Prestonwood Baptist Church: a Portent of things to come?

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Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas

In an ominous development, a Southern Baptist megachurch is withholding funds from the denomination because of Russel Moore’s outspoken words against Trump during the campaign. Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke frankly last year about the spiritual dangers of supporting Trump. Now, because of Moore’s supposed “disrespectfulness” against his fellow evangelicals, major financial resources are at stake.

Moore’s public response to this has been unsurprisingly gracious. But danger looms ahead. What we’re seeing here is a large and powerful church attempting to leverage its financial clout to shut down Christian speech in the public sphere. What will Moore and others have to do to maintain unity with these Trumpist evangelicals? What compromises will need to be made to keep them money flowing? What silences will be bought?

It is difficult to see how unity is going to be maintained in this environment. We have a large group of evangelicals who are cravenly putting partisanship ahead of the gospel, and it seems they will brook no dissent. In these contexts, those who believe that the word of God stands above even a Republican president are inevitably going to be seen as sell-outs or worse.

I would rather be in solidarity with oppressed people of any faith or no faith at all than in union with the people supporting the oppression. If Prestonwood Baptist Church is any indication, the space for a middle ground may already be closing. I believe Dr. Moore is a man of integrity, and precisely because of that I don’t know how long he can remain the president of the ERLC. Hopefully I’m wrong.

How Robust Is White Evangelical Support for Trump?

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre

This is one of the first images that a search for “white evangelicals” produced.

Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Bethel University in Minnesota, has some good thoughts and questions today. Reacting to polls showing strong white evangelical support for Trump’s travel ban executive order, Gehrz writes:

I’m from an evangelical family, attend an evangelical church, and work at an evangelical university, and I can’t think of a single evangelical who viewed that executive order favorably. Perhaps I just move in relatively progressive circles, or people are censoring themselves around me (in person or on social media). But off hand I can think of several evangelicals in my acquaintance who supported Trump (or at least opposed Clinton) and yet were bothered by the order.

Moreover, on this particular issue, a wide array of evangelical leaders actually did speak out, responding with varying degrees of alarm to the administration’s treatment of refugees and preference for some religions over another.

So what do we make of this 76% figure? It’s entirely possible that evangelical has simply lost all meaning. Or that there’s a fundamental split between the term as a category that historians like me use to interpret religious belief and behavior and the term as what Tim Gloege has called a “marketing segment… ‘Evangelicals’ in this sense were not an untapped segment of voters that pollsters discovered, it was one they created.”

So “this ‘evangelicalism’ was not an organic movement; it was a conjured segment.” But a conjured segment that soon attracted leaders… many of whom now seem not to speak for their supposed followers.

Read the whole thing. I do think there is an artificial polling effect here. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy or a feedback loop. As “white evangelical” becomes primarily a political moniker in our public discourse, those who disagree with the politics the term signifies stop calling themselves white evangelicals. Anecdotally, we saw a lot of this immediately following the election. If “white evangelical” just means “a White Christian with conservative politics” then the polling results are predetermined.

But there’s something else going on here too. I’m inclined to say to Gehrz: yes, you do just move in relatively progressive circles. It seems to me that white evangelicals who say they don’t know evangelical Trump supporters (or supporters of the ban specifically) are either in a really unusual bubble or they’re kidding themselves. In these progressive evangelical circles, we hear it said that the polls showing 75% white evangelical support for Trump reflect “cultural Christians” in the South who don’t even go to church and aren’t “real” evangelicals. I think the pervasiveness of this feeling does tell us something about how diverse and divided evangelicalism is. But mostly I think this is a self-serving way to avoid facing the rot in our own communities.

Let’s grant that the polls overstate Trump support among “real” evangelicals (whoever they are). The support still appears very strong among churchgoing white evangelicals, almost certainly a healthy majority. How do we know? We can start with Pew’s poll last week, which showed support for Trump by frequency of attendance at religious services. This measure is extremely broad in that it encompasses all kinds of Christianity and other religions as well, but in a way it is more specific than asking someone if they are a white evangelical. Whether or not you go to religious services is more concrete and easy to answer than whether you affirm a disputed identity. In the absence of more detailed polling of white evangelicals, generic religious attendance might be a better measure. And what that shows is that high religious attendance is correlated with support for Trump.

Consider also a Barna poll from last October. It asked people in more detail about their religious beliefs and classified them as evangelicals based on a series of theological questions rather than self-identification. The result? 55% of evangelicals backed Trump compared to 2% for Clinton. Barna’s post-election recap found that the strongest support for Trump was among these evangelicals, not among nominal believers.

Historians can quibble with this data too, mostly because it is defining evangelical only by claimed beliefs rather than practices. But the evidence we have—imperfect though it is—paints an uncomfortable picture. Most committed church-going white evangelicals probably support Trump. A majority may even have an actively favorable view of his presidency. There’s no easy answer to this, or excuse for it. But this is our reality, and we need to face it.

Refugees and the Elite/laity Divide in Evangelicalism

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In recent days we’ve seen a good example of the divide between evangelical elites and ordinary white evangelicals. Last week, a large group of evangelical leaders took out a full page ad in the Washington Post to express support for refugees and concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order. The signers are not minor figures or political activists. They are some of the most popular and influential figures in evangelicalism. White evangelicals read their books, donate to their charities, and listen to their sermons. And yet…

The first poll of white evangelical opinion since Trump’s inauguration reveals that 76% approve of President Trump’s job performance and 76% approve of the executive order on immigration and refugees.

This is not surprising, but it is still somewhat mysterious to me. Do white evangelicals just ignore the opinions of their best pastors and theologians and parachurch leaders? Or is the theology white evangelicals receive on Sunday mornings flawed at its core? One ad in the Washington Post is not likely to overcome the more routine messages of therapeutic, self-focused religion. White evangelical leaders (not the political hacks) have been sounding reasonable for decades. Yet in many ways, they appear powerless to shape the views of ordinary white evangelicals. What is creating this elite/layperson divide and what sustains it? How do education and race and class figure into it? I’m still not sure we have an adequate understanding of how the politics of the white evangelical mainstream is constituted. In any case, while white evangelicals cheer Trump on, evangelicals who actually help refugees have to close down services.

The real scandal here is not that most white evangelicals voted for Trump. We can concede the point and agree to disagree about that political calculation. The scandal is that most white evangelicals view Trump and his whole suite of policies favorably. They like Trump. Whatever else that tell us, it reveals that evangelical leaders have failed dramatically in getting their flocks to apply Christian thinking to public life.

White evangelicalism and Dissent

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The great Emma Green had an important article last week about the dangers of speaking out against Trump in many evangelical circles. Some people have lost their jobs, while others stay silent for fear of the backlash:

Take the story of Meghan Liddy, a 23-year-old missionary living in Ghana. During the campaign, she was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on social media. She got angry messages from people at the nondenominational church outside of Chicago where she grew up, she said, and was once targeted by a 48-hour wave of trolling by Christian groups for posting about her beliefs. When she wrote Black Lives Matter, she got an email from one of her biggest supporters threatening to pull her funding. They had been giving $300 a month, she said, which helps cover her living expenses in Ghana.

“I remember calling someone and asking, ‘What do I do?,’” Liddy said. She’s currently in the process of adopting two Ghanaian girls, and she worries about the organization she founded and runs, Family First, which offers assistance to families with special needs. “I was at this crossroads: Do I publicly let people take my funding and deal with it, and believe that God will continue to provide for me?” Liddy told me. “Or do I bend my beliefs in order to get funding?”

She ended up telling her supporter that she would keep writing about Black Lives Matter—and was immediately asked to return the most recent check she’d received, she said. Other churches have pulled their funds as well: $50 here, $100 there, Liddy said. “I’ve never gone without. There have been months where things are very tight—where at the end of the month, there’s about $1 in my account,” she said. “But we’ve never had an emergency situation where we weren’t provided for.” If she ran out of money, she said, she would “pray pretty hard.”

Read the whole thing. It shouldn’t need to be said that this reflects an environment in which nationalism and political conservatism are held as sacred. The apostasy proceeds apace.

Keep Your Eye on the Justice Department

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An important intellectual call to arms during the last great nativist reaction. 1920.

The disgraceful confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general continues to fly under the radar. The Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen reminds us what is at stake:

Just as the nation is turning away from mass incarceration, and discovering that crime rates can go down along with incarceration rates, Attorney General Sessions is poised to reverse course. He already made it clear with his opposition to bipartisan sentencing reform last year that he has little compassion or empathy for the families affected by the enforcement of unduly harsh sentencing laws. He has made this clear also with his adamant and relentless opposition to presidential clemency, even in cases of manifest injustice that shocks the conscience. A whole new generation of men and women, and their families, will be doomed to unreasonably long prison terms.

Even as he revs up the engine of mass incarceration, Sessions won’t be an attorney general who emphasizes the need to identify and rectify wrongful convictions. He will not fight for the right of criminal defendants to be ably represented in court so that fewer wrongful convictions occur in the first place. He won’t be an attorney general who questions the validity of forensic evidence, even when experts conclude that its reliability and accuracy is dubious. There are two types of prosecutors in the world: Those who care  only about convictions, and those who take a broader view of justice. Sessions has made it clear, both in Alabama and on Capitol Hill, that he is the first type of prosecutor.

Sessions’s confirmation hearing reminded us that he will be an attorney general for vote suppressors and perpetrators of the voter fraud myth. Under the guise of protecting democracy from a threat that does not exist, he will be an attorney general who allows more jurisdictions to enact voting restrictions that make it harder, or impossible, for the elderly, the poor, and citizens of color to cast a valid ballot. He will be an attorney general who looks for excuses not to file aggressive litigation designed to protect voting rights. He will be an attorney general who is as feckless in this area of the job as he has shown to be fearless in prosecuting dubious voter fraud cases.

Read the whole thing. A man who praises the Johnson-Reed Act and criticizes the Voting Rights Act is not fit to hold office. Sessions’ colleagues tell us how kind and decent he is. He reminds me of John Stennis in that way. As my forthcoming article in History & Memory details, American media and political elites harped on Stennis’s integrity and personal kindness, as if these interpersonal qualities somehow made up for what Stennis actually did as a public figure. He spent decades fighting for white supremacy, but his colleagues called him the “conscience” of the senate.

In a similar way, if you look at what Sessions actually does, he appears to be nothing more than a white nationalist operating in a proud tradition of white southern elites. Why should we care if he’s a nice guy?

The Heresy of Nationalist Christianity

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Is it time to think of Trumpism as heresy? Catholic scholar Charles Camosey believes so:

Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”

If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy – which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place…

In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.

For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.

Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”

Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.

Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel…

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.

What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.

Though Camosey is writing from a Catholic perspective, his words are even more relevant for all the “God and country” Christians of white evangelicalism. Their intense investment in the American national project recalls the heretical 19th century liberals who conflated the Kingdom of God with the progress of the American nation. It also brings to mind the 20th century German liberals whose belief in German exceptionalism prepared them to glorify war and endorse an anti-Christ.

What we’re seeing from many Trump-supporting Christians is not just a political disagreement, but a different gospel altogether.

Notes from the classroom: Immigrants Have Always Seemed Threatening

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For my Immigration and the American Dream class tomorrow I’ll be giving a lecture I’m calling “Bible Wars.” In the nineteenth century, controversies about Bible reading in public schools were often flashpoints for tension—and even violence—between native-born Protestants and immigrant Catholics.

Perhaps most famously, a dispute about the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in Philadelphia schools led to days of deadly violence here in the spring and summer of 1844. The danger in relating these stories is that students might find them inscrutable and absurd. Why were Protestants and Catholics killing each other, here in the U.S.? They must have been irrationally prejudiced, the student might conclude. Now, surely, we’ve become more sophisticated.

But if I’m able to provoke the students to think historically, they might begin to be able to see why Catholics might have seemed so threatening. They might begin to see that amid the prejudices were real disagreements about church and state, about education, about the very meaning of freedom (I’ll be leaning heavily on McGreevey tomorrow). Throw in the transnational context of the Irish famine and the Revolutions of 1848 and the vast numbers of immigrants we’re talking about—many of them not English-speaking—and we can begin to see, perhaps, why the influx was so unsettling.

If they can begin to understand this historical context, the parallels to the present day will announce themselves. I won’t even need to say it out loud. The historian Tyler Anbinder had a nice piece about this last week:

Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture. Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart.[1] Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians . . . I had to learn some Sicilian, though.”[2] When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.[3]

Some think that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others. But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the Pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions.[4] Catholics would always remain foreign and separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”[5] That every immigrant group viewed this way in the past has become an accepted part of the national fabric suggests that American Muslims will one day be fully accepted too.

Anbinder’s new book on immigrant New York is a great read by the way.

Private Activism, Public Indifference: Understanding White Evangelical Politics

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Unless I’ve missed something, we’re still waiting to see data on white evangelicals’ political opinions under the new administration. Foxnews and the Washington Post usually include religion in their polls; hopefully they’ll be in the field soon. It’s not too presumptuous to hazard a guess that these polls will show high favorability numbers for Trump among white evangelicals, robust support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and majority support for the travel ban. I hope I’m wrong on every count.

To make sense of this kind of white evangelical politics, we have to understand the radical distinction many white evangelicals make between private and public action. There are lots of ways to try to get at this. Historians have certainly done so. Axel Schäfer’s work on evangelicals and the state is probably particularly relevant. But what follows is more of a think piece, a meditation based on my own experience in evangelical circles. We’ll save the historiography and data for another time.

The distinction between private and public is something we’re all familiar with on some level. You might support the military, but you probably don’t want private citizens to claim military powers for themselves. You probably want a police force in your community, but you don’t want every random person claiming police powers for themselves. We grudgingly accept the need for taxes of some kind, but ordinary citizens can’t call themselves tax collectors and come to our door demanding money.

Despite the familiarity of these public and private roles, people outside white evangelical communities are probably not aware of how important this distinction is in white evangelicalism. And people within white evangelicalism may be so familiar with it that it’s no longer remarkable. Misunderstood from without, and commonsense from within, the white evangelical distinction between private and public action is a crucial context for understanding the anti-Christian politics of the white evangelical mainstream.

The examples of public/private distinctions above are all cases in which the public delegates powers to the government that would be impractical or immoral for individual citizens to exercise. But in white evangelicalism, the distinction often works in the opposite direction: individuals and private institutions need to take upon themselves responsibilities that ought not be in the sphere of government.

Let’s be specific about what this means:

It’s the church’s job to deal with poverty, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to care for the sick, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to confront racism, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to welcome refugees, not the government.

Call it a politics of church supremacy. That this principle is not consistently applied (it apparently is the government’s job to protect the unborn, enforce certain sexual ethics, and provide public monies for private charities) does not mean it is not sincerely believed when it is deployed. As Schäfer has shown, white evangelicals’ posture toward the state is more about making the state work for them than it is consistently anti-statist. This is not unusual. I don’t know if any of us are consistent in our political principles.

In some white evangelical communities, this politics of church supremacy makes liberal policy appear not just misguided, but morally deviant. The state is taking upon itself powers that ought to reside in the church. When the government increases food stamps, it’s not just giving a handout, as the rhetoric of the secular conservative would indicate. It is robbing the church of the opportunity to show Christian love to needy people.

The politics of church supremacy means that in white evangelical circles discussions about poverty or health care or refugees often transform with remarkable speed into discussions about church and state. The needy people who are ostensibly the subject of conversation recede to the background. Suddenly the actual topic at hand is not what is best for needy people, but what the church ought to be doing. After all, isn’t it axiomatic that what is best for the church is best for needy people?

This is not just excuse-making. Indeed it is probable that the strong activist streak in evangelicalism is intimately connected to this hostility toward public action. White evangelicals really do spend an enormous amount of time, money, and energy helping needy people. They believe it’s their responsibility. They’re right to think so. But their sense of radical disjuncture between public and private is devastating to the formation of a broader Christian social ethic in the public sphere.

The upshot of all this is that most white evangelicals end up supporting public policy that makes their private charity more necessary. They don’t think about it in these terms, but this is what it amounts to. Repeal Obamacare, and watch as the church has an amazing opportunity to step up and show love to hurting people. From the inside, this looks like genuine Christian concern. From the outside, obvious questions arise: does the church have a plan to systematically replace the billions of dollars for health care poor people would lose if the law is repealed? Does the church have a plan to prevent the tens of thousands of deaths that are likely to occur? The questions are damning.

The politics of church supremacy has paved the way for white evangelicals to support a moral anti-Christ. Even as white evangelicals demand much of themselves in their private lives, they have transformed politics, a medium of the public sphere, into a zone where anything goes and Christian doctrine plays no meaningful role. Until the past year, many of us did not know, or were unwilling to believe, just how selfish and destructive this politics had become. Now we know.

Being a Christian in this time and place requires us to wrestle with troubling questions. Is evangelicalism a force for good in society? For years, I looked around at all the energetic activism in evangelical communities and I comforted myself. I answered the question affirmatively. But to be a reflective Christian in this era—as so many Christians defend and support the indefensible and the anti-Christian—is to let go of certainty and to humble ourselves before all those who criticize us. It is to say to the doubters and the skeptics: you have been right. It is to say to those who do not believe: you have understood Jesus better than I. Let us ask this question not as an academic abstraction, but as an existential now. Is evangelicalism a force for good in society, right here, right now? I no longer know how to answer this question.

A Mockery of Justice

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Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions

In the first decades of the twentieth century, vast numbers of Eastern European immigrants came to the United States. By the 1920s, the country was gripped by nativist reaction. The revamped Ku Klux Klan added Catholics and immigrants to its list of enemies and gained millions of members nationwide. Leading public intellectuals fretted about “The Rising Tide of Color” and “The Passing of the Great [white] Race.” President Calvin Coolidge published an article called “Whose Country Is This?” in which he pontificated about the superiority of the “Nordics.” In 1923, the Supreme Court declared that Asians could not become naturalized citizens.

In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most sweeping immigration restriction law in American history. The law drastically reduced overall immigration levels, barred all Asians, and imposed draconian cuts on immigration from Eastern Europe. The expressed purpose of the law was to favor immigrants from western European countries deemed racially fit.

Congressman Albert Johnson, the key driver of the law in the House, described his rationale this way:

Today, instead of a well-knit homogeneous citizenry, we have a body politic made up of all and every diverse element. Today, instead of a nation descended from generations of freemen bred to a knowledge of the principles and practice of self-government, of liberty under law, we have a heterogeneous population no small proportion of which is sprung from races that, throughout the centuries, have known no liberty at all…In other words, our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed…It is no wonder, therefore, that the myth of the melting pot has been discredited…the United States is our land…We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.¹

Notice that Johnson described American identity not only as a matter of ideals, but of blood. America’s leading statesmen believed that race was linked to capacity for self-government. Liberty and self-government were not abstracted ideals. They were instead the racial achievement of the superior Anglo-Saxon race. By welcoming other races into the country that did not understand these traditions and were not racially capable of embracing them, the United States was inevitably weakening itself.

It is precisely this Johnson-Reed Act that soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised:

In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.

Does Sessions think the Johnson-Reed Act was good policy because of its racism, or in spite of it? Does he support the law itself, but none of the ideas that caused Congress to enact it? These are not unfair questions.

While praising the Johnson-Reed Act, Sessions has criticized the Voting Rights Act. He called it “intrusive” and praised the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. He has since supported the proliferation of new vote suppression laws.

This man draws inspiration from the worst parts of our history, and seeks to roll back our greatest achievements. He is unfit for office.

______________________________________________

¹Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd Edition (New York: Perennial, 2002), 283-284.

Notes from the Classroom: The Stickiness of National Myth

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Arthur Boyd. Persecuted Lovers. 1957. Australia. A painting rich in settler colonial themes.

How is my settler colonialism experiment going? The results in the first two weeks of class have been intriguing. My students who have been in the U.S. for any length of time came into the classroom with some intuitive familiarity with the nation of immigrants story. And I don’t think it was hard for them to understand that the story functions as more than a statement of historical fact—that it is also a statement of national identity and exceptionalism. So what would happen if I begin the class by bombarding them for two weeks with a completely different story? What if the United States was and is a colonial state whose foundations are in the conquest and dispossession of indigenous people?

I even had them read Mahmood Mamdani on settler colonialism this week (it was too hard for most of them and maybe I shouldn’t have assigned it). Mamdani confronts the question of American exceptionalism head on and argues that what makes the U.S. exceptional is that it is the first modern settler colonial state and it still hasn’t decolonized. So the students had, on the one hand, a traditional immigrant story of national identity. On the other hand, they had been exposed to a settler colonial narrative, culminating in Mamdani’s forceful critique of traditional exceptionalist narratives. Before breaking into small groups I gave them one more argument: what if the settler colonial story is historically sound, but civically destructive? What if it doesn’t produce good citizens? What if it harms the civic fabric? What if it doesn’t promote patriotism? (I don’t agree with this argument but I didn’t tell them that).

With these narratives and arguments swirling around, the students broke into groups to discuss whether or not the nation of immigrants narrative should still be used as the (or a) defining American story. If so, why? If not, what would they replace it with? After all, we’re going to tell ourselves stories about the past. You don’t get to rip up one narrative and offer nothing in return.

What surprised me—though it probably shouldn’t have—was that the large majority of students, especially in the first section, very much wanted to retain the nation of immigrants story. To be clear, I was not bothered by the conclusion. I was concerned that many students were disagreeing with Mamdani without realizing that they were doing so, or knowing why. I was pleased with their disagreement, but I hoped it came with awareness. Did students consider various angles on the question and adopt a deliberate perspective? Or did two weeks of alternative narratives just bounce off? Of course, all of this is shaped by my own failures of teaching. Their lack of understanding is my lack of communicating. I’m learning a lot. I only hope many of the students can say the same.

As students in the first section fought to retain the nation of immigrants narrative, I was struck by how often they spoke of it as inclusive and inspiring, only to quickly hedge their statement with “well” or “but” or “except.” Native Americans don’t exactly fit in this story, they admitted. Most African Americans didn’t come here willingly, they pointed out. But they wanted the narrative anyway. This led me to two takeaways:

First, isn’t history controversial precisely because we want to use it for very different things? Nations want it to establish identity and destiny and patriotism. Individuals want it to affirm their ancestors. Historians may want it to drive an ideological agenda in the present (yes, busted, it’s true!). But more importantly, historians’ desire to understand what happened and why is an agenda in its own right that puts us at odds with other uses of the past. Are the basic assumptions and desires of historians subversive to nation-states? Perhaps.

Second, we come back around to settler colonial theory. From a settler colonial framework, of course we’re having trouble finding a story that is at once inclusive, inspiring, and accurate. These are stories of national identity. And the whole point is that there are other nations within U.S. borders that claim their sovereignty and assert that their relationship to the United States is a colonial one. Why would they want to be conscripted into another nation’s identity myth? They have their own.

This basic recognition in American public life would go part way toward the decolonization Mamdani is talking about. If you’re still wondering what the big deal is, here’s a really nice piece from a Christian historian explaining why he doesn’t say “we’re a nation of immigrants” anymore. My goal was not to bring my students to a predetermined outcome of discarding the immigrant narrative. Rather, if they choose to embrace that narrative, I hope they do so with greater awareness of its implications and the arguments against it. But if I take seriously the notion that these stories are narrations of our own identities, then it’s hardly surprising that they have enormous staying power.