Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America

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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.

Chosen Nation: A Conversation with Benjamin W. Goossen

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Benjamin W. Goossen is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in A Global Era (Princeton, 2017). He is also the co-founder, along with Devin Manzullo-Thomas, of the Anabaptist Historians blog. In a recent email exchange, I asked Goossen a few questions about his excellent book.

What is the argument of Chosen Nation?

My book is an exploration of the relationship between Mennonites and German nationalism over the past two centuries. When members of the general public think about Mennonites, they probably think of two things right away: 1) Mennonites are German, and 2) Mennonites are pacifists. Chosen Nation describes how, in fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Prior to about 1850, few to no Mennonites worldwide thought of themselves as German (that’s a self-identity that came later), while since about 1990, most Mennonites worldwide are people of color. Perhaps even more surprising, by the end of the First World War, most Mennonites in Europe had given up pacifism, and during World War II, thousands fought for the Nazis.

I use these stories in Chosen Nation to make a larger point about the relationship between religion and nationalism. As a case study, Mennonite history demonstrates that religious and national identities are not necessarily distinct. Rather, they are often quite fluid and can even be swapped in and out with each other.

Why is it important for American Mennonites to read this book? 

Chosen Nation tells a story of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust that, until now, has not been widely known. At the height of the Second World War, about a fourth of the denomination lived in Hitler’s Third Reich, and Mennonites in Europe disproportionately benefited from racism and genocide. After the war, church organizations on both sides of the Atlantic helped to cover up that story, arguing that those Mennonites involved had been peaceful anti-fascists who suffered like Jews. It’s important that Mennonites talk about this history and think critically about how we as a peace church can and should respond.

More generally, I hope that Chosen Nation can help many people – Mennonites, but also others – recognize that many of the identities we inhabit have unexpected histories, and that often, the beliefs we hold are not as clear-cut as we might think. What does it mean to be an American or a Christian or a Mennonite or a pacifist? These are some of the questions that I hope readers will come away thinking about for themselves.

One of the really striking things about your book is the way you describe historical narratives (or myths) being constructed and contested in efforts to define who Mennonites were and where they belonged. It seems to me that in the act of describing and analyzing this, you are becoming a participant in it. Did you consciously set out to give Mennonites new usable pasts? Or is the sustenance religious communities want from historical memory hopelessly separated from what academic historians are prepared to provide?

Historians have for decades been uncovering how the stories that groups tell themselves about their pasts are frequently “invented traditions.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such stories are fabrications (although some are), but more often that the way they’re told reveals a carefully curated process of selection, and that such tales are intended to advance certain political or ideological objectives. A classic example would be the mythology that we in the US have built up around the American Revolution and our “founding fathers.” Early colonists had many things on their minds – such as military expansion and slavery – but a lot of that gets lost in, say, stories about chopping down cherry trees, sewing the star-spangled banner, or sharing the first Thanksgiving.

My point is that the stories we as communities tell about the past – whether as Americans, Mennonites, or anyone else – are at once deeply political and also vitally important. Chosen Nation offers an account of Anabaptist history that is factually grounded in extensive archival research and through dialogue with previous historical scholarship. But to the extent that all historians must make choices about which stories they tell and what elements of those stories to emphasize, I have very intentionally tried to construct a history that pushes Mennonites to be the best church that we can be. We should be honest about the dark parts of our past, and we should constantly strive to recognize and alleviate injustice in the world around us. That’s a project shared by a great number of other historians of Christianity, including my wonderful fellow contributors at Anabaptist Historians.

Writing academically about a religious community to which you have a personal connection can be complicated, to say the least. How have you navigated that tension?

Being Mennonite is actually what got me interested in history. Many historians learn about their subjects through the research process, so in some ways I did it the other way around. Chosen Nation began as a way for me to learn about and think through some of the incongruities I felt between my religious tradition and my theological faith. For example: why did I grow up thinking about myself as a member of a persecuted minority when I am in fact a white Christian male – someone with about as much privilege as it is possible to get? Why did I grow up in an ethnically exclusionary community proud of being “German” when in church every Sunday I heard preaching about the value of humility and the universality of God’s love?

As a historian working within the broader social sciences, I’m lucky to be part of an academic tradition that has considered extensively how scholars can and should interact with the communities that they study. There are many schools of thought here, but I’d like to highlight a distinction made by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Rather than “giving back” to the indigenous communities she writes about, TallBear prefers to think about her scholarship and advocacy as “standing with” those people. For me, similarly, the Mennonite church is not a separate entity, but a community with which I am entangled; our futures develop together.

How does your book help scholars of other religious and national communities to think more carefully about the intersection/fluidity of religious and national identities?

My hope is that other scholars who read Chosen Nation and who read it in light of their own research projects will come away with a desire to think about religion and nationalism together. Instead of separating them into distinct categories, it’s important to acknowledge that religious and national factors, strategies, and ways of being often influence each other. Too many scholars, not to mention members of the general public, still think about religious and national history as being separate from each other – but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the full story of, say, American Christianity without thinking long and hard about how that first part – “American” – is modifying “Christianity,” and vice versa.

The second idea is that the fundamental practices and beliefs espoused by religious and national communities can and frequently do change dramatically over time. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “Mennonites” or “Germans” (or any other group, such as, say, “Buddhists” or “Brazilians”) as having stable, eternal essences or identities. It’s worth differentiating exactly what these labels mean to individual practitioners as well as how they develop in particular moments and spaces. At the same time, it’s important not to get lost in debates about tiny differences between branches of otherwise similar groups. We should keep in mind larger pictures of how group narratives and myths cohere. As often as not, disunity and discontinuity are in fact critical to how collective identities are both formed and articulated.

Thanks Dr. Goossen!

The Vietnam War was a War of American Aggression

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Vietnamese propaganda, 1965: “Only by fighting the invading Americans will our country be truly independent and free”

Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Read the whole thing for Appy’s thoughts on why this matters today.

I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:

1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.

The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.

2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.

As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.

3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.

The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.

4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.

U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.

The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:

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On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”

The Power of a Good Biography

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I’m reading George Marsden’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, and it’s reminding me of being a kid. When done well, biographies can be incredibly immersive experiences, far more so than any movie or television series (in my humble opinion, of course). When I was young biographies were key entry points into history and they made my imagination run wild. It was, and still is, hard to believe that other people have existed and lived different lives from mine. (Think about it).

Entering into the life of a person in another time and place and following it through to its conclusion can be extremely sobering and inspiring. It also has the happy effect of assuring me that I’m thoroughly average, will always be average, and can bask in the freedom of not being A Great Man of History.

I think I would like to write a biography in the future. But I am puzzling over the ethical dilemmas of the genre. I remember when I finished my master’s thesis (which, though not strictly a biography, had some biographical features and focused in particular on John Stennis) the chair of the history department asked me, “Wait, do you like this guy?” Because Stennis was a white supremacist it was a loaded question! And I thought the answer ought to have been obvious, but perhaps it wasn’t. I had tried very hard to understand Stennis, and I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a historian understanding their subjects too well. But…who we try hardest to understand is an important choice, one with consequences.

At the outset of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden asks us to try to understand Edwards in his time. He wasn’t an American or an evangelical, and he couldn’t imagine social hierarchy as anything but a good thing. So far so good. But I’m not sure Marsden’s commendable sensitivity to understanding Edwards extends very well to other actors in the book.

As much as I feel I understand Edwards, so much of the world around him seems largely invisible in this book (so far; I’m 300 pages in). Why are the Indians so opaque? Why are the enslaved so invisible? To say that they were so for Edwards for long stretches of his life tells us a little about Edwards but isn’t itself a reason to render them so in a new history.

These are old qualms that have been much discussed and argued over, but I’m still confused about them. And it seems to me that biography may be a genre particularly vulnerable to this problem. Nonetheless, I see why Marsden won the Bancroft Prize. It’s a great book.

Jonathan Edwards strikes me as the sort of person I want to encounter from the safe distance of the printed page and several hundreds years. From that distance he is quite fascinating. I don’t know that I would have wanted to hang out with him. He was incredibly intense about everything.

That reminds me: the other biography I’m just now getting into is Victor Sebestyen’s new life of Lenin. If only to prove that you can always make connections between things, I would say what makes Edwards and Lenin similar is their singular focus to see their principles through to their conclusion (I admit the results were considerably bloodier in Lenin’s case).

Back to Edwards: I didn’t know anything about him beyond the sorts of things you read in general surveys of the era. (Indeed, the dirty little secret of this whole enterprise I’m engaged in is that I don’t yet know much about the history of evangelicalism!). I’m fascinated by the way Edward’s views appear to scramble and upset so much of the evangelical tradition that in one way or another claims some descent from him.

He was a revivalist who believed deeply in hierarchical authority. He sought and achieved ecstatic spiritual experiences, and he was obsessed with reason. He brooded over the machinations of the Devil and the depravity of people, and he believed the millennium might be close at hand.

I’m especially interested in Edwards’ views of the relationship between church and state and of God’s plan for New England. Do we see in Edwards the “poisoned root” I referred to the other day? I need to know more.

Trump’s Spiritual Biography

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I admit I want to read this.

Two leading mouthpieces of the Christian Right are out with a new book next week, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual biography. One of the authors, Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent David Brody, has been conducting groveling interviews with Trump for a long time. The insights gathered from those discussions no doubt inform the book.

Presumably Brody is working with great material like this:

God is the ultimate. I mean, look at my golf course. The funniest thing about Brody’s interview style is the way he asks leading questions and then desperately wills Trump toward the right answer, but Trump can’t help but talk about himself or go off on irrelevant tangents.

With all these spiritual depths to explore, I’m sure the authors have had difficulty fitting everything into 300 or 400 pages. You can browse a sample of the upcoming book, courtesy of the publisher.

Popular evangelical mythmaker Eric Metaxas has written the foreward to the book, and he begins this way:

When my friend David Brody told me he was writing a book titled The Faith of Donald J. Trump, I was tempted to laugh.

My dear evangelical friend, this is one temptation to which you can safely yield. It is important to Metaxas that you know precisely how close he came to yielding. So, a page later:

But I must say it once more, that at first, I really was tempted to giggle.

Oh, my friend. Live a little. Let that giggle out.

Somewhere in Metaxas’ subconscious is the knowledge that he has become absurd. That knowledge is leaking out onto the page. He really wants you to know that his instinct, like that of any conscious person, was to laugh at Brody’s project.

Alas, Metaxas suppressed that instinct and came around to a more considered opinion:

But the terrifically stubborn fact is that Donald Trump has been embraced by many serious Christians, and this has caused many Christians and non-Christians alike to seethe with fury at the seeming hypocrisy of the whole arrangement. One vital clue to solving this thorny riddle has to do with what may well be the most fundamental dissonance and misunderstanding in the history of the world. I’m talking about the difference between moral behavior on the one hand and grace and faith in the God of the Bible on the other.

….the God of the Bible does not ask us to be morally perfect so that He will accept us. He asks us to admit that we cannot be morally perfect, to see that only He can be morally perfect…

People who understand this therefore understand the concept of grace to those who—as they are—are morally imperfect…

My first instinct was to laugh at the idea of taking Trump’s spirituality seriously, Metaxas says, but then I realized that the Christian concept of grace could be used to excuse and justify any kind of behavior. When you apply the concept of grace to unrepentant people who are really powerful, it shows you how big grace really is! Brilliant!

In the introduction, the authors get right to the point many evangelicals want to know: is Donald Trump really a Christian? We’re not going to tell you, they say. But they do have a quote from Mike Pence:

President Donald Trump is a believer. I say that with great conviction.

Pence always lies with great conviction. When the authors went looking for a quote from Trump himself testifying of his faith, the results were a bit underwhelming:

I would say that the faith is that I am a believer. I believe. And when you believe, many good things can happen. And hopefully, those good things will happen for the nation.

Ok, so the power of positive thinking. But many evangelical readers will find this highly significant:

One major theme of Part II of this book will be that Donald Trump seems to be on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated greatly in the past few years as he has regularly interacted with evangelicals.

As a baby Christian, Trump is still learning who to hate, and how best to hate them. Don’t worry, he will get better at it.

The Story the Terrorists Told

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Our Mississippi was the main history textbook used by Mississippi public schools during the 1950s and 1960s. I encountered this book a number of years ago while working on my thesis and had forgotten all about it. While doing lecture prep today I discovered it again. Here’s what Mississippi high schoolers in the civil rights era were learning about the Ku Klux Klan:

In 1866, a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in Tennessee. It quickly spread throughout the South. The purpose of the Klan was the protection of weak, innocent, and defenseless people, especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers. Besides this worthy aim, the Klan had another purpose – that of restoring the political power in the South to the educated and responsible white men who formerly had held it…The Ku Klux Klan did its work effectively and well. One after another, unfit and corrupt people were removed from office. Not only the Negroes but also the carpetbaggers and scalawags were visited, and little by little these people became afraid to use their influence.”

People nurtured on these stories would find it very difficult to act humanely in the present. Folks, historiography matters a lot!

White and Black Are Not Innocent Metaphors

In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:

In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.

Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…

White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.

There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.

These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.

In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:

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These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.

This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”

Choosing Books for the U.S. Survey

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An accurate representation of my book-selection process.

I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. survey for the first time next semester and it was a challenge to figure out what books to assign. The perennial questions about teaching the survey—depth or coverage?—play out in book selection too. Do we use a textbook? Do we go for certain kinds of texts—novel, memoir, monograph, synthesis? Do we focus on a couple themes and build the book selection around that? Do we want the students to get historiography? Do we want them to get lots of primary sources? How much do we think about the social location of the authors?

I actually don’t know what the good answers are to these questions but I can report the books I ended up with after a haphazard process that tried to take account of all these questions and more.

I almost went with a textbook. Gilmore and Sugrue’s new survey, These United States, seems impressive. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t figure out what the textbook would be for in my classroom. The general consensus seems to be that most students don’t read the textbook from week to week but might use it for exam-prep. But I’m only giving one exam, and it will be based on my lectures. Furthermore, I expect students to not only read what I assign, but, most weeks, write something about it. I’m not sure I could get good writing assignments out of a textbook reading.

Textbooks don’t seem to help much in promoting historical thinking, understanding of historiography, or analysis of primary sources. But those three things sum up most of what we do, right? So what’s the point? Textbooks fill in the gaps and give students a fall-back, but I’m not sure that’s relevant in the age of Wikipedia.

The one thing that the textbook supposedly has going for it—that it gives students a narrative structure for American history so they can place events in time and context—isn’t actually operable if students aren’t reading it anyway. My sense is that it’s more important to grab students interest, even if it makes them confused, than to try to convey an orderly historical narrative. Students who are engaged can question their way toward a synthesis. Perhaps I’m being utopian, but there’s my rant for the day.

Ok, here are the books I chose:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 

Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power

Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, Volume Two

The Foner collection is my concession to textbook-like features. As a collection of primary sources, it allows me to put a lot of documents in front of my students without spending a lot of time tracking down sources, scanning, uploading, linking, and so on.

The other three are each very different sorts of books. Herland is an early twentieth century utopian feminist novel, Citizen 13660 is a graphic memoir of Japanese internment, and At the Dark End of the Street is a narrative history from a professional historian. Gilman and Okubo are both short enough to read in one sitting if someone were so inclined. These books also have the considerable virtue of being cheap.

I didn’t set out to have this set of books, but what I’ve ended up with is a rather feminist group that seems relevant to our #metoo moment. Since women’s history is a weakness of mine, assigning these books is one way for me to push against that and try to become more informed.

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

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While doing lecture prep today it occurred to me that Roy Moore and Billy Sunday might have gotten along really well. Moore has cultivated an image as a fighter, as God’s man standing against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He believes America is a Christian nation. On Tuesday Moore defeated incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange in the Republican primary. The Senate is probably about to have its first contemporary full-fledged Christian nationalist. But Moore’s brand of reactionary politics and populist appeal under the banner of Christian nationalism is not at all new.

Billy Sunday, a popular fundamentalist preacher in the early twentieth century, leveraged his former career as a professional baseball player to garner crowds with the overt physicality of his preaching. His message, like Moore’s, was nationalistic and reactionary. As Frances Fitzgerald relates in her recent book, The Evangelicals, when the 100% Americanism craze swept across the country during the Great War Billy Sunday was happy to ride that wave. “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms,” he declared. During the Red Scare he supported the Palmer Raids and urged on the racist immigration restriction laws.

In his book, American Apocalypse, Mathew Avery Sutton describes Sunday concluding one of his revival meetings by leaping onto the pulpit and waving an American flag. On another occasion, Sunday declared, “No man can be true to his God without being true to his country.”

Sunday was a premillenialist who believed the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But that didn’t stop him from conflating faith and nation in the meantime. With a little poking around on Google I haven’t confirmed that Moore is a premillenialist, but I’d be a bit surprised if he isn’t.

Billy Sunday died in 1935 but he remained something of a legendary figure in some circles. His influence is suggested in this photo of a very young Billy Graham:

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Was the American Revolution Worth It?

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I took advantage of the holiday to take my two oldest boys to the new Museum of the American Revolution today. It is visually very impressive. I’m less able to judge its interpretive lens because of my general ignorance of the revolution and because I had a four-year-old with me who wasn’t down for reading everything. Understandable! But the boys had fun.

With the caveat that my stroll through the museum was far from comprehensive, I got the impression that African Americans and Native Americans figure fairly prominently in the story, but loyalists are slighted. Does this ring true to others who have visited? I saw one small section that superficially discussed loyalist motivations but I don’t get the sense that visitors would come away from the museum seriously grappling with loyalism as a viable choice in colonial America.

It seemed to me the museum has a heavy teleological bent, encouraging the viewer to understand past events in light of futures the historical actors could not and did not imagine. Seen from this perspective, the revolution was great because growing numbers of people would claim its fruits in the centuries to come. The focus on futures makes African Americans a natural part of the story but comes with a cost. It can obscure the actual decisions people at the time had to make without the benefit of foreknowledge.

Without the light of foreknowledge, was the patriot cause just? It’s a question patriotic sense tells us we shouldn’t even be asking. But it’s a historically and morally useful question.

I asked my son John if he thinks he would have been a patriot or a loyalist. He said neither because he would have been afraid to fight. In that answer he demonstrated more serious historical reflection and honest evaluation of human behavior than most of us. And he’s seven!

I just finished reading Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, where the loyalists appear as real people making understandable decisions. The patriot leaders often appear acquisitive, suspicious of the common people, and jealous in the defense of their prerogatives. Taylor joins the historiographical trend of seeing the Constitution as an attempt to tamp down democracy in the states and preserve the advantages of creditors, landowners, and enslavers.

In such a narrative, the genius of the United States is found in successive generations of Americans who had the audacity to claim that the rhetorical flights of fancy of a wartime messaging tool (the Declaration of Independence) should be made real in society. In other words, the founders accidentally set in motion the emergence of a society that most of them would have found repugnant.

Was the Revolution worth it? The freedoms won for ordinary white men pale in comparison to the other fruits of the Revolution: the intensification of conquest and enslavement in the west. At the Museum of the American Revolution, the patriot cause is vindicated because of the abolition of slavery in the Civil War and the great civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century. But do these victories for freedom really belong to the Revolution? It is not unreasonable to wonder if the cause of freedom would have been better served within the British Empire.

Really, I’m just stirring the pot. When you think about the American Revolution, are your sympathies more with the patriots or loyalists? Or does patriotism prevent us from even considering the question?