When historians on the Left and the Right engage in “the pleasures of condemnation”

Yesterday I wrote about the White House’s conference on American history. Read that post here. Conservatives are cheering the event. Those on the Left–particularly academic historians–are trashing the event.

There are a lot of reasons to be critical about what happened at the White House last Thursday (again, read my post). But I often wonder if those on the academic left are engaging in the same kind of anti-intellectualism, rigid fundamentalism, and cancel culture as those on the right.

Meanwhile, there is a very large intellectual center in America made-up of people on the Left and the Right who are not willing to be pulled to the fringes. I think this large center–a place of open discourse and academic freedom–is articulated best in the recent letter published in Harpers magazine and signed by the likes of Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jeet Heer, Matthew Karp, Randall Kennedy, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Cornel West, Sean Wilentz, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

These signers and other like-minded academics, intellectuals, and thinkers, are calling for the “free exchange of ideas,” which the letter describes as the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” Read the statement here.

Western Washington historian Johann Neem, the author of several books including What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, reflects the spirit of the Harpers letter in a recent twitter thread:


What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part two). Or is *Believe Me* a work of history?

Why Study HistoryRead part one here.

This post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Here are five suggestions for those who want to pursue Robert Gleason’s idea that the historian should always ask whether or not what happened in the past was “good.”

First, the historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism. They are not called to give their opinions about the past. Such activity is better left to the ethicists, theologians, and politicians. Those who do want to offer some level of moral reflection on the past should do so only after they, their students, or their readers have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened the way it did. Sometimes this kind of moral reflection works better in the classroom than it does in a book, article, or museum exhibit.

Second, when historian do speak and write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation. In other words, historians should speak as historians to the moral concerns of the public. Historians, like everyone else, have opinions, and in the United States they are free to express those opinions, but when speaking to the public as historians they must do so with the goal of bringing historical thinking skills to bear on the issue at hand. As James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least historians on their days off.”

Third, when a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized by mature moral thinking. Let’s think about this from the perspective of the Christian historian.  The Bible and church tradition provide Christians with a source of truth that enables them to shed moral light on all of human life, regardless of the era. But for Christian historians to engage in moral criticism well, they must have an adequate theological and biblical understanding of the Christian tradition. Sunday school Bible proof-texting will not cut it. Nor will moral platitudes (Hitler was “evil” or “The Declaration of Independence should be praised because it mentions “the Creator”) that are not grounded in deep theological or ethical thinking. At least one historian has even suggested that historians interested in doing “moral history” should first be trained in the discipline of moral philosophy.”

Fourth, historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner. Christians who write history should take to heart the words of Adrian Oldfield:

If the historian litters his account of the past with explicit, stentorian, moral judgments, then the result is likely to be a very ugly piece of historical writing indeed, however much attention he scrupulously pays to evidence. But more judgments do not have to be delivered in such a thunderous manner. Historians can make clear their moral positions implicitly, in terms of the language they use, and in the tone and style of composition.

Historians should also avoid explicit moralizing because we, like the historical actors we write and teach about, are flawed humans. This belief should always be on the mind of historians as the thunder their moral prophetic condemnations on people in the past. George Marsden summarizes it well: “We can point out that we ourselves probably have similar blind spots and that, even though our mistreatment or neglect of our neighbors may not be as notorious or spectacular, we share a common humanity with those whose action we deplore.” This can be the most difficult part of writing moral history and it must always be balanced with the Christian’s or citizen’s responsibility to speak truth to power. Individual historians will strike this balance in different ways.

Fifth, and finally, historians should also remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgment on them. Thomas Jefferson might have been the champion of the ordinary farmer, religious freedom, public education, and small government, but he was also a slaveholder. Or to put this differently, Jefferson owned slaves, but he was also influential in promoting the democratic ideas that eventually led to emancipation. The complexity of the past will often trigger our moral imaginations. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history’s moral turn may help “create productive confusion and a willingness to recognize that behind all our moral choices, whether past or present, lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony.”

Several people who read Why Study History? have asked me how my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my regular criticism of Trump and the evangelicals who support him intersects with what I have written above. It’s a great question. Let me try to explain.

What I have written above is how I approach teaching and writing history–my primary vocation. But I also engage the public–especially here at the blog–as a father and husband, son of the working class, white educated male, seminary graduate, professor at a small college on the margins of academia and, most importantly, as a Christian. All of these identities inform my opinions, commentaries, and moral critiques. Often times they merge in such a way that makes it impossible to break them apart. As one of my favorite writers Richard Rodriguez once told the graduating class at Kenyon College, “life is a whole.”

I do not teach the way I write at this blog. Nor do I teach with the same political and moral tone that readers encounter in Believe Me. In fact, I don’t really understand Believe Me as a work of traditional history. It is too overtly political to call it that. Of course all of my books have some political dimension to them. I do not pretend that politics does not play a significant role in every historian’s work.  (Although I do lament that only one form of political thinking dominates the academy). But whatever kind of politics inform my other books, I made every effort in those books to read the record as honestly as possible and keep my own moral voice limited. In Believe Me, however, I let it rip. I stepped outside the historian’s traditional role and tried to speak as a Christian to my own tribe of Christians.

One more thing. Though Believe Me was unlike any of my other books, I think I still approached the subject as a historical thinker. As I tell my students, when a person learns to think historically it is hard to think about the world any other way, even when you are offering opinion and commentary.  In Believe Me I did my best to understand Trump and his evangelical supporters. I tried to interrogate claims like “Make America Great Again” from my training and expertise as a historian. I tried to marshal historical evidence to help readers see why evangelicals flocked to Trump. I also tried to take a long view and situate Trump’s evangelicals in a larger context that spans several centuries. This makes Believe Me different from other books about Trump and evangelicals. I tried to understand my subject historically and then, and only then, offer moral criticism in accordance with my training in Christian theology. In the end, I think I was somewhat consistent with what I wrote above and in Why Study History?

I am currently working on another book of history. But I also think I have some more historically-inflected opinion and commentary in me as well. Thanks for helping me think through this in public. For those familiar with Why Study History? you know that these last several paragraphs have moved the discussion beyond what I wrote in that book.

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.

How does a historian think about the past?

Why Study HistoryAdapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The past is everywhere. Take some time to think about the many ways you have encountered the past today. Perhaps you shared a memory with a family member or looked at some old photos on Facebook. Or maybe you spent some time thinking about how the past has shaped who you are today. The past serves our needs in a variety of ways. We consume the past in hopes that it will inspire us, provide an escape from modern life, and tell us who we are as individuals and communities. We enter the past in search of people like us, and we invoke the past in our political and cultural debates. We cannot escape its presence in our lives. So why not embrace it? As we will see below, attempts at making the past relevant must be done with caution, but we should not be shy about linking the past to the present.

If you are a historian, part of your responsibility is to inform the general public about the way the past connects to our contemporary lives and to help the members of your community use the past to make meaning of their lives. As those living in the “here and now,” we are in constant dialogue with the past, whether we realize it or not. As long as we remain products of an American culture that celebrates the individual and his or her quest to bring order to life, we will live in a paradoxical relationship to what has come before us. The past will always serve as a temper to the progressive vision of a better world, but we will appeal to it endlessly in order to make that world a reality.

We must also always remember that the past is akin to a foreign country. Historians have the important task of visiting this world and explaining it to others through the books we write, the lectures we give, the lessons we plan, and the exhibits we curate. It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own.

Historians are tour guides. It is important to always keep this in mind as you engage the past. Your success as a historian or a student of history will depend on how effectively you are able to use your research paper, essay, or presentation to bring lost worlds to life for your readers and hearers. But this will not be easy since our natural inclination–our “psychological condition at rest”–is to consume the past for our own purposes to try to remake the past in our own images.

As an exercise in understanding, any serious study of the past requires us to attempt to humbly walk in the shoes of people who have inhabited this earth before us. This is why Stanford University history pedagogy expert Sam Wineburg has called the practice of historical thinking an “unnatural act.” It it this role of the historian–the role of a tour guide through foreign cultures–that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past. It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

When the Supreme Court engages in bad history

Supreme Court

Willamette University law professor and historian Steven K. Green makes a compelling case that the Supreme Court was “sloppy” in its use of history in the recent Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

More broadly, the opinions in Espinoza raise questions about the Court’s use of history, particularly when it becomes a rule of constitutional law. History is “complex,” as Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged and Justice Breyer echoed, yet an adversarial legal forum is not the optimal place for settling the complexities of a historical event. The efforts of Catholic immigrants to find acceptance in nineteenth-century America have been documented, as has the resistance of Protestants who were suspicious of the commitment of a foreign-born Catholic hierarchy to American democratic values. 

That this episode coincided with the development of American common schooling has only added complexity to the historical narrative. Proponents of common schooling sought to create an institution where children of various faiths could acquire a commitment to republican values, while ensuring the financial security of the fledgling public schools. Public school advocates were also concerned about ensuring public accountability and public control over school funds. 

Funding a competing system of religious schooling—at the time, not solely Catholic but also Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist schools, among others—would have stunted the development of public education, its advocates believed. Witnessing the rapid growth of Catholic immigration and its rising political influence in many cities, public education advocates also feared that funding religious schools would lead to religious competition and divisiveness. 

Embracing some of those arguments, nativists then added a layer of anti-Catholic prejudice that was guaranteed to appeal to some, but not all, Protestant Americans, including those who faced economic dislocation resulting from the influx of immigrant workers. At the opposite end of the spectrum was a cohort of liberal Protestants and freethinkers who opposed funding of religious schooling on grounds it violated church-state separation and the rights of conscience of those who didn’t want their tax dollars to support religious beliefs with which they disagreed. 

I could go on because there’s more to the story, but that’s precisely the point. This history is too complex to be decided in a judicial forum. In writing opinions, judges commonly draw on the information contained in the briefs of the parties and their supporting amici curiae. These briefs are written by lawyers (typically not historians) who advocate for particular outcomes and provide arguments and cherry pick data to support those resultsThis process is far removed from the enterprise of historical scholarship. 

Not only is legal adjudication not the optimal forum for unpacking the nuances of history, but a judge’s interpretation of a historical event takes on a greater significance. By “declaring” the defining meaning of a particular historical episode—something that historians refrain from doing—that interpretation becomes a constitutional rule. 

Read the entire piece here.

Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.

 

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

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?

How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

A Time for Empathy, A Time for History

Black Lives Matter 2

I published this piece at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016. It seems relevant today:

On Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

Historians Doubt Received Wisdom

1918FluVictimsStLouis

Influenza epidemic in United States. St. Louis, Missouri, Red Cross Motor Corps on duty, October 1918. (National Archives)

How should the 1918 influenza pandemic inform our response to COVID-19?

Here is a taste of Kevin Peraino’s piece at Politico:

So what is history for? Yes, it can reinforce one’s pet theories. But there’s another way to think about it: History is most useful when it is marshaled to overturn received wisdom, not reinforce it. The highest and best use of Spanish flu comparisons may be to poke holes in our own presumptions about what to do.

The deans of this school of thought were Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, two popular Harvard University professors who taught a beloved class on reasoning from history. Their classic 1986 book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, was designed as a guide for leaders who sought to incorporate history into their work. One of their central case studies shows how American policymakers have, in fact, gotten the lessons of the Spanish flu wrong before.

The key to using history well, Neustadt and May argue, is to doubt received wisdom. Each historical comparison should be taken apart and analyzed. The shrewdest policymakers refuse to take historical analogies at face value. So it should give us pause when a bureaucrat makes a slick passing reference to a complex historical inflection point.

Read the entire piece here.

Citizenship is More Than Just the Facts We Learned in Civics Class

Citizenship

History News Network is running my piece on history and citizenship.  Here is a taste:

Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within  civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs. 

Read the entire piece here.

How a History Book May Have Saved Some Lives in This Pandemic

BUsh NIH

This post is not a defense of Donald Trump’s handling of our current pandemic.  But thanks to George W. Bush and his love of history, we at least had SOMETHING in place.

I have not read John Barry‘s 2004 book The Great Influenza, but the paperback is currently #242 on Amazon. (I did meet Barry when he was touring for his book on Roger Williams. We sat on a panel together in Newport, Rhode Island. I also reviewed that book at The Christian Century). Thankfully, George W. Bush did read Barry’s book. Over at ABC News, Matthew Mosk explains what happened after he read it. Here is a taste of his piece:

In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, when he began flipping through an advanced copy of a new book about the 1918 flu pandemic. He couldn’t put it down.

When he returned to Washington, he called his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the galley of historian John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” which told the chilling tale of the mysterious plague that “would kill more people than the outbreak of any other disease in human history.”

“You’ve got to read this,” Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. “He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.'”

Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan — a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.

The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.

But elements of that effort have formed the foundation for the national response to the coronavirus pandemic underway right now.

“My reaction was — I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?'” Townsend said. “He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.'”

Over the ensuing months, cabinet officials got behind the idea. Most of them had governed through the Sept. 11 terror attacks, so events considered unlikely but highly-impactful had a certain resonance.

Read the rest here.

The Study of History Prepares Us for Moments Like This

history_books

My daughter is home from college. Tonight at the dinner table we were talking about citizenship in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of our conversation inspired today’s earlier post on that subject.

Both of my daughters are studying liberal arts at a liberal arts college. Caroline, who is now taking classes from her childhood bedroom, is majoring in political science and considering adding a major in environmental studies. Allyson, as a senior, is a double-major in history and psychology. Their coursework is challenging them in good ways. They are learning and growing intellectually. I pray that both of them will draw upon their work in these fields to help them navigate our current moment.

The humanities, a particular branch of the liberal arts devoted to the study of history, literature, rhetoric, theology and religious studies, philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and languages, to name a few of the subjects that fall under its intellectual umbrella, offer an approach to the world that bodes well for the creation of good citizens in a democratic society.

This is why founders such as Thomas Jefferson valued an educated citizenry. In an September 28, 1820 to William Charles Jarvis, Jefferson wrote:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform them their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of the abuses of constitutional power.

The humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, teach students how to think critically about their world. How do we evaluate the information we receive about the coronavirus? What kinds of sources can we trust? In a time when news and information about this virus is changing and developing at a rapid rate, context becomes very important. News that came across our feeds two days ago may no longer be relevant today.  Historians are trained to “source” documents.  When was the document written? Who is the author? What is the purpose of this document? Does this context give us better insight into the meaning of the text?

Historians are also able to put this pandemic in a larger context. Type the words “1918 Influenza” into your web browser and notice dozens of historians trying to help us make sense of the present by understanding the past. Historians understand the human condition. They can, at times, alert us to potential present-day behavior by reminding us of what happened in an earlier era.

The study of history also cultivates the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historian Sam Wineburg argues convincingly that it is the strangeness of the past that has the best potential to change our lives in positive ways. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country–a place where they do things differently than we do in the present–set off on a journey that has the potential to transform society. An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of a “foreign country.” Sometimes the people who inhabit that country may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities.  Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.

History demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, ideal or event from the past in order to understand it. It thus, ironically, becomes the necessary building block of informed cultural criticism and political commentary. It sharpens our moral focus and places our ethical engagement with society in a larger context. One cannot underestimate how the virtues learned through historical inquiry also apply to our civic life. The same skills of empathy and understanding that a student or reader of history learns from studying the seemingly bizarre practices of the Aztec Empire might also prove to be useful at work when we don’t know what to make of the beliefs or behavior of the person in the cubicle next to us.

The study of the past has the potential to cure us of our narcissism. The narcissist views the world with himself at the center. While this a fairly normal way to see the world for an infant or a toddler, it is actually a very immature way of viewing the world as an adult. History, to quote Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”

As we begin to see our lives as part of a human community made up of both the living and the dead, we may start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. We may want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to understand why they see the world the way they do. We may  want to have a conversation (or two) with them. We may learn that even amid our religious or political differences we still have a lot in common.  We also may gain a better understanding into why their ideas must be refuted.

History majors and historical thinkers: we have prepared you for such a time as this!

Should Historians Judge People by the Standards of Their Time?

Why Study HistoryI get this all the time: “Let’s not judge slaveholders based on present-day morality because they were products of their time.”

Indeed, slaveholders were products of their time.  The historian’s primary goal is to try to understand them in context so that we can better grasp why some people believed slavery was a good thing.  Some historians believe that their work stops at this point.  They let the activists, pundits, and critics decide how to use their historical research to advance present-day arguments or agendas.  This perfectly fine. When it comes to world-changing work, the historian plays a limited role.

Other times, however, historians are not satisfied with mere understanding.  They feel called to move beyond “what happened” or “why what happened happened” to moral judgments about whether what happened was good or bad.

I have argued that historians are primarily responsible for uncovering and explaining the past.  I am not opposed to moral criticism–and I have done plenty of it here and elsewhere–but such criticism must always come after we have grasped a particular subject in its historical context.  I actually prefer to introduce audiences–students, readers, hearers–to the moral critiques of people who lived in that time period.  For example, rather than expounding on how slavery is immoral, I prefer to call attention to slavery-era abolitionists or other opponents of slavery and let them do the work.

Erin Bartram gets it right in her recent piece at Contingent Magazine, Don’t We Have To Judge People By The Standards Of Their Time?”  Here is a taste:

…let’s consider one way the cliché is frequently used by white people in the United States: in conversations about the history of enslavement, especially ones about “Founding Fathers” who enslaved people. It is right to say they were products of their time—products of a time that affirmed in law the right of people like them to own other people. It’s why they set up innovative new systems of government that still preserved their right to own people.

To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a “standard” view is to erase the fact that no society, even a culturally- and religiously-homogeneous one, has a “standard” view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions. Moreover, there’s no situation in which everyone who holds one view doesn’t at least have a sense of opposing views.

And this is why bolstering this argument with the idea that some people just didn’t know is so wrong. It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing. There were a lot of people who believed that enslavement was wrong. Enslaved people believed it was wrong. Free black people believed it was wrong. Even some white people believed it was wrong. People in all three of those groups allowed their beliefs to guide the choices they made, including small and large public and private resistance where and when they could, sometimes at great risk to their lives.

On the other hand, many white Americans were aware of abolitionist sentiments but didn’t agree with them, and instead made choices based on their own belief that chattel slavery was a necessary evil—or even a positive good. What I suspect is more distressing to white Americans, however, what provokes the use of this cliché more often, is the idea that many white people in the past believed enslavement was wrong and chose to keep their mouths shut and participate anyway, even as secondary recipients of its “benefits.” In this sense, perhaps the “standard of the time” we’re talking about is moral cowardice, though I doubt that’s what people who use the phrase are thinking.

Read the entire piece here.