Donald Trump Is Our National Catastrophe

This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.

If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.

What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.

Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.

In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?

The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.

And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.

That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.

Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.

And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.

I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.

Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.

But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.

If We Had a Real Leader

Imagining Covid under a normal president.

This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.

If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.

In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.

If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.

Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.

In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.

If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.

After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.

Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.

But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.

All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”

Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.

One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? “Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights, and Christian America”

John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours: Fall 2015 Season – Episode 12

00:08
greetings everyone and welcome to the
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virtual office hours this is episode 12
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of our fall 2015 season my name is John
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fee I’m your host here I teach American
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history at messiah college Abby Blakeney
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our producer as usual behind the camera
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she’s back from Thanksgiving break which
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basically means after today we only have
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two more office hours to do here in our
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fall season and as you really recall we
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are thinking about the place of America
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as the role of America should say as a
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Christian nation and how people
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perceived of America throughout much of
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American history how people perceive
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themselves as living in a Christian
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nation some of you remember that July
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hopefully in July sometimes in the
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summer the second edition of my book was
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America founded as a Christian nation
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will be out so we will be revisiting
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we’re here revisiting that things are
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getting ready for that release now again
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just a caveat I’ve been making this
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caveat before when we talked about the
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idea that Americans believed that they
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were living in a Christian nation we of
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course are stating that historically
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that’s a historical statement it’s not
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an ethical statement it’s not a moral
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statement so again if you want to argue
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with my premise here that America it has
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always seen itself as living in a
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Christian nation what you would need to
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do is you would need to look at the
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evidence I’ve mounted both in the book
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and over the course of the last 11
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episodes and try to suggest that no
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Americans didn’t think that they were
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living in a nation that was Christian
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that would be a historical critique of
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what I’m doing as opposed to it so the
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ethical or political critique to say
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people are wrong for believing that that
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they lived in a Christian nation this is
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again the difference between historical
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thinking and other kinds of thinking my
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point is historically whether they were
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right or wrong whether they were
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following what the founders truly
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believed America has always understood
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themselves as living in a Christian
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nation at least up until the 1970s as
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we’ll see you next week or maybe the
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week
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after today I want to focus on civil
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rights movement now religion and
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christianity has been a dominant theme
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recently in among scholars who were
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writing about the civil rights movement
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and the way they’re writing methyl
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Christianity and forms are had informed
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the civil rights movement thinking here
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especially of David Chappelle’s book
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stone of hope in which he points to an
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Old Testament prophetic tradition that
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that really defined the vision of the
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civil rights movement what I want to
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focus on quickly with you today’s I want
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to think about one particular episode in
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the civil rights movement and that is
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Martin Luther King Junior’s visit to the
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city of Birmingham in April set of 1963
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it’s in that year that King come South
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comes to Alabama to fight against
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segregation in that city many of you
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know the story he is eventually put into
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prison by the public safety commissioner
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of the city Eugene Bull Connor and while
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he is in prison he writes what becomes
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known one of it as one of his most
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famous pieces of writing the letter from
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a Birmingham jail now that letter is
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written from prison obviously and it’s
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addressed to the white clergy in the
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city of Birmingham and most of these
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white clergy that he’s writing to
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believe that segregation should be
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handled locally they don’t like king
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they think he’s an outside agitator
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who’s coming in and disrupting the good
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order of the city which is pretty much
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based upon racial segregation so King
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writes this letter it’s published it’s
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put out in the pamphlet form so it gets
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a kind of national ventually gets a kind
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of national audience and it’s a
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fascinating argument because on one hand
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King is arguing for a a nationalist
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vision right where there is if there’s
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injustice anywhere or injustice anywhere
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i should say is a threat to justice
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everywhere in other words he’s a
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challenging localism he’s challenging
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the idea that local governments local
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clergy get to decide what is right and
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what is wrong on this
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question of race and thus challenging
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segregation in the process so he appeals
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to people like Abraham Lincoln and
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others these great figures of American
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nationalism to say you know we you know
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we have to we have to stop the kind of
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localism that’s going on we have to stop
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these local prejudices and local ideas
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especially if they’re challenging what
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he believes is justice and king secondly
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sort of defines justice through his
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vision of what it means to be a
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Christian so he’s making constant
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appeals in the in letter from a
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Birmingham jail about just laws and
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unjust laws right he’s referencing
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people like everybody from Agustin to
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Aquinas to Paul Tillich the modern
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theologian to he’s going back to the
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Bible and showing how Shadrach Meshach
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and Abednego in the Old Testament
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challenged King Nebuchadnezzar who is
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putting an unjust law upon them so this
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idea of civil disobedience is rooted in
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the Bible it’s rooted in theology at the
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same time then King is bringing these
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two ideas together this idea of
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nationalism vers / localism and this
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Christian idea of justice to suggest a
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new vision for the nation which is going
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to be defined by the idea that we are
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indeed a judeo-christian country and we
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must live up to the principal’s not only
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of our founding fathers but the
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principles as well of God I think he
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summarizes this very very well in
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towards the end of the letter and if I
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can just find it here I want to make
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sure i get the wording right where he
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says he basically says he reminds the
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birmingham clergy here that he’s
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standing up for quote what is best in
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the American dream and for the most
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sacred values in our judeo-christian
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heritage thereby bringing our nation
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back to those great wells of democracy
which were dug deep by the founding
fathers in their formulation of the
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constant
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tution and the Declaration of
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Independence again it’s a powerful
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convergence here of American values
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national values and Christian values and
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King is calling us to a sort of
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different kind of Christian nation a
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sort of beloved community in which
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people are not judged by race or by the
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color of their skin so clearly here even
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Martin Luther King a man of the left a
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man of the civil rights movement makes
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his case based upon many of these
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Christian nationalists kind of
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sentiments that we’ve seen all the way
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in American history all the way from all
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the way back in the early 19th century
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we have two more episodes to go will
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hopefully get to the end of the
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twentieth and twenty-first century here
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in the meantime thanks for watching and
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we’ll see you next time

Martha Nussbaum, “The Monarchy of Fear”

Martha Nussbaum discusses her book, “The Monarchy of Fear” at Politics and Prose on 7/9/18.

One of the country’s leading moral philosophers, Nussbaum cuts through the acrimony of today’s political landscape to analyze the Trump era through one simple truth: that the political is always emotional. Starting there, she shows how globalization has produced feelings of powerlessness that have in turn fed resentment and blame. These have erupted into hostility against immigrants, women, Muslims, people of color, and cultural elites. Drawing on examples from ancient Greece to Hamilton, Nussbaum shows how anger and fear inflame people on both the left and right; by illuminating the powerful role these passions play in public life, she points to ways we can avoid getting caught up in the vitriol that sustains and perpetuates divisive politics.

How Langston Hughes’s Dreams Inspired MLK’s

Langston Hughes wrote about dreams at a time when racism meant that black people’s dreams were silenced

“I have a dream.”

You’ve heard the line. But what you may not know is that the poetry of Langston Hughes, born on this day in 1902, influenced King’s sermons on a fundamental level and helped give rise to the preacher’s most lasting line. Hughes, an accomplished poet, is remembered by many as one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance and an important African American voice. He’s less remembered for his connection to the civil rights leader.

Hughes wrote a number of poems about dreams or dealing with the subject of dreams, but they weren’t really positive poems — they were truthful reflections of the struggle he and other black Americans faced in a time of institutionalized and mainstream cultural racism. What happens to a dream deferred, he asked: sometimes it just becomes a “heavy load.” Other times, it explodes.

But, Miller writes, King was also influenced by others whose work reached back to the poet. One of the biggest cultural milestones that had happened just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first speech about dreams was the debut of A Raisin in the Sun.

The play took its name from a line of Hughes’s famous poem, “A Dream Deferred (Harlem),” writes Miller. The poem was printed in full on the playbill, according to Michael Hoffman for The Florida Times-Union. After it premiered, Hoffman writes, King wrote to Hughes: “I can no longer count the number of times and places… in which I have read your poems.”

The play began its run on March 19, just a few weeks before King delivered his first sermon about dreams, on April 5. “Because King was obligated to preach about Palm Sunday, and then Easter on successive weeks, April 5 literally marked the first possible opportunity after the play’s premier for him to create and deliver a new sermon,” Miller writes. “In his sermon, King used the poem’s imagery, repeated questions, theme and diction.”

These kind of details demonstrate that King’s preoccupation with dreams—which manifested itself in speeches particularly from 1960 onwards, according to one scholarly analysis—came from the literature of black oppression, Miller writes.

From this preoccupation came King’s most mainstream rallying cry, “I have a dream.” And it’s worth thinking about why King chose that word, rather than another. For instance, the April 5 sermon about dreams was actually titled “Unfulfilled Hopes” — if he’d kept running with that language, it’s possible his best-known line might have been “I have a hope.”

Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” was a line from Langston Hughes’s poetry

Ms. Tippett:He talked about how the prophets are always poets, and it’s with poetic language that they rise above the merely political and have something other than merely political impact. He says that the line we all remember of Martin Luther King is actually a line of poetry. “I have a dream” is actually a line of poetry.

Mr. Rampersad:Yes, a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry.

Ms. Tippett:Is it really? It’s a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry? I didn’t know that.

Mr. Rampersad:Well, I think Langston Hughes always believed that, because he had consistently invoked the motif of the dream in his poetry, in his civil rights poetry. So he always felt that Martin Luther King owed him one.

Ms. Tippett:I see.

Mr. Rampersad: Yeah. But that’s another story.

 

 

.. Ms. Alexander: Yes, I think of the Dr. Du Bois — that was always how he was referred to in my family. And I think that was very important because he was someone to be respected, that even though African Americans had attained higher education by the time I was a child, I know that I knew he was the first African American to get his PhD from Harvard University, that it was an extraordinary thing to have become educated in the way that he did, so that we ought to give him that title. And later on, I learned, there are a number of African-American elders of a generation for whom only the letters of their names are what we know. “W.E.B.” That was strategic, a way that he could not be called William or Bill, that someone would have to call him “boy” or call him Dr. Du Bois. It forced the issue of his stature. I think that that interested me a great deal. I remember learning that when I was probably a young teenager. I didn’t read The Souls of Black Folk until I was in college. I remember very much reading it for the first time, sophomore year with Professor Michael Cooke in a big survey course on African-American literature. It was a graduate course and, at that time, the only place that Du Bois was taught alongside Booker T. Washington and other greats of the tradition. I remember thinking, “Oh, not only is he a great man, he’s a beautiful writer” — and how that felt like such a gift that these important ideas came forward to us in language that was unforgettable.

 

 

Ms. Angelou: As one of the great thinkers. For a black man at that time, to teach and to learn and to study under those circumstances when people were being lynched, what Dr. Du Bois showed is that he had enormous courage. I would encourage young men and women, black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and all, to look at Dr. Du Bois and realize that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving — any of those — without courage.

The article removed from Forbes, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel”

Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence.

.. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children.

.. Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.

.. What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers.

.. Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness

.. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race.

.. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.

.. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology.

.. Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants.