What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–A 5-Part Series

TidwellEarlier this week I was in Waco, Texas where I spent a day thinking together with the Baylor University History Department faculty and graduate students about the future of history, particularly as it relates to church-related colleges and universities.

In addition to the vibrant and intellectually curious Baylor crowd, I was joined by historians George Marsden, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Timothy Larsen.

Our host, historian Thomas Kidd, asked us to spend twenty minutes talking about whatever we wanted to talk about related to the state of the field, the future of Christian history, our current research projects, etc.  Each talk was followed with ample discussion.

Over the next five days I will be sharing some of the things I said on this occasion under the title “What Historians Should be Thinking About.”

The series will start tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

Why Thomas Kidd Will Not Be Voting for Ted Cruz


Writing to his fellow evangelicals (and Republicans) at the evangelical history blog The Anxious Bench, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd has announced that he will not be voting for Ted Cruz in November.  Check out his nuanced post here.  In the end, a lot of his decision comes down to Cruz’s connections to Glenn Beck and David Barton. (Kidd, you may recall, was a member of Marco Rubio’s religious liberty advisory committee).

Here is a taste:

But what about Cruz’s connections with Barton and Beck? It is not just that Cruz has accepted their endorsements, a la John McCain and John Hagee in 2008. McCain eventually repudiated Hagee. Cruz depends on Beck and Barton in his campaign.They are among his most influential supporters and organizers. So a vote for Cruz means, to some extent, a vote for Barton and Beck. And the chance that Barton could end up with a position in a Cruz administration is a real concern, as ridiculous as that prospect might seem at first.

Sorry, folks. If it is Cruz vs. Clinton, I’m afraid that I’ll have to vote for a third party candidate, or not vote for president. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I do – Cruz would win Texas, for sure, with or without my vote. And I “get it” if many of my evangelical friends do support Cruz, and don’t share my alarm about the Barton-Beck connection. But for me, those traveling companions make Cruz a non-option.

Kidd’s decision not to back Cruz is significant.  He has a large following in conservative Southern Baptist circles and his books are popular among educated evangelical laypersons.



I Officially Welcome Thomas Kidd to the Club

Be careful.  Glenn Beck can turn on you quickly.  Especially when you suggest that he does not have a pipeline to God.

Back in 2010, Thomas Kidd, a prolific historian and professor at Baylor University, was a guest on Beck’s television program to talk about 18th-century revivalist George Whitefield.  Today Kidd is being called out by the radio host for questioning Beck’s belief that Ted Cruz has been “anointed by God.”

Long-time readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember that I also know a thing or two about what it is like to be on Glenn Beck’s bad side.

Here is Beck talking about Kidd:

I wonder which side Ted Cruz will take on this debate?

Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty…,” and the Bible

KiddCheck out Thomas Kidd’s piece at We’re History on the religious meaning behind Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. (Today is the 241th anniversary of the speech).

Here is a taste:

Henry’s speech has been famous ever since as the iconic speech of the Revolutionary era, but few people today realize just how deeply embedded it was in evangelical religious culture.

Shaming reluctant Virginians into taking defense measures, Henry declared “We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us! . . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!” With this, Henry raised his arms and bellowed, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Even those very familiar with this episode may not recall how much Henry’s speech relied upon religious ideas and biblical texts. Although these are easily missed now, they would have been familiar to the audience at the Virginia Convention, who grew up in the Bible-soaked culture of colonial America. Several phrases, for example, came directly from the prophet Jeremiah. Henry warned that assurances of good will by the British would “prove a snare to your feet” (Jeremiah 18:22). He worried that Virginians would become like those “who having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not” (Jeremiah 5:21). And he declared that “gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

Henry acquired his deep biblicism in part from his parents, and in part from his autodidactic education in which the Bible took a central role. But as a child he was also introduced to religious controversy of a kind that was seen in many parts of the colonies. Henry came from a traditional Anglican family, and he remained an Anglican (or Episcopalian, after the Revolution) throughout his life. However, in the 1740s and 1750s Patrick Henry’s family found itself in the middle of the first serious uprising against traditional authorities in colonial America, a series of religious revivals commonly referred to as the Great Awakening.

Read the rest here.  Better yet, go out and get Kidd’s biography of Henry: Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.

*The Weekly Standard* Review of *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverThomas Kidd of Baylor University offers a generous review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

The ABS was one of the largest and most successful of the great benevolent societies of the antebellum period, and its continued (though not unalloyed) prosperity through the present day makes it an ideal case study. Some readers with no direct connection to the ABS might ask why they should read the history of a single Christian organization. I would challenge the premise of the question: Legions of people in America and around the world have been touched by the ABS in ways they do not realize. Fea helped me see how deeply my own family’s Bible-owning and reading was shaped by ABS imprints. Moreover, focusing on one denomination or agency over a long period of time illuminates broader trends in American religion. The ABS shaped American religion and publishing; but external forces, from war to immigration, also influenced the society. Some readers may find the details of ABS policy and governance a bit overwhelming, but the massive significance of the ABS justifies what Fea has written…

The most fascinating part of Fea’s account is the changing theological allegiance of the ABS over the past 75 years. At its inception, and for a century afterwards, the American Bible Society was basically an “evangelical benevolent society in an evangelical culture.” But when religious conflicts of the 1910s and ’20s split Protestants into fundamentalists (proto-evangelicals) and modernists, the ABS largely aligned with the modernist leaders of the mainline denominations. Given the prevalence of Eisenhower-esque American civil religion, and the continuing financial and cultural sway of the mainline churches, this alignment made sense: After World War II, the ABS’s dissemination of Scripture was grounded in the quest for a just and humane world order, championed more generically by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

Another Perspective on Evangelicals and Presidential Politics

RubioPaul Matzko, a graduate student in American religious history at Penn State, has an extensive essay at his blog analyzing the role of evangelicals in the GOP presidential primaries and caucuses.

Matzko joins the chorus of those who have suggested that Trump appeals to evangelicals who do not regularly attend church. (Even if you don’t read the entire article, his maps and graphs are worth checking out).

Matzko also discusses the role that evangelical intellectuals have played in the Rubio campaign, with a particular focus on Baylor historian Thomas Kidd.

Here is a taste:

A few months after Barton signed on to Cruz’s Super PAC, Kidd joined a pro-Rubio religious liberty advisory board along with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, and a bevy of other evangelical heavyweights. In his explanation for signing on, Kidd referred to Barton’s support for Ted Cruz. Kidd had helped discredit Barton’s historical work and now he sought to minimize his influence with evangelical Republican voters. While the position seems mostly honorary, Kidd has since published several blog posts criticizing the Cruz campaign for its faulty use of history in the service of Christian nationalism.

It’s a remarkable moment. In the past evangelical intellectuals mostly stayed on the sidelines of intramural Republican politics. I can’t imagine Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, or the previous generation of evangelical academics getting involved in partisan politics quite like this. They certainly took a few shots at a prior generation of Christian nationalists, but not in the formal, political arena. And their ideas did not penetrate very deeply into most church pews. Stop by an evangelical church book store today and you’re much more likely to find The Light and the Glory than you are The Search for Christian America. Up until now, the amateur evangelical historians have roundly beaten the professionals at their own game, but Kidd and other evangelical academics have been getting more play among evangelical clergy and laity than has previously been true. While it’s much too early to declare an end to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” these are positive developments.

Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said of the three leading candidates, “I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing, and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.” I don’t think this is a particularly useful taxonomy because 1) you’d think that Cruz, with his Pentecostal background and the backing of several prominent Pentecostal preachers, would be best qualified for the Swaggart nod and 2) Graham’s legacy is so widely embraced by evangelicals that the comparison with Rubio is mostly meaningless. Moore likes Rubio the best so he compared him to the historical doppelganger he admires the most. That said, I think Moore is right to try and put a finger on some substantive differences between the candidates and their supporters.

There’s a better historical comparison to be made between Cruz/Barton and Rubio/Kidd, but you have to go back several centuries. In short, Thomas Kidd’s view of evangelicalism hearkens back to the First Great Awakening, while David Barton is the heir of the Second Great Awakening. These two historians are promoting authentic but contradictory evangelical visions for engagement in the public square. And the tension between them says something about present day disagreements over the future of American evangelicalism.

Read the entire piece here.

Marco Rubio’s Appeal to the Evangelical Mainstream


GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently announced the creation of a campaign advisory board that will focus on religious liberty issues.  It is an impressive group of scholars, activists, theologians, and legal experts.  Though it is doubtful that the members of this committee will play a major role in the Florida Senator’s day-to-day quest for the White House, its makeup tells us a lot about the religious sensibilities of the Rubio campaign.

The advisory board was the brainchild of Eric Teetsel, the Rubio campaign’s director for faith outreach.  Teetsel is a 2006 graduate of evangelical Wheaton College, an architect of the Values & Capitalism project at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, which he describes on his website as a “ ‘call of Christian conscience’ on life, marriage, and religious liberty.”

Teetsel has assembled nothing short of an all-star team of conservative evangelical leaders—men and women who have been outspoken defenders of religious liberty as the GOP understands it.  The roster includes Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Barack Obama’s choice to pray at his inauguration in 2008; Samuel Rodriguez, the most prominent Hispanic evangelical in the country and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Michael McConnell, the Stanford University Law School professor who was considered by George W. Bush as serious Supreme Court nominee in 2005.

Rubio’s board is also religiously diverse, at least as far as the Judeo-Christian tradition goes.  It includes a Jewish Rabbi, several Roman Catholics, and, of course, a large number of Protestant evangelicals.

But it is Teetsel’s choice of evangelicals that speaks volumes.  In addition to Warren and Rodriguez, the board includes Wheaton College theologian Vincent Bacote, the author of a recent book on evangelical political engagement and a strong advocate for the role of Christianity in cultural renewal; Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a prolific writer on matters related to religious freedom and the American founding whose work is respected by liberals and conservatives alike; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian known best for his popularity among young Calvinist evangelicals and his defense of a “complementarian” view of marriage.

These evangelicals not only have respected academic credentials, or have proven to be thoughtful defenders of religious liberty, but they reveal Rubio’s appeal to a rational, sane, and more informed evangelical constituency than the kind of evangelicals that his GOP opponents have chosen to work with in recent months.

For example, Ted Cruz has sought to make inroads among evangelicals through his relationship with Texas Republican activist David Barton, the country’s foremost defender of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Barton’s use of the past to promote his political agenda has been almost universally discredited by historians, including nearly all evangelical historians.  But he has a large following and currently heads a Cruz super-Pac.  He still appears to have the ear of the Princeton and Harvard-educated Senator.

Donald Trump has found his own niche among the evangelical community.  In September 2015 the New York businessman and GOP presidential candidate met and prayed with a group of religious leaders dominated by Pentecostal Christians, many of whom adhere to the prosperity gospel, a brand of evangelicalism that teaches financial blessing will come to all true followers of Jesus Christ.

Granted, few American evangelicals will vote for Marco Rubio because of the make-up of his religious liberty advisory committee, but in assembling this group he has carved out a niche for himself as the candidate of the thoughtful evangelical mainstream.

Marco Rubio’s New Religious Advisers

RubioWorld magazine is reporting that Marco Rubio has put together a team of religious leaders to advise him on religious liberty issues.

The team includes:


Click here for the entire list.

Here is a taste of the World article:

Less than a month before the presidential primary season begins with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, Sen.Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is set to announce a campaign advisory board focused on religious liberty issues.

Rubio’s campaign tapped a handful of well-known evangelicals for the volunteer board, including pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Thomas Kidd, an author and professor of history at Baylor University (Kidd also occasionally writes for WORLD).

Eric Teetsel, director of faith outreach for Rubio’s campaign, said membership on the board doesn’t equal an endorsement of the GOP candidate, and the members could advise other campaigns if they wanted.

Warren told me he doesn’t endorse candidates. Grudem said he hasn’t been asked to endorse Rubio “but would be willing to endorse him if asked, while being clear I’m speaking as an individual, not a representative of any institution.”

Grudem called Rubio a reliable conservative and “a winsome, likable candidate who has the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, in my view.”

Teetsel said the board would advise the campaign on a range of issues, including persecuted Christians in the Middle East, legal concerns about the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and religious liberty for those opposed to same-sex marriage…

Learn more about Teetsel here.

Islamophobia: An American Tradition

If you think the Islamophobia that Chris Gehrz lamented yesterday at The Pietist Schoolman is a new phenomenon in American history, think again.  Gehrz mentioned Thomas Kidd’s excellent American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism to show that the fear of Muslims has a long history in America.

Over at the History News Network, a site that has been offering some very good history-related coverage on this topic, Karine Walther, a history professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, reminds us that Islamophobia played a major role in U.S. foreign relations in the 19th century.  Walther is the author of Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921.

Here is a taste of her piece:

When Republic presidential candidate Ben Carson made news recently by questioning whether a Muslim American could (or should) ever become president of the United States, his assertions recalled similar concerns raised by a political supporter of John McCain’s presidency at a rally seven years earlier. “I can’t trust Obama,” Gayle Quinnell told McCain, “I’ve read about him…and he’s an Arab.” Whether she meant Arab or Muslim, two identities often conflated in American understandings of Muslims, her fears revealed deeper concerns by some segments of the American public about the loyalty of Muslim Americans to the United States. McCain’s response was equally revealing. He did not challenge the idea that Arab Americans or Muslim Americans could and should be trusted to occupy the highest office of the land, but instead, he defended Obama against the “accusation” of being Arab. Obama was not an Arab, he responded, “he’s a decent family man, citizen” as if being an Arab or Muslim American prohibited decency or ties to family – or even American citizenship.

As Carson’s more recent statements have revealed, public expressions of hostility and distrust towards Muslim Americans have only become more prominent and normalized in American public discourse. This rise in public expressions of Islamophobia have undoubtedly been fueled by American governmental policies of targeted surveillance of American Muslim communities that emerged after 9/11 and have resulted in dire repercussions that move beyond just public discourse, including a dramatic rise in discrimination and hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim or Arab
But it would be a mistake to assume that such sentiments are a recent phenomenon that emerged only after 9/11. Islamophobia has a long history in the United States that can be traced back as early as the colonial era when European settlers carried their antagonism to the Islamic faith with them to the New World.  Debates over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution included discussions over whether Muslims and other non-Protestants should ever be able to assume political office. Indeed, as scholars have demonstrated, anti-Federalists used the specter of a Muslim, Catholic or Jewish-American becoming president to unsuccessfully argue for religious tests in the U.S. Constitution.  Despite failing on the national level, religious tests banning non-Protestants from occupying political offices were integrated into several state constitutions. In this regard, American Islamophobia must also be understood alongside historical expressions of anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism and anti-Catholicism. Of course, over the course of American history, fears of disloyalty have also extended to other minorities deemed potential fifth columns in American society. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the majority of whom were American citizens, is only one of the most telling examples. 
But throughout American history, Islamophobia extended beyond just the domestic sphere.  In the nineteenth century, many Christian Americans saw themselves as a crucial leader of global Christendom. Fueled by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, Christian activists saw it as their divine role to spread Christianity to the “heathens” of the world. When it came to the Islamic world, they portrayed the “Christian world” in a global battle of “cross against crescent.” Such feelings would rise to the fore when Americans witnessed revolutionary movements by Ottoman Christian subjects against Ottoman Muslim rulers. American support for revolutionary insurrections in Greece in 1821, Crete in 1866, and Bulgaria in 1876 drew the attention of thousands of Americans who rallied to their cause, based in part on their belief that such battles were part of this alleged global battle between Christianity and Islam. At these moments, Americans maintained that Muslims’ alleged religious fanaticism, political and religious decadence, and intolerance for other religions made their rule over Christian subjects, and to a lesser extent, Jewish subjects, an imperial, political and moral anomaly.  Such beliefs also pushed American to actively support the extension of European empire to lands ruled by Muslims, including the Ottoman Empire and Morocco.
Although it would be a mistake to trace an unbroken trajectory from the nineteenth century to the post–Cold War period and, more importantly, to the post-9/11 era, it would be equally erroneous to discount the ways in which hostility towards Islam and Muslims has persisted, albeit in varied forms. Indeed, American Islamophobia never fully vanished; it reappeared with force during the ideological and foreign policy vacuum that emerged after the Cold War. Whereas some political scientists advanced the notion that the end of the Cold War had brought about the “end of history” and the ideological victory of liberal, secular democracies, the late Samuel Huntington theorized an alternative vision of the world in his 1993 essay, “The Clash of Civilizations,” which he later expanded into a full-length book. According to Huntington, a simplistically defined “Islamic Civilization” would play a central role in a global “clash” against an equally simplistic construction of the “West,” broadly understood as Euro-American civilization. His theory resonated with many Americans not because it was accurate but because this particular kind of discourse has a long history of shaping how Americans identified itself against the Islamic world.  

Read the entire piece here.

Humanist Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals

National Press Club, Washington D.C.

When I was out promoting Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I gave an invited talk to a group of secularists, skeptics, and Humanists from the Pittsburgh community of the Center for Inquiry.  The lecture took place at the Carnegie Science Center (a fitting location) on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, right next door to Heinz Field.

If I remember correctly the auditorium was crowded that night as hundreds of skeptics packed in to hear a history professor from Messiah College talk about whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I am guessing they didn’t either.

About ten minutes into the lecture a gigantic screen began to lower behind me on the stage.  I had not planned to use any visuals during the talk and the event organizers knew this.  As the screen came down I paused, turned around and looked at it, and said something like “I have no idea why or how this screen is moving.  It must be a message from God.”  There was an awkward silence in the room for a split second, but it seemed like an eternity.  Then the room broke into uproarious laughter.  I breathed a sigh of relief that my attempt at humor actually worked.  The ice was broken and I continued with the lecture.

I look back fondly on that lecture. The leadership of the Center for Inquiry was very hospitable and gracious.  They took me out to dinner before the lecture and actually apologized before the food arrived because, as atheists, it was not their custom to pray before meals.  I tried to disabuse them of the idea that all Christians bow their heads and utter audible prayers before every meal they eat in a restaurant.

Several friends and acquaintances asked me why, as a Christian, I accepted the invitation to speak to this group.  My response was “why not?”  I am a historian. I wasn’t there to convince them that the claims of Christianity were true.  I was asked to speak about the relationship between religion and the founding.  Many of the folks I talked with that night wanted to be more informed about how they could or could not use the history of the founding to promote their views.  Some of them bristled when I talked about how many of the founders believed in God or were Christians.  Others nodded in agreement when I mentioned that many of the founders were skeptics and championed the idea of the separation of church and state.

The question and answer session following the lecture was phenomenal.  I left believing that I helped this group understand when they could appropriate the founders and when they could not.  I hope I got them to think historically.  Perhaps there will be another time to discuss the issues that divide us. If that day ever comes, our conversation will at least be built on a firmer historical foundation.

I thought about that speaking engagement yesterday when I read a post at TheHumanist.com by Matthew Bulger, the “legislative associate” for the American Humanist Association.

As I reported on this blog a few days ago, several Baylor University professors recently visited the National Press Club to talk about America’s “secularization myth.”  It was a pretty star-studded cast that included historian Thomas Kidd, sociologist Rodney Stark, and historian Philip Jenkins.  You can read about it here.

As might be expected, Bulger, after attending the event, was not convinced that the “secularization” thesis was a “myth.”  He was critical of all the presentations, but I was most struck by his critique of Kidd’s lecture titled “A Godless American Founding?”  Here is what Bulger wrote:

But perhaps the strangest and most desperate parts of the event focused on religion’s supposed benefits on personal health and the role religion should have in public life according to the founding fathers…
Just as strange as this tasteless health-based appeal for religious belief was Professor Thomas Kidd’s perspective on the founding fathers and secularism. While admitting that a large number of the founders were deists, religious skeptics, and secularists, Kidd also asserted that they supported a relatively robust role for religion in public life. But rather than reference documents supporting this position, Kidd instead focused on personal stories. Noting Jefferson’s strong belief in a “wall of separation,” Kidd also noted that Jefferson on occasion would attend religious services in the US Congress. Never mind the fact that all sessions of Congress are opened with prayer—or the fact that Jefferson as a delegate from Virginia to the US Congress would have already been present in the congressional chambers as part of his duties; to Kidd, this was definitive proof of Jefferson’s support for religious activities in government buildings.
The feeling I got from the event was that of open panic: panic about the declining role of religion in America and around the world, panic about the rising tide of governmental secularism, and panic that the media was no longer a defender of religious ideas or institutions. The result of this panic, at least for many of the presenters, was the adoption of the “ostrich defense,” that of sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. If polls show religion is on the decline, the polls must be faulty or the media must be misinterpreting them. If the number of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise, this must be because religious people are simply leaving religious institutions while keeping their beliefs, not because more people are becoming atheistic or agnostic.
While it was a bit disappointing to see academics behave in such an unscholarly manner, the message that secularists and nontheists could take away from the event was comforting: religion may never go away completely, but at least for now it appears to be fading into the background of society and the human mind.
Strange? Desperate? Unscholary? Ostrich defense?
Bulger may not the like the intellectual critique of secularization propounded by these Baylor professors, but his response reveals a deeply anti-intellectual strain in the humanist/atheist camp.  (So I guess evangelicals are not the only ones who are experiencing a “scandal” in this area). 
Let’s take his response to Thomas Kidd.  It sounds as if Kidd, according to Bulger’s post, did mention that many of the founders were skeptics.  He also noted, quite accurately, that the founders supported a role for religion in public life.  I was not at the talk, but I imagine that most of the “stories” Kidd told could easily be backed up with “reference documents.”  Does Bulger know that Kidd has written extensively on these topics in books with footnotes and documentation?  Did he do his homework before he reported on this event?
In its approach and argumentation (but certainly not in its content) Bulger’s post is no different from the stuff I read from David Barton.  Both prefer politics and ideology over history.
The spirit behind Bulger’s post was a far cry from the hospitality and conversation I experienced in Pittsburgh.

Baylor Professors Will Challenge "Secularization Myth" at the National Press Club

On November 10, 2015 several Baylor University professors affiliated with the  university’s Institute for the Study of Religion will give presentations at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. challenging the idea that world is becoming more secular.

Here is the press release:

WACO, Texas (Nov. 3, 2015) — Religion scholars from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion(ISR) will refute surveys that report the decline of American faith during a Nov. 10 conference in Washington, D.C.
The event — “The End of Religion?” — will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW and is hosted by the Baylor in Washington program.
“In recent years, religion’s decline and imminent fall has been a source of intense interest to media and academics alike. Repeated surveys have been cited as showing the decline of American faith, the growth of atheism and of the number of people admitting to no religion – the famous ‘Nones’ – so that once famously religious America seems set to secularize on the lines of Godless Europe,” said Byron Johnson, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
But that representation is “so multiply flawed as to be close to worthless,” he said. “To say this is not to reject the methodology or conclusions of any one particular survey or projection, but rather to challenge the working assumptions of all of them . . . Whichever approach we use –statistical, historical, comparative, sociological – the secularization narrative falls apart. A gulf separates what can reliably and responsibly be said about future projections of religion and the interpretations offered.”
Topics and speakers will include:
  • “A Godless American Founding?” — Thomas Kidd, Ph.D., associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion
    “Some books on the American Founding have argued that it was a ‘godless’ Founding, led by skeptical Enlightenment figures. The truth is more complex and more fascinating. Although the Founders had a wide range of personal beliefs, they broadly agreed on public religious principles such as liberty of conscience and equality by creation. It is true that Revolutionary skeptics such as Thomas Jefferson predicted that the end of traditional religion was at hand in America. He could not have been more wrong.”
  • “Godless World? Signs of a Global Religious Revival” — Rodney Stark, Ph.D. co-director of ISR
    “The world is far more religious than it has ever been. Around the globe, four of every five people claim to belong to an organized faith and many of the rest say they often attend worship services. In Latin America, Protestant churches have converted tens of millions, and Catholics are going to Mass in unprecedented numbers. There are more churchgoing Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa that anywhere else on earth, and China may soon become home of the most Christians. Meanwhile, although not growing as rapidly as Christianity, Islam enjoys far higher levels of member commitment than it has for centuries, and the same is true for Hinduism, and perhaps for Buddhism too. Furthermore, in every nook and cranny left by organized faiths, all manner of unconventional supernaturalism are booming — 38 percent of the French believe in astrology.”
  • “Godless Europe?” — Philip Jenkins, Ph.D., co-director of ISR’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion
    “By all accounts, Europe seems to be the world’s best case study of rapid and extreme secularization. Yet even here, we find far more signs of religious involvement and active interest in spirituality than we might expect from the standard stereotype. Even in Europe, the alleged graveyard of faith, Christianity still shows signs of unexpected vigor, and faith takes unexpectedly traditional forms.”
  • “Godless Lives: Does Religion Matter for Our Well-Being?” — Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H., epidemiologist and director of ISR’s Program on Religion and Population
    “Religion exhibits a mostly positive influence on human well-being, across religious and demographic categories, and has done so consistently and undiminished for decades. Thousands of studies have investigated the impact of religion or faith on dimensions of physical and mental health and well-being. Most of these studies have found positive, statistically significant effects. These findings are consistent and increasing over time, indicating a salutary impact of faith on well-being.”
  • “The Myth of American Piety?” — Byron R. Johnson, Ph.D., director of ISR
    “Much of what we hear about American religion is simply inaccurate or misleading and often tends to be based either on no data, selective data, bad data or misinterpretations of solid data. What we know about American religion — based on decades of rigorous national data — is rarely featured in media accounts and confirms in unambiguous ways the remarkable vitality of American religious life.”
  • “Toward a Godless America?” — J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D., ISR Distinguished Professor of American Religious History
    “Recent coverage of American religious life, by focusing on the decline of some of the larger denominations and the new organized life of non-theistic communities, have missed the larger story that since World War II, religion in the United States has grown spectacularly and ahead of the population curve. America is now the most religious it has ever been with Church membership at an all-time high and relatively new worshipping communities representing the spectrum of the world’s religions now spread across the urban landscape. As a nation in which the great majority of its people have affiliated with a religious community, without government coercion, America is possibly the most religious country that the world has ever seen.”
    To register and learn more, visit www.baylorisr.org.
  • Historian John Turner Responds to Historian Thomas Kidd’s Donald Trump Piece

    Yesterday we did a post on Baylor historian Thomas Kidd’s call for evangelicals to abandon the Donald Trump candidacy and leave the Republican Party if Trump is the eventual nominee.

    Today John Turner, Kidd’s friend, fellow George Marsden student at Notre Dame, religion professor at George Mason University, and co-blogger at The Anxious Bench, responded.  I am guessing that Turner has as much distaste for Trump as Kidd, but that was not the point of his post.  Turner is addressing two issues.  First, whether or not Trump has a legitimate shot at the nomination.  Second, whether or not evangelicals would ever abandon the Republican Party.

    Here is a taste:

    My co-blogger Thomas Kidd suggests that church-going evangelicals and a group he calls “paleo-evangelicals” (already disaffected with the Republican Party) should desert the Republicans should Donald Trump capture the GOP nomination.
    I am in the camp of those who consider that outcome an improbability in two respects. First, despite widespread dissatisfaction with “establishment” politicians, Republicans will probably not nominate a recent convert. Evangelical voters in Iowa will probably deny Trump a victory in that state’s caucuses. The field will narrow considerably by January, and when it is Trump versus one or two credible candidates, the more mainstream Republican candidate will probably prevail. Of course, there is no good reason to misidentify historians for good political prognosticators.
    And then this:
    Politics is as much a habit as a matter of thoughtful deliberation. Evangelicals are used to voting for Republican presidential candidates, regardless of whom the party nominates. John McCain and Mitt Romney? No problem. If the Republican Party somehow nominated Donald Trump for president, he would promise to appoint pro-life judges and argue that Hillary Clinton (no suspense there) would appoint judges that would trample on the religious freedom of Christians. Perhaps the Republicans would get 75 percent instead of 80 percent of evangelical votes (admittedly, the difference could be significant), and perhaps a percentage of evangelicals would stay home. But I suspect at least three-quarters would vote for Trump.
    Major political realignments in U.S. History are rare. When African Americans began voting for the Democratic Party (outside of the South) beginning with the New Deal, they did so not only because Republican politicians ignored their concerns but because Democratic politicians competed for their votes. When white southerners in turn left the Democratic Party, they did so in the midst of a full-court Republican press. In our two-party system, options are limited. Conservative evangelicals who care deeply about abortion and religious liberty might feel alienated from the Republican Party, but the other party doesn’t think it needs their votes and doesn’t want them.

    Turner has been making this argument about the staying power of the evangelical-GOP alliance for a long time.  And I agree with him. I am not a pollster or a political scientist, but I do have a foot in the politically-charged (sadly) world of American evangelicalism.  I spend a lot of time with evangelical Christians and from where I sit the alliance between the GOP and evangelicals is as strong as it has ever been.

    I just don’t see how Trump will last through November 2016.  I also don’t see how any of the Christian Right candidates can seriously win the nomination if the GOP expects to beat Hillary in November 2016.  If Ted Cruz wins the nomination, moderate Republicans will stay home on election day just like many evangelicals did in 2012. 

    Perhaps we underestimate the degree to which the Republican Party is fractured right now.  The current debate over the Speaker of the House is an obvious example of this. This fracturing will be a major theme in the work of future political historians studying our era.  I just don’t see how the GOP can overcome their differences, come together, and support a candidate for president.  

    Can a GOP candidate come along and bridge this divide between moderate republicans and the Christian Tea Party crowd?  I doubt it. But until one does, Democrats will continue to win presidential elections.  In my opinion, the GOP’s best bets on this front are Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and perhaps Carly Fiorina. 

    One more thought.  There is one way that the GOP could win in November 2016.  The Republican Party’s hatred for Hillary Clinton is so strong that the factions within the party just must come together to defeat a common enemy.

    Thomas Kidd: "I will not support Trump under any circumstances,…

    “and I would use what little influence I have to stop him from being elected president.”

    Most of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know Thomas Kidd from his books on early American religious history.  Kidd is a conservative evangelical who usually votes Republican. In his recent post at The Anxious Bench he joins the chorus of thoughtful GOP evangelicals who are worried about the possibility that Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination for president.

    Here is a taste:

    It is hard to say how badly a Trump nomination would damage the Reagan-era union between evangelicals and the GOP. I know that polls suggest that Trump has strong “evangelical” support, but polls also suggest that “churchgoing” evangelicals (as if there is such a thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical!) don’t support Trump as much. I hope that a Trump nomination would lead to a significant defection of Christian voters from the GOP, at least for the 2016 presidential race. Most defectors would simply not vote for one of the two major parties’ nominees, while others would vote for the Democrat. There was not nearly as much disaffection from John McCain and Mitt Romney as you would see with a Trump nomination.
    For what it is worth, here’s the bottom line for me, a conservative Christian who typically votes Republican, but has never been all that enamored with the GOP. I will not support Trump under any circumstances, and I would use what little influence I have to stop him from being elected president. If that means that Hillary Clinton or another Democrat gets elected by default, I am fine with that. How many other “evangelicals” there are like me, I don’t really know. Anecdotal information from WORLD Magazine’s survey of evangelical insiders (in which I have participated) suggests that he has virtually no support among the people WORLD is asking.
    I held my nose and voted for McCain and Romney – but Trump is an entirely different question. I will not vote for someone so boorish, who has no clue about most basic political issues, much less those most important to Christian conservatives (including religious liberty and abortion). I will not vote for a misogynist reality tv star whose campaign is based on starting stupid fights. I won’t do it, and I hope that millions within the supposed GOP “base” would join me.

    Ebenezer Kinnersley

    When I was a graduate student I had a colleague named Kevin who was interested in the history of science in early America.  Kevin finished his Ph.D shortly after I did.  I think he had a few academic appointments and eventually left the historical profession for greener pastures.  I lost touch with him after we left Stony Brook and he moved back to his home state of Texas.

    Kevin’s story would make for a great “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” post, but I am writing about him today because he loved to talk about Ebenezer Kinnersley

    Who is Ebenezer Kinnersley?  

    He was a Baptist minister who opposed the First Great Awakening and later became a promoter of Benjamin Franklin’s work on electricity.  If I remember correctly, Kinnersley was an important figure in Kevin’s dissertation.

    I am not sure what happened to Kevin’s research on Kinnersley.   I know he was working on Kinnersley before the appearance of James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America hit print and introduced us to the life of this Baptist pastor-turned itinerant science lecturer.

    I thought about Kinnersley the other day after reading Thomas Kidd’s post at The Anxious Bench.  It appears that this Baptist clergymen will make an appearance in Kidd’s new religious biography of Franklin. 

    Here is a taste of his post:

    Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth-century revivals. As a three-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

    Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

    The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

    Read the entire post here.

    The Author’s Corner with John Howard Smith

    John Howard Smith is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University– Commerce. This interview is based on his new book, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Fairleigh Dickinson, December 2014).

    JF: What led you to write The First Great Awakening?

    JS: I started working on the First Great Awakening while I was writing my dissertation. I had gotten the idea for writing a new synthetic history of the Awakening in 2000, and I happened to meet Edmund S. Morgan at an American Society of Church History conference in Santa Fe, and I told him my thoughts about what was needed in such a work. He was incredibly encouraging, and agreed to read a few chapter drafts that I worked up after that meeting, and his comments and suggestions substantially guided the architecture of the book. I worked up a full-length manuscript proposal in 2004 and sent that to Harry S. Stout, who forwarded it to Kenneth P. Minkema, and both were very complimentary. I had to set it aside for a little over a year in order to publish my dissertation in 2008, after which I was able to devote myself completely to the Awakening. In the meantime Thomas S. Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelicalism in Colonial America had come out, but I knew that my approach was markedly different from his, and that another account approaching the Awakening from an opposite angle would be very interesting. I remain surprised that relatively few historians have endeavored to write a comprehensive history of the Awakening, and so much great work on it had emerged since 2007 that I thought needed to be incorporated into a history that was more secularist in its approach.

    JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The First Great Awakening?

    JS: The First Great Awakening is not so much the story of how evangelical Protestantism created a consistent American identity, but rather about how evangelicalism established fractious sectarianism as the defining characteristic of American Christianity. “The First Great Awakening” is a reassertion of the importance of religion to the colonial American mind, as well as of the fact that the Awakening was a significant intercolonial and international phenomenon that was sustained from the 1720s through the 1770s.

    JF: Why do we need to read The First Great Awakening?

    JS: My goal is to challenge the accepted definition of a religious awakening, and specifically of the First Great Awakening, to include particularly the revival and reinvention of American Indian religions in the ‘middle ground’ of western Pennsylvania. Also, I try to give greater attention to African Americans and women than practically all other book-length studies have done. I follow Doug Winiarski in emphasizing the professedly mystical aspects of eighteenth-century revivalism to identify charismatic behaviors as essential to understanding the Awakening, which I think most other historians have downplayed in one way or another. I disagree with Jon Butler that the Awakening was a nineteenth-century invention, and with Frank Lambert that it was invented by the eighteenth-century revivalists, but rather that it was a creation of ordinary people as well as of the revivalists and their critics alike. I think that my attempt to reframe and redefine the Awakening offers a challenging alternative to what has become the traditional interpretation of it. I’m not trying to obliterate prior interpretations, but I do think that the vast bulk of it is shaped by a combination of tacit and overt pro-Christian precepts. However, I want to clarify that while I am a secular humanist, I am not anti-religion. I believe that religion can allow human beings to exhibit some of their best qualities, and my depiction of the ordinary and extraordinary people who were part of the Awakening is executed with sympathy and respect. My view of the Awakening is of an event that was shaped by the vigorous and sometimes contentious interplay between reason and revelation.

    JF: How and why did you decide to become an American historian?

    JS: I think I was almost destined to be an early Americanist. When I was eight years old, I studied a biography of Thomas Jefferson for a merit badge in Cub Scouts, and was fascinated by him (and the fact that we share the same birthday!) and by eighteenth-century America in general, which seemed to be everywhere on TV during and just after the Bicentennial in 1976. I maintained that fascination ever since. In 1986 I saw the Alan Alda comedy “Sweet Liberty” and was enchanted by the notion of being a college professor, and resolved that that was what I would do with my life. However, I started off as an English major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and only about halfway through did I declare a second major in history. I was guided by a great early Americanist, Milton Ready, who always pushed me to do more and be better at what I do, and my best work was always in the early American field. By the time I graduated in 1991, there was no question that I was going to go to graduate school to become an early Americanist, which I eventually did under the fatherly tutelage of Prof. Sung Bok Kim at the State University of New York at Albany. Besides, with a name like John Smith, how could I not be an early Americanist?

    JF: What is your next project?
    JS: I have begun preliminary research for what I intend will be a new history of occultism, witchcraft, and witch-hunting in colonial America from the 1620s through the 1720s, centering of course on the Salem witch trials. I want to pull together the best of what can be found in the works of Jon Butler, Keith Thomas, John Demos, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Carol Karlsen, Bernard Rosenthal, and Mary Beth Norton, among others, into a comprehensive study that seeks to explain the evolution of the complex relationships between religion, belief in the supernatural, occultism, and Enlightenment rationalism over the course of a century of phenomenal change in colonial British America.
    JF: Looking forward to reading about it! Thanks John.
    And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

    Thomas Kidd Assumes Associate Director Post at Baylor’s ISR

    Congrats to Tommy Kidd.  Here is the press release regarding his new post at Baylor.  Waco, Texas 

    (Aug. 25, 2014) — Thomas Kidd, Ph.D., one of the nation’s most respected historians of religion, has accepted a post as associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR).

    Kidd’s appointment “represents a major step forward in advancing ISR’s mission as a national leader in producing research on the role of religion in society,” said Rodney Stark, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at ISR. “Not only has Tommy Kidd written a number of important and highly regarded books on the role of religion in early America, he and Philip Jenkins (Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor) have developed many thoughtful symposia and research events as part of ISR’s successful Program on Historical Studies of Religion.”
    For Byron Johnson, Ph.D., co-director of ISR, “Tommy’s appointment is a testament to our strong relationship with Baylor’s outstanding department of history, where a number of professors are also affiliated with ISR. Professor Kidd’s leadership has been instrumental at ISR, and we know he will be an even bigger asset as the associate director.”
    Philip Jenkins, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor, stated that “Thomas Kidd is respected and admired by scholars across the country, and this new position certainly bodes well for ISR and Baylor University.”
    Kidd said that he is “honored to be associated with such a stellar group of scholars as those at the Institute for Studies of Religion. I hope I can help the institute in its efforts to make Baylor the preeminent university in America for the study of religion across the disciplines.”
    Kidd completed his Ph.D. in History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written or edited eight books. His next book, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, will be released in October with Yale University Press.

    Thomas Kidd on Arthur Sherr’s Thomas Jefferson

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    Recently Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture published an article by Arthur Sherr entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” The blog editors asked several historians to comment on the article.  John Ragosta commented here and the latest response comes from Baylor’s Thomas Kidd.  Here is a taste:
    Barton’s The Jefferson Lies strained credulity by its selective use of evidence, leading Thomas Nelson publishers to pull the book from circulation in 2012. Scherr’s article respects standard historical practices in its use of evidence, and his analysis highlights many important aspects of Jefferson’s faith (or lack thereof). But as with other polemical views on Jefferson’s beliefs, Scherr’s thesis – that Jefferson considered himself no kind of Christian, not even a radically liberal one – outruns the nuances of the evidence.
    And here:
    Scherr’s article pits Jefferson against the “historians,” and it is quite an impressive roster of “scholarly adherents” whom Scherr regards as standing implicitly with the Religious Right in its co-opting of Jefferson. Thomas Buckley, Andrew Burstein, Peter Onuf, the late Edwin Gaustad, and others all seem to be part of those serving the interests of the Christian Right by “fecklessly attempt[ing] to depict [Jefferson] as a man of devout Christian faith.”
    The worst offender, for Scherr, is Daniel Dreisbach. But I see little evidence in Scherr’s article that any of these historians, including Dreisbach, have tried to paint Jefferson (a la Barton) as a person of orthodox, Trinitarian faith. Instead, they have tried to account for Jefferson’s occasional comfort with government entanglement with religion, his fascination with the historical (though non-divine) Jesus of Nazareth, and his political alliance with many evangelicals, especially Baptists.
    I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.

    Write Tommy Write!

    I am always interested in learning how historians write, especially historians as productive as Baylor’s Thomas Kidd.  Over at The Anxious Bench, Kidd shares some of his secrets to productivity.   The guy is a machine! Here is a taste:

    I personally would find it extremely inefficient to take a bunch of notes and then go back weeks or months later to write up those notes in chapter form. My memory is just not that good, so it is much easier to, in effect, combine writing and note-taking. This necessarily means that I will have to edit extensively, and move stuff around, but won’t I have to do that anyway? Similarly, I find extensive outlining to be useless, since I rarely know exactly what I am going to cover, and when, until I am actually writing.
    There are cases when I do want to capture things from books, articles, the internet, etc. that I am not going to use right away, but could come in handy later. These I generally either put in “My Library” in Google Books, or save in the free Evernote app (which I also use for saving sources when writing WORLD Magazine articles). The scenario in which I probably take the most extensive notes is when I visit archives where (grrrr) you are not allowed to take digital photos or make photocopies. This happened when I was at the British Library last May, and I needed to take lengthy notes in a Word document on an unpublished George Whitefield diary. In such a case, I don’t know what else to do but take notes and integrate them into your manuscript as soon as you can.