Monday, November 30, 2015

Speaking Today at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

I am in Houston this morning preparing for a luncheon lecture to the MDiv students at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I am thankful to John Wilsey, the Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement, for the invitation.  John has asked me to address the students on the topic of moral wisdom in the study of history, particularly as that pursuit can be applied to civic engagement.

Stay tuned.

The Author's Corner with Mary Bilder

Mary Bilder is Professor of American Legal and Constitutional History at Boston College Law School. This interview is based on her new book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Madison’s Hand?

MB: I wrote an article about James Madison’s law notes and how they revealed his mind. I was curious about what we could learn about Madison from his famous notes of the Convention. After reading the late-nineteenth century transcript of the Notes, I began to realize that there were many mysteries surrounding Madison’s Notes. Historians had used Madison’s Notes as an almost objective source to tell the history of the Convention, but very few people had explored the actual manuscript.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Madison’s Hand?

MB: The Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787, but were revised by Madison as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Over fifty years, Madison transformed the Notes from an incomplete political diary, taken in part for Thomas Jefferson, to a seemingly impartial and objective account of the writing of the Constitution.

JF: Why do we need to read Madison’s Hand?

MB: Many people have used the Notes as if they were a contemporaneous and objective report of the writing of the Constitution. They were not. Even in the summer of 1787, Madison wrote the Notes with hindsight and focused on his political commitments and disappointments. He understood his subsequent revisions as repeated efforts to create a record—his record—of what he saw as significant in the Convention. Yet each revision—small and large—increased the distance from the summer of 1787.

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

MB: In my last year of law school, Professor Bernard Bailyn taught a course on the History of the US Constitution. A friend told me to take it. I was astounded that I had spent 3 years in law school studying the Constitution but no one had ever talked about how and why it was written. I was fortunate to clerk for a federal judge who loved history and encouraged me to go to graduate school. Because I was an English major in college, I have been particularly interested in the history of the book and cultural and material history.  

JF: What is your next project?

MB: I believe that all historians have an obligation to contribute to making available new documentary sources. This book, for example, could not have been written without the work of many people who created documentary editions of Madison’s materials.  In the late nineteenth century, for example, a small team of State Department employees created a remarkable transcript of Madison’s Notes showing the revisions. I could not have written my book without their effort. My contribution, however, is in an area unrelated to Madison’s Hand. Several colleagues and I are working to complete a digital catalogue of all the cases and printed briefs appealed to the Privy Council from the American colonies, the Caribbean, and Canada before 1783. Historians have not been able to write about the law of the British empire or early American colonial constitutional law because these sources were never printed or made available. I hope that these sources will help other historians create new arguments and insights about slavery, women’s property rights, commercial law, and a myriad of other issues addressed in these cases.

JF: Thanks, Mary!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Mike Duncan: historical podcaster

Al Zambone interview Lendol Calder about historical thinking

Kevin Levin takes on Donald Trump's fake Civil War battle site

Drew Gilpin Faust on John Hope Franklin

Rumored dates and sites for the 2016 Springsteen tour

Religion in Jamestown may be more interesting than the Pilgrims

The Amish battle with modernity

William Bradford on providential history

Racial reconciliation in Princeton, New Jersey

Sara Georgini on the Adams Papers

Marilynne Robinson on cultural pessimism

New York Times 100 notable books of 2015

New York intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Tweet of the Day

I can sleep easy tonight!!

HT: John Haas

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Audio of Today's NPR Story on the Pilgrims

Apparently I was on NPR today:

The Thanksgiving Paradox

My friend and fellow early American historian Andrew Wehrman  has dubbed Matthew Dennis's piece at The Conversation "the best of Thanksgiving essays written by an early American historian this year."  It is hard to argue with Andrew's assessment of Dennis's "Why Thanksgiving tells as story of American pluralism."

Here is a taste:

As Americans collectively shape the meaning of the occasion, they mold the meaning of America itself as a plural nation. They declare their national identity simply by gathering privately and eating turkey.
Inwardly focused but inclusive, often religious but nonsectarian, Thanksgiving does not exclude non-Christians or even nonbelievers. Thanksgiving is the time when Americans in the largest numbers reach out to the least fortunate in their communities through voluntary action and charitable contributions.
The holiday may be a great American paradox, but it is those apparent contradictions that have been critical to its enduring appeal, success and value.
Thanksgiving continues to offer appropriate lessons for America’s schoolchildren and us all.

Happy Evacuation Day! (One Day Late)

National Public Radio: "Reconsidering the Pilgrims, Piety, and America's Founding Principles"

I am happy to have contributed to Tom Gjelten's piece at the NPR blog.  Here is a taste:

Historians, however, have disputed the extent to which the Pilgrims can be counted as among America's founding fathers.
"This is one little pocket of colonial America," says John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn. He has written widely on America's early religious history.
"It's hard to make the same argument if you're studying Virginia or Pennsylvania or the Carolinas or Georgia," Fea says. "We've taken that New England model and extrapolated from it over the last 200 or 300 years into some kind of view of the nation as a whole."
Fea notes the absence of any reference to the Bible in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
"There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,'" he says. "But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out."

Happy Thanksgiving: "The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude"

Our annual tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  
I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008
It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened -- a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.
I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn't want that for me, either.
I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.
It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?
Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.
Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.
I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job -- summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.
Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.
Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.
The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.
As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

The Author's Corner with Joshua Guthman

Joshua Guthman is Julian-Van Dusen Chair in American History at Berea College. This interview is based on his new book Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Strangers Below?

JG: The Primitive Baptists’; music, their singing. See, I heard the Primitives before I knew a thing about them. I heard a keening voice begging God for deliverance, a voice answered in long sonorous swells by others, all of them unspooling a modal melody, and the hymn itself sung so slowly as to melt its text into an incantatory strain that sounded to me like people calling up spirits. It struck me dead. I had never heard anything like it. It was beautiful. Those sounds possessed me and puzzled me and would not let me go.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Strangers Below?

JG: I argue that the Primitive Baptists, a contrary sect of antimissionary and antirevivalistic evangelicals, shaped two seminal moments in American history’ the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century and the post-World War II folk music revival while mounting what they saw as a defense of Calvinism, the nation’s oldest Protestant creed, from the forces of evangelical greed and enthusiasm. I tell that story through the often turbulent lives of black and white Primitive Baptists, lives that reveal the fractious origins of the southern Bible Belt and allow us to trace a key strain of Calvinist experience across the nineteenth century, where it was reshaped by newly emancipated African American believers, and into the twentieth, where, unmoored from its original theological underpinnings, it emerged in southern roots music as an enigmatic lonesome sound that appealed to popular audiences searching for meaning in the drift of postwar American life and the shaky days after September 11, 2001.

JF: Why do we need to read Strangers Below?

JG: Because you need—absolutely positively need—to readjust your ideas about the birth of the Bible Belt and the complex fate of American Calvinism.

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

JG: I never had that one decisive moment. There were, however, early sparks. Here are two: as a nineteen-year-old, when I took seminar on technology and American culture with Carl Smith, who taught me a new way of thinking about the past, and a moment in a bookstore in Encino, California nearly twenty years ago when I stumbled upon Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, a book that was both revelation and confirmation. I found a kinship with Carl and Bob because each had deep imaginative connection to the past. Neither of them is what you would call a down-the-line historian, but each conjured the past in ways that seemed magical to me.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: I want to tell a story about the worlds seething beneath what we still glibly call the Second Great Awakening. That’s what I’m working on. I guess you could call it a narrative history, but that’s a pallid term. Writing historical stories—true stories that entertain and enlighten—is the most exciting challenge for me right now. And this Jew from Los Angeles has found a happy home in the religious hothouse of the early nineteenth century, so that’s where these stories will unfold.

JF: Thanks, Joshua!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Carson Digs A Deeper Hole for Himself

I like Ben Carson.  He seems like a good guy.  I even agree with him on a few things.  But he is just not cut out for a presidential run.  He seems very uncomfortable in this role.  He is a brilliant neurosurgeon and a person of deep Christian faith who, to put it frankly, is in over his head.

Let's take his recent claim that Thomas Jefferson wrote the United States Constitution.  Here is part of what I wrote on Monday about this whole incident:

Carson needs to be more careful in the way he references American history.  I think we should expect our presidential candidates to have a working knowledge of our country's history. (I know this is asking for a lot).

I will not be voting for Carson, but part of me wants to give the guy a break on this latest Jefferson blunder.  Perhaps he just misspoke.  I do this all the time when I am lecturing.  Maybe he got confused for a moment.  

Yet instead of simply admitting that he made a mistake or misspoke, Carson went on Fox News and doubled-down on the erroneous claim that Jefferson was somehow involved in crafting the Constitution.

Here is the video.  The Jefferson stuff picks up about the 4:30 mark.

As I predicted in my earlier post, Carson blames the media for trying to corner him with another "gotcha" question.

What is even more interesting about this interview is that Carson seems to parroting a piece that appeared earlier in the day at USA Today. The author is David Mastio, the deputy editorial page editor of the newspaper.

Mastio writes:'s an interesting historical footnote to the Constitutional Convention. At the time, an early version of email was available. It was the social media of its day, called "letters." Important people, say, the U.S. minister in France, could give pieces of paper to ship captains who'd take them by boat all the way to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, other important people would read words scratched onto the paper and respond in kind with a "reply."

In this fashion, early Americans could discuss important matters like constitutions and other government stuff ministers would care about. This was called "correspondence."

Guess who was writing these letter thingies? Thomas Jefferson.

And do you know who was replying? George Washington and James Madison, among the most important framers of our Constitution.

So here's the crazy thing: Jefferson, Madison, Washington and others were discussing how the U.S. Constitution should be written.

After the Constitution Convention was over, Jefferson had this other idea called a "Bill of Rights," which you might have heard is a part of the Constitution. Jefferson sorta played a key role in all that First Amendment, Second Amendment stuff. If you don't believe me, go ask the American Civil Liberties Union, which is big on rights like free speech and freedom of religion.

Saith the ACLU: "The American Bill of Rights, inspired by Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, was adopted, and in 1791 the Constitution's first 10 amendments became the law of the land."

The ACLU even quotes Jefferson's argument: "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse."

To get the basics of Jefferson's role in the creation of the Bill of Rights, which are, as I mentioned, a pretty important part of the Constitution, all you have to do is read the Spark Notes version. Or you can get it in easy Q&A format from the U.S. Archives.

All that laughing I did at Carson's expense? I take it back. I guess he sorta did know what he was talking about, after all.

A website is now demanding that in the wake of the Mastio piece fifteen news agencies and "verified Twitter accounts" owe Ben Carson an apology for the way they covered this issue.

Some thoughts:

1). I am still trying to figure out if Mastio's piece is sarcasm.  I'm not sure.

2).  I am guessing that Carson's handlers saw the Mastio piece and thought it might be useful in fending off critics on this issue.

3).  If the piece is not meant to be sarcastic it is still filled with historical problems.  Here is historian Kevin Gutzman (used with permission from his Facebook page):

One more time: 1) there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson had any -- any -- effect on the "crafting" of the US Constitution, and 2) the Bill of Rights was *not* "his idea."
1) He was in France in summer 1787, at a time when it took six weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic to the east and longer to the west. The delegates to the Convention were all sworn to secrecy, so they could not have consulted him even if they had desired to do so and it had been practicable.
2) The first promise to seek a bill of rights was made by Federalists in Massachusetts to get Governor John Hancock and other waverers to support ratification. None of them consulted Jefferson--who was still in France, if anyone in Boston had cared. James Madison was finally persuaded to favor a bill of rights, which he had opposed, by political imperatives in Virginia: the North American Baptist movement happened to be centered in his home county, and local Baptists insisted he promise to seek amendments, particularly one like the Establishment Clause, before they voted for him over James Monroe for Congress. Everyone knew this was his motivation at the time.

Again, Carson should have just admitted he made a mistake, noted that he did get the facts straight in his book, and move on.  It is never a good idea for a political candidate to try to challenge a historian. After all, we do this stuff for a living.

The State of Loyalist Studies

Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History continues to produce solid content.  For example, today I read Christopher Minty's post on the future of loyalist studies.  As someone who does not write too much about loyalists, I found it to be a short and very useful overview.

Here is a taste:

Defining “loyalist” is difficult for a number of reasons. Many of the problems relate to grouping loyalists together. Those white and black men and women who, at one stage, opposed America’s revolutionaries had different backgrounds. Their stories were rarely comparable, and contrasting impulses underpinned their allegiance. Furthermore, many loyalists were not really loyalists at all. As one contemporary noted during the Revolutionary War, people “wait[ed] to go with the stronger.” That is, they sided with the strongest military, or political, presence. Their ideological or political beliefs mattered less than their lived reality.[3]
Definitions are tricky, of course, but some have been quick to criticize when one is not offered. Philip Ranlet, in a 2014 article in The Historian, criticized Jasanoff’s George Washington- and National Book Critics-prize-winning Libertys Exiles for not providing a rigid definition of “loyalist.”[4]
Back in Nova Scotia, in answer to the question on defining “loyalist,” I remarked that a tiered framework could be useful. I have developed this idea, in an episode of The JuntoCast. The number of tiers would vary, but it would work like this: those who were committed loyalists, individuals dedicated to the restoration of British rule, would be a “Tier 1” loyalist. Those who changed sides, people like Peter Van Brugh Livingston, Jr., would be further down the scale.
This could be a workable tool for teaching purposes, but I do not think it can be used to further scholarship. If one adds too many tiers with hopes of understanding how the Revolutionary War affected ordinary people, then the term “loyalist” becomes meaningless—if everyone was, at one point, a “loyalist,” no one was a “loyalist.” Simply put, by asking what a “loyalist” is indefinitely, we run the risk of missing the forest from the trees.
Where, then, do we go from here? Like Brendan McConville, I do not have an open-access Manifesto for Loyalist Studies. But, like Woody Holton advocates, a return to microhistorical, comparative studies might offer a new direction. Indeed, a focus on the lived reality of people during the Revolutionary War, individuals who, for whatever reason, did not support America’s revolutionaries, could trigger a new direction in loyalist studies. That is to say, by focusing less on “what is” and focusing more on “what happened, and why,” we might begin to understand the contrasting local impacts of war, investigating how and why it affected people in distinct, though related, ways.

Why Government Should Listen to Historians

A friend of mine (thanks Christopher) just sent me this 2014 article by Lucy Delap, the director of History & Policy at the Alliance for Useful Evidence, an organization that "provides a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK."  Delap makes a very nice argument for why government should be listening to historians. 

Here is a taste:

...When horsemeat was found in British ‘beef’ products in 2013, did anyone in DEFRA think about looking at British consumption of horseflesh during World War Two?  When we wonder about the greed of bankers in today’s financial services, did financial regulators consider how the Victorians responded to their own crooked bankers?

 Lately, policy makers have been doing just that. Government, understandably, is often focused on the here and now, and the future and how it can be shaped. But it turns out that sometimes the most constructive policy making can be done by looking backwards. History isn’t just an armchair hobby or for the ivory tower, but a driving force for making better decisions in government. 

For more than a decade History & Policy has connected policy makers in Whitehall and Parliament to the latest historical expertise. Making these connections is not always easy. Some policy makers want easy fixes, and are disappointed when historians do not offer this. Others recognise that there are no simple ‘lessons from history’ – context is crucial, and events do not simply repeat themselves. However, the past has important perspectives to offer. We can see parallels and connections. History can unsettle our common-sense assumptions about how change happens, and trace the interactions of different time scales – the slow changes in family size, for example, considered alongside the faster changing political or economic environment. By drawing our attention to previous policy experiments or failures, history can make us think about how the present, and the future, might be different. 

It’s a cliché to declare that the past is a foreign country; but the distant past can seem very foreign indeed – how can Britain before industrialisation, modern government as we know it, and before extensive urbanisation, tell us anything relevant today? But even the quite distant past can link to our concerns today. Peter Borsay, for example, looked at the early eighteenth century and its panic over gin drinking to help understand the fears and harms associated with modern binge drinking. Lorie Charlesworth turned to the Elizabethan Poor Law and its establishment of rights to relief from poverty, to consider contemporary debates about welfare reform.

Thinking historically can be partly about knowing what happened in the past – but history is rarely just a collection of facts. The innovative thinking that history brings to policy making lies in its approach to evaluating evidence, perceiving change over time, and creating a narrative that can set events in a new light. Social science explanations can be jargon-heavy, or narrowly focused. It is one of the talents of history to take the broad overview...

Want a quick fix? History probably won’t deliver. But if you want to broaden your horizons and consider how things might be different, history provides rich resources. Historians can remind officials and politicians that things are not what they sometimes seem to be, that policy interventions can sometimes have unexpected results, and that good policy making must see the big – or longer term – picture. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

American Academy of Religion Elects a Theologian as Its New Vice-President

I have never been to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I don't usually run with the religious studies crowd, but as a historian of American religion and a person of faith I am often interested in what goes on at this massive annual meeting.   I am also interested in the AAR because many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are members. 

This year, probably because I am on sabbatical and have time, I followed the #aarsbl15 twitter feed. I learned a lot in the process. (Thanks for all the religious tweeters out there!).  I also published reports from the floor of the conference.  (Thanks so far to John WilseyMary Beth Connolly, Andrew Henry, and David Krueger). 

Until I read Matthew Hunter's informative blog post I had no idea that the AAR elected David Gushee, an evangelical theologian, to the position of vice-president.  Matt's post also helped me to realize why the election of a theologian to a position of leadership in the AAR might be considered controversial.

Here is a taste of Matt's post:

Gushee’s election was controversial because some people in the AAR think the organization should represent scholars who study religion using disciplines like history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. Theologians are “doing” religion, and therefore they don’t really belong in the leadership. This election was especially controversial because the VP will become the President and this year both nominees were theologians. So, for some people in AAR, this is like having a research-subject (psychiatric patient) as the head of a psychiatric research association. It’s okay for religious people to be scholars as long as their scholarship is not itself a form of religious practice. This is where the State of the Union and the State of the AAR converge. Even though a LOT of Christian seminarians, theologians, biblical scholars and other religious people are members of AAR and many AAR sub-groups are “religious” in nature, AAR has reflected a post-Christendom context (the last 3 Presidents were not theologians of any religious tradition). But does it now? Is this a "victory" in some sort of culture-war?
I don’t know how Gushee feels about the resistance to his election or if he feels any resentment coming at him. He seems like a very gentle person who would not hold any grudges, but after all he was elected, and maybe that indicates that AAR isn’t as post-Christendom as some people think. I anticipate a movement of non-religious scholars to "take back the AAR" in future elections. For conservative Christians in the AAR, Gushee's stance on LGBT folks in the church (still a clear minority opinion in Christian institutions) is still indicative of post-Christendom society or even secular ideals of individualism creeping in to the church. I don't know if Gushee feels any resentment coming at him from that corner of the AAR either.

Read the entire post here.

Another Evangelical Repudiates the Trump Candidacy

First it was Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, from the pages of The New York Times.  Now Michael Gerson, the evangelical Washington Post columnist (and graduate of Wheaton College), has repudiated Trump's candidacy.

Here is a taste:

And Trump would make — has already half-made — the GOP into an anti-immigrant party. Much of Trump’s appeal is reactionary. He has tapped into a sense that an older America is being lost. In a recent poll, 62 percent of Republicans reported feeling like “a stranger in their own country.” This is a protest against rapid and disorienting social change, against an increasingly multicultural country, and against the changes of the Obama years.
It does not take much political talent to turn this sense of cultural displacement into anti-immigrant resentment; only a reckless disregard for the moral and political consequences.
As denial in the GOP fades, a question is laid upon the table: Is it possible, and morally permissible, for economic and foreign policy conservatives, and for Republicans motivated by their faith, to share a coalition with the advocates of an increasingly raw and repugnant nativism?

If "The Donald" Said It Happened, It Happened! And Don't You Forget It!

Civil War historians:  Have you heard about the River of Blood?  It was HUUUUUUUUGE!  It was so huge that Donald Trump decided to build a monument to this battle on his Virginia golf course overlooking the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for The Donald, the battle never happened.  The New York Times reports:

Between the 14th hole and the 15th tee of one of the club’s two courses, Mr. Trump installed a flagpole on a stone pedestal overlooking the Potomac, to which he affixed a plaque purportedly designating “The River of Blood.”

“Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot,” the inscription reads. “The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’ 

The inscription, beneath his family crest and above Mr. Trump’s full name, concludes: “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!”

Like many of Mr. Trump’s claims, the inscription was evidently not fact-checked.

“No. Uh-uh. No way. Nothing like that ever happened there,” said Richard Gillespie, executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, a historical preservation and education group devoted to an 1,800-square-mile section of the Northern Virginia Piedmont, including the Lowes Island site.

“The only thing that was remotely close to that,” Mr. Gillespie said, was 11 miles up the river at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861, a rout of Union forces in which several hundred were killed. “The River of Blood?” he added. “Nope, not there.”

Mr. Gillespie’s contradiction of the plaque’s account was seconded by Alana Blumenthal, curator of the Loudoun Museum in nearby Leesburg. (A third local expert, who said he had written to Mr. Trump’s company about the inscription’s falsehoods and offered to provide historically valid replacement text, insisted on anonymity because he did not want to cross the Trump Organization by disclosing a private exchange.)

In a phone interview, Mr. Trump called himself a “a big history fan,” but deflected, played down and then simply disputed the local historians’ assertions of historical fact.

Read the whole article here.

By the way, Trump also saw thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheering the attacks on the World Trade Center. 

HT: Jessica Parr

David Krueger From the AAR: "Religion Scholars, Public Voices, and Making a Living"

We are pleased to have David Krueger writing for us from the American Academy of Religion annual meeting (which ended today).  Krueger is an independent scholar of history, religion, and American culture. He helps other scholars reach the public as a radio host with the Marginalia Review of Books and is the author of the recently published, Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. (Check out our interview with him here).  His report is from an AAR session titled "Religion Scholars, Public Voices, and Making a Living."--JF

Have you ever dreamed of being an expert guest on CNN? Do you fantasize about a day when the New York Times calls to ask you to write an article that sheds light on a current event? On Sunday, November 22, I attended a session titled "How to Develop Your Public Voice and Make a Living from It" at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta. The session was hosted by Dr. Brian Palmer, a scholar of anthropology and religion at Uppsala University in Sweden. He is also a sought-after public speaker.  

During my last two visits to AAR, I have gravitated toward sessions that focus on career development and imagining life outside of the traditional tenure track academic world. The dire employment realities of the academic job market weigh heavily on me and I look to these session for some inspiration. I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Hale's session "Envisioning Academic Alternatives" and the "Another Plan A" workshop discussed on this blog by by Andrew Henry. However, I was particularly fascinated by the "Developing Your Public Voice" session. Brian shared his story of how his university only pays him 40% of his salary. He raises the remainder though speaking to community groups all over Sweden and the U.S. He described himself as a "traveling salesmen of ideas" and has found a way to make a living by telling inspirational stories of civic heroes who act courageously in the face of injustice.

The best part of the session was hearing from the nearly 40 persons in attendance. Brian asked each of us to share what kind of a public voice we hoped to cultivate and what it was that we wanted to tell the world. A young Bible scholar said he wanted to develop a weekly video blog. A pastor expressed her desire to podcast her sermons so they could be heard by a broader audience. An activist said he wanted to write magazine articles about the role of religion in the Black Lives Matter movement. An ethicist said she hoped to one day speak about biotechnology on National Public Radio. 

Being in the presence of other creative, public-minded scholars did much to stimulate my imagination. Although my future employment situation remains unclear, I feel very deeply that engaging the public on themes in religion and American culture needs to be part of my life in some way. In the aftermath of my book's release in October, I've had the privilege of being interviewed by several radio stations and I've also given lectures at two universities, a book store, and even a retirement home. Although I have yet to make any money off of these endeavors, I've taken some steps toward building a public platform through the use of Twitter, my website, and pushing myself to pitch and write articles. Although I had to leave Brian's session early due to my conference schedule, I suggested to the group that we find an online platform to continue the conversation. I have created a Facebook group toward this end. Please join in on the conversation, including those of you who already reach the public in very effective ways (hint, hint John Fea!) 

Mapping the Rise of the KKK

Check out this digital map produced by the Mapping the Ku Klux Klan (1915-1940) project at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I think it is fair to say that the Klan spread very quickly in these years.

Here is an article from the Virginia Commonwealth website:

A joint project between a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor and VCU Libraries shows for the first time how the Ku Klux Klan spread across the United States between 1915 and 1940, establishing chapters in all 50 states with an estimated membership of between 2 million and 8 million.

The project, “Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1940,” is an animated, online map that illustrates the rise of the second Klan, which was founded in Atlanta in 1915 and spread rapidly across the country to total more than 2,000 local units, known as Klaverns.
“The project is using technology to demonstrate, and make available for people to contemplate, the nationwide spread of the Ku Klux Klan,” said John Kneebone, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “This map shows that you can’t just say ‘Oh, it was those crazy people in the South.’ The [KKK] was in the mainstream.”
The map, he said, invites the viewer to learn about the Klan in their own area, and to reflect on how the Klan’s vile message of racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism appealed to so many millions of Americans.
Read the rest here.

John Fea's Virtual Office Hours: Fall 2015 Season - Episode 10

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?


Jonathan Zimmerman Calls for a "Full Reckoning" with Woodrow Wilson's Progressive Legacy

A few years ago when I wrote what turned into a controversial piece about Barack Obama's faith, my office voicemail was filled with angry calls from Glenn Beck supporters.  As it turns out, Beck mentioned my piece on his radio show and his website The Blaze made it front-page news.  Several of callers had some pretty nasty things to say.  They told me that I was just as bad Louis Farrakhan, Adolph Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson.  I at least understood the references to Farrakhan and Hitler. But Woodrow Wilson? At least four different negative messages (there were no positive ones) referenced the 28th President of the United States.

After a quick Google search of "Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson" I realized that Beck had been spending a lot of time on his radio program and in his writings attacking Wilson's "progressive" political views.  In fact, as Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University points out in his recent piece at Politico, Beck was calling for the removal of Wilson's name from buildings at Princeton University, the place where he served as college president from 1902-1910.

As many of you know, Beck is not the only one who wants Wilson removed from Princeton's campus.  A few days ago I weighed in on the whole Wilson-- racism issue going on at the historic New Jersey university. I joined several of my fellow American historians in sympathizing with the university's African-American students, acknowledging Wilson's racism, and arguing against removing his image and name from campus.

Zimmerman's piece reminds us that despite his racism, Wilson remains an important figure in the history of American progressivism.  He is so important, that conservatives like Beck, and more recently a writer at The Federalist, thinks he should go.

Here is a taste of Zimmerman's article:

...On balance, though, the federal government has been a force for justice and equality across the past century. That's especially the case when it comes to African-Americans, who continue to suffer discrimination and poverty in our society. But they also vote in overwhelming percentages for the party of Big Government, the Democrats, because they understand that their circumstances would be many powers worse without federal programs and protections. Public housing, Medicare, occupational safety, mass transportation ... the list goes on and on. And they're all legacies of the Progressive doctrines espoused by Wilson, who understood that modern Americans needed the assistance of a larger, more supple national state.

That’s also why Glenn Beck despises him. So does the newly elected speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who blasted Wilson and his fellow Progressives in a 2010 interview with Beck. “I see Progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the Big Government problems that are plaguing us today,” Ryan told Beck. Progressives, Ryan added, “create a culture of dependency on the government, not on oneself.”

And just last week, the conservative Federalist website praised Princeton students for protesting Wilson. “Asking a private school to stop honoring an authoritarian hatemonger who also happened to be one of the most destructive presidents in the history of the United States is about the sanest thing I’ve heard happening on a college campus in a long time,” wrote senior editor David Harsanyi, in a rare right-wing tribute to the recent wave of campus demonstrations.

The Princeton students ended their sit-in after the university agreed to initiate a conversation about retaining Wilson’s name on its buildings. That’s exactly as it should be. But I hope the conversation includes a full reckoning with Wilson’s legacy, including his expansion of government regulations and services. His conservative antagonists certainly remember that. It would be a pity if liberals forgot it.

Read the entire piece here.