Evangelicals, American History and Support for Donald Trump

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The ideas and proposals I put forth in the last section of this piece I just published with History News Network are very important to me.    Thanks for considering them and sharing the piece with those who may need to read it.  I had hoped to publish this with a Christian, evangelical or conservative media outlet, but could not find any takers.  I am thankful to Rick Shenkman for running it.

A taste:

If the Christian Right, and by extension the 81% of evangelical voters who use its political playbook, are operating on such a weak historical foundation, why doesn’t someone correct their faulty views and dubious claims?

We do.

We have. 

But countering bad history with good history is not as easy as it sounds. David Barton and his fellow Christian nationalist purveyors of the past are well-funded by Christian conservatives who know that the views of the past they are peddling serve their political agenda. Barton has demonized Christian intellectuals and historians as sheep in wolves’ clothing. They may call themselves Christians on Sunday morning, but, according to Barton, their “world view” has been shaped by the secular universities where they earned their Ph.Ds. Thanks to Barton, many conservative evangelicals do not trust academic and professional historians—even academic and professional historians with whom they share a pew on Sunday mornings.

Read the entire piece here.

Will Future Generations Condemn the Recent Supreme Court Decisions?

Sotomayor_AP_2018-06-26

Who knows?

Historians are not prophets and history, despite what Barack Obama and other progressives say, does always lead toward justice as understood by the person making the claim.  I have been saying this for a long time, but I really like how Jacob Bacharach puts in his New Republic piece “Don’t Count on History to Judge Wisely.” Bacharach writes in the context of Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting remarks in the Trump v. Hawaii travel ban case.  Sotomayor said that “history will not look kindly on the court’s misguided decision today, nor should it.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

History’s superseding judgment also crept into the left’s responses in the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates case, the other decision announced on Tuesday, in which another narrow conservative majority ruled on free speech grounds that anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” can, in effect, deceive people about the services they provide, overturning a California state law that compelled certain disclosures. The court, much of lefty Twitter agreed, had once again found itself on the wrong side of history. This presumes that the left, broadly defined, will be the ones writing it, because the left will prevail.

This is magical thinking. The Democrats are completely out of power in Washington and across most of the country, and the Supreme Court is one retirement or heart attack away from a 6-3 conservative majority (and a chief justice who is just 63). It may be reassuring to quote King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that famous line was, in context, an explicitly theological consideration, not a statement about the inevitability of temporal social justice. Moreover, that refrain obscures the difficult fact that King grew increasingly pessimistic in his final years, increasingly doubtful that history was predisposed to justice at all.

Moral superiority in the absence of political power is useless, and self-reassurance in the inevitable upward motion of progress—that it may be interrupted or delayed, but rises inexorably—is self-indulgence. The GOP has spent the last half-century methodically and patiently laying an infrastructure for the acquisition and, more importantly, for the exercise of power. Its broad capture of the American judiciary is one of the great political feats of the modern era. The ostensible opposition party lacks a clear strategy for the coming legislative midterms, let alone for the incremental grooming of a cohort of jurists to place on the bench two to three decades down the road.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Powerful Threads” That Run Through the History of First Baptist Dallas

First Baptist

I am sure much of what court evangelical Robert Jeffress has tweeted here is true.  I rejoice with all those women and men who experienced redemption and changed lives through the ministry of First Baptist Church–Dallas.  I know some of you.

But I am also a historian.  It is my calling.  It is what I do.  So let me note that there are other “powerful threads” that run through the history of First Baptist Dallas.  Let’s start with political scientist Tobin Grant‘s 2016 Religion News Service piece on longtime pastor W.A. Criswell.  The piece draws on the research of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis.

Here is a taste:

Whatever role pastors and other clergy had during the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, there is a specific history that Jeffrees is ignoring. Obviously, his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was not on the side of abolitionists. More notably, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a prominent segregationist who long saw the fight against integration as part of the gospel.

W.A. Criswell led the church from the 1940s to the 1990s. During this time, the church tripled in size to 22,000 members, including notable members such as Billy Graham. Criswell’s election to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1968 marked the beginning “battle” of the conservative takeover of the denomination.

The election of Criswell was surprising. In the 1968 convention, the SBC voted to integrate its churches and welcome all races to membership. Criswell, however, was the most prominent segregationist in the SBC.

In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.

Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”

He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”

Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty: Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.

Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.

Read the entire piece here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

founders

For protecting the separation of church and state

For not declaring English as the official language of the United States of America

For giving rights to the states (so we can all have clean water)

For their connection to the same church as Bishop Michael Curry

For their support of an archaic electoral college

For providing the POTUS with the power to pardon

For giving the power to make war to both the Congress and the President

For being enthralled with the Greeks and Romans

For wearing tricorn hats and knee breeches

For only allowing property owners to vote

For their emoluments provision

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

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Thurmond eventually joined the GOP

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is sick and tired of Trump supporters claiming that the Democrats are the party of racism and white supremacy today because they were the party of racism and white supremacy 100+ years ago.  This twitter thread is a masterful lesson in change over time.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Kruse and the way he has used twitter to teach us how the past informs the present, listen to our interview with him in Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Read the thread here.   A taste:

Since @kanyewest‘s tweets have apparently made this topic unavoidable, some thoughts on the history of the parties’ switch on civil rights.

First, it’s important to note that, yes, the Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and, in the early 20th century, the party of segregation, too.

(There are some pundits who claim this is some secret they’ve uncovered, but it’s long been front & center in any US history.)

Indeed, as @rauchway once noted, one could argue that *the* central story of twentieth-century American political history is basically the evolution of the Democratic Party from the party of Jim Crow to the party of civil rights.

At the start of the 20th century, the Democrats — dominated by white southern conservatives — were clearly the party of segregationists.

President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, instituted segregation in Washington and across the federal government. (See @EricSYellin‘s work.)

That said, both parties in this period had their share of racists in their ranks.

When the second KKK rose to power in the 1920s, it had a strong Democratic ties in some states; strong GOP ones elsewhere.

Read the rest here.

Want to Work at Google? Take Some Humanities Courses. Or Better Yet, MAJOR in the Humanities!

Google

Fascinating piece here from Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Nationalism and Evangelical Support for Donald Trump

RevisedI wish I would have seen this study when I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  It provides statistical evidence for an argument I have been making ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy.

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have found that evangelical support for Donald Trump is directly related to the belief, common among conservative evangelicals, that the United States is a Christian nation.

This supports my argument that evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on some pretty bad history.  As many of you know, I have been writing about this bad history for a long time.  A good place to start is my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste of Whitehead’s, Baker’s, and Perry’s piece in The Washington Post:

The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump

First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations…

No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump

Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.

Read the entire piece here.

These sociologists used the following questions to decipher the ways that evangelicals think America is a Christian nation:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state” (reverse coded)
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”

Now here is how people like David Barton and other Christian nationalists try to historicize these questions:Believe Me JPEG

  1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation because it was founded as a Christian nation and secular liberals have been steering it away from its Christian roots since the mid-20th century.
  2. The federal government should advocate for Christian values because the founding fathers advocated for the role of Christianity as a way of bringing morality and order to the republic.  (This, I might add, is only partially true).
  3. Separation of church and state is a myth because it is not in the Constitution.  The doctrine of separation of church and state was created by the Supreme Court in 1947 when Hugo Black said that there is a “wall of separation” between church and state and it is “high and impregnable.”
  4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols because America has always allowed for such symbols.  Just look at the Rotunda of the Capitol building or coins.
  5. America is exceptional because God is on its side more than He is any other nation.  The United States is the New Israel–a chosen people.  And because George Washington and other founders talked about God’s providence this must be true.
  6. The Federal Government should allow prayer in public schools because prayer has always been part of the American education system, separation of church and state is a myth, and many of the Founding Fathers were men of prayer.

There are, of course, serious historical problems with all of these statements, but my point here is that all of these points must be addressed from the perspective of American history.  They must be pulled-up from the roots.  In many ways the evangelical support for Donald Trump is a historical problem and the failure of evangelicals to study it. This is something akin to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History

MLK

I have never met Matthew Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University.  I admire his book American Apocalypse: A History of American Modern EvangelicalismYesterday he wrote an op-ed at The Guardian: Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history.”

Here is a taste:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

Did Graham, as Sutton suggests, “fail” his country or his God?  Sutton believes that he did, but this is not a historical question.

Sutton falls into the trap of claiming that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side” of history.  Such claims have nothing to do with history.  They have everything to do with politics.  They tell us more about Sutton’s politics than Billy Graham’s legacy.

I found this tweet from November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election:

Read the rest of Sutton’s piece here.

A “Lineage of Sojourners”

 

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Last week I wondered why so many students at the school where I teach seem to lack interest in the history of American evangelicalism.  Read that post here.   Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz appears to agree with me.

Gehrz writes:

As someone who has taught history in a CCCU school for fifteen years, I’m going to join John in being skeptical of the desire of my students to better understand the history of American evangelicalism. Not only for the reasons that John shared at his blog, but because so few of my students identify with evangelicalism. We draw a lot of conservative Lutherans and a few Catholics, Methodists, and Presbyterians, plus megachurch kids who don’t even realize that they’re associated with the Baptist denomination that sponsors Bethel — let alone some larger movement called “evangelicalism.”

This is a great point.  Like Bethel University, Messiah College also has many non-evangelical students.  But the majority of our students, I would argue, come from evangelical backgrounds.

Gerhz then adds some words of optimism:

Now, if you asked my incoming students what “think they seek more than anything” from their Christian college experience, most would answer, “a job.” (Or maybe, “a spouse.”) But that’s because that’s what they’ve been trained to say — by our own marketing and recruitment folks as much as by their parents and the media.

But if you peel back such anxieties, I’ve often found a deeper longing, much more like what Worthen describes. And church history can help to satisfy that desire.

I won’t pretend that most Bethel students are thrilled that they’re required to take the multidisciplinary church history course that I coordinate and help teach: Christianity and Western Culture. I’m sure most are happy just to be done with a course as demanding as CWC.

But at some point in every semester it’s taught, I’m sure every CWC student experiences the sensation of glimpsing herself in the distant mirror of church history. She hears a lecture or reads a primary source and recognizes that the way she thinks about God, about herself, about America and the world, and about justice, beauty, and the good life is rooted in history. That her Christian story is bound up with earlier Christian stories.

That, for better and worse, who she is as a follower of Christ has been shaped by the past. For she comes to see that she is not alone in time, but a part of a centuries-old community of faith that is composed of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead. She finds kinship with what one of my colleagues yesterday called a “lineage of sojourners” (in an opening reflection on Psalm 39:12).

Read the entire piece here.  “Lineage of sojourners.”  I like that.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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For their ability to carry a tune

For not “envisioning career politicians

For having tensions with the free press

For believing in the right to bear arms

For not making racist, bigoted, and depressing remarks

For supporting and “educational vision” centered on “local control.”

For having their pictures replaced by pictures of football players

As radicals

For making sure we were a republic and not a democracy

For writing a Constitution that distributed power between the states and the federal gvoernment

For respecting the rights of conscience

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

Thank You Tom Hanks!

 

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Several readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home sent me this piece yesterday.

On Saturday night, Tom Hanks was honored by the National Archives with a “Record of Achievement Award” for his work in promoting American history through the use of original documents found in the Archives.

Here is a taste of CNN’s Jennifer Hansler’s article on the event:

Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks on Saturday night urged the importance of understanding and learning from history, especially for those troubled by the current state of affairs.

“People are upset about what’s going on today. They’re furious, they’re frustrated, they’re worked up,” Hanks said. “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.”

Read the rest here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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For have views equivalent to the Alt Right

For defending a free and vigorous press

For not including the right to own semi-automatic weapons in the Declaration of Independence

For not allowing religious tests for office-holding

For making sure that religious freedom would not be trumped by tyranny

For founding the United States on Judeo-Christian values

For establishing a representative republic

Because their works being rewritten by leftists

For creating a political system that makes it difficult to pass laws

For being in debt up to their eyeballs

For understanding the right to bear arms as something different from the right to bear “modern-scary” assault weapons

For leaving behind a legacy of the institutional protection of people’s civil liberties

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

The Real History of the Second Amendment

CornellIn an earlier post I recommended Fordham University historian Saul Cornell‘s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  It is the best historical account of the Second Amendment that I have read.  I was again reminded of why I admire Cornell’s book when I read his recent piece at The Baffler titled “Gun Anarchy and the Unfree State.”

Here is a taste:

To begin reckoning with this challenge, it’s worth pausing to consider the entire wording of the Second Amendment. Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the amendment does not even mention guns, but instead proclaims, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus, the Second Amendment, in contrast to the First Amendment, contains a preamble; an introductory clause affirming the necessity of a well-regulated militia. This arcane Latinate construction so dear to the Founding generation was an ablative absolute. Translated into modern parlance, the amendment would read something like this: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Also, note what the aim of a citizen’s militia is: achieving the security of a free state. In other words, the Second Amendment not only ties the right to keep and bear arms to a particular means, but it states a clear purpose. What, then, is entailed in promoting the security of said “free state”? To begin with, we should clearly stipulate that the individual right of self defense—the one closest to the heart of modern Americans—denoted something very different from a free state’s maintenance. Americans esteemed this right, but did not have much to worry about when it came to safeguarding it. Indeed, the right was such a fixture of Anglo-American law that John Adams used it as the basis for his defense of the British troops charged with murdering civilians in the Boston Massacre. An American jury empaneled to hear that case found Adams’s argument entirely persuasive and exonerated six of the eight soldiers.

So a free state’s security was something other than procuring the self-defense of a society’s individual members. It was, rather, a collective enterprise: In the eighteenth century, the security of a free state was accomplished by a well-regulated militia—a local institution, composed of citizen soldiers. And as the wording of the amendment makes plain, that militia was subject to extensive regulation by government. Indeed, militia statutes were typically the longest laws on the books in early America. So the logical question that one ought to ask—one that seldom gets raised in the contentious modern debate over the role of guns in contemporary American society—is this: How do we maintain and promote the security of a free state when we no longer live in small rural communities and depend on well-regulated militias? How can one enjoy liberty in a society awash in guns?

This is, at bottom, a historical question—one that’s largely anathema to the NRA and other advocates of expansive gun rights. Many gun-rights advocates fail to understand the actual historical background of the Second Amendment because our debates over gun ownership typically revolve instead around a potent set of myths that cloud our historical understanding. Chief among these myths is the iconic image of the “good guy with a gun,” eagerly manufactured and marketed by American popular culture. From the dime novels of the nineteenth century to Hollywood westerns and more recent figures such as Jason Bourne, a powerful entertainment folklore has infused the gun-rights narrative.  

Read the entire piece here.

“I Feel Sorry For Him”

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Last night I was watching Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, talking on CNN about why he resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council.  Trumpka was not angry. He just seemed sad.  At one point in the interview he said “I feel sorry for Donald Trump.”  He then talked about how we have a man in the oval office who did not understand common decency, presidential character, and especially American history. Though he didn’t say it outright, he implied that Trump’s failure to understand Charlottesville in the larger context of race in America, the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, the history of World War II and Nazis, and the Holocaust made him unqualified and unprepared to be POTUS.

As Trumka spoke, I thought about the men and women I have been writing about for the last year–the court evangelicals.  What role does the evangelical failure to undertake a deep study of history, and the anti-intellectualism of American evangelicalism generally, have to do with the court evangelicals’ loyal support of the POTUS?  I think it has a lot do with it.  Many of these evangelicals cannot see themselves as part of a larger history–both a history of the United States and the history of the church.  On race, they fail to see the long history of structural racism in this country.

Just a quick thought.

Trump’s Words About Charlottesville May Have A Silver Lining

College-classroom

Trump’s failure to unequivocally denounce racism in Charlottesville and his decision to make this all about monuments has hopefully made Americans more appreciative of what historians do.

Think about it. Over the course of the last week Americans have been offered history lessons on race, African-American history, the Confederacy, the Civil War, the difference between history and heritage, the Jim Crow Era, the meaning of monuments and commemoration, the Civil Rights Movement, the American presidency, and the KKK.

Let’s keep teaching.  I hope all the K-12 teachers who read this blog will enter the classroom this year with a renewed sense of purpose and vision.  And that goes for my college professor colleagues as well!  We have work to do!

Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

founders

For their agreement with John Locke about property rights

For believing in a Creator-God

For their opposition to political parties

For apportioning political power based on population

For the hypocrisy of their slave ownership

For their commitment to a “constitutional democracy” and not a “centralized bureaucracy”

For pledging their “lives, their land and their sacred honor”

For building checks and balances into the Constitution

For “cobbling together” our “federal union”

For their intelligence and education

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

founding-fathers-strip

For their belief in a creator

For “setting up” the idea of sending bills to conference

For their “warnings” to future generations

For their love of craft beer

For their fear of demagogues

For their ability to rise to prominence from humble means

For their passion for service to the American people.  (This was Trump last night in West Virginia).

For setting up a system of checks and balances

For their “button-up” style

For their inability to see the “explosion of money in politics.”

For instituting the president’s power of pardon

For their connection to Philadelphia

For their decision to keep religion “away” from politics.

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

More Founding Fathers

founding-fathers-strip

We tried this experiment last week.  Let’s try it again.

In the last 24 hours, the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the United States were invoked

For their use of Madeira wine

For not being circumcised

For opposing filibusters

For separating church and state

For limiting the freedom of police

For their apparent opposition to the 16th amendment

For their apparent opposition to the 17th amendment

For their commitment to checks and balances

For their belief in the exercise of personal will and reliance upon God

For their belief in a two-party system

For their support of diversity in the military

For their support of “Constitutional Carry

For their support of healthcare

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?