Interview with Peter Gardella, Author of American Civil Religion

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Peter Gardella, author of American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred, is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College, and is the author of three other books on American religion. His thesis is that American civil religion, unified by the values of freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance, is one of the most influential religions in the world. He supports his thesis by considering thirty-two texts, monuments, symbols, and ideas that bear civil religious significance–like the MLK Memorial on the Washington Mall, as pictured on the book’s cover.

Gardella was gracious enough to sit for a phone interview with me this week. His book is persuasive, thorough, and well-argued.

Q: How did you get interested in American civil religion?

A: In my childhood, my oldest brother who is 17 years older than I am, went to the Naval Academy in 1952 and I grew up thinking I should go to the Naval Academy. Civil religion always mattered to me a great deal; my father always flew the flag on all kinds of occasions in front of the house and so I’ve grown up with it.

Q: And haven’t we all?

A: We said the pledge every morning in public school right after the Lord’s Prayer in my case until 1963. But, there’s no question—it’s amazing that people don’t know the phrase. Only 2 weeks ago I had a letter published in the New York Times, and the editor wanted to eliminate the phrase “civil religion” from the letter because, she said, “I don’t know what it is.” I asked one of my colleagues here and he didn’t know either.

It’s a phrase in common use, but it’s amazing how well informed people you run into have never heard the phrase before. In fact, we haven’t educated the public to even the existence of American civil religion, but I think it’s one of the most powerful religions in the world.

Q: This book represents a ten-year project for you, researching American civil religion. As you wrote the book, what struck you to be the tangible elements making American civil religion recognizable?

A: My original sub-title for 10 years was American Civil Religion: Monuments, Texts, and Images. My idea was, here we talk about this thing and nobody has written a book describing what the basic elements of civil religion are. What are the sacred places, sacred texts, symbols in America, and what is their history? When I would teach civil religion, I would use Conrad Cherry’s God’s New Israel—not that it’s not a good book, but it is inadequate to present the kind of thing I wanted to show people.

The president of Oxford University Press intervened with my editor and said, “the sub-title has to be What Americans Hold Sacred.” It makes things a bit vague, but it’s reasonable because most people still don’t know what American civil religion is.

Q: How does civil religion relate to the concept of American exceptionalism?

A: American exceptionalism is an extraordinarily developed civil religion. We have a desperate need for civil religion because we are exceptional in our lack of natural culture. What is our natural culture? We have a borrowed language, a land we took from the Native Americans, no native cuisine, no native perspective on history. Even the other nations in the Americas, like Mexico possess more of a native culture than we do.

Take the Mexican flag—the native symbols of the eagle with the serpent are depicted. The Mexican capital still sits on the old site of the Aztec capital. Mexicans are much more deeply rooted in their place than we are.

We are very unusual in that we have this great void—my family, for example, consists of Italians and Poles who came here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many emigrated after 1965 when we changed the immigration laws. We have no native culture to hold us together, but we do have civil religion. We pledge allegiance, affirm our values, etc. and we need civil religion very much to fill the void in our culture. The strength of our civil religion in effect becomes our exceptionalism.

Our assimilative power is something else that makes America exceptional. We could move to Japan and our third generation descendants wouldn’t be Japanese. But people come to America, their kids become American, they become American. And these things go together.

Another example: what other nation has anything close to a House Un-American Activities Committee? What would the Italian parliament have, an Un-Italian Activities Committee? Italians can be fascists or communists and still be Italian. What makes them Italian is their language and their culture. You can’t be anti-Italian by your activities like you can be anti-American.

I don’t like to follow exceptionalism to these assertions that people make as Jodi Ernst did in her response to Obama [in his State of the Union], that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. That rubs me the wrong way. But our exceptionalism is an article of faith, that there is something special about America. That goes along with the notion that it is possible to betray the special things about America. If you become a torturer, or a blatant imperialist, denying other people their freedom—these things are anti-American.

Q: How did you arrive at the four values you delineate as central to American civil religion: freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance?

A: I came up with those four values because I gave a talk on civil religion at a synagogue in 2007. I was in the midst of compiling material for the book, and I had to give my talk some focus. I thought, what does civil religion really affirm? Those four struck me as things that enjoy consensus across the political spectrum. The rabbi’s response to those four was so positive, he immediately bought the idea and it stayed with me. Also, four is a magic number!

Q: How does the coherence of the four values bring credibility to civil religion as a real religion?

A: I am sometimes thrilled thinking of this, honestly I really love it. I’m kind of an evangelist for civil religion. I’ve spent days in Arlington Cemetery—they’ve had their problems recently, but the place has amazing power. And other people have felt that power—it’s more popular to be buried there now than ever. The veterans from these latest wars really want to be buried there.

The monuments we’re adding are really special. I can’t wait to see the Museum of African American History and Culture that’s going up. Everything I’ve read about it has been so positive. It’s extraordinary. Washington is one of the best places to live in the country. But it’s not the only civil religious place. One of the things that didn’t get into the book was Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. That’s developed so extraordinarily from its beginnings with Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but recently ending up with Arthur Ashe. It’s wonderful!

It’s a real religion, there’s no question about it. It has everything a real religion needs. Obviously in terms of ultimate things, I don’t count on civil religion for salvation. The Romans didn’t see their civil religion like that either, they were obviously open to Christianity and Isis and lots of other religions when it came to fulfilling spiritual needs. American civil religion is not a religion of salvation. But it is a real religion and one that is doing real good in the world.

People often want to deny civil religion is a real religion because its track record has not always been positive. To those I say, well, think about Christianity. If you’re going to say American civil religion is a terrible thing, what about the Crusades and the Inquisition? Christianity is not invalidated as a religion just because it has had failings; neither is American civil religion.

Q: Let’s talk about the racial diversity in civil religion. Native American influence figures prominently in civil religious symbols. Could you speak to the significance of this influence?

A: I was raised in a tradition that paid no attention to Native Americans at all. My mentor was Sidney Ahlstrom, a very great writer but that monumental book has nothing to say about Native Americans. I came out of my doctoral program knowing nothing about Native American religious history. But I was lucky enough to have an anthropologist colleague who is a Columbia PhD at Manhattanville, who came to me and said, “Why don’t we teach Native American religions together?” I then gradually came to know some things about Native American religion and history through teaching the course five or six times.

When you go to Washington, and if you look at the capital, there’s Native American influence all over the place. In fact, “Potomac” means “great meeting place.” In some ways we are like the Mexicans, although we are not as conscious of it as they are, we have a capital that is located near where the Powhatan had their capital.

[Carl] Jung had some interesting things to say about this: he said the longer we live on this land, the more possessed we are going to become by the spirit of the Native Americans. The longer Europeans live on this land, the more Native American they are going to become.

Q: Does the influence of Native American religion on American civil religion have any significance to the land itself? If so, what are the ramifications to environmental justice?

A: There is a second volume to be written that integrates the land into this. I had to decide not to do natural features in the book because it was getting too large. So I decided to focus on cultural features.

For many people, the land is the heart of American civil religion. We do have a leadership role to play in environmentalism. We are the ones who are talking to the Chinese now, trying to influence them to stop polluting. President Obama was elected in large respect because of that speech when he pledged that this was the point the earth was going to cool, etc. He called on us to make that true. Maybe it will be.

We invented the United Nations—this year is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. It’s time for us to own the responsibility of leadership, and environmental problems can only be dealt with globally.

We have an extraordinarily blessed continent in terms of river navigation. We have more miles of navigable rivers—three times as much navigable river mileage in the United States as in the whole rest of the world combined.

This kind of thing really does make you think about providence!

There are a lot of people who throb with religious awe at places like the Grand Canyon, at the Mississippi River, the Chesapeake Bay. New York Harbor: what a setting for what Pope John Paul II called the capital of the world!

Q: You have a chapter on King’s speeches—are there any other African American sources of American civil religion you would want to identify?

A: Well, of course, we have the President. He is such a fascinating leader—you couldn’t make a name like his. His name, as I wrote in the book, can be translated as “the blessed messianic leader who prays,” which is so significant in terms of civil religion.

W. E. B. Du Bois is a monumental figure, an amazing thinker. Frederick Douglass is another towering figure. The new passports, as I pointed out in the book, feature a quote from Anna Julia Cooper, the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate.

I’m writing about Oprah Winfrey now, writing a 30th anniversary edition of my earlier book, Innocent Ecstasy. She’s a religious leader of sorts, one who has had a tremendous amount of spiritual influence and we likely wouldn’t have had President Obama without her.

Q: Dr. Gardella, thank you so much for your time. What’s your next project?

A: I’m working on a book on birds with my anthropologist colleague. It’s a book on birds and the world’s religions.

We’ll all look forward to seeing it! Thank you again.

Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment

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Last year, I was invited by Veritas Press to participate in the production of a video curriculum for its Omnibus program, geared toward middle and high school students that focused on the history of Western thought. It was a lot of fun, and the best part was that one of my favorite people in the world, my good friend Bruce Etter, was the host of the program. We had a lot of fun doing the interviews on Rousseau–and we also got together for some round table discussions with John Fea of Messiah College. He posted one of the videos on his blog a few months ago.

My students in History of Philosophy are studying Rousseau, and these videos are also for them to watch and review as they gear up for their final exam. Enjoy guys! Study hard! :)

*Correction from the first video: I mentioned that John Locke’s conception of justice was that it existed only in the presence of civil law. As the politicians say, I misspoke. I was thinking about Thomas Hobbes, while I was saying John Locke’s name. Sorry!

Lecturing in Fort Worth on American Exceptionalism

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Spent the day today at the main campus of my institution, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth. As some of you know, while I am an elected faculty member at Southwestern Seminary, I teach full time at Southwestern’s campus in Houston: the J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies. As a result, I don’t get to the main campus of SWBTS in Fort Worth very much, but I always enjoy being on campus and seeing good friends the few times I am there during the academic year.

Recently, I was named Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. It’s going to be a lot of fun working with Evan Lenow, an ethicist and the director of the Land Center as well as Trey Dimsdale, a PhD student in ethics as well as a fellow Associate Director. Together, we plan to implement the mission of the Land Center, which is (in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) “to awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the Biblically–based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.”

What on earth can I bring to the table, especially since I am not an ethicist (is it that obvious?). I will attempt to bring historical perspective to issues related to American identity and Christian engagement with culture in the public square, as well as religious freedom and the historic Baptist role in articulating and defending it.

I had the pleasure of giving a lecture today at a lunch hosted by the Land Center in the beautiful Naylor Student Center dining room today. My lecture was entitled “American Exceptionalism and Cultural Engagement.” I drew a distinction between closed and open exceptionalism, and attempted to define a model for an open exceptionalist engagement with the culture that draws on the work of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and W. E. B. Du Bois (d. 1963).

In his First Apology, Justin wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate, pleading for justice for the persecuted community of Christians. He eloquently distinguished the Christian churches from the Roman state, while simultaneously situating the churches within the Roman state. Justin said that no one was more loyal to Rome than the Christians, but they would not render to Caesar those things which belonged to God alone.

Du Bois, in his Dusk of Dawn (1940), differentiated and retrieved the Christian ethic from Americanism, which, he wrote, leads ultimately to white supremacy. In doing so, Du Bois showed how nationalism and white supremacy were a betrayal of the Christian conception of justice articulated in the gospels and summed up in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.

Justin and Du Bois were both members of persecuted minorities. Both disspelled rumours about Christians; both advocated for human dignity and justice; both called on the leaders of their societies to respect and protect their people. Justin is an example of how Christians can see themselves as both distinct from, and a part of, the nation. Du Bois is an example of how Christians can employ the prophetic voice to call the nation back to its stated principles. Both of these figures present us with a model for cultural engagement that is true to the best ethical and political traditions of American ideals on the one hand, and consistent with the teachings of Christ on the other.

This open exceptionalist model is unlike the closed exceptionalism which idealizes and idolizes the nation by asserting that America can do no wrong. America is made up of Americans, who are flawed human beings prone to selfishness and hubris. At the same time, Americans hold out those ideals of equality, justice, individual freedom, and human dignity based on the imago Dei–ideals on which the American republic was founded. America is not God’s chosen nation. America is not morally regenerate. But America is a nation that, historically, is never content with the status quo of human flourishing–Americans, as a uniquely self-examining people, continually look for ways to expand human flourishing, albeit imperfectly and by fits and starts.

Christian people have a special responsibility, as articulated in the New Testament, to demonstrate loyalty to the nation and to be a preserving agent of culture. They do this by 1) submitting to God, 2) submitting to civic leaders, 3) contending for truth and justice by their actions and their words, and 4) confronting injustice with boldness tempered by patience and love when it is manifested in the culture. In these actions, Christians are consistent with the highest ideals of the American republic and the sublime teachings entailed in the gospel of Christ.

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Evan Lenow’s funny token of appreciation for my coming to speak today at the Land Center Luncheon. Thanks, Evan–I guess.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1896 monograph entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation which he produced as Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

To close his work, Du Bois presented a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” In this little section, Du Bois reminded his readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve Union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Du Bois warned Americans that it was their habit to deny or dismiss the presence of real social ills in their country. He observed that Americans were loathe to admit that their nation had deep flaws and sins, and the result of this denial was that they continually delayed the honest addressing of those flaws to later generations. The failure of the founders to adequately and decisively solve the question of the slave trade, and by extension the institution of slavery, at the Constitutional Convention exacerbated the problem. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation plunged into the tragedy of the Civil War because of the failure of 1787. The lesson for Americans of his own day was, therefore, to avoid the kind of failure the founders perpetrated at the birth of the nation. Don’t believe the lying words, “America is a pristine nation, pure and innocent of social ills.” Americans must identify injustices in its society and rather than put off those injustices for another day, they must deal with them when they ought to be dealt with, that is, in the present moment.

Here is an excerpt of Du Bois’ admonition to those who would accept the myth of America as an innocent nation, that they would cease believing in myths and take responsibility for pursuing justice in the here and now.

With the faith of the nation broken at the very outset, the system of slavery untouched, and twenty years’ respite given to the slave-trade to feed and foster it, there began, with 1787, that system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people. Each generation sought to shift its load upon the next, and the burden rolled on, until a generation came which was both too weak and too strong to bear it longer. One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common-sense in facing the complicated phenomena of political life must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it. Such an attitude is dangerous; we have and shall have, as other peoples have had, critical, momentous, and pressing questions to answer. The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed, it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.

It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, and social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.

Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Confession of a Southern WASP

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Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001

This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.

West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.

Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?

And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?

I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.

Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.

My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.

As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.

But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.

This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.

Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.

And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.

If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.

That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).

But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all.  Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.

Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–

Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.

May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.

Cultivate Collegiality to Build Your Blog Readership

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If you are reading this, please accept my sincere “thank you” for visiting the blog. We’re coming up on three years of blogging here at To Breathe Your Free Air, and I consider it a real honor whenever someone drops by for a visit.

Here is a helpful article on building a readership for your own blog. One of the suggestions listed on how to build a consistent readership is to link to other blogs in your field. I can certainly vouch for that–in fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of blogging is meeting others in my field who maintain an online presence. If you take a look over at the column on the right, you’ll see a list of blogs I visit frequently (The Yarn). You’ll find links to online publications and group blogs, but there are many personal blogs as well. For example, Phil Sinitiere (Baldblogger) is an American religious historian at the College of Biblical Studies. Rich Holland (Befriending Wisdom) teaches philosophy and theology at Liberty University, specializing in the relationship between God and time. Josh Bush (Delivered to the Saints) is a chemical engineer, and is the son of one of the greatest American Christian philosophers of the late twentieth century, L. Russ Bush, III.

Evan Lenow, a colleague of mine here at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ethics as Worship), teaches ethics and serves as the director of our seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Robert Tracy McKenzie (Faith and History) is an American historian and serves as chair of the history department at Wheaton College. Chris Armstrong (Grateful to the Dead) is a church historian and director of Wheaton College’s vocation institute, Opus: The Art of Work. Jonathan Den Hartog (Historical Conversations) is an early Americanist at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul.

Patrick Connelly (Pilgrims and Wayfarers) is a historian and director of the Honors College at Montreat College. Paul Putz (Putz Blog) is a PhD student in American history at Baylor University. Stephen O. Presley, another SWBTS colleague, is a patristics scholar focusing on Irenaeus. Jay Case (The Circuit Reader) is an American historian at Malone University. Gerald McDermott (Northampton Seminar) is a Jonathan Edwards scholar at Roanoke College. Chris Gehrz (Pietist Schoolman) is a European historian and history department chair at Bethel College. Eddie Carson (The Professor) teaches history at Brooks School, a prestigious New England boarding school. Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas (Search for Piety and Obedience) is a historian of American evangelicalism and the director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. John Fea (The Way of Improvement Leads Home), an American religious historian, chairs the history deparment at Messiah. And Liz Covart (Uncommonplace Book) is an early American historian in Boston, MA.

I have enjoyed collegial relationships with each of these bloggers, and I have benefited immensely from their writings and wisdom. And because each of these thinkers and writers enjoy trust and credibility in their fields, my including their writings on my own blog only helps me look good!

For more good advice on building a consistent audience, go to this article. Here is a small taste:

A projected 128 million people in America read blogs. That’s a massive readership – and one you’re missing out on if you don’t have a blog or aren’t optimizing the one you currently produce. As a marketing technique, blogs are the best way to develop a strong, authentic voice for your brand, to communicate news and updates, and to connect with other like-minded individuals or organizations. With high-quality, dynamic content, your blog will be the best ambassador for your brand.

But all the great content in the world won’t make a difference if you aren’t able to attract readers. There are a variety of techniques, both internal (optimizations you make to your blogging) and external (ways to make your blog more visible) that will ensure you get more readers and keep them loyal.

Simple Steps to Avoid Plagiarism: Guest Post from Richard A. Holland

noplagiarismSince I began my teaching career in 2008, it has been surprisingly often that one of my students submits a paper or other assignment that contains plagiarism. Many times, students plead ignorance – claiming that they didn’t know what plagiarism is or what they could do to avoid it. In response to this, I have continued to develop guidelines that I can present to students to help them. Usually, I present these guidelines before a major assignment is due, in hopes of avoiding uncomfortable confrontations after it is too late.

What follows is the kind of guidance that I typically present to my students; and this guidance has been shaped by my interaction with students, as they have asked questions and sought to have good understanding of the issue. If you are a student in an academic program, I hope you find this helpful.

Plagiarism occurs when someone presents the words or ideas of another author such that the reader of the paper may be misled to believe that those words or ideas are original to the student. Plagiarism includes (but is not limited to):

  • Insufficient attribution to the original source of any words or ideas from that source that are included in the student’s work.
  • Failing to enclose in quotation marks a sequence of exact words from another author.
  • Improper paraphrase that follows the exact (or nearly exact) structure, flow of thought, and ideas of another author.

Plagiarism can be either intentional or unintentional. Some students may not be aware of requirements for source attribution, and thus may be ignorant of what constitutes plagiarism. In such cases, the student may have inadvertently used another author’s words or ideas inappropriately, and thus may be guilty of unintentional plagiarism.

However, in most cases, unintentional plagiarism will be subject to the same academic penalties as intentional plagiarism. When it comes to plagiarism, you will be judged on what you have written, not on what you were thinking or what you intended.

What can you do to avoid plagiarism? Here are five simple guidelines…

  1. Always use an attributing phrase.

Whether paraphrasing or directly quoting an author, an “attributing phrase” is required in the text of the paper. The attributing phrase is the standard accepted method of giving credit to the person whose words and ideas are used in your paper. For a proper attributing phrase, you must name the person you are quoting / paraphrasing, and you must tell your reader what you are doing, using commonly accepted phrases. Some of the more common attributing phrases are…

“According to Jane Smith…”

“John Doe writes, …”

As you grow in your skill as a writer, you will be able to do this more creatively and fluidly. But until then, keep it simple. The most important consideration is making sure your reader knows that the words and / or ideas you are about to present come from another author’s work.

  1. Use quotation marks to enclose any exact sequence of another author’s words.

This is probably the most common-sense tip. It should be obvious that if you reproduce phrases or sentences from another author, you must enclose those phrases or sentences in quotation marks.

  1. Paraphrase only for concision or to increase clarity. Otherwise, quote.

The old advice, “Just put it in your own words,” is surely the WORST advice ever given to students. Let me be clear: If you take another author’s work and you simply restate it in your own words, you have committed plagiarism.

There are only two legitimate reasons to paraphrase another author: to present that author’s ideas in a more concise manner, so that you can be more efficient and judicious with your use of space; or to make a complex, complicated idea more clear to your reader. If you find yourself paraphrasing an author, and your paraphrase is not either much more concise or much more clear than the original, you are in the danger zone. Stop what you are doing and directly quote the author instead of trying to paraphrase.

Because the “put it in your own words” advice is so pervasive, I have had some push-back over the years on this one. If you are having a hard time believing me that paraphrasing can be plagiarism, and you need a “second opinion,” see the 8th edition of the Turabian style manual, sections 7.4 and 7.9; especially paragraph 7.9.2.

  1. Provide a proper source citation.

In addition to an attributing phrase, and quotation marks in the case of a quotation, you must cite your source. Whether your institution requires footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references, use them wisely. Whatever formatting style you are following, make sure you include all the information necessary in your source citation for your reader to locate the original.

At a minimum, this will include the author’s name, the title of the work, the facts of publication, and a page number. If you are citing an electronic source that doesn’t have a traditional page number, then you must reference the location in a way that is stable – such as section headings.

  1. Use your outside sources for support, not for substance.

This one is a little more complicated, so I’ll devote more space for this one than I did with the previous four tips.

When you write a research paper, you should not simply report on what others have said about the topic. At the college level and beyond, you are expected to conduct your own original analysis of the topic, and then support your analysis through the judicious use of quotations and paraphrases from authoritative scholarly sources. The distinction is between using outside sources to support your own original analysis (which is what you should do), and using them to provide substance to your paper (which is what you should not do).

Another way to say it is this: 100% of the substantive content of every paper you write must be unique and original to you, and must not come from any outside source. Each paper you write should have an original thesis (main claim about the topic) that you developed based on your own ideas, and a unique arrangement of ideas and arguments.

Since a student is not an expert on the subject, they will quote authoritative experts for the purposes of providing “back up” – additional justification – on the main points being made in the paper. But the student should be writing the substance of the paper – not other authors. This has the obvious implication that there should be relatively few quotations (or paraphrases) from outside sources in the paper.

Here are some specific tips on using your sources for support (rather than substance) in your paper:

5.a. Do not weave another author’s sentence into the structure of your paragraph.

The following example is what NOT to do:

Academic honesty is a very important subject. “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

This is a very poor style (at best) because the second sentence is used as a substitute for the student’s own original sentence.  To make this correct, the student would need to revise the paragraph to include the appropriate introduction for the quotation (the following is the RIGHT WAY):

Academic honesty is a very important subject. Discussing this topic, John Smith highlights plagiarism. Smith writes, “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

The corrected version is appropriate, because it makes clear to the reader that the material used originates with John Smith, and because the student is the original author of each sentence.

5.b. Never present a ‘collection of quotations.’ 

Sometimes students have the urge to simply collect as many quotations as possible on the topic of their paper, and then join them all so that it all flows together. Assembling a collection of quotations is always inappropriate. Here is a “rule of thumb” given to me by the first Seminary professor I ever had: Your paper should be clear and coherent, even if you remove every quotation or paraphrase that you got from an outside source.

A footnote at the end of every sentence indicates that you are just collecting and assembling information from your sources. You should avoid this practice, and instead focus on offering your own original substance, supported with the judicious reference to authoritative soruces.

5.c. Do not depend on only one source for any substantive segment of your paper.    

The key sign of making this mistake is a long series of footnotes to the same author. This indicates that you are simply reporting to your reader what that one author has said. If you have several “Ibid’s” in a row, you need to change your approach. When you are presenting your own arguments designed to support your own original thesis, you will quite naturally avoid this mistake.

With those 5 guidelines in mind, I want to give you a suggested method for writing a paper that is 100% guaranteed to avoid the charge of plagiarism. If you follow these three easy steps to writing a paper, you will never be accused of committing plagiarism. This is just a suggestion; but it works!

STEP 1: Read as much as you can to learn about your topic. Find many authoritative, scholarly sources, read them carefully, and take good notes on the main ideas – but do not confuse your own notes with words or ideas that come directly from other authors. If you want to make note of an especially important quotation from a source you are reading, make sure you name the author, the title of the work, and the page number – and be sure to enclose the author’s words in quotation marks. As you read, begin to think through the most important issues related to your topic; and try to arrive at your thesis: Now that you have identified the issue, what claim will you make about the topic? How will you support your main claim? What points of argument should you use to make your case?

STEP 2: Put away all the books and articles you have found. Use only your notes – do not use – or even look at – anything written by another author. Write your paper so that it is 100% complete from start to finish. Craft a well-written introduction (which will include your thesis); structure the body of the paper so that it clearly presents the key points that support your thesis; and write a concise conclusion that recaps the main point of your thesis. Your paper needs to be complete, clear, and coherent without any words or ideas from other authors. It may be quite short at this stage of the process; but it should still be complete, clear, and coherent.

STEP 3: After your paper is finished, go through each element of your argument carefully. Go back through your previous research to find authoritative, scholarly sources that address the elements of your argument. Insert into your paper quotations from relevant authors that will provide justification for the points you have made. Make sure you introduce each quotation properly with a good attributing phrase; use quotation marks; and document each source carefully following the requirements of the style manual used by your institution. If you want to paraphrase instead of quote, make sure you introduce the paraphrased material properly, and include proper citation references.

Richard A. Holland, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Theology at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of
God, Time, and the Incarnation and blogs at Befriending Wisdom.