Putting Trump’s Presidency in Historical Context

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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

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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.

What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

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Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.

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

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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.

Ben Tillman’s Heart Was in the Right Place

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A great American whose heart was in the right place.

On Face the Nation this morning Paul Ryan said that President Trump’s “heart is in the right place” when it comes to dealing with racism and bringing the country together. This is very interesting information. Using Paul Ryan’s new standard, it’s useful to think about all the other great Americans of the past whose hearts were in the right place.

I’m pretty sure John C. Calhoun’s heart was in the right place.

Definitely Ben Tillman.

Albert Johnson really meant well.

So did Theodore Bilbo. What a swell guy.

George Wallace clearly tried very hard to unite the country. He wasn’t ultimately successful, but gosh, his heart was as pure as the wind-driven snow.

I think it’s unfortunate that these great Americans who had really wonderful hearts too often get attention for their actions instead. One of the major signs of how politically correct revisionist history has become is that great men are often judged for how they treated human beings. We’re a snowflake generation! It’s a sign of how divided our country is that some people believe that what a person does matters.

A big thank you to Speaker Ryan for his bold truth-telling. It’s important to remember that nothing matters.

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

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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:

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There is Still Hope for Evangelicalism

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My imagined self in my study: the Christian scholar at work.

John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:

Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.

This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.

This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.

There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.

We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.

Suggestions for the Next Monument to a Black Philadelphian

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A crowd celebrates the unveiling of the new Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall. September 26, 2017. Photo by Helen Armstrong.

Here’s how out of the loop I am. I was shocked to learn that Philadelphia’s new statue to 19th century African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto is the first monument to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. To put that in perspective, there are hundreds of statues on public land.

I honestly didn’t know who Octavius Catto was. I’m glad he’s getting some well-deserved recognition. For background, listen to today’s Radio Times.

So this got me thinking. Who should be memorialized next? Off the top of my head, here are some worthy figures who were either native Philadelphians or had a significant Philly connection:

Absolom Jones

Richard Allen

William Still

Harriet Tubman

Cecil B. Moore

I’m sure there are many, many others. Who would you nominate?

If I wasn’t a historian who thinks even nasty stuff should be preserved (in museums) I’d say maybe we could melt down the Rizzo statue and recast it in the form of one of these more appropriate figures.

A Tale of Two Wikipedia Entries

While doing some lecture prep tonight, I stumbled across some information about the nineteenth century white supremacist southern evangelist Sam Jones. I did a google search naively expecting to get more details, and instead I turned up half a dozen hagiographical stories about this awful man. Here’s the introduction to the wikipedia entry before I edited it:

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And here it is after my edit:

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Seems like an important detail to mention, no? I’ve never really edited Wikipedia before. Hopefully this new information sticks.

By the way, can we talk about what it means that contemporary white evangelicals apparently think it’s ok to honor the memory of this man?

Song of the Day

In his new album out this week, Christian rapper Lecrae says a definitive goodbye to all the colorblind Christians who wanted him to be their puppet:

There is so much to be said about this song, but for now, I think I may have found a header lyric for my entire book:

Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me
I said, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.

What do you think that means?

And I have some colleagues who will appreciate this:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.