Ross Douthat on the “Baptist Apocalypse”

Patterson

The New York Times conservative columnist connects the Patterson scandal at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to the age of Trump.  Here is a taste:

Among Trump-supporting religious believers, the long odds he overcame to win the presidency are often interpreted as a providential sign: Only God could have put Donald Trump in the White House, which means he must be there for some high and holy purpose.

The trouble with this theory is that it’s way too simplistic about what kind of surprises an interventionist deity might have in mind. Such a God might, for instance, offer political success as a temptation rather than a reward — or use an unexpected presidency not to save Americans but to chastise them.

We’re a long way from any final judgment on God’s purposes in the Trump era. But so far the Trump presidency has clearly been a kind of apocalypse — not (yet) in the “world-historical calamity” sense of the word, but in the original Greek meaning: an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.

That exposure came first for the Republican Party’s establishment, who were revealed as something uncomfortably close to liberal caricature in their mix of weakness, cynicism and power worship. It came next for the technocrats and the data nerds of the Democratic Party, who were revealed as ineffectual, clueless and self-regarding in opposing Trump’s clown-car campaign. And then it came for a range of celebrated media men, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, who found that in the backlash against Trump’s misogyny their own sins were suddenly exposed.

But the unveiling has not been confined, as Trump’s providentialist supporters might like to imagine, to institutions and individuals that have arrayed themselves against him. It has come as well for figures whose style anticipated him (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, that whole ménage) and for figures who have deliberately attached themselves to his populist revolt. The sins of Roy Moore were more exposed by the Trump era, and now likewise the racist paranoia of Roseanne Barr.

And lately a similar moral exposure has come to precisely the sector of American Christianity where support for Donald Trump ran strongest — the denominational heart of conservative evangelicalism, the Southern Baptist Convention.

The main case is Paige Patterson, the now-erstwhile president of a major Baptist seminary in Fort Worth, who was eased into retirement over revelations that he’d counseled abused women to return to their husbands and allegedly shamed and silenced at least one rape victim. But the outpouring of female testimony inspired by his case suggests that Patterson is a beginning, not an end. “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention,” the Baptist theologian and seminary president Al Mohler wrote in an agonized reflection last week, and “the terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance.”

Read the rest here.

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

StThomas(MN)_Header

I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.

 

More Books for the #AgeofTrump

revoltWhat should one read to understand the #AgeofTrump? Yesterday we brought we attention to a list of books suggested by American historians.  Today we turn to conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.  His suggestions:

Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana

Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West

Michael Houellebecq, Submission: A Novel

Ryszard Legutko, Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

Happy book shopping!

Douthat:”Today’s conservatism has far more to gain from the defeat of Donald Trump”

douthatHere is conservative intellectual and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat trying to put a positive spin on what looks like a Hillary Clinton victory:

It is a hard thing to accept that some elections should be lost, especially in a country as divided over basic moral premises as our own. But just as the pro-life movement ultimately won real gains — in lives saved, laws altered, abortion rates reduced — by accepting the legitimacy of the republic even as it deplored the killing of the unborn, so today’s conservatism has far more to gain from the defeat of Donald Trump, and the chance to oppose Clintonian progressivism unencumbered by his authoritarianism, bigotry, misogyny and incompetence, than it does from answering the progressive drift toward Caesarism with a populist Elagabalus.

Not because it is guaranteed long-term victory in that scenario or any other. But because the deepest conservative insight is that justice depends on order as much as order depends on justice. So when Loki or the Joker or some still-darker Person promises the righting of some grave wrong, the defeat of your hated enemies, if you will only take a chance on chaos and misrule, the wise and courageous response is to tell them to go to hell.

Read the entire column here.

Cal Thomas Breaks Down and Embraces the Strong Man

calOn Tuesday I reported on New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent lecture at Messiah College.  Here is part of that post:

Christians might find themselves relying more heavily on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization.  This is the approach that many evangelicals who support Donald Trump seem to be taking.  In one of the more stinging lines of the lecture Douthat suggested that some evangelicals seem to need Trump (a man with no real Christian convictions to speak of) to protect them in the same way that Syrians need the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad to protect them.  (I should note that Douthat was quick to say that Trump was “not as bad” at Assad).

Well, it looks like conservative political commentary and former Jerry Falwell lieutenant Cal Thomas, a writer who has repented of his involvement in the early days of the Christian Right, has once again embraced the strong man.

Here is a taste of his September 27, 2016 column titled “It’s Time for Trump.”

Donald Trump is addressing the legitimate concerns of a large number of Americans who increasingly feel ignored by their government. These concerns include anemic economic growth. A growing economy produces private-sector jobs that create capital and wealth. These forgotten Americans are against open borders, which the president seemed to champion in his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Billionaire George Soros has pledged “to invest up to $500 million in programs and companies benefiting migrants and refugees fleeing life-threatening situations.”

Many are tired of fighting wars we don’t win and fighting terrorism with no clear strategy, all the while admitting more “refugees” from countries where terrorism is a way of death. They are weary of the denigration of law enforcement. Hardworking people are tired of being told they are not paying enough in taxes to a government that only wastes it.

The ignored are tired of being branded racists. Christians are tired of being called homophobes and Islamophobes and told their beliefs are inferior to those who want to destroy the country and undermine values that were once widely held. If the secular progressive agenda is considered progress, as they claim, what would regress look like?

Heather Wilhelm, writing at the conservative National Review, has taken Thomas to task for his Trump endorsement.  Here is a taste of her post “Attention, Christians: Donald Trump is Not ‘Your Jerk’“:

Cal Thomas, a Christian syndicated columnist, is the latest in a long line to crack. I met Thomas years ago, around the time of his 1999 book, Blinded by Might, which was written with Ed Dobson and — forthcoming irony alert — cautioned against Christians’ attempting to find salvation in politicians or the Republican party. I wove my way to the front of the event, which was at a church, and cheerfully introduced myself. “Mr. Thomas,” I said, bright-eyed, “I want to be an opinion columnist!”

“Oh,” he chuckled. “You poor thing.”

Boy, was he right! He must have seen 2016 coming. Fast forward to today, past Clinton and Bush and Obama to the current Clinton/Trump horror show, and witness Cal Thomas writing his September 27 column, in which he endorses Donald Trump. It’s a doozy.

“All analogies break down at some point,” Thomas writes, “but let’s engage in a theological stretch. When Jesus overturned the money changer’s tables in the Temple, he said that instead of a house of prayer, the elites of his day had turned the Temple into ‘a den of thieves.’ This increasingly applies to Washington.”

I’ll pause here to note that the co-author of Blinded by Might just compared Washington, D.C. to a house of worship. But wait! It gets better: “Only one candidate for president is capable of overturning ‘the money changers’ in Washington. The political, governmental and media elites have had their chance to turn things around and they have failed. Now it’s time for Trump.”

Let’s ignore the fact that Thomas just used an analogy in which he compared Trump to Jesus. Let’s also ignore the fact that amidst all this talk about corrupt money-changers, Thomas just endorsed a candidate who literally bankrupted businesses involving seedy money-changing tables, stiffed people who worked for him, and has applauded the abuse of eminent domain, in which the government can plow over poor people’s homes in order to build things like casinos and fancy hotels.

Yes, forget all that. Trump is going to be “our jerk”! Trump, Thomas argues, is the only candidate who can stop the “secular progressive agenda,” which seems odd, if you actually listen to what Trump says. Trump will fight for “Christians who are tired of being called homophobes,” Thomas tells the world; meanwhile, the real Trump recently called for immigrants to be questioned about their approval of gay rights. Trump, despite Thomas’s protestations, offers incoherent and conflicting paragraphs on transgender bathrooms. His history of abortion flip-flops is almost awe-inspiring.

When it comes to Christians, in fact, Trump seems passionate about just two things: (1) making everyone say “Merry Christmas” on command, and (2) manipulating what he has repeatedly called a “powerful” Christian voting block.

Read Wilhelm’s entire post here.

Cal Thomas’;s career has now come full-circle.

Ross Douthat Compares Evangelicals Relationship to Trump With Syrians Relationship to Assad

douthatNew York Times columnist Ross Douthat was at Messiah College last night where he presented a lecture titled “Christian Citizens in a Post-Christian Republic.”

Douthat argued that we may now be living in a post-Christian nation and he offered some ways that Christians should begin to think about their role in such a republic.

I have live-tweeted the lecture.  You can read my Storified tweets here.

In a post-Christian nation, Douthat argued, Christians might proceed in one of two ways.

First, Christians might find themselves relying more heavily on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization.  This is the approach that many evangelicals who support Donald Trump seem to be taking.  In one of the more stinging lines of the lecture Douthat suggested that some evangelicals seem to need Trump (a man with no real Christian convictions to speak of) to protect them in the same way that Syrians need the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad to protect them.  (I should note that Douthat was quick to say that Trump was “not as bad” at Assad).

Second, Douthat suggested that Christians might be influential in reshaping the two-party system and promoting a political approach that is decidedly Christian in orientation.  This kind of approach might not fit well with the agenda of either the Democratic Party or the GOP.

As might be expected, he preferred the second potential scenario over the first potential scenario.

One of the highlights of the night came during the Q&A session.  A very articulate, bright, and spirited Messiah College student who was clearly frustrated with the choices available to her in this, the first election in which she was eligible to vote, asked Douthat for advice about what she should do in November.   She feared that she would one day regret voting for either major candidate.  Douthat showed empathy toward this student and told her that her contribution to a better society did not have to come through politics.  Rather, she should work to change the world in the context of her local circumstances.

It was a great lecture. I am looking forward to hearing Earl Lewis, Ken Burns, and Michelle Alexander, among others, later in the year at Messiah College.

Deconstructing Catholic Liberal Theologians

Some of you have been following the Ross Douthat vs. liberal Catholic theologians debate over who is the most qualified to write about the Catholic Church.  Check out our coverage here and here.

Recently Kenneth Woodward, the dean of religion journalism and the longtime religion writer at Newsweek, chided these progressive theologians for their elitism and their inability to articulate their position clearly.

Here is a taste of his piece at First Things:

…Because the flare-up touches on who is qualified to write about matters Catholic, I took interest. After all, I was no more qualified as Newsweek’s religion editor than is Douthat as a columnist for the Times: neither one of us has a degree in theology, which seems to be what the Catholic scholars are demanding. Or are they?
For me, it is the second of the letter’s four sentences that is troubling. This, the key accusatory sentence, is so bumbling in construction that any effort at exegesis has to take it in parts. Part one reads: “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject…” What exactly is the subject he is not qualified to write about? He has has already published a very substantive journalistic book on Catholicism that has been generally well received by Catholics of various stripes. If the subject is Catholic sacramental marriage, he is a husband and a father, an experiential credential that some of his academic critics, being priests, do not. If nothing else, it gives him a personal stake in the outcome of the church’s deliberations.
It is hard not to conclude from the way this sentence begins that what the offended scholars mean by “professional qualifications” is a doctorate in theology or in some degree kindred to “the sacred sciences.” But neither did G. K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis, or Thomas Merton, I believe. What they did is read widely and write well. A doctorate is the one credential Douthat’s critics own that he does not. This smacks of the academic virus that Frank O’Malley, my old English professor at Notre Dame, identified as “PhDeism”—i.e. credential worship. It is the virus that, in another context, Christopher Lasch lamented as inciting “the tyranny of experts” and is akin to what led Kierkegaard to observe that “a roomful of experts is only a crowd.”
But then if a doctorate were required of journalists, there would be no writers, editors or columnists (save one) at the New York Times. Real journalists do not even get PhDs in journalism, thank God, just as real journalists do not drink bottled water.
The rest of this sentence reads thus: “…the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism is.”
It is hard to know what this sentence is trying to say. Does it refer to Douthat’s political conservatism or his conservative Catholicism? If it means that he views the recent synod on the family as a contest between liberal and conservative factions—well that “narrative” unfortunately has governed what every reporter and pundit has employed this and every other discussion of Catholic issues and events since Vatican Council II. And it certainly applies to the polarity that Catholic theologians have themselves exhibited time and again when gathered in solemn assembly. Unfortunately. And it is the only way the New York Times can understand what is going on in the church.
If it is a fumbling way of saying that popes (especially Francis) are above “political” maneuvers like so many other bishops, tell it to Robert Mickens or, for that matter, Garry Wills, whose narratives are as “politically partisan” as that of Douthat. Why target Douthat, and for that matter, why post this complaint to the Times? Which brings me to the letter’s last sentence.
Read the rest here.

*America* Magazine: Ross Douthat Does Need a Ph.D in Catholic Theology or History to Write About the Catholic Church

We covered this story yesterday from the perspective of Rod Dreher’s criticism of a letter written to The New York Times from a group of progressive Catholic intellectuals who did not like Ross Douthat’s column on the Church’s debate over divorce and remarriage.  (Click on the link at the beginning of this sentence to get up to speed).

Over at the progressive-leaning America, a Catholic magazine published by the Jesuit community, Jim Keane, the former associate editor, makes a case for why Douthat’s voice needs to be heard in this debate.  The piece is less about the content of Douthat’s argument or the content of the scholars who composed the letter to The Times and more about the issue of what qualifies a person to write about the Catholic Church.

Here is a taste of his piece “Thoughts on Heresy.”

…Which brings me to my second point. The following phrase in the letter from Mr. Faggioli, et al: “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject…”
Well. One could argue that the greatest scourge to face the Catholic Church in the centuries since the French Revolution was not the widespread defections from the faith, not the increasing irrelevance of religious practice for many in the modern world and not even the monstrous acts of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and religious over the years: in fact, the greatest scourge may have also been the cause of all these things: clericalism. The instinctive habit of protecting your fellow priests because you’re part of a special club immune to consequences and privy to special grace.
Once you think you’re part of a special club that no one else can join, you’ll do whatever you can to keep that club intact—including enforcing strict rules about who is in and who is out, including stout defenses of those already in, no matter how monstrous their crimes, including a willful denial about the world around you.
When we try to exclude Mr. Douthat and his ilk from the conversation on the grounds they don’t have the professional qualifications, we are no better than Rome’s worst clerical gatekeepers. We are setting up a self-validating club that protects its own and refuses to listen to anyone lacking the proper magic touch. I’ve a personal perspective on this, too, because a decade of Jesuit life (I left the order in 2012) showed me exactly what it’s like to have the temptation to exercise clerical privilege wherever you go. Answer? It’s awesome, and it’s a sin. 
Let us avoid clericalism in all its forms, including casting those without Ph.D.s into the outer darkness. Even the self-appointed Jeremiahs.
Ross Douthat doesn’t have a Ph.D. Actually, I don’t either. Nor does Jim Martin. Or Matt Malone. Or Kerry Weber. Or Grant Gallicho. Or David Gibson. Or Kaya Oakes. Or Ken Woodward. Or Robert Ellsberg. I want to say Peggy Steinfels doesn’t, either, but in fact I have no idea. Which is kind of the point, right? Because it didn’t make much of a difference. We’ve all been getting our Catholic news and commentary from folks whose hard work and talent made them who they are, not their membership in an imagined elite. 

Ross Douthat and Mark Silk: Differing Opinions on Obama at the Prayer Breakfast, Niebuhr, and Eisenhower

I am in self-imposed exile today–working on my American Bible Society book.  But this whole Obama Prayer Breakfast stuff (see my original piece here) keeps drawing me away from my writing and back to the blog.


Did you see Ross Douthat’s column in Sunday’s New York Times

I like some it.  He acknowledges, for example, that Obama’s “disenchanted view of America’s role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge.”

I also think Douthat is correct when he suggests that history is complex:

The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam … and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. To be persuasive, a reckoning with history’s complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you’re knocking down.

But after his short lesson in complexity, Douthat ignores it in his remarks about Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address:

Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.

I think Douthat is probably correct about Obama’s over-simplification of the Islam-Crusades comparison.  (Interesting, everyone is talking about the Crusades–what about Obama’s slavery analogy?)  And I don’t blame Douthat for failing to nuance the Eisenhower material.  As a someone who often writes in short spaces, I realize that the complexity of history rarely conforms to the genres in which it is presented in a digital age. That is why books are still important to the advancement of good history in the world. 

Keeping in mind all of these limitations, I now give you a taste of Mark Silk’s response to Douthat’s op-ed.  Silk is a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and he blogs at Religion News Service:

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of the last century, liked to warn against the failure to see the mote in our own eye — urging that, as Douthat puts it, “Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.” Obama, however, was not really being self-critical when he called attention to Christianity’s less admirable past.
Which leads Douthat to contrast Obama’s remarks unfavorably with what he claims was “probably” the most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history — Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which famously warned against “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” Writes Douthat, “It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.”
That’s got it exactly wrong. Through the 1960s, the Republican Party’s perennial temptation was not war-making but its opposite. The party’s Whig progenitor opposed the Mexican War of the 1840s, and isolationism had its home in the GOP through the first half of the 20th century. In the just completed presidential campaign, JFK had been the hawk, attacking the Eisenhower Administration for allowing a (bogus) “missile gap” to develop between the U.S. and Soviet Russia and generally spending too little on defense.
Three days after Eisenhower’s farewell, Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address,”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less famously, he went on to say, “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
Talk about making the case for the military-industrial complex! Contra Douthat, Eisenhower was not being self-critical in his farewell address but warning against the incoming Democrats.
Read Silk’s entire piece here.  I am not an Eisenhower scholar, but I always understood Eisenhower’s speech to be more dove than it was hawk.

Tracy McKenzie on Ross Douthat

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the History Department at Wheaton College.  Check out his review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics at his blog, “Faith and History.” 

What I especially appreciate about McKenzie’s review is his historical approach.  Here is a taste:

Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century.  Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past.  This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history.  As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes.  More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity….

…For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us.  My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification.  These twin drives are related, of course.  We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves.  What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways.  Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  This need not be conscious.  It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter.  (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”)  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans. 

Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant.  Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government.  He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.”  You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past.