Anyone who thinks that the culture wars are over has not experienced what I went through today. Last night Glenn Beck's "news" website, The Blaze.com, published an article about my last Patheos column. In that column I criticized Barack Obama for not following through on the faith-based initiatives he proposed in 2008.
But this was not the part of the piece that caught the attention of the folks at The Blaze.
Rather, the "powers-that-be" at The Blaze decided to focus their article on my statement that Barack Obama was "the most explicitly Christian president in America." Last night they decided to run a story entitled "Messiah College Professor: 'Obama May Be the Most Explicitly Christian President in American History.'" The piece has lit a fire under the Beck faithful. When I awoke this morning I had dozens of angry e-mails. The voice-mail on my office phone was filled with nasty attacks. The Blaze currently has 800+ comments and the originally piece at Patheos has about 160. Most of them are attacks on my piece. I also heard that Beck talked about me on his radio program today.
In the last 24 hours I have been called a lot of names. I have been compared to Hitler, Louis Farrakhan, and Woodrow Wilson (yes, you read that last one correctly). Several expressed wishes that I be cast into perdition. A few demanded that the administration at the college where I teach fire me immediately. The culture wars are real.
I do not want to dwell on this too much. As a writer I realize that in the United States people are free to disagree. I guess that comes with the territory. But I would like to at least make two comments:
1. I continue to stand by my argument about Barack Obama being the most explicitly Christian president in American history. Perhaps I could have said this more clearly, but I do not know of any president (certainly not Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, the three presidents who I focused on in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?) who has talked more openly about his Christian faith than Obama. If future historians judge Obama's rhetoric in the same way that today's historians judge the rhetoric of George Washington or John Adams or any other president, they will conclude that Obama has used his faith as part of his public rhetoric to a much greater extent than these Founders. When I wrote this I was not making a statement about whether Obama utilizes Christian faith correctly or not. I was rather making a statement about how explicitly Christian Obama's rhetoric happens to be.
I do not agree with many of Obama's policies. Some of my disagreements stem from my Christian faith. I tried to reference some of my disappointment with Obama in my Patheos piece. But when Obama says he is a Christian, I take him at his word. I think Jesus said something about he who is without sin cast the first stone.
2. After what happened to me today I am even more deeply convinced about the need for civil dialogue in America. You can read the comments for yourself, but I would say that most of the 800 comments on The Blaze have nothing to do with the argument of my piece. They instead focused on the controversial headline.
But even if some of Glenn Beck's followers did read the whole piece and concluded that they disagreed with my argument, the level of vitriol I have experienced today has made me concerned for our country. How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding? I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities. It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.
My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian remind me that we are human beings, created in the image of God, and thus worthy of respect. My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian calls me to listen to those with whom I might disagree and perhaps even learn something from them. To do otherwise is a failure to love my neighbor (Mt. 22:39--I did not feel much love from my Christian brothers and sisters who wrote to me today). My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian teaches me humility and reminds me that sometimes I may need to sacrifice my own deeply held convictions for a better opinion.
Democracy does not require us to abandon our most cherished beliefs. Far from it. Democracy implies that we bring our cherished beliefs to the public arena (and the Internet) with vigor. A democracy offers the opportunity to debate others with whom we differ and try to convince them--rationally and civilly--to come over to our point of view. As Christians, we are required by God to love our enemies, but in the process we might even learn something from them. The cultivation of this kind of democratic culture is America's best hope.