Monday, August 31, 2015

"Go Back to Mexico" in Historical Context

I got a chuckle out of this today.

From Blue Nation Review:


Consider the states you associate most with anti-Latino sentiment.

You might first think of Arizona, of Maricopa County in particular, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio was accused and found guilty of racially profiling Latinos.

Or perhaps you might think of Texas, the state where, according to conservatives, Mexicans are diluting American culture by refusing to learn English and turning San Antonio into a Mexican metropolis.

California might also enter your mind – Latinos are now the majority there, a fact that, when it was reported, royally freaked out conservatives. It’s as if they know that minorities are typically mistreated or something.

The point is, the anti-Latino word bank of your typical xenophobe will likely include: “border, undocumented, alien, illegal, fence,” etc. So it makes sense that the states most associated with anti-

Latino sentiment would be Border States.

But these states have something else in common too. They all used to be Mexico.


Mexico in 1822-1824:










Historians Are Crazy About "Hamilton: An American Musical"

Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to get Americans excited about Alexander Hamilton. His hip-hop musical about the first Treasury Secretary is taking Broadway by storm. It is even getting rave reviews from early American historians. In fact, a group of historians (and Pulitzer-Prize winners) went to see Hamilton last week and met with Miranda following the show.  If the twittersphere and blogosphere is any indication, these historians gave the show and Miranda rave reviews.

For example, here are some representative tweets:


















Even Miranda himself got into the mix on Twitter:




I have yet to see the musical, but my history-buff daughter has been begging me to go.  In the meantime, I have been enjoying these reviews:

Bruce Chadwick, "Alexander Hamilton and the Hip Hop Founding of America"

Benjamin Carp, "Bastard Out of Nevis"

Robert Snyder, "Why 'Hamilton' Is the Right Musical for Our Time"

Ishmael Reed, "'Hamilton: the Musical:' Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders...and It's Not Halloween."

Terry Teachout, "The Revolution Moves Uptown"

Today at "The Junto," historian Joseph Adelman, who was part of the group of historians who saw the musical last week, has a thoughtful review.  Here is a taste:

What makes that argument compelling is that Miranda gets the history right and also approaches a deeper truth about his subject, in a way that for most historians in our forms of writing is inaccessible. I’ll give you just one example from the show that doesn’t give much away. Miranda re-imagines the Cabinet meetings of the Washington administration, in which Hamilton and Jefferson frequently butted heads, as a series of rap battles between the two. The lyrics are spot-on in describing the position of the two on hot-button questions of the day: Should Congress adopt Hamilton’s economic plan? Should Washington back France or Britain in their never-ending imperial fight?

Of course they literally didn’t have a rap battle, but in reproducing their words in rapid-fire meter, Miranda reveals the deep discord within the Washington administration as well as the fragility and instability of early Republic politics. Throughout the show, the theme of early American politics as hip-hop war works to convey a really complicated argument in a way that’s immediately accessible. Watching the show as a historian who works in that era, I can rattle off the books that have clearly influenced Miranda. They’re sitting right in the open (and as it happens when I attended some of them were sitting a few rows from me). Certainly scholars of the early American republic make arguments that rely on the messiness (and contingency) of politics and the political system. So I’m not saying they don’t.

But for most academics and history students, “presentism” is something to avoid. If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand. But an artistic project can be imaginative in that way. In so doing, Miranda comes at the past with a completely different eye and without any of the baggage that academics burden ourselves with. And though he doesn’t make a unique argument about the past—and his primary objective is to tell a story, not make an argument—he presents the past in a way that reflects on human nature and how people interact with one another. It’s a trans-historical claim to connect Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton with Biggie and Tupac, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and, more importantly, it works.


The Author's Corner with Terri Snyder

Terri Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. This interview is based on her latest book The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Power to Die?

TS: During my research for my first book, I was reading county court records from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia and noticed reports of suicide. Most of these accounts described self-destruction by young, indentured servants who died under bleak circumstances; their stories both absorbed and troubled me. I started collecting any references to suicide that I came across  -- from courts and legislatures, newspapers and periodicals, slave narratives and plantations records, for instance – and amassed a surprising amount of material.  I ultimately focused on the suicides of enslaved men and women, however, because my research revealed that their deaths were understood, reacted to, and remembered distinctly, in ways that differed from those of free European Americans. For instance, in early modern Christianity, death by suicide was condemned as a grievous sin and a willful rejection of one’s God-ordained fate; it was also punished as a felony. When slaves killed themselves, their masters viewed those acts as powerful rejections of their authority.  In contrast, at least some enslaved people viewed suicide as a conduit to ancestral reunion and did not express reproach for others who had killed themselves.  In addition, by the era of the American Revolution, slave suicide was used for explicitly political ends. One of the earliest, popular printed anti-slavery tracts from 1773 (from which my book’s title is taken) used an enslaved man’s act of suicide to illustrate the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.  Given what I had uncovered about the visibility, meaning, and politics of self-destruction, I felt that the history of slavery and suicide needed to be written.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Power to Die?

TS: To put it most simply, suicide is part of the history of slavery in North America: the suicides of enslaved women and men were visible from the beginnings of the slave trade, evident across British American slave societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a focus for anti-slavery activists in the early United States, and remembered by ex-slaves and in African American folklore, literature, and the visual arts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acts of self-destruction by enslaved people carried completing cultural meanings, exposed the paradox of personhood and property that was fundamental to the legal institution of slavery, and were a political force in challenging attitudes both toward slavery and suicide.

JF: Why do we need to read The Power to Die?

TS: The Power to Die allows us to see both slavery and suicide from an original perspective and to understand the complex implications of self-inflicted death under slavery in early America. Partly, the book is focused on experience.  It has many examples of enslaved people who died by suicide or chose death over enslavement.  In a sense, this book is a witness to those deaths and examines the circumstances, when knowable, that surrounded them as well as the range of responses to them.   At the same time, this book also looks to the larger cultural, legal, and political meanings of self-destruction by enslaved women and men.  Accounts of their deaths by suicide found in legal forums, periodicals and newspapers, and popular literature and drama reflected prevailing ideas about race, gender, and temperament, expressed competing legal, cultural, and political tensions over slavery, and in the hands of anti-slavery activists, were used to challenge the peculiar institution.  The book concludes with a consideration of the memory of slave suicide in modern America. All of this makes for a widely chronological and interdisciplinary study, which I hope will appeal to historians of slavery and race, scholars of early America, and those interested in understanding death and violence in the American past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TS: I decided to pursue a Ph.D. relatively late as an undergraduate, and I was divided about whether to study early American history or literature, so I wed the two interests by choosing American Studies. I was also working on feminist causes outside of the university, so I knew that gender was going to be an element of my work.  But, honestly, I think I only began to become a historian when I took a class in early American women’s history with Linda Kerber; her example continues to profoundly inspire and shape my own work. I also attended graduate school with an amazing cadre of fellow students, and they also influenced my development as a historian.  Even today, these relationships still form the core of my scholarly networks, intellectual exchanges, and friendships.

JF: What is your next project?

TS: I am working on a biography of an early American family. The study begins on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1703, with the marriage of a free woman of color to an enslaved man.  The couple had seven children, and my book follows the life stories of those children as they and their descendants mature and migrate across and beyond the Atlantic seaboard.  I am particularly interested in using this family history to understand the changing experience of race, law, and freedom in early America. 

JF: Thanks, Terri!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Blue Laws

Religious liberty and priorities

Medievalists as snobs

Edward Gibbon and great history writing

Kathleen DuVal on Independence Lost

The power of story

Rowan Williams on research and spirituality

The Stamp Act and Indians

Jesus People

Some advice for teaching assistants

Books on national parks

Rhode Island's Stamp Act protest

Archives in a digital age

Historians and Twitter

Putting the Common Core in historical context

Religion, museums. and public memory

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tweet of the Day





The "Anti-Trump" Is On His Way

There is only one man right now who has more "power, media magnetism, and authenticity" than Donald Trump, and he will be in the United States in a few weeks.

His name is Francis.  And he WILL upstage "The Donald."

The arrival of Pope Francis on September 22, 2015 should make for some interesting media coverage.  I want to see how Trump reacts to a man who lives by a moral and religious code that could not be more different than the one he has been preaching on the campaign trail. I would love to see them have a conversation about capitalism, greed, or fidelity in marriage.  How would Trump respond if Francis pushed him to reveal his favorite Bible verse?

Timothy Egan's recent column at The New York Times spells out these differences.  Here is a taste:

One man hasn’t watched television in 25 years, gets around in a Ford Focus, and is named for a nature-loving pauper who didn’t believe in owning money, property or shoes. He is considered infallible, but often doubts his daily utterances.

The other man spent 14 years in the mirrored embrace of a television show about him, is transported by a fleet with his name on the side, and looks down on anyone who hasn’t amassed a mountain of property. He thinks he’s infallible.

In a few weeks, Pope Francis will visit our fair land, a fitting pivot from the Summer of Trump, closing out a gluttonous episode of narcissism, rudeness, frivolity and xenophobia. For all that the orangutan-haired vulgarian has done to elevate the worst human traits a public figure can have, Francis is the anti-Trump. He has more power, media magnetism and authenticity in his lone functioning lung than Donald Trump has in his entire empire of ego.

Trump may dismiss the 78-year-old leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Yeah, so he’s got his little 109-acre Vatican City, with those silly Swiss Guards. It’s the smallest country in the world — one-eighth the size of Central Park! As Joseph Stalin asked: How many divisions does the pope have? And this guy from Argentina with the goofy grin — no golf courses, resorts or even women who, sadly, are no longer a 10. He’s celibate!

Read the rest here.

Sending the Right Message to Incoming Freshmen: The Gettysburg College "First-Year Walk"

It is freshman orientation time at colleges and universities across the country.  Most schools have become very good at planning events and information sessions for first-year students.  Some colleges have games and picnics.  Other schools send freshmen into the streets to serve others.

But few of these freshman orientation traditions beat the Gettysburg College "First-Year Walk." Students walk from the campus through the streets of the historic town of Gettysburg. Along the way they learn about the three-day battle that took place there in July 1863.  The walk ends at the Gettysburg cemetery where Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is read at the spot where it was original delivered on November 19, 1863.

Wow!  

What impresses me the most about the "First-Year Walk" is the message that it is sending to incoming students.  In an age in which so may colleges and universities are trying to ride the STEM wave, and humanistic learning is under attack in the academy, the good folks at Gettysburg are letting its freshman class know right from the beginning that history, ideas, memory, place, speech, and political philosophy matter and will be an important part, if not the defining part, of their four-year college career.

Here is a brief video of the 2015 "First Year Walk."  I was also pleased to see that my friend Jill Ogline Titus was picked to give this year's keynote presentation.  Jill is the Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg and her husband Sean has done some adjunct work in the Messiah College History Department.

Born to Run: The Picture Book

You can put this book on the shelf next to Springsteen's Outlaw Pete.

Here is a description from Backstreets:

A picture book for all ages, inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen. Written by Wendy Parnell and illustrated by Matt Hall. Signed by the author especially for Backstreets
Johnny 99 has been caught racing in the street -- again. Now he's in trouble with his dad -- again. Wanting to assert his independence and in hopes of finding adventure, Johnny 99 leaves his hometown to travel across the country. He returns home a changed car.

Familiarity with Bruce Springsteen's music is not a requirement for the enjoyment of this book; its themes of independence, adventure, redemption, love and family are largely universal. But for those who are Springsteen fans, there are easter eggs galore, with 99 references to his work -- including with dad Frankie, a '57 Chevy, and mom Rosalita, a pink Cadillac, who live with Johnny on Flamingo Lane.

Learn more here.

Friday, August 28, 2015

More on Evangelicals and Trump

Yesterday I described religion as Donald Trump's kryptonite.  He is not a man of deep religious faith and this is something that he will not be able to fake.  Evangelicals who vote for him in the primaries are going to have to do so while holding their noses.

But who are these evangelicals? Do evangelicals even make up a voting bloc?   Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's recent New Republic article, "Why is Donald Trump Winning Over Evangelical Voters?," should remind us of two things: 

First, Trump is not attracting anywhere close to a majority of evangelical voters.

Second, evangelicals are not all the same.

Here is a taste:

What should be immediately apparent from these numbers is that evangelicals are not, in fact, all rushing out to vote Trump. In fact, among various polls, only twenty-something percent of them have registered any interest in Trump, with the remainder of their votes split among the other sixteen GOP options. As Philip Bump recently pointed out in the Washington Post: At this point, the evangelical vote is not really dissimilar from the general Republican vote—there really is no obvious evangelical pick. The curiosity of evangelical attention to Trump isn’t so much a question of how the belligerent billionaire captured the most sought after voting bloc in the Republican game (he hasn’t), but why any evangelical would have even the vaguest inclination toward him whatsoever.
The first and most obvious point to raise is that evangelicals are not all the same, as Pew found in 2007, when analyzing changes in evangelical approval ratings for George W. Bush. Though they constitute a voting bloc, the definition of 'evangelical' is somewhat mutable, and the population it encompasses is quite varied. By the end of Bush’s tenure in 2008, almost everyone was dissatisfied with him, but young, white evangelicals lost patience much more quickly and intensely than their older white counterparts. After having been among the president’s most ardent supporters, giving him an 87 percent approval rating in 2002, young evangelicals positively rated Bush at only 45 percent by 2007. Older evangelicals, meanwhile, approved of Bush at a peak rate of 80 percent in 2002, which declined to 52 percent in 2007, a significant but less sharp drop than the evangelical whippersnappers. At the time Pew thought the departure between the two age subsets within the evangelical population signaled an opening for Democrats to appeal to young evangelicals; what it really seems to have suggested is youthful dissatisfaction with the Republican party establishment.

Amusement Park of the Day

A great New Jersey amusement park.  Closed in 1983.

Blogging as Curating

I have written and spoken before about my philosophy of blogging.  Here is a session I was part of at the 2014 meting of the Organization of American Historians.  Some of you have seen this.  Some of you were there:



I think it is fair to say that my blog is quite different from most blogs written by other American historians.  I appreciate Joe Adelman's remarks about The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Other blogs don’t aim for “scholarship” in the narrowest sense (John Fea had interesting thoughts on how to construe the term) but do wonderful service to the profession by highlighting books of interest, topics that deserve coverage, and connecting history to the present. And some blogs do a little bit of everything. John Fea is my best example of this. In a single day, he will post interviews with authors and book reviews, highlights of research projects, notes about teaching, and Springsteen concert clips. Go ahead over and read The Way of Improvement Leads Home and then tell me how you’d classify it. I can’t—and I like it that way.

Most scholars who blog write a post once a day and they fill that post with original material.  Their blog posts are not unlike the kind of things that they might write in print. It is this approach to blogging that naturally informs the question "Is Blogging Scholarship?"

When I am in what I call "blogging mode" I can write five to ten posts a day. My philosophy, which I learned from reading Andrew Sullivan's now deceased blog "The Dish," is less about "scholarship" and more about "curating."  Since I am not a full-time blogger, I cannot post every twenty minutes like Sullivan used to do, but I do try to curate a steady stream of material for my readers. Unless I am on vacation, I post something every day.

Curating has also allowed me to build an audience.  My hope is that people will come to The Way of Improvement Leads Home much in the same way that people used to read the newspaper every morning.  So when I do have something original to say, or want to express an opinion about something, I have an audience ready to engage with what I have written.

Curators do important work.  Alan Jacobs doesn't like the term, but he is willing to admit that there is a place for it in the blogosphere. Here is how he describes the internet "curator."

There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together.


It may sound pretentious, but I think the Way of Improvement Home offers readers interested in certain issues--American history, religion, academic life, politics--a place to go that helps them bring order and relevance to material on the web.  I seldom post something without at least a sentence of commentary that situates the particular link or web article in a context or conversation. But even if I don't comment, I think the very act of posting something on a blog is an act of interpretation.  The link and the excerpt or "taste" would not be on the blog if I did not think it was important.

For a history blog like The Way of Improvement Leads Home, the idea of the "blogger as curator" has special relevance.  Public historians take objects and other historical materials from the past and give them meaning by calling attention to them, displaying them, interpreting them and, through metadata, placing them in context.  This is what I try to do with the links I post.

What is your philosophy of blogging?


And here is some news for those of you have read all the way through to the end of this post.
We are seriously contemplating a new design for The Way of Improvement Leads Home and will probably be moving to Word Press in the near future.  Stay tuned.


Video of the Day

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

1.  Kruse, One Nation Under God: A Review
2.  Was the American Revolution Inevitable?
3.  Sunday Night Odds and Ends--August 23, 2015
4.  What Are Your Favorite Podcasts?
5.  South Dakota Dumps Early American History Requirements
6.  How a Church With a History of Slavery is Dealing With Its Past
7.  David Barton: Christian Reconstructionist
8.  Associated Press Releases One Million Minutes of Footage to YouTube
9.  Why Ted Cruz Has A Shot Among Evangelicals
10.  Scot McKnight Responds to Union University


Move-In Day At Messiah College

Congrats to all the first year students.  I hope to meet some of you in 2016-2017!




Eric Foner Defends American Exceptionalism

It is really hard to argue that the United States is not an exceptional nation.  It was the first nation born out of the Enlightenment.  In the early 19th century it was probably the most democratic place in the world.  As Chesterton said, it has always been a "nation with the soul of a church."

American exceptionalism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially among liberals.  When understood in the context of the history of American foreign policy, American exceptionalism has produced some ugly results.  Unfortunately the idea of American exceptionalism has often gone hand in hand with some of the worst forms of imperialism.

And then there are those Christians who connect American exceptionalism to the providence of God. They believe that the United States is exceptional because it has somehow been uniquely blessed by God.  I am not going to go into the various problems with this view, but if you want to delve deeper into this idea I would recommend John Wilsey's forthcoming book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not  come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism.  Yet, in this piece published in The Nation, Foner shows how the United States's commitment to birthright citizenship makes America exceptional. 

Here is a taste: 

Birthright citizenship--the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen--has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.

The situation abounds in ironies.  Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered the crowning achievement of what once called itself the part of Lincoln.  Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American--a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity--exist in other countries.  But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world.  No European nation recognized the principle.  Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Darryl Dawkins: RIP

He spent his off-seasons on the planet Lovetron where he practiced "interplanetary funkmanship." He was not the first NBA player who became famous for his ability to dunk a basketball--that honor belonged to his teammate Julius Erving. But Darryl Dawkins was the first player to build an entire career on the dunk.  His game was one-dimensional, but it was sure exciting to watch.

Darryl Dawkins died today at the age of fifty-eight.  Most sportswriters and sports historians think that his career was a disappointment.  It probably was.  But few players were more entertaining and eccentric.

I remember how excited I was when Dawkins was traded to the New Jersey Nets before 1982-83 season.  That was a great Nets team--Otis Birdsong, Buck Williams, Albert King, Michael Ray Richardson, Sleepy Floyd, Jan Van Breda-Koff, Len Elmore, Foots Walker, Phil Ford, and Mike O'Koren. They were coached by Larry Brown.

That Nets team finished the year 49-33 and suffered a disappointing loss to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.  As a teenager I would check the TV Guide each week to see when WWOR-TV was showing the next Nets game. With Dawkins on the floor there was always the chance of seeing a broken backboard.  Steve Albert did the play-by-play and Bill Raferty, the former head coach at Seton Hall, did the color commentary.

And then there were the names of Dawkins's dunks.  My favorites were "The Rim Wrecker," "The Left-Handed Spine Chiller Supreme," and the "Yo Mama."  During high school our neighbors had an eight foot-high backboard over their garage, the perfect height for us to dunk on. We had no idea how to distinguish the different Dawkins dunks, but that did not stop us from yelling the name of the specific dunk we were performing as we drove to the rim and flushed the ball home.  (Eventually we had to stop this activity because our neighbors did not like all the black basketball smears on their garage door).

Every now and then I try to relive those days in my own driveway:



Rest in peace, Darryl.  I hope you can now spend more time with Juicy Luicy on Lovetron.

David Michael Bruno Weighs in on the Gay Marriage Controversy in the CCCU

David Michael Bruno teaches history at Point Loma Nazarene University, a member institution of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU).  In this insightful post, drawing from the theological work of German scholar Helmut Thielicke, he provides some much needed perspective on the current debates going on in the CCCU regarding gay marriage

A taste:

There is this small book by the late German theologian Helmut Thielicke titled, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. First published in 1962 and just more than fifty pages long, it is a short book in which Thielicke speaks volumes. Disagreements among professing Christians about what it means to be faithful occur at all times and in all cultures. So I am not trying to elevate one particular disagreement in one particular culture to a severity of historical proportions. I simply want to layer Thielicke’s caution on top of some of the disputes brewing among some Christians in the United States. I especially have a concern for Christian higher education..

Thielicke wrote A Little Exercise as an admonition to his young students who were learning fancy theological terms like apophatic and cataphatic, then returning from university to their home churches. At home they interrupted Sunday school classes with their theological erudition. Erudition, not edification. “It is possible,” said Thielecke, “that theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men truth and love are seldom combined.”


So sure, that old lady in the congregation thinks the hypostatic union is what happens to her knee when she wobbles out of bed in the morning. She has a leg up, even so, on many young theologians when it comes to living a charitable life that blesses the body of Christ. Merely possessing knowledge cannot save or satisfy the soul. To earnest yet immature young theologians, Thielecke said, “Love is the opposite of the will to possess.”
...Thielicke pushes further still. He not only chastens young theologians who look down their hermeneutical noses at laymen, but he also cautions them to be gracious with one another. When I was studying systematic theology in school, one of my professors used a memorably simple illustration to express two different postures taken by humans studying theology. He reached out his hands in front of him and made fists. Then he opened his fists and raises his palms upward. We can do theology pridefully or we can do theology humbly. We can battle our way to God or we can submit our way to God. As we choose our posture toward God so too do we choose our posture towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is remarkable how many theologians with open palms towards God make fists at each other. Again Thielecke provides an insightful caution.


...those who affirm the doctrinal boundaries of orthodox Christianity must contend with equal earnestness to safeguard those boundaries as well as protect the unity of the church when a dispute takes place outside of those boundaries. This is not easy work because the boundaries are not always clear and because even the disputes outside the boundaries of orthodoxy are important. In this matter it is my personal view that the church must sit at the feet of faithful historians and that those historians must rise to the challenge of faithfully guiding the church through this difficult work. The church needs to be reminded, for example, how John Wesley and George Whitefield ultimately elevated brotherly love above doctrinal differences. Their relationship was messy. In the end, however, it was not characterized by schism. There are a thousand similar examples. So then, fists clenched or palms up? Humility and unity, especially when it is hard, is the way of Christ.
...Perhaps, in keeping with Thielicke’s admonition to his young students that they return to their home churches and keep quiet for an extended time, we could advocate a similar discipline. Thielicke wanted his students whose brains were freshly packed with theological nuance to sit still upon returning to their home churches and observe how the work of Christ takes place without their theological erudition. Perhaps what Christian institutions of higher education need is a silent ambassador program in which an ambassador from one institution is sent to another, not to articulate a doctrinal position or negotiate terms, but to sit still and watch. Would these silent ambassadors observe points of doctrinal disagreement? Most assuredly. Would they observe the work of Christ taking place in spite of disagreement? I think so. Would that change attitudes about disunity? We must hope it would or else grieve that the witness of body of Christ is not what Christ himself desires it to be.
Good stuff, indeed.

Donald Trump's Kryptonite

Donald Trump needs help on the religion front.  Many of you have seen this:



Unlike some of his opponents, including Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and especially Ted Cruz, Trump sounds very awkward whenever he talks about religion.  

I think we have finally found his kryptonite.

If he wants to continue to be taken seriously he is going to need to learn to speak "evangelicalese." But this language is not easy to learn for non-natives such as Trump. And it is hard to fake.

Take this interview with CBN's David Brody,  for example:




In this interview Trump says that he always goes to church on Christmas and Easter.  I think Trump thinks that this answer is going to help him win votes among the viewers of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.  He couldn't be more wrong.  Evangelicals, you see, are very good at distinguishing themselves from other Christians (mostly mainline Protestants) by pointing out that they are not the kind of people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.  

Anyone who has listened to an evangelical testimony is familiar with this part of the conversion narrative.  It goes something like this: "As a young man or woman I went to church on Christmas and Easter, took communion, and tried to live good moral lives. I always thought I was a Christian. But then I found Jesus and realized that I was just 'playing church.'  Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about religion, it is about relationship."  

Evangelicals have always identified the quality of this born-again experience--this new "relationship" with Jesus--by how often one attends Sunday church, mid-week Bible studies. "small groups," and other congregational events.

Trump is a smart politician.  He is hoping to find an antidote to the negative effects that this form of kryptonite will have on his campaign.  As a result, he is turning to televangelist Paula White.

According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, Trump has made a previous appearance on the Paula White television show.  Warning: There is some heavy theology in this video. (That is sarcasm):



So who is Paula White?  She is the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in the Orlando area. She was formerly the pastor of the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, a congregation she founded  with her ex-husband "Bishop" Randy White.  She has been married three times and just recently married the guy who wrote the the song "Don't Stop Believing." (Yes, you read that correctly).

Charity Carney has a nice piece on her theology at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:


White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preachesabout spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.

Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted "cute shoes for a conference," she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. "The enemy has been trying to discourage you," she exclaims, "make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn't mean denial." By comparing God's blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status. 

It should be interesting to see the kind of evangelicals White assembles for this meeting with Trump. The Wall Street Journal article does not mention anyone who will be attending, but I am guessing that White will choose leaders from her own prosperity gospel circles who will baptize Trump's business success and love of free-market capitalism.  Don't be surprised if Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar, or Kenneth Copeland show up for this shindig. 

Where is Kate Bowler when we need her?




South Dakota Dumps Early American History Requirements




This reminds of Alexis de Toqueville's remarks in Democracy in America:

Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it. --Chapter Two, "Of Individualism in Democratic Countries."

Of course the students in South Dakota will never hear this quote since it was written before 1877.

Michael Amolin, teacher/curricular designer who defends the decision in the video (or at least I think that's what he is doing), comes across as desperately trying to justify these changes.  First, he seems to think that the study of history is only about dates, timelines and memorization.  Second, he has a very, very thin view of what it means to be a citizen.

Perhaps this is because Amolin teaches chemistry and physics.  He has an EdD and he wrote his dissertation at the University South Dakota on "laboratory-based professional development and reformed teaching practices in the science classroom." I don't know if Amolin is representative of the mindset of the members of the committee who decided to remove early American history from the curriculum, but if he is, the kids of South Dakota are definitely in trouble.

Do we want the past to help students become better citizens and make a contribution to our democratic society?  Of course we do.  In my Why Study History?" Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that history is essential for sustaining a civil society.  It is also essential for a thriving democracy, as I argued here.

There are a lot of ways in which the study of history can contribute to our democracy.  One of them is to see that every contemporary event is rooted in a larger context.  Another is to see that present events are contingent upon things that happened in the past.  And what about the long-term causes behind things that happen in the present?

Sadly, the students of South Dakota have had the very foundations of American citizenship ripped out from under them.

If this video is correct, South Dakota students will no longer learn about:


  • The American Revolution: As Americans, the children of South Dakota will learn nothing about the ideals and values on which their nation was built.  How does this make them good citizens?
  • The Constitution: As Americans, the children of South Dakota will learn nothing about how the United States government works or the rights afforded to all United States citizens.  How does this make them good citizens?
  • Women's Suffrage:  Goodbye Seneca Falls and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  South Dakota students will be left with a view of the past in which women were always able to vote. 
  • Slavery:  How will South Dakota students understand race-relations in the United States without learning about slavery as the roots of the Civil Rights movement and other black protest movements, including Black Lives Matter?
  • Early Native Americans:  I would think that any resident of South Dakota should know something about the Indians.  As it now stands, their understanding of native American history will begin with the United States attempts to drive the Dakota, Lakota, and Yankton Sioux from their lands and will end with Indian reservations and casinos.
  • The Rise of a Democratic Society
  • Westward Expansion:  Wouldn't educators in South Dakota want their students to know something about this?  Wouldn't this movement be an important part of South Dakota identity?
  • The Civil War
From my perspective this seems worse than attempts in Texas and elsewhere to change the curriculum to conform to conservative or Christian views of history.

Hat Tip:  Thanks to Jimmy Dick for bringing this story to my attention.



Show Your Support for the Funding of History in Schools

I strongly encourage you to write your member of the House of Representatives.  STEM may produce good workers in a capitalist economy, but history and the humanities are essential for the preservation of our democracy.

From the Organization of American Historians via History News Network:

Negotiations to finalize a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will resume when Congress returns after Labor Day. Members of the House and Senate will be meeting to iron out the differences between the versions of the bill passed by each body. Quite simply, the Senate bill restores federal funding for K-12 history and civics education while the House bill does not. 

The Senate version includes four provisions that create funding for high quality American history, civics, geography, and economics education.  Some House Majority Conferees, however, have already declared their top priority in conference to be eliminating as many new programs and grants as possible.  This poses a direct threat to the Senate provisions that could inject much needed funding into history, civics, and the social studies.

The Organization of American Historians and the National Coalition for History (NCH) urgently need you to contact your member of the House of Representatives. Congressmen Ross (R-FL) and Cicilline (D-RI) have drafted and distributed a sign-on letter urging their colleagues to adopt the history and civics provisions in the Senate's version of the bill.  We need your help collecting as many signatures on this "Dear Colleague" letter as possible before September 11th so that this letter can have an important impact on the negotiations. 

Please urge your representative to sign the "Dear Colleague" letter supporting key provisions that benefit history and civics education.   

Send an email directly to House members! 

Follow this link to NCH's website for more information.  

We cannot overstress the importance of this effort. Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA in 15 years so this is likely our only opportunity to get funding restored for K-12 history and civics education.  Time is of the essence, please act today!

Jon Butler
OAH President 2015-2016 Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies,  Yale University
Adjunct Research Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Katherine Finley
Executive Director 
Organization of American Historians  

The Author's Corner with Christina Vella

Christina Vella is Visiting Professor in the Master's of Liberal Arts Program at Tulane University, and a consultant for the U.S. State Department.  This interview is based on her book George Washington Carver: A Life (LSU Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write George Washington Carver: A Life?

CV: Carver, who lived from 1862-1943, was one of the most famous men of his time, one of the few black people who were instantly identifiable and respected all over the country. Yet today, people barely recognize his name. He was a genius and a saint, and a quirky spirit full of mischief. When I discovered that there was no recent, fair-minded  biography for adult readers, I decided to try to bring him back into the public eye.   

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Washington Carver: A Life?  

CV: A prodigious inventor who developed thousands of products from throw-away materials, Carver took his work seriously, but not himself. He had as many problems as anyone else---ambivalent sexuality, heartbreak in love, a rotten boss, jealous colleagues, stinging disappointments--- but he overcame them with simple kindness, humor, and prayer.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington Carver

CV: He'll make you laugh. And you will see the Deep South as it was through his eyes. His friends---Booker T. Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Henry Wallace---are a hoot. Carver's time, like every time, was full of original, eccentric characters.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CV: I'm just a historian, period. I think we all need to read as broadly as possible to see our country against the background of a complex world. Without that perspective, we are likely to think everything that happens to us is the best or worst event in the history of mankind. I decided on history some time in college, when I realized that it's a lot of fun and you can't ever run out of it. 

JF: What is your next project?

CV: I'm writing a biography of Kemal Ataturk (first president of Turkey, great reformer, liberator of women, and so much more). Another genius, but surely no saint.

JF: Thanks, Christina!