Now Is A Good Time to Call Your Represenative

lol gop

Ideological extremism is so fun! We don’t have to worry about the fate of individual humans at all! Ha ha!

Republicans are again trying to strip insurance from tens of millions of people, and this time they might get the votes they need to pass the bill in the House. If you have a Republican representative, it’s a good time to call.

One Republican Congressman effectively summed up the stakes:

Representative Tom Rooney, Republican of Florida, said he was “leaning yes” on the repeal bill, but agonizing over how to explain his vote to constituents.

“I have a lot of people who call my office on a daily basis who are extremely angry,” he said. “It’s not just because I’m a Republican, but because they are sincerely scared.”

Many people with pre-existing conditions fear that they may lose coverage and “are going to die because of a vote we might be taking,” Mr. Rooney said.

Their fears are entirely justified. It’s why everyone from the AARP to the American Medical Association opposes the bill.

Health care is complicated. Obamacare is flawed. Improving the health care system is hard. But knowing where to stand on the Republican replacement bill is not difficult. If the bill became law, wealthy and healthy people would be better off, while poor and sick people would be worse off.

These facts alone make it impossible for Christians to support the bill. Christians are not willing to sacrifice the lives of human beings in pursuit of a utopian vision of the ideal society. The House Freedom Caucus apparently is willing to do so. Christians do not support this kind of cruelty under any circumstances. Call your Republican member of Congress!

When Ignorance Is Irrevocable

jackson

Andrew Jackson: White supremacist, ethnic cleanser, time-traveler.

When people who lack knowledge consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “I wonder how other people have answered this question?”

When fools consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

Our President is in the latter group. He generalizes his own ignorance, attributing it to humanity. So because the President hadn’t bothered to do a google search or read a book, “nobody” knew how complicated health care was. Same for North Korea. And because the President has never thought much about the Civil War, no one else has either:

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

This aggressively ignorant posture is funny. Unfortunately, it’s also deadly serious. It has become a defining feature of this presidency. The problem is not that Trump lacks knowledge. We all do. People who are wise can gain knowledge. But Trump possesses that special brand of foolishness that makes it difficult or impossible to know things.

Trump’s narcissistic ignorance is so encompassing that he appears unable to imagine what he doesn’t know, and unable to get up to speed even when it would obviously be in his interest to do so. For instance, yesterday, in an interview with John Dickerson, we learned that Trump still doesn’t know what’s in his health care bill. That is…astonishing.

Most Presidents try to situate their actions in a broader context of historic presidential behavior. If they can claim the mantle of one of the great presidents, all the better. President Obama’s repeated allusions to Lincoln were along this line. Self-serving, sure, but done with full self-awareness and purpose. Trump has obviously received the message that he is supposed to be a Jacksonian figure, but his ham-handed efforts to invoke Jackson’s legacy could not be more different from Obama’s thoughtful appeals to history.

Interviewers, ask Trump what he thinks about the Indian Removal Act, or Jackson’s banking policy, or really anything about Jackson at all. The answers are likely to entertain. We can all laugh and forget for a moment the extraordinary dangers of having a biblical fool as president.

Fruits of Christian Colorblindness

great idea

Yeah, this was a good idea.

It’s the kind of image you see flash across twitter every once in a while. A group of white drunk undergraduates think it’s funny to take a picture of themselves acting racist. This image is different because the men in question are not drunk (presumably) and are not undergraduates. They are leading faculty and administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nicola Menzie reports:

A White dean of a Texas seminary affiliated with a Christian denomination once known for its staunch defense of Black enslavement posted a controversial photo of himself and other White professors apparently dressed as gangsters on Twitter Tuesday.

Seen in the photo are the following Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty: David L. Allen, dean of the School of Preaching; Kyle Walker, the seminary’s vice president for Student Services and a professor of preaching; Barry McCarty, a preaching professor and Chief Parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention; Deron J Biles, a Dean Emeritus and a professor of Pastoral Ministries and Preaching; and Matthew McKellar, an associate preaching professor.

The participants in the photo and the President of the Seminary have since apologized. Amid the controversy, SWBTS even asked the Christian rapper Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our community.” Lecrae wisely declined to play the role of token Negro making white Christians feel better. Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why the photo is so problematic, and why pro forma apologies don’t go far enough:

Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.

In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.

Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.

But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.

Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.

On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”

Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”

His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.

Read the rest of Tisby’s article. Incidents such as these are some of the fruits of Christian colorblindness. Where this ideology flourishes, white-dominated spaces are often viewed as neutral or natural, and people of color are frequently silenced in the name of “Christian unity.” When an incident like this occurs and shatters the veneer of civility, colorblind Christians often fail to grapple with the broader context that made it possible. All too often, avowals of good intentions are substitutes for the hard work of institutional reform. Rather than wrestling with the possibility that Christian colorblindness is itself a perversion of the Gospel, leaders like Patterson describe confronting racism as a diversion from their main priority.

It’s probably going to take a long time for me to finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, when it’s finally done it’s likely to be as relevant as ever.

Is “The Evangelicals” Already Outdated?

the evangelicals

I’m still not finished with Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals (it’s slow going at the end of a semester) but the book is becoming more perplexing the more I read. It is an author’s prerogative to write an eclectic synthesis, and Fitzgerald tells us the parameters of her story in the introduction. The problem is that, even within those parameters, Fitzgerald is often not engaging with the latest scholarship.

Parts of the book read like a project that has been sitting around for a couple decades. Its scholarly core seems to rely on the past generation of scholarship, with only a partial veneer of more recent work.

Here is my own idiosyncratic list of scholars whose work Fitzgerald does not engage. Some of these names are bigger than others, and the list reflects my own eclectic interests. Still, while ignoring any one or two of these scholars may not draw red flags, the exclusion of all of them is rather shocking:

Matthew Avery Sutton

Grant Wacker

Edward Blum

Paul Harvey

Molly Worthen

Randall Stephens

B.M. Pietsch

Carolyn Renee Dupont

Mark Newman

Timothy Gloege

The point is not that Fitzgerald should have written a different book. Rather, the problem is that all of these authors speak to issues about which Fitzgerald is writing. Her discussion of the fundamentalist-modernist conflict would have been enriched by Pietsch and Gloege. Newman, Dupont, and Harvey would have strengthened her brief treatments of Southern Baptists and race. Blum would have saved her from an embarrassing error in her treatment of Dwight Moody. Wacker and Stephens would have given depth to her discussion of Pentecostalism. And as for Sutton, well, why would you ignore the most recent major reinterpretation of your subject?

I’m not sure how to raise these issues without sounding curmudgeonly.  I’m happy Fitzgerald wrote the book. I find it helpful and interesting. But I fear the failure to take much of the new scholarship into account makes for a misleading portrait of evangelicalism.

Opposing Police Violence Should Not Be Controversial

bad apples

Two “bad apples” the rest of the police department mysteriously failed to smell for years.

Conor Friedersdorf watches a new cell phone video of police brutality and comments:

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts … And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Read the whole thing. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have always tried to obscure the basic decency and reasonableness of black demands. They must do so, because admitting the reality of racial oppression raises too many questions about how they see the world and their place in it. Among those generally opposing BLM are white evangelicals, because in this, as in so many other ways, being white is more important to us than being evangelical.

Thoughts for Sunday

barth

Is it true that life comes from death?…

The evolutionary rhythm — from life into death, from death into life — which seems to meet us at the central point of the Bible, where the New Testament, in fulfillment of the Old, speaks of the sufferings and the glory of the Messiah — is this rhythm credible, rational, real?

Let us not be too hasty in answering this question positively: our positiveness might be wanting in specific gravity! Let us not contrast ourselves too quickly with those to whom the cross is a stumbling-block and a foolishness, for as a matter of fact we all belong with them…For the sake of the suffering of the millions, for the sake of the blood shed for many that cries against us all, for the sake of the fear of God, let us not be so sure! Such sureness is only a synonym for smugness. If any utterance at all is in need of substantiation, attestation, and demonstration in corresponding moral, social, and political action, it is the Biblical utterance that death is swallowed up in victory. But if we really believed this, our actions would manifest the possibility that lies beyond human thought: Behold, I make all things new. And if we were only aware how little that possibility is manifested in our conventional and self-reliant lives, we should assuredly take the utterance upon our lips only with the greatest shame, confusion, and restraint.

The only real way to name the theme of the Bible, which is the Easter message, is to have it, to show it, to live it. The Easter message becomes truth, movement, reality, as it is expressed — or it is not the Easter message which is expressed…

Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” April, 1920.

The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

levittown

Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

the evangelicals

I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

Does Robert Caro Misunderstand How Power Works?

caro

I wish my office looked like this. There’s no twitter on typewriters.

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?

I should begin by saying that I love Robert Caro’s books. Many years before I decided to become a historian, The Power Broker and The Path to Power fired my imagination and awakened me to the possibilities of historical storytelling. They really are astonishing achievements.

Their usefulness as a means of understanding power is less clear. But that is their stated purpose. Caro began his career interviewing people, but for decades now he’s been the kind of person people want to interview, so he has a very practiced narrative about what he does and why he does it. In an interview with the Paris Review Caro says:

I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book—a book about political power—about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn’t the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was ­national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That’s what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson.

There’s no question that Caro’s books are insightful. But do they distort as much as they reveal? Does Caro’s relentless focus on the life and character of a single man blind him to the broader structural forces that constrained or enabled Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson? To many historians, this might be a no-brainer. The answer is yes. But I want to sit with the question for a bit, because Caro is a corrective to our own era of skepticism of grand narratives, much less of grand men. Against our assumption that history makes people more than people make history, Caro insists that some brilliant individuals change the course of history.

But I’m still inclined to think Caro gets power wrong. See how he talks about Lyndon Johnson:

So here is this figure—a huge figure—this young man who’s rising, who’s ruthless and cruel, nothing can stand in the way of his ambition. And who at the same time has this immense compassion, along with a very rare ­talent—a genius, really—for transmuting compassion into something concrete, into legislative achievement…Lyndon Johnson, if I do him right, he’s this huge figure with these complexities. I’m trying to show him moving through American ­history, rising through it, ­political step by political step. And what was America in his times? And how did he change America? Because certainly he changed America. But you’re not making it a monumental story on a grand scale. It is a monumental story on a grand scale…

Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But “if it weren’t for Vietnam” is not an adequate phrase. You have to give equal weight to both the domestic and Vietnam. Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Sixty different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that, I didn’t know you could do that! And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.

Johnson is the sun, and everyone and everything else is just revolving around him. The huge Democratic majorities in congress fade from view; the social movements that compelled Johnson to act are out of sight. The booming economy that gave Johnson the political space to try the Great Society is completely ignored. This is a very individualistic view of power. I’d be curious to hear more from political scientists on this. My understanding is that Americans drastically overestimate the power of presidents to enact their agenda. I think Caro does too, even in the case of a crazy larger than life figure like Johnson.

More basically, if Caro wanted to understand power, did he choose the wrong genre? Is biography an inherently problematic way to get at Caro’s questions? What does biography do well, and what does it do poorly? I’m not sure, but one thing I can say for sure is that I will be in line for Caro’s next book, regardless of how much I disagree with it.