Have You Written Anything Today?

just-write-tshirt-1024x323God be praised, I finished the manuscript for my American exceptionalism book, and it’s now off to IVP for review.

This project has been nothing but fun, and it has taught me many valuable lessons about time management, self-discipline, openness to change, overcoming doubts, and many, many other things. Writing a dissertation or a book is a labor of such intensity–sending the manuscript off to the publisher for review was like seeing my kindergartener off at the bus stop for her first day of school. *Sniff, sniff*

The most important thing I learned from this experience is simple: get to work writing! I first considered writing this book back in the late fall, early spring 2011-2012. I posted some of my first thoughts about the project on the blog here. (It didn’t transfer very nicely from the old Blogger site.) I worked on a paper on American exceptionalism during the summer of 2012 for presentation at Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College that year. Honestly, I thought it was a disaster (turns out, because it was a disaster!).  I sat on a panel with two other presenters. When I gave the paper, I received no feedback, no questions, and the paper generated no discussion whatsoever. It was as if the thirty minutes of the presentation was a great void in time. I was totally dejected.

I considered giving up on the project. Maybe I’m the only person that thinks this is interesting, I thought. In fact, one of my fellow panelists suggested in his presentation that exceptionalism was not really a worthy topic of study–right after I gave my paper! I returned home with my tail between my legs, and seriously considered scrapping the whole thing.

But then, after a few days and some decent nights’ sleep, I thought I’d try and put together a book proposal on the topic. After all, I had a lot of good friends encourage me to keep plugging away. I wrote a book proposal, made appointments with six or seven publishers at the 2012 ETS meeting, and hoped for the best. InterVarsity expressed sincere interest in it, and a few months later, offered me a contract.

The journey from the dejection I felt at CFH to the moment the email came from IVP with a contract offer was a lesson in getting to work on the writing project despite suffering a setback. I recently looked over that paper I wrote in the summer of 2012, and yeah, it was true. The paper was not all that good. I hadn’t given the topic sufficient thought at that stage, so my ideas were half-baked and one-dimensional. But the experience forced me back to the drawing board, made me reassess my ideas, and motivated me to get it right.

The point of all this is–if you have a writing project you are turning over in your mind, then stop thinking about it and get to work writing! And if you’ve had some setbacks, then go back to the drawing board and re-engage the topic. It doesn’t matter if what you write is just brainstorming. The important thing is that you put your ideas on paper. You also need to be reading articles and books that are on your topic to help you back your idea into a corner. The turning point article for me was James Ceaser’s “Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism” also found here. I read the article about two weeks after the calamitous CFH panel. Ceaser’s insights rang a bell in my head, and it was as a result of reading his article that my ideas began to take shape and establish coherence–a coherence that was lacking in the paper I gave at the conference.

You should also consider reaching out to authors of books or articles you read and ask them questions about their observations and conclusions. In this day and age, all you have to do is Google someone’s name and you can find their email address. I emailed Ceaser (he teaches political science at UVA), and before I knew it, we were talking on the phone and having an enormously helpful conversation. Not only do you get insights from talking to people directly that you never would have had otherwise, you also build up a network, become an interlocutor in a conversation occurring on your topic, and even get other opportunities to write book reviews, blog posts, and conference papers.

Do you have a blog? If not, why not? Blogging is a great way to get to work writing. In this early post on exceptionalism, I asked for feedback on my topic–I got several good ideas from people who read my blog (more than just my mom!). Do you have a Twitter handle? If not, get one and start following people in your field.

Have you been to the library? Have you put together a core collection of books and articles that can serve as the basis for a bibliography? Have you been to Amazon to see what current books have been written on your topic? Have you been looking for calls for papers from conferences that are dialoguing about your topic?

All these things are important, and you should be doing all of them if you have a topic you want to write a book about. But as you do all of these things: write. Are you discouraged? Then, write. Bogged down? Write. Overwhelmed with the amount of work? Write. Stuck in a rut? Write.

Write. Write. Write.

At the USIH Conference in Indianapolis


Just arrived in Indy to attend the sixth annual conference of the Society for US Intellectual History. This year’s theme is “Materiality of Ideas.” Here is the theme’s official description:

This subject calls attention to the history of ideas by focusing on the various embodiments of American thought. This can include considerations of the relationship between immaterial and material realities; the development of American thought through the production or reproduction of ideas; the substance of thought, including the presence or absence of material objects; the manifestations of thought in economics, politics, or culture at local, national, or global levels; and, materialization in intellectual history including, but not limited to, book culture.

I am chairing a session entitled “Revolutions and Regenerations of New England Clergy in the 18th Century.” Lauren Gray, a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University, is giving a paper entitled “Birthing Bodies and Doctrine: Jonathan Edwards on the Materiality of Regeneration.” She will be arguing that Edwards’ understanding of the spiritual rebirth (John 3) is understood through the materiality of childbirth. Up next will be Jordan Taylor, whose paper is entitled “The Fruits of Revolution: New England Clergy, Commerce, and the French Revolution.” Taylor is a PhD student in Early American Republic at Indiana University-Bloomington. He’ll be arguing that transatlantic commerce and communication were essential in explaining the shift of American public opinion that took place in the mid to late 1790s from supporting the French Revolution to opposing it. He’s looking at New England geographer and preacher Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) as a case study in this shift in American public opinion regarding the French Revolution. They’ll present their papers, and then I’ll provide comment prior to Q and A from the audience.

This is my first S-USIH conference, so I’m looking forward to attending the sessions. I am thrilled with the theme, and it will be hard to choose between what sessions to attend. Here are some papers that caught my attention–

Searching for National Goals: The Challenge of the Policy Sciences to Academic Ethics in the early 1960s, Fred W. Beuttler, Carroll University (I just presented with Fred on a panel at CFH at Pepperdine a couple of weeks ago.)

Roundtable: Media History as Intellectual History with Raymond Haberski, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, Nicole Hemmer, University of Miami, Kyle Barnett, Bellarmine University, Josh Shepperd, Catholic University, and Allison Perlman, UC Irvine

Santayana’s Materialist Religion, Martin A. Coleman, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

“In God’s Sight”: Jesse Jackson, Western Civ, and the Moral Case for Multiculturalism, L.D. Burnett, University of Texas at Dallas

From Philosopher to Philosophy: The Canonization of John Locke in America, 1860-1960, Claire H. Rydell, Stanford University

Reading John F. Kennedy’s Cold War: Books That JFK’s Approach to Foreign Policy, Jason Duncan, Aquinas College

Roundtable: Theological Turn in Intellectual History with Matthew S. Hedstrom, University of Virginia, Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina, Andrew S. Finstuen, Boise State University, and K. Healan Gaston, Harvard Divinity School

The History of the “History of the Race Concept” and the Invention of Racism, Jonathan Hagel, University of Kansas

Global Intellectual History and Political Economy in the Early American Republic, Emma Gallwey, Harvard University

“What You Can Do For Your Country”: JFK, the Peace Corps, and the Revival of National Service Patriotism, Anne Mørk, University of Southern Denmark

“When the Cannon is Aimed by Ideas”: Emerson, the Civil War, and the Transcendentalist Embrace of the Nation, Peter Wirzbicki, University of Chicago

What are “Enlightenment Values” and Do They Have a History? Alex Jacobs, Vanderbilt University

So a lot of good stuff to choose from. In whatever down time I have, I’ll be writing the last chapter of the exceptionalism book.

Christian Historians and Social Media


At the recent gathering of the Conference on Faith and History last week at the sublime Pepperdine University campus, one of the highlights was a panel on Christian historians and social media. Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern chaired the panel, which featured John Fea of Messiah College, Chris Gehrz of Bethel University, and Paul Putz of Baylor University. I have each of these historians’ blogs featured on The Yarn section (right hand panel), my list of blogs I frequent. I have also linked to each of these historians’ writings from time to time in my own posts.

The panel presentations and subsequent discussions were incredibly helpful. The great thing is, though, that you don’t have to read my poor attempts at summarizing their remarks. Each of them will be following up on the panel through posts of their own, which are forthcoming over the next week or so.

Jonathan Den Hartog just included his introductory remarks over at Historical Conversations. Keep an eye out for posts coming from Fea, Gehrz, and Putz.

As the CFH is meeting here at Pepperdine, we are considering the conference theme of “Christian Historians and Their Publics.” In thinking about this topic, it seemed to me that a topic on “Christian Historians and Social Media” would be especially useful. The presence of social media (blogs, facebook, twitter, instagram, and others) has exploded in the past decade. This growing phenomenon is a reality not only for us, but for our students in the classroom, our families, and the people we see weekly in our congregations. How ought we to approach this space of cultural activity?


History Behind Bars: Fostering Civic Engagement in a Prison


The following is from a presentation I gave at the 2014 Conference on Faith and History at Pepperdine University.

In 1912, John J. Eagan, owner of the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, founded the Men and Religion Forward Movement (MRFM) in Atlanta, Georgia. The Movement was dedicated to motivating churches to social action pertinent to labor, immigration, temperance, Christian unity, and prison reform issues. It was an influential voluntary organization of white mainline Protestant denominations for men oriented toward a social gospel agenda. Notable figures such as Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, William Jennings Bryan, and Booker T. Washington spoke at the Congress of the Men and Religion Movement in April, 1912.[1] Two years earlier, Eagan became something of a mentor to a newly minted attorney fresh out of Columbia Law School named Philip Weltner. Eagan helped Weltner get named as the Chief Probation Officer of the Fulton County Children’s Court, and also helped Weltner get on the executive committee of the MRFM. Weltner had proven his worth as Eagan’s choice to head the Prison Association of Georgia from 1910 to 1911. Eagan founded this organization to help ex-convicts acclimate to society and to direct child offenders away from a life of crime. As head of the Prison Association, Weltner oversaw the creation of the first Children’s Court in Georgia devoted to rehabilitation of youth rather than punishment. And as a prominent member of the MRFM, he shared Eagan’s vision of making “the mind of Christ the rule and guide of Christian living.”[2]

The Georgia prison system was notorious for its cruelty in 1912. The lash was the officers’ preferred tool of motivation for the prisoners, hearkening back to the days of slavery. In fact, the state prison system was in some respect designed as a legal method of slavery after the war through the turn of the twentieth century. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of the old Bolton estate, a sprawling antebellum plantation in Dougherty County, Georgia. The estate was converted into a prison camp after the war, and Du Bois wrote that “it was for many years worked by gangs of Negro convicts . . . it was a way of making Negroes work, and the question of guilt was a minor one.”[3] The Thirteenth Amendment had abolished slavery to be sure, but it excepted slavery in cases of “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”[4] Du Bois wrote, “the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor.”[5]

In his new position as Deputy Solicitor General of Fulton County, as a member of the MRFM, and as a Christian, Weltner decided to do something about the cruelty in Georgia’s prisons. But what could he do? While staying in a Newnan, Georgia hotel, Weltner decided to get a first-hand look at life on the inside of a prison. He wrote, “I was lying in bed, when the idea popped into mind to become a convict myself.”[6] The next day, he “turned himself in” to a member of the Campbell County Commission in the town of Fairburn. He told him that his name was John Marvel and that he was under a five year sentence for forgery. Weltner explained to the commissioner that even though his appearance before him seemed out of the ordinary, he was there “because the Prison Commission of Georgia trusted me to give myself up to him.”[7]

So Weltner posed as a prisoner in a “convict camp” in Campbell County, Georgia. He was given a striped uniform, assigned to a hard labor gang setting up telephone poles and was locked in a cage at night alone with a convicted murderer. The next morning after breakfast, as the men were loading into wagons to go off to their work sites under armed guard, the camp warden asked “John Marvel” to stay behind. After the rest of the prisoners had left, Weltner learned that his story had been investigated and found to be a fabrication. He was handed his clothes and told to get out, immediately. His story was later picked up by the New York Herald and became a national sensation. It initiated ongoing newspaper coverage of prison cruelty by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which reported systemic brutality in the state prison system. Public demand for prison reform in Georgia, including the abolishment of the lash, ultimately resulted from Weltner’s courageous act.

This story is personally compelling to me, not only because it is a story about a man who was willing to make an enormous sacrifice to help rectify a moral outrage. It is also compelling because Philip Weltner is my great-grandfather. I was twelve years old when he died at age ninety-four, but even as a boy I knew that he was a great man and deeply admired by people rich and poor, black and white, all over Georgia.

I am currently engaged in teaching history in a fully accredited bachelor’s program with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the Darrington maximum security prison unit in Rosharon, Texas. The Darrington unit is an official extension campus of Southwestern Seminary, and the school has enrolled 148 students in the program. The students graduate with a B.S. in Biblical Studies, and then are placed in other units within the Texas prison system to serve as inmate chaplains. The student inmates are, for the most part, never getting out of prison. But they have committed themselves to spend the rest of their lives serving others in prison. I like to think that I stand under my great-grandfather’s shadow as I play a role in their academic, spiritual, and ministerial training. Prison presents many challenges, but teaching history there has the potential to provide a basis for meaning, identity, and civic engagement for the prisoners as they exist day to day as individuals and in community with each other.

Ted V. McAllister recently wrote of the effects on the loss of place in twenty-first century America. This loss has contributed to the eroding of Americans’ exercise of civic engagement. According to McAllister, one of the aspects of the loss of place in America is the lack of a basic knowledge of history among Americans who are lost in the contemporary world that buzzes with the distractions and novelties of technology. Not only do human beings need an attachment to a physical place of birth, growth, and community. Human beings need a place in history, “the felt presence of ancestors, of inherited culture, a sense that as individuals and groups they played an important role in a story not of their making,” as McAllister said. Both physical place and place in history are threatened by our technology-fueled culture. McAllister wrote, “we have abandoned history for the ever-present now” and our break with the moral and social ballast of history “leads to a form of powerlessness.”[8]

Much of what McAllister identified in his critique of modern culture is true of the Darrington unit where I and nine other Southwestern faculty members teach. The placelessness and historylessness that McAllister warned about in American culture can also be perceived in prison.

For one thing, the prison at Darrington is a non-place, if we work with McAllister’s definition of the term and distinction between place and space. McAllister wrote that place “constrains but it also empowers.” He said that “it is important to create, preserve, and improve real places for real people . . . to find attachments, to empower them to engage meaningfully and well with neighbors toward collective purposes, and to help them understand their particular role in the larger story of humanity.”[9] In other words, place is like a cultivated garden, the product of a community living in active cooperation for the common good.

In contrast, McAllister defined space as that which lies beyond the walls of the garden, the expanse of the unknown beyond the place to which the community is tied. “Space can . . . be forbidding, mysterious, dark—the source for experiences of ennui, loss, and fear. . . . The horizon is vast, the terrain appears unchanging, time slows down as miles go by without detectable landmarks. One can easily feel insignificant, small, meaningless in such a space—a space that bears little trace of human contact and evokes no sense whatsoever of history.”[10] While prison definitely lacks the openness that McAllister described, it certainly has every conceivable aspect of the forbiddenness of a wilderness. Indeed, being in the prison gives one a sense of powerlessness, of being at the whim of the will of forces beyond one’s control, much like being in a wilderness. And in the prison, one lacks contact with the past. The changelessness inherent in the established grooves of prison life and the physical aspects of the facility gives one the sense of time standing still.

So prison is, in many ways, a non-place. It is physically ugly, institutional, somber, uniform, and (by necessity) cut off from the rest of society. Personal survival, not cultivation of a community, is the often the order of the day at Darrington. And prisoners are historyless. They have been (by necessity) sequestered from the public, outside of the flow of its identifying and unifying narratives, and beyond their ability to effect the course of the public’s future. There is no felt presence of the past in prison, and to experience the inside of prison is to experience McAllister’s “ever-present now.” By necessity, inmates exist in a strict routine without significant variation. And prisoners’ knowledge of history is limited. Much of what passes as history at the Darrington unit consists of bits and pieces of usable pasts prisoners have cobbled together as they have been exposed to writings of culture warriors representing every conceivable agenda. Usable pasts have the effect of shattering unity in a prison by pitting groups against each other—a dangerous thing indeed in maximum security lockup.

How does the teaching of history serve as a grounding agent for meaning and identity? It does so by fostering civic engagement within the local community—the public—made up of the inmate students in Southwestern’s B.S. program at Darrington. Darrington as a prison may be more of a “space” than a “place.” Ironically however, the seminary at Darrington bears the marks of a place, of a cultivated garden in the midst of a wilderness. The student-inmates at the Darrington extension campus of Southwestern have found their community, their place—and have found a path toward meaningful engagement with each other for their common good, and ultimately for the good of the inmates of the entire prison. One way they do so is through their learning of history. As they learn history, they also learn to apply history to the real issues they experience together in the prison. As they do so, they learn how to productively engage in community with one another.

A model for a public’s healthy civic engagement is found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of what he found in 1830s New England. Specifically, Tocqueville provided a detailed description of the animating “spirit” of New England townships in Democracy in America. People in each New England township were members of their communities. As invested members, they found their communities to be worth the effort necessary for their care and management. Tocqueville noted that among the individuals in the various local groups, social distinctions and rank were non-existent. All were equals, thus there was no oppression of one group by any other. Each person’s cooperation for the flourishing of the community brought them a sense of attachment and affection to it. Tocqueville wrote, “in the United States it is believed . . . that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfillment of a duty or the exercise of a right; and a constant through gentle motion is thus kept up in society, which animates without disturbing it.”[11]

To be sure, the key to the spirit of the New England townships, according to Tocqueville, was their independent and self-governing status. In this regard, the model presented in Democracy in America is necessarily unattainable to a certain extent. But even though the Darrington students will never have the opportunity for self-rule, either in the school or the prison as a while, they will still have smaller opportunities to plot their courses forward. For example, they’ve established a church called Makarios, a Greek word meaning blessed, happy. Makarios is led entirely by student inmates, and prisoners who are in the general population are invited to attend their services. The students are part of an academic program in which they are organized by cohort. They are accepted into the program together, matriculate together, attend classes and study together for four years, and graduate together. They forge strong bonds in this common experience of growth, challenge, and trial. And since the program is highly selective and defined by a vision of service to others, the students are a part of something that goes far beyond simply securing an education. They see themselves as part of a transformative movement of God. Byron R. Johnson conducted a study of an experimental faith based program attempted in the Texas prison system in the 1990s called InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). He found that because the program was strongly oriented around service to others, the prisoners involved in that program felt “an overwhelming desire, if not obligation, to make a positive contribution to the community.” Furthermore, their visceral experiences of “going ‘to hell and back’ especially qualify them to reach out and help others not to make the same mistakes they have made.”[12] What Johnson observed in the IFI is clearly perceptible among the students in the Darrington unit.

So while the inmate community of students at Darrington is not independent and free to the extent of the New England communities that Tocqueville visited in the 1830s, the differences between them are mitigated by elements essential to the program. One of those essential element is the teaching of history. For example, I teach four history courses: Western Civilization, History of Philosophy, American Cultural Issues, and Principles of American Politics. In Western Civ, the students learn that they are part of an old and developed tradition that has not seen the end of its development. In History of Philosophy, they engage with the thinkers of the past and see that they are not the first to think deeply about the nature of things, the meaning of knowledge, and the application of right and wrong. In American Cultural Issues, they learn that though they are in prison, they are still Americans and still have a voice and can definitively shape their own culture in positive and productive ways. And in Principles of American Politics, they learn that our experiment in self-government is still an experiment, and a continual process of learning and engagement with others who have different perspectives and beliefs about what defines good government.

In Western Civ II, the students read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. They are exposed to his ideas, they write about them, and they discuss them in the open. Their interpretations of and insights from Tocqueville are scrutinized and critiqued by their peers in the open, and they are guided by their professor who cares about them, and who is ultimately training them to minister to others who are also in prison. They read, for example, about those people who lived in the 1830s, those people whom Tocqueville encountered and wrote about in his classic work. They see that those people were members of a local community. They had a place among their fellows with whom they lived, breathed, and had their being. They see that those people in the past loved their communities, nurtured them, sought and fought for their best interests. They were emotionally attached to their local groups, and their communities were unified around the goal of securing and sustaining the common welfare. In reading texts from the past, like Tocqueville, the students come face to face with real people who went before them and found meaning, identity, and purpose to their lives. Even in prison, the students see themselves in the people of the past. And even in prison, the sense of historylessness is lost when they immerse themselves in history.

Du Bois wrote about the plight of African Americans in the south at the turn of the twentieth century in his Souls of Black Folk. African Americans in his day had suffered nearly 300 years of uninterrupted injustice against their families, their dignities, their minds and souls, and their persons. Slavery had been a series of grave injustices to African Americans, but it had also inflicted its violence on the land itself. The soil was eroded and exhausted, and by the end of the nineteenth century, much of the land that had been fruitful and productive was good for nothing. “The hard, ruthless rape of the land began to tell. The red-clay sub-soil already had begun to peer above the loam. The harder the slaves were driven the more careless and fatal was their farming.”[13] When injustice reigned, the people and the places suffered alike.

Prison is much the same. Injustice defines everything about the reason why the inmate resides at Darrington. The Darrington prison itself bears witness to injustices of unspeakable loathsomeness, and it is not a pleasant place. It is not air-conditioned, so it is hot and it smells like sweat. It is crowded and loud on “Main Street,” the main lane that goes down the length of the prison. The prisoners, as they make their way to a classroom on the other side of the prison, are stripped searched stark naked in front of each other and their professor as their bodies are examined by correctional officers. To be certain, this is necessary, but it is a part of a regular routine for the Darrington students that is outside the realm of reality for most people.

History teaches them that, in spite of their realities and in spite of their offenses, they are still men. Du Bois wrote of African Americans in 1903—“This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten.”[14] Although Du Bois was writing about a different group in a different time experiencing different circumstances, these words are broadly applicable to the students at Darrington. History teaches them that, even though they have been expelled from free society, they are members of another society. And in that society, they have the opportunity to be co-laborers for their “kingdom of culture.” While they are isolated from their loved ones—many from their wives and children—history can teach them that they can yet use their “best powers” and “latent genius.” While society may want to forget them, history teaches them that they still have dignity, their decisions still have moral content, and they are fully capable of supplanting injustice acts with just ones. Du Bois teaches them these things, as do a host of other voices from history.

The Darrington prison is a hard place. All of the students enrolled in the program are serving life sentences, many for murder. But as they read, think about, discuss, grapple with, and interpret history, they find their own place in it. In and through their courses in history, the students find their place in community with each other; they find their place in history; and they nurture their community within the prison as a husbandman tends a garden. They are not placeless, neither are they historyless. Thus, they are not powerless. They see injustice and justice in history, and they learn that no offense excludes the possibility of reconciliation and redemption; that every individual is valuable and every community is worth nurturing and advancing for the sake of human flourishing. In many ways, the prisoners at Darrington have a keener awareness of these facts than we who live in the free world have. History fosters this awareness, and serves as a catalyst in their endeavor to pursue healthy and beneficial civic engagement in their local community.

[1] Messages of the Men and Religion Forward Movement (New York: Association Press, 1912).

[2] Philip Weltner, Recollections, p. 32.

[3] W. E. B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk in Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), p. 451.

[4] U. S. Constitution, Amendment 13.

[5] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, p. 450.

[6] Weltner, Recollections, p. 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ted. V. McAllister, “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood,” in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, ed. Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister (New York: Encounter, 2014), p. 190.

[9] Ibid., pp. 190–91.

[10] Ibid., pp. 191–92.

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (1945, repr; New York: Knopf, 1994), pp. 67–68.

[12] Byron R. Johnson, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2011), p. 129.

[13] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, p. 449.

[14] Ibid., p. 365.

Our “Wars” and Why We Fight Them

Flag_Culture_Wars-600x398Ever wonder what’s up with the ubiquitous use of the word “war” to describe some political or cultural cause? A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation at war with ourselves. If aliens darting around the galaxy were to stop for a bathroom break on Earth and read our headlines, they would see that there is a war on women, a war on religion, a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on science, a war on reason, a war on Christmas, a war on kids, a war on fat, a war on whistleblowers, and on and on and on (these are all actual “wars” we are “fighting,” according to a 30 second Google search I did just now.)

It’s weird, at least to me, that we use the word “war” in this way. I’ve never been in actual combat, but I am aware enough to know that our nation has been sending men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in combat in a real shooting war since September 11, 2001. Using the term “war” to talk about a cultural or political cause has always seemed to cynically minimize the sacrifices that our servicemen and women have made over the past thirteen years.

I was reading about Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech in which she vowed, “We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it, we will fight for it.” What did she mean? Is she advocating for violence?

The use of the word “war” and “fight” in political/cultural context obviously does not mean anything entailing violence (usually, at least). But it does conjure up images of grappling with an enemy, of strategy and tactics, of advance and retreat, of victory or defeat. Cultural and political wars are fixated on the hope of a victorious future or the dread of an irreversible defeat. Wars mean sacrifice, toil, commitment. Above all, wars call for unity in the face of a threat.

War has a peculiar civil religious element that is useful in bringing unity to otherwise disparate groups. In a war like World War II, Americans put aside many, if not most, of their religious, cultural, social, racial, and cultural differences for the purpose of defeating the Japanese and the Germans. They made sacrifices. They bought bonds. They weathered bad news and they determined never to be satisfied with anything less than unconditional surrender. And in the end, that’s what they got from their enemies. They were totally defeated.

Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 addresses how Americans have seen war over the past three generations. War, Haberski argues, has been an essential idea to American unity and purpose since World War II. It brings people together in ways that other ideas simply cannot. In the absence of a real shooting war, Americans will often make up a war, in order to rally to a cause.

The Global War on Terror was unique in that, from the beginning, our leaders never demanded much of the non-military population in the way of sacrifice. President Bush, in a September 27, 2001 speech at O’Hare International Airport, encouraged Americans to continue doing what they were doing: “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed,” he said. This, in stark contrast to FDR’s call for the American people to sacrifice for the war effort in a speech from April 28, 1942, in which he said, “All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending.”

Since the War on Terror is a war that is largely fought by the military, but not the citizenry, people in general have room in their minds for other “wars” that serve to rally them to causes that concern them as disparate groups. Race, religion, gender, environment, class, and political party serve as suitable “front lines” in the “wars” we fight. One problem, according to James Davison Hunter in his Before the Shooting Begins, is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.”

I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I can read the present. We live in a time when we are actually getting accustomed to mass shootings at malls, schools, theaters, and even places of worship. I found myself in the position recently to explain to my kids why the person in the car in front of us gave us the middle finger and just tried to run us off the road. I know I, along with people representing every political and social position, worry about the suspicious “war-fighting” culture we are handing down to our children.

And yet, Americans self-identify along the lines of race, gender, political persuasion, etc.. I guess there’s nothing new in that. What seems unique in our present situation is that the group mentality often entails “war” with other groups that are considered “the enemy.”

Considering this from a historical perspective, Americans, it seems have always seen themselves in such terms while the issues that divide them have changed. This is especially ironic, since our national motto (until 1956) was E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”). Perhaps we need to go back to the Federalist Papers, and read what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote about the challenge of maintaining unity among so many disparate groups, or factions, as they called them. Madison wrote in Federalist 51,

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. 

The republican concept of the “public good” was a salient concept in Madison’s thinking. Public good is to be differentiated from “group good.” Selfishness destroys republics. Pursuit of the public good, the common wealth, is the aim of the republic. One means of attaining the public good is a scrupulous attention to respecting the natural rights of all men, women, and children. Natural rights, as understood through the lens of the natural law tradition in Western thought, are based on the existence of God and the divine image he has bestowed on his human creatures, giving them all worth and dignity. Respecting the natural rights of all means, at minimum, that individuals and groups do not seek to limit or deny the rights of other individuals or groups. Madison also said in Federalist 51,

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens;

Culture and political war-fighting is anathema to a republican pursuit of the public good. Wars pit groups against each other, casting the other as “the enemy” to be totally defeated and destroyed. It’s hard to see how our system of democratic-republicanism can survive in its current state of constant wars and rumors of wars.

Princeton Bound


I’m headed out to attend the Witherspoon Institute’s seminar on Religion and Liberty in the Founding Era in Princeton, NJ the week of July 27. It’s going to be an incredibly helpful seminar, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The seminar faculty will include Thomas Kidd from Baylor University, Daniel Dreisbach from American University, and Gerald McDermott from Roanoke College. For me, it’s really one of most unique educational and professional opportunities I’ve ever had.

To prepare for the seminar, the participants are reading The Sacred Rites of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American F0unding, edited by Dreisbach and Mark David Hall. Here are the readings we are going to be discussing on the morning of the first day:

  • Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed
  • Schleitheim Confession of Faith
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Act of Supremacy; Act of Uniformity; Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England
  • Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
  • The First London Baptist Confession of Faith
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  • William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience
  • John Locke, “A Letter on Toleration,” The Second Treatise
  • “Cato” [John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon], Cato’s Letters, Letter 66, “Arbitrary Government proved incompatible with true Religion, whether Natural or Revealed”
  • Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
  • William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

We’ll be working our way through all that week until the afternoon of August 1 to our last reading, which is from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Here is the description for the seminar–

This five-day seminar will examine the relationship between religion and politics in the period of the American Revolution, founding, and early republic. Open to untenured faculty and post-doctoral scholars in history, political theory, law, and religion, the seminar will explore primary sources at the intersection of church and state—charters, constitutions, and legal texts, as well as sermons, pamphlets, essays, speeches, debates, and religious texts. Topics will range from the colonial era and the First Great Awakening, through the revolution, constitution-making, and founding debates over religious liberty, to the dawn of the Second Great Awakening, with a view of politics from a religious perspective, and a view of religion from a political perspective. From Edwards to Emmons, from Mather to Madison, from Whitefield to Washington, major figures of this pivotal era in American religious and political history will be considered in their own historical settings. The seminar faculty will be leading scholars of American history, law and politics, and theology.

I’ll have to take a week off from my writing, but it’ll be all right–I’ve budgeted my writing time this summer around my seminar prep time as well as the week away. When I leave on the 27th, I’ll have 7 of my 9 chapters completed. Closing in on finishing up, and very excited to have the exceptionalism book done.

Carol Burnett’s Hilarious “Obsession” with John Foster Dulles


In researching my chapter on America’s providential mission to the world, I ran across this hilarious little Cold War anecdote. It’s about how comedienne Carol Burnett became famous after singing “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower from 1953-1959. He was the quintessential Cold Warrior. His worldview was animated by the idea that human history was marked by a cosmic struggle between good and evil forces. During his time, those forces were represented by the United States as the force of good and the Soviet Union as the force of evil. He believed that the future of the human race hinged on whether or not the United States was successful in meeting the threat posed by the “godless communism” of Soviet Russia.


Sec of State John Foster Dulles, 1888-1959

Dulles was famous for being dour, grim, and humorless. So when Carol Burnett sang a song about a crazed fan’s obsession with Dulles, it brought the house down. Her singing that song on the Ed Sullivan Show was her big break.

To add to the delicious humor of this story, Carol Burnett told Diane Rehm that shortly after her performance, she saw Dulles giving an interview on Meet the Press. This is what Burnett said happened at the end of the interview:

And so it was, you know, all the serious talk about what the Secretaries of State talk about. And then at the very last part of the show, the moderator said, well, all right, we’re going to leave now, but, Mr. Dulles, just tell us what is this about you and that young girl that sings that love song about you. And I looked — oh, I got real close to the television set. And he got a twinkle in his eye and he said, I make it a matter never to talk about loves in public.

Even the most staid Cold Warrior had a sense of humor!