The *Great Pumpkin* and Donald Trump

Great Pumpkin

Donald Trump has changed the way Jon Malesic watches It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  He no longer sympathizes with Linus.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:


Linus believes according to the logic of Pascal’s Wager: put your faith in the thing that offers the biggest payoff, even if it’s less likely to be true. I can appreciate why someone would make that bet. The Great Pumpkin promises not just candy, but toys, maybe money. Linus’s adoring companion Sally seemed to me like the person whose faith is less sincere, but who nevertheless represents many believers as they actually are: tentative, conflicted, self-interested.

After a year in which I followed the obsessive investigations into the mind of the Trump voter, my sympathy turned sour. I now see self-defeating credulity in Linus and Sally. They seem like the white working-class and evangelical voters duped into thinking Trump was anything more than a resentful plutocrat. Linus’s belief is unwavering only because it’s blind to reality. “If you are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” he writes in a letter to the Great Pumpkin. He lives in a thick bubble of fantasy.

Linus values sincerity, because he believes the Great Pumpkin values it. He’s gratified as he looks around the pumpkin patch on Halloween night and says, “there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Of course, sincerity and truth are quite different things, and Linus favors the wrong one. Trump lies constantly, but to his die-hard supporters, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t mince words; his bluntness absolves him of hypocrisy.

Read the entire piece here.

Here Comes Mike Huckabee


In case you have not heard, Mike Huckabee will be hosting a show this October at the Trinity Broadcasting Network.  According to Emma Green at The Atlantic, the show will feature “music, faith, and some good old-fashioned politics.” His first guest will be Donald Trump.

The Atlantic is running Green’s recent (and long) interview with Huckabee.  Below is a taste of the part of the interview where Huckabee actually defends Trump’s character. For many Trump evangelicals, “character” has now become something akin to being “the same in public as you are in private.”  He even defends Trump’s tweets along these lines.

Green: You once wrote a book called Character Makes a Difference, and you’ve observed that “character is that which causes you to make the same decision in public as you would make in private.” We’ve seen evidence not just that the president isn’t acquainted with the Bible, or perhaps isn’t a Sunday school teacher, but that he’s made comments or taken actions in private that don’t necessarily show strong character. Are you troubled by this at all?

Huckabee: Many of the things that have been attributed to him, that he even in fact admitted saying, were things that were 12, 15 years ago—20 years and beyond. Would I like for him to speak every day with the most extraordinary sense of faith? Sure.

But I’ll tell you what I’d rather have. To me, character is if you’re the same in public as you are in private, and I think that in many ways, that’s what’s appealing about him. It’s also what gives a lot of his critics their ammunition. Even his tweets, for example, are very transparent about what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. But some of the more harsh things that have been attributed to him were things that were said many years ago, and there’s been no indication that during his campaign and during his presidency has he said things that would cause people to just be aghast at what he had said. We’ve had presidents that have done things while they were in the Oval Office that frankly were very destructive and embarrassing. And I don’t think anybody has made those allegations about this president.

Historians as “Columbos of Our Cultural Life”


Paul Croce is Professor of History and American Studies at Stetson University.  In his recent piece at Huffington Post he compares historians to Peter Falk’s famous television character Columbo.

Here is a taste:

Historians can become like the Columbos of our public life. In Peter Falk’s memorable role as the private investigator Lieutenant Frank Columbo, he would solve crimes by getting to know the suspects. In the same way, historians let us get to know the producers and consumers of fake news, and the whole array of characters, from heroes to villains, in our cultural dramas. That understanding of how we think and feel can help all citizens be better judges of the worlds around them.

Read the entire piece here.  Believe it or not, this piece begins with some thoughts about U.S. intellectual historians Thomas Haskell and James Kloppenberg.

Bill Maher vs. Ralph Reed

Court evangelical Ralph Reed thinks Donald Trump is a good Christian and deserves the support of evangelicals because Trump kept his word on Supreme Court justices, “looked into the eyes of the American people” and said he would make changes to the country, is improving the economy, and is not Hillary Clinton.  Since when are any of these things the mark of a true Christian?  Is this the best the court evangelical can do in their defense of Donald Trump?

Will You Be Watching the Season Finale of “The Justice” Tonight?


Tonight, Donald Trump will say “You’re Fired” to either Neil Gorusch or Thomas Hardiman

I hope that tonight you will have some time to watch the season finale of Donald Trump’s “The Justice.”  That’s right, Trump will be announcing his Supreme Court Justice tonight on live television.  The POTUS has identified two finalists:  Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman.  Both men have arrived in Washington D.C. for the live finale.

Here is what I am expecting:  The two men will be sitting next to each other on one side of a large conference table. Trump will enter the room and sit across from them.  Then, with the live cameras rolling, he will publicly question both men concerning their credentials and judicial philosophy.

Trump will then fire one of the judges and nominate the other one as a Supreme Court Justice.

Reality TV meets the Supreme Court.  The ratings will be yuuuuuge!

Super Bowl Commercials and the American Revolution

Andy Schocket, a history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the author of Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, is a true historical thinker.  He even thinks historically when watching the Super Bowl!

Over at his blog he analyzes three 2016 Super Bowl commercials that had something to do with the American Revolution.

I do not think the Jack in the Box/Washington’s Crossing commercial aired in the Harrisburg, PA market, but his analysis of the and PayPal ads are on the mark.

Here is a taste:

This next one will get a lot more attention. It’s an offering from It’s another in a series of ads featuring longtime Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, sure, and Independence Day, of course, but do you remember The Tall Guy?) in his continuing pitchman role as Brad Bellflower, “Silicon Valley Maverick.” It’s worth spending an entire minute of your life watching the over-the-top silliness of the whole commercial, much of which is a reference to the intro and theme song of ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons, but the part that interests us begins at :37, as we see, incredibly enough, on the penthouse, none other than some random actor portraying George Washington and rapper Lil Wayne, calling themselves George and Weezy, again a reference The Jeffersons’ title characters.

Read the entire post here.

BTW, Schocket did the same thing last year.

The David Barton Television Show

ba98f-david-bartonDavid Barton, the GOP activist who uses the past to make his political points and is arguably the most popular Christian nationalist in the country, will be hosting a cable television show.

Actually, the first episode of Barton’s show, “Foundations of Freedom,” appeared yesterday on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Here is the press release:

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 8, 2015 — What are the foundations that made America one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth? Are those foundations still relevant to our society? Do the Judeo-Christian principles that guided our Founding Fathers as they prayerfully launched the American Republic matter today? Is America still “One Nation Under God”?

Noted historian and best-selling author David Barton addresses these crucial questions and many more as he returns to Christian television leader Trinity Broadcasting Network with a new weekly series, Foundations of Freedom, premiering on TBN Friday, January 8th.

Once deeply respected around the world as a place of hope and opportunity, the United States of America today stands at a crucial crossroads as it faces serious issues central to faith, family, and freedom. But what if an entire generation of Americans could re-discover the bold, courageous, and compelling history that made their nation the “land of the free and the home of the brave”?

That is what Foundations of Freedoms is all about: reconnecting Americans to the vision, passion, and wisdom that informed and inspired those who laid the foundations of this nation. With the help of special guests like conservative television host Glenn Beck, former CongresswOman Michele Bachmann, law professor Dr. Carol Swain, and others,David Barton explores America’s founding principles and values to discover how the Founding Fathers used the Bible as a blueprint to ensure the heritage of liberty Americans have cherished for over two hundred years.

TBN Chairman Matthew Crouch noted that “over thirty years ago President Reagan warned: ‘If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.’ It is time for America to return to its foundation of faith in God and its reverence for Scripture. For that reason we’re excited to welcome David Barton each week to TBN withFoundations of Freedom. It’s a program that will educate and inspire the entire family, and build up your faith for the future of America.”

Tune in for the special premiere of David Barton’s Foundations of Freedom Friday, January 8th, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific (3:30 p.m. Central, 4:30 Eastern) and 8:30 p.m. Pacific (10:30 p.m. Central, 11:30 p.m. Eastern), and on Saturday, January 9th, at 3:30 p.m. Pacific (5:30 p.m. Central, 6:30 p.m. Eastern) — only on TBN.

Ice Road Truckers and American Exceptionalism

I will start this post with a confession.  A few years ago I watched an entire season of the History Channel series Ice Road Truckers.  I don’t remember much about it now, and I don’t think I have watched an episode since then, but I was entertained by the show.

Over at We’re History, Boston College graduate student Michael McLean connects “blue-collar programming” such as Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People with longstanding American ideas about exceptionalism and the frontier.  

After explaining Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” McClean writes:

While this theme fell into disrepute among scholars in the twentieth century, the programs of the History Channel show how the idea lives on in popular culture. Surely, the shows suggest, America continues to have a frontier, and the nation must therefore still have a unique national character. Modern life, in which more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, cannot have emasculated America if we still have brave, hardworking men. This is a powerful idea in part because it is true. People living outside modern comforts display a different kind of grit than most Americans today. But their strength represents only one perspective about American life, just as the narratives of Parkman, Turner, and Roosevelt represented just one perspective on American history. That perspective does not account for the wild variety of other stories that created the great American narrative. It overwrites the voices and struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and labor organizers, among many others. It ignores the profound importance of science, transportation, medicine, and education to American progress.

If there is anything truly exceptional about America, it is that we have one of the world’s most fascinating, contentious histories. Surely there is heroism in resistance to slavery, in the labor movement, or in the discovery of penicillin to rival the heroism of individual men in their fight against nature.

Read McLean’s entire piece here.

Why MSNBC Has the Best Coverage of the Pope’s Visit

Chris Matthews: Philly Catholic

If you are a thinking person interested in Catholic history, Philadelphia history, religion and politics, or American religious history generally you need to be watching the MSNBC’s coverage of the visit of Pope Francis.  It is both entertaining and informative, but most importantly it has some intellectual teeth to it.

Unfortunately, MSNBC’s coverage of the Pope ended today at 3:00pm so the station can cover the Global Citizen Festival in New York City. Does MSNBC really think that Beyonce, Coldplay, Pearl Jam, and Ed Sheeran will get better ratings than Papa Francisco?

I have been watching a lot of Pope coverage this week and I have not yet seen anything better than MSNBC’s 9am to 1pm coverage of the Pope’s arrival in Philadelphia and the mass he conducted this morning at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and Paul.  (Although Brian Williams has also been excellent–it is good to have him back).

Chris Matthews, who anchored the coverage, seemed like he was on a caffeine rush all morning (even more than usual).  A native of Philadelphia and a product of the city’s Catholic culture, Matthews could not have been happier covering this event.  He told family stories, discussed Catholic history in the city, and asked his guests and on-set experts some very thoughtful questions.  Some of it was nostalgia for a Catholic Philadelphia that no longer exists, but I can’t think of a better person to lead us through this major event.


Matthews still needs to learn not to cut people off in mid-sentence, but the stuff he wanted to talk about was important.  Over the course of his four hours on the air Matthews led discussions about same-sex marriage and Catholic social teaching, the history of anti-Catholicism in the city, religious freedom and William Penn, and Catholic education.  He moved freely from expert to expert, soliciting comments and insights and peppering the conversation with his own knowledge of Catholicism. Matthews is a devout Catholic, an amateur historian, and one of America’s great political junkies.

This morning Matthews was joined by Kathy Sprows Cummings, the Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame and the woman I have dubbed the “Doris Kearns Goodwin of U.S. Catholic history.”  Sprows Cummings has been doing a great job all week, but she really came to life when teamed-up with Matthews. She is a product of the Philadelphia Catholic school system and can talk Philly Catholicism with the best of them.  My favorite moment was when Sprows Cummings mentioned that she, like Matthews, also attended a

Jesuit college (Matthews went to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts).  “You went to a Jesuit school? Really? Which one?” Matthews asked (I am paraphrasing).  “University of Scranton,” Sprows Cummings replied.  Matthews was thrilled and it seemed like a moment of Catholic bonding between the two of them.

Sprows Cummings is a historian of gender and American Catholic women religious.  Her passion for the place of women in the church was evident when she talked about Katherine Drexel, perhaps Philadelphia’s most celebrated American Catholic. (She suggested putting Saint Katherine on the ten dollar bill!).  Sprows Cummings was the perfect counterpoint to Matthew’s hyper-Catholic masculinity.

Finally, the MSNBC coverage included Catholic writer, pundit, and theologian George Weigel, The progressive-minded MSNBC deserves kudos for keeping Weigel on board (he has worked with NBC’s Catholic coverage for several years) since he represents a very conservative–theological, political, and economic–wing of the Catholic Church in the United States.  My favorite moment was when Weigel urged Catholics to respond to the Pope’s visit by praying ten minutes a day, reading the Bible daily, and visiting church on Sunday and during the week.  Matthews responded by saying that he wholeheartedly agreed with Weigel, although he did not want to go into the details about his spiritual life on the air.  Sprows Cummings chimed in with her own love of Jesuit spiritual practices. It was clear that they were all observer-participants this week.

Matthews, Sprows Cummings, and Weigel were supplemented by several other very thoughtful experts, including Los Angeles bishop Robert BarronMathew Schmalz, a theologian at the College of the Holy Cross, and LaSalle University president Colleen Hanycz.

I gave up on MSNBC several years ago when all the hosts started singing one politically-charged tune. MSNBC’s papal coverage has brought me back–at least for now.

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.”

David Letterman: Talk Show Host

I was wandering around New York City the other night trying to find my way from the American Bible Society headquarters to my hotel, when I came across the old Ed Sullivan Theater, now the home of the Late Show with David Letterman.  As I walked by the theater I remembered that Letterman would soon be leaving the late night airwaves.  Indeed, May 20, 2015 will be his last show.

Letterman has been on the air for thirty-three years.  I started watching Late Night on NBC in college. He was doing things on television that I had never seen before–Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, dropping things from 5-story buildings, crashing into velcro walls wearing velcro suits, the high-top sneakers, the Late Night Monkey Cam, throwing pencils, “viewer mail,” and Top Ten lists from the various “home offices.”  It was hilarious. I used to love when he would interrupt other television shows being filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I still prefer “Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band” over “Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra.”  And let’s not forget the recurring characters–Chris Elliott, Larry “Bud” Mellman, Marv Albert with the “The Wild and Wacky from the World of Sports,” Dave’s Mom, and Biff Henderson. And how many times was Teri Garr a guest?

I have been loyal to Letterman from the beginning.  I was mad when he did not get the Tonight Show gig in 1992, but I was happy that he could continue to do his thing on CBS.  I always felt guilty when I would flip the channel to Jay Leno because he had a more interesting guest.  I actually thought the “Oprah…Uma. Uma…Oprah” joke at the Academy Awards in 1995 was very funny.  

I actually know more people who think Letterman is not funny than people who think he is funny. (This probably says more about the people I hang out with than it does about Letterman’s comedy). For example, my Letterman fandom has never been appreciated in my house.  My kids and my wife think Letterman is boring. They don’t watch late-night television, but they do like to catch Fallon and Kimmel on YouTube when they get home from school or work or practice.  I cannot remember the last time I watched Letterman’s show when I was not alone.

Today I ran across Richard Zoglin’s op-ed on Letterman in The New York Times and I thought it really captures what makes Letterman different from the younger late night hosts currently on the air. Here is a taste

But it’s easy to overlook the most important thing Mr. Letterman has nurtured in his three-plus decades as a nightly talk-show host: talk.

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

How times have changed. The late-night world that Mr. Letterman leaves behind is almost all performance. Jimmy Fallon has turned the “Tonight Show” into a festival of YouTube-ready comedy bits  lip-syncing contests, slow-jams of the news, musical impressions, games of Pictionary and egg Russian roulette. His interviews, meanwhile, have resurrected the kind of Merv Griffin-style celebrity gush that Mr. Letterman thought he had stamped out years a few months ago. 

Are You Watching "Turn"?

I am not.  

But everywhere I go people are asking me about this new television series about the American Revolution based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies.   I am sure I will get around to watching it one of these days.  As much as I preach the idea that historians must engage the public, I seldom watch historical movies until well after they have the left the theaters.  I guess I need to improve in this area, but as someone who thinks about history all day for a living I have always seen television and movie watching–sports, comedy, dramas–as a chance to think about something else for a change.

I am, however, glad that J.L. Bell is watching Turn and is reviewing it at Boston 1775.  Here is a taste of his Season One wrap-up:

Early on in the show’s run I had to reconcile myself to the many historical liberties the show’s creators had taken, from launching the Culper Ring in 1776 to giving two principal characters anachronistic bushy beards as a way to signal they stood outside ordinary norms and differentiate them from the other men. There are so many deviations from the historical record or historiographical questions to point out that those essays could fill a season unto themselves.

But I realized that simply noting those changes was not unlike pointing out that Bucky Barnes died while trying to stop Baron Zemo’s rocket, and not by falling off a train as in the new Captain Americamovies. That may be true—hey, it is true—but not in the “Marvel movie continuity.”

Similarly, it seemed wiser to consider the Turn continuity to reflect a different universe from the real one. The same characters were playing the same basic roles in the same basic storylines, but they looked different, the timeline was changed, and knowledge about one world didn’t necessarily apply in the other. Given the cast-limiting budget, the show’s production values, use of period music, and generally strong performances kept it generally entertaining.

My biggest disappointment with Turn, therefore, wasn’t with the historical accuracy but with the way some characters’ motivations seemed to shift as the plot demanded. The character at the center,Abe Woodhull, is obviously torn in several directions—politically, romantically, familially. But his choices remained so opaque that, for instance, his getting involved in a duel seemed to be driven more by the producers’ thought that a duel would be dramatic than by anything we’d seen Abe do up to that point. Secondary characters worked better since they could be “flat,” in E. M. Forster’s formulation, and maintain their motivation. 

For Bell’s other posts and reviews on Turn click here.

Cotton Mather, "Uppity Women," and WGN America’s "Salem"

I have not seen Salem, a television series loosely based on the Salem Witch Trials that appeared last month on WGN America.  In fact, I had not heard about the series until I read Kelli McCoy‘s and Rick Kennedy‘s essay at Books & Culture.  It is titled “Cotton Mather and the Uppity Women.”  Here is a taste:

In Salem, the two characters who outsmart “the smartest man on earth” are the two women, Tituba and Mary Sibley. In the interviews that promote the show, Mary is described as a modern woman, in control of the situation, and as a symbol of women’s power. Sadly, the characters of Mary and Tituba do not show women’s empowerment, neither then nor now. The pilot episode suggests that these women are seeking revenge on Salem for the ways in which the Puritans have hurt them—in Mary’s case, by taking John Alden and their baby from her. These female characters may be intended as a critique of the Puritan social order, in which women typically had less power than men and, as in Mary Sibley’s case, must use marriage to a wealthy and powerful man as a way of climbing the social ladder. However, disappointingly, Mary Sibley seems exactly like the 17th-century stereotypes of women that fueled witch panics to begin with. Such stereotypes said that women were weak-willed, dominated by their passions, and more likely than men to be in league with the devil. Unlike Tituba, who may have made a more calculating move to wage war against the Puritans (that remains to be seen as the series unfolds), Mary naively falls under the control of the devil when she seeks an abortion in the forest and consents to something that she does not seem to fully understand until it’s too late. Now, she is governed by her contract with the devil and she must battle within herself over whether to continue her witchcraft or follow her heart and go with Alden. Mary’s contract with the devil leaves her no more free than the other women in Salem who are bound to their husbands through marriage contracts. Rather than a heroic struggle against the social institutions that denied women access to the heights of power, Mary Sibley’s story unfortunately seems to reinforce the 17th-century belief that women were less capable of rational behavior than men.