One of the most enduring phrases at the heart of American exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s famous proclamation that the Puritan colonists were establishing a “city upon a hill.” But the story of this lay sermon is much more complicated, and, according to Bancroft-winning historian Daniel Rodgers, Winthrop was not being triumphalist, but instead a statement of anxiety. Dr. Rodgers joins us to discuss his new book on the sermon and its endurance, As a City on a Hill.
Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago. You can read all his posts here. –JF
Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?” As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’” So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.
Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19. Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone. Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked. Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).
Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights. He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.” The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue. Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.” As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.
According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.” She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP. She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.” Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party. Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted. The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.
Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms. The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully. Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans. The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative. As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.” The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today. When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”
I am happy to contribute to this video posted today at The New York Times.
Retro Report spent over an hour interviewing me at Messiah College back in August. I was apparently not as engaging as Cal Thomas, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Randall Balmer since I only got a quick soundbite. (They even made me go home and change my shirt because it had too many stripes and did not look good on the camera!)
Whatever the case, it is a nice piece:
Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:
I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me. Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It. You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.
Just a few quick responses to this tweet
1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.” They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams. But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain. I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution. I critiqued that view here. The bottom line is this: The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.
2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals. The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point. For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.
3. The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd. While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel. White evangelicals in the South defended segregation. White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans. The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement. Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front. Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.
4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it. The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party. There are a lot of good books on this subject. I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation. I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic. You can read it here.
As I wrote about last week, Rev. Robert Jeffress, a leading court evangelical, recently said that Donald Trump’s moral indiscretions and character problems are not unlike the moral indiscretions and character problems of Ronald Reagan. Conservative evangelicals supported both presidents.
Days after the news broke that President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen had audio of Trump discussing a payoff to a woman with whom he’d allegedly had an affair, one of Trump’s top evangelical allies came to the president’s defense — with an insult to former President Ronald Reagan. Robert Jeffress, the pastor at the megachurch First Baptist Dallas, told Fox News’s Ed Henry that Trump’s adultery made him no worse than Reagan.
“The reason we supported President Reagan was not because we were supporting womanizing or divorce,” Jeffress told Henry. ”We supported his policies. … We’re not under any illusion that we were voting for an altar boy when we voted for President Trump. We knew about his past. And by the way, none of us has a perfect past. We voted for him because of his policies.” (Reagan has never been publicly accused of being unfaithful to his second wife Nancy Reagan, but some biographers have said that he was something of a lothario in Hollywood during his years an actor and that he cheated on his first wife, Jane Wyman. In 1991, he was also accused of sexual assault by actress Selene Walters four decades prior.)
Read the rest here.
I am eager to hear from Christian Right folks. Do Trump and Reagan belong in the same category when it comes to morality and character (or lack thereof)?
As I said this morning on CNN (no video available yet), it doesn’t matter what Trump did with Karen McDougal or whether or not he is lying about it. As long as Trump keeps appointing Supreme Court justices like Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch and continues to give lip service to religious liberty (as understood by conservative evangelicals) he will have the support of evangelicals.
This kind of thing should thus no longer surprise us:
I have not yet heard Jeffress compare Trump’s lack of morality to Ronald Reagan’s indiscretions. Interesting. Actually, I think there are comparisons we can make between Reagan and Trump. For example, evangelicals in pursuit of political power got into bed with both of them. It wasn’t a good idea then (just ask Cal Thomas) and it isn’t a good idea now.
Many media outlets gave Donald Trump high praise for the so-called “balcony heroes” he used during his first State of the Union Address last week. The bloggers at Harvard University Press remind us that Ronald Reagan was the first president to weave these heroic stories into his State of the Union addresses. They also remind us that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers wrote about Reagan’s balcony heroes in his Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture.
Here is a taste of Rodgers (as cited by the Harvard UP blog):
The impulse to disaggregate and individualize the people took still more prominent symbolic form in the so-called heroes in the balcony segment of his State of the Union messages. Reagan did not inaugurate the practice of calling forward an individual’s special deeds in a major state address. He was the first, however, to take the inherently public occasion of a report on the nation from the chief of one branch of government to the heads of another and dissolve it, toward the end, into a montage of individual faces. Heroes, volunteers, teenagers with dreams, returned prisoners of war were gathered in the halls of Congress, where Reagan, stepping out of the camera’s eye once more, would introduce them one by one. In 1963, John Kennedy had read the names of three American soldiers killed in Cuba, South Korea, and Vietnam. But here they now were in the flesh, where the applause, the acts of individual accomplishment, and the guest-program tableau all redounded to the administration’s acclaim. The first three heroes in the balconies appeared in Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1982; five more appeared in 1984, two in 1985, four in 1986.
Reagan was fond of saying that his political opponents saw people only as members of groups; his party, to the contrary, saw the people of America as individuals. In fact, no set of Americans was ever chosen with a keener grasp of interest group politics than were Reagan’s heroes in the balconies. A charitable black woman reassured Reagan’s audience that the president had not forgotten the poor; a Hispanic medic drew sympathy for the Grenada invasion; a returned prisoner of war appealed to the patriotic electorate; a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion lobbied silently for the high frontier of space; the two business figures on the list, a black female advertising executive and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur, spoke to the aspiration of minority business owners.
But the collective calculations of politics brooked no mention. Introduced by the presidential program host, the constituent atoms of the people stood up, for their moment in the camera’s eye, one by one. Reagan asked viewers, not to imitate them or to rise to the challenge they set, but only to applaud them, to believe that their acts were possible. “We the people,” as a collective entity, tacitly disaggregated under the touch.
Read the entire passage here.
Check out her piece at The New Yorker. Both the left and the right have been on the side of “free speech.”
Here is a taste:
In the half century between the elections of Governor Reagan and President Trump, the left and the right would appear to have switched sides, the left fighting against free speech and the right fighting for it. This formulation isn’t entirely wrong. An unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech are among the failures of the left. Campus protesters have tried to silence not only alt-right gadflies but also serious if controversial scholars and policymakers. Last month, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was shouted down by students at Howard University. When he spoke about the importance of conversation, one protester called out, “White supremacy is not a debate!” Still, the idea that the left and the right have switched sides isn’t entirely correct, either. Comey was heckled, but, when he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. The same day, Trump called for the firing of N.F.L. players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. And Yiannopoulos’s guide in matters of freedom of expression isn’t the First Amendment; it’s the hunger of the troll, eager to feast on the remains of liberalism.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is a taste:
On Tuesday night, white evangelicals set fire to what remained of Reagan Republicanism and overwhelmingly endorsed Trumpism, a toxic brew of white ethno-nationalist populism spiked with heavy doses of misogyny and xenophobia. In doing so, they may have also destroyed their witness to the nation.
According to exit polls, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. That number should stun on its own, but its historical outrageousness becomes clearer when considering it represents higher support than George W. Bush received from white evangelicals in his two election bids.
Despite that enthusiastic endorsement, some conservative Christian leaders are already trying to distance evangelicals from their complicity in the results. On his blog at Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wrote that evangelicals needed to “accept the outcome and what it means,” as if evangelicals had to struggle to come to terms with a result they had in fact created.
Other evangelicals, in an attempt to separate themselves from the full meaning of what they have done, have been busy recirculating a Washington Post article from earlier this month that detailed how “deep disgust” for Hillary Clinton drove evangelicals to vote for Trump, a desperate attempt to pretend this election was about rejecting Clinton rather than backing Trump.
But “votes against Clinton” is not what history will record.
Instead, white evangelicals will forever be associated with Donald Trump in the minds of the American people. And they will pay the price for that association.
Read the rest here.
Rick Perlstein, the author of several excellent (and big) books on American conservatism since the 1950s, is skeptical about the way his readers have turned to his work for historical analogies in this election cycle.
Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Baffler:
History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.
Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.
In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.
Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.
And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.
There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.
Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.
The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.
It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”
Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?
Great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of history, and historical analogies. I may use this in my Intro to History course.
Niraj Chokshi’s article at The New York Times begins this way: “In the years since President Obama first took office, more Americans are thriving, exercising and enjoying a high standard of living.”
This first line of Chokshi’s piece on the recent Gallup study showing that Americans are living better and improved lives under Obama reminds me a lot of this Ronald Reagan 1984 campaign ad:
Here is a taste of Chokshi’s piece:
In the years since President Obama first took office, more Americans are thriving, exercising and enjoying a high standard of living.
The rates of health insurance coverage are up, too, but the share of Americans who say they are in excellent health is declining.
That’s all according to a recent five-part analysis of hundreds of thousands of surveys collected since 2008 by Gallup, the polling organization, and Healthways, a health care company.
The analysis represents an attempt at understanding how American well-being has changed during the Obama presidency. Generally, people reported their lives had improved even though they gave poorer assessments of their health.
Read the entire piece here.
Is it morning in America again?
OK–I am now hiding under my desk to protect myself from the coming onslaught. I am sure it will begin with something like “How dare you compare Obama to Reagan!” 🙂
Some of you may remember our interview with Yoni Appelbaum on episode 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast. Appelbaum is the Washington Bureau Chief for The Atlantic. He also has a Ph.D in American history from Brandeis University.
Today at The Atlantic, Appelbaum applies some good historical thinking and context to Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” can “fix” this country.
Here is a taste:
Has any American political leader claimed so directly to embody the nation, to speak for it, to be its sole hope for redemption?
In 1968, Richard Nixon spoke of a nation torn apart by crime at home, and by wars abroad. But, he promised, better days were ahead. “Without God’s help and your help, we will surely fail; but with God’s help and your help, we shall surely succeed.”
In 1980, Ronald Reagan painted a similarly dark picture of a troubled nation, and offered a similar message of redemption. But his acceptance speech called on Americans to work together to solve their problems. “I ask you not simply to ‘Trust me,’” Reagan said, “but to trust your values—our values—and to hold me responsible for living up to them.”
In 2000, George W. Bush called a troubled nation to renewal, and ended with a note of humility. “I know the presidency is an office that turns pride into prayer,” he said, “But I am eager to start on the work ahead.”
In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”
And he offered them a solution.
I am your voice, said Trump. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order. He did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.
He broke with two centuries of American political tradition, in which candidates for office—and above all, for the nation’s highest office—acknowledge their fallibility and limitations, asking for the help of their fellow Americans, and of God, to accomplish what they cannot do on their own.
Read the rest here.
Ted Cruz has yet to endorse Donald Trump. Some of you may remember that during the campaign Trump liked to call Cruz “Lying Ted” and mocked the appearance of Cruz’s wife Heidi. Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Oh yes, Cruz also called Trump a “serial philanderer.”
When Gerald Ford ran for POTUS in 1976 he faced strong opposition in the primary season from then former California Governor Ronald Reagan. At the time of the GOP convention in Kansas City, Ford had a slight delegate lead over Reagan, but he did not have the 1130 delegates needed for the nomination. Reagan, the favorite of the conservative wing of the GOP, came to the convention with 1070 delegates. After a tough battle on the convention floor the Mississippi delegation switched its support from Reagan to Ford and secured the nomination for the sitting POTUS. Ford would go on to lose the general election to Jimmy Carter.
After he realized he had lost the nomination, Reagan took to the microphone and called for party unity. Here is what he said:
No historical analogy is perfect. Trump came to Cleveland this week with enough delegates to get the nomination. Cruz has no chance. But the Texas Senator will be speaking tonight. It will be interesting to see what he says. Will he endorse Trump and call the GOP and his delegates and supporters to rally around the pathological liar, narcissist and serial philanderer?
Remember what happened to Reagan. In 1980 he ran again and was elected POTUS. Rumor has it that Cruz wants to run again in 2020. Whatever he says tonight will leave an important legacy that GOP voters might remember in four years.
Historian Rick Perlstein recently turned up a gem from the November 3, 1978 issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle (I assume it was syndicated) and linked to it on his Facebook page. In this article Ronald Reagan, two years before he became President of the United States, opposed a California ban on smoking and a ban on teachers who advocate homosexuality.
Liberals will use this article, as they should, to show that Reagan was more willing to defend the rights of homosexuals than many of the Republicans who claim his legacy today.
But whatever one’s position on these issues, it is also worth noting that this article shows that Reagan seemed to have a handle on matters of public policy and was capable of making a rational argument in print (assuming he wrote it) consistent with his libertarian ideals. Would our current Republican presumptive nominee be able to make such an argument in this reasoned way? Or better yet, would he even be interested in engaging with policy this way?
Paul Campos says that Donald Trump is the “Reagan Revolution on steroids.”
Jeet Heer compares Trump supporters to Reagan Democrats
Others feel that Trump’s nomination is a rejection of Reagan
Geoff Colvin thinks that Trump has turned his back on Reagan
Rod Dreher calls Trump a “Reaganslayer.”
And these are just some of the Reagan-Trump comparisons that were made THIS WEEK.
I would suggest that there is another way Trump may be the next Reagan. It hit me today when I listened to Marco Rubio talk to Jake Tapper on CNN. Rubio says he will support the “Republican nominee” (he did not mention Trump by name) but was clearly not happy about it. It was obvious that he had his future in mind and was hedging his bets.
As Gloria Borger just said, “If Trump wins, the other GOP candidates do not want to be blamed for not supporting him enough, but if Trump loses the other GOP candidates want to rise up from the ashes.”
For the past twenty-five years, conservative GOP presidential candidates have claimed the mantle of Reagan with a fierce sense of loyalty and nostalgia. For the next twenty-five years, GOP candidates will be judged–for good or for bad–in light of where they stood on the Trump candidacy in 2016.
In 2020 or 2024 (and beyond) presidential candidates will be talking a lot more about Trump than Reagan.
Earlier this month Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign introduced us to an impressive list of believing scholars and thinkers—many of them evangelical Christians—who agreed to be part of his newly formed religious advisory committee.
If last night’s debate is any indication, I think Rubio better spend some more time with this group. Since I am guessing that it would be bad form for these scholars (who are in a sense working for Rubio) to critique his performance last night, I will give it a shot.
Rubio is doing his best to sound like an evangelical Christian. Last night he spoke about his faith more than he has done in all the other GOP debates combined. From what I have read, Rubio attends both a Catholic church and an evangelical megachurch. His spiritual commitment seems sincere. I have no doubt that he is a man of faith. But the way he used his religion last night made the Christian gospel subservient to his political ambitions.
The Florida Senator’s use of religion in this GOP debate was problematic spiritually, theologically, and historically.
When Chris Wallace of Fox News asked him if he was still the “Republican savior,” Rubio seized the opportunity. “Well, let me be clear about one thing,” he said, “there’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.” The audience response suggests that Rubio connected with many Iowans. It was a shrewd and opportunistic move taken straight from the GOP political playbook. And in the process Rubio traded the life-giving message of the Christian faith for an applause line and perhaps a few votes.
Rubio’s reference to Jesus Christ as the savior of the world had nothing to do with his qualifications for being President of the United States of America. It was not connected in any way to the substantive policy discussions that took place at last night’s debate. It did not inform the way the candidate approaches economic or foreign affairs. Instead, it came across as little more than an attempt to use an evangelical tag line to pander to his audience–both in Des Moines and around the country. It is hard to read this any other way. From a Christian point of view, this is a spiritual problem akin to idolatry.
Throughout the night the nostalgia for the 1980s and the era of Ronald Reagan was palpable. Rubio was not immune to it. In fact, he sounded a lot like the Gipper when he described the United States as a “light” that is “shining on the world.”
Reagan was fond of describing America as a shining light. He often used the phrase “city on a hill” to illustrate the role that American democracy must play around the world. When the fortieth President of the United States talked about America as a shining city he was referencing John Winthrop’s 1620 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, believed that his colony was a new Israel. It was a chosen nation populated by the Puritans– God’s new chosen people.
Reagan’s “city on a hill” was a secularized version of Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts. For him, the United States was exceptional because it was founded on the principles of democracy and liberty. It was this commitment to freedom that brought an end to communism and the Soviet Union.
But Rubio took Reagan’s American exceptionalism one step further when he said “the Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world.” He was a referencing Matthew 5:16, the passage of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus tells his followers to “let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and they should glorify your Father in the heavens.” Rubio applied this biblical reference—a call for Christians to share the light of the gospel (and in doing so bring glory to God)—to American power abroad. “For over 200 years,” he said, “America’s light has been shining on the world and the world has never been the same again.”
If Rubio had consulted with his religious advisory committee, he would know that Matthew 5 is not about foreign policy, the spread of democracy, or the ideals of any nation. When the lines between the Kingdom of God and a man-made nation are blurred, the Christian faith suffers. It is a theological error to equate the Kingdom of God with the United States.
Rubio also linked his belief in American exceptionalism to the nation’s apparent Judeo-Christian origins. “I think if you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country,” Rubio argued, “you don’t understand our history.”
The idea that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values is a questionable historical premise. Many historians—even historians who are evangelical Christians—do not agree with this premise. The Declaration of Independence mentions God, but Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, does not define God in a way that is decidedly Judeo-Christian. The Constitution never mentions God, Christianity, or the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have done some writing on this over the years.
Rubio has a lot more work to do in order to bring responsible Christian thinking to his campaign and avoid these spiritual, theological, and historical pitfalls.
I know this sounds like a crazy idea, but when I heard Jerry Falwell Jr. introduce Donald Trump last week at Liberty University it provided me with a plausible explanation for why some evangelicals support the New York real estate investor’s candidacy for POTUS. (By the way, Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump today).
Here is what Falwell Jr. said:
My father was criticized in the 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher. My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us, and when Jesus said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” that meant that we are to be good citizens, voting, active in the political process, serving in the armed forces if necessary. And while Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense to choose the best leaders. Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth he wasn’t electing a Sunday School teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the President of the United States and the talents, abilities, and experiences required to lead a nation might not always line up with those needed to run a church or lead a congregation. After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday School teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.
If there are other evangelicals who think this way, it might explain why Trump is so popular among them. In this statement Falwell Jr. tries to neutralize the evangelicals–such Russell Moore and Michael Gerson–who have argued that evangelicals should not vote for Trump because of his character or his policies that seem to run counter to some evangelical beliefs.
As Falwell Jr. points out, his father supported Reagan despite the fact that the former California governor was divorced and did not share Falwell Sr.’s evangelical theology. What Falwell Jr. doesn’t point out was that Reagan had supported pro-choice legislation as the governor of California. Falwell Sr. was willing to look beyond these things because presidential leadership was less about the candidate’s faith commitments and more about his leadership abilities, which were defined by Falwell Sr. in terms of free-market capitalism and an understanding of the world informed by American exceptionalism. (And I am sure it made it a lot easier when Reagan came around to a pro-life position on abortion).
Trump may have his flaws, but, as Falwell Jr. notes, “we are all sinners.” Trump has a strong and decisive personality, he is a defender of the free-market, he claims he will protect Christianity against the “threat” of Islam, he believes in American exceptionalism, he opposes gun-control, and he is a staunch opponent of Obama and Hillary Clinton. These are the characteristics that many conservative evangelicals want in a candidate. With the exception of moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Trump’s religious views (or lack thereof) really don’t matter.
Maybe we should stop trying to figure out the theological reasons why so many evangelicals support Trump and simply conclude that since the Christian Right hitched its wagon to GOP politics, nostalgia for the 1980s will always trump (no pun intended) Christian character and faith-informed policy proposals.
For many evangelicals, Trump is the new Reagan.
John D. Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).
JF: What led you to write American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
JW: This project arose out of my dissertation on the Christian America thesis from 1977-2007 that I finished back in 2010. When I encountered the idea of American exceptionalism in the context of the Christian America thesis, I knew I wanted to explore it further. I was intrigued because the Christian America thesis at the turn of the 21stcentury clearly entailed American exceptionalism. Furthermore, after reading Anthony Smith’s incomparable Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, it became obvious that most Western civilizations since the fourth century believed themselves to be, in some way, God’s chosen nation.
I could only mention exceptionalism briefly in the dissertation. But once the dissertation was finished, I revisited the idea, presenting a paper on it at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in 2012. The presentation went awful (I thought). I remember taking a moment to myself after my panel was concluded and wanting to have a good cry. But it forced me back to the drawing board—I read an article by James W. Ceaser on the origins of American exceptionalism, and the light turned on for me. It was a key moment in my thinking about exceptionalism, and I think Ceaser’s article made the difference when I wrote the book proposal.
On a more personal level, I grew up surrounded by a strong military tradition on both sides of my family. But I was intrigued by the whole idea of God and country. What happens when we use God-talk to self-identify as a nation? And what are the theological entailments in American exceptionalism? These remain fascinating questions to me, and the intersection between nationalism and religion in history is a busy one indeed!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism has historically entailed several theological assertions, and can thus be an idea that is exclusionary, imperialistic, and contrary to Christianity from which it is indebted. But exceptionalism can also be construed in political/social terms, and when it is, the idea forms the groundwork for sound patriotism and healthy civic engagement.
JF: Why do we need to read American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism is a very old idea. It can be traced back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and it evolved around the contours of all the major crises America faced from the colonial period to the present. And everyone is talking about it. A casual Google search of “American exceptionalism” yields 775,000 results. President Obama—a president whose patriotism is often questioned—frequently refers to it in his rhetoric, most notably perhaps in his response to the Syrian crisis in 2013, his commencement address at West Point in 2014, and in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march earlier this year.
But hardly anybody defines their meaning when they use the term. Most people think that the term is concrete, and universally agreed upon and understood. But it is an ambiguous term that demands precision.
Exceptionalism is also an article of faith. Interestingly, when people consider exceptionalism, they often speak about it in terms of either “believing in” American exceptionalism or not. This way of thinking about exceptionalism seems to suggest that the idea is often more than a political idea—it is a tenet of a civil religion.
Because Americans employ the term so frequently, so ambiguously, and so often as an article of faith, I think it is important that we explore the history and theology of the idea. What are we talking about when we invoke American exceptionalism? What have Americans in the past meant when they have expressed nationalistic feeling in ways consistent with what we call exceptionalism?
And most importantly, what damage does American exceptionalism do to the Christian religion? What harm has the idea wrought within our own national community, and in the world? And is there any way the idea can be put to positive use in the ways we Americans self-identify and engage one another and other peoples of the world? I think America is an exceptional nation, and I also think that exceptionalism can serve as a model for healthy civic engagement—provided that we define it in open, political/social terms and reject its strong theological assertions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JW: I was inspired to study history by my grandfather, Jasper N. Dorsey, my high school history teacher, Doug Frutiger, and my professors at Furman University, particularly Marian Strobel and Lloyd Benson. And David Puckett, my church history professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was another important person in my development as a student and as a scholar. American history is terribly fascinating to me, and since our history is so comparatively short, it is amazing how close we are to the events that shaped our nation. I’m not sure when I decided I wanted to make the study of history my life’s work, but I’m sure glad I did!
JF: What is your next project?
JW: Presently, I’m editing, abridging, and writing an introduction for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press. I’ll finish that project by the end of the year, and then I’d like to pursue a study of W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on American identity as his views evolved from his early to middle to late career.
JF: Thanks, John! Sounds like some great stuff.
Jeremiah Purdy of The New Yorker shows how Bernie Sanders’s definition of “Democratic Socialism” looks a lot like the policies of F.D.R. and Ike.
We finally know what Bernie Sanders means by “democratic socialism.” Speaking on his political philosophy at Georgetown yesterday, the Vermont senator and Democratic Presidential candidate opened with a long invocation of Franklin Roosevelt and the social protections that the New Deal created: minimum wages, retirement benefits, banking regulation, the forty-hour workweek. Roosevelt’s opponents attacked all these good things as “socialism,” Sanders reminded his listeners.
Curiously, Sanders seemed to agree with them, taking his definition of “socialism” from its nineteen-thirties opponents, the people Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders said. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.”
This isn’t the first time Sanders has defined his position from the right flank of history. Pressed in the most recent Democratic debate to say how high he would take the marginal income tax, Sanders answered that it would be less than the ninety (actually ninety-two) per-cent level under the Eisenhower Administration. He added, to cheers and laughter, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”
But, of course, both Roosevelt and Eisenhower distinguished themselves vigorously from “socialism,” which they understood to be a revolutionary program of extreme equality, committed to centralized control of the economy, and a cat’s paw of Soviet power. Accusations of “socialism” trailed liberals for decades after Roosevelt parried his opponents, from Ronald Reagan’s attacks on Medicare to the Republicans’ refrain against Obamacare. Democrats, like Roosevelt, have furiously defended themselves against the charges. But now a candidate whose ideal American economy does in fact look a lot like Eisenhower’s—strong unions, secure employment, affordable college—is waving the red flag, and finding favor with large numbers of Democratic voters.
Read the rest here.
In his book Killing Reagan, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly argues that when Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 his presidency was, for all intents and purposes, “killed.” In other words, Reagan was never the same after the shooting and several of his aides wanted to remove him from office because he was mentally incompetent.