Last night my son John (he’s 8) was reading a biography of Coretta Scott King. The book included a section on her views of the Vietnam War. This left John confused. He asked me why the United States attacked Vietnam in the first place.
I tried to explain it but it turned out he didn’t know what communism or the Cold War were, so I had a lot of background information I needed to fill in. After I tried to define those terms, I concluded with something like this:
“So American leaders thought that if Vietnam became a fully communist country, other countries in that part of the world would become communist too, and that would make it harder to win the Cold War.”
John sat up (he had been laying in bed getting ready to go to sleep) and an incredulous smile flashed across his face. “So…” he said, “they were afraid they were going to lose the Cold War so they started a real war?” Then he burst out laughing.
I’ve written before about bad history books for kids. The latest entry on our shelf is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Civil War, picked up at our local library. The Eyewitness series is very kid-friendly because it is full of colorful photographs and lots of interesting information about weapons and technology and the way things work. Its historical narratives, however, may leave something to be desired.
In this particular book, the problem starts on the cover. Children are invited to “Discover the war that turned brother against brother—from the birth of the Confederacy to Reconstruction.”
This is a romantic, white-centered reconciliationist framing of the war as a tragic event. It takes a highly atypical scenario–brothers fighting on opposing sides–and turns it into the quintessential experience of the war. In the decades after the war, many white Americans made sense of the bloodletting by trying to forget what the war had been about. Slavery, a social revolution, emancipation—these were glossed over in favor of a struggle between two noble sides, figurative American brothers caught in a tragic conflict.
I’m sure there is a whole historiography on the origins and uses of this “brother against brother” narrative which civil war specialists can fill us in on. I don’t remember what Blight says about it in his Race and Reunion. But suffice it to say for now, in a war that mobilized some three million combatants from sectionalized societies, the brother against brother experience was not the norm. But it was highly symbolic of how the white supremacist mainstream wanted to remember the war.
A far more typical experience of the civil war was the transition of four million Americans from slavery to freedom. It was there that family dramas really played out, as formerly enslaved people sought to reconstitute family ties slavery had broken. But you won’t find this on the cover because the publisher unwittingly assumes that atypical experiences should be privileged because they align with a long tradition of white memory.
Within the text itself, here are the first sentences of the book:
What rights does a state enjoy? Can it ignore a federal law with which it does not agree? Americans had been arguing about the powers of the national government versus the rights of the states longer than they had been arguing about slavery.”
The basic problem here is that the factual claim is incorrect. Obviously, arguments over slavery predated the existence of the national government! The broader problem is that though the book will go on to talk about slavery in some detail, here at the outset it is framing the civil war at the widest angle as a states’ rights struggle. This is a lie. It’s a lie that former confederates started telling immediately after the war to try to rehabilitate their cause. 150 years later, it’s still finding its way into our kids’ history books.
As I talk with the folks who come to these events for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, a narrative seems to be emerging. People are deeply troubled about the state of evangelical Christianity in America. Last night I heard stories of men and women deeply scarred by experiences with authoritarian, politically-driven evangelical Christianity. Some have left evangelicalism for the Protestant mainline. Others have left Christianity entirely. Still others are in search of a more hopeful Christianity. Evangelical pastors are wondering how they can minister to congregations divided by politics.
These people are telling me their stories–sometimes through tears. The other night I spoke with an evangelical Christian who said that he felt more at home with the people he met at the book signing than he did at his own evangelical church. What does this say about the state of the evangelical church?
I expected a lot of knock-down, drag-out political debates on this book tour. Instead I am hearing from a lot of hurting people. I am trying to offer encouragement and prayers. But mostly I am just trying to listen.
This sounds about right. Of course, the people who show up to a bookstore to hear an anti-Trump evangelical author talk about his work are a self-selecting group. My question is how large this group is. I was just in the library this morning looking at some alienated and angry white evangelicals in the 1980s! I see lots of anecdotal evidence that the sense of alienation from evangelicalism is larger now than it was then, more pervasive. But we will probably have to wait several years for the trend lines to become clear.
A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:
Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.
To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.
Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.
Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.
The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:
People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.
Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:
The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.
There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.
This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.
The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.
It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.
These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.
I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!
It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.
I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.
So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.
Why does dehumanizing rhetoric matter? And what is the significance of large numbers of people being unable to recognize it when it occurs? This is a brief reflection on these two questions.
The point of dehumanizing rhetoric is that it prepares us to treat people in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily treat them. There seems to be an innate human aversion to inflicting grievous harm on other humans. This is why soldiers have to be psychologically trained to kill. Dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery distributed through media to a mass population is one way to dull our innate aversion to harm. It prepares us to intern, enslave, kill, exterminate the objects of the dehumanizing rhetoric.
The examples are, by now, cliché. But no less true. The Americans did it. The Nazis did it. The Hutus did it. Words—the simple and awful power of the tongue—really can make it easier to kill human beings.
One particularly potent example from 20th century American history is the Pacific Campaign during World War Two. As John Dower showed, Japan and the United States encouraged their civilian populations and soldiers to think of the enemy as sub-human. While Germans were often imagined as normal people led by an evil ruler, the Japanese, as a group, were imagined as bestial, unthinking, and worthy of collective punishment. Many scholars believe these attitudes contributed to the American decision to practice more brutal aerial bombing of Japan than of Germany.
Here are some telling examples of how the American public and American soldiers saw the enemy during World War Two:
In general, these depictions do not seem to have been controversial in the United States. Japan was the enemy and there was a war to be won.
There are many people who might cringe at these images and yet fail to realize that Donald Trump is trafficking in the same game. Last month, Trump said:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.
There was a big debate then about whether he was talking about MS-13 specifically or immigrants in general. Those arguing for the more narrow context were missing the point: Trump’s constant invocation of danger, threat, crime, and rape is designed to make us see MS-13 in our mind’s eye when we hear the word “immigrant.” It is designed to make us see an undifferentiated group worthy of harsh treatment rather than individuals worthy of normal human concern.
That’s why Trump tweeted this week:
Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.
You know the connotations of the word infest. This is why Trump tweeted earlier this year about immigrants “breeding.” Rabbits breed. Humans make love and raise children.
The problem with Trump’s rhetoric is not that it’s rude or intemperate. It is evil, because it treats human beings as less than what they are. Each of us is created and loved by God. Each of us has infinite value. Donald Trump denies these truths with his words and actions, and encourages you to deny them too.
I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who didn’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanizing rhetoric and racist behavior. I choose my words here carefully. I do not say she supported it. I say she was unable to recognize it for what it was. What is the significance of this?
Millions of people don’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanization. They are being formed by it without conscious understanding of what is happening. That makes the effect even stronger. And it means that masses of people have come untethered from a crucial dimension of reality. Would these people support an American genocide? One hopes not, but the point is that they are already unconscious of dehumanization, already unable to discern reality around them, so there is no telling when or if they will ever come back. God help us.
A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.
“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.
These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.
While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.
In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.
If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.
I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.
More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.
Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.
This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.
Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.
Nearly 70 years ago, in his classic study of southern politics, V.O. Key wrote, “Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Key’s explanation for the uniqueness of southern politics was the line of black-belt counties (so named for their soil) stretching through the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. These rich agricultural counties had high black populations because of their central role in the antebellum slave economy.
According to Key, the dominance of these counties in their respective states created a sectional bloc in national affairs, while factionalizing politics within the states themselves. Exerting an influence out of all proportion to their population, white elites in these counties built a uniquely southern brand of politics concerned with their very particular circumstances. As Key wrote, “In these areas a real problem of politics, broadly considered, is the maintenance of control by a white minority.”
Contemporary scholars have built on many of Key’s findings. These counties are definitely unique, and the white voters in them are among the most conservative and racially reactionary in the country. Why is this so?
A new book argues that what we are seeing in this region is the direct legacy of slavery on contemporary political attitudes. I plan to read the whole thing, but for now I am settling for the introduction, which the publisher has made available online. The authors write:
We argue in this book that political attitudes persist over time, making history a key mechanism in determining contemporary political attitudes…We argue that Southern slavery has had a lasting local effect on Southern political attitudes and therefore on regional and national politics. Whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided…are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery…are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues. These regional patterns have persisted historically, with attitudes being passed down over time and through generations.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if you oppose reparations for slavery because it was “too long ago” but the influence of slavery on your own political views is actually the reason you oppose reparations? Ha.
The correlation the authors describe has been understood for a long time. It is a powerful clue, but it doesn’t establish cause. How can they demonstrate that slavery and contemporary political attitudes really are linked in a causal way?
I’ll be curious to see how these authors, as political scientists, build a theoretical framework for making this argument. In brief, they contend that the link between slavery and contemporary attitudes has been transmitted by a mixture of institutions (Jim Crow laws for example) and “family socialization and community norms.” Knowing what we do about how sticky political affiliations can be across generations, it would be hard to believe that the political influence of a centuries-long society-defining institution like slavery could dry up in just a century and half. The trick is to try to measure and show that influence in a tangible way.
A lot of people don’t realize that there is an influential white southern political tradition based on opposition to the post-civil war constitution, democracy, and human rights. This is one of the most influential political traditions in American history. We don’t like to think or talk about it as much as the tradition of equality and freedom, but these visions have been running alongside each other throughout our history. It’s still active now. For voters influenced by that white southern political tradition, Trump’s racism and hostility to the rule of law likely make him more appealing, not less.
What do you think of when you think of fundamentalism? David Harrington Watt wants you to know that the thing you’re thinking is probably wrong. It is most likely a grab bag of ideas cobbled together from an intellectual discourse Watt calls “anti-fundamentalism.” Anti-fundamentalists have liked to think of themselves as detached observers studying an intriguing phenomenon. Look at those religious fanatics who can’t seem to cope with modernity! Look at how they stand in the way of progress! What is wrong with them?
Not so fast, says Watt. He invites anti-fundamentalists and all of us who have been influenced by that tradition (which is almost all of us, I think) to turn our gaze around and consider our own assumptions. Anti-fundamentalism then emerges not as a stable and neutral category of analysis, but an ideology designed to define, control, and make claims about the appropriate place of religion in the modern world (shades of Jonathan Z. Smith here).
The first fundamentalists were a group of conservative Protestants in the United States who proudly claimed that label in the 1920s as they battled theological modernists for control of the major Protestant denominations. They defended what they understood to be the fundamentals of Christianity against the theological modernists who rejected many traditional Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth. Fundamentalism was not the reactionary faith of uneducated yokels living in the countryside. It was especially appealing to the white Protestant middle classes and was particularly strong in many northern urban centers such as Chicago and Philadelphia. The fundamentalists weren’t even anti-modern in any thoroughgoing way (good luck defining modernity).
Watt thinks it makes a lot of sense to call those conservative Protestants of the 1920s and their religious descendants fundamentalists. He doesn’t think it is very useful to call other people fundamentalists. Obviously, many people disagree. Fundamentalism is now supposedly a global phenomenon, infecting nearly every religious tradition and threatening human progress wherever it raises its reactionary head. There are Islamic fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists and nearly every other kind of fundamentalist you can imagine.
Watt thinks this is silly. How did a term invented in a little corner of the Protestant world in a particular moment of controversy become a way for people to imagine and talk about an ostensibly global phenomenon? Watt’s book uncovers the intellectual genealogy of this shift. Along the way, he argues that the discourse of anti-fundamentalism has usually told us more about the intellectuals engaging in it than the people they study.
Watt shows how, beginning in the 1920s, the discourse of anti-fundamentalism created an idea of fundamentalism that was more a term of abuse than a unit of analysis. He demonstrates that the dominant image of fundamentalism that became crystallized through the 1970s was based on frequently shoddy scholarship, a lack of attention to the primary sources, and was all too ready to take the modernists word for it, as if they were a disinterested party. Richard Hofstadter looks especially guilty here, and Watt portrays his Anti-intellectualism in American Life as the complaint of an intellectual upset that everyone didn’t pay him the deference he was due.
Then, of course, everything changed in 1979. With the Iranian Revolution, fundamentalism quite suddenly became an elastic global concept used to describe all sorts of religious movements Americans found threatening. Precisely because anti-fundamentalist discourse had by the 1970s created a monster of its own imagination, it was easy to transport it globally.
Any aspiring author can learn from this book. David Watt’s prose here—as in all of his books—is crystal clear, and utterly unpretentious. He writes simply and forcefully, knowing exactly what he wants to say. That means it’s an extremely easy read.
I’ll close with a quote from Watt’s conclusion. An inattentive reader might wonder if this is all a semantic game that intellectuals play. What is really at stake in calling people fundamentalists? Watt writes:
Getting rid of the words “fundamentalist,” “fundamentalists,” and “fundamentalism” will not solve the problem. The problem is not with the words. The problem is with the assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind upon which they rest. Simply coming up with new names without rethinking those assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind does us no good whatsoever. If tomorrow everyone in the world were to stop talking about fundamentalism and begin talking about something like “reactionary religious groups” or “bad religion” or “Falwellianism” or “Qutbism,” we’d have made no progress. The problem is not with the term per se but with the category itself and with the desire to name a dangerous other. It is about the wish to pretend that we know the direction history is moving in and what it means to stand in the way of progress. It is about a desire to sort humanity into two groups: those who are virtuous and those who are not. It is, in other words, about our desire to separate the sheep from the goats.