The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

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Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

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I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

Does Robert Caro Misunderstand How Power Works?

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I wish my office looked like this. There’s no twitter on typewriters.

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?

I should begin by saying that I love Robert Caro’s books. Many years before I decided to become a historian, The Power Broker and The Path to Power fired my imagination and awakened me to the possibilities of historical storytelling. They really are astonishing achievements.

Their usefulness as a means of understanding power is less clear. But that is their stated purpose. Caro began his career interviewing people, but for decades now he’s been the kind of person people want to interview, so he has a very practiced narrative about what he does and why he does it. In an interview with the Paris Review Caro says:

I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book—a book about political power—about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn’t the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was ­national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That’s what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson.

There’s no question that Caro’s books are insightful. But do they distort as much as they reveal? Does Caro’s relentless focus on the life and character of a single man blind him to the broader structural forces that constrained or enabled Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson? To many historians, this might be a no-brainer. The answer is yes. But I want to sit with the question for a bit, because Caro is a corrective to our own era of skepticism of grand narratives, much less of grand men. Against our assumption that history makes people more than people make history, Caro insists that some brilliant individuals change the course of history.

But I’m still inclined to think Caro gets power wrong. See how he talks about Lyndon Johnson:

So here is this figure—a huge figure—this young man who’s rising, who’s ruthless and cruel, nothing can stand in the way of his ambition. And who at the same time has this immense compassion, along with a very rare ­talent—a genius, really—for transmuting compassion into something concrete, into legislative achievement…Lyndon Johnson, if I do him right, he’s this huge figure with these complexities. I’m trying to show him moving through American ­history, rising through it, ­political step by political step. And what was America in his times? And how did he change America? Because certainly he changed America. But you’re not making it a monumental story on a grand scale. It is a monumental story on a grand scale…

Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But “if it weren’t for Vietnam” is not an adequate phrase. You have to give equal weight to both the domestic and Vietnam. Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Sixty different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that, I didn’t know you could do that! And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.

Johnson is the sun, and everyone and everything else is just revolving around him. The huge Democratic majorities in congress fade from view; the social movements that compelled Johnson to act are out of sight. The booming economy that gave Johnson the political space to try the Great Society is completely ignored. This is a very individualistic view of power. I’d be curious to hear more from political scientists on this. My understanding is that Americans drastically overestimate the power of presidents to enact their agenda. I think Caro does too, even in the case of a crazy larger than life figure like Johnson.

More basically, if Caro wanted to understand power, did he choose the wrong genre? Is biography an inherently problematic way to get at Caro’s questions? What does biography do well, and what does it do poorly? I’m not sure, but one thing I can say for sure is that I will be in line for Caro’s next book, regardless of how much I disagree with it.

Should Yesterday’s News Be In Your Journal Article?

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Trying too hard for relevance, or doing what historians do best?

Say you have a paper you’re thinking about submitting to a journal. Your first draft was written before November. Now, in the new political dispensation, do you go for the Trump tie-in? I’m wrestling with this question and I know at least one colleague who has a similar quandary.

Obviously a lot depends on your subject matter. It probably won’t work if your lead is, “The ancient Phoenicians, like Donald Trump…” If, on the other hand, you have a paper about American conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century that’s been sitting around and you think maybe you should finally do something with it (ahem, guilty), then the question becomes much more interesting.

The advantages of the tie-in to contemporary events are fairly straightforward. Grab interest, show relevance, maybe even offer historical depth and insight to a question that’s on peoples’ minds.

But the drawbacks are pretty big too. First of all, if you’re going to try to grab attention and show relevance, why are you planning to shop it to a journal in the first place? Go for the Atlantic or something! In the journal process, there’s a risk that your references to contemporary events will not age well at all. While your historical analysis may hold up, the tie-in to current affairs may appear dated really quickly. In fact, if you submit now and the article comes out in 2018 or 2019, you could end up being dated before it’s even published.

I’m inclined to think the risks outweigh the rewards. How many books have we read that use Obama’s election as a hook? Many of them are already stale. I’m thinking through this as I write. My sense is that references to current events are likely to work best when they meet two conditions:

  1. They’re done with full cognizance that it’s not really history. We’re too close to it, too invested, with too much unknown. It may add color and grab interest, but don’t make it more than it is.
  2. They emerge organically from the historical analysis. They’re earned. In other words, can you honestly say that you’re not reaching for relevance? Does the past you’re writing about really inform the present in a vital way?

If you can meet these two conditions it’s likely to go better. I’m not entirely sure my paper meets these two conditions but I’m tempted to take the risk anyway. It’s so alluring!

Notes from the Classroom: Contextualizing Racism in Immigration History

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Emma Goldman. Anarchist, immigrant, radical.

In the immigration class I’m teaching this semester I’m wrestling with how to contextualize events for my students. I’m often quite uncertain about how I should frame various events and forces. But that uncertainty reminds me to try to convey the deeper critical thinking lesson to my students: that the contextualizing choices I end up making are really historical arguments in themselves. I’m not giving them “the history” that they can safely tuck away with the confidence that they now know what happened. I’m giving them arguments that they should question and probe with counterarguments, using historical evidence.

As we approach the nativist reaction of the 1920s, I’m wrestling with how to contextualize the racism of that decade. The problem is that the racism is so obvious and deplorable that I’m not sure students can take it seriously. Establishing the racist intent of the Johnson-Reed Act is like shooting fish in a barrel. And students don’t need to be convinced that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan with millions of members was not a good thing, or that whiteness as a condition for naturalization is offensive. It’s all so over the top, almost cartoonishly awful, that students are likely to be tempted to separate themselves from white Americans of that period. With surprising frequency, students reach for the comforting assumption that contemporary people are somehow more advanced.

In an effort to ward off those assumptions, on Wednesday I gave a lecture about immigrant radicalism in the early 20th century, with special focus on the anarchist movement. I gave a lot of attention to Emma Goldman’s radical views, and described several episodes of anarchist violence culminating in the Wall Street bombing of 1920.  Though the perpetrators were never caught, the bombing was most likely the work of Italian immigrant anarchists. It came on the heels of the 1919 mail bombings and the attacks on the homes of prominent government officials, including U.S. Attorney General Palmer.

So, whatever else it was, the famous Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in part a response to a campaign of terrorism on U.S. soil. The people implicated in these activities were disproportionately immigrants. As the American public was inundated with newspaper headlines linking immigrant groups with political radicalism and violence, it is not surprising that fear, and even hysteria, grew.

We should point out, as I did to my students, that there were many millions of immigrants and only a handful of violent anarchists. But that’s not exactly the point. The point is the quintessentially human overreaction of fear and bigotry on the part of the U.S. public and American policymakers. In other words, the people of the 1920s were like us.

The point of this framing is to help students grapple with the real problems policymakers at the time faced, to see how scary the future looked, and to wrestle with plausible alternatives. Were there alternatives to Johnson-Reed? What would have happened in a world without that legislation?  Students might prefer not to face uncomfortable scenarios, such as the possibility that this racist legislation both caused human suffering around the world and reduced future political violence in the United States.

The moral purpose of complicating the story is not to absolve people in the past of their racism, but to implicate ourselves. How might our fears cloud moral clarity and enable inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Take the question to its most extreme example. The profile of a genocide participant is not necessarily monstrous. Just as likely, it’s an ordinary person who is very afraid.

Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

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A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.


*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.

Writing History that Matters

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In her keynote address at this weekend’s Barnes Conference at Temple University, Danielle McGuire spoke to us about writing history that matters; history that does work in the present; history that people actually want to read. If you’ve read At the Dark End of the Street, you know McGuire knows what she’s talking about. The book is easy to read and extremely powerful. And it’s something that nearly anyone can pick up and read because it’s a story that revolves around real people doing extraordinary things. Who doesn’t like a good story?

(A teaser: you know how Rosa Parks, that docile seamstress, got the civil rights movement started because she was tired one day and refused to give up her seat on the bus? Yeah, that story? It’s all wrong. Read McGuire’s book!)

The first real lecture I ever gave was about the civil rights movement. First lectures are often famous disasters, but mine was not. Whatever mistakes I may have made, they were covered by one good move: I relentlessly relied on a few good books, McGuire’s first among them. Because of that, one of the students came up to me after the lecture and said she had never heard the story of the civil rights movement told like that before. She was moved. Thanks to McGuire.

McGuire’s keynote address was funny and inspiring. Here are a few of my idiosyncratic takeaways:

–When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t have to write a dissertation. I just have to write a page. (This is extremely important!)

–Consider putting all the historiography in the footnotes, even in the dissertation. I want to do this.

–Who are the main characters in my story? (I don’t know?….)

–Learn to love editing. Throw stuff down on the page no matter how bad it is. Six dozen edits later, it won’t be bad.

–Read fiction! (What if it’s bad fiction?) Think about the kinds of things that authors of fiction think about: pacing, narrative arc, character development. As historians, we impose some kind of order on the chaos and fragmentation of the archives. We tell stories that are very much our own, that do not exist independently of us. We might as well make them good stories while we’re at it. They don’t have to be bloodless.

–Read James Baldwin. This needs no reason or justification.

–Reckon with the emotional toll of the dissertation. The hardest obstacles are not technical. They’re not even cognitive. They’re matters of spirit. Do I have something worth saying? Am I writing something that matters? Do I have the guts to see it through? To write that bad draft and revise it, to show it to others, is to face over and over again your fallibility.

–Trust your learning; trust your students. After years of marinating in the past, we historians have ways of thinking that are useful to undergraduates. Don’t push too hard. Trust the process. They will not become historical thinkers in a semester, but if you let them see how and why the past has moved you, they will not be unmoved.

White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

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Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.

“I am tired of reading about them.”

Campus Life, an evangelical magazine for high school and college students, began publishing a few stories about African Americans in the late 1960s. This didn’t sit well with some readers. One gets the sense the editors got a kick out of publishing some of the more strident responses. From Birmingham, Alabama, Frank George wrote:

There is too much propaganda about Negroes. I am tired of reading about them.

Old letters to the editor are often fascinating. This one’s a classic. Sadie Caine, librarian of Perry Christian School in Marion, Alabama, was also annoyed. She wrote:

When Campus Life comes to the library of Perry Christian School, it is thrown into the wastebasket immediately. The high Christian standards of our school necessitate the elimination of all degrading reading materials. Please cancel our subscription.

One of the devil’s best tools in trying to spread atheistic Communism is through the infiltration of religious groups.

This, too, is classic. Someone should look into whether or not Perry Christian School was a segregation academy. A quick google search turns up that the school is still around, though it has a new name. It was founded in, wait for it…1965. The school’s description of its history is fascinating:

Knowing that only the truth of God’s Word can build Christian character to reform American society and family life, John and Bobbie Ames grieved over the loss of moral absolutes and methodologies, namely Biblical reasoning and old-fashioned logic. Being unwilling to sit back and do nothing, they took their children out of the Perry County School System and started their own little school in Marion, Alabama, in 1965.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it looks as though Perry County came under a court desegregation order in 1966. This was after a lot of other Alabama counties faced desegregation orders in 1963. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ames saw the writing on the wall. As any good fundamentalist knew, the mixing of races was another one of atheistic communism’s nefarious plots.

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The Barbaric President

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“And…scene! You looked very presidential, sir. You can go back to watching TV now.”

Help me out, historians. Has any president ever made a public accusation as reckless as the one President Trump made this morning? I can’t think of anything approaching this.

Back in January, I gravitated toward the idea of barbarism as my most basic framework for this administration. This framework is holding up well.

We see barbarism in the Bannon/Miller/Trump wing of the administration’s complete lack of appreciation for history and the achievements of modern civilization. We saw it when Trump accused John Lewis—of all people!—of being all talk and no action. We see it in his flippant calls to Make America Great Again, with no apparent reflection on the history to which he refers, and no apparent understanding of why this call is a threat to millions of Americans.

As a historian and a Christian, I have both historical and theological reasons to believe in such a thing as human nature, and to take a dim view of it. So I count it as a big win when people are able to live under governments that are not entirely predatory and that avoid things like famine and genocide. These are not natural conditions to be taken for granted. They are achievements to be carefully preserved. Trump demonstrates no appreciation for this. Instead of a sense of human limits and tragedy, President Trump claims that there is nothing he cannot fix.

We see barbarism in Trump’s utter rejection of truth. Other Presidents have lied, usually with strategic purpose in mind. But Trump attempts to create his own reality and compel millions of people to join him in it. Even many of Trump supporters acknowledge that he sometimes says or tweets things he should not. But the consequences of false and malicious statements are much more severe when a President makes them. When a President rejects reality, tens of millions of people stand ready to follow him. This tears apart the fabric of civil society and democracy, eroding the common ground that is necessary for dialogue and learning to occur. President Trump seems unable to appreciate the pleasures of learning from others, or participating in civic functions, or reading books. His ego determines what is true from moment to moment. From the perspective of Christian theology, attempts to create our own reality represent a rejection of the reality of a transcendent God.

We see barbarism in Trump’s demagogic nationalism, in the way he elevates the nation above the worth of human beings. Trump demonizes vulnerable populations to boost his agenda of nationalist aggrandizement. As unchristian as nationalism is in general, Trump takes it to a more extreme level, crudely encouraging Americans to count our lives as more valuable than those of other human beings.

We see barbarism in Trump’s greedy self-enrichment at the expense of the public he is sworn to serve. The full dimensions of this corruption is not yet possible to determine because of Trump’s unprecedented financial secrecy and his refusal to make ethical arrangements for his business affairs.

And we see barbarism in the wanton cruelty of this administration. Dara Lind had a roundup yesterday of some of the recent arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Under the pretense of keeping the country safe, people are being oppressed for no reason at all. There ought to be a very high bar to clear before separating families. Only a grave threat to an individual or the public justifies breaking families apart. These arrests obviously don’t come close to meeting that standard. They are plainly cruel, and their circumstances raise legitimate questions about whether there is a deliberate strategy of intimidation and retaliation. (See Daniela Vargas’s story).

It is difficult to imagine the stress and fear millions of people in our country are facing right now. I don’t know how you get up every morning and go about your responsibilities not knowing if you’re going to be able to put your kids in bed that night. God is close to these suffering people, and God resists the Christians who support this oppression. Let’s not pretend this is very complicated.

Immigrant advocacy groups are saying that these kinds of arrests mark a departure from the Obama years. To the extent that there is also continuity, God forgive me for not being more vocal years ago.

Christians are called to pray for those in power. I’ve found myself praying for President Trump more than I ever prayed for President Obama. These prayers are not status-quo protecting mushiness. They’re not about giving sacred endorsement to the state’s actions. They’re prayers of concern for the public good. They are given with the knowledge that our leaders bear heavy responsibilities for which they will give account. So when we see evil rulers such as President Trump, we pray for their repentance. And we pray that in the meantime their barbaric designs will be thwarted.

One perhaps surprising source of hope is that so far Trump often appears more interested in playing President than in being President. He favors splashy announcements and grand claims, symbolic victories with very little substance. He is easily distracted, and seems to spend much of his time dwelling on personal slights and watching cable news. This isn’t good for anyone, but it’s probably better than the alternative of a focused, competent President intent on doing harm.