Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

mlk.png

King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

History Matters: Remember Well

merlin_136057044_b9a28bdb-b38f-4c26-833e-ebdf7f12c572-blog427

A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

In Social Movements, Shame Is A Powerful Weapon

main_900

The March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

How does social change happen? In idealized stories of earlier reform movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—we like to tell ourselves that in certain critical moments the public can experience a moral awakening. In the civil rights era, police brutality mediated through the new technology of television supposedly shocked the conscience of the nation and led to reform. Is this really true?

The question matters because the answer shapes the strategies we believe contemporary social movements ought to pursue. Does a movement win when it has persuaded a majority of people of the righteousness of its cause? Do appeals to a shared moral sense drive change? Or do more aggressive tactics work better? Should a movement try very hard not to offend opponents? Or should it heighten the contrast between two sides?

Without discounting the grain of truth in narratives of moral awakening, I think we need to be more clear-eyed about how change often occurs. It is true that becoming a society that no longer countenanced slavery was a massive moral shift. But that shift in imagination was measured in generations, not months or years. It is true that the civil rights movement moved the moral conscience, but in the short term it looked less like an awakening and more like a grudging acceptance of change.

As much as we’d like to believe in moral awakenings, Americans didn’t suddenly repent of the horror of racism when they saw John Lewis getting his head bashed in. Instead, politicians, celebrities, employers and pastors began to tell people that it was no longer socially acceptable to be racist. Wanting to be considered good people, and wanting to see themselves as good people, white Americans decided racism was bad. The Trump era shows how paper-thin that judgment remains even half a century after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that doesn’t mean the movement’s gains weren’t significant. Moving the boundaries of social acceptability and implementing concrete policy changes are huge victories. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has receded from the headlines, it has shifted boundaries and is driving policy changes in local police departments and DA offices. Such shifts don’t just follow moral change; they often precede it.

We may now be seeing the standards of social acceptability moving on the related issue of guns. To win, social movements need to have more than a compelling moral case. They need to be able and willing to raise the costs of inaction. (This doesn’t mean resorting to violence. There’s good political science evidence showing that violence in the civil rights era was counterproductive.) You raise costs by making politicians fear for their jobs, businesses for their profits, and people for their reputations.

We’re seeing movement on all three of those fronts. Republican politicians in suburban districts are making noises about the need for action. The Trump Administration at least wants to appear to be doing something. Many major businesses are not even trying to straddle the issue anymore and are instead taking actions that align them squarely on the side of the gun control activists. And the NRA is becoming more unpopular as its spokespeople and supporters reveal themselves as heartless extremists. A new poll out this morning shows that more Americans strongly disapprove of the NRA than strongly approve.

That strong disapproval number is important. In my ideal world, activists could simply present their righteous cause, lay out the evidence, and lovingly appeal to the moral intuition we all share. In the real world, while we should try to do all those things, we must also rely on the power of shame. The gun control activists will win, in part, by making people feel that it is disreputable and shameful to be associated with the NRA. They will win by making people feel that this is something that “good people” simply don’t do.

Activists can win by shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Sometimes one generation’s embarrassment can become the seeds of a future generation’s convictions. Yet recognizing the power of shame does not mean we must be cynics about the power of love. People on the opposing side need to have a way to back down without feeling like they’re losing everything. This need not be zero sum. Without love, activists can become nothing more than would-be oppressors, lacking only the power to crush their opposition. With love, activists can gladly welcome every convert, however late to the game they may be. We cannot afford to be complacent about our own condition. We are flawed people seeking positive change. The problem of evil is the problem of me. I do not have the vision, the wisdom, the love, to see clearly all that can or should be done. That’s always important to remember.

Why Is There No Conservatism In The United States, Part Two

27buckley-600

I recently asked why there isn’t conservatism in the United States and referred to the postwar American Right using the seemingly paradoxical phrase “radical conservatives.” After digging around a little bit yesterday, I came up with some intriguing connections to this train of thought.

In the first edition of National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley famously wrote that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it…”

You read this and it sounds like traditional conservatism. Looking backward, seeking to stop or at least slow down change. But in that same editorial Buckley said this:

Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.

I had not realized that as early as 1955 Buckley himself used the phrase “radical conservatives.” It’s not just the phrasing that is revealing. It’s the overt contempt for the moderate right, the disdain for the Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party. This is an insurgent outsider mentality.

A kind reader also sent me an October 1964 National Council of Churches document entirely devoted to sounding the alarm about “The Radical Right.” I need to peruse the document more, but some mainline Protestants were clearly alarmed by the new visibility of radical conservatism in the context of the Goldwater campaign.

I also came across the influential historian Richard Hofstadter’s thoughts on what he called radical “pseudo-conservatism.” In 1962, Hofstadter wrote:

The political character of this movement can be helpfully delineated by comparing it with true conservatism. The United States has not provided a receptive home for formal conservative thought or classically conservative modes of behavior. Lacking a formidable aristocratic tradition, this country has produced at best patricians rather than aristocrats, and the literature of American political experience shows how unhappy the patricians (for example, Henry Adams) have been in their American environment. Restless, mobile both geographically and socially, overwhelmingly middle-class in their aspirations, the American people have not given their loyalty to a national church or developed a traditionally oriented bar or clergy, or other institutions that have the character of national establishments. But it is revealing to observe the attitude of the extreme right wing toward those institutions that come closest here to reproducing the institutional apparatus of the aristocratic classes in other countries. Such conservative institutions as the better preparatory schools, the Ivy League colleges and universities, the Supreme Court, and the State Department–exactly those institutions that have been largely in the custodianship of the patrician or established elements in American society–have been the favorite objects of right-wing animosity.

So there you have it. I was actually just echoing Hofstadter and I didn’t know it. Well, I could have found myself in worse company. I’ll take it.

A White Evangelical Historian Weighs In On Gerson’s Article

41LQJsqBvXL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_

You’ll want to read this.

John Fea, professor of history at Mesiah College, is one of the more thoughtful commentators around combining a historical perspective and evangelical faith as he brings his expertise to bear in the public sphere. He’s the guy who coined the phrase court evangelicals and he’s got a book (see above) coming out later this year that’s sure to be insightful.

Here’s some of what Fea has had to say so far about Michael Gerson’s article in the Atlantic. Like me, Fea noticed that Gerson’s 19th century golden era of evangelicalism was seen with rose-colored glasses:

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Fea also shared some more personal reflections the piece inspired:

Like Gerson, I have come to the conclusion, after much soul searching in the wake of November 8, 2016, that the word “evangelical” is worth defending.   I still believe in all the things that the word stands for–the “good news” of the Gospel, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need to engage with the world from the perspective of these beliefs.

I appreciate Gerson’s autobiographical reflections about his evangelical upbringing.  I also spent some of the most formative years of my life within evangelicalism.  But unlike Gerson, I was not a cradle evangelical.  I converted as a teenager.   While I am fully on board with Mark Noll’s assessment of evangelical thinking in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I can fully say that my conversion is what actually led me to pursue an intellectual life and instilled me with a sense of vocation that continues to animate my work.  My Catholic upbringing played an important role in my moral formation, and I will always be a fellow traveler with my Catholic brothers and sisters,  but it was evangelicalism that brought meaning and purpose to my life.   It still does–at least on the good days.

I know that many former evangelicals read this blog.  I understand that they are angry and bitter and critical.  I see it in their posts and comments and published pieces.  I saw it in the way they responded to the death of Billy Graham.  I get it.  I don’t know how folks can live with such anger and bitterness, but I get it.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a lot of issues with evangelicalism.  I have had my own moments of anger and bitterness.  But I see those disagreements, to borrow from Noll, as “lovers quarrels.”

I wouldn’t say this on every day, but it’s a lovers quarrel for me as well. Disavowing evangelicalism is a little bit like disavowing my personhood.

White Evangelicals Respond To Gerson’s Article

Michael-Gerson-800x430

Michael Gerson reacting, I imagine, to white evangelical criticism.

In the wake of his Atlantic cover story, Michael Gerson has been on the interview circuit, appearing on NPR and Face the Nation and lots of other places. You might think that white evangelicals would be happy about this. Look, here’s a white evangelical who has attained elite status and is able to speak to the most pressing issues of the day from his prestigious position as a Washington Post columnist, and now he has a big cover story in one of the nation’s most storied magazines.

The problem, of course, is that Gerson is using his position not only to explain evangelicalism to the wider culture, but to critique it. Most white evangelical media seems to be doing its best to ignore Gerson’s article, but I did manage to find a few responses. It goes without saying that I disagree with these, but I present them here in the interests of understanding where they’re coming from.

Tony Perkins says Gerson gets a platform because the mainstream media is eager to “shame” evangelicals:

“You are going to hear this repeatedly … for the rest of his term [and] you are certainly going to hear it going into this midterm election,” Perkins said. “This is designed to shame evangelicals. Of course, ‘Face the Nation’ is giving a platform to Gerson and any other Republican who will … bash an element of the voting population that has been very instrumental in the president being successful in getting into office and maintaining and continuing his policy, his agenda.”

Perkins said media outlets like CBS are giving these platforms because they want to “shame these evangelicals into the corners of society where they will be quiet and they won’t be involved.”

Michael Brown sees the hypocrisy charge and lobs it back at Gerson:

Haven’t black evangelicals consistently voted for pro-abortion, pro-LGBT candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Haven’t some African-American mega-churches even prayed by name for the election of candidates like Obama and Al Gore? Why then weren’t they called on the carpet for hypocrisy? Why aren’t they guilty of tarnishing the evangelical tradition?

Personally, I believe we all have blind spots and there’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. And I think leaders like Van Moody and Franklin Graham would profit greatly by spending time with each other, if they haven’t already. Let us hear one another out, let us share our respective perspectives, and let us commit to being holistic in our ethics and concerns, with the help of God.

But I’m a little suspicious whenever left-leaning Christians (and/or the leftist secular media) raise charges against white evangelicals, people who just happen to be strong social conservatives.

Perhaps the bigger issue is not our alleged hypocrisy but rather our counter-cultural convictions? Could this be where the conflict really lies?

Perkins and Brown both seem to unwittingly offer more evidence for Gerson’s claims. But, in a considerably more thoughtful piece, David French says Gerson has underestimated the real changes in recent years that caused reasonable concerns for social conservatives:

While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions…

This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture…

Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.

French has some credibility as a “never Trump” white evangelical who has paid genuine personal costs for his opposition to Trump. (He and his family have been brutally attacked by the white supremacist right). I hope that French and Gerson will talk to each other, because they may find themselves in more substantial agreement than it first appears. If I read Gerson right, he is not concerned with relitigating the political calculation of the 2016 election as much as exploring the dynamic French himself deplores: evangelicals who submit abjectly to Trumpism. Gerson thinks the decay is further advanced than French believes, but they’re not terribly far apart.

And if you meditate on French’s last line, you can quickly arrive at Gerson’s gloom. Because another way of saying that white evangelicals are “not exceptional at all” is to say that they make it appear as though the gospel isn’t true.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

pic_nrd_20180305_brookhiser

William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?


My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.


The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern. 

Politicize the Shootings

The-Right-Way-With-Guns-1

An NRA comic book from the 1950s.

The most profound change in my thinking through years of pursuing a career as a historian starts with this simple truism: everything has a history. It has taken years for the implications of this to dawn on me. It means that there is very little about us and the way we experience the world that is natural. Whatever you think about the raw materials we humans are working with (and what processes or divinity produced those materials), we have put them to use in astonishingly diverse ways.

Everything about my daily life has a history. The way I act in the world and think about myself is bizarre and unusual. I think and act this way not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a particular kind of human living in the United States in the twenty-first century. Look, I can’t even refer to my place and time without using invented concepts that have a history of their own.

De-naturalizing our present doesn’t necessarily lead to a politics of the left or the right. The knowledge that we can change something if we want to might move you toward the right in an effort to preserve the fragile goods that a society has achieved. Or the same knowledge might move you toward the left in an effort to solve problems that have eluded the grasp of earlier generations. Either way, a historical perspective reminds us  that many of our social problems are political more than natural.

Everything about yesterday’s school shooting was unnatural. If violence is characteristically human, shooting schoolkids with guns is not. We had to build the social structures and legal regime to make such an act intelligible and possible. If in and out groups are characteristically human, the ideology of race animating the shooter is not. We had to come up with that particularly venomous idea before he could use it to hate.

If you watched the cell phone video from inside the school yesterday and it didn’t sit well with you, please consider doing everything you can to politicize that shooting. If you want to honor the victims, politicize their deaths. They died unnatural deaths. They died because it was our collective decision—expressed through politics—that they should do so.

Those who believe the costs of preventing their deaths are too high should have the moral and intellectual integrity to say so. Those who believe it is worthwhile to prevent their deaths should grapple with some hard realities: this belief is not commonsense. It is a political program with which many people disagree.

A Window into What Many White Evangelicals Really Believe

ha

I had an instructive conversation today. I’m sharing it now with people’s identities removed because I believe it is revealing of the state of some aspects of popular white evangelicalism, but I have no desire to publicly call out the people involved in the conversation.

The conversation below might seem extremely bizarre to you. You’ll notice that I’m writing in a more evangelical bent than I often do here, as I was trying to communicate to people who might possibly resonate with such language. You’ll also note that my interlocutors were not always as coherent as you would wish. But this is part of the point. I believe exchanges like this are representative of larger numbers of ordinary white evangelical people than we would like to believe.

We often hear from evangelical leaders who might sound reasonable and express cautious disagreement with parts of Trump’s agenda, but their constituencies often aren’t very large. For most ordinary white evangelicals, President Trump is a great leader who has rescued the country from the evil rule of President Obama and the nightmare possibility of a President Clinton.

The exchange began when a friend posted this:

I offer no apology for what I am posting, for this is truly how I feel. Please know that this is my opinion and not open for debate.

If you don’t agree with me, that is your perogative, and I respect that. So, I ask that you afford me the same courtesy in return. I will not be responding to any and/or all comments.

I have lived through many United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, demeaned by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, threatened with death, threatened by some to rape our First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country. I am ashamed of the ruthless, insufferable, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the irresponsibility of the reporters who feel they have the right to deliver personal opinions just to sway their audiences in a negative direction even if there is no truth in their message.

After every other President was elected and took the oath of office they were allowed to try to serve this country without constant negative scrutiny from our news sources. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED while news sources search only for negative results from our President will not serve the people of our country. Nor will it create informed Americans. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH.

If only one of my FB friends would repost this, maybe everyone across the globe will understand that there are some of us who feel that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH of this disgrace to Our President and to our United States of America. Shame on the news media for allowing this ongoing hatred and constant state of turmoil to

I assume this is a viral post; it has that feel, right down to an unfinished final sentence indicating an incomplete copy/paste job. Lots of friends chimed in with supportive comments about Trump’s greatness, a few offered criticism, and the original poster quickly decided to engage with commenters after all. So I jumped in:

I think we should pray for our President, definitely. I think those prayers should focus on him coming to repentance and making restitution for his actions. There are several things that are unusual about President Trump compared to past Presidents, but I think what has made many people react so strongly against him is the way he has dehumanized groups of people with his words. As Christians, we know that every life is infinitely valuable and created by God. So it is particularly evil to speak of others in ways that demean, dehumanize, or incite animosity against groups of people. President Trump has expressed hatred for women; he has equivocated about the evils of white supremacy; he has spoken with extraordinary harshness toward whole nations. When coming from the President of the United States, these words have power. These words are action. If we as Christians do not stand against such evil acts, we are not aligning ourselves with the Gospel.

At that point a particularly effusive commenter engaged with me:

He has not Had spoken WORDS of Hate against Women ??
You must watch CNN ,or the other Lying Media ,,paid off by The Clintons an As Far as Praying For Him Im sure All True Christians Do ,,
How Do you know hes Not ,,a True Christian ,,,,You know Not his HEART,,!!
One thing about God says If their NOT Against us ,their With us !!
Trump is Sure Not against The Lord Nor Our Nation!!,,
PS An I guess you have Never said a Vile Word against Any one ,,Give Us a Break ,,
Repent your self!!!
STOP your Trying to Judge a Man God Put in Our Office Of this Nation !!
This is a Fact ,,

To which I replied:

Let’s roll the tape. Imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on. In fact, Trump did say all these things about other groups. Would you support his words if they were directed at your community rather than other communities? And in fact, he has expressed dehumanizing attitudes toward people like you. He boasted that he likes to commit sexual assault.

She replied:

Hes right ,,every illegal should be stopped as every ,,Muslim,,,they are the Antichrist,,,
Ready when they Know its time to Rise up an kill all they can ,,
Its already happen in Our Nation Beheading a women at her work place ,,
Even God says to take care Of your Own first ,,
Obama as Hillary help try an Devide The People ,,!
Its a Fact ,,Hillary ,,Has had People Murdered ,,shes for Murdering our Inncent babies ,,
Shes a traitor as a Lier ,,
She endangered US as Nation!!
Keep Thousands From Hatti,,,Dirty Enemie Filthy ,,Moneyv,,she recieved from our Enemies that Chant Death to us ,,
Gave as Recieved Millions from ,,the Enemies ,,
If shes Fine With The Slaughtering of Our Inncent babies ,,That alone Is Enough For ,,True People Of God tovNot Vote for her ,,
She Left A church because They Did not BELIEVE in ,,so called Aboration !!Thank God shes NOT in leadership .,God put TRUMP in ,,This is A Fact !!
Stop Throwing !! YOUR Stone ,,,Several ,,May Belong Toward you !!
You just havient felt the Impact Yet ,,

I responded:

Because Trump is President, I am focused on holding him accountable. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen with no public office at this time. I have my differences with her. In contrast to your views, the scriptures speak of welcoming the immigrant and being kind toward strangers. They speak of putting the interests of others ahead of our own. As Jesus taught so clearly, every human being is our neighbor. No one, no matter their religion or anything else, should be labeled the enemy or treated with indifference. Your own words– “dirty” “enemy” “filthy”–testify against you. This is not how Christians think about precious people for whom Christ died.

She replied:

This Black an white craps ,,from the pits of hell ,,,
The Demacrate s cound care less about the whites blacks ect ,,they are just out For ,them selves ,,
They were who ,,are full of the KKK ,,Factv,,had my daddy jumped on years ago because he would NOT join ,,them
I was a little girl an had to See this ,,He pulled his gun on them ,,
This white an black ,,issuecis from hell not from God ,,
satans Come down with great wrath ,,because He Knows his Times Short,,
Trumps In Office an ,,no one acted like Idiots when Obama was in ,,as He Litterly ,,tryed to ,,Distroy our Nation ,hes a Muslim traitor ,,,
Hes Not American ,hes A Unbeliever in Christ ,,Hes A True Infidel ,,
I for one Thamk God its out Of Our Office ,,He didnt care who come here ,,because he wanted America Weakened ,,
Hes for the Muslim ,,Enemie ,,Not us ,,
Gave even millions to thoses that chant death to us ,,as He sent weapins to them ,,
Made Great Mockery Of Jesus Spoken Words ,,
And Jesus said if their Not For. US THEY are Against Us!!
And Obama Was an Is NOT For Us !!
Trumps ,,A Strong ,,Bold ,,Smart ,,Man Like Reagon ,
Hes for helping any one ,,
But putting Americans First ,,
And its about Time ,,Jesus said take care of your own ,first or you Worse Then an Infidel ,,
We have Many in our Own Nation Who need help
We can not takecon a thousand a day that pour in here ,,A Thousandc,,smh ,
While we true Americans ,,many hungry ,an homeless as ,,sick ,and Putting them ,First Wrong ,,,
We Need To Take Care Of Our Own ,,,,Time For America ,,To het back On her Feet ,,stand Firm,,strong ,,an Be the Light on That Hill !!
Im Done With Hearing ,,such ,Foolisness!!!

I assume she began talking about “black” and “white” because of my “black lives matter” facebook profile image. Then she kept commenting:

Just ,,admit it ,,your just against him cause his a better ,,,man ,,,an yes Hes White ,,rich ,,bold ,,strong,,
And For God,as As Our Nation an her people,,
Give it a rest ,,Its unreal How some act foolish ,,just because their mad cause Hillary the lier lost ,,
They want the blacks as whites ect ,,at their beaken call ,,free this an free that ,,so they can rule all ,,,
Black or white ,,
They care not for blacks nor the Foreigners nor Illegals Dem just want their votes to keep em in office ,,Continuing their Corruption!!
Playing like they care about ya ,,smh ,,NO they Dont ,,

And again:

Lolololo,,hold Trump accountable ????
,Hillary Should Be in Prison as Obama ,,Soro ,,several others Bill Clinton ,,used sex slaves he as Hillary ,,
Ask Cathy Obrian , Basterds they are ,,Evil True Basterds!!

And finally:

Hebrews 12:8
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, THEN are ye bastards, and NOT sons!!!!!!!.”

Go to her profile page and prominently displayed at the top is this message: “LIVE For JESUS!!”

Now, I wasn’t in this to change her mind and I didn’t get angry about this exchange. That would be a waste of time. Frankly, I was just curious. And I wouldn’t think much of it if this conversation didn’t echo—even if in a more inchoate and unvarnished form—arguments and attitudes I’ve heard from other white evangelicals.

Thinking of these white evangelicals as unreasoning fools is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Notice how this commenter did in fact deploy theological argument to try to bolster her case. She invoked the sovereignty of God to try to foreclose any criticism of the President. In pointing out that I do not know Trump’s heart, her language recalled 1 Samuel 16:7. She referenced 1 Timothy 5:8 to make an argument for Christian nationalism.

She paraphrased Jesus’ cryptic words in Luke 9:50 to try to position Trump as a supporter of Christians even if he himself isn’t a very good one. She alluded to the story of Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery to argue that I should not judge Trump. She attributed division between black and white Americans (or perhaps even racial consciousness itself?) to the spiritual power of Satan. Finally, she directly quoted Hebrews 12:8, to what purpose I still can’t figure out.

The point is that her comments are overflowing with biblical allusion and theological argument. This is not merely a question of ignorance. It’s a question of what has been formed in her, and who has done the forming. Does she attend church? What is taught there? Is “love thy neighbor” so spiritualized that in practice you’re allowed to think and do whatever you want?

Notice how she positions her hatred not just as defensible, but as the proactively Christian attitude! She uses scripture to try to make a virtue of selfishness. So it’s a little hard to credit her professed concern for “innocent little babies.” It is characteristically human to love some people while hating others, but it’s a posture unlikely to win converts to your cause. This is especially so when the cause is invested in a vision of human dignity that you cheerfully deny to others.

It’s too easy to react to the views seen in this conversation with condescension. “Oh, she doesn’t know any better. Oh, she’s sincere. Oh, it’s a matter of ignorance.” As much as these factors may play a role, they don’t excuse the active theological reasoning taking place here. This is Christianity weaponized to oppress; it is salvation for me and hell for thee; it is “Jesus Saves!” as a gleeful taunt rather than a humble cry for help. This is what we’re up against in many white evangelical churches.

Are College Students Being Brainwashed?

obama

A typical liberal professor caught in the act of indoctrination.

Conservative activists often claim that college classrooms are places of indoctrination. But a new survey finds that college increases students’ appreciation of views across the political spectrum:

college political attitudes

I hope this is true! The survey seems quite robust but I’ll leave that to the statisticians to sort out. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in provoking new questions and ways of thinking in students than in moving them toward a particular political posture. I hope that the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same.

In the field of history, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, we’re trying to get students to “give a crap” about people who are different from them. That means suspending judgment long enough to try to really understand people who are unfamiliar or even repulsive to you. We’re working on the level of imagination and empathy. These are the habits of mind and character required to engage seriously with the past.

If we’re doing our job well, it would make sense that students would have more nuanced views of the political other. It is not so easy to caricature people after you’ve stepped into their shoes. But before I get carried away with the grand effects of historical teaching, the authors of the study argue that what we’re doing in the classroom probably isn’t driving this phenomenon:

our best guess is this finding might ultimately have little to do with faculty directly and instead relate to the climate that campuses strive to create for the expression of diverse viewpoints, political and otherwise. While students may come to college never having met someone on the political “other side,” it is hard to avoid doing so in college. One central aim of higher education is to encourage contact, debate, discussion and exposure to persuasion from different kinds of people.

After a year of college, in other words, it might be more challenging for students to brand all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when they are studying, eating and learning alongside them. These experiences might even help students appreciate others as people with diverse histories and shared interests in working toward common goals.

One takeaway is clear: It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.

It’s worth thinking about this in relation to the widely-publicized (alleged) free speech crisis on American campuses. There is plenty of anecdote in that hysterical genre, but perhaps the data indicate our college environments are healthier than many people suppose.