My 2013 Piece on Christmas at the *Pacific Standard*

Another magazine has bit the dust.  Read Lloyd Grove’s piece at The Daily Beast on the end of the Pacific Standard.

I wrote a piece for the Standard website back in December 2013.  I don’t know if it will disappear or not, so I am re-posting it here.  Here is “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?“:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.

Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.

From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.

For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.

And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?

Not really.

The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.

There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.

The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”

Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.

Remembering John McCain

McCain Falwell

McCain with Jerry Falwell

Here are some things I remember about John McCain (1936-2018).

The “Straight Talk Express” was a breath of fresh-air in 2000.  McCain was strongly critical of the Christian Right approach to politics.  He blasted George W. Bush for visiting Bob Jones University before the South Carolina primary.   During the campaign he said, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore.  Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”  At one point he called Jerry Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.

In 2008, McCain did a flip-flop on the Christian Right. (I wrote about it here). He knew he needed its support if he was going to defeat Barack Obama.  McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University on 2006.  He said that the United States Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  (I wrote about this in the introduction to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).  He took the endorsement of Christian Zionist John Hagee and then rejected it after Hagee made an anti-Semitic remark.  He started using the phrase “City Upon a Hill.”  And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

During the 2008 primary season, the sponsors of the “Compassion Forum” at Messiah College invited McCain to come to campus to talk about his faith and its relationship to politics. The event took place several days before the Pennsylvania primary.  CNN covered the event and it was hosted by Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown.  McCain declined the invitation.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton accepted the invitation.  I will always be disappointed that McCain did not make this a bipartisan event.  I spent a lot of time that night in the press “spin room” explaining to reporters that McCain was invited, but chose not to attend.  (Later he would attend a similar forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

I will remember his “thumbs down” on the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I still watch this video with amazement and study all the reactions of his fellow Senators

I will remember this and I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.  When civility and respect for the dignity of political rivals is disregarded, the moral fabric of a democratic society is weakened.  What McCain did at that town hall meeting in 2008 was virtuous.

Rest in Peace

Sarah Palin Endorses Donald Trump

Palin and trumpIt will all go down in about fifteen minutes (5:30pm EST) at a Trump campaign rally at Iowa State University.  C-SPAN will cover it here.

The New York Times appears to have broke the story.  Here is a taste of Maggie Haberman’s report:

Other conservatives said that Ms. Palin serves as a particularly effective shield against Senator Ted Cruz, who is battling Mr. Trump for the lead in Iowa polls by courting the state’s evangelical voters.

“Palin’s brand among evangelicals is as gold as the faucets in Trump tower,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“Endorsements alone don’t guarantee victory, but Palin’s embrace of Trump may turn the fight over the evangelical vote into a war for the soul of the party,” he said.

Mrs. Palin, who is to appear alongside Mr. Trump at a rally on the Iowa State University campus in Ames late Tuesday afternoon, could amplify the news media-circus aspects of Mr. Trump’s candidacy: Like him, she is a reality-TV star accustomed to playing to the cameras and often accused of emphasizing flash over substance.

What’s more, while Mr. Trump has already shown the ability to garner wall-to-wall cable-news coverage, Mrs. Palin’s active involvement in his campaign could help him deprive Mr. Cruz of vital attention in the homestretch to the Feb. 1 caucuses.

Trump is pulling out all the stops in Iowa.

Does Scott Walker Speak in Tongues?

On August 29, 2008 I wrote a post entitled “Does Sarah Palin Speak in Tongues?”  It remains one of the most read posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It was published simultaneously at Religion in American History and it did quite well there too.

If I remember correctly, I wrote this post a day or two after John McCain picked Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. The piece was one of the first to raise the issue of Palin’s Pentecostalism.

I thought about my Sarah Palin post last night as I sat down to read Jud Lounsbury’s piece at The Progressive:Speaking in Tongues Just Part of the Fun at Scott Walker’s Church,”  

Here is a taste:

Meadowbrook is one of nine churches in the Milwaukee area that end in “brook,” which sprung out of the Elmbrook megachurch in nearby Brookfield, Wisconsin. The church is not affiliated with any organized religion and was started by an Englishman named D. Stuart Briscoe, who came to Wisconsin in 1970 and had no formal religious training.

A 1988 Milwaukee Journal profile of the church said the congregation is “almost all white, young, and affluent.” And that “its critics say its emphasis is on saving souls while ignoring more earthly social issues, and its theology reinforceseven blesses the lifestyle of many of its members.”     
Although these churches advertise themselves as nondenominational, their beliefs mirror that of most uber-conservative Pentecostal churches, “a form of religion that is more conservative in its religious philosophy but also in the social and political philosophy that characterizes the majority of the church.”  In addition, “although Elmbrook calls itself nondenominational, couples cannot be married in the church unless they’ve had ‘born-again’ experiences.”  
“Many of those attending the church espouse an attitude that anyone that does not accept their born-again theology is not Christian,” the Milwaukee Journal article also states.
Walker’s branch, Meadowbrook, doesn’t have any female pastors or “Elders,” which are the governing body of the church. According to same Milwaukee Journal article, “the church has ordained female pastors, but cannot elect women to their Council of Elders because its constitution forbids it.”  On the church’s website, a similar note is struck when it states that women are the “weaker” partner and should obey the Bible’s teachings on submission to their husbands. 
In fact, church members believe that everything in the Bible is literally true and “without error” and that Christ’s return (and the ensuing Apocalypse) is “imminent.”   
They also speak in tongues. If you’re not familiar with speaking in tongues, it’s when God supposedly speaks through a person. But God apparently doesn’t speak any of the human languages, so it all comes out as gibberish. Luckily, if a trained man of God is nearby, he can translate it all for you.
Several things strike me about this article.
I was unaware that charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues were a prominent part of the Elmbrook network of churches, either under the ministry of Jill and Stuart Briscoe or their successor, Mel Lawrenz.  The Briscoes came from the Holiness movement, but I don’t think their theology celebrated speaking in tongues.

Moreover,  a quick glance at the doctrinal statement of the Meadowbrook Church (including the section on the Holy Spirit) does not say anything about speaking in tongues.  In fact, the statement looks pretty boilerplate evangelical (non-Pentecostal).  The link in Lounsbury’s article embedded in the  words “speak in tongues” is dead.  This link apparently connects Meadowbrook’s former pastor John Mackett to tongues-speaking.

There is a Meadowbrook Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin that is Pentecostal and not affiliated with the Elmbrook network of churches. I do not think Walker attends this church.
I also found a similar piece written by Jud Lounsbury in The Progressive.  It is entitled “Palin Got Hounded for Her Pentecostalism, But Not Scott Walker.”  In this piece Lounsbury once again tries to paint Meadowbrook as a Pentecostal church but provides no evidence on this front beyond a vague reference to a BBC website on Pentecostalism which states “It’s not always easy to see if a church is Pentecostal because many Pentecostal denominations don’t include the word ‘Pentecostal’ in their name.”  Based on this, he concludes that Walker’s Meadowbrook Church must be Pentecostal.
Both of Lounsbury’s pieces reveal a general lack of knowledge of evangelical Christianity.  For example, in the “Speaking in Tongues” piece he quotes a 1988 Milwaukee Journal article on the Elmbrook Churches that is close to thirty years old and does not appear to have a very strong grasp of American religion.  Again, here is the paragraph from Lounsbury’s article with the stuff from the Journal in quotes:
Although these churches advertise themselves as nondenominational, their beliefs mirror that of most uber-conservative Pentecostal churches, “a form of religion that is more conservative in its religious philosophy but also in the social and political philosophy that characterizes the majority of the church.”  In addition, “although Elmbrook calls itself nondenominational, couples cannot be married in the church unless they’ve had ‘born-again’ experiences.”   
There are several problems with this:
1. The Journal’s definition of Pentecostalism could apply to any conservative evangelical church in the United States. So could a similar definition of Pentecostalism he uses in the “Palin Got Hounded”
piece.  I don’t think Lounsbury understands the difference between a Pentecostal evangelical and a non-Pentecostal evangelical.
2. Lounsbury seems to have no clue about the meaning of “nondenominational.”  Nearly every nondenominational church that I know is an evangelical church that celebrates the “born-again” experience and will only marry those who have confessed to have had such an experience.  The idea that churches like this exist in the United States may be news to the readers of The Progressive, but there are millions of people who would embrace such a view of marriage and there are thousands of evangelical churches–conservative, moderate, and progressive–that would uphold these views.
While I am not fan of Scott Walker, I am a fan of accurate reporting on religion and politics.  It appears that this piece at The Progressive is an attempt to discredit Walker by connecting him to the religious beliefs of Palin.  (And even if he was connected to Pentecostalism in some way he would be part of one of the world’s fastest growing religious movements).
As my 2008 post argued, Palin was a Pentecostal.  She attended an Assemblies of God Church–a historic Pentecostal denomination.  Walker may or may not speak in tongues.  And perhaps the Meadowbrook Church does have a certain charismatic flavor that the mother church–Elmbrook–does not.  But if this is the case, Lounsbury and The Progressive are going to need some better evidence.
Here is a much better piece on Walker’s church.

ADDENDUM:  You should also check out Heath Carter’s recent piece on Walker and evangelicalism at The New Republic.

Are Sarah Palin’s Remarks About Waterboarding Anti-Christian?


A few thoughts about this video.

1. She calls all liberals “hypocrites.”  I assume that this is just political rhetoric to get the crowd fired up, but she just might believe this.  This kind of generalizing only enhances divisiveness.  It also violates several dozen New Testament commands about judging others.

2.  She seems to imply that it is the responsibility of government to “put the fear of God in our enemies.”  How does she reconcile this with Romans 12:9?

3.  She endorses waterboarding– a form of torture

4.  She uses the Christian sacrament of baptism to make her point about waterboarding.

I could develop these points, but I don’t think I could do any better than Christian conservatives (or conservative Christians) Rod Dreher and Joe Carter.

Dreher at The American Conservative uses the term “sacrilegious” to describe Palin’s comments:

OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.

Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.

Here is Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition:

For anyone to confess Christ as their savior and to compare one of the means of God’s grace to an act of torture is reprehensible. I hope members of Gov. Palin’s local church will explain to her why her remarks denigrate the Christian faith. Such remarks bring shame on the Body of Christ and to our witness in the world. Even more shameful, however, is the fact that so many Christians would cheer her support of torture (and yes, waterboarding is torture).
Gov. Palin was attempting to appeal to the basest political populism (nothing in her remarks could be construed as genuinely conservative) by claiming that current U.S. counterterrorism policy is  overly-tolerant and empathetic toward our enemies. She contends that proper policies would “put the fear of God into our enemies.”
Unfortunately, what Palin is proposing is a mixture of pagan ethics and civil deistic religion. She could have provided a more useful recommendation by supporting a Christian view, for on this issue in particular, Christian anthropology not only provides the correct view but the only one that can provide an adequate framework in which to form our conception of our “enemies.”
I know that we have some readers from the Assembly of God Church, the Pentecostal denomination of which Palin is a part.  If you are one of those readers I would love to get your take on this.

What Happened to Pentecostal Pacifism?

You would never guess from folks like John Ashcroft and Sarah Palin that the Assembly of God denomination has pacifist roots, but over at The Anxious Bench blog David Swartz introduces us to a new book revealing that Pentecostalism has a long tradition of pacifism.  The book is edited by Jay Beaman and Brian Pipkin and it is entitled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace.  

Here is a taste of Swartz’s post:

This twenty-first-century iteration of Pentecostalism, however, would have been utterly foreign to movement progenitors. In the wake of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 and at the founding of the denomination in 1914, the Assemblies of God were officially pacifist. As late as October 1940, the Assemblies of God still claimed that “military service is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that a Christian cannot fully follow the teachings of his Lord and Master if he engages in armed conflict.” Several scholarly works have already recovered this forgotten history. Robert Mapes Anderson’s Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (1979) and Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2003) treated this lightly. More recently, Paul Alexander narrated a full-scale account of Pentecostal pacifism in Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (2009).

ut Beaman and Pipkin’s book Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013) offers something new: hundreds of fascinating primary sources showing the pacifist orientation of the Pentecostal movement. Take, for instance, this 1938 column from the Foursquare Church, founded by the colorful Aimee Semple McPherson: “Should a Christian take up arms in time of war? The question is perhaps, a little late. It already has been answered—IN THE BIBLE. Until the Ten Commandments are repealed the Christian has no alternative but to stay aloof from war and its consequent destruction of human life. Should one be drafted? Well, prayer changes things. And the God who saved Noah from the flood, and preserved Daniel in the lions’ den and his brethren in the fiery furnace, surely can ‘handle’ so inconsequential a thing as a little draft-board. Prayer, wisdom and the proof of patriotic loyalty on our part, couple with a willingness to serve our country in non-combatant service should turn the trick for any obedient child of God.” Beaman notes that the Foursquare Church grappled with the pacifist impulse until WWII, when it capitulated (or came to its senses, depending on your theological persuasion) and embraced the use of lethal force and the preservation of a “Christian America.”

Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?

My recent piece at The Pacific Standard. 

Here is a taste:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.”At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

Read the rest here.

Have Evangelicals Betrayed American Conservatism?

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of  American ConservatismDarryl G. Hart thinks so.

This is the argument of Hart’s new book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Eerdmans).  I just read an excerpt at the Eerdman’s website and it caused me to wonder why the word “betrayal” is in the subtitle of the book.  If I read Hart correctly, it seems that there has never been a time when evangelicals were truly conservative.  Don’t you need to be part of a particular community or embrace a particular ideology in order to betray it?  I probably need to read the rest of the book or else try to find an alternative definition of “betrayal.”

Whatever the case, I am sure that this will be a provocative and well-argued book and I look forward to reading it.  Here is a taste of a piece Hart wrote for the Eerdman’s blog:

I have always thought of myself as conservative, even if I did vote for Walter Mondale in 1984. Don’t ask. The son of Bob Jones University graduates who even voted for George Wallace in 1968 — really, don’t ask — I grew up in conservative Protestant circles with a particular understanding about the United States and its importance in world and, especially, salvation history.

As often happens during graduate school, my outlook on Protestantism and my ideas about politics changed — hence the vote for a Democratic nominee during my second year of graduate school. But I came out with a doctorate in history and a political and theological position still right of center. Politically, I was and still am ambivalent about what appeared to me to be the sloganeering of the Republican Party, so I registered as a Libertarian — thus avoiding the cop out status of “independent” voter. I don’t believe I have ever voted Libertarian or even known its nominees. Theologically, anyone who knows about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in which I am a ruling elder might place me in the extreme right.

When I started to work for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2003 I became aware of a variety of conservatism that was generally foreign to many Protestants of conservative convictions. This “traditionalist” conservatism avoided the bumper sticker mantras of talk radio, read Russell Kirk instead of David Brooks, and took the United States’ form of government — constitutionalism, republicanism, and federalism — so seriously as to look unpatriotic in the eyes of Americans who regarded the United States not as a modest republic but as either the greatest nation or the greatest national villain on God’s green earth.

After comparing this form of conservatism to the one that religious historians like myself studied under the heading of the Religious Right, I began to wonder whether or not the differences between evangelicals and the American Right needed greater scrutiny. And when I began to explore the history of born-again Protestants alongside that of American conservatives after World War II, I came to two conclusions: first, evangelicals did not take much instruction from conservatives about what it meant to be conservative; and second, evangelicals were more idealistic, moralistic, and even utopian than they were conservative.

The Vicar of Old North Church Weighs in on the Palin-Revere Incident

Stephen T. Ayres, the vicar of Old North Church, describes Sarah Palin’s visit and discusses how she got confused about Paul Revere. 

Read his blog post at Episcopal Cafe to learn more about the bomb-sniffing dog, the Sarah Palin impersonator shopping at the church gift shop, the bells, and The Daily Show‘s John Oliver.  Ayres concludes that we should put this entire episode to rest.  (I guess this blog post does not help matters!).  Here is a taste:

I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin’s impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn’t have focused on the bells. Who knows?

I am amazed that this silly story refuses to die. Lots of pundits berated Governor Palin’s grasp of history. Many of them have made their own mistakes, usually of the Revere cried out “The British are coming!” variety. If Revere yelled anything streaking across the countryside, he might have been shot by a local Tory or by one of the many British patrols out that night. He never would have said “The British are coming!”, because everyone was British then. He may have said “The Regulars are out!”

A story just came across the web from The Washington PostPaul Revere’s Ride, a political poem published on the eve of the Civil War. While Longfellow upset antiquarians in New England, he was not subjected to thousands of newspaper stories and blog comments attacking or defending his poem. One hundred and fifty years later most of the pundits and many of us assume Longfellow’s poem was historically correct. I hate to break it to you, but Revere was not standing on the opposite shore, did not make it as far as Concord (Massachusetts or New Hampshire) that night, and finished his ride to Lexington before midnight. that a battle is brewing over at Wikipedia, where some Palin supporters have attempted to rewrite the entry on Paul Revere to reflect the governor’s interview. This isn’t the first time Paul Revere’s story has been revised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took a great deal of poetic license in retelling the story in

As vicar of the Old North Church, I am profoundly grateful for Governor Palin’s visit. She succeeded in her stated intention of drawing attention to America’s historical sites and inadvertently provided us with priceless free publicity by misplacing a few facts when quizzed on her visit. I hope all of her political peers from both parties come to visit the church where historically Paul Revere’s ride began and where mythically, thanks to Longfellow, God blessed America. We will be happy to give any politician a thorough history lesson and a few crib cards in case the media is lurking in the weeds. You can’t go wrong with “One if by land, or two if by sea” when the cameras are rolling.

I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn’t get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy? What do we say to the pundits who accuse Palin of mangling history while treating Longfellow’s poetic interpretation of the ride as fact? Why have so many prominent historians weighed in on this story to criticize or defend Palin’s off the cuff remarks? For that matter, why am I weighing in?

Is spectacle more newsworthy than substance? Do firmly held opinions take precedence over fact? What is truth, or is it truthiness?

Palin Was Lucky

The debate over Sarah Palin’s remarks about Paul Revere’s ride continues.  Did Revere “warn the British” that the patriots were coming, or was it the other way around?  Well, both are true.  Revere did warn the people of the countryside that the British were coming.  But after his capture he did tell the British that the militia were on their way.

In this Boston Herald article, Boston University of Professor Brendan McConnville (who, by the way, was gracious enough to write a cover blurb for my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation), admits that what Palin said was technically true.  Indeed, Revere did “warn the British.”  But McConnville doubts that this is what Palin had in mind when she made her remarks.  He thinks Palin got lucky.  Here is a taste of the article:

Boston University history professor Brendan McConville said, “Basically when Paul Revere was stopped by the British, he did say to them, ‘Look, there is a mobilization going on that you’ll be confronting,’ and the British are aware as they’re marching down the countryside, they hear church bells ringing — she was right about that — and warning shots being fired. That’s accurate.”

Patrick Leehey of the Paul Revere House said Revere was probably bluffing his British captors, but reluctantly conceded that it could be construed as Revere warning the British.

“I suppose you could say that,” Leehey said. “But I don’t know if that’s really what Mrs. Palin was referring to.”

McConville said he also is not convinced that Palin’s remarks reflect scholarship.

“I would call her lucky in her comments,” McConville said.

Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic Party held a thin blue line on the issue, insisting on mocking Palin despite a brief historical review of the matter. State party chairman John Walsh wise-cracked that the region welcomes all tourists, even those with “an alternative view of history.”

“If you believe he was riding through the countryside sending text messages and Tweets to the British, still come to Boston,” he said. “There are a lot of things to do and see.”
But Cornell law professor William Jacobson, who asserted last week that Palin was correct, linking to Revere quotes on his conservative blog, said Palin’s critics are the ones in need of a history lesson. “It seems to be a historical fact that this happened,” he said. “A lot of the criticism is unfair and made by people who are themselves ignorant of history.”

This Week’s Patheos Column: The Midnight Ride of Sarah Palin

In case you have not yet heard, Sarah Palin has just finished what appears to be the first leg of a bus tour of some of America’s great historical sites. No one seems to know why she has decided to embark on this kind of tour at this particular time, but Palin has been drawing large crowds wherever she goes. So far the “One Nation” tour has taken her to Gettysburg, the Pentagon, Mount Vernon, Philadelphia, Times Square (where she ate pizza with Donald Trump), the Statue of Liberty, and, of course, New Hampshire.

The highlight of the trip thus far, at least from the perspective of the media, occurred last week when Palin was asked about her experience touring the Old North Church in Boston, the site where church sextons hung two lanterns to alert the people of the Boston area that British troops were on the move. Later that evening, Paul Revere would get on his horse and warn the people of Lexington that indeed the British were coming.

Read the rest here.

Andrew Sullivan: Paul Revere and Palin’s Mind

Andrew Sullivan, writing at his blog, “The Dish,” discusses what he calls Sarah Palin’s “latest piece of nuttery.”  Apparently Palin’s followers have tried to rewrite the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere “to align it with Palin’s ramblings….”

Sullivan writes:

Even Chris Wallace cannot help laughing at this preposterous grifter. But creepier still is the fact that her cult followers responded to this perfectly predictable gaffe by trying to edit the Wikipedia entry on Revere to align it with Palin’s ramblings about his “warning the British” that … oh, let’s not even bother.

Check out this surreal Wiki page in which the cultists are trying to insist that Revere did indeed warn the British, and use Palin’s own quote as a source! I love this succinct response from a Wiki editor:

In the article on Paul Revere, someone has added false information in an effort to support Sarah Palin’s FALSE claims about Paul Revere. “Accounts differ regarding the method of alerting the colonists; the generally accepted position is that the warnings were verbal in nature, although one disputed account suggested that Revere rang bells during his ride.[8][9]” This must be removed as it is a LIE designed to mislead. dj

One of the most pernicious and dangerous features of Palin is her clinical refusal to understand reality, to accept error, to acknowledge when the facts she has cited are not actually facts, but delusions. And her vanity and pathologies are so deep she will insist that black is white until her minions actually find a source to prove it.

Boston 1775 Sets the Record Straight on Paul Revere

As we reported yesterday, Sarah Palin, when asked what she saw during her recent visit to Boston, had some problems explaining exactly what happened on Paul Revere’s famous ride.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. sets the record straight and notes that some of the websites that criticized Palin’s also got a few things wrong.  (Actually, Palin may not have been too far off about the “bells” ringing).

Here is a taste of Bell’s post:

It sounds like Palin got an accurate description of Revere, the Lexington alarm, and his adolescent bell-ringing at Old North Church during her travels, but that history got garbled in her attempt to spin it into modern right-wing talking points (“Put the government on warning!” “We need our arms!”). The result was her typical stew of folksy phrases without logical or grammatical connections.

In the comments section of my previous post on Palin’s encounter with Revere, “CG” makes some good points about the way visitors to historic sites understand what they see:

What if we take her summary of Paul Revere’s ride as the summary of an actual average American visitor to a history museum. We all have “lenses” through which we learn history, and granted her’s are not average, but no visitor comes out of a museum (or reads a history book) with the narrative the curators (or authors) intended. (As a former history museum curator and aspiring author, this is infinitely frustrating.) Apparently she visited Old North Church, the Paul Revere House, and Bunker Hill while in Boston. I wonder how the narrative she told about Revere’s ride compares to the narrative those museums exhibit? I’m sure that before she visited these museums, her Revere narrative, if she had one–and who does besides us dorks?–would have been even more disappointing. I’m sure those museums had some influence on what she said, even if how she said it is uniquely her own creation.

Anyhow, it’s a basic public history question that isn’t asked enough. What and how do people with a sketchy conception of history learn from lovingly crafted historical exhibits? In my experience, it’s usually NOT what the curators expect. 

While historians certainly have a responsibility to clarify historical misinformation that comes out of the mouths of politicians, perhaps the most important lesson we should learn from this whole Sarah Palin-Paul Revere incident has something to with how average visitors process what they see and learn from historical sites.  I am sure public historians have grappled with this question before.

Sarah Palin Offers a History Lesson on the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Where is David Hackett Fischer when you need him?

Not only did Sarah Palin think Paul Revere’s ride included “bells,” but I love her version of the three lessons one might learn from the ride:

1.  “We’re gonna be secure.”

2.  “We were gonna be free.”

3.  “We were gonna be armed.”

When I heard this I immediately rewrote the Revolutionary War lecture I give in my U.S. Survey course.  Thank you Sarah.  And stay tuned…her tour of American historical sites is not yet over!