On a bit of a whim I’m hoping to delve into the history of early Christianity this summer. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in learning about my faith beyond the fundamentalist roots in which I grew up. In the old days, learning about social contexts, historical developments, and critical scholarship on the Bible would have been scary. In more recent times it’s not only fascinating to me, it’s devotional. God is unlikely to be particularly impressed by my knowledge, nor shaken by my doubts. So it’s fun to learn more.
The following list reflects what happened to be on Temple’s shelves on the last day before Paley Library’s permanent closing. So this is not a recommended way to build a reading list. But I’m going to start with this:
It’s pitched as an accessible book for students and laypeople, which is probably exactly what I need to orient myself to the historical context and the field.
This one looks like a fun follow-up:
I’m also kind of excited about this comparative collection surveying the rise of Christianity and Buddhism, respectively:
I imagine these two books will speak to each other:
And then there’s kind of a grab bag of random stuff:
If all goes well, I’ll know a lot more about Christianity by the end of the summer! And I figure previewing my study marginally raises the chances that I’ll actually follow through.
The ideological and religious right have been phenomenally successful in laying claim to the myths and symbols of America, distorting them to the point of caricature. Historical scholarship now draws vicious fire from pundits on the right who see campuses as hotbeds of anti-American, liberal orthodoxy, even as it has achieved wide dissemination among the cultural left. But, informed by historians’ efforts at deconstructing American myths, some quarters of the left veer into a dystopian iconoclasm. This first crystalized for me as I followed reactions to the immigrant family separation crisis on social media last summer. Proclamations of “This is not who we are” from one quarter of the left were quickly met with reminders of slavery, Indian boarding schools, Japanese concentration camps: “This is exactly who we’ve always been!”
Here is the problem: meeting MAGA fundamentalism with dystopian iconoclasm only affirms the central claim of today’s right wing: that America’s soul is white and Christian, disagreeing only over whether that is cause for celebration or lament. Yet iconoclasts rarely persuade the iconophiles. Pathologists do not cure cancer, and prosecuting attorneys do not rehabilitate the criminal. It is not their job. Which brings me back to the question, in the context of American civic life: What are we history professors for?
This is a real problem. Imagine if leftist-historian twitter had existed when Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. When King dared to write,
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
There would have been a bunch of us screaming from the sidelines, “Don’t you know the founding fathers were scared of democracy? Don’t you know the Declaration of Independence was hypocritical propaganda? Don’t you know Judeo-Christian is problematic?” Seriously though, it’s precisely because of stuff like this that some of the historiography downplays King as patriot and Christian in preference of King as radical. (Of course, he could be all three, and more).
What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.
To that I say…yikes! Can I stand in the mushy middle and say Wheeler has identified a significant problem but I’m not sure I like her solution?
Wheeler thinks the way forward is to see the oppressed and persecuted in the American story as essentially and fully American. They are not victims at the hands of “real America” (i.e., white supremacy or some such). They are constitutive of the nation. This is fine as far as it goes, but it seems like it’d be hard to find a historian working today who disagrees with it. In any case, it’s not clear to me that national histories, whatever their frame, can ever adequately get us out of this myopic trap where students move between the poles of America is awesome! andAmerica is awful!
One way out of that trap is to use transnational and global history. The wider our lens, the harder it becomes to sustain a sense that the United States is uniquely good or bad. I don’t know; maybe Wheeler thinks this is part of the problem. But I think it has to be part of the solution.
In all kinds of ways, these broader frames upset those who seek to cast the United States as an angel or devil. For example, the immigration story on which so much of American identity is built looks considerably less special when one realizes how many millions of people were moving to other places at the same time. On the other hand, American capital’s oppressions in the twentieth century look considerably less villainous when one realizes that other societies were murdering millions of their citizens in the name of class liberation.
Though I’m somewhat skeptical of Wheeler’s approach, thinking through the issues she (and Lepore) are raising can help historians to realize how thoroughly ideological our deconstructing work already is. My impression is that many of us approach our country’s history with the disillusionment of an adult who’s lost their childhood faith. We can’t get it back, and we don’t even want to at this point, but we sure as hell are angry about it.
Such an attitude shows how little we’ve learned from our own lessons. If in our classrooms students learn that the United States has not been the moral exemplar to the world they may have imagined, we ourselves ought to have learned by now that it has been a place of hope, opportunity, and inspiration for many. If such a diversity of stories make us uncomfortable, then we really are just angry deconstructionists with nothing to offer the public.
David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.
Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,
Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…
This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.
In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.
Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:
The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’
I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.
Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.
It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.
Last week I was at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. It was great to be in such an intellectually stimulating environment. Writing a dissertation is for many of us a long and isolating slog. It was refreshing to think and talk about big ideas with great historians. It was also nice to see the wide range of opinion stretching from left all the way to center left (I kid, but only a little). Here are some idiosyncratic highlights.
I think there remains a lot of angst about the place of historians in an era of declining support for humanities and the flourishing of anti-reality politics. At one panel, a historian in the audience plaintively asked how we could convince people what we do is important. Well, good luck with that.
Someone who I think feels this angst, and has tried to respond decisively to it, is Jill Lepore. I thoroughly enjoyed a roundtable gathered to discuss Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths. For all her intellectual brilliance and sterling prose, at bottom Lepore seems to have an idealistic—I fear naive—hope in the power of truth and reason to overcome falsehood and fear. Can books like These Truths provide the American public an antidote to the alluring racist mythologies of Trumpism? Lepore thinks we’ve at least got to try.
At the end of the roundtable, after hearing her colleagues’ praise and criticism (more on that below) she concluded with an impassioned call for historians to do the hard work of constructing stories of national identity that the American public can grab onto. One of the criticisms of grand syntheses is that they seem inevitably to simplify, and worse, exclude. But Lepore believes we must be willing to take these risks. Nationalism is not going away. Publics will not do without stories that anchor identity. If historians do not engage the public and provide responsible stories based in fact and a vision of the common good, racist nationalism stands waiting in the wings.
I find Lepore’s vision convincing in spite of the problems with her book. (I should clarify that I haven’t read it! But I will.) Randall Kennedy said he would like to see more about the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s striking down of it in 1883. Everyone, of course, has their pet causes, but this one seems especially worthy of more attention. It is striking to read the public debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see the extent to which the legal history of Reconstruction had completely vanished from the public mind. Though Southern senators were well aware of the 1880s Supreme Court precedents in their favor, I don’t think the American public knew (or knows now) that the federal government enacted the principle of nondiscrimination in public accommodations in 1875. Understanding this makes the struggle for equality appear so much more contingent and open-ended than facile “time has come” stories.
David Hollinger did not hide his admiration, saying “This is a great book.” He encouraged critics to imagine going page by page, thinking about how they might present the story better. Of course they might be able to in a few areas of their expertise. But then, Hollinger said, do that 700 times. Still, Hollinger thought Lepore gives short shrift to religion and immigration in the 20th century.
Jeff Pasley seemed to think Lepore was too nostalgic about the possibilities of truth winning out over lies. In Lepore’s vision, Murrow and Cronkite preside over the midcentury scene with responsibly furrowed eyebrows.
But the most interesting response came from Malinda Lowery, who blasted the book for its exclusion of American Indians. It’s not that tales of atrocity and resistance are literally absent; it’s that Lepore’s vision of national identity and expanding civil rights is notably misaligned with the realities of Indian sovereignty claims and treaty rights. To put it simply, how do you construct a national story when there are so many nations within the borders of the American state? This question, informed by settler colonial studies, has not entered the public consciousness in the way the African American experience has. As much as slavery and Jim Crow trouble the American conscience, writing these experiences into a national story of rights-expansion is not so difficult. American Indian experiences burst out of this framework and upset grand narratives. Lepore said, with I think evident sincerity, that this critique has kept her up at night.
Ok, I said this was going to be OAH highlights but that was all about one panel. Continuing the theme of angst about historians’ role in this moment, a plenary session brought together a panel of journalists and historians to discuss how they can learn from each other and work together (I think this is the nice way of putting it). Tom Gjelten of NPR bluntly said that some historians do a good job of engaging the public, but many don’t. This didn’t sit particularly well with a roomful of historians, nor with panelist Danielle McGuire. There ensued an in-the-room version of the digital uproar of a few weeks ago when Max Boot dared to criticize historians for failing the public.
There are lots of reasons to think that the picture is not as clear as Gjelten painted it, but I’m less interested in those than in the opportunity critiques like Gjelten’s and Boot’s give us to be self-critical as a community of scholars. Obviously it would have been very foolish for Gjelten (while sitting two chairs down from Danielle McGuire of all people!) to say categorically that historians do not engage the public. But that’s not what he said. He said some are good at this and some aren’t. Instead of firing back with all the reasons it’s harder for us to access mainstream popular spaces than he realizes, why don’t we pause and see if the shoe fits?
Let’s be honest. Our training and incentive structure in the academy do not reward the quick-on-your-feet writing and thinking that popular engagement may require. And if you’ve sat through graduate seminars, you can’t tell me that you haven’t seen colleagues slip into the safety and allure of specialized impenetrable jargon. Some of us never recover! Some of us couldn’t write for the public to save our lives. This isn’t to say that all historians all the time should be trying to reach the public. That would be disastrous for the work of scholarship. But it is to say that maybe we as a collective community of scholars can ponder whether we have created an environment that is really good at churning out specialized monographs, but produces too few Lepores and McGuires. The high appreciation Ta-Nehisi Coates has received from historians in recent years is due to his open reliance on their work. But doesn’t this praise carry with it the admission that we needed a translator?
I think what is interesting about this debate is how emotional it is. Historians feel threatened in this moment. We must be willing to turn our practiced critical eye not only toward our historical subjects, but ourselves. There is more to be said (I only mentioned two panels!) but I’ll leave it there for now.
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.
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%.
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.
I recently asked why there isn’t conservatism in the United States and referred to the postwar American Right using the seemingly paradoxical phrase “radical conservatives.” After digging around a little bit yesterday, I came up with some intriguing connections to this train of thought.
In the first edition of National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley famously wrote that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it…”
You read this and it sounds like traditional conservatism. Looking backward, seeking to stop or at least slow down change. But in that same editorial Buckley said this:
Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
I had not realized that as early as 1955 Buckley himself used the phrase “radical conservatives.” It’s not just the phrasing that is revealing. It’s the overt contempt for the moderate right, the disdain for the Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party. This is an insurgent outsider mentality.
A kind reader also sent me an October 1964 National Council of Churches document entirely devoted to sounding the alarm about “The Radical Right.” I need to peruse the document more, but some mainline Protestants were clearly alarmed by the new visibility of radical conservatism in the context of the Goldwater campaign.
I also came across the influential historian Richard Hofstadter’s thoughts on what he called radical “pseudo-conservatism.” In 1962, Hofstadter wrote:
The political character of this movement can be helpfully delineated by comparing it with true conservatism. The United States has not provided a receptive home for formal conservative thought or classically conservative modes of behavior. Lacking a formidable aristocratic tradition, this country has produced at best patricians rather than aristocrats, and the literature of American political experience shows how unhappy the patricians (for example, Henry Adams) have been in their American environment. Restless, mobile both geographically and socially, overwhelmingly middle-class in their aspirations, the American people have not given their loyalty to a national church or developed a traditionally oriented bar or clergy, or other institutions that have the character of national establishments. But it is revealing to observe the attitude of the extreme right wing toward those institutions that come closest here to reproducing the institutional apparatus of the aristocratic classes in other countries. Such conservative institutions as the better preparatory schools, the Ivy League colleges and universities, the Supreme Court, and the State Department–exactly those institutions that have been largely in the custodianship of the patrician or established elements in American society–have been the favorite objects of right-wing animosity.
So there you have it. I was actually just echoing Hofstadter and I didn’t know it. Well, I could have found myself in worse company. I’ll take it.
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!
Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”
In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.
Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.
Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”
Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.
I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.
Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.