I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.
I was born in the 1980s. We millennials have had a tough go of it.
First, the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
Then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
And now the severest pandemic threat since 1918.
Oh yeah, and there were two impeachments and the first black president.
It’s been an eventful life!
This is, of course, an American perspective on things. Globally, I’d say the most significant changes of my 34 years are as follows:
The intensification of climate change, huge improvements in global public health, China becoming a middle-income country, and the end of the Cold War (in that order).
Are we really living through an unusually eventful time, or does the immediacy of our own moment and time’s erosion of the harsh peaks and valleys of past experience deceive us? It’s often hard to tell.
What if I had been born in 1886 instead of 1986?
There would have been the economic crises of the 1890s and 1907. The triumph of racial terrorism and final overthrows of democracy in the southern states. A President assassinated. The Spanish American War. Counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Cars! Planes! Einstein’s theory of relativity! The astonishing immigration numbers. The Great War. The flu pandemic. I dunno. Maybe there’s always a lot going on.
Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.
I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.
I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.
What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)
Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.
Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.
Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.
The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):
Magic Tree House
Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)
Video games (Call of duty)
Family (history phd in the family!)
Listening to others
Pop culture (comics)
Word of mouth
Talking with family; family stories
Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]
High school teacher
American girl doll
Museums and monuments
Historic sites (one room school house)
Quaker meeting houses
Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view
I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:
–History is all around us.
–We learn it in popular forms.
–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.
Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!
My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.
My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?
One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.
In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.
Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”
He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”
Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:
As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”
What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”
Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.
Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.
When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.
But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.
When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.
O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?
“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”
“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”
“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”
O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?
In the wake of Christianity Today calling for Trump’s removal from office, how will white evangelical Trump supporters respond? I’d like to share one telling anecdote from a white evangelical Trump supporter in my social circle.
But first, some context. Some news outlets yesterday seemed to report this story naively, as though the house organ of the 81% has turned on Trump. Of course, that’s not what CT is and that’s not what happened.
Since its founding in 1956, CT‘s moderation (in tone as much as anything) always made it an awkward mouthpiece for a white evangelical movement whose mainstream was populist and reactionary. CT spoke not for the masses of ordinary white evangelicals but for a relatively highbrow audience of the educated evangelical elite.
Indeed, as a historian and researcher, I’ve come to take it as axiomatic that whenever I open the pages of Christianity Today, I must assume I am entering into an elite conversation rather than opening a window to the white evangelical id. This is true whether I’m reading about civil rights in the 60s, feminism in the 70s, or homosexuality in the 80s.
And it’s true in 2019, when CT calls for Trump’s removal from office. It is an important moment, but we should not assume it will make a significant impression on ordinary white evangelicals, who may never read anything CT writes anyway. But what of the white evangelical Trump supporters who do have some sense of the legacy of Christianity Today?
Here’s where my friend comes in. This is their response to CT’s editorial:
Christianity Today is no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians, regardless of it’s founder. Since the writer cites some of the founding principles put forth by Billy Graham, it should be very interesting to see Franklin Graham’s response. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long.
I suggest that this is likely to be a fairly representative response. I’d like to probe a little more about how and when CT lost its status in this writer’s mind as a “reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” It may have been yesterday!
The real tell here is the way the writer positions Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, suggesting that Franklin’s forthcoming attack on Christianity Today will tell us what we need to know about the magazine’s faithfulness to the legacy of its founder and to evangelicalism. Networks of relationships and identity, the authority of the Graham family name, substitute for any substantive claim of errors in CT’s commentary.
And, importantly, this authority is imagined. Franklin does not faithfully represent Billy’s views, but my friend seems to think that he does. In reality, Billy spoke openly of his entanglement with Nixon as a moral failure and one of the great regrets of his ministry. Franklin has been aggressively working against that aspect of his father’s legacy. He has tied himself resolutely to Trump, defended him at every turn, repeatedly made false statements, and continues to encourage white evangelicals to be partisan culture-warriors.
Of course, all of this is exactly why Franklin’s opinion counts. If Franklin were trying to carry on his father’s moderate post-Nixon approach to politics, my friend would simply add the Graham family to the growing list of people and sources “no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” Franklin’s opinion matters more than CT’s precisely and only because Franklin is belligerent and willing to take the fight to the libs.
In this framework, what counts as authentically Christian is a moving target. It’s constantly shifting with the political winds and the markers of orthodoxy laid down by conservative politics sites and Fox News hosts. CT is definitionally out of bounds for conservative Christians not because it has transgressed Christian ethics in any obvious way, but because it is insufficiently reactionary in its tone and politics.
In the white evangelical mainstream, advocating traditional Christian ethics is more controversial than supporting Trump. CT has taken a noble stand. Just how much this stance will reach into the nerve centers of the reactionary and populist mainstream remains to be seen. Let us pray CT’s influence grows.
In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?
On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.
But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.
Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.
When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,
I think your critique is valuable. But it’s too simplistic. I think it reduces evangelicalism to a set of hot-button cultural and political stances (which are indeed part of the story) while ignoring daily life and practice, piety and devotion, etc., as sources of identity.— Paul Putz (@p_emory) September 15, 2019
Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:
To me this sets up key Q: what is connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?— Kristin Kobes Du Mez (@kkdumez) September 15, 2019
In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.
At a glance, it might seem that historian Seth Dowland tackled this last year. In a great piece on “American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness,” Dowland wrote:
Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.
Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.
Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?
To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?
Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).
The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.
In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”
They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.
For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.
And similar critiques have continued ever since. In Bryan Lorrit’s 2018 book, Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All, he writes:
To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.
Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.
But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.
The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.
While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.
What is The Investment in Whiteness?
A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:
Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?
Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.
What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?
For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.
To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We “invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.
It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see it before?”
Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.
Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:
It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.
It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.
Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that human beings are depraved.
The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.
Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American history).
Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.
What, then, am I repenting for?
This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.
We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.
Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun to go against it.
This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”
I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?
I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:
How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?
Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?
What was the range of views on the subject at the time?
What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?
Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?
It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.
Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.
The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?
It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.
White evangelicals are afraid. In their fear we ought to hear echoes of the darkest moments of modern history.
I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.
It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.
Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”
I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.
It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.
[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.
I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”
The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.
What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.
The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.
White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!
And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.
The historian Timothy Snyder has come out swinging against the U.S. Holocaust Museum after its implicit rebuke of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the words “concentration camps” to describe conditions in U.S. border patrol facilities. Snyder writes,
A federally funded museum is telling Americans not to think. On June 24, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum instructed the public not to consider the relationship between its subject, other historical events, and the present, implicitly reprimanding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling American detention centers “concentration camps.” In doing so, it has made nonsense of the slogan “never again” and provided moral cover for ongoing and oppressive American policies.
The Holocaust matters to Americans as the source of moral lessons. The choice we face is whether the lesson is that we are always right or whether the lesson is that we should judge ourselves critically in light of the past. At first glance, the museum’s rejection of “analogies between the Holocaust and other events” might seem like a laudable attempt to affirm the unprecedented character of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. In fact, it makes conveying the weight of that atrocity impossible, and it releases us from any obligation, as a nation, to self-criticism.
Analogizing is not some mysterious operation: It is how we think. Every time someone asks you for advice about a situation beyond your personal experience, or every time you are faced with an unfamiliar choice, your mind makes analogies with what you do know. Then you ask questions that allow you to clarify similarities and differences. At some point, you have understood and can act. “Never again” is nothing other than an invocation of that process. We start from what we know about the present and make our way back to the 1930s and 1940s. Once we understand something about the history of the Holocaust, we make our way forward again, seeing patterns we would have missed. If we notice a dangerous one, we should act. Without this effort, though, “never again” becomes its own opposite: “It can’t happen here.”
I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s quite good.
This is all even more interesting to me than it ordinarily would be because I’ve just returned from visiting—for the first time—the U.S. Holocaust Museum. While there, I witnessed a family taking away precisely this lesson—“It can’t happen here.”
While watching videos of Nazi atrocities, a young boy, I would guess about 9-10 years of age, looked to his father for reassurance. The images were disturbing, their possible implications more so. “Dad,” he said, “are Americans doing that?” His father replied, “No, of course not.” The son needed reassurance about something more troubling. “Would Americans ever do that?” he asked. “No,” his father replied, “Americans never do anything like that.”
A museum is not responsible for how people react to it. But I found that overheard exchange emblematic of what this museum encourages its viewers to conclude. It doesn’t challenge Americans. It reassures us. It can’t happen here.
I was really quite surprised that the museum did not attempt to place the Holocaust in a broader historical context of some kind. The varied methods of dehumanization across time and cultures, for example, or the particular violence of genocide, of which this event is the prototype; indeed, it barely even placed it in the context of historic anti-semitism!
I suppose that the intent is to emphasize the singular horror of the Holocaust. But instead of that singularity driving home for an American audience the weight of the event and why it matters, the viewer is left instead with a story appearing almost at random and saying, “this confusing thing happened.” The guys in the MAGA hats didn’t seem perturbed at all.
This is all the more odd when you think about the fact that it is a United States Holocaust museum, and it possesses little in the way of physical artifacts. This is unsurprising given that the locations of the Holocaust are on another continent. This being so, one might think the museum would lean into its location, exploring the Holocaust from an American angle. But with few exceptions, it is extraordinarily resistant to doing so. Only the most attentive viewers would catch a glimpse of the connections between Nazi ideology and American racism, between the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans.
A Holocaust museum, of all places, ought to aim to make any human being feel uncomfortable, implicated, introspective. Perhaps the museum supposes that telling the story will lead viewers to ask the questions and implicate themselves. I wish it would work that way but I don’t think it does.