my friend the enemy

After encountering black evangelical William Pannell in the archives, I picked up his 1968 book, My Friend, the Enemy. It’s a fascinating read. Deeply relevant and contemporary in parts, while also being a clear product of the peculiar 1968 moment. If you think American society is more divided than ever, you don’t remember 1968. Pannell’s book came out in a time of rioting and violence and bitterness. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and people really didn’t know where the bottom was.

In that moment, Pannell wrote with righteous anger to the white evangelical community (refer back to the title!). Pannell was deeply embedded in evangelicalism. A longtime professor at Fuller, he also worked with the campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the black evangelist Tom Skinner, and had a hand in numerous other projects and organizations. He received his early education at Wayne Bible College, a white fundamentalist school in Indiana. He was straddling the often separate worlds of black and white evangelicalism.

According to a retrospective article from Fuller Studio, white colleagues who thought they knew Pannell were shocked when the book came out:

It came from some place so deep in Bill that longtime white friends said they did not believe he wrote it. One insisted it was written by an outside agitator, because “that’s just not the Bill Pannell that I knew.” Both had grown up in the same small Michigan town, so Bill’s reply was harsh but true: “That’s because you didn’t know Bill Pannell,” he said, “or the world I lived in.” It was possible for a white person to call Bill a “close friend” and still know little of a black man’s life in a white world. Often white colleagues would say, “We never thought of you as a negro.” That, he says, was supposed to have been a compliment.

Here are a few choice quotes from My Friend, The Enemy. On his Bible college days and indoctrination into white fundamentalism:

I sometimes shudder when I recall that upon registering at Bible College I signed up in the missions course. I didn’t dream that mission boards would not have accepted me anyhow. My involvement in white culture hadn’t prepared me for that eventuality. All I knew was that the blacker the person’s face, the more desperate his need of salvation…

On the kind of Christianity taught at many evangelical colleges:

Sadly for me, and conceivably for non-white students on similar campuses today, this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. It tends also to associate Christianity with American patriotism (it’s called nationalism when we criticize it in Africa), free enterprise, and the Republican party. I hope this is not intentionally done although I have outgrown most of my naivete. It’s not brainwashing, of course, for this is not done systematically or calculatedly. But it is perversion and it is subversion, the former with reference to Christianity, the latter with reference to the minds of young Christians.

And finally, on his friends, his enemies:

Don’t preach love to me. Especially if you intend I do all the loving. Amazing how white people who have owned black people have a way of demanding that we love everybody. What right has the oppressor to demand that his victim be saved from sin? You may be scripturally and evangelistically correct, but you are ethically wrong. You have the right message, but your timing is off. You have forfeited the right to be heard. Physician, heal thyself.

Because you see, I know that the same conservative brother who refuses to link my social needs with his preaching of of the Gospel is the same man who lobbies against the Supreme Court, fluoride in the water, and pornographic literature. “Something,” he declares, “must be done about creeping socialism. We must speak out against the Communist menace, and by all means we must support the Dirksen Amendment on prayer in the public schools.”

But mention the inhumanity of a society which with unbelievable indifference imprisons the “souls of black folks,” and these crusaders begin mumbling about sin. All right. I’ll play the game, my brother. Whose sin shall we talk about?

From here it is easy to write the script, for these friends are conservative Northern Christians. Increasingly, these are the roughest people to understand. They are so elusive, so committed to being uncommitted. What amazing indignation is theirs when moral issues are far away! What profound silence when threatened by similar issues next door! How earnest are their discussion groups!

As if this wasn’t provocative enough, Pannell went on to defend black power. Despite being rooted in the circumstances of the late 60s, it’s hard to avoid the prophetic implications for our own time.

Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

doctrine and race

For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

Notes from the Classroom: Using Fiction to Teach History

baldwin

This is a help wanted post! As a new teacher I want to experiment and try different strategies to reach my students. This fall I’m going to assign two works of fiction for my course The Making of American Society. I’ve never really taught fiction aside from leading TA discussions on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I frankly don’t know what I’m doing.

Got any tips? Suggestions? Things you wish you knew before you tried to teach a novel?

That I don’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean I don’t have reasons for turning to fiction for this course. As I mentioned before, nearly a third of this class will be a study of evangelicalism. Most of the students will probably know evangelicalism, if at all, as a political phenomenon. The textures and nuances of evangelicalism are likely to be opaque to many of them.

I really want to give students a window into the interior lives of evangelicals, and that seems to warrant using fiction. I want students to grapple with people who really believe in their bones that Jesus is coming back, that there’s a final judgment, that there really is a lake of fire to which they might go in the end. It would be easy enough for many students to see such people as objects of curiosity or ridicule. I want to confront them with a view from the inside. I want to give them an experience of stepping into a world where these beliefs are not propositions to accept or reject, but simply what is so—“Thus saith the Lord”—the ground of reality itself.

At the same time, it’s important that the text have artistic merit and historical significance. Unfortunately, these considerations probably eliminate the vast majority of fiction written by evangelicals. And a lot of books written about evangelicals don’t capture their interior life. I read The Damnation of Theron Ware, which nicely captures some of the challenges to evangelical faith—like higher criticism—arising in the late nineteenth century. But I felt like I was still only seeing evangelicals second-hand. The central character, the young pastor Theron Ware, seems to be going through the motions from the start. The animating impulses of evangelicalism may be present in his congregation, but they don’t move him.

I haven’t even read Elmer Gantry yet, which seems to be another obvious candidate. But my sense is that its scathing and satirical tone would work against what I’m trying to accomplish.

All of this leads me to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. More than any other serious work of literature I can think of, Baldwin’s story allows the reader to glimpse the inside of this religious world. And since it’s about black Pentecostals, it also raises interesting teaching questions about how we think about evangelicalism and define its boundaries.

Though Baldwin had some scathing words for religion during his life, the text of Go Tell It On The Mountain is, as I read it, wonderfully ambivalent. Baldwin writes from the inside as one who has experienced the all-consuming religious world that he portrays. The result, I think, is open to a lot of interpretations. The book is full of guilt, shame, and repressed sexuality. One might conclude that this religion is an oppressive force. On the other hand, there are notes of longing and understanding and hope that might lead one to conclude that this religion is liberating, especially for poor black southerners caught up in the Great Migration. Whether Baldwin describes the religion of his youth as a force for good or evil, he undoubtedly describes it with extraordinary understanding and without condescension. That makes it worthwhile.

I can remember being taught two novels outside of english/literature classes in my undergraduate years: The Jungle and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. In both cases it was a really positive experience. The books gave me characters and ideas to latch on to and connect to broader themes about feminism, muckraking, progressivisim, immigration, and so on. Long after I had forgotten lecture content, the immersive world of the novels gave me some (hopefully accurate) sense of what American society was like in the early twentieth century. Hopefully my students will be able to say the same!

White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s Still More to Know

White evangelicalism’s failure to support the civil rights movement during the 1960s is well-known. It’s an old story that has grown stale with the telling. As scholars and white evangelicals themselves have repeated it, the story has become encrusted in myth. Because finding examples of racism among white evangelicals in the 1960s is like shooting fish in a barrel, we might think that:

–There was no significant diversity of thought about the civil rights movement within white evangelicalism.

–Most white evangelicals weren’t exposed to evangelical alternatives and so, in a sense, didn’t know better.

–At some point after the fact, white evangelicals realized they had failed to act justly during the civil rights movement.

While there is a measure of truth to these ideas, added together they amount to a very misleading picture of white evangelicalism in this period. In fact, I would argue the inverse of these propositions is closer to the truth. If you’ve read David Swartz’s work on the evangelical left, you already have some sense of this.

What’s more striking to me is that you didn’t have to be a member of the evangelical left to be exposed to, or even espouse, pro-civil rights movement ideas. When I look at white evangelical publications of the 1960s, what jumps out at me is the pervasiveness of the white evangelical self-critique on questions of race and civil rights. In other words, rather than realizing after the fact that they had done wrong, white evangelicals were warning each other as events unfolded that they were losing credibility and failing to live out their beliefs.

Any white evangelical who was moderately engaged with evangelical debates of the time as expressed through evangelical publications would have been exposed to this critique. Even if they only read Christianity Today, they would have at least seen letters to the editor calling white evangelicals to repentance. And CT is not an adequate stand-in for the entirety of white evangelicalism. At the local level, students newspapers at white evangelical colleges often took much more aggressive pro-civil rights stances. At many white evangelical colleges, the predominant tone of their civil rights coverage was self-flagellation, lamenting the sins of white Christians.

And then there are national publications like Eternity magazine. It’s true that its circulation was smaller than Christianity Today’s, but it was no less evangelical, and it was more willing to call white evangelicals to task for the sin of racial injustice. What probably set Eternity apart from CT more than anything was the relative frequency with which it published black authors. The readers of Eternity were not of the left. They were conservative evangelicals. And they were hearing white evangelical self-criticism and black evangelical perspectives.

race and the church
Eternity Magazine, November, 1961.

Let’s look at one example of white evangelical self-criticism. After Eternity published an article in the spring of 1964 about a Philadelphia church that had integrated (“The Case of the Color-Blind Church”), a reader wrote:

Here we are in Christian America in the year 1964 and because a white Christian Church has twenty Negro members it rates a story in one of our leading religious journals.

Why should there be anything so unusual about a church opening its doors to everybody? Well, it is unusual and this is our sin. If our churches were truly Christian all of them would welcome minorities.

Who is to blame that most of our evangelical churches are not interracial? We all are. Our Christian colleges, seminaries, and Bible schools have fallen down miserably. Our leaders are timid and silent. Some are uninformed moderates and some are actually segregationist in spirit if not in deed.

Take a long look at the Negro. He is a human being, he has an immortal soul, he is subject to the joys and sorrows of all mankind. In God’s sight he is as valued as every other human being.

But in so-called Christian America with its vast program of evangelism, missions, and institutionalism only a handful of churches welcome members of another race and color. And even less than handful actively participate in the Negro struggle for equality and justice.

What does our  Lord think of our blindness and neglect? At the Judgment Seat we shall surely get the answer. We will find that much of our vaunted spirituality and activity is “hay, wood, and stubble” and that in racial discrimination we revealed how shallow and fickle is our devotion to Jesus Christ and his plain commandments.

It is almost certainly too late to gain the Negro’s respect and confidence. But it is never too late to repent, to seek God’s forgiveness, and then to do His will even if this leads to many strange and painful paths of duty.

This is a good example of the white evangelical self-critique because the writer is insisting that racial justice was not only a complicated political question—as the moderates would have it—but actually cut so close to the heart of the Gospel that it affected one’s final and eternal judgment (in which any good evangelical believed). This was hard-hitting.

Ok, so there was diversity of thought. The harder question to begin to answer is this: if this self-critique was so widespread, why was it so impotent? (Or was it?) The white evangelical mainstream in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump does not exactly look like a religious movement that learned its lesson. On the other hand, much has changed. I’m still puzzling this out.

The Politics of Evangelical Identity

bean
A useful book to read alongside FitzGerald.

I finally finished my leisurely read through Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals. First, let’s hear from a couple more substantial voices than my own. At the “Year of the Evangelicals” conference at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics last month, Randall Balmer had nothing good to say about Fitzgerald’s book. Here he is in the Christian Century:

One would think that the decision on the part of a distinguished author such as Frances FitzGerald to take on the sweep of evangelicalism in America would be cause for celebration. Fitz­Gerald wrote an acclaimed history of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, and a lively book about American visions of community, Cities on a Hill. But this hefty book’s coverage of a broad and internally diverse movement is curiously pinched and narrow—and not merely because the author elects to omit the rich tradition of African-American evangelicalism.

The Evangelicals suffers from the common disease of presentism: the author takes the current political manifestations of evangelicalism as the essential clue to its historical identity. Fitz­Gerald dispatches with two centuries of evangelical history—everything up to the time of the Scopes Trial of 1925—by page 142. Her approach also betrays a bias for the Reformed or Calvinist strain of evangelicalism, with its emphasis on theological orthodoxy, as opposed to the Wesleyan-holiness strain and its focus on personal and social reform. (Donald Dayton’s indispensable account of the latter tradition, Discovering an Evangeli­cal Heritage, which would have provided some balance, appears nowhere in her extensive bibliography.) The effect is somewhat akin to viewing a landscape with one eye closed. Yes, the other eye makes adjustments, but the depth and texture of the panorama is lost.

Next, here’s Barry Hankins, Professor of History at Baylor:

It seems to be part of FitzGerald’s subtle thesis that the Christian Right transformed evangelicalism from a religious to a political movement—and that this was not a good thing. There is something to this, but we need to keep in mind, as she acknowledges, that even at its height only about 20 percent of evangelicals identified with the Christian Right. When evangelicals think and talk about politics, and especially when they vote, the vast majority sound and act like the Christian Right, from which they take their political cues.

But I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.

This is where FitzGerald’s book falls down a bit. In covering the Christian Right so thoroughly, The Evangelicals perpetuates the myth that evangelicalism and the Christian Right became synonymous. In part, FitzGerald seems to want to show that this was the case and that it was an unfortunate aberration, given the nearly three centuries of rich and robust evangelicalism that predated the Christian Right. On the other hand, however, part of the reason we need good history is to show that perceptions, especially those perpetuated by the media, need correction—that there’s more to a movement than its most visible, loud, and sometimes outrageous public figures.

I have similar concerns. I think it’s hard for those outside the evangelical orbit to imagine just how unimportant the “Christian” Right is to most ordinary evangelicals. If you read FitzGerald exceptionally closely, you might get some hint of this, but it’s overwhelmed by the fact that she spends 300 pages dwelling on the schemes and misadventures of a small group of evangelical political elites.

As I read the second half of the book, my thoughts kept returning to Lydia Bean’s 2014 book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity. More so than FitzGerald, Bean is attuned to the basic contradiction at the heart of evangelical political engagement: how does a movement that from the outside seems to be a political juggernaut marching in lockstep, seem from the inside so fractious and apolitical?

In the introduction to her comparative study of American and Canadian evangelical churches, Bean writes:

Evangelical congregations rarely engage in collective demonstrations and marches like Catholic parishes, sponsor discussions on political issues like mainline churches, or open their doors to candidates like Black Protestant churches. In reality, the worlds of local evangelical congregations are far less overtly political than the worlds of Christian Right elites.

Yet the Christian Right is still winning the framing game. How do evangelical churches reinforce such a high level of political homogeneity? I find that evangelical churches have become politicized in more subtle ways that reflect the influence of the Christian Right. Even though evangelicalism is not defined by a shared, coherent worldview, evangelical congregations still foster thin coherence between religious identity and partisanship. Political influence does not work through explicit persuasion or deliberation about political subjects, but by defining evangelical identity in ways that are implicitly linked to partisanship. Ironically, these partisan cues have greater moral power because they are distanced from the dirty business of “politics.” Political conservatism takes on a sacred quality because it is woven into the fabric of everyday religious life.

Bean’s comparative approach allows her to explore what is distinctive about American congregations. She finds that Canadian evangelical churches do not foster the same implicit link between partisanship and religious identity. In the United States, narratives of Christian nationalism forge connections between evangelical identity and political conservatism. In Canada, such narratives are absent.

The implicit messages of words like “us” and “we” and “they” and “them” conflate political and theological liberals as outsiders to the evangelical community. These implicitly political environments are usually established by lay leaders more than the ordained clergy. Narratives of national decline—“they took God out of the schools”—don’t have to mention any names or political parties for people to know who to vote for in the next election.

To me, this is all much more interesting—and more complicated—than the elite-driven picture FitzGerald has given us.

Thoughts for Sunday

baldwin
A young James Baldwin

In the following excerpt from James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Florence, suffering from a terminal illness, has entered her brother Gabriel’s storefront black Pentecostal church in Harlem. As Florence tries to pray, she vividly recalls her mother’s faith:

‘Dear Father’—it was her mother praying—‘we come before You on our knees this evening to ask You to watch over us and hold back the hand of the destroying angel. Lord, sprinkle the doorpost of this house with the blood of the Lamb to keep all the wicked men away, Lord, we praying for every mother’s son and daughter everywhere in the world but we want You to take special care of this girl here to-night, Lord, and don’t let no evil come nigh her. We know you’s able to do it, Lord, in Jesus’ name, Amen.’

This was the first prayer Florence heard, the only prayer she was ever to hear in which her mother demanded the protection of God more passionately for her daughter than she demanded it for her son. It was night, the windows were shut tightly with the shades drawn, and the great table was pushed against the door. The kerosene lamps burned low and made great shadows on the newspaper-covered wall. Her mother, dressed in the long, shapeless, colorless dress that she bore every day but Sunday, when she wore white, and with her head tied up in a scarlet cloth, knelt in the center of the room, her hands hanging loosely folded before her, her black face lifted, her eyes shut. The weak, unsteady light placed shadows under her mouth and in the sockets of her eyes, making the face impersonal with majesty, like the face of a prophetess, or like a mask. Silence filled the room after her ‘Amen,’ and in the silence they heard, far up the road, the sound of a horse’s hoofs. No one moved. Gabriel, from his corner near the stove, looked up and watched his mother.

‘I ain’t afraid,’ said Gabriel.

His mother turned, one hand raised. ‘You hush, now!’

Trouble had taken place in town today. Their neighbor Deborah, who was sixteen, three years older than Florence, had been taken away into the fields the night before by many white men, where they did things to her to make her cry and bleed. Today, Deborah’s father had gone to one of the white men’s house, and said that he would kill him and all the other white men he could find. They had beaten him and left him for dead. Now, everyone had shut their doors, praying and waiting, for it was said that the white folks would come tonight and set fire to all the houses, as they had done before.

In the night that pressed outside they heard only the horse’s hoofs, which did not stop; there was not the laughter they would have heard had there been many coming on this road, and no calling out of curses, and no one crying for mercy to white men, or to God. The hoofbeats came to the door and passed, and rang, while they listened, ever more faintly away. Then Florence realized how frightened she had been. She watched her mother rise and walk to the window. She peered out through a corner of the blanket that covered it.

‘They’s gone,’ she said, ‘whoever they was.’ Then: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord,’ she said.

Thus had her mother lived and died; and she had often been brought lo, but she had never been forsaken. She had always seemed to Florence the oldest woman in the world, for she often spoke of Florence and Gabriel as the children of her old age, and she had been born, innumerable years ago, during slavery, on a plantation in another state. On this plantation she had grown up as one of the field-workers, for she was very tall and strong; and by and by she had married and raised children, all of whom had been taken from her, one by sickness and two by auction; and one, whom she had not been allowed to call her own, had been raised in the master’s house. When she was a woman grown, well past thirty as she reckoned it, with one husband buried—but the master had given her another—armies, plundering and burning, had come from the North to set them free. This was in answer to the prayers of the faithful, who had never ceased, both day and night, to cry out for deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. Florence’s mother had known this story, so it seemed, from the day she was born. And while she lived—rising in the morning before the sun came up, standing and bending in the fields when the sun was high, crossing the fields homeward when the sun went down at the gates of Heaven far away, hearing the whistle of the foreman and his eerie cry across the fields; in the whiteness of winter when hogs and turkeys and geese were slaughtered, and lights burned bright in the big house, and Bathsheba, the cook, sent over in a napkin bits of ham and chicken and cakes left over by the white folks—in all that befell: in her joys, her pipe in the evening, her man at night, the children she suckled, and guided on their first short steps; and in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God. She knew that the big house, the house of pride where the white folks lived, would come down; it was written in the Word of God. They, who walked so proudly now, had not fashioned for themselves or their children so sure a foundation as was hers. They walked on the edge of a steep place and their eyes were sightless—God would cause them to rush down, as the herd of swine had once rushed down, into the sea. For all that they were so beautiful, and took their ease, she knew them, and she pitied them, who would have no covering in the great day of His wrath.

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.

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.

Writing History that Matters

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In her keynote address at this weekend’s Barnes Conference at Temple University, Danielle McGuire spoke to us about writing history that matters; history that does work in the present; history that people actually want to read. If you’ve read At the Dark End of the Street, you know McGuire knows what she’s talking about. The book is easy to read and extremely powerful. And it’s something that nearly anyone can pick up and read because it’s a story that revolves around real people doing extraordinary things. Who doesn’t like a good story?

(A teaser: you know how Rosa Parks, that docile seamstress, got the civil rights movement started because she was tired one day and refused to give up her seat on the bus? Yeah, that story? It’s all wrong. Read McGuire’s book!)

The first real lecture I ever gave was about the civil rights movement. First lectures are often famous disasters, but mine was not. Whatever mistakes I may have made, they were covered by one good move: I relentlessly relied on a few good books, McGuire’s first among them. Because of that, one of the students came up to me after the lecture and said she had never heard the story of the civil rights movement told like that before. She was moved. Thanks to McGuire.

McGuire’s keynote address was funny and inspiring. Here are a few of my idiosyncratic takeaways:

–When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t have to write a dissertation. I just have to write a page. (This is extremely important!)

–Consider putting all the historiography in the footnotes, even in the dissertation. I want to do this.

–Who are the main characters in my story? (I don’t know?….)

–Learn to love editing. Throw stuff down on the page no matter how bad it is. Six dozen edits later, it won’t be bad.

–Read fiction! (What if it’s bad fiction?) Think about the kinds of things that authors of fiction think about: pacing, narrative arc, character development. As historians, we impose some kind of order on the chaos and fragmentation of the archives. We tell stories that are very much our own, that do not exist independently of us. We might as well make them good stories while we’re at it. They don’t have to be bloodless.

–Read James Baldwin. This needs no reason or justification.

–Reckon with the emotional toll of the dissertation. The hardest obstacles are not technical. They’re not even cognitive. They’re matters of spirit. Do I have something worth saying? Am I writing something that matters? Do I have the guts to see it through? To write that bad draft and revise it, to show it to others, is to face over and over again your fallibility.

–Trust your learning; trust your students. After years of marinating in the past, we historians have ways of thinking that are useful to undergraduates. Don’t push too hard. Trust the process. They will not become historical thinkers in a semester, but if you let them see how and why the past has moved you, they will not be unmoved.

Notes from the Classroom: Telling Transnational Stories

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Because my class is about immigration, I thought the statue of liberty deserved its own lecture this week. It was a story that took us from French abolitionists and the conceiving of a monument to emancipation, to pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to the hapless fundraising efforts of a committee in New York, to the life of Emma Lazarus and her obscure poem that would later become indelibly linked to the immigrant story and American identity.

It was also a chronologically expansive story that raised questions about memory and the shifting meanings we attach to symbols. When the statue of liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speakers mentioned immigrants. As everyone knew, that’s not what the statue was about. At the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1936, President Roosevelt spoke about nothing but immigration. As everyone knew, that’s what the statue was about. In many ways, it was the immigrants themselves who had made it so. As I tell my students, whatever the American Dream was, it was not only made in America.

Then on Wednesday we went from Fiddler on the Roof to the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the Russian Empire made life increasingly difficult for Jews—and while the statue of liberty was being dedicated—the American Empire was wrapping up its counterinsurgency campaigns in the West. In the U.S., it was only in this period in the decades after the Civil War that the state was actually able to exert effective control over all the territory it claimed. In the process, it increasingly claimed the right to tell minority populations where they could live, what they could do, and even the religious practices they could engage in. State violence against despised minorities was crucial to the turn of the century mass migration that formed modern America. While Russian violence made immigrants and refugees, American violence paved the way for their arrival and transformed immigrants into settlers.

I argued that this claim is not an abstraction or a metaphor, but a tangible reality on the ground. Take Pennington County, South Dakota, for example. It is home to Rapid City, and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. It is built entirely on land guaranteed to Native Americans by federal treaty. In 1890, less than two decades after its founding, 18% of its population was foreign born. They came from Canada and Germany, Ireland and Sweden, England and Norway. By 1910, there was a small contingent of Russian Jews too. Their opportunity was inseparable from the dispossession of others.

There are probably very few historians being trained now who would argue against the importance of telling transnational stories. But it’s easier said than done. When we tell transnational stories, it usually means there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Sometimes they don’t all stay up. On Monday, I said meanwhile and suddenly we lurched from New York to Ukraine. These transitions were abrupt enough to be comical. After the lecture, a student emailed me to ask me what the point was. That makes it sound more disastrous than it probably was. The student was quite engaged and had incisive questions. But one of my main points had lacked clarity and she wanted more information. Good for her!

When we tell transnational stories, the contexts we need to be familiar with multiply quickly. This is one reason we might shy away from attempting it in the first place. I am not a historian of Russia; what errors might I introduce in my brief characterization of the 1881 pogroms? Will this broader story aid student understanding, or will my own imbalanced knowledge—heavy on U.S. national history—only confuse the story?

But the payoffs can be substantial, perhaps especially in the case of immigration history. Most immigration is by its nature a transnational act with connections to multiple countries. It doesn’t make historical sense to only focus on the destination country. This is one reason I’ve assigned Tara Zahra’s new book.

There are also broader benefits to be gained. I’ll note just one. There is no adequate way to deal with questions of American exceptionalism while teaching only an American national story. Transnational history helps us to engage more productively with notions of national identity and the meaning of America. If we’re only telling a national story and students hear about the millions of people who came here seeking opportunity, they may be inclined to think the United States is exceptionally good. But then when they hear about the discrimination and violence aimed at these immigrants, they may think the United States is exceptionally bad. But if we come to class thinking the U.S. is the best and leave thinking it’s the worst, we’re just as myopic and American-centric as when we started.

A broader framework upsets both assumptions, allowing students to see that millions of people were also immigrating to other places in search of opportunity, and that they faced hardship and discrimination both in their home countries and in their new destinations. It enables us to see a more nuanced and complicated story about how opportunity and oppression moved alongside each other, and about the millions of immigrants who came to America with the dream not of becoming Americans, but of returning to their homelands as soon as they could.