Over at The Christian Century, University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbrook reviews Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. Here is a taste:
Even if Lepore in some respects falls short on her own terms, it would be churlish in the end not to salute her for realizing her ambitions as fully as she does. She has laid down a marker for anyone who would try to contain the history of the United States within a single volume. She says that “the work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist.” I find it hard to believe that she really believes this assertion. In any case, she has fashioned a work of history that is at the same time a telling work of social criticism and of expansive moral imagination.
She also says that her book “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” It does. This is not a particularly distinguished genre, but her contribution to it is among the best ever published, despite its shortcomings. She is right to say that “the past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.” We Americans might all profitably include her effort to get to know our past among the books we stuff in our backpacks to read by flashlight as we try to ascend from the deep, dark hole into which our republic has fallen.
Read the entire review here.
Over at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.
Here is a taste:
Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.
Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.
Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.
Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.
Read the entire review here.
University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbook calls for a renewal of civic humanism and the virtues that come with it. Here is a small taste of his recent essay at The Baffler: “Virtuous Reality: The Politics of Character in a Post-Liberal Age.” (I could only excerpt a small portion below, but his comparison between Nixon and Trump is also worth reading).
Some commentators blame the citizenry for their imperfect virtue and would freeze them even further out of public life, calling for more insulated ruling elites. Andrew Sullivan, drawing on Plato, the most venerable of democracy’s enemies, asserts without a shred of convincing evidence that “the barriers to the popular will, especially when it comes to choosing our president, are now almost nonexistent.” Elites, he says, channeling Plato’s call for a “guardian” class, must “provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.” Lumping Bernie Sanders with Trump and Ted Cruz as “political sociopaths,” Jonathan Rauch joins Sullivan in blaming the country’s political woes on “unmediated” democracy. “Our most pressing political problem today,” he concludes in a spasm of contrarianism, “is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.” Our best hope lies in inoculating our politics from “swarms of voters” by investing greater power in guardians of a better sort.
Neo-republicans can only regard such proposals as a recipe for the acceleration of corruption and elite domination. The only remedy for a crumbling republic is the revitalization of civic virtue. And this precludes despair or fatalism. The path forward is rather to launch bold experiments, invent new institutions, revive the atrophied ideal of democratic control of public policy, and so cultivate the badly damaged traditions and practices of civic virtue.
In this daunting enterprise of civic-republican reclamation, public education is crucial. As one of our finest American historians, Alan Taylor, recently remarked, the nation’s republican founders placed a weighty bet on the nation’s schools. They were well aware that civic virtue is not inborn. By transforming our public schools into engines for the production of “human capital,” we have effaced the political purposes for which they were established. Taylor concludes: “We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeing power through bluster and bombast.”
Read the entire piece here.
Eminent American intellectual historian Robert Westbrook teaches a course on Bruce Springsteen at the University of Rochester.
You can read the syllabus here.
Thanks to Tim Lacy for bringing this to my attention.