Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

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.

*Believe Me* Interview with Jana Riess of Religion News Service

Believe Me 3d

I can’t thank Jana Riess enough for her encouragement, friendship, and support of my work.

As some of you know, she was the editor of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  We had a nice little run with that book, including a day at Mount Vernon in June 2011 where we were honored as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.   We had lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn, climbed to the cupola of Washington’s house, and hobnobbed on the lawn with the D.C. elite, including Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when she agreed to blurb Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

“It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.”

Today, Religion News Service published Jana’s interview with me.  Here is a taste:

RNS: Your second point is that white evangelicals have bought into the idea that the only way to have an impact on the culture is to seize upon worldly power. What were the roads not taken? What else could they have done instead?

Fea: The history of American evangelicals appealing to political power is a relatively new history, maybe going back to the late 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the Christian right. I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? that evangelicals had been in power in America up until the 1960s in terms of determining what would be America’s cultural symbols, understanding of marriage, and position on other social issues. It’s not until those traditional values become challenged in the 1960s that evangelicals begin this new strategy of pursuing political power as a way to reclaim the culture.

Since the 1960s, there have also been some evangelical approaches to politics that are unrelated, or do not call for the pursuit of political power, like James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” or Michael Gerson’s call for evangelicals to learn more from Catholic social theory. Or there are Dutch Reformed people who are followers of Abraham Kuyper, who did not advocate seizing political power in the way the Christian Right wants to do. And since the early 1970s, people on the evangelical Left, like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, have called for a different kind of evangelical power. But the Right refuses to adopt any of these models, and has instead built their entire political philosophy on changing the culture by trying to elect leaders who will follow their agenda.

Read the entire interview here.

Episode 31: Searching for Christian America in a Boston High School

TWOILH
The practice of historical thinking requires training. In this episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss this crucial habit of the mind, especially within a political climate where historical claims run rampant regardless of whether there is evidence to back them up or not. They are joined by high school teacher Mike Milway, who teaches at the prestigious and socio-economically diverse Boston Trinity Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as three of Dr. Milway’s students, to discuss how they cultivate historical thinking in their classrooms.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Fourth of July Weekend Experiment

Jersey

What does a historian do on a holiday weekend when the archives are closed, he can’t get around well due to an injured leg, and his family is out of town?  He hangs out with his dog Jersey and does this:

Check out #ChristianAmerica? Twitter (don’t forget the question mark) or follow along @johnfea1.  We will be tweeting every 30 minutes during the weekend.  Tell your friends to join us for a 4th of July weekend history lesson on religion and the American founding!

Virginia’s House Resolution 297 and the “Christian Heritage” of the Commonwealth

christian-american-photoA lot of Christian nation stuff has been coming across my screen in the last few days.  I have some time today to address it, so stay tuned.

First, we have the Virginia General Assembly’s House Resolution 297.  Here it is:

WHEREAS, on April 26, 1607, a chartered expedition, subsidized by the Virginia Company to establish colonies on the coast of North America, disembarked upon the banks of Cape Henry, now Virginia Beach; and 

WHEREAS, the Reverend Robert Hunt, the expedition’s official cleric, and the members of the expedition erected a wooden cross in symbolic reference to the Christian faith, invoked a public prayer of dedication, and pledged that the Gospel message would be spread throughout the region and, from that region, abroad; and

WHEREAS, the ensuing Jamestown settlement was the site of the first public communion ceremony in Virginia, in the tradition of the Lord’s Supper of the New Testament; and

WHEREAS, the Jamestown settlement was the first permanent English colony in North America and included a recognized church wherein Christian worship, teachings, and baptisms were conducted in accordance with the Gospel message, as exemplified by the baptism of Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans in the region; and

WHEREAS, the Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history, of equality, human dignity, and equal protection under the law have provided an incalculable influence on law and thought throughout history, and in particular to our shared English common law tradition and Western civilization; and

WHEREAS, these same principles of equality, human dignity, and equal protection rooted in Mosaic law influenced America’s foremost Civil Rights leaders, including the esteemed Virginia Civil Rights attorney and leader Oliver White Hill, Sr., whose own paternal grandfather founded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, which the Hill family attended and where Oliver Hill attended Sunday School; he worked diligently, influenced by his Christian faith, to end racial discrimination and helped end the doctrine of separate but equal; and

WHEREAS, according to the Pew Research Center, millions of Virginians, representing various denominations, identify as Christians, carrying on the faith traditions brought to North America by its first settlers; and

WHEREAS, thousands of churches in the Commonwealth continue to provide spiritual leadership and education; care for the poor, indigent, and homeless as commanded by the Gospel message; and conduct generous outreach in their communities; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, That the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history be recognized; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates transmit copies of this resolution to Rodney Walker and First-Landing Festivals, requesting that they further disseminate copies of this resolution to their respective constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the Virginia House of Delegates in this matter.

As Brooke Newman points out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the real problem with this Resolution is not that its sponsors got their facts wrong.  (Although some do appear to be wrong).  It is how the facts are interpreted and explained.  This is an important point. Christian nationalists like David Barton and others often have their facts straight. Most of us can read from historical documents and quote them.  But this is not history.  History requires that we put those facts in context and avoid manipulating them for the purpose of making political points in the present.  As I have said a hundred times, both the left and the right are guilty here.  I have written a short primer on how think historically titled Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It is a quick read.  Some of you may find it helpful.

The authors of this resolution are not interested in providing a full picture of the Jamestown experience.  They are politicians.  And although the resolution does not make any direct demands in terms of public policy, the very fact that these Virginia politicians feel the need to pass such a resolution implies that they are trying to lay a foundation for their view that America was somehow founded as a Christian nation and should somehow return to being one.

Anyone who has studied colonial Virginia and Jamestown cannot deny that religion played a role in its founding.  But to suggest, as this resolution does, that religious motivations were more important than economic self-interest is not fair to the historical record. (I just spent the last week with my U.S. History Survey students discussing these very points).

In addition to Newman’s op-ed, I would encourage you to read my fuller take on these matters in chapter 5 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. The chapter titled “Were the British-American Colonies Christian Societies.”

Talking with Evangelicals About Religion and the American Founding

West Shore

In January I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a course at my church titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”

“Mainstream Evangelical” is probably the best way to describe the people who attend West Shore Evangelical Free Church.  The theological commitments and cultural sensibilities of the folks who attend West Shore represent the views of millions of white American evangelicals. The membership of West Shore is solidly middle class.  The pastors are generally Calvinist (some more than others) in theological orientation.  The music is contemporary (yes we have a worship band).  The sanctuary has chairs (not pews) and a state of the art sound system.  Members read popular books published by evangelical publishers and listen to Christian speakers such as Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Eric Metaxas, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Andy Stanley, David Platt, Tim Tebow, Max Lucado, and Ravi Zacharias.  Most of the members vote GOP.  I would guess that a good number of the people in my church voted for Donald Trump.  I would also guess that many supported another GOP candidate in the primaries.  And I would guess that very few voted for Hillary Clinton.

Again, this is mainstream white evangelicalism.

I went into this 4-week course expecting trouble.  Frankly, I was surprised that the pastoral staff asked me to teach it.  Most evangelical churches tend to shy away from courses like this.  Such courses are too controversial.  Pastors don’t want their congregations divided over political issues such as whether or not America is a Christian nation.

Anyone who has read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? knows that the book is not polemical in its approach to this question.  But in certain evangelical churches, the very fact that a book like this does not openly promote the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation automatically makes it polemical and unChristian.

Now that the course is over, I am happy to report that everything went well.  If there were David Barton-types in the class (I taught about 150 people per Sunday) they did not speak-up.  (Although a few of them made themselves known anonymously on their course evaluations forms.  Some were quite scathing).  Those in the class seemed to approach the topic with an open mind. It gave me hope that we actually can make progress in bringing good American history to the evangelical church.  It made me want to continue my work on this front (if other evangelical churches would have me).

The biggest challenge in a course like this is trying to get the class to think historically.  As Sam Wineburg has taught us, historcal thinking is indeed an “unnatural act.” When most evangelicals come to a class titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” they naturally think about the question in political terms.  This question has become one of the major battlefields in the so-called “culture wars.”

When I started to teach from a historical perspective–an approach that makes every effort to understand the material on its own terms rather than using the historical facts to make a contemporary political point–I think some people found it jarring.  Why is he pointing out that the founding fathers may have been too innovative and political in their use of the Bible?  Why is he calling our attention to founding fathers who were not Christians?  Why is he pointing out the fact that God is not mentioned in the Constitution? Is this guy one of us? They feel much more comfortable when I talk about the God-language in revolutionary-era state constitutions or how Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams appealed to the Bible to make a case for independence.  They want a usable past to fight the culture wars.  But that is not how historians work.

A few years ago one of the people in my church who had just finished reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? stopped me in the hallway and thanked me for writing it.  But he said that reading the book was like “riding a rollercoaster.”  He said that as he read one page he found himself in agreement with me, but then on the next page he said that he was baffled when I raised issues that did not fit well with his political world view or his assumptions about the agenda behind my book..  This person was conditioned to read American history through the lens of the culture wars. It took him some time to realize that my book– a history book–was not written to promote a political agenda.   My class at West Shore last month seemed to be just as disoriented.  They were looking for ammunition to fight the culture wars and I did not deliver.  Instead, I tried to tell the truth about the past to the best of my ability.

The response to the class was overwhelming.  I received at least 8-10 e-mails each week from folks who had additional questions.  I was encouraged that so many of my fellow evangelicals wanted to think more deeply about religion and the founding.  Many left with more questions than answers.  This is good. Some have already asked me for additional reading material so they can expand their knowledge of the subject.

I learned a lot from the course as well.  I thought I attended a church filled with Christian nationalists.  Instead, I discovered that many folks in my church are eager to learn.  They want to make sure that their political witness is not damaged by claims that America is a Christian nation that somehow needs to be “restored.”  And I also learned that there are a lot of folks in my church who did not think the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. They are very bothered by the fact that so many evangelicals manipulate the past to serve political ends.

I want to thank the pastoral staff at West Shore for inviting me to teach this class and for advertising it to the congregation.  I am becoming more and more convinced that my church really does care about the cultivation of the evangelical mind as a means of equipping men and women for faithful Christian service.

Sundays in January at West Shore Free Church

Christian NAtionStarting tomorrow (Sunday, January 8) I will be teaching a 4-week class entitled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  The class is part of the “Training Arena” series at West Shore Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA.

I will be teaching the class twice each Sunday morning. One session runs from 9:00-10:15.  The other session runs from 10:45-12:00.  We will be in rooms 200-202 if you are in the area and might be interested in attending.  The class is open to the public and will be taught on January 8, 15, 22, and 29.

Southern Baptist Spokesman: We Are Not a Christian Nation

Christian America bookWhen I wrote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 I hoped that it might make an impact on the way my fellow Christians think about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.

I don’t know if Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? or is even aware of it,  but I am encouraged by the fact that as a spokesman of conservative evangelicalism he is taking a strong stand against the idea that the United States is or ever was a Christian nation.

Here is a taste of an article  from Baptist News Global on Moore’s critique of Christian America.

In a Gospel Coalition video posted May 4 in advance of this week’s National Day of Prayer, Russell Moore of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said if applied sociologically to mean that most people in the country profess to be Christians, the United States “was and is a Christian nation.”

“That’s not what most people mean, though, when they say Christian nation,” Moore said. “What they mean is the idea that God was in covenant with the United States of America in order to bless the United States of America as a special people, as a new Israel, as a group of people covenanted under Christianity. And the answer to that is clearly no.”

Read the entire post here.  I am not sure I would explain Christian nationalists as proponents of “theological liberalism,” but I am glad to see progress on this front.