Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Culture Wars Are Real

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.

33 comments:

Christopher said...

Wow, John. I've almost entirely stopped paying attention to all things Glen Beck and consequently had no idea this had happened. I'm sorry you've had to deal with this, but thoroughly appreciate your thoughtful and generous response offered here. I admire you as both a Christian and a historian. Well done.

matt b said...

John - I want to echo what Christopher's said: you're a model to us all, in many ways. Best of luck dealing with the emails: if you handle them with the grace you've shown here, you have my respect doubly.

ZinnSlayer said...

Do you deal with Black Liberation Theology in your piece (forgive me for not having time to read it yet)? Is that not part of Obama's "Christian" heritage?

As a cultural warrior myself, and someone who respects your work, I suspect that that issue is at the heart of the controversy over defining Obama as "explicitly Christian." Perhaps you could incorporate these concerns of conservatives in the future.

Ben said...

You're a saint, John. Ditto to what Christopher and Matt said. Thanks for your great example, in both faith and history.

Paul M. said...

John,

Thank you for trying to exemplify Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turns away wrath," with your meek yet firm response.

Paul

Maffly-Kipp said...

One way to read this kind of vitriolic response is as a sign of an increased lack of civility in society. But another way (no less distressing, I'll admit) is to assume that the comments section of an online site or blog frees people to say things relatively anonymously that they wouldn't otherwise say. In other words, I suspect that the medium is enabling the message. This isn't comforting, but it may prevent us all from assuming our society is just getting more vicious. Social media may just be providing a license to express the feelings people might otherwise swallow. Whatever the cause, I'm sorry you have to endure it.

Leslie Kesler said...

The medium also allows a lot of us to be invisible lurkers a lot of the time. I've got nothing new to add to the comments above, but want to weigh in with +1 of admiration for the way you're handling this.

Mike Pasquier said...

It just so happens that while Beck and The Blaze were doing what they do, my students and I were reading your book on America's founding. It's an undergraduate honors seminar on "Religion and Public Life in America." One of the chief goals of the class (and something that all of the students appreciated about your book) is the need for civil discourse. My students and I thank you!

Brad said...

By coincidence, right before I read this post I had read an article about an initiative led by Allegheny College that is attempting to cultivate greater civility in politics. I wondered what you might think of it: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12052/1211499-109.stm

BHodges said...

John, I really admire and appreciate your work. I hope you've also received emails and calls in the past thanking you for your scholarship and measured perspective to help offset the past few days.

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 think this may be the key point of disagreement. It seems to me there are many Christians who do not separate "Christianity" from their own particular Christian beliefs. Christian rhetoric utilized incorrectly according to them does not count as Christian at all, and may even be the worst sort of counterfeit. So this becomes a matter of boundary maintenance, the refusal to grant "Christian" status to anyone who does not subscribe to one's particular understanding of what "counts" as Christian. Like you I think this is unfortunate, and completely historically untenable, but I think this is where the objections are coming from. (That, and the secret Muslim thing.)

Keep up the good work, regardless.

Tim Lacy said...

John: Hang in there. There are just some folks who will resist reason until their death beds. I'm very much looking forward to your trip to Monmouth College. - TL

BHodges said...

One further point, it seems in reading some of the early newspaper and pamphlet wars in America that we have a fairly long-standing tradition of smears, ribaldry, and vitriol in our public debates over political issues. There are times of more peaceful exchanges and times of outright incivility. If you have a moment I wonder if you could comment as a historian on the nature of public discourse historically. I'd like more perspective on how relatively abrasive things are today compared to some of the early print battles.

Rebecca said...

John, I am so sorry you have had to endure this. Should we ever meet I'll tell you all about the rape threats I received in response to (what I thought was) a relatively noncontroversial statement of support for the Civil Rights Act.

Jason said...

Thank you for your honesty and efforts Dr. Fea. Wishing you all the best.

ISCZ said...

This has a long history in our country. My political hero, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, wrote about it in his book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." Hatfield was one of the first senators to speak out against the Vietnam War. He did so on the basis of his strong Christian convictions. Much to his dismay this stance unleashed a volume of hate mail from "Christians" who called him the same kind of names you are being called. Sadly many who sent these poison letters were representative of what they would call a "born again" Christianity. Is it perhaps time that those of us who move comfortably in evangelical circles (I teach at an evangelical college, as well) begin to call out this kind of behavior for what it is - demonic? It's hard to see it in any other way as it is pure hatred being done in the name of Christ.

Jonathan said...

John, I just came across this controversy this morning. Even if I am commentator #16, let me add my voice to the others in saying I stand with you in opposition to such demagoguery. I'll reiterate this on Facebook and any other public forum that this is unacceptable and a sign of deep problems in the body politic.

George P. Wood said...

Sorry you're enduring this nonsense from the Beckites (Beckists? Beckistas?).

Andrew H said...

I'm so sorry Dr. Fea. Your article was balanced and reasonable. I believe the majority of your readership realizes this...you are only bearing the brunt of the loud minority.

Carrie said...

Hey postng this from the uk, having had it pointed out by a good friend. Im a UK History graduate and a committed christian. I studied American History and from an outsiders perspective with limited access to general media speeches etI would have to agree that Obama does appear to be the most explicitly Christian leader. Sad to read that in a country whose ideals and philosophies are built on freedoms of speech and religion you seem to being persecuted and abused for excercising your right to both.
You do however deal with it with an amazing strength and grae
Carrie

Laura said...

I echo what others have said in the comments, and want to encourage you not to become discouraged by the unreasonable and vitriolic responses you've received. It is SO important that Christians be represented to the world not only by the angry minority who, frankly, don't reflect Christ in the least, but also by gentle voices of reason and grace, like you. Please continue to be courageous and honest and humble in your writing. It is so, so very needed!

Sam Van Eman said...

John, as a friend of Messiah College and places like Hearts and Minds Books, I wanted to stop by and thank you for this gentle, articulate response.

Peace be with you.

clayknick said...

As long as people learn their history from Beck & Barton there is no way they will be able to catch a finely nuanced article like the one you wrote. Pundits are not interested in nuance.

This whole incident is too sad. At the same time I admire your deeply Christian response, John, which only confirms to me once again how much we need you to keep writing and to keep on keeping on.

Janine Giordano said...

At such a time as this, I cherish academic freedom all the more. I hope that tenure and academic freedom stays at "explicitly Christian" colleges, despite some chatter I've heard about change.

You handled this so well. I could imagine that if you were in a different demographic category, your very identity as a Christian and as an historian might be called into question.

Also, for a future blog post or conversation, what do you think about Woodrow Wilson on explicit use of Christianity as a public figure/ president? He had a tight (and to me, uncomfortably close) relationship with the Federal Council of Churches-- the Protestant intelligentsia in the 1910s. He may not have talked so much about his relationship with Jesus, but he was obsessed with spreading Christian/democracy and called on ministers to do his bidding very often...

Janine Giordano said...

At such a time as this, I cherish academic freedom all the more. I hope that tenure and academic freedom stays at "explicitly Christian" colleges, despite some chatter I've heard about change.

You handled this so well. I could imagine that if you were in a different demographic category, your very identity as a Christian and as an historian might be called into question.

Also, for a future blog post or conversation, what do you think about Woodrow Wilson on explicit use of Christianity as a public figure/ president? He had a tight (and to me, uncomfortably close) relationship with the Federal Council of Churches-- the Protestant intelligentsia in the 1910s. He may not have talked so much about his relationship with Jesus, but he was obsessed with spreading Christian/democracy and called on ministers to do his bidding very often...

Jared Burkholder said...

Just learned about this today -- after using part of the new Burns documentary on Prohibition in class. Indeed the culture wars are still with us. Thanks for modeling civility and I look forward to seeing you at CUSHWA in April!

Judy said...

I appreciate the tenor of both of your articles. While I can understand that many who claim the title of "Christ follower" may disagree with your opinions, I cannot understand the hateful vitriol that courses through their comments. John 13:34-35 explicitly state how Jesus would know if we are his followers, "That we have love for one another." A wonderful essay on bringing civility to politics was written by Vaclav Havel many years ago. A good reminder for all of us. http://www.politics.ubc.ca/fileadmin/user_upload/poli_sci/Faculty/price/Havel.pdf

D G said...

John, here's support for your comment about Obama (the problem is that no one in the other party believes him):

http://touchstonemag.com/merecomments/2012/02/politicians-who-hear-the-voice-of-god/

Reap the Whirlwind said...

While I am not an explicitly Christian person, having fought the battle too long for my taste to remain such, it is with great sadness that I read and hear of postings by people who think that because they can hide behind the anonymity of the internet that they can use pejorative and vitriolic language to their heart's content.
I am saddened by the level of vitriol that is today's discourse. It used to be that I engaged others who although I may have disagreed with them, I was never a culture warrior. This didn't suit those who used to associate with me, and they turned their backs on me because of my "liberal thinking."
Now I am a free thinker in that I cannot adhere to the rigid and explicitly fearful thinking that is the hallmark of today's far right wing Republican. I realize that this comment may be the clarion call for many to strike me down yet again, but I still believe that in politics as well as public discourse compromise is not a dirty word.
Sir your commentary on President Obama, was and is one of the best written, more scholarly works to date. You make a strong case for the ideal of the separation of state and church and this I wholeheartedly stand by. We in America cannot and should not be enjoined to make an amalgam of the two. As it stands now we are perilously close to doing so and this is too fearful a thing to apprehend. Thank you for your reasoned and rational approach to such a subject as this.

Alencon said...

Dear John,

What planet have you been living on? Vitriol from the right wing doesn't surprise me at all and neither does dishonesty.

As for "Faith Based Initiatives," why follow through on a patently illegal activity? You are aware of the 1st Amendment right?

Please explain to me how a government that must, by law, be neutral with respect to religion and non-religion is allowed to engage in "Faith Based Initiatives" especially since it's certain that some of the money will be used to proselytize?

Geoff L Smith said...

I was just linked to this post so I am a first time reader. I feel the need to express how much I appreciate this post. As I am an atheist and secularist who is studying science I suspect we have our differences. Regardless of this we fully agree on how to continue to work past these differences. The amount of figurative yelling and screaming going on in important dicussions is disconcerting. I commend you on keeping a cool composure in the face of a a verbal onslaught.

Jeff said...

Appreciated your humble, articulate comments and it's sad that we live in a world where such a balanced piece can be distorted in the way it has. It's disturbing to see the culture wars that many Christians find themselves absorbed in that looks so little like Jesus. Grace and peace from a local pastor.

Caleb Benner said...

Professor,

I read your article when it came out and it reminded me about how you don't like reveal your political stances and how we should not allow our biases to be the motivation for our historical analysis.

I thought that your article did just that. You used historical evidence to support a specific point, but not saturate your points with personal opinions. I think if someone read your article an intellectually honest perspective, they could come away from it not knowing what your personal political stance is. Way to be consistent.

I really appreciated your response and I believe it represents the attitude of Messiah College and Christian education well. You simply clarified what your arguments were (not intended to judge the President's actions) and encouraged dialogue, openness, and respect. I also found the attacks and misconstruing of your arguments to be concerning if we desire to have an effective democracy. I particularly enjoyed the comments that Messiah had left Christianity and was apostate. These claims are ignorant and irresponsible. How can people discuss politics or even how to live as a Christian if every time we hear something we disagree with or don’t like, we attack the idea and the people who hold it as blatantly evil? There would mean no discussion and no community.

As a college, I am glad that Messiah has presented different perspectives in order to encourage dialogue instead of simply nailing in a particular ideology. I don’t know how there could be true higher education without such discussion. Thank you for setting a responsible example.

I hope the rest of your year has been more peaceful and fulfilling. God Bless.

Caleb Benner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.