How Does Annette Gordon-Reed Write?

86d77-hemingsesShe is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and she was a guest on episode of eight of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

And have I mentioned that she gave the 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College?

Over at “Writing Routines,” Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University tells us how she writes.

Here is a taste of her interview:

Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?

I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.

What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?

I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?

I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?

I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.

How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?

Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.

Read the entire interview here.

Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.

“March on Harrisburg” Calls for a New Era in Pennsylvania Politics


I am happy to publish this piece by John Craig Hammond,  If you care about the fate of democracy in Pennsylvania please give it a read. –JF

Google “corrupt” and “state legislature,” and guess what name pops up over and over again? Pennsylvania – of course.

This is not “new” news. Our commonwealth enjoys (if that is the proper term) a century-long history of corruption that continues unabated to the present. The impact on public confidence is predictable: a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll shows that only 35 percent of Pennsylvania voters think we are “headed in the right direction.”

It is news, however, that Pennsylvanians are at last so fed up with dysfunction, ineptitude and lack of responsiveness in Harrisburg that they are banding together to bring about fundamental change. A grassroots group that I’ve joined, March on Harrisburg, is living up to its name literally and figuratively, as thousands of citizens call, write, meet and actually journey to the statehouse with the goal of launching a new era in Pennsylvania politics.

We believe that just three key measures will go a long way to establish open and responsive government:

End gerrymandering. Pennsylvania’s current system allows the party in power to draw up the voting district map in its own favor; in essence, politicians get to pick their voters. Thus, Pennsylvania is one of the three most gerrymandered states in the nation, with some of the least competitive elections. In the 2016 elections for state house and state senate, for example, about one-half of incumbents ran unopposed thanks to the “safe” districts that they gerrymandered for themselves.

March on Harrisburg seeks to end gerrymandering by establishing an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission. You can help by calling your state legislators to demand that SB 22 and HB 722, currently in committee, be brought to the floor for a vote.

End gift-giving. Even as you read this, legislators, along with their staff and their family members, are accepting gifts from special interests – and it is perfectly legal. Pennsylvania ethics and reporting laws are so murky and ineffective that gift-giving is, in practice, an open invitation to corruption.

March on Harrisburg seeks to ban such gifts. Please contact your elected officials with two requests: to pledge personally to stop taking gifts and to propose legislation forbidding gift-giving.

Institute automatic voter registration. Politicians tend to favor our state’s antiquated voter registration mechanism because it narrows the electorate and reduces the number of pesky voters who otherwise might go around expecting good, responsive government.

Automatic voter registration is easy to implement, and there is no excuse for failing to do so in Pennsylvania. March on Harrisburg believes that if you are legally entitled to vote, you should be automatically registered to vote. We hope you will contact your legislators to express that view.

With these three important measures, Pennsylvania citizens can begin the process of reclaiming the state house. The fight will not be easy. But it can and must be done.

Please contact your state representative and senator, and let them know that you support March on Harrisburg and that you expect them to do the same. Democracy depends on you.

John Craig Hammond, Ph.D

Franklin Park, PA

Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

mugI hope so.

As we come to the end of our third season (1 more episode to go!) I want to thank all of you for your support of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  I hope you enjoy Episode 23: Giving in America.  It dropped last weekend. Our guest is Amanda Moniz, the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

And speaking of giving, we can use your support.  We are already doing some planning for Season 4 (Fall 2017) and we hope you will become a partner in our work by donating at our Patreon page.


If you are new to the podcast, we want to encourage you to use the summer to get caught up on the last three seasons.  We have had some great guests over the course of the last 18 months, including:

Jim Grossman: Executive Director of the American Historical Association

Daniel K. Williams: historian and author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade

Yoni Appelbaum:  Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic

Sam Wineburg: author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Tim Grove: Director of Education at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Nate DiMeo: Podcaster at “The Memory Palace”

graham-mugPaul Lukas: ESPN’s historic uniform expert

Annette Gordon-Reed:  Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

Peter Onuf:  historian and author of The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

Marc Dolan: author of Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock n Roll.

Steve Edenbo: nationally acclaimed Thomas Jefferson impersonator

Ann Little: historian and author of The Many Captivities of Eshter Wheelwright

Rebecca Onion: historian and proprietor at the blog “The Vault”

Sarah McCammon: National Public Radio political reporter

Amy Bass: author and Emmy-award winning sports historian

Jonathan Fetter Vorm: graphic artists and illustrator of Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War

Manisha Sinha: historian and award-winning author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

Douglas Bradburn: founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon

Bruce Berglund: historian and author of Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague: Longing for the Sacred in a Skeptical Age

Martin Doblmeier: filmmaker and producer of the documentary An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr StoryPodcast Icon

Adrian Burgos Jr: historian and editor-in-chief at La Vida Baseball

Scott Hartley: venture capitalist and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the World

Nancy Tomes,:Bancroft Prize-winning historian and author of Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers

Thanks for considering a contribution to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. Our society always needs good American history, but we need it even more in times of great social and political change!

Teaching is a Human Act


For several years now Jonathan Rees has been railing against MOOCs and other forms of automated teaching.  I appreciate his insights.  I am a regular reader of his blog More or Less Bunk.

Rees’s most recent reflection on teaching and technology appears today at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste of “You Can’t Automate Good Teaching”:

A few years ago, I spilled an awful lot of pixels over at my blog trying to come to grips with the implications of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). They were supposed to be the innovation that would not only make most college professors obsolete, but force countless colleges to close as every student would prefer to hear Harvard’s best lecture rather than get their  course content from the community-college professor in their neighborhood.

Of course, any college professor who cares one whit about teaching understands that education involves a lot more than just conveying information. There’s the teaching of particular skills. There’s applied learning. There’s the unpredictable relationship between two humans whenever they try to to accomplish anything complicated.

In other words, good teaching is just one long series of “edge cases.” You may come into class with the same lecture notes every semester, but unless you spend all your time staring up at the ceiling, how your students interpret the material you’re teaching is going to affect the way you choose to teach it. They don’t even have to stop you and ask questions while you’re talking. So long as you and they are in the same room — with you conveying information in real time — you will see how your material is going over and can adjust your presentation accordingly.

Even if you really could deliver the same exact lecture every time, you will never get the same result twice because the learning process is never entirely predictable. If we automated learning, information would still travel from the brain of the professor to the brain of the student, but we’d never know exactly how well students understood it. You might as well just hit “play” on a tape of someone else’s lecture, then leave the room to do something else.

Read the entire piece here.


Is Donald Trump More “Politically Correct” Than Barack Obama?


Peter Beinart of The Atlantic compares the speech Donald Trump gave yesterday in Riyadh to Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo.  He concludes that Trump was much more “politically correct.”

Here is a taste:

“Political correctness,” as it is used in common parlance, means avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you. And Trump made his hostility to political correctness a centerpiece of his campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of “radical Islam.” Again and again, Trump blamed America’s vulnerability to jihadist terrorism on President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s refusal honestly to speak about the pathologies of Muslims and Islam. At a Wisconsin town hall in March of last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you trust Muslims in America?” Trump responded, “We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don’t have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem.” In June, in defending his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump declared that, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly” to keep America safe from terrorism.

But for all the pillorying Obama received for supposedly whitewashing the problems of the Islamic world, his Cairo speech actually addressed them quite bluntly. Speaking at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University, Obama condemned Holocaust denial in Muslim countries, calling it “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” He denounced people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes about Jews.” He highlighted the oppression of women in Muslim lands, declaring that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.” He referenced the Middle East’s economic failures, arguing that “no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.” And in a clear challenge to his host, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he insisted that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Compare that to Trump, who said virtually nothing that caused his hosts any discomfort. Trump criticized terrorist groups like ISIS for their “persecution of Jews,” and he condemned Iran for pledging “the destruction of Israel.” But since ISIS and Iran are Riyadh’s most bitter foes, those condemnations won’t have bothered the Saudi monarchs at all. Unlike Obama, Trump avoided the broader problem of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Islamic countries, a problem in which his Saudi hosts are deeply complicit. Nor did he even hint at the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel.

On the question of women’s rights, it was much the same. Trump attacked jihadist terrorists for “the oppression of women.” But he described King Salman’s government as a virtual beacon of women’s rights. “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development,” Trump declared. You would never have known that women in the Kingdom still can’t drive.

Read the rest here.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Trump’s Skills in Deal-Making Face a Serious Test in Israel”

Washington Post: “Trump to propose slashing Medicaid, giving states power to limit other benefits”

Wall Street Journal: “Ford Replaces CEO Amid Pressure on Profit, Share Price”

Harrisburg Patriot News: “Why Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial is headed to Pittsburgh today”

BBC: “Trump warns of Iranian nuclear threat”

CNN: “Trump makes historic visit”

FOX: “United Against Iran: Trump tells Israel: Arab nations are in ‘common cause with you’ facing Tehran”

Messiah College is One of the Best Places in the Nation to Prepare to be a History Teacher

Messiah panorama

Below is a taste of an article on the recent findings of the National Council on Teacher Quality.  Messiah College’s secondary education programs in Social Studies and the Sciences finished in the 98th percentile. along with 10 other colleges. Only David Lipscomb University, Arizona State, University of Utah, CUNY-Hunter College, Ohio Wesleyan, and Wisconsin-Platteville finished in the 99 percentile.

717 colleges and universities offer high school teacher education programs.  Messiah finished in a 10-way tie for second place.

Part of the reason Messiah’s program is so successful is because we require students take 39 credits in history, 9 credits in other social studies fields, and a three-credit history course in “Teaching History” that focuses on content pedagogy and historical thinking skills.  We also work very closely with our Education Department to make sure our students have at least three classroom experiences during their four years at Messiah College.  Our students consistently score in the highest percentile on their content exams and we have even had students who have had perfect scores on this test.

Messiah College is proud to be one of the best places in the country to prepare for a career in the history and social studies classroom.

Here is a taste of the piece:

Lesser-known Hope College in Holland, MI; Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN; Messiah College in Grantham, PA; and St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN surface on a shortlist of the best undergraduate programs for preparing high school teachers, alongside Arizona State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota. What puts them there? According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, each has “solid admission standards, provide sufficient preparation in each candidate’s intended subject area and show them how best to teach that subject.” Many also do well in teaching future teachers how to manage a classroom and in providing high quality practice opportunities.

The complete list is only 16 schools long out of a possible 717 undergraduate programs that prepare secondary teachers. Half of the programs recognized by NCTQ are public, half are private. Programs range in size from Ohio Wesleyan University, which graduates about 20 teachers a year, to Arizona State, which graduates over 800 teachers a year. In-state tuition for the undergraduates ranges from under $7,000 a year at CUNY-Hunter College to a high of just over $44,000 at Ohio Wesleyan.

The NCTQ’s latest report, “Landscapes in teacher prep: Undergraduate secondary,” found that a widespread problem among the programs knocked off the list were a lack of content preparation for science and social studies teacher candidates. For example, even though history is the subject most social studies teachers will be assigned to teach, one out of five programs requires minimal to no history courses for their future teachers. However, they almost universally deliver strong preparation in English and mathematics.

Read the entire piece here.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Trump and the prosperity gospel

Franklin Graham and evangelicalism

Jane Kamensky reviews Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth

J.D. Vance on Janesville, WI

Kacy Dowd Tillman reviews Sarah Crabtree, Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution

Mr. Met

The Rod Dreher paradox

Colleges and the history of anti-urbanism

Ingrid Rowland reviews six books on Martin Luther

Books on writing well

A very short primer on Reinhold Niebuhr

Can we still interpret the monuments removed in New Orleans?

Toqueville’s relevance

Why students hate history

Catholics and the suburbs in American history

Episode 23: Giving in America

podcast-icon1When we historians say, “everything has a history,” we mean it. Even charity and philanthropy have rich histories and have changed over time. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling explore this history in an American context, touching on everything from robber-baron philanthropy to more recent trends like all-night college dance marathons and the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.” They are joined by the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Amanda Moniz (@AmandaMoniz1).

Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian


I think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people.  We live in the world of ideas.  We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts.  For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.

Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years.  At the risk of becoming overly confessional, self-indulgent, or dark, I thought I would mention them here.

I am sure some folks will appreciate my thoughts.  Others will deconstruct them in negative ways.  These are the risks I take every day when I write at this blog.  One day I feel that writing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is an act of courage. The next day I wonder if what I have been doing here for the past eight years has been one big act of foolishness.

So here goes:

I am a first-generation college student and the son of working-class parents.  This means that I am constantly trying to live between the worlds of my uneducated extended family and my own advanced education.  This has been even harder since the election of Donald Trump.  It can get pretty lonely at times.

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags.  I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does.  I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach.  As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it.  This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian.  That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas.  I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently.  I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues.  I wonder about my place in the mix.

I am a historian and Christian who is critical of conservative evangelicals and other right-wing attempts to blend Christian faith with political power or promote the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. My critique of the so-called “court evangelicals” makes me a bit of an outcast in my church community (although I feel this changing a bit) and perhaps raises some red flags among conservative colleagues at my institution.

I believe Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training people for our capitalist economy, but they are doing a poor job of investing in the preparation of people for life in a democracy. This means that I am viewed as suspect by most people in society and especially by those champions of pre-professional education who now dominate so many Christian colleges, including my own.

What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas.  And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues.  This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different.  I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.

Stockholm Syndrome and American Slavery

b0b9a-douglassThis post is for historians of American slavery.

I was recently teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and a student mentioned that he was surprised by this passage:

“Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others.  They think their own better than that of others.  Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the other…They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.  It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave, but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”

Does anyone know of any historical scholarship that addresses what is happening in this passage as a form of “Stockholm Syndrome?” I am not interested here in whether or not you think Stockholm syndrome was occurring here.  I am interested in whether mainstream American historical scholarship uses the category of “Stockholm Syndrome” to explain what is happening here.

Mike Pence May Be the Court Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals

Here is Mike Pence’s commencement speech at Grove City College:

Pence gave Grove City graduates a lesson on leadership

  1.  Leadership requires character
  2.  Leaders must be servants of others
  3.  Leaders must be courageous.  Courage will always lead to criticism

After laying out these three principles of leadership Pence said:  “You don’t need to any further than a friend of mine as an example of leadership and perseverance. The 45th President of the United States of the America, President Donald Trump.  (Applause)

I need to add Pence to the list.

Not Everyone at Grove City College is Happy About Mike Pence’s Visit

Visiting Campus

As I type this, Mike Pence is speaking to the 2017 graduates of Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

I have also spoken on the Grove City campus. During my visit in 2012 I found the faculty and students to be very thoughtful and intellectually engaged.  It’s a great school. Grove City prides itself as a Christian college and a conservative college.  But if student Molly Wicker is representative of the student body (and the faculty?), it appears that there are a lot of folks at Grove City who are not riding the Trump train.

Here is a taste of Wicker’s New York Times op-ed about Pence’s visit to campus today:

But the announcement that Mr. Pence would be commencement speaker this year drew considerable backlash. Alumni and students flooded administrators’ inboxes with emails protesting the decision, and faculty members have called for boycotts. Many who oppose the decision say that hosting Mr. Pence will serve as an endorsement of the current president.

This is an interesting crossroads for the school. Grove City is proud of its image as a steadfastly conservative Christian oasis in the increasingly liberal landscape of higher education. On campus, conservative politics and conservative faith usually go hand in hand. Students study the politics of Ronald Reagan and the literature of C. S. Lewis as well as the Bible.

Most of us were raised in Protestant evangelical households, and more than 16 percent of the 2,500 students were home-schooled. Some students have had little exposure to popular culture or liberal politics. A few seem to see their conservative political affiliation as a ticket to eternal salvation.

But the 2017 election exposed a rift between ideological and political conservatism. Evangelical voters have long demanded that politicians exemplify Christian character and morality in the public sector. In Donald Trump, however, evangelicals were confronted with a candidate who pledged allegiance to conservative ideals, but embodied none of them.

Many of the issues evangelicals care about — marriage, abortion and religious liberty — are more dependent on a conservative Supreme Court than a conservative president. Divorced, disrespectful and domineering, Mr. Trump might not have been the first choice of many Christians, but he was certainly more likely than his Democratic opponent to advance cultural conservatism on the court.

Plenty of young evangelicals I know, however, were not persuaded by that argument. Claire Waugh, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., told me that she refused in November to have a Trump vote on her conscience, and that she hates to see the country being “led by a man who spews vitriol against anyone who is unlike him, a man who tries to invoke God’s name when he is acting utterly ungodly.”

And for many on campus, Mr. Pence’s reputation for being a very faith-oriented politician does not make up for his being Mr. Trump’s vice president. “It baffles me that a Christian institution, that supposedly values every human life and facilitates Christian education and beliefs, would allow someone as divisive as Mike Pence to come speak,” said Megan Baak, 22, a senior from Lancaster, Pa. “In an age where hate, violence, divisiveness and partisanship are so prevalent, I am shocked that Grove City would bring one of the most controversial political figureheads to our campus for graduation.”

Read the entire piece here.

Even More on the Niebuhr-Comey Connection

COmeyWe have done a few posts over the past year about James Comey’s undergraduate thesis at The College of William and Mary.  The thesis compared the political theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.

Over at Christianity Today, University of Pennsylvania religion professor Steven Weitzman probes deeper into the Comey-Niebuhr connection, especially in light of very current events.

Here is a taste of his piece “The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict“: 

Many Christian theologians in Niebuhr’s day embraced love as the solution to the world’s problems. As Comey explains in the thesis, Niebuhr rejected that view. Since human selfishness gets in the way of perfectly emulating Jesus’ sacrificial love, they must instead inject love into the world through justice.

Reading Comey’s description of Niebuhr’s views suggests a theological-moral logic at work in his career as FBI director. A Christian has an obligation to seek justice, the theologian argued, and this means entering the political sphere because that is the realm where one can find the power necessary to establish whatever justice is possible in the world. Comey’s decision to work for the FBI can be understood as a way of fulfilling Niebuhr’s vision of Christianity as a defender of justice.

At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.

By the late 1960s, Niebuhr had cofounded an anti-war clergy group deemed suspicious by the FBI, and one of his cofounders, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, had been the subject of an FBI manhunt, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. Niebuhr, a subject of FBI surveillance himself, was no fan of the bureau and felt moved to speak out against it.35ad1-niebuhr

In an essay called “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” published in 1969, Niebuhr rebuked Hoover himself, comparing his spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. to the actions of the biblical Amaziah, a priest who abused the prophet Amos in an effort to suppress his critique.

It is ironic that Comey admires a figure who felt he had to denounce a previous FBI director. What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27—in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians—he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear.

It is tempting to read Comey’s thesis as an explanation for how has conducted himself as FBI director over the last year.

Niebuhr’s writings supply a moral argument for Comey’s aggressive assertion of the FBI’s power—some describe him as the most aggressive FBI director since Hoover himself. His influence also sheds light on another side of Comey’s conduct as FBI director. Niebuhr noted that while humans can’t change the animal nature that makes them so selfish, they can achieve a kind of freedom from their situation by becoming self-conscious, by recognizing the truth about themselves. Comey has sought to institutionalize such self-awareness in the FBI through programs that encourage FBI trainees to learn about Hoover’s mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the complicity of law enforcement in the Holocaust.

But the theologian’s influence potentially sheds light on yet another side of Comey’s conduct as well. For a student of Niebuhr, justice is about using power to balance the power of those not predisposed to recognize any limits on their self-interest. Perhaps this helps to explain why Comey felt he had to criticize Clinton even though he found no reason to pursue a legal case against her. At that time she seemed to be on her way to becoming the most powerful person in the world, and her email troubles suggested someone who did not sufficiently respect limits.

Read the rest here.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Firing Eased Pressure, Trump Told Russia”

Washington Post: “White House adviser close to Trump is a person of interest in Russia probe”

Wall Street Journal: “Trump Begin First Foreign Trip as President”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Government reform protest: ‘We will force a loving encounter'”

BBC: “Trump abroad as troubles mount at home”

CNN: “Saudis give Trump a royal welcome”

FOX: “Buying American: Trump, Saudi king sign new $110B arms deal”

Jefferson on Islam

TJ-Quran-195x300Over at Immanent Frame, the discussion of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders continues.  In the latest installment, Nadia Marzouki of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

Among the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

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