John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours: Fall 2015 Season – Episode 1200:08greetings everyone and welcome to the00:10virtual office hours this is episode 1200:12of our fall 2015 season my name is John00:16fee I’m your host here I teach American00:19history at messiah college Abby Blakeney00:21our producer as usual behind the camera00:23she’s back from Thanksgiving break which00:26basically means after today we only have00:28two more office hours to do here in our00:31fall season and as you really recall we00:34are thinking about the place of America00:38as the role of America should say as a00:42Christian nation and how people00:44perceived of America throughout much of00:47American history how people perceive00:49themselves as living in a Christian00:50nation some of you remember that July00:54hopefully in July sometimes in the00:56summer the second edition of my book was00:58America founded as a Christian nation01:00will be out so we will be revisiting01:03we’re here revisiting that things are01:04getting ready for that release now again01:07just a caveat I’ve been making this01:09caveat before when we talked about the01:11idea that Americans believed that they01:14were living in a Christian nation we of01:16course are stating that historically01:19that’s a historical statement it’s not01:21an ethical statement it’s not a moral01:23statement so again if you want to argue01:26with my premise here that America it has01:29always seen itself as living in a01:31Christian nation what you would need to01:33do is you would need to look at the01:35evidence I’ve mounted both in the book01:37and over the course of the last 1101:38episodes and try to suggest that no01:42Americans didn’t think that they were01:44living in a nation that was Christian01:46that would be a historical critique of01:49what I’m doing as opposed to it so the01:50ethical or political critique to say01:52people are wrong for believing that that01:55they lived in a Christian nation this is01:58again the difference between historical02:00thinking and other kinds of thinking my02:04point is historically whether they were02:06right or wrong whether they were02:07following what the founders truly02:09believed America has always understood02:12themselves as living in a Christian02:15nation at least up until the 1970s as02:17we’ll see you next week or maybe the02:18week02:18after today I want to focus on civil02:22rights movement now religion and02:25christianity has been a dominant theme02:28recently in among scholars who were02:30writing about the civil rights movement02:32and the way they’re writing methyl02:34Christianity and forms are had informed02:37the civil rights movement thinking here02:39especially of David Chappelle’s book02:41stone of hope in which he points to an02:44Old Testament prophetic tradition that02:47that really defined the vision of the02:50civil rights movement what I want to02:52focus on quickly with you today’s I want02:54to think about one particular episode in02:56the civil rights movement and that is02:57Martin Luther King Junior’s visit to the02:59city of Birmingham in April set of 196303:03it’s in that year that King come South03:06comes to Alabama to fight against03:09segregation in that city many of you03:11know the story he is eventually put into03:14prison by the public safety commissioner03:17of the city Eugene Bull Connor and while03:20he is in prison he writes what becomes03:22known one of it as one of his most03:24famous pieces of writing the letter from03:26a Birmingham jail now that letter is03:29written from prison obviously and it’s03:31addressed to the white clergy in the03:35city of Birmingham and most of these03:37white clergy that he’s writing to03:39believe that segregation should be03:41handled locally they don’t like king03:43they think he’s an outside agitator03:45who’s coming in and disrupting the good03:48order of the city which is pretty much03:50based upon racial segregation so King03:54writes this letter it’s published it’s03:55put out in the pamphlet form so it gets03:57a kind of national ventually gets a kind03:59of national audience and it’s a04:01fascinating argument because on one hand04:03King is arguing for a a nationalist04:08vision right where there is if there’s04:11injustice anywhere or injustice anywhere04:14i should say is a threat to justice04:15everywhere in other words he’s a04:20challenging localism he’s challenging04:22the idea that local governments local04:26clergy get to decide what is right and04:29what is wrong on this04:30question of race and thus challenging04:32segregation in the process so he appeals04:34to people like Abraham Lincoln and04:36others these great figures of American04:39nationalism to say you know we you know04:42we have to we have to stop the kind of04:44localism that’s going on we have to stop04:47these local prejudices and local ideas04:49especially if they’re challenging what04:51he believes is justice and king secondly04:56sort of defines justice through his04:59vision of what it means to be a05:01Christian so he’s making constant05:03appeals in the in letter from a05:05Birmingham jail about just laws and05:08unjust laws right he’s referencing05:10people like everybody from Agustin to05:13Aquinas to Paul Tillich the modern05:17theologian to he’s going back to the05:19Bible and showing how Shadrach Meshach05:22and Abednego in the Old Testament05:24challenged King Nebuchadnezzar who is05:27putting an unjust law upon them so this05:31idea of civil disobedience is rooted in05:33the Bible it’s rooted in theology at the05:38same time then King is bringing these05:41two ideas together this idea of05:43nationalism vers / localism and this05:47Christian idea of justice to suggest a05:49new vision for the nation which is going05:52to be defined by the idea that we are05:55indeed a judeo-christian country and we05:58must live up to the principal’s not only06:01of our founding fathers but the06:02principles as well of God I think he06:06summarizes this very very well in06:09towards the end of the letter and if I06:12can just find it here I want to make06:15sure i get the wording right where he06:17says he basically says he reminds the06:20birmingham clergy here that he’s06:22standing up for quote what is best in06:25the American dream and for the most06:27sacred values in our judeo-christian06:30heritage thereby bringing our nation06:32back to those great wells of democracywhich were dug deep by the foundingfathers in their formulation of the06:39constant06:39tution and the Declaration of06:41Independence again it’s a powerful06:43convergence here of American values06:46national values and Christian values and06:50King is calling us to a sort of06:52different kind of Christian nation a06:54sort of beloved community in which06:56people are not judged by race or by the06:58color of their skin so clearly here even07:02Martin Luther King a man of the left a07:04man of the civil rights movement makes07:07his case based upon many of these07:11Christian nationalists kind of07:14sentiments that we’ve seen all the way07:16in American history all the way from all07:18the way back in the early 19th century07:20we have two more episodes to go will07:23hopefully get to the end of the07:24twentieth and twenty-first century here07:26in the meantime thanks for watching and07:29we’ll see you next time
The month before the 2018 midterms, a thousand theaters screened “The Trump Prophecy,” a film that tells the story of Mark Taylor, a former firefighter who claims that God told him in 2011 that Donald Trump would be elected president.
At a critical moment in the film, just after the actor representing Mr. Taylor collapses in the flashing light of an epiphany, he picks up a Bible and turns to the 45th chapter of the book of Isaiah, which describes the anointment of King Cyrus by God. In the next scene, we hear Mr. Trump being interviewed on “The 700 Club,” a popular Christian television show.
As Lance Wallnau, an evangelical author and speaker who appears in the film, once said, “I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus,” who will “restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.”
Cyrus, in case you’ve forgotten, was born in the sixth century B.C.E. and became the first emperor of Persia. Isaiah 45 celebrates Cyrus for freeing a population of Jews who were held captive in Babylon. Cyrus is the model for a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful.
The identification of the 45th president with an ancient Middle Eastern potentate isn’t a fringe thing. “The Trump Prophecy” was produced with the help of professors and students at Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., has been instrumental in rallying evangelical support for Mr. Trump. Jeanine Pirro of Fox News has picked up on the meme, as has Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, among many others.
As the Trump presidency falls under siege on multiple fronts, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called values voters will be among the last to leave the citadel. A lot of attention has been paid to the supposed paradox of evangelicals backing such an imperfect man, but the real problem is that our idea of Christian nationalism hasn’t caught up with the reality. We still buy the line that the hard core of the Christian right is just an interest group working to protect its values. But what we don’t get is that Mr. Trump’s supposedly anti-Christian attributes and anti-democratic attributes are a vital part of his attraction.
Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom they sound as if they prefer autocrats to democrats. In fact, what they really want is a king. “It is God that raises up a king,” according to Paula White, a prosperity gospel preacher who has advised Mr. Trump.
Ralph Drollinger, who has led weekly Bible study groups in the White House attended by Vice President Mike Pence and many other cabinet members, likes the word “king” so much that he frequently turns it into a verb. “Get ready to king in our future lives,” he tells his followers. “Christian believers will — soon, I hope — become the consummate, perfect governing authorities!”
The great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times.
This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core.
- They aren’t fighting a culture war.
- They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.
They want it all. And in Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause, but also satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership.
For those of us on the left and the middle (and for some on the right), the ethos, rhetoric, and politics of Donald J. Trump are self-evidently evil. Thus, we conclude that those evangelical Christians who support him must act from depraved motives to the extent that his depravity appeals to them.
We see two obvious explanations of the fact that these conservative Christians support him in large numbers:
- they have abandoned their once-noble principles, or
- those principles were only ever a smokescreen behind which operated racism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice.
.. I am just as sure that the obviousness of the moral meaning of the cause is a serious hindrance to it. The meaning of the struggle is no less true for becoming trite, but it is not the whole meaning. What follows is an attempt to see the less obvious element of that whole: support for Trump on the part of many evangelicals is a consistent outgrowth of a coherent political theology, one undertaken with noble intentions.
.. It seemed clear to many in Niebuhr’s time that the more we were committed to victory, the less acceptable it was to question our virtues or our enemies’ vices.
.. Niebuhr, however, is a realist. To him, realism means that descriptions of situations should be realistic rather than ideal, accurate even where inconvenient, rather than simple but inspiring.
.. As long as we understand and express only the obvious roots of this phenomenon in prejudice, and ignore the way in which those supporters understand themselves to be acting, we will prevent both meaningful dialogue and our own clarity about what is really going on.
.. Trump does not traffic in moral language. His is an almost entirely amoral political vocabulary, so it is hard to see how his supporters understand themselves to be supporting a moral project.
.. in his 2012 book Time to Get Tough, Trump called Obama and his diplomatic corps foolish, brainless “pansies” for not demanding half of Libya’s oil for the next twenty-five years in exchange for taking out Qadaffi.
.. That there were reasons not to make this deal other than idiocy and weakness does not seemed to have occurred to Trump. International law and norms of geopolitics are, from Trump’s perspective, for suckers.1
.. Many liberals thought Bush had mercenary intentions in the second Gulf war (making “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers), but Bush made it easier to imagine his supporters’ noble intentions because he framed the conflict in moral terms. Trump gives us none of that. His discourse is almost exclusively about power, self-interested negotiation, nationalism, size, strength, and so on.
.. Benjamin Lynerd’s insightful book, Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals.
Lynerd coins the term ‘republican theology’ (note the small ‘r’ in republican) to describe the way evangelicals understand American politics in relation to divine purpose. He provides a historical description of evangelical political thinking to explain what appears contradictory or hypocritical to many observers: the way evangelicals combine libertarianism with strict government regulation on moral issues, for example, being against government regulation of the economy, but in favor of government regulation of marriage.
.. he does not claim it is un-problematically consistent. Rather, he shows it to be part of a largely coherent, though imperfect, moral-political logic.
.. According to Lynerd, subscribers to republican theology—that is, most American evangelicals—believe that the United States has special religious and moral status—even to the point of being a “chosen nation.” That status is both ordained for and a result of our practice of proper religion and proper government. These form the necessary conditions of the development of personal morality, of virtue that allows citizens to direct themselves.
.. Political freedom, in turn, allows the practice of right religion, which inculcates virtue, which is required for limited government. Lynerd quotes evangelical writer Os Guiness: “Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, and so on, like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.”3 For republican theology, America’s historic success resulted from a carefully maintained mutual reinforcement of proper religion, morality, and politics.
.. They see expansive government as a threat to both religion and morality. When the government interferes in religion and the economy, we lose the conditions and incentives to develop the morals that make self-government possible.
.. We can have the first sort of self-government if and only if we have citizens capable of the second sort: mature, self-sufficient, responsible, hard-working, generous people learning from and creating strong families, churches, businesses, and communities.
.. In such a society, government regulation of people’s lives is not needed or wanted. The one exception republican theology makes is for government action to preserve the conditions necessary for the formation of self-governing citizens: respect for life, marriage, family, decency, and so on.
.. This need for exceptions to protect the conditions of morality is the source of the tension between libertarianism and moralism in evangelical politics: we must limit the government to foster morality and use the government to protect it. Understanding this relation, we can see how limiting government in most cases, while advocating restrictive moral laws in specific cases, is not hypocrisy, so much as a balance which must be struck between competing impulses—and there are such tensions in all political philosophies.4
.. For many on the left, for example, government assistance for the poor is an obvious moral good. From the perspective of those who subscribe to republican theology, however, the liberal drive to “help the poor” through redistributive policies is not moral heroism, but a naïve misunderstanding of what actually helps people and the economy. They see government intervention in the economy as creating dependence, enervating creativity, and stunting both economic growth and the development of human beings
.. While liberals are regularly scandalized by how little conservative Christians seem to “care about the poor,” conservatives often oppose the expansion of government, at least in part, precisely for the sake of the poor, both economically and morally.
.. The enthusiasm with which evangelical culture-warriors and champions of faith and family have embraced this secular, East coast, and thrice-married vulgarian is—on its surface—base hypocrisy, explicable only through unprincipled prejudice and ignorance. With reference to republican theology, however, we can see that—for many evangelicals—supporting Trump is at least in part the product of a coherent-if-imperfect, religio-political perspective faced with a difficult ethical tradeoff.
.. interpreting evangelical support for Trump as simply evil and ignorance obscures the drive for moral goods that lies behind it.
.. Lots of disastrous, even evil, political movements have been pursued for noble ends. It should prompt to us frame our criticism differently, however.
.. instead of dreaming up ever more strident denunciations of their evil intentions, we should try to show how their good aims have become confused or disordered.
.. actual political practice has been more pragmatic, collectivist, and proactive than our creeds describe. As an example, Niebuhr notes that Thomas Jefferson was a champion of small government and an idealist about the potential for citizens to self-regulate, but also a realist about the economic conditions required. Jefferson believed, like many evangelicals today, that the economy was a school of virtue, but he believed that one could only matriculate in that school through independent land ownership.
.. He used the government to distribute wealth to the common person to help shape a society in which his creed made sense. Thus, he saw that the exceptions to libertarianism we need in defense of morality included material interventions to make economic participation more generally available.
Niebuhr believes that Jefferson’s realism worked and the federal effort to expand the frontier in the 1800s served as a massive infusion of wealth into the working class.
.. Economic opportunity meant the government had to do much less to maintain social order. He writes: “It can hardly be denied that the fluidity of our class structure, derived from the opulence of economic opportunities, saved us from the acrimony of the class struggle in Europe…When the frontier ceased to provide for the expansion of opportunities, our superior technology created ever new frontiers for the ambitious and adventurous.”5We have been able to avoid more aggressive government involvement in society because economic fluidity has mitigated the social tension that requires government intervention.
.. With the frontier closed and industry no longer expanding, we will face new threats to our freedom: populist and authoritarian politicians who promise they can restore economic opportunity through regressive and nationalistic policies. Niebuhr foresees the end of easy economic fluidity if industrialization ever ceases to provide a path into the property-owning classes. He concludes that, “ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice” that have arisen in Europe and which will require the same sort of pragmatic social management they have developed.
.. Republican theology has become absolute in its opposition to government involvement in the economy. However, there is no reason it cannot learn from America’s past and see such intervention as in service of morality by allowing access to the economy, rather than as dependence-causing disincentives to such participation. This sort of exception to libertarianism should be in line with the basic logic of republican theology.
.. providing universal quality education, protecting sustainably productive land, ensuring a healthy population, and guaranteeing a path from steady work to property ownership. These strike me as areas in which bipartisan cooperation should be possible.
.. 2) The second confusion involved in evangelical support of Trump concerns the belief that limiting government always results in an increase of the kind of freedom republican theology values.
.. This confusion is the result of a naive view of power. Niebuhr’s description of the bourgeois liberal describes the modern conservative well. Such a person is, “oblivious both to the elements of power in society and to the disproportions of power in economic life. Power, in the thought of the typically bourgeois man, is political. He believes it must be reduced to a minimum.”6 In the discourse of contemporary conservatism, political power is the only type that threatens economic freedom.
.. Conservative evangelicals believe that a reduction in government involvement in the economy removes the problem of power, resulting in free encounters between individuals. They are under what Niebuhr calls the “illusion of classical liberalism that power is not an important element in man’s social life.”7 They assume that competing interests make for justice without regulation.
.. Niebuhr, however, insists that such organic justice would be possible “only if the powers which support interest were fairly equally divided, and they never are.”8 What Niebuhr recognizes and republican theology misses is that imbalances in economic power are as great a threat to the wellbeing and freedom of individuals as political power.
.. It was largely impossible for black Americans to buy homes in the South under Jim Crow. This is overt political power, the kind that worries republican theology. What is less well known is that it was also largely impossible for black Americans to buy homes in places like Chicago. Private real estate covenants outlawing selling or renting to African Americans in whole neighborhoods, racist lending policies, and great inequalities in capital did the job nearly as effectively as the laws of the South.
.. there is no reason to think that a decrease in the deployment of political power in the economy will automatically lead to a proportional increase in individual freedom. Covert forms of power will fill the vacuum emptied by the state
.. We must use the power of constitutional democracy to check both the rise of authoritarian politics and the hegemony of irresponsible capital. We need checks against tyranny, but we also need strong consumer and labor protections and corporate transparency, and we must protect democracy from distortion by the influence of money. Freedom does not blossom where government retreats; freedom is possible when power, including the government, checks power, including economic power, in defense of the individual.
.. 3) Finally, there is significant confusion regarding the third and final leg of the republican theology stool: proper Christian faith as a necessary precondition of a flourishing democracy. I see many problems here, but allow me to highlight just one.
.. Niebuhr notes that the earliest Puritan settlers believed God’s will to be inscrutable and did not count their initial successes as merited blessings. He calls their transition from such pious humility to bright confidence that their success came from their faith and virtues a “descent from Puritanism to Yankeeism.”10 Lynerd, likewise, notes that the “evangelical gospel of the First Great Awakening” (think Jonathan Edwards), with its “dim view of human perfectibility” was something “republican theology…had to overcome.”11
.. Niebuhr’s work picks up a strain of pessimism about human perfectibility that runs through Augustine and Luther, which is deeply ambivalent about any straightforward connection between either faith and virtue or virtue and flourishing. Republican theologians would be well served to recognize that their take on this is not the only, or even the majority, Christian position.
.. In a forthcoming article12 in Sociology of Religion, Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead, and Joseph O. Baker argue that what they call “Christian nationalism” was a “robust predictor of voting for Donald Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally.”
.. Where republican theology holds up political liberty as the necessary condition of right faith, Christian nationalism prefers the government to privilege Christianity. Sociologists identify Christian nationalism in their subjects by testing agreement with statements like, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” or disagreement with ones like “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”
.. According to the authors of the study, Christian nationalism draws heavily on Old Testament themes wherein Israel was “commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.” Christian nationalism, in actual practice, thus often carries with it racialized notions of purity.
.. “Christian nationalism is a strong predictor of antipathy toward racial boundary crossing,” including interracial marriage. In surveys, Christian nationalism correlates strongly with racism and xenophobia.
.. I do not think that republican theology is necessarily tied to Christian nationalism or that Christian nationalism is necessarily racist. That said, it is an empirical fact that republican theology, Christian nationalism, and racism often overlap in our society.
.. This is a sociological, not a priori, criticism. While there is no necessary causation between republican theology, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, I want to suggest that their overlap is also not accidental.
.. As long as we identify early America as a successful economic and political experiment and credit that success to morality and religion and we are willing to make exceptions to libertarianism to protect the preconditions of that success, then we will face the constant temptation to elide culture, race, religion, and morality and to use the government to enforce racial, cultural, and religious purity.
.. If republican theology is going to persist as a defensible option in American politics, it has to separate itself, consistently and vocally, from the tribal and bigoted elements of Christian nationalism.
.. The more evangelicals support figures like Trump, who embody “nationalism” more than “Christian” and are so publicly and unrepentantly immoral and who (at the very least) signal to bigots that they are friendly to their cause, the harder it will be for others to see any moral meaning to their behavior. The obvious meaning of that support will become, even more than it is now, the only visible meaning.
Can a mix of liberal politics and soft traditionalism survive a militant left and a right-wing Israel?..Every #metoo scandal is different, but most are alike in at least one way.. the fall of prominent men usually accelerates some pre-existing debate about where the larger institution or culture should be going, and which side of its internal arguments deserves to gain... In answering his accusers Cohen has embraced the clichés of male big shot contrition — promising a “consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts” and “a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair... his fall has inspired a critique not only of his behavior but also his life’s work .. his sexual sins should prompt a larger reappraisal of “the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival.”.. the longstanding angst within the American Jewish community around assimilation, intermarriage and fertility tends to sustain a kind of soft traditionalist pressure even in liberal Jewish life — one that defines Jewish identity in exclusionist terms, they complain, while marginalizing “single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples.”.. a “liberalism without/conservatism within” combination is common to minority populations, and it’s a particularly reasonable reaction to the experience of Jewish history: An oft-persecuted people’s flourishing can both depend on maintaining a certain conservatism about its own patterns of marrying and begetting and cultural transmission (and, in the case of Israel, the safety of its lonely nation-state), and on encouraging liberalism and cosmopolitanism in the wider, potentially-hostile order in which the diaspora subsists... the fear among many politically liberal Jews that if they don’t sustain a certain familial traditionalism, they’ll just cede the Jewish future to the ultra-fecund ultra-Orthodox.).. Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the view that European Jewry’s old enemy, Christian nationalism, is less dangerous to the Jewish future than the dissolving effects of liberal cosmopolitanism and the threat posed by Islamist anti-Semitism... Thus you have the striking phenomenon of the Netanyahu government cultivating friends like Hungary’s Viktor Orban