Jon Meacham on Why We Need Religion in Times Like These

MEachamHistorian Jon Meacham‘s latest book is titled The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.  In his recent op-ed at The New York Times he argues that “religion is the best hope against Trump.”  Here is a taste:

Given the state of the nation two millenniums on, it is difficult to conceive of something more counterintuitive than the Christian ideal. For many Americans, especially non-Christians, the thought that Christian morality is a useful guide to much of anything these days is risible, particularly since so many evangelicals have thrown in their lot with a relentlessly solipsistic American president who bullies, boasts and sneers. The political hero of the Christian right of 2020 has used the National Prayer Breakfast to mock the New Testament injunction to love one’s enemies, and it’s clear that leading conservative Christian voices are putting the Supreme Court ahead of the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet history suggests that religiously inspired activism may hold the best hope for those in resistance to the prevailing Trumpian order.

I’ve come to this view in publishing a small book of reflections on the last sayings of Jesus from the cross — a devotional exercise, to be sure, but one that’s brought to mind the motive force of a Christian message based not on Fox News but on what those first-century words meant then and can mean now. “Father, forgive them”; “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”; “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” — these remarks from the Gospel accounts of the Passion form a kind of final sermon from Jesus, one about forbearance, duty, love and mercy.

I am a Christian (a very poor one, but there we are), but I am also a historian, and contemplating the beginnings of the story of my ancestral faith has led me to think about the uses of Jesus down the eons. Yes, Christianity has been an instrument of repression, but in the living memory of Americans it has also been deployed as a means of liberation and progress — which feeds the hope that it can become a force for good once more.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

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Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

From the Mailbag: Help a History Teacher Address Difficult Sources With Students

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A high school teacher, who is very up-to-date on recent scholarship in history teaching and learning, writes:

I’m writing to ask if you have or know of any resources our department can use as we craft a statement and collect possible materials to use with students in introducing them to best practices re: handling charged or difficult language in primary sources and historical context.  I’ve had two classes this year pretty much reject use of the Jourdan Anderson letter (as you know, I”m sure, he was a formerly enslaved person, free in Ohio in 1865, who responded to a letter from his former master asking him to return and work for him) because Anderson used the term “Negroes.”  I’m not sure if you’ve come across anything that could help us do some introductory sessions with students, reviewed at the start of each year and perhaps periodically, to help them approach and best contextualize and understand such language in primary source documents.  

I’ve looked at Southern Poverty Law Center materials, particularly their doc on Teaching Difficult History (primarily about slavery, with an interesting intro by David Blight). What’s most relevant for this conversation is their emphasis on context and using more primary sources.  We’ve also looked at Facing History, Facing Ourselves, and one of the principles we’re giving greater emphasis is that history is supposed to make us uncomfortable.  Our students have conflated comfort and wellness and made wellness an absolute good.  The logical conclusion is that discomfort is bad, and that making someone uncomfortable is an offense.  But we need to know about the Holocaust, for example, and there’s something very, very wrong if learning about this doesn’t make one uncomfortable. I’ve also lifted some of your writing on the importance of developing historical empathy, from the blog, and see that as obviously connected with context, language, and respect for others (respect as causing us to listen and work to understand before judging).  In regards to discomfort, I found the comments re: Robert Orsi’s keynote especially provocative and helpful.  Still in process here and thanks for the helpful grist for the mill.

Any suggestions for this teacher?  I realize the comments are closed, but feel free to e-mail or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Frederick Douglass on Economic Inequality

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Historian Matt Karp introduces us to Douglass’s papers “The Accumulation of Wealth” (1856) and “The Land Reformer” (1856).

Here is a taste of his introduction at Jacobin:

No single document, of course, can solve the riddle of Douglass’s complex political ideas. But while doing research at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I came across two articles in the 1856 Frederick Douglass’ Papers that have not, to my knowledge, been reprinted or digitized since. (Most of Douglass’s journalistic writing remains unpublished, though a forthcoming volume in the Frederick Douglass Papers should help address that problem.) Nor have they been excerpted, quoted, or discussed at length in the extensive scholarship on Douglass.

Both articles, “The Accumulation of Wealth” and “The Land Reformer,” help shed new light on how Douglass saw the relationship between economic inequality and political democracy in the 1850s. They also demonstrate that in the age of Trump and Michael Bloomberg, Frederick Douglass has much to teach us today — not only about racism and civil rights, but the acute dangers posed by “the unlimited hoarding of wealth,” and the hard truth, still sidestepped by many liberals today, that true political freedom is only possible under conditions of material equality.

In both pieces Douglass embraces the position, held by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans (though remarkably few establishment Democrats today), that “wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown.” He anticipates arguments that “unbridled accumulation” is simply a part of human nature: in fact, the “mighty machine” of capitalist society is an innovation, which compels, rather than reflects, acquisitive behavior. And he rejects the idea that poverty is an unchangeable fact of social life: it is, rather, the “consequence of wealth unduly accumulated.”

What is perhaps most striking here, however, is the underlying assumption that it is the duty of democratic politics to “minister” to the problem of economic inequality. Individual philanthropy, however noble, can never address the root of the problem. In fact, the highest aim of “the true statesman” is to devise measures that eradicate poverty, prevent “the undue accumulation of wealth,” and create an egalitarian economy where “no one” is either rich or poor.

Read the entire introduction and the primary documents here.

Joanne Freeman on Why We Need Historians During this Election Cycle

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Here is a taste of the Yale historian‘s recent piece at The Washington Post:

Historians have been busy in recent months, and for good reason. Almost every day brings a stream of political questions from all quarters: Has this happened before? Is it truly unprecedented? Is it dangerous? What are the implications?

History has been used in two ways to answer these questions. First, it has been yoked to ongoing debates, with public figures deploying historical precedent (imaginary and otherwise) as needed. Front and center in this dialogue have been the Founders, a seemingly uncontestable source of authority for any and every claim.

Second, history has been a shorthand source of consolation in the face of an onslaught of wrongdoing and corruption that is evading, perhaps defeating, the rule of law.

Justice may not prevail at present, this argument goes, but the eyes of history will expose the ugly truth, a phenomenon that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) branded “history’s rebuke.”

Historians have played a major role in both conversations. Well aware of the importance of understanding the roots of the current crisis, and faced with an onslaught of bogus historical claims, they’ve had much to say in the public sphere — and it matters. The New Yorker registered the trend last month with an article on “#twitterstorians,” historians on Twitter who engage with one another and with the public to “de-Trumpify American history.” There has been blowback against this trend, with some claiming that historians are scholars, not pundits. Others contend scholars who engage with the public aren’t “serious” about their work, an idea that is thankfully fading — albeit gradually. But in truth, given the unprecedented nature of our crisis, there could be no better time — indeed, no more urgent a time — for historians to engage the public with gusto.

Read the rest here.

Women Could Vote in New Jersey Between 1776 and 1807

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I continue to plug away on my history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.  This piece encouraged me to keep forging ahead.  Here is a taste of Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times‘ piece “On the Trail of America’s First Women to Vote“:

“The New Jersey exception,” as it’s sometimes called, has been puzzled over by historians, who have debated whether it represented a deliberate, widespread experiment in gender equality, or an accidental legal loophole whose importance was greatly exaggerated by the era’s partisan press.

But curiously, there has been little to no direct evidence that more than a handful of women had actually cast ballots — until now.

After scouring archives and historical societies across New Jersey, researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia have located poll lists showing that women really did vote in significant numbers before the right was taken away.

The newly surfaced documents, which will be featured in an exhibition opening in August cheekily titled “When Women Lost the Vote,” may seem to speak to a hyperlocal story.

But the discoveries, the curators say, shed fresh light onto the moment when the meaning of the Revolution’s ideas was being worked out on the ground, in elections that had more than a little resemblance to the messy, partisan and sometimes chaotic ones we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

Is the Old Frank(y) Schaeffer Back?

17ca2-frank_schaefferFrank Schaeffer, the son of mid-century evangelical public theologian Francis Schaeffer, worked very closely with his father, Jerry Falwell Sr, Pat Robertson, and others in the creation of the Christian Right. About thirty years ago, he turned his back on his father’s legacy and became a prominent voice on the religious left. Back in 2007, before I started The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I reviewed his memoir Crazy for God at the now dormant Religion in American History blog.

In Micah Danney‘s recent Newsweek profile, Schaeffer talks about abortion in a more nuanced way than he did in the 1970s and 1980s. But I still hear some echoes from the old days when he was producing films based on his father’s book Whatever Happened to the Human Race.

Here is a taste:

Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Boston in November, Schaeffer skewered the religious conservative movement he once served. His politics are much more progressive across the board, he said. Yet on abortion, the issue so central to his father’s legacy and his own path through fame, fortune and influence, he is critical of the left.

His fellow progressives are overly simplistic about it, he said, and dangerously so. They underestimate the impact that Roe v. Wade had on those who disagree with it. That miscalculation has turned the impact into a shock wave that continues to drive seismic shifts in American politics, powering Republican politicians into positions they then use to legislate against just about every other cause important to Democrats.

“Essentially, [liberals] have not honestly dealt with the fact that they had upset an apple cart that has changed American history. They just want it to all go away,” Schaeffer said. “‘We’re not talking about it because it’s settled.’ Well, it was never settled, and the poll numbers show that it is still not settled because it’s not just a bunch of old farts who are on the pro-life side. You have a whole younger generation of people coming up who aren’t even supporters of the Republicans.”

Twenty-five years ago, 56 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice and 33 percent as pro-life, according to Gallup. As of May 2019, pro-choicers have declined to 46 percent and the pro-life movement claims 49 percent of the population.

Schaeffer calls himself pro-choice but anti-Roe v. Wade. Life does begin at conception, he said, at least biologically. He sees the Democratic Party’s stance as “slavish and dogmatic,” and painfully neglectful of sincere moral outrage that smolders unabated on the other side of the issue. He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 followed the legalization of abortion in a number of European countries, but argues it went further than all of them. That amounted to an “in your face” insult, he said, and added to a deep moral injury felt by a huge number of Americans whose religious convictions are central to their lives.

“We’re going up to 23 weeks. We’re going to divide it into trimesters and say it’s all fine and this is just a blob of tissue,” Schaeffer said. Extending that logic so close to the moment of birth and putting it all under a mantra of choice was an invitation to righteous backlash, Schaeffer argued.

By discounting such a large segment of the population’s concerns about the morality of the act, liberal dogma around abortion violates the central Christian principle of integration, Schaeffer said.

“We pretend that half our population doesn’t exist, and we tell them to just deal with it,” he said.

Pro-choicers will never get pro-lifers to cross the bridge to their side, Schaeffer said. A healthier relationship overall could start with a more honest national conversation about abortion procedures, according to Schaeffer, as well as issues like the future of genomics. All of it, he said, has implications for how we regard life and how lives will be affected.

Read the entire piece here.

Springsteen Course at Monmouth University

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Check out Steve Strunsky’s NJ.com piece on historian Kenneth Campbell‘s Monmouth University course “Bruce Springsteen’s America: Land of Hope and Dreams.”

A taste:

The class, as the syllabus states, “explores the history of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the lens of the life, music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen.”

Campbell and his 21 students meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons in a nondescript classroom in Rechnitz Hall bereft of any signs of Springsteen-mania but equipped with an overhead sound system that Campbell uses to play snippets of the songs, like the sparse piano and harmonica intro to “Thunder Road,” the opening track to his critically-acclaimed commercial breakthrough album from 1975, “Born to Run.”

The main textbook is Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, also titled “Born to Run,” which Campbell used to validate the course itself and his academic discipline.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Robert Jeffress Needs Socialism

This Fox News segment got some traction yesterday:

Comments:

1. Robert Jeffress claims that Democrats are on the wrong side of every major faith issue, especially abortion.  He always pivots to abortion because he believes it is the most important faith issue on the table.  Fair enough. But he also pivots to abortion because he wants to rally his Christian Right base to vote for Donald Trump. Jeffress is a surrogate for Trump and a spokesperson for the American political movement known as the Christian Right. He has credentials for serving in these roles because he is a minister of a Dallas megachurch.  Jeffress’s constant call to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” is disingenuous. He pulls out this verse whenever he wants to dismiss an approach to Christian politics that does not fit comfortably within his Christian Right playbook. Jeffress can say that the Democrats are on the “wrong side” of “every major faith issue” in America because he believes that there are only three such issues: abortion, religious liberty, and support for Israel.

2. Jonathan Morris is correct. The Democratic Party is not going to attract evangelicals until it moderates some of its positions on social and moral issues. I made roughly the same case here.

3. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, a black pastor and politician, says that the black church is committed to acts of mercy and justice that today we might call “socialism.” While I appreciate Dawkins-Haigler’s counter to Jeffress, we need to be careful about pinning a modern political ideology on Jesus.  Jesus was not a socialist.  There was no such thing as socialism at the time Jesus lived.

4. Jeffress, of course, is not going let Dawkins Haigler’s reference to socialism slide.  The very utterance of the word raises the hair on the back of his neck. Culture warriors and fundamentalists like Jeffress are incapable of taking nuanced approaches to these kind of issues. Instead of suggesting that socialist concerns about the plight of workers might have some overlap with Christian views of social justice, Jeffress claims that socialism is “absolutely antithetical to Christianity.” (Of course there are millions of Christians around the world and many in the United States who disagree with him here.  I guess they’re not real Christians).  Jeffress needs socialism.  It is vital to the survival of his fear-based approach to Christian politics.  Without the constant “threat” of socialism he loses his political brand. His statement equating socialism to “communism lite” reminds me of historian Richard Hofstadter‘s words about McCarthyism in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

The [McCarthyite] inquisitors were trying to give satisfaction against liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, intellectuals, and finally even against a Republican [Eisenhower] administration that failed to reverse liberal policies.  What was involved, above all, was a set of political hostilities in which the New Deal was linked to the welfare state, the welfare state to socialism, and socialism to Communism. 

For Hofstadter, McCarthy’s attack on communism was part of a deeper fear-based politics, something he would later call the “paranoid style“:

The deeper historical sources of the Great Inquisition are best revealed by the other enthusiasms of its devotees: hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt, implacable opposition to New Deal reforms, desire to banish or destroy the United Nations, anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, isolationism, a passion for the repeal of the income tax, fear of poisoning by fluoridation of the water system, opposition to modernism in the churches.

The Difference Between “Intelligence” and “Intellect”

Hofsadter 2I am revisiting Richard Hofstadter‘s Pulitzer-Prize winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).  Early in the book, Hofstadter makes a distinction between “intelligence” and “intellect.” I found it useful.  Here is a taste:

p. 25: Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them…Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind.  Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines…The distinction may seem excessively abstract, but it is frequently illustrated in American culture.  In our education, for example, it has never been doubted that the selection and development of intelligence is a goal of central importance; but the extent to which education should foster intellect has been a matter of the most heated controversy, and the opponents of intellect in most spheres of public education have exercised preponderant power.

p.26: …few of us believe that a member of a profession, even a learned profession, is necessarily an intellectual in any discriminating or demanding sense of the word.  In most professions intellect may help, but intelligence will serve well enough with out it.  We know, for instance, that all academic men are not intellectuals; we often lament this fact.  We know that there is something about intellect, as opposed to professionally trained intelligence, which does not adhere to whole vocations but only to persons.

p.27: …the professional man lives off ideas, not for them.  His professional role, his professional skills, do not make him an intellectual.  He is a mental worker, a technician  .  He may happen  to be an intellectual as well, but if he is, it is because he brings to his profession a distinctive feeling about ideas which is not required by his job.  As a professional, he has acquired a stock of mental skills that are for sale.  The skills are highly developed, but we do not think of him as being an intellectual if certain qualities are missing from his work–disinterested intelligence, generalizing force, free speculation, fresh observation, creative novelty, radical criticism.

This semester, in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) courses at Messiah College, I am teaching a lot of first-year students pursuing professional careers such as nursing, business, engineering, and education.  Over the next three years of college these students will learn a specific skill and in the process accumulate a certain kind of intelligence about a subject.  They will use this intelligence toward a career. As Hofstadter puts it, they will “acquire a stock of mental skills that are for sale.” (Hopefully they will also put this intelligence to use in a life of service).

But it seems like a text-based interdisciplinary liberal arts course like CCC should be about teaching students to pursue an intellectual life. This course should be an introduction to a way of thinking about the world that transcends narrow intelligence.  If I read Hofstadter correctly, a student can gain intelligence during their college career without learning how to foster intellect.

As I challenge students to exercise their minds in general education courses, teach them how to think, and invite them to develop an intellectual life, I sometimes wonder if they are under the impression that I do not believe they are intelligent.  This is not the case.  I have many intelligent students in my classes this semester, but this does not mean that they are intellectuals.  This is a helpful difference that I want to share with them soon.

Positive Words from the #ExEvangelical Crowd

Believe Me 3dI am not sure if this is good or bad, but it appears that there are some people in the ex-evangelical crowd who like my analysis of American evangelicalism. After my interview at Salon with Chauncey DeVega, I got a message from Chrissy Stroop, a leader of the #exevangelical movement. She read the DeVega interview and wanted to feature my work in a piece on anti-Trump evangelicals.

Here is a taste of Stroop’s piece as it appeared at Raw Story (Evan Derkacz, the editor of Religion Dispatches, is listed as the author, but I am certain that Stroop wrote the piece.  Whatever the case, the quotes in the piece come from an exchange of messages with Stroop, not Derkacz):

In light of this situation, I’m singularly unimpressed with most critical commentary directed by anti-Trump evangelicals at their coreligionists; Trump is, after all, a symptom of a much broader malady, one in which these commentators are to varying degrees complicit. Where, for example, is Gerson’s accountability for his role in the George W. Bush administration’s lurch into “truthiness”? Here we are, 17 years after the devastating and destabilizing Iraq War was launched on false pretenses, in a U.S. whose Right wing is broken and has largely, including most white evangelicals, embraced the post-truth politics that are a hallmark of authoritarianism. Yet people want to celebrate Gerson for merely being anti-Trump? Sorry, not sorry, but it’s too little, too late.

Commentary that attempts to downplay, obscure, or to some degree excuse white evangelicals’ large-scale embrace of authoritarianism—even outgoing Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli’s much vaunted editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office—elicits in me, if I’m being quite honest, more contempt than respect. Yes, I know what it’s like to be inside evangelical subculture, how terrifying (and sometimes risky) it is to publicly break with the community’s widely held views in even the slightest way. But when wealthy white men, who will be in no actual economic peril if they take a stronger stance, fail to muster more than the tepid criticisms of the Gallis and Gersons of America, I find it beyond underwhelming.

On the most charitable reading, men like Gerson and Galli may be hoping to change evangelicalism from the inside in a way that I have long since been convinced is impossible. It’s noteworthy that in the midst of these anemic criticisms, anti-Trump evangelicals typically bend over backwards to assure fellow evangelicals that their community’s paranoid fears of “attacks” on their religious freedom are justified, and that their anti-choice dogmatism is a respectable position, and not the proxy for often unacknowledged racism that it systemically functions as. And yet the fact that there are still many evangelicals and fundamentalists who will castigate them for being “too liberal” speaks to what we might call evangelicalism’s pluralism problem.

While I would apply a portion of the criticisms laid out above to some of evangelical historian John Fea’s public comments, I was pleasantly surprised by remarks he made in a recent Salon interview with Chauncey DeVega that’s well worth the read. To give credit where credit is due, Fea, the author, most recently, of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, has been more forthright and steadfast than most evangelical critics of white evangelical support for Trump, and he’s also dug deeper into the problem. In his interview with DeVega, Fea starkly observed that evangelicals “have no model for pluralism. They cannot grasp any idea of a pluralistic society in which there are people who differ from them and question what American evangelicals believe.”

Read the entire piece here.

Stroop holds me at arms length, but I appreciate that she takes my views seriously.

Most conservative evangelicals and many moderate evangelicals hold me at arms left for the same reasons  Stroop liked the piece.

And don’t worry Mom and Dad, I am not becoming an “ex-evangelical” anytime soon. 🙂

Addendum (February 24, 2020 at 11:14am):  Stroop’s piece is now up at Religion Dispatches.

The Author’s Corner with Benjamin Park

CoverBenjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his  new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: While I was a student at Brigham Young University, I had the chance to spend an entire semester in Nauvoo as part of their “Semester Away” program. While there, I fell in love with both the city and with history in general; it was that semester that I changed my major from pre-medicine to English and history. While my interests took me elsewhere for my dissertation and first book, I was drawn back to Nauvoo in 2016 when the LDS Church published the detailed minutes for the “Council of Fifty,” a clandestine and scandalous organization that Joseph Smith created the final year of his life with the intent to become the new world government. I decided that now was the time to use my new historical tools on my old fascination, and the book was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: We now take the concept of democracy for granted, but we often forget what a new and scary concept it was in the early nineteenth century. The story of Nauvoo—a city that appeared on the swampy shores of the Mississippi River in 1839 and grew to over twelve thousand residents within five years—reveals a moment when the democratic system failed, as both those within and without the city turned to extralegal and, in the end, violent measures to preserve the peace.

JF: Why do we need to read Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: Mormons are often treated as outliers to the American religious and political story—quixotic curiosities rarely deserving prolonged attention. But Kingdom of Nauvoo aims to show, through a fascinating story of political intrigue, sexual rumors, and conspired murder, that the story of Nauvoo tells us much about the central issues for understanding antebellum America, as well as the democratic legacies that remain with us today.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the primary sources you used for this project.

BP: Mormons were a record-keeping people, and this was especially the case in Nauvoo. I was fortunate to have hundreds of contemporary sources ranging from letters, diaries, and newspapers that flesh out the story of the thousands of people who lived in the city. Many of these, including the Council of Fifty minutes, were unavailable to historians until very recently, making this a story that could only now be fully known.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I am privileged to be the editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Religious History, which features chapters from thirty brilliant scholars that demonstrate religion’s centrality to American history. The volume will be available at the end of this year. I am also just starting on a book about the role religion played in the rise of militant abolitionism during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

A history of our relationship with books

Rethinking Max Weber on the vocation of the scholar

A strange piece of Syracuse real estate

Andrew Sullivan on the “absurd tragedy” of the Trump presidency

Torture in American history

Slave songs

Sean Wilentz puts the Houston Astros cheating scandal in historical context

The founding fathers on presidential pardons

Why do academics hate Mayor Pete?

Commas and commemoration

Anger

The most famous high school basketball team in the world

The irony of African Americans promoting democracy in post-WW II Germany

Presidential writing

The importance of institutions

Adjunct faculty

“Christic Manhood?”

A Court Evangelical Who Hosts a Patriotic “Freedom Sunday” Warns Christians About Accommodating to the Culture

Here is court evangelical Robert Jeffress talking to Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs:

3 thoughts:

1. Jeffress should be careful about suggesting First Baptist Dallas, a bastion of segregation for most of its history, has never changed a message that he claims is built on “the eternal truth of God’s word.”  Those “six blocks” in Dallas were built on a mixed legacy.  It is a history and legacy that Jeffress and his congregation have yet to address.

2. Jeffress also better be careful when he says that it is only liberal churches that accommodate to American culture. Jeffress holds an annual Sunday morning 4th of July celebration in his church and has proven over and over again that the Republican Party holds him captive.

3. Jeffress suggests that the Bible teaches three things: opposition to abortion, religious liberty, and the support of Israel.  Jeffress knows it is politically expedient in the frenzy of a Fox News interview to boil public Christianity down to these three things.  Since Pete Buttigieg supports “none of these things,” Jeffress says, he should not be referencing the Bible in public.

Last night I picked-up my Bible, randomly turned to the first two chapters of the New Testament book of James, and started reading.  These chapters focus on a few central themes: growing in faith amid religious persecution, the guarding of the tongue, the condemnation of the rich, and the importance of good works as markers of a true Christian faith.  What if these things informed an evangelical public and political theology?

Some Simple Ways First-Year College Students Can Improve Their Writing

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This week I graded sixty-eight 750-word analytical essays that students wrote in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.  Student essays responded to this prompt:

Write a paper responding to one of the readings on education (by Stanley Hauerwas or John Henry Newman or Ernest Boyer). Choose one point / claim / argument in the reading you choose, and respond to it using the one of the following invention processes: agree-disagree or define by qualifying or amplifying a point.

Since this is a designated writing course, I spend more time with each essay than I would in an average history course. After I returned the papers to the students on Friday, I took a few minutes to address some common mistakes:

  • Read the paper aloud. If a sentence sounds awkward to the ear consider rewriting it.  Even better, read the paper to someone else.
  • The real work of writing begins on the second or third draft.
  • Active voice
  • When a sentence ends with a quote, the period goes inside the quotation marks.
  • If a sentence is longer than three lines it is probably too long.  There is nothing wrong with short sentences.
  • Avoid phrases like “I believe” or “I feel.”  Just say it. For example, some students write:  “I really feel Ernest Boyer is right about community and I truly believe we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.” Just say “Ernest Boyer is right about community and we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.”
  • Don’t put too much bibliographical information in a sentence.  Avoid sentences like this: “Ernest Boyer, on page 17, paragraph 7 of the CCC Reader edited by Jim LaGrand, says….” This is why we have citations.
  • After the instructor returns a paper the student should read everything he or she writes on it.  If a professor puts a lot of red ink on a paper it is because he or she wants to help the student become a better writer.

Why I Wrote an Essay About Hockey on March 5, 1980

US And Russian Hockey Teams Competing In The 1980 Winter Olympics, The Miracle On Ice

I played a lot of pond hockey as a kid growing-up in North Jersey. I used to go to Masar Park after school on winter days with my brothers and play in a daily pick-up game with neighborhood kids. I was a terrible skater, so I usually played goalie. (I later turned this love for net-minding into a high school career as a lacrosse goalie). After the U.S. Olympic Hockey team beat the Soviets and won the Gold Medal in 1980, I had dreams of becoming the next Jim Craig.  I believed if I worked hard enough I would be ready for the 1984 games in Sarajevo.

In the months following the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics I was obsessed with hockey.

It was also around this time that I thought I might want to be a sportswriter.  All of my middle school essays had something to do with sports. In eighth-grade I even started a small sports magazine with the help an artistic friend who provided the cover designs. We called it Sports Journal.  We put out two issues and sold about ten copies.

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This particular issue of Sports Journal included articles on Louisville’s NCAA tournament win (cover story); Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp leading Virginia to the NIT championship; a news story on CBS-NY sports broadcaster Warner Wolf signing a new contract; a story on Ann Meyers leading the The New York Gems (professional women’s basketball) in scoring; an “NBA Rookies Report” that said Bill Cartwright had a brighter NBA future than Magic Johnson; an update on the NHL careers of members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team; a reflection on the retirement of Muhammad Ali; and a professional wrestling column that included references to Ivan Putski, Ken Patera, and Harley Race.  Pretty hard hitting stuff!  🙂

Recently, I found an essay I submitted on March 5, 1980.  I wrote it for Mrs. Quiroz’s seventh-grade English class at Central Middle School (now Lazar Middle School) in Montville, New Jersey.  I will never forget this assignment because Mrs. Quiroz read it to the class as a model of good writing.  I will let our readers judge whether Mrs. Quiroz was correct in her assessment:

“Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!!!”  That was the voice of ABC television hockey broadcaster Al Michaels in the final seconds of the United States Olympic Hockey Team’s upset victory over Russia.  Less than   forty-eight hours later this also came out of Michael’s mouth as time ran out in the United States gold medal victory over Finland: “The impossible dream comes true!!!”

The United States victory was truly remarkable, but how many people really know how hockey is played?  There are three main positions in hockey:  the goalie, the defensemen, and the line (which includes two wings and a center).  Out of these positions the toughest is goalie.

Kick, save, and a beauty.  Tremendous save!”  These are also the words Al Michaels mentioned about United States goalie Jim Craig.  The goaltender is definitely the most important man on the hockey team.  Without him there would be no one to stop opposing team’s shots.  Jim Craig’s spectacular performance actually won the game for the Americans since they were outshot by the Russians three to one. 

“Long slapshot from the point, save, rebound, another save!” The goalie has to have tremendously fast reflexes because once he makes one save eighty percent of the time the puck will roll to an opposing player who will slap the puck right back at you. Since the puck is traveling at a speed of fifty to sixty miles per hour, you can see how fast reflexes pay off.  Many people feel that the goalie has to be superhuman to survive such a beating every three or four days, but people don’t know that ninety percent of the time the goalie doesn’t feel a thing.  He is heavily padded with thick leg pads, chest pads, and arm pads.  He can also protect himself with a heavily padded glove and an eight-inch-wide goalie stick.  The goaltender also has protection from his own players known as defensemen.

“Here comes the Russian, skating into open ice trying for the tying goal, but the play is broken-up by defenseman Ken Morrow.”  That was again, Al Michaels on United States defenseman Kenny Morrow.  Morrow, Bill Becker, Mike Ramsey, and Dave Christian definitely made Jim Craig’s job as goalie  a lot easier.  Their job was to break up any players breaking for a goal and not let them take a shot.  In other words, get the puck away from your opponent.  The defensemen experience the physical contact aspect of the game the most since they are the only ones who usually experience opposing players slamming them into the boards or checking them. The loud grunting and hard hits never get the best of these guys as they know their job: get the puck, wherever it is.  They have to do whatever it takes to get it, even if that means they must suffer a hard hit or a vicious check.

“Mark Pavelich  behind the goal, skates out in front, centers to Buzz Schneider, he scores!” This time Michaels is explaining the process in which the second U.S. line of Mark Pavelich, Buzz Schneider, and John Harrington scored a goal against Czechoslovakia. The line’s main job is to score goals.  Most teams have three lines that switch off an on every five minutes.  These men pass the puck around the goal and try to put it in the net.  In Al Michaels’s quote above right wing Mark Pavelich skated behind the goal and centered, or passed the puck in front of the goal, to Buzz Schneider who put it in.  A good line could be a goaltender’s nightmare if they can maneuver the puck close enough to the net for a shot.  Lineman do a lot of checking…

Unfortunately, the last page is missing.  I am so sorry that you are unable to read how this exciting tale comes to an end!  🙂

By the way, I am pretty sure these were exact quotes from Al Michaels since I taped every U.S. hockey game with my audio cassette tape recorder.  I just set the recorder next to the television set and pressed the “play” button.

Enjoy the fortieth anniversary weekend of the Miracle on Ice!

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

The *Philadelphia Inquirer* Responds to the Financial Struggles of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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I spent a lot of time in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in the 1990s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation.  I have also lectured there a few times.  So needless to say I was saddened to learn that this venerable institution was having financial troubles.

Yesterday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer called on the city to strengthen the HSP.

Here is a taste of the editorial:

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania realized $2.2 million last November by selling 1,102 commemorative medals from a collection bequeathed to it in 1897. The financial struggles of this nonprofit institution in Center City are worrisome but all too familiar. In 2018, the Philadelphia History Museum abruptly shut down. While it will be rebooted through a partnership with Drexel University, neither the Historical Society’s proposed affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania nor with Drexel has borne fruit.

HSP calls itself “Philadelphia’s Library of American History” with good reason: It is home to a printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence, a first draft of the Constitution, a journal of the Underground Railroad, and millions of other handwritten, printed, and engraved materials.

Selling commemorative medals said by society officials to be of marginal scholarly and public interest was at best a stopgap measure. Last year, the Historical Society, founded in 1824, laid off one-third of the employees on a staff described as already bare-bones.

This suggests a broader, deeper, community-driven effort is needed to strengthen this institution. The society is part of an ecosystem of institutions, including the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, that support the city’s status as a global center for historical research. They are stewards of a legacy that belongs to us all.

Read the rest here.