Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Back in 2015 I joined George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Tracy McKenzie to discuss this topic at a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by Wheaton College.  You can watch the conversation here:

I wrote about this conference in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is what I wrote:

In early 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio.  McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year on the campus of Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago.  I was initially surprised by the invitation.  I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject.  I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States . I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation on the subject of my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?.  I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot.  After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to.  He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trends in their African American and interracial congregations.  Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation . McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals.  The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinatti that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.  McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.”  Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism?  If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans.  And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.

Abraham Lincoln’s “Martyrdom”

Clements Library, Brian Dunnigan

In case you haven’t seen it all over social media, today is the 152st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  It is also Good Friday.  Lincoln was killed on Good Friday in 1865, making today one of those years when the commemoration of Jesus’s death lines up with the assassination of the so-called “savior” of the Union.

Over at his blog Faith and History, Wheaton College history professor Tracy McKenzie urges Christians to be careful of making too much out of the fact that Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday.

A taste:

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Read the rest here.

What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Historical Thinking

LewisOver at his thoughtful blog Faith and History, Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College offers some insight into the nature of historical thinking from the writings of C.S. Lewis.

Here is a taste of his post:

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen…

…hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.”  This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them.  What they find engaging, I should strive to model.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible.

Only God resurrects the dead.

What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”?  Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that.  With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time.  Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.

Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech.  Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:

Yes, that sounds very well.  But there’s a snag.  I am thinking about her nearly always.  Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers.  But it is my own mind that selects and groups them.  Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.  Founded on fact, no doubt.  I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t).  But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?  The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality.  Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living.  “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts.  Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective.  And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”

Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion.  “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish.  “That it is not happening already?”

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.  The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.  Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this.  And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.  The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

What a remarkable illustration!  And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”?  History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.”  And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality.  We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.

Academic Freedom: From the University of Washington to Wheaton College


Several years ago Tracy McKenzie moved from the University of Washington to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.  He is thus ideally suited to speak about the issues surrounding academic freedom at Wheaton in the context of the Larycia Hawkins case.

Here is a taste of his post “Academic Freedom in a Christian Context” from his blog “Faith and American History.”

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my well being, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally—in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided. I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis. In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW. For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden.  There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum. If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good. Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton five and a half years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

Read the entire post here.


"Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" at Wheaton College

In October 2013 I participated on a panel on Christian nationalism at “Inhabit,” a conference on religion and race held at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. (I wrote about it here).  I was honored to sit on this panel with three historians who I deeply admire: Tracy McKenzie, Mark Noll, and George Marsden.

Someone recently called my attention to a video of the event.  Here it is:

Nathan Hatch on Why Christians Should Study the Past

Nathan Hatch

Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College is calling our attention to a recent chapel talk at Wheaton by Nathan Hatch.  As many of you know, Hatch is a Wheaton graduate, the author the award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity, and the current president of Wake Forest University. Hatch’s chapel talk was titled: “Engaging History: The Redemptive Power of the Past.” (Scroll to October 31, 2014).

Here is a taste of Tracy’s commentary on Hatch’s talk:

Hatch begins by observing that we evangelicals have long been suspicious of the past.  We pride ourselves on grounding our religious beliefs wholly on the Bible, not on human tradition, and that tends to make us skeptical of the past as a source of wisdom for our lives today.
As American evangelicals, we are doubly skeptical, inasmuch as we have been affected by a national culture that is relentlessly present-minded.
Hatch then explains why he finds this regretable, but he does so in a novel way.  He shares brief vignettes of two of his classmates in Wheaton’s class of ’68: John Piper and Mark Noll.  Both went on to great distinction after leaving Wheaton–Piper became a nationally-recognized evangelical pastor and writer, while Noll developed into arguably the most distinguished and prolific Christian historian of the last century.
When Piper and Noll were in their twenties, Hatch relates, both experienced a religious awakening by delving into the past.  Each story is fascinating, but I won’t spoil them by sharing too much of the specifics.  Building on these examples, Hatch identifies two general benefits to the Christian who, like Piper and Noll, chooses to delve into the past.  First, serious study of the past can “expand our view of God and His work in the world.”  Second, it can do much to improve our understanding of our own times.   Both benefits are invaluable.

Tracy McKenzie Responds to Peter Conn

I have been busy in the archives all week and have finally got around to reading Tracy McKenzie‘s responses to Peter Conn’s article about Christian colleges and accreditation.  We have reposted a lot of Tracy’s stuff here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Some of you know his story–after over two decades in the History Department at the University of Washington, Tracy joined the faculty of Wheaton College in Illinois as chair of the History Department.  I can’t think of a better person to respond to Conn.

Read Tracy’s direct response to Conn here.

A taste:

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton four years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more.  Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here.  But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.  Conn’s assertion that, in leaving UW for Wheaton,  I have necessarily abandoned reason for dogma also mystifies me.  That he assumes such a trade-off suggests that Dr. Conn is not entirely free of dogma himself.  I could tell Conn about the intellectual excitement that abounds at Wheaton, about the brilliant colleagues I am privileged to work with (trained at places like Harvard and Yale and Duke and UNC), and about the extraordinarily gifted and motivated students that fill my classes, but I doubt that such a reasoned argument would sway him.  Reason is rarely helpful in changing an opinion not grounded in reason to begin with.

A final comment, this one about the relationship between academic freedom and academic community.  In addition to finding greater academic freedom at Wheaton, I have also encountered a true intellectual community here, one that the sprawling postmodern multiversity cannot be expected to equal.  Countless times I have reflected on the words of the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who observed in his 1938 classic Life Together, “it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living [and, I would add, of laboring] among other Christians.”   When we have that privilege, Bonhoeffer went on to observe, we should fall to our knees and thank God for his goodness, for “it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

By the way, I have had some e-mail correspondence with Steven Conn of Ohio State. Peter Conn is his father.

Tracy McKenzie on Mark Edmundson and Commonplace Books

I continue to enjoy Tracy McKenzie‘s reflections on faith and the practice of history at his blog “Faith and History.”  In his latest post, the chair of the history department at Wheaton College (IL) describes his engagement with Mark Edmundson’s book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education.  

McKenzie spends most of the post discussing Edmundson’s thoughts about the practice of writing in a commonplace book. Here is a taste:

My favorite passage from the book is actually one that articulates, better than I have been able to on my own, the value of keeping a commonplace book.  In a previous post (see here), I explained how writing in my commonplace book “helps me, imaginatively, to think of myself as entering into a grand conversation about enduring questions, something far bigger than the transient fads and obsessions that so easily steal the best days of our lives.”
Edmundson tells of a friend who has kept a journal for more than forty years and refers to it as a “life thickener.”  The observations, reflections, and questions that his friend records, in Edmundson’s words, collectively “give dense meaning to the blind onrush that unexamined life can be.”  What a marvelous sentence.  I found myself saying “Yes!  That’s exactly what I long for.”
Edmundson goes on to explain how it is that contemporary culture works against this kind of goal.  There are surely many factors, but a chief culprit, he believes, is technological.  The students he meets at the University of Virginia are children of the Internet.  It was born in their infancy, and they can never remember a time when the word “chat” referred primarily to face-to-face conversation.  Technology allows them (and us) to be multiple places at once–watching a U-tube video, checking Facebook, answering e-mail and texting friends, all while interacting in a coffee shop (or “taking notes” in a lecture hall!).  And as Edmundson rightly observes, the person who thinks he can be in a half dozen places at once is not wholly anywhere.
“An Internet-linked laptop,” the author notes wryly, “is not a life thickener.”  Of course it has its uses, but the promotion of deep introspection does not seem to be one of them.  “To live well,” Edmundson writes, “we must sometimes stop and think and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are.  There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately.”
Yes.  I need to read this book.

Tracy McKenzie "Flips the Bird" on Rush Limbaugh

Over at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz of Asbury University reviews Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.  In the process, he shows how McKenzie’s book offers a more accurate picture of the so-called “first Thanksgiving” than the one offered by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in his new book Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. (McKenzie addresses these differences here). Apparently Rush believes that capitalism helped save the Pilgrims from the New England wilderness.

Here is a taste of Swartz’s review:

  • Pilgrims were not free-market democrats. It’s anachronistic to understand the English Pilgrims as free-thinking patriots 150 years before the founding of the nation. McKenzie points out that a democratic ethos of “the people” ruling was still a good two centuries away. Nor were they proponents of modern forms of free enterprise—or of socialism, for that matter.
  • Historians can’t draw a straight line between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the contemporary holiday. For 220 years, nobody even remembered the first Thanksgiving. (Historical records only give us the barest of sketches: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted”). It was a holiday, but it wasn’t linked to the Pilgrims until the mid-19th century. The Bible Belt, in fact, despised Thanksgiving because of sectional rivalry. It took the growing popularity of football in the 1870s and 1880s, when the first league held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day, to accelerate the holiday’s popularity. Thanksgiving, McKenzie writes, became “a domestic observance for which church attendance was optional but a plump turkey was not.” The pious “memories” of the typical evangelical are less accurate than a 1908 Budweiser ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune that read, “How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser. How they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”
  • And perhaps most shocking to our holiday sensibilities, the first Thanksgiving almost certainly featured more eel than turkey. If they ate any birds at all, they were probably geese. There were no sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. If you really want to be historically authentic, eat some turnips and eel this Thanksgiving. McKenzie also points out that the quaint image of Pilgrims as broad-shouldered pioneers wearing shiny buckles, black suits, and white collars has been “conjured out of thin air.” The Pilgrims probably looked more like junior high schoolers: five feet, six inches and about 130 pounds and clothed in an exuberant array of reds, blues, greens, and yellows.
This whole discussion reminds me of the opening section of chapter 3 of my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (Of course it does!):

The historian David Lowenthal tells the story of a Midwestern man’s visit to Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that interprets the earliest days of the seventeenth-century settlement of New England.  Lowenthal witnessed this man–this “booster of individualism and free enterprise”–have an interesting encounter with the actor playing William Bradford, the governoro of Plymouth Colony.  Lowenthall writes, 

“Like many Americans, this visitor grew up in the faith that the Pilgrim Fathers were true begetters of his own values.  Now he was finding this prototype Father’s views diametrically opposed to his own.  Bradford was a Calvinist predestinrarian, a believer in community to whom secular capitalist enterprise was blasphemous, selfish individualism anathema.  Seething with indignation, the visitor could not just dismiss pious Bradford as a crank or a Communist…For the first time in his life, this visitor confronted a world view fundamentally at odds with his own and had to engage with it as an idea.”

Indeed, William Bradford lived in a world that was quite difference from the world of this Midwestern visitor or, for that matter, anyone born and raised in the modern United States.  This man learned an important lesson about trying to superimpose his system of belief on the past.  As Lowenthal, echoing the late novelist L.P. Hartley, reminds us, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Reflecting on Religion and Citizenship in Chattanooga, Part One: Should Historians Make Moral Judgments On the Past?

I just returned from an excellent institute for Tennessee and Georgia history and social studies teachers at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC). The event was entitled “Religion and the Making of American Citizens” and it was sponsored by UTC’s Center for Reflective Citizenship.  Wilfred McClay, Jonathan Yeager, and Lucian Ellington made up the brain trust behind the event.  Twenty-four teachers, representing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis, Hixson (TN), Lindale (GA), Ringgold (GA), Ooltewah (GA), Signal Mountain (TN), Spring City (TN), and Lafayette (GA), participated in the institute.  It was a vibrant and engaged group.  In this post, I want to address Tracy McKenzie’s opening address to the teachers.

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He started off the conference with a powerful address about the role that religion could play in the school classroom. After discussing the provocative work of the late Warren Nord, a secularist who has made the controversial argument that it is unconstitutional to remove religion from the classroom, McKenzie turned to the subject of love.  He argued that if history teachers truly love their students they would not only teach them “what happened in the past” and “why what happened in the past happened in the way that it did,” but they would go even further, asking them to ponder whether what happened in the past was “good.” (McKenzie is borrowing here from Notre Dame historian Philip Gleason). When teachers ask students to think about whether a particular event in the past is “good,” they are challenging students to engage in work that is essentially religious.  This kind of engagement, McKenzie argues, belongs in the history classroom.

The teachers seemed to embrace McKenzie’s approach even as he claimed that such an approach goes beyond what most professional historians find acceptable.  Perhaps I am one of those professional historians who McKenzie chided in his talk. While the third part of Gleason’s formula (was what happened “good?”)  can have a place in the history classroom, I have argued that it must be done with a great deal of caution so that the discipline of history is not sacrificed to moral philosophy.

In the end, this is a friendly difference between two Christian historians. After spending twelve years teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I find that making ethical, moral, and religious claims about people and movements in the past is rather easy for my students.  Most of them were raised in evangelical Christian homes where these kinds of judgments happen all the time.  As a result, I am often faced with the task of challenging them to understand, empathize, and explore the actions of those from the past on their own terms before jumping right away into whether or not such actions are “good” or “bad.”  While I certainly want the moral imagination of my students triggered by their

encounter with the past, they need to engage in the more elementary work of historical thinking before they dabble in moral philosophy.

Perhaps it might be a worthwhile exercise to read Tracy’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History alongside my own Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past?  

Whatever the case, I really appreciated McKenzie’s efforts on this front. I hope the teachers did as well.  What a treat!

Stay tuned.  A future post will explore the rest of the conference.

Tracy McKenzie on Faith and History

For those of you who have read Confessing History you may remember Tracy McKenzie’s essay “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimensions of Our Dual Calling”. Tracy, the chair of the history department at Wheaton (IL) College, developed this theme more fully in his presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History and many of these same ideas inform his recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.

Over at McKenzie’s blog, “Faith and American History”, he is in the midst of what appears to be a multiple part series on thinking Christianly about the past. You can read his first two installments here and here, but in the meantime here is a taste:

But what if we expect more from the past than entertainment?  What if we want it to “do work,” to change something, to somehow make a difference?  This is the second broad category of motives for studying history, and if you’ll allow me, I want to subdivide it further into two subcategories.  When we study the past in search of historical knowledge that changes something, we can either have in mind change outside ourselves–in the world around us–or change insideourselves, in our very hearts.  These are not mutually exclusive–we could aspire to both–but my sense is that we almost never think of the latter.
So what would it look like to seek historical knowledge that might change the world around us? There are a range of possibilities.  In the worst case, such an approach might be self-interested and even manipulative.  I have previously written about the temptation we face to approach history merely as a source of ammunition, an arsenal of arguments that we can wield to persuade others to support our predetermined agendas.  At the opposite extreme, as “clisawork” pointed out, we might study the past with the most disinterested of motives, searching for clues about how to promote a more just world, bringing historical knowledge to bear  on behalf of the weak and marginalized.  Studying the past to understand the roots of racism or how best to combat discrimination might be one such example.

Moral Reflection vs. Moral Judgment

I have been enjoying Tracy McKenzie‘s reflections on moral judgment and the American idea of manifest destiny.  I think I approach the question of moral reflection in historical inquiry a little bit differently, but we both seem to end up at the same place.

McKenzie’s posts are making me impatient about receiving the copy-edited manuscript of my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I want to make a few small changes in light of the things I am learning from his posts at “Faith and History.”

Here is a taste of his post “Manifest Destiny and Moral Reflection–Part Two“:

At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry.  One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan.  In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate  a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” 

In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views.  And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship.  They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.

Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however.  I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.

The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement.  Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however.  The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance.  But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?

There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend:  To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition.  Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15).  In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs.  When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.

Tracy McKenzie on Ross Douthat

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the History Department at Wheaton College.  Check out his review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics at his blog, “Faith and History.” 

What I especially appreciate about McKenzie’s review is his historical approach.  Here is a taste:

Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century.  Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past.  This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history.  As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes.  More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity….

…For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us.  My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification.  These twin drives are related, of course.  We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves.  What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways.  Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  This need not be conscious.  It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter.  (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”)  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans. 

Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant.  Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government.  He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.”  You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past. 

Dispatches from the AHA in New Orleans (6)

Mary Sanders reflects on Day Two at the AHA–JF

So much has happened today that I’ve been puzzling how best to approach it.  I want to spend the bulk of today’s post talking about William Cronon’s remarkable presidential address, emphasizing in particular what I think it has to say to graduate students.  Before I do that, though, let me briefly summarize the three panels I attended.
I started off this morning with “The Christian Origins of the American Century,” chaired by Malcolm Magee of Michigan State, with comments by Andrew Preston, fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge and arguably the most vocal proponent of incorporating religion into the study of U.S. foreign relations.  The three papers, by Cara L. Burnidge, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, Mark Thomas Edwards of Spring Arbor University, and Caitlin Carenen of Eastern Connecticut State University were all excellent examples of Preston’s 2006 call to “bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular” in that discipline.
I then decided to change things up and attend a panel completely out of my comfort zone: “Pastoral Responses to Trials and Disasters in Early Christianity.”  I was struck by the creativity and thoughtfulness of the papers presented by Christine McCann of Norwich University (VT), Robert McEachnie of the University of Florida, and Molly Lester of Princeton University, as well as by the enthusiastic comments by Megan H. Williams of San Francisco State.  This student of twentieth-century American religion was certainly impressed.
Finally, I attended “A Matter of Individual Choice, The Lives of American Catholic Converts,” chaired by Una M. Cadegan of the University of Dayton with papers from Lincoln Mullen of Brandeis, Stephanie A.T. Jacobe of American University, and Charles R. Gallagher, S.J. of Boston College.  Erin Bartram, my fellow dispatch-writer, was also on this panel.  All of the papers were fascinating discussions of the lives of converts both before and after their conversions.
Now, on to the meat of the evening: Professor Cronon’s speech.

I found Cronon’s speech on storytelling inspiring in a variety of ways, but I want to focus this post on two things that came to mind as I listened (and took vigorous, illegible notes).  First, I could hear echoes of Robert Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College in October 2012.  Both speeches raised questions about who exactly it is that historians talk to, and how exactly it is that we do that…and why it is important to do it well in a variety of different ways.  In fact, thinking about my affiliation with CFH and my (admittedly limited) knowledge about the conversations that happen within that group, I felt as though Cronon’s emphasis on storytelling reinforced many of the themes that have been discussed in those meetings.

Second: Cronon said a lot of different things tonight.  If I had time, I think I’d like to unpack the various levels of his talk.  But instead, I want to simply say this: I think much of what he talked about can be especially relevant to graduate students.  Admittedly, this interpretation of his remarks is colored by my own interests in the worlds of graduate students, interests that are in turn shaped by my own story of graduate education (a story that incorporates issues of personal and spiritual growth, my relationship with my history-professor father, and struggles to think about my role as a young historian and to discern some sense of calling).  Yet, as Cronon talked, I found myself nodding vigorously along, especially when he related an anecdote about the formative experience of having a professor answer a question with “I don’t know.”  My thoughts on this are not particularly organized yet, but I cannot help but feeling that his point about not being afraid to admit what you don’t know is an especially poignant one for graduate students—as is his encouragement to afford our students the same respect as we do our colleagues.  I’m hoping that I can incorporate a lot of what Cronon said into my musings about what graduate students do and how we do it.

Chris Gehrz on Historians and Moral Reflection

How do historians confront the problem of evil?  Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz wonders how historians should approach the tragic events of December 14, 2012 in the Connecticut town of Newtown and the “Massacre of the Innocents” that took place in the wake of Christ’s birth.

As I do in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Fall 2013), Gehrz draws upon Peter Hoffer’s helpful essay on the problem of evil in The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time. He also draws upon Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address at the Conference on Faith and History, particularly his suggestion that historians should be engaging in moral criticism.

I am not as optimistic as McKenzie and Gerhz when it comes to Christian historians engaging in moral judgment, but I do not think it should be removed from the historian’s toolbox.  See some of my thoughts on this subject:

What is the Moral Responsibility of the Historian?

Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past? 

Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

Or just read Gehrz’s excellent post at The Pietist Schoolman