Choosing Books for the U.S. Survey

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An accurate representation of my book-selection process.

I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. survey for the first time next semester and it was a challenge to figure out what books to assign. The perennial questions about teaching the survey—depth or coverage?—play out in book selection too. Do we use a textbook? Do we go for certain kinds of texts—novel, memoir, monograph, synthesis? Do we focus on a couple themes and build the book selection around that? Do we want the students to get historiography? Do we want them to get lots of primary sources? How much do we think about the social location of the authors?

I actually don’t know what the good answers are to these questions but I can report the books I ended up with after a haphazard process that tried to take account of all these questions and more.

I almost went with a textbook. Gilmore and Sugrue’s new survey, These United States, seems impressive. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t figure out what the textbook would be for in my classroom. The general consensus seems to be that most students don’t read the textbook from week to week but might use it for exam-prep. But I’m only giving one exam, and it will be based on my lectures. Furthermore, I expect students to not only read what I assign, but, most weeks, write something about it. I’m not sure I could get good writing assignments out of a textbook reading.

Textbooks don’t seem to help much in promoting historical thinking, understanding of historiography, or analysis of primary sources. But those three things sum up most of what we do, right? So what’s the point? Textbooks fill in the gaps and give students a fall-back, but I’m not sure that’s relevant in the age of Wikipedia.

The one thing that the textbook supposedly has going for it—that it gives students a narrative structure for American history so they can place events in time and context—isn’t actually operable if students aren’t reading it anyway. My sense is that it’s more important to grab students interest, even if it makes them confused, than to try to convey an orderly historical narrative. Students who are engaged can question their way toward a synthesis. Perhaps I’m being utopian, but there’s my rant for the day.

Ok, here are the books I chose:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 

Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power

Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, Volume Two

The Foner collection is my concession to textbook-like features. As a collection of primary sources, it allows me to put a lot of documents in front of my students without spending a lot of time tracking down sources, scanning, uploading, linking, and so on.

The other three are each very different sorts of books. Herland is an early twentieth century utopian feminist novel, Citizen 13660 is a graphic memoir of Japanese internment, and At the Dark End of the Street is a narrative history from a professional historian. Gilman and Okubo are both short enough to read in one sitting if someone were so inclined. These books also have the considerable virtue of being cheap.

I didn’t set out to have this set of books, but what I’ve ended up with is a rather feminist group that seems relevant to our #metoo moment. Since women’s history is a weakness of mine, assigning these books is one way for me to push against that and try to become more informed.

Can the Senate Simply Refuse to Seat Moore?

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In 1946, the notorious demagogue Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi won reelection to the senate after inciting violence against black voters. The Senate refused to seat him. Bilbo died of cancer the following year having never actually reassumed his seat.

Can’t the Senate do the same thing if Moore wins in December? There would be ample cause.

In addition to the allegations of sexual assault of a 14-year-old child, Moore has said Muslims should not be able to serve in congress and homosexuality should be illegal. He’s also a birther, because of course.

I assume the Republican leadership would be utterly unwilling to go to war like this, but if the Senate didn’t want to seat a new member I’m not sure it would have to.

Some Thoughts on a Crazy Week

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Roy Moore, champion of righteousness against the godless liberals

A few miscellaneous thoughts I gathered during the week:

Roy Moore’s response to the allegations that he preyed on children is damning. He all but admitted it in what was supposed to be an exculpatory interview with propagandist Sean Hannity. Now he is going to cast himself as the embattled Christian being persecuted by liberals. He’s only under fire because he’s one of the few willing to boldly stand for truth. The message is: Alabama voters, don’t think about Moore preying on children; think about how the liberals sneer at anyone who dares to stand up for God.

Will it work? Probably. People who weren’t bothered by President Trump’s history of sexual assault are unlikely to be upset about this.

It’s a shame Bill Clinton didn’t resign during his presidency. Of course, the religious right would still find some case somewhere for their whataboutism, but I wonder if Clinton’s behavior had a deeper culture-forming effect. To what extent did it encourage Americans to make the (absurd) calculation that private character does not bear on public leadership?


In a speech in Vietnam yesterday, President Trump said this:

From this day forward, we will compete on a fair and equal basis. We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.

This is a perfect summation of Trump’s bizarre view of global politics and trade. Everything is zero-sum, and history is absent from his thinking. He doesn’t show any awareness that he is raging against the very global system that the United States set up. He effectively said, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of by the U.S.-led global order anymore!”

It is certainly reasonable to believe that the costs of sustaining America’s post-World War Two posture in the world are too high, or to believe that in various ways the U.S. harms other regions of the world with its policies. But what we see from Trump is something different. He takes his gut zero-sum instincts and is pretending to make a foreign policy with them. And he shows no understanding of why every other U.S. President since FDR has opposed his view of the world.


This week was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Isn’t this a good candidate for the most catastrophic turning point of the twentieth century? Or does all of that get categorized under the heading of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination? It’s easy to imagine something else sparking the Great War even if the flukish assassination had never happened so my vote is for the Russian Revolution.

As for consequences of the Revolution, on the minus side we have tens of millions of people dead in futile attempts to impose social and economic relations that free people never willingly choose. On the plus side we have, I don’t know, Sweden? Does the Russian Revolution get to claim credit for the peaceful social democracies of Western Europe? It’s hard to believe we couldn’t have found our way to Sweden without tens of millions of deaths in the process.

On a teaching note, in my experience we seem not to do a good job contextualizing for our students the global history of communism in the twentieth century. We emphasize the Red Scare in the United States and its victims, and how absurd the hunt for communists was in the 1950s. We should do that. But we sometimes fail to contextualize that fear in the broader global context in which there was in fact a murderous ideology that was at that very moment needlessly killing millions, most notably during the The Great Leap Forward. That’s scary!

Upcoming Talk

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Next Friday I’ll be at Rutgers-Camden to give a talk about how some white evangelicals used their colleges to respond to the upheavals of the 1960s and forge a presence in the American city. It will be interesting to get some feedback from scholars of other fields/disciplines. Fingers crossed!

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis

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We’ve hit the one year anniversary of a shameful moment in American history. Donald Trump’s election showed us, finally, that the American people have no special love for liberty or decency. We’re just like everybody else. We might have known this, if only in our heads. But gaining that self-knowledge through hard experience has changed us.

That moment a year ago has not faded away into history. It was the curtain-raiser on an age of crisis. Now we think about the country and our fellow Americans differently. We try to engage and love and persevere, but we do not do so with the illusion that our neighbors want the same future we do.

Immediately after the election, a lot of us were alarmists. Some envisioned a rapid slide into an authoritarian dystopia. If the alarmists were not entirely correct, their posture was more productive than those who wishfully believed that this is a normal political moment. Indeed, the alarmists are still needed. They may have overestimated the chances of rapid disintegration, but the rest of us are now underestimating the possibility that this is the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.

Donald Trump showed that it was possible to run against the liberal democratic American ideal—the vision that animated everyone from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama—and win. If you’re on the radical left or right and want to destroy the social order, you might be happy. Everyone else, liberal or conservative, ought to be very concerned.

We have taken too much comfort in Trump’s incompetence. We can be sure that every power-loving would-be strongman is learning the lessons of this moment. The key lesson is that many Americans—perhaps a majority—want their party to win more than anything else. They would rather win than defend abstractions like the bill of rights, democracy, and separation of powers. They’ll support all manner of racism and cruelty if it means winning one for the team. A cunning politician with a clear end-goal in sight can use this new knowledge to bring our democratic experiment to a close.

These are the stakes for the nation. Don’t even get me started on the Church. I care much more about the church than I do about the nation, and am much more grieved about it. I hope in it like I hope in Jesus himself—with a faith that doesn’t yield to the whims of circumstance. The church will continue. But those who seek to follow Jesus will do so in communities of faith beyond the white nationalist and prosperity heresies that have overrun much of American Christianity.

So how do we live in this age of crisis? How do we teach? For me, these are really thorny questions.

Before Trump’s rise, it never occurred to me that many people I know and love could support such an awful person. How do I conduct myself on the other side of that knowledge? How do I live with this knowledge that I desperately don’t want to have? What do love, humility, and patience look like in this moment? How do I deal with the resentment and bitterness I harbor so that I can approach people openly and in love?

Normally, we have several strategies that help us be respectful toward people with whom we disagree. We remind ourselves that we all have different experiences, different social contexts, different bases of knowledge. We remind ourselves of our own fallenness and limited perspective. We seek to learn from perspectives we find disagreeable. But in the age of Trump, the overt celebration of evil and cruelty often make these strategies seem hollow. Those of us who are Christians may find more meaning in how Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. We do not need to pretend that we have common ground. But we are commanded to love.

Part of the reality of living in the Trump era is feeling profoundly affected by it and then feeling guilty and silly for how much it’s affecting you. Endless cycle. But it does affect us. Continuing to feel that, though exhausting, is an important part of maintaining our integrity.

I’ve also found that teaching history in this moment is a bit disorienting. How does, or should, a moment of crisis affect our teaching of the past? I don’t have an answer for that. I’ve mostly tried to steer clear of the present, but whichever path I take I keep wondering if I’m doing my students a disservice.

On the one hand, making the current moment a big presence in the classroom can distort the past and encourage bad habits of mind in students. Our inclination is to read everything in light of the present moment and that’s exactly what we as historians are positioned to resist. On the other hand, it seems odd to not explain, as best we can, how the past led to our current age of crisis. If students leave the course not knowing that this political moment is unique, why didn’t I bother to make the class more relevant to them?

These pedagogical questions would be easier to grapple with if I could do so dispassionately. But the reality is I can’t. While it might be nice in theory to have a class discussion about putting Trump in historical context, I’m not confident in my ability to lead that discussion productively, especially if a student strongly defends Trump.

To talk about Trump in the classroom is to talk about someone whose politics are an existential threat to some of the students in the room. That makes it a loaded conversation, and I can’t hide that my sympathies are with those students.

Perhaps there aren’t any good answers for life and teaching in this age of crisis. But let’s try to lean on each other and support each other. Shout out especially to those who feel isolated in pro-Trump communities. Keep up the good fight!

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelicalism at Temple

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What happens when you try to teach the history of evangelicalism in a Temple University GenEd class made up of mostly freshman with majors from all over the university? This month I found out.

As we came to the end of our unit on evangelicalism Friday, I asked the students how their view of evangelicalism differs from a month ago. Here are a few paraphrased responses:

I knew that it was around but I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

I had no idea it was so big and influential or had such a large effect on American politics.

I thought it was an old-timey religion and didn’t realize it was something still going on today.

I had never heard of it before.

I had never thought about how religion connects to history.

My favorite response came from another student who said she told her friend she was learning about evangelicalism and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re all assholes, right?” While she may not have a favorable opinion of evangelicals, her first instinct was to complicate her friend’s breezy assumption. She now knows there is a much longer, more diverse, and more complicated story than she had realized.

If I do something like this again, I will take more time and be more explicit in laying a theoretical foundation to explain to the students why we’re studying religion in a history class. The course is called “The Making of American Society.” They intuitively understood why we would study immigration under that heading. And civil rights? Of course. But evangelicalism? That needed some justification.

The telling comment came from the student who said she hadn’t thought about how religion connects to history. In other words, even at the end of the unit she was thinking of religion as something separate from history instead of something that occurs inside history.

At a place like Temple, it seems that students who may be right there with you when discussing complicated and fraught questions of race, gender, and politics are suddenly adrift when the conversation turns to religion. This dynamic alone shows how dramatically the country has changed and how many students live in a secular environment or one where religion is so privatized they have difficulty understanding basic features of the American past and present.

I did talk to them briefly during the unit about Robert Orsi’s work, but in the future I need to be much more direct and careful in laying a foundation for discussion and understanding. If students subconsciously think religion is outside history, then studying it can seem not only confusing but inappropriate or irrelevant.

This is only one variation on the constant challenge that is at the heart of what we do: provoking students into trying to understand people and worlds unlike their own. Even if everything goes pretty well, the result feels incomplete. But if the student’s world seems more complex than it did a month ago, that’s a partial victory to take home and try to build on next time.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelical Popular Culture

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Stryper, 1980s. Evangelical popular culture? Not what you were expecting, huh?

In class today I talked about or showed video clips from:

A Thief in the Night

Larry Norman

Stryper

Amy Grant

DC Talk

Michael W. Smith

Left Behind

God’s Not Dead

Now, if the world imagined by the God’s not Dead film series is accurate, I guess this is the part where my godless, secular institution fires me for saying the name “Jesus” in the classroom.

I used these varied snippets of evangelical cultural production to illustrate several salient themes of late 20th century evangelical popular culture. I argued that it is:

Populist and frequently apocalyptic

We talked a good bit about an evangelical persecution complex (see Alan Noble’s Atlantic article), which seems tied to the apocalyptic trend. Through films like A Thief in the Night and books like Left Behind, evangelicals could imagine a not-too-distant future where Christians would be hunted down and killed.

My working hypothesis is that the apocalyptic theology of the fundamentalist movement only became prominent in cultural production after the upheavals of the 1960s. Notice that this was also the era when revived narratives of “Christian America” took off, with the publication of Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Apocalyptic popular culture appealed to people who felt that the country had suddenly gone to hell right before their eyes.

The populist dimension of this is obvious on the surface. Evangelical popular culture is anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. But it’s deeper than that. It has to do with what is considered authoritative. Evangelical theory says the Bible is authoritative. In practice, as Todd Brenneman has argued, emotion and feeling have pride of place in evangelical culture. Much evangelical cultural production is extraordinarily sentimental.

A driver of group identity/cohesion

Every community needs to define itself and tell its members who they are and where they belong. Evangelical popular culture does that, especially for kids.

An expression of enduring insider/outsider tension

This goes all the way back to the tensions George Marsden identified in early 20th-century fundamentalism. Are we insiders or outsiders? Alienated from the nation, or its truest defenders? In late 20th century popular culture, it means evangelicals want to influence the culture, but also assert their difference from it. So when someone like Amy Grant wins great mainstream success, does that mean she is faithfully “witnessing” to the culture, or does it mean she sold out and betrayed her Christian commitments?

Implicitly political

This one is probably pretty obvious. Evangelical popular culture is political if for no other reason than it provokes an us vs them mentality, the Christian vs the secular, the conservative vs the liberal, the insider vs the outsider.

The lecture was not as well-put together as it should have been, but I think it was still a fun one. A better crafted synthesis would bring these various features of evangelical popular culture together into a more coherent whole. But I wasn’t sure how to do that.

If You See Something, Say Something

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This weekend at a community celebration in white, small-town America, terrorist flags waved in the air. As children laughed and scampered about and people bought their glow sticks and funnel cakes, no one seemed to pay much attention to the symbols of evil the cart vendors pushed threw the crowd.

Of course I’m being deliberately provocative, but provocation can be a useful tool to awaken our deadened moral imaginations. Confederate flags at a community fair are evidence of cultural pathology. As far as I could discern, their presence stirred no resistance from the community.

I talked to one of the vendors pushing his little cart through the crowd. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, are these flags for sale?”

Vendor: “Yeah buddy, they’re $15 bucks, which one do you want?

Me: “No, I’m not going to buy one. I know you’re just doing your job, but this flag is wildly offensive.”

Vendor: “No it ain’t; I just sold one to a black woman down the street.”

Me: “Oh, really?” (It seemed a transparent lie, not least because there were almost no black people there)

Vendor: “It’s history. If you don’t know your history it might offend you.”

At that he rushed on, seeking to avoid engaging, and I declined to harass him further. (For the record, I’m a historian.)

About 15 minutes later he came through our section of the crowd again and the Confederate flag was gone. I assume someone bought it. But maybe, just maybe, he took it down.

If people in your community were waving ISIS flags you would notice. We need to reframe our understanding of how despicable confederate nostalgia is. There must be no tolerance for it in your community. Confront people lovingly and politely, but don’t remain silent and become complicit in their sin. If you see something, say something.

Two Presidents: One Godless, One Christian

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President Obama in Charleston, South Carolina, June, 2015.

Shout out to Alicia for drawing my attention this morning to the following juxtaposition. In the first video, we have President Trump speaking this week to the Values Voters Summit:

In the second video, we have President Obama delivering a eulogy after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina:

In the first video, you see a President with no understanding of Christianity. He has no internal knowledge of faith to draw upon that might render his religious words credible. And so he speaks in the only language he knows: that of transaction and identitarian symbols. He speaks to an interest group, muttering tinny phrases remarkable only for their shimmering hollowness.

The words he uses are only those he has figured out his audience wants to hear. This base kind of cunning is perhaps his only distinguishing feature of intelligence. It’s a calculation not unlike that of a puppy which has learned how to get a treat.

Trump would find it impossible to explain why Christmas might be theologically important. But he’s damn sure going to say the word!

President Trump has not tried to hide his distaste for Christianity and what it stands for. While Christians look out on a world governed by grace and seek to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness, Trump boasts that might is right, that power and power alone counts in life. And he promises to deploy his power on behalf of scared Christians. They love him for that.

The “Christian” Right’s affection for a Godless president is not so surprising. For among the many things and people the Christian Right has always seemed to dislike is Christianity itself. They’re too busy trying to take over the country to bother with someone as naive as Jesus.

In the second video, you see a President immersed in theological reflection, attuned to Christian idioms, inviting his audience explore the possibilities of Christian hope. President Obama’s extended meditation on grace shows a thorough understanding of orthodox Christian theology. It is moving and profound. It comes from a place of understanding. It is impossible to imagine President Trump delivering such a message.

There are reasons to be cautious about President Obama’s religious language. He often deployed it for nationalist purposes, using Scripture meant for the church and applying it to America. That’s dangerous. But if white evangelicals believed their own claims—that this is a Christian nation—they ought to have loved Obama’s rhetoric.

Why were most white evangelicals unable to appreciate the faith of President Obama? As Alicia pointed out this morning, the problem was not only that Obama often spoke in the tradition of the social gospel. The problem was that—as you see in the Charleston eulogy—his faith was black. In the white evangelical mainstream, true Christianity—that which is mature, biblically correct, normative—is implicitly white.

You might argue it’s not fair to compare speeches given in such different contexts. But that’s actually part of the point: President Trump is incapable of giving the kind of speech President Obama gave. And the reason for that is not only because President Trump is an inferior public speaker. It’s because he’s so hostile to Christianity.

White Evangelicals’ Faulty Theology of the City

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A North Philadelphia scene. The Swinging Bridge, March 10, 2000, 8.

On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”

This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.

In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.

Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.

It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.

Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.

I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.

On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?