Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

Syndicate Symposium: “Sins and Virtues in American Public Life”

Over at “Syndicate,” Dartmouth religion professor Jeremy Sabella has put together a symposium on the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is titled “Sins & Virtues in American Public Life.”

New posts will appear on Tuesday and Fridays. Writers in this series include Bharat Ranganathan, Daniel Schultz, Chris Jones, Vincent Lloyd, Stanley Hauerwas, Jamie Pitts, Jennifer Knapp, Christian Sabella, David Cloutier, Robin Lovin, Jon Kara Shields, MT Davila, Aaron Scott, Colleen Wessell-McCoy, Scott Paeth, Randall Balmer, M. Shawn Copeland, and Briallen Hopper.

My piece on the theological virtue of faith and American public life will appear on November 3, 2020.

The series began last week and will run through November 13, 2020. Here is a taste of Sabella’s introduction:

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.

We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.

The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.

By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.

Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members. Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.

As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?

Read the rest here.

What is happening (once again) at Taylor University?

James Spiegel, a philosopher professor at evangelical Taylor University, was reportedly fired for refusing to take down a video of him singing a song he wrote titled “Little Hitler.” Watch:

Here is a Facebook post from Chris Date, a friend of Spiegel:

The commentators on the YouTube video also suggest Spiegel has been fired.

Some folks are talking about this on Twitter:

As Date’s Facebook post notes, Spiegel was one of the Taylor University professors involved in the publication of Excalibur, an underground newspaper which, according to a March 26, 2018 piece in Christianity Today, “claimed the evangelical college was becoming more liberal on sex, immigration, and race.” Here is a taste of that piece:

True to its namesake, the controversial newsletter sliced through campus conversation, drawing students and staff to take sides in classroom discussions, op-eds, and official communications since its February 21 release.

Weeks after Taylor president Paul Lowell Haines condemned the anonymous publishers for “sow[ing] discord and distrust, hurting members of our community,” four members of the faculty and staff came forward online as its creators: Jim Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion; Richard Smith, professor of biblical studies; Gary Ross, men’s soccer coach; and Ben Wehling, marketing director.

They apologized for the uproar, but even their website was pulled due to the controversy.

The newsletter aimed to fill a growing conservative void” on the Upland, Indiana, campus, Spiegel explained in an email to CT.

Since this controversy, Paul Lowell Haines has resigned as president. His resignation came shortly after he invited Mike Pence to speak at the 2019 Taylor commencement. (See my piece on that controversy at Religion News Service here. I still have no idea why it is attributed to Bob Smietana, the RNS editor, but it is my work).

I visited Taylor University on the Believe Me book tour on October 2, 2018. I gave a public lecture and spent an evening with a group of students. If the campus was still reeling from these ideological differences, I did not sense it. After my visit, the student newspaper, The Echo, ran a review of my visit. I don’t think Samuel Jones, the author of that piece, was a big fan of my lecture, but he did not situate my visit in the debates taking place on campus. So far, The Echo has not reported on the Spiegel firing.

So what should we make of all this?

I understand what Spiegel was trying to do here. By invoking Hitler, brutal killers, shotguns, rape, Jeffrey Dahmer, and his own capacity for murder, he was trying to shock us into taking sin and human depravity seriously. But the song offers no antidote to such depravity. For Spiegel, human beings are one step away from committing the worst atrocities known to man. The conscience, natural law, or the indwelling Holy Spirit cannot curb the power of sin.

To be fair to Spiegel, he has also posted a video of him performing a song titled, “What it’s Like to be Born.” This song talks about conversion, the born-again experience, and redemption. Watch:

And if you really want to know where Spiegel is coming from, consider his song, “Let’s Start Our Own Country.” It opposes culture wars, nuclear proliferation, the tearing down of monuments, the renaming of football teams, dysfunction in Washington D.C., “taking a knee,” identity politics, and the closing of churches during COVID. Watch:

Should he be fired for “Little Hitler”? I can’t answer that question. I would need to know more about the local culture on campus at Taylor and the way Spiegel and his song fit into that culture. Perhaps there is a larger story here. Maybe this is more than just an academic freedom issue.

I do know, however, that Taylor University Provost Michael Hammond, a historian of American evangelicalism during the civil rights movement, is a good man with the best interest of Taylor in mind.

Let’s see how this unfolds.

UPDATE (Friday, September 4, 2020 at 9:17pm): The Echo has a piece on this today.

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Original Sin Liberalism

Reinhold_niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr might be described as an “original sin liberal”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes about it in relation to gun control at Commonweal:

Here is a taste:

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, Dionne mentions Reinhold Niebuhr.

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

Last temptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

Barton: God Brings Bad Weather Because of Abortion

purembb

In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them.  They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God.  When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities.  Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.

David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England.  He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion.  (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).

Here is what he said:

So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.

And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.

Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”

I believe in God.  I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem.  This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.

But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God.  To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology.  And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology.  And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.

What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness.  He says:

And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.

But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong. 

He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.

And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.

And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive.  They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.

So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…

I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature.  But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers.  Last time I checked they were also human beings.  And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.

Comey Channels Reinhold Niebuhr

Comety

James Comey and Reinhold Niebuhr (from The Episcopal Cafe)

We have done some posts this year on the James Comey-Reinhold Niebuhr connection. You can read them here and here and here.  I have followed Comey on Twitter @projectexile7, but his tweets are protected and he hasn’t accepted my follow request yet.  Stay tuned!

Comey is a big Neibuhr fan.  He wrote about Niebuhr in his senior thesis at The College of William and Mary. Frankly, I really wish I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with Comey.  I would love to talk with him about how and if Niebuhr’s still shapes his thinking about public life.

So was Niebuhr’s ghost present during Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee?  Yes.

1. Niebuhr valued humility.  It was clear to me that Comey does too.

When asked “do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?”  Comey responded with this:

My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself so I’m not going to. I think people should look at the whole body of my testimony. As I used to say to juries, when I talked about a witness, you can’t cherry pick it.

2.  Niebuhr loved irony.  Though historian Julian Zelizer‘s tweet does not apply directly to Comey, it is still worth noting.

3.  Niebuhr was pessimistic about human nature.

When Mark Warner asked Comey what led him to take notes after his first meeting with Trump, Comey replied:

A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first — I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president.

The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president — the president-elect personally — and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.

4.  Niebuhr spoke truth to power.

Here is a taste of Comey’s opening remarks:

And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.

I only wish he would have been more Niebuhrian to Trump’s face during their meetings. But I guess that’s where the humility comes in.  Reinhold is smiling.

Tippett, Brooks, and Dionne Discuss Religion and Politics

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Check  out On Being host Krista Tippett’s interview with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the role of religion in American political life.  The event was hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Tippett: OK, let’s talk about sin. This is a word you have both used. I find it remarkable. So let’s go there. David, you’ve been talking about, as you quote Saint Augustine around the country, Saint Augustine’s notion of “disordered loves.” That’s a definition of sin, and also—but how that is also a way to diagnose us and the political state of our soul.

Brooks: Yes, somebody—it might have been C.S. Lewis said, “Sin—” or maybe Chesterton—“Original sin is the only concept with scientifically variable proof.” That we are…

Tippett: I think Niebuhr said…

Dionne: I’d attribute it to Niebuhr, and he got it from somebody else.

Tippett: Well, didn’t Niebuhr say, “You just have to read today’s newspaper to know there’s something to it?”

Brooks: Yeah, or look in the mirror.

Dionne: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church.” Yeah, it’s one of my favorite lines.

Brooks: And so the question is—and for me, the challenge was how to express it in a secular audience. I’m a secular writer. I don’t write for religious audiences. I write for The New York Times. How secular can you get? My joke—I can’t help inserting my joke of being a conservative columnist at The New York Times is like being Chief Rabbi at Mecca.

[laughter]

Brooks: Not totally fair, but it’s a joke. So I wrote this book, and Augustine was central to it, and I think the awareness of sin is central to Niebuhr—that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? And I had gone on the Charlie Rose show, my closest encounter to heaven until recently—no, I’m kidding—and I had talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin.”

And I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House—it was sort of a test of him—and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?

You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves,” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.

Tippett: Right, right. Or it’s a downer. And E.J., you wrote this: “I believe a serious embrace of Christianity inevitably leads one into politics, since sin is social as well as individual.”

Dionne: It’s been one of the classic arguments between more progressive and more conservative Christians about where is the emphasis on social sin versus individual sin? And one area, for example, where that often comes out is in our discussion of family life. Because, on the one hand, if you care about family values, you’ve got to care about social justice. Because one of the reasons the family is under such pressure is the way in which the economy is a battering ram at times against the family, particularly among folks who have lost jobs that once supported families.

So you cannot look at family breakup without looking at the economic factors. On the other hand—and this is really the theme of Bob Putnam’s Our Kids—we also know that, as a practical matter, most of the time, two parents are better than one, and that kids who grow up in sort of stable, intact families are likely to do better. Conservatives want to talk about one-half of that truth. Progressives want to focus on the other half of that truth. And yet, they are really part of one truth that we need to discuss.

Read a transcript of the entire conversation here.

A Theological Narrative of America

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Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.”  Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”  Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history.  While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God.  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.

Has David Brooks “Come to the Lord?”

ff26b-brooks_new-blog427Has David Brooks converted to Christianity?   I also asked this question back in October 2015.  Now Jim Daly, the host of the radio program Focus on the Family, notes that Brooks, who was raised Jewish, “came to the Lord later in life through the reverend theologian, the late John Stott…”  (Brooks was a guest on Focus yesterday and he will be on again today.  Brooks wrote about Stott back in 2004).

Here is Daly on Brooks:

He’s come to the Lord later in life through the reverend theologian, the late John Stott, who he felt posed very difficult questions for David to answer. And that’s a beautiful way to describe where David Brooks is today. He’s still workin’ out some of those deep theological issues. But he is a man who believes in God and I think it is worthy to listen to someone who thinking deeply about the character of this nation and there are nuggets of truth in here that I want people to hear and that’s what you gotta look for.

Here is what Brooks had to say about sin in his conversation with Daly:

Yeah and I found there’s a word that is very much resisted in the secular world and frankly, it’s sometimes ignored in the Christian world and that word is “sin.”

And you know, you gotta understand, there are many different definitions of sin. There’s original sin. The way I express it in the book and I say I want to be accessible to other people, is disordered love. And this is Saint Augustine’s version, which is, we all love a lot of things. We love money. We love fame. We love our families. We love truth, but we all know certain loves are higher than others.

And if a friend tells you a secret and then you blabbed it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship and we know that’s wrong. That’s a sin. And so, that’s a breach of the divine order.

And so, I looked at my own life and, what sins do I have? I think we all have achieved sin, and I think early in life it was shallowness. I just didn’t go deep. I was so interested in career. I was so on the move. Maybe I’m a bit of a pleaser. And so, looking at those core sins, I think you gotta acknowledge it and write it down and then work on it every day.

I have a friend who’s a pastor, who his chief sin is he’s not always present for people. He’s got a very busy life and people come to him with their needs and he’s got 5 million things to do that afternoon and he wants to appear clever at a conference or at a sermon he’s giving. So, he’s not really present and so, he sits there at night on the pillow and says, “Well, that’s my core sin. How did I do today? Did I get a little better?”

And so, for me, I think it was just the tendency toward shallowness. I work in a job that rewards my ego a lot. I’m in front of a microphone a lot (Chuckling) and that can lead to pride and a sense of arrogance. So, you have to step back and say, what is my core sin?

Read the entire interview here.

Reader Feedback: Coates on Historians and Hope

Yesterday our “quote of the day” came from Ta-Nehesi Coates’s reflections on historians and hope.

Here is the quote I chose:


.. I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.


The best response/question to the post came in a tweet (@johnfea1) from Aaron Cowan, a history professor at Slippery Rock University:



Great point.  I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis.  I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present.  I would not call these people “historians.”


I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here.  His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them,  Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehesi Coates on hope and historians:

… I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.

Thoughts on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Guns

Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks about guns at Liberty University have been nagging me all day.  This is because I know some Liberty faculty, know people who currently attend Liberty, know parents who have sent or are sending their kids to Liberty, and know many Liberty alums.  Last night I reached out to some of my Liberty connections. Some responded. Some did not.  

In case you haven’t heard, on Friday during the university convocation Falwell Jr. told the Liberty students and other members of the community–some 12,000 of them were in attendance–that they should arm themselves in order to protect the campus from potential “Muslim” intruders.  Here is what he said.

If some of those people in that community center had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now [applause] … is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know. I’ve always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. So, I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let’s teach ’em a lesson if they ever show up here.”

These remarks were greeted with loud applause in the arena.  If Twitter is any indication, the Liberty community seems to be supporting their president on this issue.  Check out Falwell’s Jr.’s Twitter feed.  He is retweeting all of the positive tweets.  In fact, he claims that he has never received more positive feedback.

I understand that Falwell Jr. has made efforts to bring Liberty out of the separatist, fundamentalist, politically conservative world of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the institution.  Liberty has a long way to go on this front, but Falwell Jr.’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders to speak on campus was a step in the right direction.  This kind of gesture will never be enough for hard-line liberals and secularists who despise the very existence of a place such as Liberty University, but the invitation of Sanders, when taken in historical context, was a significant breakthrough.

I am thus sympathetic with the thoughts of evangelical monastic Shane Claiborne. Perhaps Falwell Jr. just got caught up in the moment, like his father did on more than one occasion. His father was not above apologizing for his brash comments, including his remark that gays and lesbians were responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9-11-01.  

I hope that Falwell Jr. eventually realizes that his words were poorly formed and that he needs to apologize. To do so would be an act of Christian courage far more meaningful than the arrogant remarks he made last Friday.  Perhaps he could also admit that his remarks were the unfortunate product of a nasty, politically-charged culture war mentality that has defined the Lynchburg campus since its founding.  Old ways die hard.

But if Falwell Jr. apologized he would disappoint the Liberty faithful who are currently praising him for his remarks.  His followers might think that he is a coward who is caving in to attacks by the “liberal media.”  How the president responds in the next few days will tell us a lot about the direction he wants to take Liberty University. 

I am also afraid that Falwell Jr. may have hurt Liberty University’s reputation as a “safe” place for young conservative evangelicals to attend college.  Schools like Liberty are advertised as “safe” because students are taught correct doctrine, meaning that there is a good chance that they will graduate with their faith in tact.  But Liberty is also “safe” because the parents of young evangelicals believe that their children will be protected from the evils and dangers of the outside world.

Is Liberty as safe today as it was before Falwell Jr.’s “bring it on” convocation address on Friday morning?  It is a question worth asking. I know that there are  many on the Liberty campus who are asking this question right now.

I also wonder about the wisdom of encouraging college students to carry concealed weapons. From what I understand, guns are allowed on the Liberty campus, except in the dorms.  Why not in the dorms?  And why doesn’t the logic that keeps guns out of the dorms apply to the campus as a whole? Where do students put their guns when they are in their dorm rooms?  Just curious.

There also seems to be a theological issue here.  I am guessing that Liberty University teaches that human beings are born sinful and are thus prone to act in sinful ways.  If they really believe this doctrine, wouldn’t arming the student body be a bad idea? 

In conclusion, I would encourage the Liberty University community to read Marilynne Robinson’s recent essay on fear.  (She is one of my favorite Calvinists!)  Here is just a small taste:

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

Studying *Breaking Bad*

I have never seen an episode of the television series Breaking Bad, but I hear a lot about it from Jim LaGrand, my friend and fellow professor in the Messiah College History Department.  When you mention the show to Jim, he gets a big smile on his face and proceeds with a small speech about the tragic dimension of life in this world.

Last year Jim and Messiah College librarian Jonathan Lauer taught a course devoted entirely to the show. This year Jim is at it again. The interdisciplinary course is titled  “The Wages of Sin is Death: Breaking Bad as the New American Tragedy.” It even has a website!

Over the course of the semester students in this course watch the entire Breaking Bad series and read:

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Here is part of course description:

A number of serialized TV dramas over the past decade or so have led many critics to call this period “the golden age of television.”  No show better epitomizes this label than Breaking Bad.  Its thrilling plots and cliff-hangers have won it millions of viewers.  But it’s more than a pop culture phenomenon.  Creator Vince Gilligan’s show stands out for its novelistic structure and sensitive examination of characters’ inner lives.  Even more remarkable for a television program, Breaking Bad provides a relentlessly honest picture of the human condition–both its vices and virtues.  The show’s depictions of the seven “deadly sins” or “capital vices”–especially pride, envy, greed, and wrath–have led many viewers to recall Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.  Acclaimed not only by the public but also by television and literature critics, Breaking Bad is uniquely well-suited among television shows for study and reflection in a classroom context.

You can see the syllabus here.  

Check out Jim’s essay “Breaking Bad for Christians: A Morally Ordered Show.”

Environmental Conservatism?

I have always wondered why more conservatives weren’t environmentalists or conservationists.  Don’t conservatives like to conserve things?  With this in mind, I found Peter Blair’s review of Roger Scruton‘s recent book How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (Oxford) to be very interesting.  According to Blair, “Scruton argues that conservative thought is actually a better resource for environmentalism than liberalism.”

Here is a taste:

In order to prevent people from externalizing the costs of their risks—from passing on those costs to people who did not incur them—conservatives support what Scruton calls “homeostatic systems.” Such systems are self-correcting, making use of negative feedback loops to react to change and to keep people accountable for the costs of their risks. Markets, traditions, customs, families, civil associations, and the common law are all examples of homeostatic systems. 

Conservatism aims to preserve and maintain renewal of these systems, especially the “civil associations” that Scruton calls society’s “little platoons,” in the words of Edmund Burke. The little platoons—families, local clubs and institutions, churches and schools—keep us accountable to ourselves and our environment, teaching us how to “interact as free beings, each taking responsibility for his actions.” Daily life in these civil associations assimilates and connects us to a settled home, a place and a people we identify as peculiarly “ours.”

In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”

And another taste:

Scruton also defends environmental conservatism with arguments less often heard from American conservatives. Central to his case, for example, is his view that a local, voluntary, patriotic culture can motivate environmental care. Under local stewardship, people don’t defend the environment because they are on a global campaign to save the world. They defend it because they have thick ties to their home, and they want to keep their home safe and beautiful.

Yes, all well and good. I might even find Scruton’s vision attractive. But conservatives also believe in human limits.  Christian conservatives might call this human sin.  If conservatives believe such things about human nature can they really trust their fellow human beings to practice this kind of conservatism or stewardship of the earth without some type of government regulation? After all, as James Madison reminds us in Federalist #51, if men were angels (and took care of the planet), government would not be necessary.

I’ll have to give this some more thought and read Scruton’s book.  In the meantime, comments are welcome.

Ross Douthat on Newtown

In case you haven’t read it yet.  Here is a taste:

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now. 
Read the entire piece here.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Sin and the Historian"

This semester I am teaching a sophomore seminar entitled “Historical Methods.”  Since I teach at a Christian college, we spend a lot of time in this course thinking about the relationship between Christianity and the practice of doing history.  This morning I taught a wonderful essay by George Marsden entitled “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category.” The essay appears in Wilfred McClay’s edited collection, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  This article is must reading for all Christian academics, whether you are a Calvinist or not. (I am assuming that all Christians maintain some kind of belief in human depravity–correct me if I am wrong).  Marsden reflects on what the stories we tell about the past might look like if we took the reality of sin seriously.

During class we discussed the idea that God has created us with freedom.  Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a responsible and free being.  This is an important part of God’s image within us.  The freedom to make choices with our lives can lead us toward a life of communion with God, but it can also lead us into sin.  Human beings have made the choice to prefer themselves to God.  Christians believe that because of what happened in Genesis 3, the image of God has been tarnished by sin.  Our natural inclination is toward selfishness rather than toward the pursuit of God or love of neighbor.

Read the rest here.

Some Thoughts on David Barton’s "The Jefferson Lies"–Part Two

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

David Barton believes that Thomas Jefferson’s legacy “has been impugned” by five “methods” popular among academic historians.  The first is “Deconstructionism.”

Barton describes deconstructionism as a “steady flow of  belittling and negative portrayals of Western heroes, beliefs, values, and institutions.”  He asserts that deconstructionists do not tell the entire story when they write historical narratives.

In other words, those who deconstruct American history tend to focus too much on what is wrong with America.  They seldom write about the things that have made the United States a great country.

Deconstructionists, for example, stress the fact that the founders owned slaves and do not talk enough about the many founders who opposed slavery.  They suggest that the Puritans who founded New England were “intolerant” because they burned witches.

According to Barton, any historian who chooses to focus on the flaws of our founders is engaging in deconstructionism.  Barton has no place for historical inquiry that does not glorify the founders, the Puritans, or any other historical character who contributed to the founding or settling of the nation.

To put it differently, Barton is not interested in seeing historical actors as flawed human beings.  Instead, the founders seem to occupy some kind of exalted position.  They are not quite angels, but they are not quite ordinary human beings either.  They have been somehow immune to sin, which the last time I checked was an important part of the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being.

I am sure that many theorists and scholars would balk at Barton’s limited understanding of deconstructionism, but even if we take his definition seriously (as his readers will), it fails to take into account the moral complexity of the human experience.  The Puritans were intolerant.  Some of the founders did own slaves.  It is up to historians–especially Christian historians–to call attention to this in a way that reminds us not to put our faith primarily in human beings because, in the end, they will usually let us down.

I do not know of any school or college textbooks that do not discuss the role of Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence, or his defense of freedom, his purchase of Louisiana, or his championing of religious liberty.  Wouldn’t Barton say that these were positive things?  But any good textbook would also discuss his ownership of slaves, his diplomatic errors, or his critique of orthodox Christianity.  Historians tell the whole story. Barton does not.

Finally, I find Barton’s critique of deconstructionism a bit odd because, in essence, his entire book The Jefferson Lies is an act of deconstructionism.  Barton is attempting to deconstruct the way that so-called “academic liberals” have presented Thomas Jefferson.  To use his own definition, he is trying to make a “continuous critique” of what he believes to be the prevailing wisdom about Jefferson and “lay low” these arguments. 

David Barton is a deconstructionist.  But is he a good deconstructionist?

For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I heard that it’s pretty good 🙂