In General, White Evangelicals Like Racism

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

White evangelicals tend to support racism. They usually like it when they see it. And in general, they think anti-racism is unchristian.

You won’t find any of this out by asking abstract questions about racism. White evangelicals, like everyone else, know how to give the correct answers to abstract questions. But ask them about specific people and movements, and they’ll quickly tell you the real story.

And this makes sense. It is easy to claim support for abstractions. But in real life, it turns out people are complicated and flawed and everything is messy. So those anti-racists are going to say some things you don’t like. That racist President might have other policies that appeal to you. But do you know the score? Can you see the big picture enough to know that flawed anti-racist movements are better than pro-racist ones?

Most white evangelicals can’t see that. The latest data comes from the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey. Here are a couple highlights:

While most Americans, including 75% of black Protestants, believe Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups (hint: this is the correct answer) only 26% of white evangelicals believe this.

While most Americans, including 84% of black Protestants, believe that police killings of black men are part of a larger pattern of how police treat African Americans, 71% of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents.

While 64% of Americans and majorities of all other major religious groups believe the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States will be mostly positive, a majority of white evangelicals say this will be mostly negative.

There could be more interesting nuggets in the data but it appears PRRI hasn’t provided the crosstabs. This comes on the heels of a big survey of evangelicals by Lifeway Research and the Billy Graham Center Institute. Rather than defining evangelicals by self-identification, that survey used a set of theological affirmations. In theory, that might produce a more truly evangelical sample. And while the Billy Graham Center Institute sought to use the data to rehabilitate the reputation of evangelicals, it too produced some damning results.

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities,” 42% of white evangelicals said yes. Most white evangelicals are not disturbed by racial hatred.

Such data only reaffirms what should already be abundantly clear. Evangelicals of color have shared their experiences repeatedly and have exposed the rampant racism of the white evangelical church. But, as many can attest, such exposure does not cause most white evangelicals to question their racism. It causes them instead to question the sincerity of the anti-racists’ faith.

As most white evangelicals militantly refuse to align their lives with the Gospel, those who seek to follow Jesus must continue to pray that the evil complacency of this religious community would be shattered. At the same time, it is not enough to point out the flaws. We must point positively to Jesus Christ, who really is the savior of the world, who is good news to the poor and oppressed, who offers forgiveness to all and terror to those who excuse hatred of human beings made in his image.

White Racism Is The Greatest Threat to American Democracy

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There is no greater threat to the safety of the American people or to the construction of a free society in the United States than white racism. It has always been this way. White racism fueled the slave society that devoured the bodies of human beings like so much kindling for the fire. White racism threw the country into the abyss of civil war, leaving 750,000 people dead. White racism powered the largest, deadliest, and most enduring terrorist organization in American history.

White racism closed ballot boxes in pursuit of power and split bodies open for sport. White racism built walls of concrete and imagination, bordering minds and communities, closing off opportunity, condemning the Einstein you never heard of to die in a dank prison cell.

White racism gives to Americans the most tangible knowledge we have of the reality of human depravity. It is the purest evil we know. White Americans, especially, live constantly in the intimate paradox of familiarity and denial of this knowledge. The manifestation of this intimate paradox is seen in our defensiveness, in our rote insistence that racism is both awful and, somehow, powerless in the face of our good intentions.

In recent days we’ve seen a Trump-loving man espousing white supremacy mail pipe bombs to Democratic politicians; a white man attempt to break into a predominantly black church before murdering two black people in a grocery store and allegedly declaring, “Whites don’t kill whites”; and now, today, an attack on a Jewish synagogue by a man reportedly enraged at Jewish efforts to welcome refugees.

Next Tuesday Republican voters in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will vote for Steve King, all the while imagining that they oppose the violent racism we’ve witnessed this week. I wish they did. But that would require aligning their actions with their professed intentions. It is sobering to realize that the vast majority of these people are entirely sincere. Indeed, it is through reckoning with their sincerity that we can glimpse how whiteness works.

White Americans learn from an early age to lie to ourselves. We acquire this skill alongside language and basic motor functions as a necessary part of being able to move through the world at ease with ourselves. Because we’ve learned that racism is Very Bad™ we must insist that it does not stain us. Yet because we are actually quite familiar with its rhythms and logic—learned as we navigated the built environment itself, went to school and home and church, taken in through jokes and side remarks, understood in what was unsaid— we must insist that racism is something like being impolite.

Racism is too bad to attach itself to us; it is too familiar to be that bad. And so white racism in the white American imagination is imagined as rudeness or mean-spiritedness, rather than a deadly evil that destroys lives by the thousands.

So while Steve King talks about his white supremacist convictions with all the subtlety of a blaring fire alarm, Republican voters will support him. And while Donald Trump spews toxic mixtures of racism, violence, and conspiracy theory, those who share his views take it to heart and are emboldened to murder people. We saw it last year in Charlottesville. We’re seeing it again this week.

Meanwhile, ordinary white people in places like rural Iowa, people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, will go on lying to themselves, imagining that that they don’t bear responsibility for this week’s events. They’ll go on saying they support Trump’s policies but not some of his rhetoric, as if racist incitement to violence is a minor matter of etiquette. They’ll go on playing roulette with other people’s lives, never having to face the lies that let them live in peace. More people must die, they have decided, so that we white Americans can live comfortably in our own skin.

Give Your Money To Democrats

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I’ve never made a donation to a political candidate. Today, that changes. My wife and I are donating money to Democratic congressional candidates in five close House races to help Democrats retake Congress in November. I hope you’ll donate too.

You don’t have to be a political expert to do this effectively and put your money where it will make a difference. If you know where to look, it’s easy to find out which races are close. I’m using the Cook Political Report House Ratings to locate five races that are “toss-ups” or “lean Republican.” Cook shows you the name of the incumbent Republican but not the Democratic challenger. You can find their names on this map. Or you can simply do google searches for the state and district number you’re interested in (i.e., “GA-07 congressional race”) and you’ll find the name of the challenger pretty easily. Then go to their campaign website and donate directly to them.

That’s how to do it. Why should you do it?

The ground has shifted beneath our feet. Ordinary voters have been slow to recognize how sweeping the radicalization of the Republican Party is, and how large the differences between the parties have become. Consider these statements:

–Sexual assault is wrong and people who do it should be held accountable.

–Racism is wrong and leaders should not promote it in their words or actions.

–Democracy and the rule of law are important to ensure peace and justice for all people.

Many voters think of statements like these as abstractions that are not part of ordinary politics. They imagine that these statements enjoy such universal acceptance that they are not among the things for which they’re voting for or against. But they’re wrong. These statements are on the ballot this November.

Imagining these simple statements as settled and agreed upon has always depended on complacency and a lack of historical awareness. Egalitarian democracy with its promise of equal treatment and accountability for all has been the exception rather than the rule in American history. These values have always been contested and remain so.

But now, in just the past few years, they’ve become much more directly partisan. They have been taken up into the bloodstream of the political system, becoming live questions about which the two main parties take distinct positions and propose different policy solutions.

Do you believe women and people of color should be treated with dignity? Do you believe democracy and the rule of law are good? Have the courage of your convictions. These beliefs have become partisan. In general, Democrats agree with you. In general, Republicans disagree with you. The widespread unwillingness to speak clearly about this in public is a failure of moral and intellectual courage. It’s time for all decent people to work against the dangerous radicalization of the Republican Party before it’s too late.

Events of recent years constitute a great unveiling. The true character of people is showing through, often to horrifying effect. There are three dates seared in my consciousness.

November 24, 2014: the Ferguson grand jury announcement

November 8, 2016: the election of Donald Trump

September 27, 2018: the Ford/Kavanaugh Hearing

These were each highly emotional days in which larger cultural and political changes converged on a single dramatic moment. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, and Me Too, it has become abundantly clear that there is a huge constituency favoring lawless white male rule above all else. The political vehicle for this constituency is the Republican Party.

I’ve written a lot over the years about Black lives Matter and Donald Trump. But the Kavanaugh hearing just happened. I want to explain why I found it so disturbing.

As a thought experiment, let’s start by assuming that he is entirely innocent of all the allegations made against him. If that is the case, I can understand why a person would privately wrestle with all the emotions and anger he displayed yesterday. And I can’t even imagine the anguish he would feel for his family.

But a mature man would not air all those grievances publicly, in a scorched-earth tactic whose inevitable result is further discrediting the Senate and the Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people, reducing the legitimacy of both. A mature man would not publicly describe a credible sexual assault allegation as a partisan hit job. A mature man would not elevate his partisan interest above the larger reckoning now occurring around sexual assault and sexual harassment. A mature man would try to clear his name in a way calculated to honor and support victims of sexual assault, not discourage and traumatize them.

A mature man would have long ago reckoned with his privilege. He would not have described his life of unusual and unearned opportunities as a case of bootstrapping. This speaks to his character in the most basic sense.

A mature man would have been respectful to the senators and the American people, no matter his internal anguish. Kavanaugh was so angry and petulant yesterday, so wild in his words and physical movements, that he at times appeared inebriated in the hearing room itself. An honorable man does not behave this way when wrongly accused. He has disqualified himself, even if he is innocent.

But let’s step away from the thought experiment now. There are good reasons to suppose he is not innocent. Obviously Dr. Ford’s credibility is crucial here. So is Kavanaugh’s calendar with the entry naming a gathering with the very people Ford claimed were at the party.

Just as important, however, is how Kavanaugh’s own behavior in the nomination process has damaged his own credibility. The night he was nominated, I watched live as he introduced himself to the American people. I knew nothing about him. I thought it was very odd when he immediately told a gratuitous lie (“No President has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.”) I thought at the time it was curious that he chose to say something so obviously untrue in front of the whole country for no other apparent purpose than to flatter the President.

Then yesterday, Kavanaugh repeatedly disassembled about his drinking. Among the highlights: claiming he hasn’t “blacked out” but has merely “fallen asleep” from drinking. We know he is not being straight about his drinking. It is hard to believe he is telling the truth about larger things. It also seems likely that an innocent man would be eager for corroborating witnesses to go on the record. Yesterday, Kavanaugh made clear he doesn’t want that to happen.

The broader context here is crucial: Republican senators are seeking to confirm Kavanaugh without trying to find out whether he has committed sexual assault. This is sickening behavior. It is a direct message to every woman in America telling her just how cheap her life is. All of this comes against the backdrop of Republicans marching in lockstep with a President who hates women and enjoys assaulting them for his own amusement.

This must end. All good people need to get off the sidelines. I’m investing my money to try to stop it.

In the 1960s, What Did Spiritual Equality Imply?

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This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).

It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.

But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.

As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.

Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.

I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.

Why Did All Those Evangelical Leaders Go To The White House Dinner?

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Maybe it was the napkins. I’m not really kidding.

Yesterday Tim Wildmon, the President of the American Family Association, described his awe-inducing experience rubbing shoulders with powerful people in luxurious settings at the White House. Would you believe…the napkins weren’t paper? Acting on a tip from Franklin Graham, Wildmon pocketed one of those linen napkins and resolved to take it home with him.

You can listen to the audio here (though I’m not sure I recommend it.* If you dare, skip ahead to 12.00).

The napkin episode was emblematic. Wildmon was in awe of his surroundings and made liberal use of his iphone to document his presence in the White House. You might say this is normal behavior. It’s cool to be able to eat dinner with the President of the United States. But what’s striking is the deeper meaning Wildmon attaches to events like this.

It means that evangelicals are accepted. It means they’re not looked down upon. It means real progress is being made in winning their culture war and making life difficult for people who aren’t like them.

Wildmon seems easily awed by power and wealth, a common fault of insecure people everywhere. “He’s not ashamed of us,” Wildmon declared. While most Republican leaders are embarrassed by evangelicals, he said, Trump is “proud of us.” The importance he places on this tells us a lot about Wildmon and the evangelical movement he embodies.

It’s a movement seeking to conserve its place at the table. In response to power reaching out a welcoming (if transactional) hand, evangelical elites seem to feel great relief and a sense of safety. They revel in their place of prominence. In doing so, they forget the gospel. The good news that Jesus saves wretched sinners makes anything a President can offer seem rather boring in comparison.

The whole thing would be pitiful and poignant were the Christian Right’s agenda not so noxious. Wildmon does not, after all, seem cynical. He appears instead as a person you might pity in other contexts. He takes comfort in the idea that Trump is not ashamed of him, and even that isn’t true. It’s a reminder that not all of the evangelical elites are cut from the same cloth. Some, like Ralph Reed, are just as transactional as any other political power brokers. But others, like Wildmon I suspect, are lying to themselves before they lie to their followers.

It’s all very sad. As I’ve said before, if you want to find Jesus Christ, look to the margins. If he’s not enough for you, by all means, go to the White House and find another god.


*The AFA is one of the leading anti-LGBT groups in the country, with a long history of hateful and outrageous behavior. Their current campaign is a boycott of Target, because bathrooms.

Oh, the Irony!

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Editorial in the African American newspaper The Broad Ax, 1904

Here’s a fascinating editorial from a black newspaper in Chicago complaining that black people always vote Republican:

It is inconceivable to us how the Negro can work himself up to the point where he is willing to trifle with his soul’s salvation, for he is willing to forfeit his chances of arriving within the pearly gates of heaven (if there is such a place, which we doubt), by affiliating with all the wildcat churches in existence. He will become a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Mormon, Christian Scientist, Dowieite, and freely follow the religious leaders of all other denominations, and hazard his chances of striking the straight and narrow path, which is supposed to lead to paradise, for it is expressly stated that there is only one true church, that all who fail to march under its banner are eternally lost. With this terrible warning or admonition hanging over his head he is perfectly willing to traverse various roads in order to find a resting place with his imaginary gods throughout eternity.

All this is readily changed with the Negro when it comes down to politics, which only deal with the temporal affairs of men and not with their spiritual welfare, and by permitting the wily and demagogic leaders of the Republican party to mix up his religion and his politics together for him; he has naturally arrived at that mental condition which forces him to believe that he must continue to blindly vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln, regardless of the fact that men and political measures have changed within the past forty years…

As it is he can never regain any of his political power or prestige until he refrains from permitting any one to tell how he is going to vote simply on account of the color of his skin. The members of no other race in America claiming to be civilized, would permit themselves to pursue such a ruinous course of policy.  The members of all other races and nationalities look upon politics as a cold business proposition, and the vast majority of them cast their ballots for the men who will best serve their interests, regardless of their politics, and enable them to enrich their pockets. While on the other hand the Negro continues to live in the dead past, and is ever ready to continue to vote for dead ideas or sentiments. His mental disease in this regard is his greatest curse. He is tolerant or friendly disposed to any other Negro who may happen to differ with him along religious lines, but he places his Republican politics ahead of his Lord and his religion, for with a few honorable exceptions he is willing to tear to pieces every Negro who assumes an air of political independence, that is one who fails to blindly vote and act like himself.

The ironies. The resonances. The questions. Primary sources have a way of surprising us, provoking new questions, giving us a window into a world that we might have thought we knew, but is actually quite unfamiliar and surprising.

Among the surprises here: the mocking attitude toward religion, and the intensity of anti-Republican feeling at this early date. To specialists this probably isn’t surprising, but it is to me. In any case, someone needed to tell the editorialist that political allegiances are sticky and African Americans didn’t really have better options at the time. Sound familiar?

The Sickening Racism of Northern White Evangelicals in the Jim Crow Era

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How did white evangelicals outside the South encounter black people or black culture during the era of Jim Crow? Judging from anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, it seems as though the primary point of contact was through music—the so-called “Negro spirituals.”

I’ve just seen a particularly striking example of how white evangelicals of this era might use an imagined version of black culture as a source of humor, entertainment, and cheap sentiment. A student literary society at a white evangelical college put on a program in 1928, described below:

The first selection is a piano arrangement of Southern songs. Their crooning melody stirs every heart. We seem to visualize a group of darkies around a cabin door beneath a harvest moon, and to hear the soft strumming of a guitar. This vision is then described in reality in an educational talk on Southern life by one who has been a missionary among the mountain folk of Kentucky. A lullaby for pickaninnies, sung by one of our members, delights us next.

Thus far there has been a sentimental tone to our program. Now a humorous note appears in a reading on that subject so near to the negro heart (and stomach): watermelons. Intermittent chuckles are still heard as the secretary announces a negro spiritual by the male quartet. The bass rumbles, the tenor pleads, the baritone calls triumphantly, the plaintive tune delighting yet gripping the audience. Another reading, this time from that friend of white as well as black children, Uncle Remus, is greeted by reminiscent smiles and applause. A negro mammy’s song sung with clarinet obligato closes the program.

What’s striking to me is the utter isolation and indifference exhibited here. In an era of lynching and grinding oppression, they’re able to wring entertainment and sentimentality out of the imagined lives of black people. They appear to know nothing about the actual circumstances of African Americans and they’re so far from caring that they don’t even know it.

Writing a Dissertation? Take Time To Remember Why You’re Doing It.

It is remarkable to think about how often we approach our work in a spirit of fear. At least, that’s my story. The fears run along well-worn tracks at this point: I’ll never finish this dissertation; I don’t have what it takes; it’s so big one day of work isn’t going to make a difference; and at the end of it my reward is an impossible job market.

There are joys to consider: I love to explore the past and learn new things; writing is really hard but it’s also really rewarding to create something that didn’t exist before; history is a longtime hobby of mine and now I get paid to do my hobby! Not to mention this is my God-given vocation.

But sometimes all the joys are overshadowed and you’re left with the fears. On those days, you might need to do something else entirely, or do something that I call dissertation-adjacent. It may not be the most productive use of your time. It may not move the ball forward very much. But it may be a means of finding your way back into the material with a new spark. You’ve got to remember why you went into this in the first place, and if you can’t remember, maybe you should just stop for a while.

Today was a dissertation-adjacent day for me. Or at least, it started out that way. My dissertation looked like a big giant monster that wanted to eat my soul. So I did something else. I started trawling through old student newspapers from an evangelical college. At some point I ought to look at these particular newspapers anyway, but they’re certainly not at the top of the writing or research agenda this summer. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this today. But it was a way to try to recover the spark. And besides, I might find some useful material.

I ended up with a lot of useful sources, a new chapter outline, and some great quotes. Joy.

I’ll share an example. In the early 1970s there is a particular genre of article from black students at evangelical colleges that keeps appearing at a lot of institutions. These students are trying to find some way of communicating to the white students that it is really hard to be black there, and that the campus needs to change. Part of what makes these letters so poignant is that they are, on the one hand, a unique product of this particular radical moment when young black people were taking new pride in their identities and, on the other hand, often read as though they could have been written yesterday (because white evangelical environments remain oppressive today).

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This particular black student began modestly: “I am not a writer,” he wrote. But he had a lot to say nonetheless. Here are some choice lines:

If only for a moment the true and living God would allow and grant to you, to your world, and this community the insight, the vision to see the living, the creeping, the stalking devastation brought into existence, given life and perpetually sustained by you, by your world and the character of your world. That character is Imposition. You have imposed your whiteness over and upon my blackness in your oak-like concepts, ideals and values…

How have you done this? Please try this question, is there anything black in, of or about [this] College besides its six black students or did you know how many of us there were? Why is this?…

few of you will understand this statement: THE AFFIRMATION OF OUR BLACKNESS AND OUR HUMANITY IN BLACK IS A BEAUTIFUL, LONG AWAITED GIFT FROM GOD.

And now I remember why I’m doing this.

Is This A Normal Southern Baptist Church?

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Stephanie McCrummen’s profile of a southern baptist church in Alabama is getting some attention this morning. I’m not sure what to make of it. She talked to a lot of people in the congregation. Here’s an excerpt:

What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.

Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”

It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.

There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.

“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”

The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”

“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”

As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.

“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.

So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.

There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.

“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”

There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”

And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how McCrummen came to write about this particular church and what her own background is. If this was an academic religious studies article, it might be preceded by some elaborate handwringing about her own beliefs and cultural location and how those affected her work and interactions. Instead, because this is a profile in the Washington Post, the reporter is more or less invisible even as she crafts a narrative with a strong undertone of contempt. I’m not saying the contempt isn’t deserved, but I think there are real ethical questions here.

As for the congregation, the main thing I wonder is if it is representative of southern baptist churches today. It seems like many of the most outlandish quotes came from elderly people. Whether it’s representative or not, for this congregation we can say this:

–Abortion is really important.

–Hillary hatred is alive and well.

–There is an enormous amount of fear about Christians losing their place in America, or even their lives.

–Theological ignorance, even to the point of heresy, is common. Christian nationalism heightens their fears and turns them away from Christianity.

–Many feel conflicted about supporting Trump, but not necessarily for the reasons anti-Trump people oppose him. Even people who expressed discomfort did not name his racism as one of their qualms. Others suggested that racism was one of the things they most appreciated about him.

So: fear, racism, ignorance, Christian nationalism, and some concern for the unborn. It’s a damning portrait.

Historians and the Creative Process

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When you first start out with the idea that you might like to be a historian it is easy to imagine that historians are scribes of some kind. Novelists, of course, are creators. They have to invent the stories they write. But historians only need to look at old documents and tell us what they say.

Maybe none of us were quite that naive when we started out, but I do think it’s fair to say that until we begin to really write and publish we have no concept of the extent to which historians—and all nonfiction writers I suppose—are engaged in a creative process. We, too, invent the stories we write.

In our age of proud skepticism and militant ignorance it is perhaps dangerous to suggest that historians are “inventing stories.” This could easily be misunderstood. We’re not making things up. But at every turn in a writing project, we encounter questions that require us to be creators rather than mere scribes of “what happened.”

As historians know, but the public might not, choosing what to write about is a creative and rather arbitrary decision. Lots of stuff happened in the past. It could mean lots of things. What do you cut out and what do you include? Philosophically, one could argue that everything is chaos and that there is no particular direction to events. Good luck writing history that way.

Instead of transcribing the chaos, we must make creative decisions that bring order to it. We create a narrative and sense of movement by the people and things we choose to emphasize. We are interpreters of events that don’t explain themselves. We don’t uncover the obvious meaning that was there all along; we bring meaning to it by bringing the past and present into contact with each other.

A few weeks ago there was a question going around twitter about what is obvious within one’s profession but not obvious to the public. For historians, the creative process is one of those things. It is easy for the public to believe that historians are people who know lots of facts about the past. While it is true that we end up knowing lots of stuff, that doesn’t make us historians. Without the work of interpretation—an essentially creative process—we’re just good trivial pursuit players.

Depending what we’re writing about, we may feel we get to know our “characters” in a special way. But we can’t, like a novelist, invent the quintessential episode or perfect bit of dialogue that lets the reader in on our secret knowledge. We have to figure out how all the thousands of things that the person actually said and did can be crafted to present the character we believe we have come to know.

And dialogue! Uggh! Sometimes we wish we could put words in their mouths instead of wrestling with how to communicate the essential meaning of old letters, memos, and speeches written with odd grammar in obscure contexts.

Where does the story begin and where does it end? It has to start somewhere and it can’t go on forever. These are creative decisions that, in the best case scenario, emerge organically out of the story we’re telling. While working on one dissertation chapter in the past couple weeks, an entire new chapter rose up out of the mist, unknown to me before. The ending is still clarifying itself.

One of the oddest things about the creative process is that we don’t make all these decisions at the front end and then write what we decided to write. Maybe there are a few geniuses here and there who do this, but it doesn’t work that way for me at all. Instead, only the act of writing begins to bring the story into view. In that sense, writing feels more like a collaboration—your conscious efforts, your unconscious self, and the historical actors all working together—than a solo project.