The Racist History of My Alma Mater

Jet March 19 1970 p30

Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.

Evangelical Leaders Support DACA. Does It Matter?

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When you study evangelicalism in the civil rights era, you quickly begin to realize that there was a dramatic divide between elites and ordinary people. Denominational bodies–even white evangelical ones–tended to publish moderate or supportive statements on civil rights. At the same time, the opinions of laypeople in the churches were much more hostile to the civil rights movement. Ordinary people often felt that their denominational leaders did not speak for them.

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program, evangelical leaders of all stripes have spoken out in support of the Dreamers. For example:

The President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

My denomination

The National Association of Evangelicals

Lots of other groups. Including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and World Relief. This is just a sampling. These are not minor organizations.

But the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century makes me skeptical that these evangelical elites have much power to shape opinion, much less action, among their constituents.

I’m still quite uncertain about how these networks of influence and resistance to change work in evangelicalism. If evangelical leaders are so impotent, what and who are more formative influences on evangelical opinion?

Specifically, I’m thinking of evangelical talk radio. While evangelical leaders spoke supportively of DACA this week, evangelical talk radio hosts were busy explaining why the Trump administration had actually made a reasonable and compassionate decision. Do we have any reliable metrics of the listening audience of these shows? Has anyone tried to quantify their influence? Are these under-the-radar media companies actually more influential than the leaders of major evangelical organizations?

I’m thinking of shows like Point of View, Focal Point, The Line of Fire, In the Market, and so on. There are important differences between these shows—for example, Bryan Fischer is often overtly hateful, while Janet Parshall is more winsome and sincere in her brand of patriotic conservative Christianity—but they share a common conflation of the gospel and Republican politics. I wonder if they have more influence in many congregations than the pastor.

Evangelicalism is diffuse. Leaders speak for themselves. There is no army marching in lockstep behind them. It is nice that so many evangelical leaders made supportive public statements about DACA. But when it comes to the hard stuff of politics—money, votes, civil disobedience—will they show up, and do they have a real constituency? I’m not hopeful. My gut says most white evangelicals are content with the hateful public witness that has become the norm for our faith.

Jonny Rashid, pastor of a Brethren in Christ church here in Philadelphia, gets it right:

You might read this and just think I’m being political. You have to know that this is a deeply personal issue because of the meaning assigned to my skin color by the dominators. Thank Jesus, I’m freed from their judgment and condemnation. I am one-in-Christ, not because of their whitewashing, but because my Lord conquers racism. I gladly relinquish my assigned racial identity for the cross, but it goes both ways, the dominators must reject theirs which offers the initial assignment.

I do not just care about this issue, though, because I am brown. As it turns out, both of my brown children are citizens, and so were my sister and I when my parents immigrated here. So we are “safe.” But the rhetoric that this spews into the air, and the violence that always follows, is not good for us or for others.

Furthermore, the Bible is littered with passages about welcoming the stranger. Jesus is explicit in Matthew 25, so is the Levitical law, and Paul, himself, in what is the greatest masterworks of the New Testament is enraged at the prospect that we would separate anyone as a result of their cultural or ethnic heritage. The Christian witness has consistently been to stand with the oppressed and the immigrant.

And now, with a small, but loud, segment of the Evangelical community making up the bulk of Trump’s base, Christians have a chance to reject and denounce the heartless end to the program and take a stand. I doubt they will, though.

The Trump Administration gives Christians, whose reputation is tattered in the media (need I mention the fundamentalist Nashville Statement or Joel Osteen’s reputation risk management last week?), a chance to redeem themselves almost every day. There is always something evil that the administration is doing that Christians should oppose. And I’m not talking about complex policy, these issues are simple: oppose white supremacy, support safety for children of immigrants, care for the environment, don’t start another war or escalate a nuclear one. No theology or political science degree required.

For Christians, we are not to submit to evil institutions that do not follow the way of Jesus. You can twist Romans 13 to justify any of that, I suppose, but as a Christian the law is not the final word or final answer. And that is my hope, despite the evil of the state, for all the children who might be affected by the end of DACA. Your safety, ultimately, is in Jesus, not in the state or the country—it is not exactly hospitable for you here. We serve a God of all nations who commands us to welcome the stranger. This is not just a question of peace and justice, it is a question of obedience to God.

Resisting evil is not just a matter of saving our witness, but follow God. Jesus made it clear. You are either with him or you are not. I am sure Trump will give us more chances to stand up for our witness, but I pray we stand against the evil of the government for the sake of the Gospel now. I want to do it before it becomes increasingly ridiculous to entertain the notion of following Jesus. There are cosmic consequences to Christian inaction if we really believe what we say we do. And Jesus might be preparing a millstone for inaction of his purported followers who lead people astray from him. Lord, have mercy.

Was the American Revolution Worth It?

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I took advantage of the holiday to take my two oldest boys to the new Museum of the American Revolution today. It is visually very impressive. I’m less able to judge its interpretive lens because of my general ignorance of the revolution and because I had a four-year-old with me who wasn’t down for reading everything. Understandable! But the boys had fun.

With the caveat that my stroll through the museum was far from comprehensive, I got the impression that African Americans and Native Americans figure fairly prominently in the story, but loyalists are slighted. Does this ring true to others who have visited? I saw one small section that superficially discussed loyalist motivations but I don’t get the sense that visitors would come away from the museum seriously grappling with loyalism as a viable choice in colonial America.

It seemed to me the museum has a heavy teleological bent, encouraging the viewer to understand past events in light of futures the historical actors could not and did not imagine. Seen from this perspective, the revolution was great because growing numbers of people would claim its fruits in the centuries to come. The focus on futures makes African Americans a natural part of the story but comes with a cost. It can obscure the actual decisions people at the time had to make without the benefit of foreknowledge.

Without the light of foreknowledge, was the patriot cause just? It’s a question patriotic sense tells us we shouldn’t even be asking. But it’s a historically and morally useful question.

I asked my son John if he thinks he would have been a patriot or a loyalist. He said neither because he would have been afraid to fight. In that answer he demonstrated more serious historical reflection and honest evaluation of human behavior than most of us. And he’s seven!

I just finished reading Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, where the loyalists appear as real people making understandable decisions. The patriot leaders often appear acquisitive, suspicious of the common people, and jealous in the defense of their prerogatives. Taylor joins the historiographical trend of seeing the Constitution as an attempt to tamp down democracy in the states and preserve the advantages of creditors, landowners, and enslavers.

In such a narrative, the genius of the United States is found in successive generations of Americans who had the audacity to claim that the rhetorical flights of fancy of a wartime messaging tool (the Declaration of Independence) should be made real in society. In other words, the founders accidentally set in motion the emergence of a society that most of them would have found repugnant.

Was the Revolution worth it? The freedoms won for ordinary white men pale in comparison to the other fruits of the Revolution: the intensification of conquest and enslavement in the west. At the Museum of the American Revolution, the patriot cause is vindicated because of the abolition of slavery in the Civil War and the great civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century. But do these victories for freedom really belong to the Revolution? It is not unreasonable to wonder if the cause of freedom would have been better served within the British Empire.

Really, I’m just stirring the pot. When you think about the American Revolution, are your sympathies more with the patriots or loyalists? Or does patriotism prevent us from even considering the question?

Notes from the Classroom: Week 1

temple

Well, the first week of a new semester is behind us. How did it go? What new strategies did you try in the classroom? How did you try to get the students engaged and as excited about the material as you are? What was important for them to know in week one?

I’m still at the stage where I have to step back now and then and think about how bizarre it seems that I am teaching college students. This is higher education today: undergraduates pay more, and in return receive their instruction from less qualified teachers. Great!

My course, The Making of American Society, is a GenEd class in the history department. 50 students, two sections, majority freshman, and a grand total of two history majors. When we came into class at 9am on Monday morning, for some students in the room it was literally their first college class ever. So it was important to me to try to put them at ease and cover some basics first. Last semester I began with a very interactive opening class, with mixed results.

This time, instead of asking nervous freshman to talk right away, I gave them two short questions to answer on paper. I wanted to know where they think they’ve learned history—the classroom, parents, movies? And I wanted to know what their experience with history instruction in high school was like. (By the way, 20% said family was the most formative influence on their historical views, and half a dozen students specifically said their fathers talk to them about history. No one mentioned their mothers. Not sure what that means but it’s interesting!)

I devoted most of the first class to introducing the 5 C’s of historical thinking, a framework that will guide the class throughout the semester. As we grapple with difficult issues, these five concepts can help students to think more deeply about the material.

On Wednesday I jumped right into a heavy lecture. I emphasized that the very last thing they ought to do in response to the lecture is to assume that they now know “the history” of x. The 5 C’s of historical thinking invite us to think about the central role of interpretation in historical narratives. Rather than giving them “just the facts” I am constructing an interpretive narrative to make sense of the past. They ought to scrutinize that narrative and see if they find it convincing.

But in our current political dispensation, it is perhaps just as important to help students understand that there are irreducible facts about the past. While President Trump promotes a nihilistic attitude toward truth—acting as if the veracity of our words does not matter—historians work hard to be as accurate as possible. Interpretation and reinterpretation are the lifeblood of historical work, but we’re working with raw materials that have tangible reality to them. We don’t get to make stuff up. In this era of information overload at our fingertips, I think students are very confused about the relationship between facts and interpretation, and how to evaluate whether or not a source is credible.

Today, for our last class of the week, we simply had group discussion about the readings I assigned. I posted on blackboard a reading and discussion guide with lots of questions on it so students would know in advance what we would be talking about. I think this improved the quality of the discussion. It seemed that most students had already begun to think through the issues before they arrived in the classroom.

The discussion was about national identity and national myths, and what we want to get out of learning history. I tried something I haven’t done before: an in-class poll. It worked well and I expect to use it again. Here’s the result from section 2:

poll

I was surprised by how lopsided the results were. In the first section it was 96% to 4% in favor of A. In the future I will have to try to craft questions that produce less consensus. In light of these results, I challenged the class with the reading that emphasized the perspective of answer B. Why might someone feel that a patriotic narrative is more important than an accurate one? Are there costs to answer A? The students raised a lot of thoughtful points and produced a good discussion.

If this poll were run nationally, I wonder if the results would be much more evenly split.

Humor for the Day

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You Are Not Forgotten, by Jon McNaughton

Notice President Trump’s foot on the snake. The artist comments:

I want a president that will crush the enemies of liberty, justice, and American prosperity.

They may have the power to bruise his heel, but he will have the power to crush their head!

He is referencing Genesis 3:15:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.

Christians have often interpreted this passage as an allusion to Jesus Christ’s ultimate victory over evil. So the analogy here is that Trump is Jesus and his enemies are the Devil. Cool!

Notice Sheriff Clarke’s prominent placement over Trump’s left shoulder. Because nothing better communicates good old fashioned patriotic Christian American values than wanton cruelty. I feel so inspired!

You Are Not Forgotten is a follow-up to another McNaughton classic, The Forgotten Man:

forgotten man

White men, do not fear! Now that the Constitution-stomping black man is out of office, we are no longer forgotten!

The most interesting thing about this painting is the placement of the prior presidents behind Obama. Kennedy and Bush seem ambivalent. Clinton, FDR, and Teddy are positively giddy. Lincoln and Washington are outraged. I would have thought Lincoln might be one of the bad ones in this schema.

If Evangelicalism Were Anti-Racist, Maybe Racists Wouldn’t Want To Claim They’re Evangelicals

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A perennial favorite. This photo will be in our great-grandkids’ e-textbooks.

When Fox comes out with a new poll every month it’s always a special treat because Fox tends to ask some off the wall questions and include self-identified white evangelicals in the crosstabs. The results are sometimes hilarious and almost always depressing. This month’s poll is a doozy.

Here are some of the questions that stood out to me, along with the results among self-described white evangelicals:

Do you think Donald Trump respects racial minorities?

Yes  72%

No 25%

Do you think Confederate monuments and statues should be taken down or stay up?

Be taken down  10%

Stay up  82%

In general, how do you think things work in the United States today?

Whites are favored over minorities  21%

Minorities are favored over whites  40%

No group is favored  27%

Don’t know  11%

Do you approve or disapprove of how President Trump responded to the events in Charlottesville?

Approve  65%

Disapprove  25%

Who do you think poses a greater threat to the United States — white supremacists or the news media?

White supremacists  23%

News media 63%

The usual caveats apply. It may not mean much for a person to self-identify as a white evangelical. But even if these poll results don’t reveal the true state of white evangelical opinion, they do tell us something else: the evangelical label is not toxic to racists. Put aside the question of whether most of these poll respondents are truly practicing Christians. Millions of people are associating their racism and ignorance with the evangelical label. Why would they want to do that if evangelicalism was known for its anti-racist commitment? People have an intuitive sense of where they belong, of who the in-group is, of where their affinities rest. So it’s telling that racists feel so at home under the evangelical banner.

This, Too, Is Evangelicalism

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I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months drawing attention to the pathologies of evangelicalism. So I want to mention three items in the aftermath of Charlottesville that show a different side of the evangelical movement. First, an open letter signed by hundreds of Christian scholars, many of whom work at white evangelical colleges.

​Like many Americans, we are grieved by recent events in Charlottesville. The white supremacist rally there showed that overt racism is alive and well in America, and that it can turn violent and murderous. As Christian scholars of American history, politics, and law, we condemn white supremacy and encourage frank dialogue about racism today.

​As Americans, we love our country. As Christians, we know that no individual, people, or nation is perfect. Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes. And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination. What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do…

We also recognize that white-majority churches and denominations have too often lagged in discussions of racial injustice and inequality, or have even been sources of the perpetuation of white cultural dominance and racial injustice. Because of that history, we pray that America’s churches and Christians will renew their commitment to practical, proactive steps of racial reconciliation and friendship in our cities and towns.

It’s not as strong as I would like, but it’s not nothing. Second, a stronger declaration from the Reformed African American Network:

In Charlottesville, VA, the violence of white supremacy visited our nation once again; its demonic presence has not been exorcised from us. From the founding of this nation until the present hour, the idolatry of whiteness has been a pro-death spirit within our republic. It is easy for us to scapegoat the domestic terrorists who incited violence that ended in the deaths of three Americans. We can call them extremists who do not represent American values, but upon closer examination, the ideology deployed as a weapon in Charlottesville haunts every institution of the country, including the Church.

Thus, it is with great concern for the soul of this nation that we, the undersigned, covenant to “cry loud and spare not” (Isaiah 58:1) against America’s national sin, beginning within the body of Christ. White supremacy—often called by many names including racism, white privilege, “alt-right” and the KKK—is an insidious doctrine that in manifold ways steals, kills, and destroys the inviolable dignity of all God’s children (Genesis 1:26-28). It suppresses the truth of God (Romans 1:18), and walks out of step with the true Gospel (Galatians 2:14). All that is left for an unrepentant stance toward sin is God’s justice and judgement. Alas, many of the Lord’s followers remain hard of heart and hearing, making God’s judgement upon this nation seemingly inevitable.

Judgment begins with the household of God, which has been particularly instrumental in the creation and maintenance of racial inequity. From Puritan pilgrims to Evangelical revivalists, churchmen have been seduced by the spirit of the age, calling evil good and good evil. The blood of indigenous peoples, Africans, and other people of color cries out from American soil to God our Maker. As premature calls for peace seek to silence the pregnant rage of this generation, the words of Scripture come freshly to mind: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51-53)…

[W]e call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body. Additionally, this condemnation must not be in word only, but also in deeds that “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). As Dr. King notes in Letter from Birmingham Jail, white apathy is worse than white supremacy…

And finally, after Randall Balmer wrote another one of his perennial editorials decrying the racism of white evangelicalism, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary responded:

Randall Balmer shines a light on the scandal embroiling white evangelicalism: President Trump and some evangelicals found one another by mutual resonance with toxic white supremacy. (“Under Trump, evangelicals show their true racist colors,” Opinion, Aug. 23)

There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.

Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.

The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.

The call now to these white evangelicals is to subvert the racism within and around us. This must be fueled by honest self-examination and lead to an understanding that we are far more complicit in white supremacy than we might understand. Then, we must repent our guilt.

Repentance is not the seed of shame; its fruit is to empower the repentant ones to actively change course toward justice, both personal and systemic.

Lots of good words here. The scandal is that these intra-evangelical calls to repentance are decades-old, and seem to fall on deaf ears.

 

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

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Confederate monument in Portsmouth, VA. Bill Tiernan, The Virgina-Pilot

The AHA has released a statement on the Confederate monument debate. It’s worth reading in full. It probably represents the closest thing we have to a historical consensus about these monuments. It also effectively explains why removing the monuments is not an erasure of history. Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

The Historical Naiveté of Antifa

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From the Washington Post this morning:

Their faces hidden behind black bandannas and hoodies, about 100 anarchists and antifa— “anti-fascist” — members barreled into a protest Sunday afternoon in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Jumping over plastic and concrete barriers, the group melted into a larger crowd of around 2,000 that had marched peacefully throughout the sunny afternoon for a “Rally Against Hate” gathering.

Shortly after, violence began to flare. A pepper-spray-wielding Trump supporter was smacked to the ground with homemade shields. Another was attacked by five black-clad antifa members, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself. A conservative group leader retreated for safety behind a line of riot police as marchers chucked water bottles, shot off pepper spray and screamed, “Fascist go home!”

All told, the Associated Press reported at least five individuals were attacked. An AP reporter witnessed the assaults. Berkeley Police’s Lt. Joe Okies told The Washington Post the rally resulted in “13 arrests on a range of charges including assault with a deadly weapon, obstructing a police officer, and various Berkeley municipal code violations.”

And although the anti-hate and left-wing protesters largely drowned out the smaller clutch of far-right marchers attending a planned “No to Marxism in America” rally, Sunday’s confrontation marked another street brawl between opposing ends of the political spectrum — violence that has become a regular feature of the Trump years and gives signs of spiraling upward, particularly in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville.

“I applaud the more than 7,000 people who came out today to peacefully oppose bigotry, hatred and racism that we saw on display in Charlottesville,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a statement. ” … However, the violence that small group of protesters engaged in against residents and the police, including throwing smoke bombs, is unacceptable. Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps.”

As a Christian, it ought to go without saying that this kind of proactive violence is out of the question. You don’t even have to be a Christian pacifist to see that. Some leftist Christians on Twitter were defending these actions today, as if people following the Prince of Peace can engage in this kind of behavior.

But in a pluralistic society it is not enough to yell, “Jesus says no!” We have to provide compelling reasons to abstain from violence. Many civil rights activists of the 1960s provided both moral and pragmatic reasons for pursuing nonviolence. Had the civil rights mainstream used a strategy of violence in the 1960s, the decade would have been far bloodier, and the backlash would have been even worse. I can’t imagine a scenario in which that ends well for freedom-loving people.

But Antifa looks to a different historical period for its lessons. It draws strength from a misunderstanding of 20th century European history. The idea is that fascists employing violence and intimidation came out on the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain, and not enough people stood up to them. I’m rather ignorant on the subject of Weimar Germany, but after reading Richard J. Evans’ books, my sense is that the lesson Antifa has taken from the rise of fascism in the 1930s is precisely backwards.

Historian Laurie Marhoefer explains:

Charlottesville was right out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, running for seats in Germany’s Parliament. For most of that time, it was a small, marginal group. In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship. The rest is well-known.

It was in 1927, while still on the political fringes, that the Nazi Party scheduled a rally in a decidedly hostile location – the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-of-center that the neighborhood had the nickname “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The people of Wedding were determined to fight back against fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents showed up too, organized by the local Communist Party. The antifascists tried to disrupt the rally, heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive brawl. Almost 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt they had won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously.

Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

It worked. We know now that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. Germans opened their morning newspapers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Voters and opposition politicians alike came to believe the government needed special police powers to stop violent leftists. Dictatorship grew attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was to gain emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to suppress leftist violence.

Read the whole thing. Marhoefer goes on to explain that there is a lot of evidence that violence in the streets increases support for right-wing authoritarian solutions. If leftists can’t be persuaded on the grounds of morality to forswear violence, perhaps they can be persuaded on the grounds of pragmatism. Violence in this moment is counterproductive.

Street violence as strategy in 2017 reflects a misreading of both past and present. Historians study change over time and historical context. When we think in these terms, we begin to realize how different Weimar Germany was from the contemporary United States. What interwar Europe needed was not more leftists on the street ready to meet violence with violence; it needed stronger political institutions and better economic policies. Despite the danger of our current president, the American political system is far more stable than was the Weimar Republic, and the economy is much stronger. Fascists may always be scary, but the contexts in which they operate–1920s Germany and 2017 U.S.—could hardly be more different.

When leftists and anarchists act as though a few dozen hateful people marching on American streets is a portent of fascist takeover, their overreaction makes that end more likely. Street violence bends the debate toward the most basic and emotive concerns: the safety and security of our bodies. When those are the terms of the debate, the far-right wins. When citizens fear for their bodily safety, their support for an open and free society decreases.

Antifa’s historical narrative is the flip-side of the neo-conservative foreign policy lesson from Nazi Germany: every crisis is another Munich in the making, so it’s better to bomb first and aim later, lest we appease the next Hitler. But just as the next Hitler doesn’t actually come along too often, genocidal fascism with the power to command popular support doesn’t come along very often either. We tend overlearn the so-called lessons of unusual historical events. Rather than providing simple precedents that we can map onto present circumstances, these events actually present us with thousands of variables different from our own time.

None of this is to say that violence doesn’t work. It definitely does in certain circumstances. It would be strange for an American to insist that violence never works. It’s what birthed the country. Antifa punctures the wishful thinking of many liberals who blandly insist that “violence isn’t the answer” even as militarized violence or the threat of it is the basis of American foreign policy. (Though, the failure of American foreign policy ought to tell us something about the efficacy of violence too).

Some leftists believe that the liberal aversion to violence reflects disregard for marginalized people most threatened by resurgent white supremacists. It’s true, my own position makes it easy to be complacent. But we must not assume that to reject violence is to reject resistance. Indeed, nonviolent resistance demands more of us than does violent resistance. If I’m wiling to kill for a cause, my dedication may be little more than self-preservation dressed up in heroic pretensions. If I’m willing to die for a cause, I’ve moved to a more meaningful and productive posture to support and defend oppressed people.

Nonviolence is a strategy better-suited for the moment in which we find ourselves. After two centuries of oppressed people working to make the United States a more perfect union, we really do have something to lose if everything were to come crashing down. Of course, this is precisely what the anarchists deny. Their assumption that what comes after the burning-down is better than what we have now is morally reckless and historically naive.

I saw this crystallized in 2014 as I followed the Ferguson protests on twitter. I watched as white anarchists descended on the city, stirred up violence, and then left local black activists to deal with the consequences. The black activists tended to have a more nuanced understanding of their circumstances. Rejecting the reckless stories anarchists tell, the tradition of nonviolent black protest has maintained multiple truths in creative tension. It recognizes that America is a place of inexcusable injustice that must be rectified; it also recognizes that America is a place built by black hands, a place worth improving rather than tearing down. And it recognizes that nonviolence is the tool of those who seek to build and improve, while violence is the tool of those seeking to destroy.

Was Billy Graham the First “Court Evangelical”?

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Record-cover for the Billy Graham-inspired Honor America Day, July 4, 1970

In the Spring of 1970, President Nixon felt embattled as the growing anti-war movement shut down college campuses and rallied thousands of people just outside the White House. The secret war in Cambodia had come to light, galvanizing protests. The National Guard shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in May added to the sense of crisis.

As Nixon searched for ways to mobilize his “silent majority” of patriotic Americans who believed in the war effort and old-fashioned American values, Billy Graham came to the rescue.

Graham was a lot of things to Nixon: friend, confidant, spiritual and political advisor. But most of all, Graham was someone Nixon could use to sacralize his politics. Just weeks after the shootings at Kent and Jackson, Graham invited Nixon to speak at his Knoxville Crusade. In such a heated atmosphere, Nixon’s appearance was inherently political, and Graham’s words at the rally made it more so. While Nixon sat on stage, Graham reminded his audience that the Bible commanded obedience to authority. When some protestors heckled Graham, he said, “All Americans may not agree with the decisions a president makes, but he is our president.” ¹

And Graham had bigger plans to support his president. Nixon aide Bob Haldeman wrote that Nixon wanted to “try to implement Billy Graham’s idea about a big pro-America rally, maybe on 4th of July.” In June, Graham and conservative comedian Bob Hope duly announced an “Honor America Day” celebration to be held on the national mall on the fourth of July. The event was a great success, but its meaning was in the eye of the beholder. To supporters of Graham and Nixon, the festivities were a wholesome celebration of God and country. To critics, the event was transparently political and cheapened true religion.²

Here’s a clip from Graham’s Honor America Day sermon at the Lincoln Memorial:

Graham isn’t offering evangelical Christianity here. Instead, he promotes a vaguely religious nationalism in which the American Dream is assumed to be sacred. The sermon culminates not in a call to repentance or invitation to follow Jesus, but in a stirring appeal to “pursue the vision, reach toward the goal, fulfill the American Dream.”

Graham would deeply regret his close association with Nixon. He had stuck with him even as the Watergate scandal consumed the administration. Perhaps Graham was naive, or blinded by power and celebrity. Perhaps there is a more generous explanation. In any case, he catastrophically misjudged Nixon’s character, and when Nixon’s true nature could no longer be denied, Graham felt betrayed.³

Later, when the Nixon tapes revealed anti-semitic conversations between Graham and Nixon, the damage to Graham’s reputation was severe. Graham came to believe that his close identification with partisan politics was one of the great mistakes of his career. From then on he tried, with varying success, to distance himself from partisan politics.

Graham had his time at the King’s court. And he realized that the cost—his credibility as a minister of the Gospel—could not be justified. Graham’s mistakes caused many Americans to write him off. But his trajectory in subsequent decades—toward greater inclusion and openness, toward more good news and less partisanship—make him a beloved figure to millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Say what you will about Billy Graham, but he grew and changed over time, for the better.

Billy Graham’s history makes the present-day activities of his son Franklin and the other Court Evangelicals that much more remarkable. It seems the children have not learned from the sins of the father. Witness Franklin Graham’s prayer at Trump’s Phoenix rally this week:

Graham prays against a variety of evils without seeming to realize that President Trump embodies those very things. He appears, in short, either incredibly foolish or willfully dishonest.

Franklin Graham’s behavior puzzles me. Surely he knows of his father’s regrets. Does he believe Billy took the wrong lesson from being burned by Nixon? His trajectory is the opposite of his father’s, but he seems to want to trade on his father’s name. Does anyone know if Franklin has publicly commented on this?

Franklin ought to already know, but he is likely to learn soon enough: when Christians support a wicked ruler, the end can only be a bitter harvest.


¹ This account relies on Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God (New York: Basic Books, 2015). It’s a fascinating book. You should read it! For the Knoxville Crusade and Graham’s words, see Kruse, 260-263.

²Kruse, 260-274.

³See Grant Wacker’s sympathetic treatment of this and other aspects of Graham’s career in America’s Pastor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

*As always, credit to John Fea for the “court evangelical” term.