Can the Senate Simply Refuse to Seat Moore?


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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on a Crazy Week

roy moore

Roy Moore, champion of righteousness against the godless liberals

A few miscellaneous thoughts I gathered during the week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Presidents: One Godless, One Christian


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Trump’s Presidency in Historical Context


Sen. Corker, headed toward retirement, with little to lose for being honest.

There are a lot of ways we can try to put Trump in historical context. The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot. Historians are usually skeptical of that word, but the remarkable thing about this presidency is how often the term is fully deserved.

One useful exercise is to think about dynamics that distinguish Trump from every other recent President. Among these:

His financial secrecy and corruption, the scale of which is not currently known because of his lack of disclosure.

The frequency of his lies.

The failure of his legislative agenda.

The explicitly racist and sexist nature of his repeated public remarks.

His public contempt for the first amendment.

His inability to enact policy, even within the executive branch

All of these, it seems to me, really do earn the “unprecedented” label, especially if we’re talking about, say, post-Nixon presidencies. But by far the biggest way in which Trump’s presidency is unprecedented is in the incompetence/danger matrix.

Other Presidents have become deeply unpopular (Bush II), have failed to enact their agenda (Carter), and have lacked a grasp of policy details (Reagan). But all of these presidents—even at their lowest moments—were held in high regard by career professionals working close to them. For all their failings, these presidents inspired fierce loyalty in dedicated public servants. And among the public at large, all but the most rabid partisans believed these presidents were doing their honest best to serve the country.

With Trump, we have something different, something downright astonishing. It has become clear that the career professionals closest to him do not respect him; indeed, that they see their role as caretakers to prevent a disaster. This is why Mattis and Kelly are there. We have never seen such open talk about a President’s incompetence/danger from people inside an administration. It was an astonishing moment last month when the President’s own Secretary of State threw him under the bus in a national television interview. When has this happened before?

If you follow the news beyond the right-wing bubble, you’ve seen this coming out in leaks for months. This weekend, it burst into the open with Senator Bob Corker’s remarks. Keep in mind, this a Republican Senator, a leader in the Senate. Because he is retiring, he can afford to say what the majority of Republicans who have worked with Trump believe:

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.”

“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

Mr. Trump poses such an acute risk, the senator said, that a coterie of senior administration officials must protect him from his own instincts. “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Mr. Corker said in a telephone interview…

All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.

“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that “of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”

I’m not a presidential historian, but I’m not aware of anything like this happening before.

Don’t Disrespect the Golden Calf


Mike Pence, self-professed evangelical Christian, worships his god. October 8, 2017

As ridiculous as this controversy is, it is exposing many evangelicals’ truest commitments.

Nation over people.

Country over God.

Patriotism over justice.

Politics over principle.

Fear over hope.

Many white evangelicals willfully refuse to engage with the intent of the kneeling players. The players insist that they are protesting racial injustice. White evangelicals insist they can unilaterally redefine the meaning of these protests. It’s about disrespecting the flag. When they make this reinterpretation, they expose themselves. The symbols of their beloved nation are more important to them than the very lives of black people.

Why is evangelicalism shrinking? Causality is always plural, but perhaps it has something to do with the in-your-face idol worship of the white evangelical mainstream. The truly sad thing is that this idolatry hurts other people and entraps its devotees. I’m praying that more white evangelicals will be willing to lay down their fears and consider the liberating possibilities of following Jesus wherever he might take them. I don’t fully know what that means in my own life, but I am certain it doesn’t take us to the dead end of Christian nationalism.

Was Las Vegas the Deadliest Mass Shooting in Modern American History?


Greenwood burns as white Tulsans attack, June 1, 1921.

All over the media today it’s being reported that last night’s horrific shooting in Las Vegas is the deadliest in modern American history. Is this true? It depends on your criteria. If we’re speaking specifically of a lone actor using guns to attack civilians, it does indeed appear to be so. If we’re speaking more broadly of groups of people using guns to attack other Americans, it definitely is not.

There have been several incidents of non-military civilian attacks on fellow American citizens that have produced higher death tolls. I’m not sure how many. Among them are:

The attacks in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.

The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction.

The invasion of Greenwood in 1921.

In all of these cases, white citizens used mass firepower to attack black citizens and murder dozens or hundreds.

Why does this matter? The place of yesterday’s awful violence in the sweep of American history is not merely a matter of historical trivia. There are substantive questions involved in how we label it. While it seems to be the deadliest single-shooter event, it is important that we speak and think about it in ways that do not erase our longer inheritance of mass violence.

This is so not only because it is important to remember what we have overcome, but so that we might think historically and morally about the violence of our own time. The massacres in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—together with the broader ritualized murder and terrorist violence of which they were a part—often seemed to contemporaries to be forces of nature.  Defenders of white murderers could imagine them as mere cogs in the inevitable and eternal struggle between the races. Instead of personal and social responsibility, there was only natural enmity between black and white. Massacres might be unfortunate, but weren’t they bound to happen?

Even those who wanted to eradicate the scourge of white supremacist violence found it difficult to imagine how it could come to an end. I’m reminded of the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells’ agonized cry: “Oh God, when will these massacres stop?”

But they did stop. The kind of mass violence that was a routine feature of American life from the 1870s to the 1920s doesn’t really happen anymore. The bloodletting was not, after all, inexorable. It wasn’t a force of nature. It reflected power relations. And its solutions were political. Black people moved to the North and gained some political leverage. They organized across the country and raised the economic costs of white supremacy. They formed coalitions and eventually broke the back of the white supremacist caucus in Congress. The violence receded.

In our time, mass shootings by lone actors are not forces of nature. They reflect contemporary power relations—most obviously the obscene influence of the gun lobby in Republican politics. The solutions are not beyond us. They only require political courage.

It’s Too Bad Billy Sunday Isn’t Around To Campaign for Roy Moore


While doing lecture prep today it occurred to me that Roy Moore and Billy Sunday might have gotten along really well. Moore has cultivated an image as a fighter, as God’s man standing against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He believes America is a Christian nation. On Tuesday Moore defeated incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange in the Republican primary. The Senate is probably about to have its first contemporary full-fledged Christian nationalist. But Moore’s brand of reactionary politics and populist appeal under the banner of Christian nationalism is not at all new.

Billy Sunday, a popular fundamentalist preacher in the early twentieth century, leveraged his former career as a professional baseball player to garner crowds with the overt physicality of his preaching. His message, like Moore’s, was nationalistic and reactionary. As Frances Fitzgerald relates in her recent book, The Evangelicals, when the 100% Americanism craze swept across the country during the Great War Billy Sunday was happy to ride that wave. “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms,” he declared. During the Red Scare he supported the Palmer Raids and urged on the racist immigration restriction laws.

In his book, American Apocalypse, Mathew Avery Sutton describes Sunday concluding one of his revival meetings by leaping onto the pulpit and waving an American flag. On another occasion, Sunday declared, “No man can be true to his God without being true to his country.”

Sunday was a premillenialist who believed the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But that didn’t stop him from conflating faith and nation in the meantime. With a little poking around on Google I haven’t confirmed that Moore is a premillenialist, but I’d be a bit surprised if he isn’t.

Billy Sunday died in 1935 but he remained something of a legendary figure in some circles. His influence is suggested in this photo of a very young Billy Graham:


Humor for the Day


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


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.