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.

Was the American Revolution Worth It?

mar

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.

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

portsmouth va

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

antifa

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”?

graham

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.

Defenders of Confederate Monuments Don’t Want To Think Historically

stone mountain

The granddaddy of them all. Stone Mountain, Georgia.

On the first day of class this semester, I’ll be introducing my students to the 5 C’s of Historical Thinking. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke developed this framework as a simple way to introduce students to some of what it means to think historically. One of the C’s is context.

Historians spend much of our energy trying to figure out context. We must understand past people and events in light of the totality of the circumstances around them: their culture, beliefs, economy, language, and more.

When we try to understand a specific source, a sentence needs to be read in light of the whole document, the document in light of other documents, those documents read in light of other factors, and so on.

It gets harder. The past is a foreign country. That means you can’t assume that words mean what you think they mean, that people thought the way you think, or even that the historical document you have sitting right in front of you isn’t giving you a misleading picture of the past.

It gets harder still. Think about all the things in your life, the subtle social cues, the idioms, the inside jokes, the norms, the kinds of clothes that will make you stand out and those that will make you blend in. Think about what is ingrained and intuitive. These things are so obvious to you that they don’t need to be said. Centuries from now, if historians want to understand our world, they will have to try to recover what is unsaid. And so do we as we look at the past.

But sometimes, a public controversy rages even when it’s relatively easy to understand the historical context. So it is with the debate over Confederate monuments. Though defenders of the monuments style themselves as protectors of history, they actually tend to be hostile toward historical inquiry.

If we actually want to explore historical context—that is, think historically—here are some questions we might ask:

Who built the monuments?

When?

Why?

Was the building of them part of any broader social or intellectual movement?

These are exactly the kinds of questions monument defenders don’t want to explore. Their reluctance to ask serious questions of the past tells us how much they really value history. If you’re interested in the answers to those questions there are lots of historians who have tried to inform the public debate.

Here are a few:

Jane Dailey

Adam Goodheart

Annette Gordon-Reed

Karen Cox

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

How Evangelical Nationalism Enables Racism

falwell

Jerry Falwell, Sr. leads a “I Love America” rally at the New Jersey State Capitol, 1980. William Sauro, NYT.

A lot of people are noting the juxtaposition of Trump’s imploding business advisory councils and his quiet-as-church-mice religious advisory council members. These court evangelicals (John Fea’s term) will claim they are staying on to try to provide Christian instruction to Trump, as if there has ever been any evidence that he would abide such a thing. The real reason they’re staying on is access. Trump provides them influence (or the illusion of it) at the commanding heights of the nation they believe they ought to lead. The President’s racism is a minor inconvenience in comparison to the gains they envision.

For these court evangelicals and their followers, the on-ramp to supporting racism is not necessarily direct. It is shaped by the distinct character of evangelical nationalism. Let me try to explain what I mean. This is kind of a think piece. Tell me where I’m getting it wrong.

White evangelicals are often described as anti-statist. Hostility to governing institutions runs deep in some evangelical circles. And it’s certainly true that many white evangelical leaders have turned rhetorical posturing against the federal government into an art form. But as Axel Shaffer has argued, white evangelicals have combined that rhetoric with efforts to make the state work for them. The goal is to capture the state, not tear it down.

Though the number of white evangelicals with such frightening ambitions is relatively small, they punch above their weight. The widespread populist evangelical nationalism among ordinary white evangelicals sustains the more radical state-capturing project of Christian Right leaders.

Many white evangelicals feel both hostility toward the state and an intense identification with the nation. They are at once alienated outsiders and the nation’s truest inheritors. The evangelical historian George Marsden identified this ambivalence decades ago in his classic study of fundamentalism and American culture. The nation is, rightfully, theirs. It was founded on their principles, blessed by their devotion. Yet the forces of liberalism and secularism, acting through the federal government, have taken the nation from them.

In this wing of evangelicalism, memory and national identity center on the concerns and interests of privileged white Christians. Slavery and genocide are glossed over or presented as exceptions that somehow do not alter the essentially Christian character of the new nation. The 1960s are remembered not primarily for the destruction of Jim Crow, but as the moment when the nation turned its back on God by taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools and embracing the sexual revolution.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the work of history that has had more influence among white evangelicals than any other in recent decades: Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Published in 1977 and still in print, it has sold almost 1 million copies. In his book, Why Study History?, the evangelical historian John Fea described Marshall and Manuel’s argument:

The United States, from the time of its first settlement, was founded to show the rest of the world how to love God and neighbor. God had made a special covenant with this country, not unlike the covenant he made with the children of Jacob. Throughout its short history, America has occasionally lived up to this covenant, but at other times it has not. The study of the past presents a constant reminder of this unique and ongoing relationship between God and the United States and the role that all Americans, but especially Christians, play in making sure that divine favor rests on this land.

Ironically, as Russell Moore has pointed out, this is a form of theological liberalism that denies the sufficiency of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. It recalls the efforts of liberal Protestants’ in pre-war Germany to meld Christianity and nationalism. There, the consequences for German minorities were disastrous. So too could it be here.

As white evangelicals seek to vindicate the supposedly Christian origins and, it is hoped, future of the nation, they write marginalized groups out of the story. Imagining a past without oppressed people opens up space to imagine a future without them. This is potentially deadly. Many white evangelicals’ self-identification with this Christian nation is so strong that listening and learning from people the nation has harmed is extremely difficult. Often, the reason white evangelicals can’t be honest about racism is because they’ve never been honest about the nation they love.

The roots of this are broad and deep. We’re not talking about a fringe movement. Consider two of the most outspoken white evangelical Trump supporters among his religious advisory council: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. Both men supported Trump early and loudly. Both men are influential leaders. And both men trace their roots to a father (Falwell, Sr.) or father figure (W.A. Criswell) who once embraced racist nationalism. Let’s examine them in turn.

As buffoonish as Falwell Jr. often appears, it is wishful thinking to believe the President of the largest evangelical university in the world doesn’t have real influence. He does. And he is using that influence to walk in the footsteps of his father. The outlines of Falwell Sr.’s career are well-known: from small-town segregationist preacher who shunned politics, to founder of the Moral Majority to take back the nation for God.

In this apparent change from political outsider to insider there is an underlying consistency: Falwell’s intense identification with the culture around him as something that must be protected from liberal forces. The shift from a southern-inflected nationalism in the 1950s to American nationalism in the 1980s is hardly the point. Falwell moved on from defending segregation to defending “morality” without ever really grappling with why he had been wrong in the first place.

Now his son supports racism because doing so gives him access to the state and the chance to protect the nation from liberal forces. The apple didn’t fall far.

The case of Robert Jeffress is a bit different. As with Falwell, some of us may like to pretend he’s a fringe figure, but he’s not. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. This isn’t just any church. This is where W.A. Criswell preached for over half a century. Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church, called Criswell “the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century.” When the most influential American pastor of this century says that, you ought to pay attention.

In an interview this week, Jeffress described Criswell as a spiritual father figure:

Jeffress grew up in the historic Dallas congregation, which formed in 1868 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. As a boy, he gained spiritual insight from the late Rev. W.A. Criswell, First Baptist’s preacher for half a century.

“When I was 5, I started to become interested in becoming a Christian,” said Jeffress, who has served as senior pastor for 10 years. “My dad brought me down to Dr. Criswell’s office, and he presented the gospel, and I accepted Christ as my savior here.”

It should come as no surprise that Criswell spoke forcefully in defense of segregation during the 1950s. Indeed, this understates what he did. Over a period of years, Criswell—“the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century”—preached overt heresy from the pulpit. Criswell later publicly recanted these views and said he had been wrong. There is evidence of sincere wrestling with his sin. There are also questions to be asked about how total his repentance was, not least because of Criswell’s own words: “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did.” Curtis Freeman has a balanced account of all this in the Journal of Southern Religion.

What is most striking about Criswell’s segregationist statements is not so much that they were demagogic and hateful—though they were—but that they expressed a comprehensive view of the world, a total attachment to nation and culture rather than Christianity. In 1956 he criticized integrationists for “trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.” In an often-quoted conclusion to that sermon Criswell said:

Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made it—a land of the free and the home of the brave.

Again, read Freeman’s account. There is American myth and individual selfishness here aplenty. I defy you to find a hint of Jesus in it.

Now, Robert Jeffress pastors Criswell’s old church, and he too is sacralizing American nationalism. The forms of racism they enable are different—for Criswell it was segregation and southern extremists, for Jeffress it’s colorblindness and a racist President. But in both cases, their conflation of faith and nation fatally compromises the supremacy of Jesus and the worth of human beings.

The court evangelicals seek to bring America back to God. Christians of conscience must firmly stand against that project. Under the banner of restoring the Christian nation, these men and women would oppress human beings. God has set his love on people. No nation can compare to the inestimable worth of a person made in the image of God.

 


Update: While some news outlets have been reporting on the evangelical advisory council as a currently functioning board, Fea says he learned today it was disbanded after the election. Whether Trump’s circle of evangelical advisors is an official board or not is hardly the point, but I would like to know more about why it disbanded.

my friend the enemy

After encountering black evangelical William Pannell in the archives, I picked up his 1968 book, My Friend, the Enemy. It’s a fascinating read. Deeply relevant and contemporary in parts, while also being a clear product of the peculiar 1968 moment. If you think American society is more divided than ever, you don’t remember 1968. Pannell’s book came out in a time of rioting and violence and bitterness. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and people really didn’t know where the bottom was.

In that moment, Pannell wrote with righteous anger to the white evangelical community (refer back to the title!). Pannell was deeply embedded in evangelicalism. A longtime professor at Fuller, he also worked with the campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the black evangelist Tom Skinner, and had a hand in numerous other projects and organizations. He received his early education at Wayne Bible College, a white fundamentalist school in Indiana. He was straddling the often separate worlds of black and white evangelicalism.

According to a retrospective article from Fuller Studio, white colleagues who thought they knew Pannell were shocked when the book came out:

It came from some place so deep in Bill that longtime white friends said they did not believe he wrote it. One insisted it was written by an outside agitator, because “that’s just not the Bill Pannell that I knew.” Both had grown up in the same small Michigan town, so Bill’s reply was harsh but true: “That’s because you didn’t know Bill Pannell,” he said, “or the world I lived in.” It was possible for a white person to call Bill a “close friend” and still know little of a black man’s life in a white world. Often white colleagues would say, “We never thought of you as a negro.” That, he says, was supposed to have been a compliment.

Here are a few choice quotes from My Friend, The Enemy. On his Bible college days and indoctrination into white fundamentalism:

I sometimes shudder when I recall that upon registering at Bible College I signed up in the missions course. I didn’t dream that mission boards would not have accepted me anyhow. My involvement in white culture hadn’t prepared me for that eventuality. All I knew was that the blacker the person’s face, the more desperate his need of salvation…

On the kind of Christianity taught at many evangelical colleges:

Sadly for me, and conceivably for non-white students on similar campuses today, this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. It tends also to associate Christianity with American patriotism (it’s called nationalism when we criticize it in Africa), free enterprise, and the Republican party. I hope this is not intentionally done although I have outgrown most of my naivete. It’s not brainwashing, of course, for this is not done systematically or calculatedly. But it is perversion and it is subversion, the former with reference to Christianity, the latter with reference to the minds of young Christians.

And finally, on his friends, his enemies:

Don’t preach love to me. Especially if you intend I do all the loving. Amazing how white people who have owned black people have a way of demanding that we love everybody. What right has the oppressor to demand that his victim be saved from sin? You may be scripturally and evangelistically correct, but you are ethically wrong. You have the right message, but your timing is off. You have forfeited the right to be heard. Physician, heal thyself.

Because you see, I know that the same conservative brother who refuses to link my social needs with his preaching of of the Gospel is the same man who lobbies against the Supreme Court, fluoride in the water, and pornographic literature. “Something,” he declares, “must be done about creeping socialism. We must speak out against the Communist menace, and by all means we must support the Dirksen Amendment on prayer in the public schools.”

But mention the inhumanity of a society which with unbelievable indifference imprisons the “souls of black folks,” and these crusaders begin mumbling about sin. All right. I’ll play the game, my brother. Whose sin shall we talk about?

From here it is easy to write the script, for these friends are conservative Northern Christians. Increasingly, these are the roughest people to understand. They are so elusive, so committed to being uncommitted. What amazing indignation is theirs when moral issues are far away! What profound silence when threatened by similar issues next door! How earnest are their discussion groups!

As if this wasn’t provocative enough, Pannell went on to defend black power. Despite being rooted in the circumstances of the late 60s, it’s hard to avoid the prophetic implications for our own time.

Back to the Archives

IMG_20170724_085746531

I’m at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville this week to explore the Southern Baptist archives. I’m especially interested in how Southern Baptists engaged with Church Growth Movement ideas. In a roundabout way, this has much to do with the civil rights movement.

To explore how white evangelicals grappled with race, you can’t just explore it as a political question. A denominational statement on Brown v. Board or the Civil Rights Act is interesting, but it doesn’t capture the more important activity occurring on the ground. Historians need to be more aware of the ways white evangelicals turn political questions into ecclesial ones. So if we want to know how they responded to the civil rights movement, their church planting strategies may have more to tell us than their explicit political or racial statements.

Anyway, I’m finding lots of good stuff today, but I’m way too fried to talk about it!