Americans: “Spend your money for sandwiches instead of squibs,” referring to the explosive devices. “The price of five skyrockets will buy a hammock, whose swing delights youth and old age in all lands,” he said.

Pennypacker’s crusade enraged locals. A year later, the Inquirer reported that his continued push for reform in West Chester “had been resented by the young men of the town.” Late the night of July 3, 1904, a “large number of young men” gathered outside Pennypacker’s house, clutching Roman candles and other combustibles. When midnight hit, “there was a sudden flash and roar that jarred all the houses in the neighborhood,” the paper said, and for at least 15 minutes the men set off explosives outside of Pennypacker’s window—all to punish the legislator for trying to reform the most patriotic holiday.

Read the rest here.

Out of the Zoo: “Leave Them Scratching Their Heads”

Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman speaks at the Messiah College Humanities Symposium

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about what she learned from a recent lecture on campus.  Enjoy! –JF

If you were on Messiah’s campus last Thursday, you may have had the privilege to hear Marian Wright Edelman give the keynote address for Messiah’s 2019 humanities symposium titled “Toward the Common Good: Ending Child Poverty in the U.S.” A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund and has worked tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged children for many years. She held nothing back Thursday and quickly called her South-Central Pennsylvania audience to action. She repeatedly emphasized that we cannot be satisfied until all of America’s children are lifted out of poverty. Kids only get one childhood, Edelman explained, so we need to be moving with a sense of urgency.

So how do we do that? To put it in a few words, Edelman said good change is done in scuttwork, in the menial but manageable tasks necessary to meet pressing needs. We must be persistent, and cannot be afraid to be a little pushy in our pursuit of meaningful reform. We don’t have to be “big dogs,” to use Edelman’s term, gnawing off the heads of our nation’s problems, but instead we can be “fleas” who keep policymakers scratching until they’ve had enough.

History is painted with buzzing fleas who, in pursuit of a worthwhile cause, pestered and pushed dreams into realities. Suffragettes were fleas who bit and tormented until they got to vote. They marched, lobbied, wrote and rallied until it was easier for the government to comply with their wishes than to keep resisting their efforts.

The Civil Rights movement was full of fleas, too. One flea planted herself in a bus seat, and when she was forced to move others decided to walk to work in protest. Some fleas sat down at lunch counters even though they knew they wouldn’t be served. Nine more young fleas from Arkansas went to a school where they weren’t wanted. More than 200,000 fleas marched up to the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963 to listen to Martin Luther King call for change.

Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year a new swarm of fleas has emerged in the public eye. These fleas, fed up with recurring gun violence in American schools and seeking to make learning a safe endeavor for everyone, started a movement of their own.

Real change is rarely done by the “big dogs” who try to single-handedly tear down injustice, no matter how strong they are or how eloquently they speak; real change is done by the fleas who persist, band together, and don’t go away. Anyone can be a flea, Edelman urged her audience; if we follow the need with a united front, even the smallest of actions can lead to great change.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

The Author’s Corner with Ashley Baggett

51SmfhXThCL._SY346_.jpgAshley Baggett is assistant professor of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at North Dakota State University. This interview is based on her new book, Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans: Gender, Race, and Reform, 1840-1900 (University Press of Mississippi, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: I have been raising awareness about and combatting intimate partner violence (commonly referred to as domestic violence) for the better part of a decade, but I started researching Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans after noticing most historians focus on the North and leave out criminal cases. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans argues that the Civil War upended gender expectations, and in the 1870s and 1880s, New Orleans women demanded the right to be free from violence. The legal system responded by recognizing that right and criminalizing intimate partner violence until the 1890s, when abuse became racialized throughout the South and used as a means of racial control.

JF: Why do we need to read Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans demonstrates that abuse was not seen as “part of life” or acceptable for much of American history. Instead, legal reform on abuse was (and is) closely tied with how we perceive men, women, race, and relationships. The book inserts the South into the historical narrative on intimate partner violence and adds important insight on the Jim Crow era. 

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

AB: As I became more aware of pressing social problems, especially sexual assault and intimate partner violence, I committed myself to making a difference. For me, that was through understanding the past. History can inform our current decisions and interactions, and to that end, I always hope my research, teaching, and outreach effect a positive change.

JF: What is your next project?

AB: My next project is on an article that examines intimate partner violence during Union occupation. I am also working on an anthology about gender based violence in American history.

JF: Thanks, Ashley!

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”

Erie

Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

A Tale of Three Protests

protests

This could be the first weekend of the Trump administration in which the country has not experienced a major protest march of one form or another.  As I write this on Saturday morning, the weekend is still young.  But I doubt that we will let our impulse for social reform get in the way of the Super Bowl.  After all, this is the United States. 🙂

All of these protests–the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the spontaneous gatherings in American airports to protest Trump’s immigration ban–all had one thing in common.  They were, in one way or another, defenses of human dignity.  In this sense, they were inextricably linked. A recent post by a immigration lawyers Melbourne team have illustrated this quite well, it’s worth a look.

Protests and marches of this nature have a long history in the United States.  Think about the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Tea Party, the Whiskey Rebellion, the New York City Draft Riots, women’s suffrage parades and marches, the Bonus Army, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam Movement, Stonewall, labor protests, the movement to stop globalization, the Million Man March, the present-day Tea Party Movement, and Occupy Wall Street.  (And this list only scratches the surface).  We can debate to what extent these historic protests brought real social change, but we cannot argue with the fact that such activity is part of the American tradition of free speech, freedom of assembly, and the defense of human rights and dignity.

The American protest tradition was at its best on Saturday, January 21, 2017, one day after Trump was inaugurated, when women took to the streets in major and minor cities all over the United States.  On the Monday following the women’s march, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that “a lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and [were] not against anything.”  I realize that Spicer’s job is to spin events in favor of Donald Trump, but anyone who attended one of these rallies or watched the coverage on television knows that the people present that day were “against” something.  They were against the Trump presidency.  The day was a stunning rebuke to the new administration.

Spicer, however, is correct when he says that women (and some men) came to Washington for a host of different reasons.  As I watched the march unfold on my television screen, it became clear that the movement lacked any focus beyond the fact that everyone opposed Donald Trump.  People were there to unleash their frustrations. Only time will tell if the march translates into real political gain. I have my doubts.

I was saddened to see the organizers of the Women’s March try to separate themselves from women who opposed abortion.  I think it was a missed opportunity to find common ground and show that Trump’s degradation of women transcends the debate over abortion.  I know pro-life women who attended and felt a sense of solidarity.  I also know many who did not attend and who were troubled by this kind of exclusion.

Which leads us to the March for Life on January 28, 2017.

The Pro-Life Movement has a long history in the United States.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued in his excellent book Defenders of the Unborn (you can listen to our podcast interview with him here-Episode 2), the movement was once embedded within the Democratic Party.  Liberals such as Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Bill Clinton, Paul Simon, Dick Durbin, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Herbert Humphrey,  Joe Biden, Ed Muskie, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Bob Casey, Daniel Berrigan, Jimmy Carter, Thomas Eagleton, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, and Mario Cuomo were pro-life politicians.  Many of them, as David Swartz notes in his book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, “flipped to a pro-choice position under party pressure.”

The history of this so-called “flip” is complicated and I would recommend reading Williams’s book (or listen to our interview with him) to understand it in context.  But I think it is fair to say that Democrats of a previous generation saw very little tension between their political convictions and their opposition to abortion.  Democrats have always been concerned about protecting the most vulnerable human beings in American society. This is a core tenet of the modern Democratic Party.

Back in September 2015 I turned to the pages of USA Today  to challenge then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to say something about reducing abortions in America.  I wrote: “aborted fetuses are alive, they are vulnerable and they need protection.”  I did something similar, albeit in a more indirect way, in a piece I published in the Harrisburg Partiot-News about Hillary Clinton’s failure to reach out to evangelicals on the issue of abortion.

Democrats and Republicans, men and women, convened in Washington  to march for life. The march was not as large as the Women’s March the week before, but it was just as powerful. Bishop Vincent Matthews Jr., a bishop in the largest Black denomination in the United States, was perhaps the most inspiring speaker.  As I wrote about last week, his speech connected the pro-life movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Jesse Jackson could have delivered the same speech in 1977.  In that year, as Williams notes in Defenders of the Unborn (p.171), Jackson wrote an article for Life News linking his opposition to abortion to his defense of social justice, poverty, and black personhood.

My only critique of the event was the way it politicized a great social sin.  The problems with abortion should be addressed in an apolitical way.  The Pro-Life Movement transcends Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and the Republican Party. Speeches by Conway and Pence gave the march a political flavor that distracted from the day’s message.

Finally, protest swirled on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  Americans arrived at airports by the thousands to defend the human rights of immigrants and refugees who were detained by the Trump administration. They also cried out against the targeting of immigrants from a specific religious group.

The constitutionality of Trump’s executive order can be debated.  After doing a little reading it appears that certain parts of the order seem to be OK.  But after reading it a few times there seems to be no way around the fact that this order discriminates based on religion.  We will need to let the courts decide if such discrimination in cases of immigration is indeed unconstitutional.

Section 5b reads:

Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.  Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization.

The order states that “minority religions” in these Muslim countries will get priority.  How can this be read as anything but an attempt by Trump (and probably Steve Bannon) to favor Christians (and other non-Muslim faiths) and discriminate against Muslims?

America has been here before.

In 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse, best known in American history for inventing the telegraph, was one of the nation’s foremost opponents of Catholic immigration.  He saw Catholics as a threat to American democracy and wrote about them as both a political and religious movement. In 1911, the Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization with a mission to deny all Asian immigrants access to the United States, described Asians as a people whose “ways are not as our ways” and whose “gods are not our God, and never will be.”  The members of the League argued that Asian men and women “profane this Christian land by erecting here among us their pagan shrines, set up their idols and practice their shocking heathen religious ceremonies.”

The difference between Donald Trump and Morse, the Asiatic Exclusion League, and other attempts in U.S. history to restrict immigration, is that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.  I am not a scholar of immigration history (although I do occasionally teach a class on the subject), but I cannot think of another case in which a POTUS tried to overtly stop immigrants to the United States based on their religious faith.  Some Presidents may have secretly wanted to do this, but they never acted on it in the way that Donald Trump has done.  The closest thing I can think of is the government’s decision in 1939 to turn away 937 European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, but this decision was not overtly framed in a religious way. (I welcome anyone who can think of an example of a POTUS doing this).

American immigration and refugee policy has always been at its best when it respects the human dignity of all men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.  Those who flooded American airports last Sunday were protesting the failure of the Trump administration to live up to these ideals.

Three protest marches.  Three defenses of human dignity.  Three signs of hope in an imperfect world and an imperfect country.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #86

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Most of my morning today was spent reading for Chapter Five. This chapter will require me to place the history of the American Bible Society into the larger evangelical benevolent movement of the early nineteenth century so I need to bone up a bit on the history of the temperance, sabbatarian, and women’s rights movements. And I need to understand all of these movements in the context of the Second Great Awakening.


This morning I reread Robert Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and Religious Imagination.
It offers a nice overview of the history of antebellum reform.


Maybe I will actually write something tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Kazin: America Was Built on Extremism

William Lloyd Garrison.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ida Wells Barnett.  W.E.B. DuBois. Students for a Democratic Society.  Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Barry Goldwater.  William F. Buckley. Phyllis Schafly They were all extremists.  The names above associated with the Left brought much needed reform to American society.  The names above associated with the Right “seeded” the conservative movement that “grew to unprecedented heights” in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Here is the conclusion of Georgetown’s Michael Kazin‘s article “A Kind Word for Ted Cruz.”

Of course, compromise is called for whenever political opponents agree on the essential merits of a
program, like Social Security and Medicare today, yet disagree about how to keep it solvent. But
while conservatives are careful not to advocate tearing down such pillars of the limited welfare state, many also describe Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme”—which reveals their true intentions. When dedicated partisans treat every issue as an opportunity for moral combat, effective governance becomes all but impossible.

But to vaunt moderation over extremism just signals one’s good intentions without communicating anything meaningful about the issues at stake. If you think Bill de Blasio will bankrupt New York or Ted Cruz has no sympathy for the uninsured, then make that argument and drive it home with facts. Insisting that our biggest problems would be solved if everyone crowded into the middle of the road is a lazy attempt to avoid real debate about what divides us. It’s an extreme waste of time.

Springsteen as the Last of the Protest Singers

According to Ed Vulliamy of The Observer, Bruce Springsteen is one of the few rock stars today who has not “sold out” to corporate America. 

This, of course, can be debated.  After all, most of the people who Springsteen sings could not afford a ticket to one of his shows.  He owes much of his success to consumer capitalism.  His audiences are filled with those who have already “made it” in America, but still long to look back nostalgically on their working class roots or those of their parents or grandparents.

Yet there is still something unique about The Boss.  As Vulliamy explains, he is different than McCartney, Jagger, U2, and even Dylan.  In anticipation of his visit to London one week before the “most aggressively corporate Olympics Games ever staged,” Vulliamy opines:

Springsteen stands alone for sheer stature, durability and profile. None of these others have been singing for 40 years to stadiums worldwide. His adrenalin-pumping shows are woven into American life, yet subvert its capitalist fundamentals, that innate American principle of screw-thy-neighbour, in favour of what he insists to be “real” America – working class, militant, street-savvy, tough but romantic, nomadic but with roots – compiled into what feels like a single epic but vernacular rock-opera lasting four decades.

Springsteen does this because he believes in what he says, and because it is easier to be an American leftwing patriot than a British one. We do not have that “redneck left”, of blue-collar scaffolders who smoke weed and listen to Springsteen and even the Grateful Dead. And he gets away with it. As Glenn Stuart, front man for the tribute B Street Band, observes: “He’s never been Dixie-Chicked”.

Springsteen made his name in part by challenging and rejecting Reagan’s attempted appropriation of Born in the USA, the irony of which the then president was too dim to grasp. But it wasn’t only Reagan: Springsteen is so popular astride political fissures that Chris Christie, the recently elected Republican governor of his home state, New Jersey, wanted Springsteen to play at his inaugural bash. Springsteen refused, but the episode demonstrated Stuart’s point that “either they don’t hear what he is saying, or they just overlook it”.

Read the entire piece here.

Brooks: "If You Want to Defy Authority, You Probably Shouldn’t Think Entirely For Yourself"

Using the recent You Tube sensation Jefferson Bethke as his opening, David Brooks reminds us that if you want to reform society or start a revolution you should probably attach yourself to an intellectual tradition rather than trying to make it up as you go along.  Brooks writes: 
If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.
Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change. 
Amen.  
As a college professor who teaches at a Christian college that has a tradition of social justice, I spend a lot of time with young people who want to change the world.  I like being around these students because they act on their passion.  Yet sometimes I lament the kind of anti-intellectualism that often accompanies their passion for change.  Brooks is encouraging college students and others to engage the life of the mind as part of their activism.  Their reform efforts could be so much richer if they took the time to connect them with an intellectual tradition.  Indeed, this is another benefit of a liberal arts education and it is one that my Christian students need to learn.

William Cronon Weighs In On Wisconsin’s Labor Woes

William Cronon, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of important books like Changes in the Land and Nature’s Metropolis, offers some historical perspective on the things happening in his home state.

Here is a taste:

NOW that a Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a state law that would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, it’s worth stepping back to place these events in larger historical context.

Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.

Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state pioneered many social reforms: It was the first to introduce workers’ compensation, in 1911; unemployment insurance, in 1932; and public employee bargaining, in 1959. 

Read the rest here.

Patriotism and Protest

In his new book American Patriotism, American Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties, Simon Hall argues that the modern America protest tradition, from the Civil Rights movement to the Tea Party, has always been driven by patriotism.  Here is a taste of Hall’s recent article at the History News Network:

When William Barbee, a sixty-year-old electrical contractor from South Carolina attended a Tea Party rally in September 2010, he wore a frilly collar, burgundy breeches and an overcoat, along with stockings, garters and silver-buckled shoes.  The entire outfit, which was topped off with a tricorner hat, cost him $400.  According to the Wall Street Journal, retailers across America reported a run on all manner of colonial-era dress during 2010—there was even a modest comeback for the powdered wig (albeit synthetic versions).  And while Barbee’s choice of costume might seem eccentric attire for a twenty-first century political demonstration, it was really just a particularly colorful example of a well-established tradition.  Although they have not always displayed the same fondness for tricorner hats, Americans involved in numerous causes from across the political spectrum have invoked the founding fathers, cited the Declaration of Independence, and laid claim to America’s creed of liberty, freedom and equality.  In short, patriotism has been at the heart of the modern American protest tradition.

1873 Evangelicals and Cruelty to Animals

During the 2008 presidential primary I wrote an essay on religion and politics for The Bridge–the alumni magazine of Messiah College. The occasion for the essay was the “Compassion Forum“–a nationally televised conversation on religion and public life held, just a few days before the Pennsylvania primary, on Messiah’s campus in beautiful Grantham, PA. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the guests of honor. Campbell Brown and Jon Meacham asked the questions. It was a great event. Not only did it bring exposure to Messiah College, but it also brought attention to the role that religion could play in politics.

In that essay, I wrote:

The Christian Right gained a powerful influence over evangelical voters in Ronald Reagan’s America. Its leaders have been commended by many for their work in fighting abortion and promoting what they referred to as “family values.” But their approach did not go far enough. Today’s generation of evangelicals wants to expand the reach of their social action by bringing faith to bear on a host of these compassion-based issues.

This expansion has created some confusion — and even some fear — among many who worry that evangelicals, by embracing a program of compassion, will get sidetracked from what is most important, namely saving the lost and defending human life. This, however, is not the case. By engaging the pressing social issues of the day, evangelicals are not abandoning their primary work of spreading the gospel or ceasing their opposition to abortion, a reform which many understand as a means of showing compassion to the unborn. Yet in the political sphere, it does seem that the days of choosing a candidate based solely on one or two moral concerns may be fading away.

When I wrote this piece, the Christian Right was criticizing evangelicals for focusing too much of their attention on issues like the environment and global AIDS. Putting too much effort into fighting global warming or alleviating poverty in Africa, it was argued, would distract from the REAL social issues that Christians should be addressing: abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. More on this in a second.

This morning I read through the records of the 1873 meeting of the General Conference of the Evangelical Alliance. The Evangelical Alliance was an international organization committed to fostering unity among evangelicals in all Protestant denominations. Anyone who could affirm the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, the depravity of human nature, the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his atonement for sins, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, and the resurrection of the body, could participate in this fellowship. Since this was an international gathering of evangelicals, it only met every few years. In other words, it was the equivalent of an evangelical Olympic Games or World Cup.

What struck me about this meeting of evangelicals was the vast array of subjects that were discussed during the twelve days in which the conference met. There were sessions on the labor problem, church and state, temperance, the Sabbath, infidelity, Catholicism, the family, theology, Christian unity, philosophy, world religions, wealth, capitalism, literature, education, preaching, religious liberty, missions, philanthropy, caring for the sick around the world, crime, and industry. In other words, evangelicals were engaged with almost every major social, intellectual, cultural, and religious issue of the day (race, gender, and immigration excluded).

On the last day of the conference, the attendees heard a speech by Henry Beroh. From what I can tell from Google, Beroh was the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1875, the New York Times had a news story about him entitled “Looking After the Shivering Horse.” Beroh was apparently an evangelical. His speech to the Evangelical Alliance was entitled “Cruelty in Animals.”

Now I think cruelty to animals is wrong, but I am not an activist by any means. I am not even sure if this speech has any real theological merit. I must admit that I found myself chuckling at some of it when I imagined the context in which it was presented. But I bring this up here to show just how many social and moral issues late-19th century evangelicals were engaged with.

Beroh argued that evangelicals had a “religious duty to that vast portion of God’s creation, the inferior animals.” He went on to show how animals were respected in the Bible and played important roles in the birth of Jesus and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He concluded that the “instinct of cruelty is opposed to religion, and is not less a sin because the object of it is a speechless brute; nay, the sentiment of mercy seems all the more lovely in proportion to the humbleness and dependence of the recipient of it. We have voices to make our wrongs heard and respected, but these humble beings have only the faculties of feeling and endurance.”

I was trying to imagine what it would be like today if evangelicals took up the cause of “cruelty to animals.” (They actually have). I would guess that if the members of the Christian Right heard a speech like Beroh’s the fight against global warming would looking a whole lot better.