Trump Has Failed to Stop the “American Carnage”

Trump inauguration

Conor Friedersdorf gets it right at The Atlantic:

President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address that the “American carnage” some in the nation were facing “stops right here and stops right now.” At his rallies, he speaks to supporters as if he has lived up to his pledge to “make America great again.” But it’s hard to feel that the United States is “great again” when men born and raised here keep going on mass killing sprees.

Read the rest here.

Quick Thoughts on Reagan’s Racist Remarks. Or What Say Ye Dinesh D’Souza and Friends?

Watchf Associated Press Domestic News  New York United States APHS57004 REPUBLICAN LEADERS

By now you should know about the recently released audio recording of Ronald Reagan calling African people “monkeys.” Reagan, who was governor of California at the time, made the remarks to Richard Nixon in 1971.

Listen to the remarks here and read historian Tim Naftali’s contextual piece at The Atlantic.

When I learned about this recording I thought about the debate between conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza and Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse.  For several years D’Souza has been making the case that the Democratic Party is the real racist political party, while the Republicans, as the party of Lincoln, is the party of equality and civil rights.

Southern Democrats were indeed racist in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century.  Many Republicans were also pretty racist, but they championed abolitionism, led a war to end slavery, and fought for the equality of African-Americans in the decades following the war.  But things change.  Historians study change over time.  While Southern Democrats opposed the civil rights movement, so did conservative Republicans such as Barry Goldwater and others.  Meanwhile, other Democrats, such as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and the leaders of the civil rights movement, all sought to end Jim Crow in America.  Today the overwhelming majority of African Americans vote for Democratic candidates because of this legacy.

So what does D’Souza do about Reagan’s racist comments?  If the GOP is not the party of racism, then how does D’Souza explain the recorded remarks of the party’s conservative flag bearer?

Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

Yoni

Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Who are the Most Intolerant Americans?

Educated elites

The most intolerant Americans are white, highly educated, older, urban Americans.  They are the most “isolated from political diversity.”  Here is a taste from a recent study commissioned by The Atlantic:

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

Read the entire article here.

50 Court Evangelical Stories That Tell Us Much About Support for Trump in His First Two Years

Trump Beleive me
We are almost two years into the Trump administration. The Atlantic has assembled some of Trump’s “greatest” hits.  Here is a taste of “50 Moments That Define an Improbably Presidency“:

In an October 2016 editorial, The Atlantic wrote of Donald Trump: “He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar.” We argued that Trump “expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.” Trump, we also noted, “is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”

In retrospect, we may be guilty of understatement.

There was a hope, in the bewildering days following the 2016 election, that the office would temper the man—that Trump, in short, would change.

He has not changed.

This week marks the midway point of Trump’s term. Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable. We find it hard to believe, for example, that we are engaged in a serious debate about whether the president of the United States is a Russian-intelligence asset. So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date.

So with this in mind, I thought I would list the 50 most outrageous court evangelical defenses of Donald Trump as chronicled here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Some of these I included in my June 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am sure I missed some, so please feel free to add to the list.

50. Trump disparages MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski and the court evangelicals are silent

49. Jerry Falwell Jr. says Trump’s temperament as POTUS is “no longer relevant” because he has redefined the presidency.

48. Court evangelical calls CNN’s Jim Acosta a “demon.”

47. Liberty University alums return diplomas after Jerry Falwell Jr. refuses to condemn Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. Falwell Jr. calls their protest “a joke.”

46. Tony Perkins does not like being called a court evangelical

45. Court evangelicals write a “spiritual biography of Donald Trump”

44. Tony Perkins defends Scott Pruitt’s $100,000 expense account for private jets

43. Jerry Falwell Jr. says that Christ did not forgive the “establishment elites.”

42.  Court evangelicals bask in the court

41. Court evangelical Steven Strang says Trump is a Christian and he is an answer to prayer because he cut taxes.

40. Liberty University film students produce a film on a book about a fireman who  prophesied the election of Trump

39. Robert Jeffress invites Sean Hannity to his church to puff Trump

38. Jerry Falwell Jr. calls Trump “Ronald Reagan on steroids” and calls Democrats “fascists” and “Brownshirts.”

37. Robert Jeffress praises Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreements

36. On Thanksgiving, Paula White says we should be thankful that God has given America such a giving president.

35. A Southern Baptist pastor says that Mike Pence should not speak at the Southern Baptist Convention.  Court evangelical Tony Perkins accuses him of disunity, confusing church and state

34. Franklin Graham uses his father’s magazine to say that Christians will be “open targets” if the Democrats win the House of Representatives in November 2018

33. After the Stormy Daniels allegations, Jerry Falwell Jr. says “that doesn’t sound like the Donald Trump I know.”

32. Pastor Greg Lurie wrongly tells fellow court evangelicals that the United States was “founded in a time of spiritual renewal.”

31. Cohen tape reveals that Trump used court evangelical and minister Marc Burns for political gain.

30. Court evangelical James Dobson throws his support behind Roy Moore’s run for Senate in Alabama

29. Court evangelicals defend Trump’s behavior with Putin in Helsinki

28. Jerry Falwell Jr. blames Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort convictions on Attorney General Jeff Sessions

27. Robert Jeffress defends Trump’s “s-hole countries” comment.

26. Jerry Falwell Jr. defends Roy Moore against sexual molestation charges

25. Court evangelicals call Trump a new King Cyrus

24. Trump holds an August 2018 dinner for the court evangelicals and urges them to vote Republican in the midterm elections.

23. Robert Jeffress defends Trump on the NFL-kneeling controversy

22. Trump loses the House of Representatives in November 2018 and the court evangelicals spin it as a Trump victory.

21. Trump brings porn into the mainstream and the court evangelicals say nothing

20. Court evangelical boasts of the “unprecedented access”  he has to the Trump White House

19. Paula White uses the Bible to defend Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

18. Court evangelicals remain silent on the separation of families at the Mexican border

17. Paula White says Trump is “100% a Christian who understands repentance.”

16. Court evangelical Robert Jeffress claims that he will continue to support Trump despite Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal adultery allegations

15. Franklin Graham says that Christine Blasey-Ford’s accusations are “not relevant” to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court

14. Court evangelicals think they scored a victory with Trump over the “Johnson Amendment.”  They did not.

13. Court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress influence Trump to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem

12. Court evangelicals tweet about family values at the same time Trump is separating children from parents at the Mexican border

11. Robert Jeffress says that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy”

10. Former court evangelical says Trump’s evangelical advisory committee is little more than a “photo-op.”

 9. Tony Perkins gives Trump a “mulligan” on the Stormy Daniels adulterous affair

8. Robert Jeffress uses Romans 13 to defend Trump’s immigration policy

7. In 1998, court evangelical Gary Bauer thought that “character was destiny” for U.S. presidents

6. Franklin Graham said something different about a president’s “private sins” back in 1998.

5. Eric Metaxas defends Trump’s Charlottesville comments

4. Jerry Falwell Jr. defends Trump’s Charlottesville comments

3. Robert Jeffress says Trump should not apologize for Charlottesville statements.  “He did just fine.”

2. Jerry Falwell Jr. says there is nothing Trump could do to lose evangelical support.

1. Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity

Believe Me 3d

 

*BUNK* Picks “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as Best American Religious History Read of 2018

BUNK is a history website founded by award-winning American historian Ed Ayers and edited by Tony Field.  It is published by the University of Richmond.  Read more about it here.

Today I learned that BUNK chose my Atlantic Monthly piece  “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as the best American history read of 2018.  (Of course, if you want the extended argument, get a copy of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

This means a lot to me, especially in light of the other winners.

Here are the winners:

Narrative History
The Train at Wood’s Crossing [Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe.com]
The long-forgotten story of a Charlottesville lynching is unearthed in a lyrical and deeply researched piece of writing that twists together strands of personal, local, and national history.

Honorable Mention:
The Counterfeit Queen of Soul [Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine]

Local History
As Goes the South, so Goes the Nation [Imani Perry, Harper’s]
A Thanksgiving trip home to Alabama occasions this tour de force through the state’s twisted past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Little Mayors of the Lower East Side [Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Lapham’s Quarterly]
In the Hate of Dixie [Cynthia Tucker, Bitter Southerner]

Legal History
Black Lives and the Boston Massacre [Farah Peterson, The American Scholar]
Do you know the story of Crispus Attacks, the black man who was the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War? If so, it’s probably incomplete. In this compelling essay, a law professor explains why, and what the omissions have to do with the struggle for racial justice today.

Honorable Mentions:
Separation of Power [William Hogeland, Lapham’s Quarterly]
No Law Without Politics (No Politics Without Law) [Jedediah Purdy, Law and Political Economy]

Religious History
Evangelical Fear Elected Trump [John Fea, The Atlantic]
Fea, a scholar and practitioner of evangelical Christianity, offers a nuanced take on four centuries of people “failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God.”

Honorable Mention:
The Fight to Define Romans 13 [Lincoln Mullen, The Atlantic]

Reported History
We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage [Christine Kenneally, Buzzfeed News]
A devastating longread based on years of interviews with alleged survivors of systematic abuse.

Honorable Mentions:
Payback [Natalie Y. Moore, The Marshall Project]
A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity [Erin E. Tocknell, Bitter Southerner]

Labor History
A Culture of Resistance [Charles Keeney, Lapham’s Quarterly]
The teachers’ strikes that sprang up around the country last year caught many observers off-guard. Here, Keeney explains why labor activism in red-state West Virginia is not the anomaly it may seem to be.

Honorable Mention:
Where Did it All Go Wrong? [Gabriel Winant, The Nation]

Watery History
In the Dismal Swamp [Sam Worley, Popula]
As is the case with each of the honorable mentions below, this piece defies the terra firma of historiographical categorization, combining currents of environmental, cultural, political, and local history into a profound exploration of what it means to “drain the swamp.”

Honorable Mentions:
The Water Next Time? [Danielle Purifoy, Scalawag]
The First Floridians [Jordan Blumetti, Bitter Southerner]

Historical Reenactment
Natural History in Two Dimensions [Whitney Barlow Robles, Common-Place]
Another fascinating genre-buster that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know?—?and then some?—?about the lost art of fish-flattening.

Honorable Mention:
Revisiting an Explorer’s Northwest Passage ‘Disappointment’ After Nearly 230 Years [Brian Castner, Atlas Obsura]

Museum Review
Real Museums of Memphis [Zandria Felice Robinson, Scalawag]
A gut-punching portrait of Memphis by a daughter of the city, written from the shadows of the National Civil Rights Museum on the occasion of MLK50. “[W]e have to keep track of how our memories and experiences are being gentrified in a notion of progress that has no meaningful proof or original referent.”

Honorable Mention:
Our Nukes, Ourselves [Kelsey D. Atherton, The New Inquiry]

Debunk
How Social Media Spread a Historical Lie [Jennifer Mendelsohn & Peter A. Shulman, Made by History/Washington Post]
When an erroneously captioned photo of a KKK march went viral, the authors sprung into action, correcting the record and explaining how Google, Wikipedia, and other digital platforms amplify the falsification of the past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant [Anna Flagg, The Marshall Project]
We’re Never Going to Have Our “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?” Moment [Rebecca Onion, Slate]

Obituary
An Obituary for Orange County, Dead at Age 129 [Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times]
A clever use of the form to give historical context to L.A.’s midterm election results. “The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades.”

Honorable Mention:
Larry Eisenberg, 99, Dead; His Limericks Were Very Well Read [Margalit Fox, New York Times]

Reputation Revision
Living With Dolly Parton [Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads]
Wilkerson grew up in East Tennessee idolizing the region’s most famous native daughter. Now a historian, she sets out in this lyrical, personal piece to more fully understand Parton’s enduring appeal in the post-industrial South.

Honorable Mentions:
Why Tamika Mallory Won’t Condemn Louis Farrakhan [Adam Serwer, The Atlantic]
Paul Bremer, Ski Instructor: Learning to Shred With the Bush Administration’s Iraq War Fall Guy [Aaron Gell, Task & Purpose]
My Fellow Prisoners: On John McCain [George Blaustein, n+1]

Origin Story (Culture)
Bad Boys [Tim Stelloh, The Marshall Project]
A fascinating piece that chronicles the unlikely story of ‘Cops,’ one of television’s most successful, influential, and polarizing shows ever.

Honorable Mentions:
How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music [Simon Reynolds, Pitchfork]
The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty [Walt Hunter, The Atlantic]
My Dad Painted the Iconic Cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and It’s Haunted Him Ever Since [Robert Silverman, The Outline]

Origin Story (Trumpism)
How Do We Explain This National Tragedy? This Trump? [T.J. Stiles, Zyzzyva (via Lithub)]
There was no shortage of contestants to this category in 2018. And while no single account can do justice to all the factors responsible for our current moment, I especially appreciated Stiles’ personal, wide-ranging, and not altogether pessimistic approach to the question.

Honorable Mentions:
Trumpism Before Trump [Robert L. Tsai & Calvin Terbeek, Boston Review]
The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult [Pankaj Mishra, New York Times]
The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity [Daniel Denvir, Jacobin]

Origin Story (Plastic)
American Beauties [Rebecca Altman, Topic]
Before Americans had to learn to reuse their grocery bags, they had to learn to thrown them away. Behold one of my favorite pieces of the year, chronicling the rise and fall (hopefully not in a tree near you) of the plastic bag.

Honorable Mention:
Disposable America [Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Reconstruction’s Legacy)
Today’s Voter Suppression Tactics Have A 150 Year History [Gregory Downs, Talking Points Memo]
There was a ton of terrific writing this year about Reconstruction, but this one stood out. It widens the lens on the story of disenfranchisement, explaining that “though rebels perfected the art of excluding voters, it was yankees who developed the script.”

Honorable Mention:
Citizens: 150 Years of the 14th Amendment [Martha S. Jones, Public Books]

Commentary (Historic Preservation)
The Archivists of Extinction [Kate Wagner, The Baffler]
The said archivists are none other than the contributors to a Flickr page devoted to images of defunct Kmarts. If that seems intriguing to you, I promise you that it is. Come for the Kmarts, stay for the withering critique of capitalist destruction.

Honorable Mention:
The Death and Life of a Great American Building [Jeremiah Moss, New York Review of Books]

Commentary (80s Movies)
In the Dark All Katz are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia [Samuel Ashworth, Hazlitt]
With what is probably the finest opening line of any on this list, this piece is a poignant meditation on nostalgia, the Borscht Belt, and why Dirty Dancing is actually a Jewish horror film.

Honorable Mention:
Brett Kavanaugh Goes to the Movies [Marsha Gordon, The Conversation]

Commentary (Covert Operations)
Did You Know the CIA ______? [Malcolm Harris, n+1]
In this review of Errol Morris’ latest miniseries, Harris examines the inability of Americans to confront the crimes that have been committed in their name. “If cold war is the name for the third world war that didn’t happen, what’s the name for what did?”

Honorable Mention:
The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling[Peter Beinart, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Statue of Liberty)
Sentinel [Francesca Lidia Viano, Places]
To read about the Statue of Liberty’s origins is to become ever more aware of the contradictions baked into America’s most cherished symbols. I highly recommend chasing this read with the Slate piece below, which pushes the story forward into our crazy modern times.

Honorable Mention:
Who Does She Stand For? [Paul A. Kramer, Slate]

Commentary (Futility of War)
A Hundred Years After the Armistice [Adam Hochschild, New Yorker]
A standout in a year full of WWI retrospectives. Among other things, Hochschild tells us that more soldiers were killed after the Armistice had been signed than would die on D-Day in Normandy 26 years later. They died, in other words, for no political or military reason whatsoever.

Honorable Mention:
Remembrance of War as a Warning [Christopher Preble, War on the Rocks]

Commentary (Country Music)
Canon Fodder [Shuja Haider, Popula]
Another fun read from Popula, on policing the genre boundaries of popular music. If you’ve ever winced to hear somebody say that they like all kinds of music ““except rap and country,” then this one’s for you.

Honorable Mention:
Agriculture Wars [Nick Murray, Viewpoint]

Periodical Single Issue
Boston Review, “Fifty Years Since MLK” [Forum V (Winter 2018)]
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Boston Review published a knockout of an issue that was, in many ways, the perfect antidote to Dodge’s Superbowl ad from a few weeks earlier. Every article is a must-read.

Honorable Mention:
The Baffler, “Tramps and Millionaires” [Issue ?42]

Recurring Series
Overlooked [New York Times]
An ongoing effort by the Times’ obituaries desk to remember the lives of notable women who were left out of the paper of record the first time around.

Bibliography
Confederate Monuments Syllabus [Kevin M. Levin, Civil War Memory]
If there’s one person up to the challenge of keeping track of the latest skirmishes in the Confederate monument wars, it’s Levin. He recently compiled this wide-ranging collection of online resources in an effort to help teachers and students make sense of it all.

Book Coverage is on the Rise

Book Reviews

As an author, I am happy to learn that media outlets are starting to devote a little more attention to books.  Sam Eichner tries to make sense of this rise in book coverage in an interesting piece at Columbia Journalism Review.  Here is a taste:

IF IT OCCASIONALLY FEELS like nobody reads books, anymore—that we are indeed witnessing the slow death of the literary novel, and the rapid decline of leisure readingand the steady increase of American non-readers—why is it that mainstream publications are writing more about them?

Since the beginning of 2017, The New York Times has continued to expand its already robust book coverage. More recently, New York announced that it would triple its book coverage. In October, The Atlantic launched a Books section and a newsletter, “The Books Briefing,” with plans for “additional products.” Even BuzzFeed is getting in on the action: in November, they launched an online book club, complete with an attendant Facebook group and newsletter.

For the Times and The Atlantic, the changes arrived at a moment of substantial growth for each publication as a whole.

Read the rest here.

Blame Gingrich

554d3-gingrich-arms-wide

According to McKay Coppins, Newt Gingrich “turned partisan politics into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.”  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic, “The Man Who Broke Politics”:

There’s something about Newt Gingrich that seems to capture the spirit of America circa 2018. With his immense head and white mop of hair; his cold, boyish grin; and his high, raspy voice, he has the air of a late-empire Roman senator—a walking bundle of appetites and excesses and hubris and wit. In conversation, he toggles unnervingly between grandiose pronouncements about “Western civilization” and partisan cheap shots that seem tailored for cable news. It’s a combination of self-righteousness and smallness, of pomposity and pettiness, that personifies the decadence of this era.

In the clamorous story of Donald Trump’s Washington, it would be easy to mistake Gingrich for a minor character. A loyal Trump ally in 2016, Gingrich forwent a high-powered post in the administration and has instead spent the years since the election cashing in on his access—churning out books (three Trump hagiographies, one spy thriller), working the speaking circuit (where he commands as much as $75,000 per talk for his insights on the president), and popping up on Fox News as a paid contributor. He spends much of his time in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and where, he likes to boast, “We have yet to find a bad restaurant.”

But few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise. During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.

Read the entire piece here.

Coppins is probably right about Gingrich, but let’s be careful making too many grandiose claims about Newt as the originator of political bloodsport. As I read Coppins’s piece I was reminded of Yale historian Joanne Freeman’s new book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.

Evangelicals and Trump: The Latest Poll

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump blows a kiss to supporters following a campaign rally in Akron

A poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic has much to say about white evangelicals in the United States.

  • 61% of evangelicals believe that the United States is moving in the right direction.  This compares to 64% of all Americans who believe that the United States is moving in the wrong direction.
  • 79% percent of white evangelicals believe “media bias” is hurting the country.  50% of religious unaffiliated people believe this.
  • 77% of white evangelicals view Trump favorably.   17% of non-white Protestants view Trump favorably.
  • 52% of white evangelicals feel negatively about the very real possibility that whites will be a minority in the United States by 2043.

On the last point: When Trump said last week that immigration was changing the “culture” of Europe, he was appealing to a significant portion of his evangelical base.

Here is a taste of Yonat Shimron’s article at Religion News Service:

“I argued that white evangelical voters have really shifted from being values voters to being what I call ‘nostalgia voters,’” said Jones. “They’re voting to protect a past view of America that they feel is slipping away. That’s driving evangelical politics much more than the old culture-war dynamics.”

Brantley Gasaway, a professor of American religious studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., said white evangelicals’ fears about the nation’s growing racial diversity might be linked to their perception of religious diversity.

“They perceive that America becoming less white means America will become less Christian,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true. Many Latino immigrants are coming from predominantly Christian nations. But they perceive changes in racial demographics as being a threat to the predominance of Christians in the United States.”

As a group, white evangelicals are declining. A decade ago they made up 23 percent of the U.S. population; today it’s more like 15 percent, Jones said. But they have an outsize influence at the ballot box because they tend to vote in high numbers.

The one area where religious groups appeared united is in their support for legislation that would make it easier to vote — measures such as same-day voter registration and restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies.

Read the entire piece here.  Why do white evangelicals believe all these things?  I took a shot at explaining it here.

My Piece at *The Atlantic*: “Evangelical Fear Elected Trump”

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This piece draws from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, but it also include material that is not in the book.

A taste:

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black you can trust. It can take a God-filled soul, and turn it to devils and dust.”

The Most Influential Act of Protest in History?

Rosa
The Atlantic
asks a “big question“: “What was the most influential act of protest in history?”  The magazine have asked historians and others to answer this question.  Here are some of the answers:

The Stamp Act (This was Gordon Wood)

Pakistan’s 1930 “Army of Peace”

Randy Kehler’s protest against the Vietnam War

Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus

The Newburgh Conspiracy

The 1980s U.K. miner’s strike

How would you answer this question?  You can send your answer to The Atlantic here

 

Alan Jacobs Talks to *The Atlantic* About Thinking, Conspiracy Theories, and the Nashville Statement (among other things)

ThinkIn case you haven’t seen it yet, here is a taste of Alan Jacobs’s recent interview with Emma Green of The Atlantic.  The topic is Jacobs’s new book How to Think:

Green: Some people look at our fractured media environment—where groups don’t even share facts to argue over—and see nefarious forces at work, like the Russians manipulating Facebook or consistent left-wing media bias.

You argue something different: that individual behavior makes it impossible to have a conversation across ideological divides. How do you reconcile your view with these kinds of structural analyses of the vast forces that pull America apart?

Jacobs: Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

Green: So what’s the boundary? How do you decide which ideas, people, and ideologies should be considered morally unacceptable

Jacobs: I’m probably going to regret this later on, but I’ll give you an example from the Christian world. A group of conservative evangelicals recently posted this Nashville statement about sexuality and transgenderism, as they call it. That was like a line in the sand. The idea is that now it’s time for you to decide: Are you with us, or are you against us?

Almost at the same time, I read something by a young lesbian woman who had recently been married, who was essentially saying to her friends, “If you attend churches where gay and lesbian Christians are not completely welcomed and affirmed, you’re not really an ally. So you need to decide: Are you on our side, or not on our side?”

I’m looking at that and thinking, “So, where is the space where Christians who find this complicated or difficult can talk?”

When people are drawing lines, saying, “I have settled this issue, and I want to be with other people who have settled this issue,” I think there can be really, really bad consequences. That’s saying, “I’m not interested in having that conversation anymore.” Sometimes, being a grown-up is realizing that there are issues you’d rather not talk about that you’re going to have to talk about.\

Read the entire interview here.

Emma Green on the Court Evangelicals

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Court evangelical Robert Jeffress with the POTUS

Over at The Atlantic, religion writer Emma Green covers the court evangelical response to Trump’s Charlottesville comments.  (I should add that Green does not use the phrase “court evangelical”).  Good to see Noah Toly of Wheaton College quoted in this piece.

Here is a taste:

Critics of the council see this as the problem: Evangelical leaders are willing to explain away anything Trump does, even when he creates controversy and potentially exacerbates painful situations. “I think a lot of his advisory council members right now are in the business of enabling,” said Noah Toly, a professor of politics and director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside of Chicago. Along with a small group of colleagues, Toly spearheaded a letter from Wheaton faculty condemning the white supremacy on display in Charlottesville. “If the advisory council were perceived to exist in order to challenge the president on important issues, not just to send out a few tweets … I might think differently,” he told me. “But it seems to me, and I think a lot of other evangelicals, that the advisory council exists to legitimize the presidency in the eyes of the evangelical base.”

[Trump supporter Tony] Suarez argued that much of the council’s work is invisible: When evangelical leaders talk with the president, they don’t make those conversations public, because that wouldn’t be appropriate. “I can tell you there have been legitimate, straight meetings where we delve into these issues,” he told me. “There is an open door from the Oval Office to be able to express praise, criticism, and concern to the president. And he receives it.” Suarez also confirmed that evangelical advisers were in touch with the White House as the situation in Charlottesville unfolded.

Read the entire piece here.

Have We Been Here Before?

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In the second part of their conversation about the United States in the age of Trump, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Morton Keller wonder if our current challenges are novel.

Here is a taste:

Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:

The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.

In short, for almost two centuries modern history was chiefly determined by social and economic forces, which now are long in the tooth, and are ever more subordinated to new forces, new ideas, new social realities.

But is this indeed the case? Or are we experiencing today what can best be described as new consequences of old facts of life? Is the computer-internet revolution just another turn of the technological wheel, which began to spin with the steam engine and picked up speed with electricity, germ theory, and the idea of evolution? Is Islamic terrorism essentially fascist and communist totalitarianism in a more explicitly religious form? And is the new stress on the evils of inequality, and the growing gulf between the educated urban privileged and their minority allies, primarily a replay of the old capitalist/bourgeois-worker class struggle?

On the whole, I think not. The computer and the internet bid fair to be as innovative and consequential in their effects as was the Gutenberg movable type revolution of the 15th century. Islamic militancy is very much a modern phenomenon, on a scale not seen since the 16th century. The current surge of nationalist, anti-party, anti-immigrant populism, evident in the British Brexit referendum, the 2016 American election, and the first round of the 2017 French election, is a dramatic turn away from the mainstream politics of the past three quarters of a century. And the growing separation between better educated, more affluent, big city or college town-based people and their less-educated, more economically and socially fragile, small town or stagnant city-based fellow-citizens, is evident not only in the United States but in England and France as well.

The consequences of these developments are still far from clear, and far from over. There have been discomforting signs of a taste for authoritarianism in both the Trump administration and the college campuses: two ideologically opposite but behaviorally similar responses to the new realities of life in the West. But there have also been signs of a turn to a more moderate and familiar style of governance in the administration, and an uptick in support for free speech among faculty and First Amendment advocates such as the ACLU (though not yet among students or administrators). How long-lasting this will be is anyone’s guess.

Read the entire conversation here.

 

Political Historians Discuss Trump’s First 100 Days

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I love the way Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, is bringing good American history to the magazine.  Today Princeton historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis historian Morton Keller put Trump’s first 100 days into some historical context.

Here is a taste:

Julian Zelizer: President Trump’s first 100 days in office are coming to a close. The grades will soon come out. Politicians, journalists, historians are all starting to evaluate how well or how poorly he has done. This does not go down in the “unprecedented” part of this presidency. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Congress a historic legislative agenda in the early part of his term, the 100-day mark has been a standard part of the political lexicon.

There are many reasons for why we keep using this measure. Once FDR set the bar, it became difficult not to make this comparison. For journalists the 100 day-mark is a nice, clean, and simple way to measure how things are going, while politicians look for ways to gauge the strength of the commander in chief. In our current culture of quick, instant satisfaction, we want presidents to deliver on promises right away—and we have little patience for waiting.

But the first 100 days in office don’t really tell us much. Some presidents who get off to a strong start, like Jimmy Carter, go on to struggle during the remainder of their terms. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have tough early months, but then go on to serve two terms and end their term with strong approval ratings. Some of the biggest presidential achievements, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Obama’s health-care reform, come long after the 100 days are over.

It’s also not clear what we should measure. In the current era of strong presidents, executive orders and action should certainly be part of what we evaluate. So, too, should actions by Cabinet leaders, as we see in the current administration when rightward leaning agency secretaries are working hard to undercut the missions of their own programs.

Putting too much pressure on success in the first 100 days creates incentives for quick, and sometimes hasty, action. Great legislation can take time to produce. The legislative process requires what political scientist Nelson Polsby called periods of policy incubation when experts revise and strengthen ideas, where policy makers build support for a bill, and when elected officials can evaluate and when elected officials can evaluate what kind of legislation will work best. Doing everything up front and right away is often antithetical to success especially in a polarized age when “no” is usually the easiest answer to new ideas.

I am as guilty as anyone else for still using this concept but it is probably time to move on to other measures. Asking how presidents did in the first 100 days usually tells us little about what is to come and might even create the exact political incentives we need to avoid.

Read the rest here.

 

Calvin College in *The Atlantic*

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Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been getting a lot of attention lately since one of its alums, Betsy DeVos, became Secretary of Education. (I should add that DeVos is not the only Christian college graduate to serve as the country’s chief education officer.  Ernest Boyer, a graduate of Messiah College, was Jimmy Carter’s Commissioner of Education).  Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Dutch Calvinists.

Since Donald Trump picked DeVos, pundits have been trying to make sense of her connection to the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College.  Some of the attempts at understanding her religious background have been more successful than others.  I still think Abram Van Engen’s piece at Religion & Politics is the best.  His piece is followed closely by Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article in The Washington Post.

The third best thing I have read on Calvin and DeVos is Emily Deruy’s piece at today’s Atlantic.  Deruy’s essay treats Calvin fairly and does a good job of explaining the school to the left-of-center, upper-middle class, educated readership of the Atlantic. 

Here is a taste:

In more than a dozen interviews, professors, students, and alumni of all political stripes painted a picture of a college where intellectual diversity and thought-provoking debate are the norm, and where the belief that followers of the Christian Reformed Church, with which the school is affiliated, have an obligation to engage with the world around them compels both instructors and students to question what they think they know.

“Our faith commits us to engaging the world all around us,” said Kevin den Dulk, a political-science professor who graduated from Calvin in the 1990s, during an interview in the DeVos Communication Center, which sits across from the Prince Conference Center bearing the secretary’s maiden name. (Her mother, Elsa, is also an alum.)

Den Dulk’s words aren’t just PR fluff; it’s a concept borne out by the school’s 141-year history and the Dutch-influenced part of western Michigan it calls home. The Christian Reformed Church is a Protestant tradition that has its roots in the Netherlands and has been deeply influenced by the theologian Abraham Kuyper, a believer in intellectualism—specifically the idea that groups with different beliefs can operate in the same space according to their convictions while respecting and understanding others. “Fundamentalism is really anti-intellectual and Calvin is the exact opposite,” said Alan Wolfe, the author of a 2000 Atlantic piece about efforts to revitalize evangelical Christian colleges.

Read the entire piece here.

On Leaving Evangelicalism…Again

evangelical-churchJonathan Merritt, a writer for The Atlantic, does not think it is a good idea for evangelicals to “leave the movement.”  He writes:

Even if a National Department of Evangelicalism existed allowing individuals to revoke their membership, there is a very good reason for them to stay put. By claiming to leave evangelicalism, these leaders are creating a vacuum of blind Republicanism within the movement and they compromise their ability to induce the change they wish to see. As with most movements, evangelicalism is more easily changed by inside pressure than outside protests.

Trump keeps his friends close, so it’s likely his evangelical base will hold some level of influence over his policy and behavior. This sizable religious group needs as many principled dissenters as it can muster to hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire on protecting minorities, immigrants, and the poor as the Bible commands.

If evangelicals give into their frustration and disassociate themselves from their religious community, countless people may suffer the consequences of their absence. Anti-Trump evangelicals must, instead, stay put. Their community needs them. And so does America.

He references and cites me in the course of the article:

On November 10, evangelical scholar John Fea began a post-election article for Religion News Service identifying himself “as someone who once called himself an evangelical.” The previous night he tweeted, “If this is evangelicalism—I am out.”

This is fine.  I just want to make sure readers interested in this subject know that I have nuanced my view a bit.  Here is a taste of my The Way of Improvement Leads Home post from November 14, 2016:

My tweet and RNS piece has resulted in dozens of tweets, messages, and e-mails from evangelical Christians.  Some of them have told me that they are abandoning the label “evangelical” to describe their religious identity.  Others wrote to urge me not to leave the fold.

I have given this a lot of thought.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have always had a rather uneasy relationship with American evangelicalism.  Some of this stems from the fact that I spent the first fifteen years of my life in the Catholic church and have been shaped and formed by its social teaching.  Much of it stems from the way that evangelicals have sought power and influence through politics in a way that has, in many ways, hurt their public witness and, at times, equated the kingdom of God with the United States of America.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have been a strong critic of Donald Trump.  They also know that I have been deeply disappointed that so many of my fellow evangelicals have gotten into bed with this monster.

Yet I remain an evangelical in terms of theological conviction.  In this sense I am a David Bebbington evangelical.  I embrace his formulation of evangelical faith, the so-called “evangelical quadrilateral“–biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.

Will I continue to use the label “evangelical” to describe myself?  Probably.  But I will do so carefully and cautiously.  I have no plans of leaving my evangelical congregation and will continue to work within the evangelical community to help my fellow believers think more deeply about what it means to be a Christian citizen in democratic America.  (And you can bet that the subject of history and historical thinking will play a role in that work).

I realize, now that some of the emotion that has subsided, that to quit evangelicalism is to abandon a significant part of my responsibility and calling as a public scholar.

I should add that I recently signed up to teach a four-week course at my evangelical church on the topic of Christian America.