Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Christian Britain?

British-Empire-Flags1Brantley Gasaway presented the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to consider Britain as a Christian nation the other day at Religion in American History. A very interesting question, and one that is getting attention because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the subject.

Gasaway begins his piece with an acknowledgement that many readers may be somewhat tired of thinking about the idea of a Christian nation. I certainly hope not! A large share of my scholarship addresses the question of whether America is a Christian nation or not. But he also raises a really important point–Americans aren’t the only ones who have ever considered themselves a Christian nation.

One of the best books I have ever read on the history of religious exceptionalism and nationalism is Anthony Smith’s Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. In this work, Smith locates four objects in what he calls “the sense of the sacred” in national identity: 1) the community, which considers itself chosen by God, 2) the land itself, which the nation considers sacred, 3) what Smith calls “the glorious past,” that is, the mythological/glorified past of the nation, and 4) “the glorious dead,” and the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives for the causes of the nation.

One of the many values of this book is that Smith shows how western civilizations going back to the fourth century have considered themselves the chosen people of God, and uniquely Christian. Americans are only one of many western societies that have considered themselves Christian, and the British are another.

The British have historically seen themselves as a Christian nation, and sometimes have even seen themselves as the only true Christian people in the world. In the eighteenth century for example, the British considered themselves to be the Christian answer to the Anti-Christ, which was embodied in the French nation. The wars Britain fought with the French in the 1700s were seen by them as an apocalyptic struggle of true Christianity against the forces of the devil and the Anti-Christ of Catholic France. And any nation that styles its monarch as “Defender of the Faith” has a much more explicit claim on being a Christian nation than America ever did.

Still, I’m with Gasaway on remaining open to questioning the propriety of classifying any nation as Christian. What is a Christian nation, anyway? I deal with the ambiguity of the term “Christian nation” extensively in One Nation Under God. Defining precisely what a Christian nation looks like is a thorny path indeed, and I have never found anyone who has met with success in the endeavor.


Is the American Dream for Everyone? Exceptionalism and High School Students Series, Part 1

Statue of Liberty NY (1)For the first installment in the series, Covenant 11th grader Konstantina Damvakaris pushes us to consider the meaning of “the American Dream.” The term was coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1932 book The Epic of America. We hear about the American dream all the time, but how has the concept been portrayed in American literature, and how has the concept developed in history? And is the concept consistent with the liberal ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence?

The original is a nine page, well-researched paper entitled “Americanism.” Here is an excerpt–

To a certain extent, the American Dream is true. People have become incredibly successful through effort and talent. There are enough stories from the past and present to make the American Dream credible. However, not everyone starts on an even playing field, and many people who are wealthy are born into their wealth. For many, the disadvantages exceed their abilities and much of the population faces exclusion from the American Dream because of prejudicial institutions already in place. America is attached to the notion that it is a society in which class does not exist, but everyone who has been to Bloomingdale’s and WalMart can clearly see the rift. The common notion about the American Dream is that one should accumulate as much material wealth as possible because that will grant individual power and a high position on the social scale. Originally, the idea of the Founding Fathers was to create an educated and humane society where everyone would care for one another–the classical idea of a commonwealth. The American Dream is unachievable because our society is not ideal; it is not based upon knowledge and compassion toward one another. It is based instead on the value and pursuit of material goods.

American Exceptionalism is the notion that in America one can pursue liberty, equality, and opportunity to an extent unmatched by any other nation in the world. Historian Gordon Wood said that, “Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” Americans exhibit a certain arrogance when they subscribe to the notion of exceptionalism, as when Puritan leader, John Winthrop, suggested that America is a “shining city.” The Puritans surmised that America was akin to the Garden of Eden–it was a place where humanity could begin anew. The idea of exceptionalism was also a call to revolution as in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In his pamphlet “Common Sense,” Paine asserted that America was not a British colony anymore, but a new nation with unlimited potential. Nevertheless, it would be naive to deny the brutal fact of American Exceptionalism inherent in its related variation, the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is an ideology initiated by Jacksonian Democrats that stated that Americans have a divine right to conquer and inhabit the western lands–even if that meant forcing the Native Americans to relocate. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which segregated Native Americans on reservations and began the “system of appropriating Indian land and undermining Indian culture.” This act would prove that the most important elements of American Exceptionalism: liberty, equality, and opportunity, could only be pursued by Anglo-Americans. . . .

The inherent flaws of the American Dream are exposed through literary works of many early-to-mid-twentieth century authors. Their works demonstrate a disenchantment with society and a disbelief in the achievability of the American Dream. In his most popular work The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald shows the ugliness of classism in a so-called class-less society. The novel also examines the crassness of flashy materialism and the vulgarity with which it is handled by the privileged. In her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry shows the repulsiveness of a deeply racist society that fights to keep its prejudices rather than let them go. In his play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller openly displays the harshness of economic realities and creates a dramatic tension where the American Dream can ironically only be achieved by educated realists, no by dreamers. American Exceptionalism is not directly addressed in any of the works. It seems as though it is less fertile dramatic ground for literary artists. The novels and plays proffer the grim truth of the American Dream, which is largely denied to the African American people and lower classes. If the American Dream is restricted from Americans, how can America pride itself on the assertion that it offers its people freedom and justice?

The ideas of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism evolved over time. The roots of these ideas came with the Puritans. For them, as the American Dream represented a society built on values such as labor, education, piety, republicanism, close-knit families, and individuality. Wealth was not something to be pursued, but secondary to the preferred concept of economic competency, or the ability to support oneself and one’s family. By the time of the Gold Rush–and likely on account of the Gold Rush–the American Dream had devolved into one of materialism with less emphasis on the treasured family unit, devoutness, and education. Americans searched for the perfect life, which now meant a life defined by wealth. People were often willing to sacrifice familial contentment for affluence, forgetting that happiness and material success cannot be equated.

American Exceptionalism continued to represent a belief that the United States was a uniquely virtuous nation, which loved peace, nurtured liberty, respected human rights, and embraced the rule of law. However, this concept of exceptionalism became more and more inaccurate in its reflection of society. In a nation where segregation and racial discrimination were prominent, how could there be a universal respect for human rights? Until the twentieth century, human rights seem to be a value that was extended only to the white population. Native Americans, African Americans, and women have experienced more difficulty in reaching the promise of the American Dream over time.

Throughout the paper, Damvakaris effortlessly demonstrates the tension between the ideals of American exceptionalism and its realities on the ground in history and as expressed in literature. She also points to a paradox inherent in the American dream that exists particularly for immigrants. Perhaps she and her family have experienced this paradox first hand. I’ll let her continue–

The aforementioned reality has allowed scholars such as Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, both Yale professors, to consider the paradox of success in foreign minorities. First generation immigrants often succeed in America more than people who have been here for more than two or three generations. Chua and Rubenfeld are the authors of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. In this book, they cite examples that show the stark contrast between minorities in America and the majority of American people. They discern that students who represent the minority in the United States, such as Asian-Americans, Mormons, Jews, Cuban-Americans, Persian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, and Indians are “disproportionately successful in terms of conventional metrics like income or upward mobility and educational attainment.” They go on to state that their success lies in their “impulse control, feelings of superiority, and feelings of insecurity.” By “impulse control” she means they are disciplined enough to persevere and make their dreams become reality. “Feelings of superiority” means that they have their own sense of exceptionalism, that they are themselves distinguished individuals who can and will succeed. By the same token though, they also feel a deep sense of insecurity stemming from their fear they they are “not quite accepted by mainstream America.”

Immigrants come to this country and often feel like an anonymous mass of outsiders. Their lack of identity fills them with spite against those who are critical of their culture and of their individual worth. Their desire to be acknowledged as capable people is displayed in their feverish need to prove themselves and show that they are assuredly qualified to compete with those native to the country. Through their pertinacity and their unmitigated fortitude they propel themselves to success. Their constant battle to triumph and secure their future compels them to “outperform the norm.”

Damvakaris’ essay is helpful because in it, she shows us the complex nuances that are present in the concept of exceptionalism. Since the idea of American exceptionalism does not cohere without that of justice, what happens to the idea when justice is absent? And what happens when American exceptionalism comes into contact with the exceptionalisms of other people groups? We Americans are not the only ones who are convinced of our own superiority.

This essay sets the stage for the others to follow over the next several days. Enjoy the series, and feel free to post comments.

American Exceptionalism in the Eyes of High School Students

OldGloryMatthew Davisson has been teaching several sections of United States history at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, VA for nearly fifteen years. He has also served as an AP exam reader for several years, and I know he has worked alongside Jonathan Den Hartog in that capacity. Mr. Davisson has had a reputation for being a larger-than-life teacher of history at Covenant for the entire time he has taught there. He and I taught at the same time briefly at Covenant–I was teaching Bible courses in 2000-2001 when he first came, so we go way back.

Davisson is famous for showing up for class in character. He comes as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and numerous other luminaries of US history. When he lectures, he is loud, gregarious, dramatic, and just fun to take in. His lectures are always the picture of organization, but not stuffy or stifling. He engages the students, brings them out, and his love for history is for them as contagious as a childhood disease.

His students had a joint history/English project in which they wrote on the meaning of American exceptionalism. I asked Davisson if it would be all right if I shared some of his students’ work here on the blog. He checked in with his students, and they all graciously agreed to allow me to post some of their insights. Be checking in over the next several days to see what Davisson’s juniors are saying about American exceptionalism. This will prove to be a fascinating window into the perspectives of high school students from a diverse range of backgrounds on this topic.

I’ll start posting tomorrow. Stay tuned for some thoughtful analysis!

Oops! Sorry, Mexico!


David Clary tells the story of one of the most entertaining “my bad” episodes in American history in his Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (Bantam, 2009). I’ll bow out and let him give the narrative–

The United States Navy’s Pacific Squadron hove to in the sparkling waters off Monterey, California, on October 19, 1842. Townspeople gathered to wonder at this visitation. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones surveyed the scattering of adobe houses strung along dirt streets radiating from the waterfront, framed by green-and-brown hills and mountains rising in a protective arc inland. Jones was about to make history, the first conquest of a foreign port by the United States forces in wartime. . . . Jones had seen copies of diplomatic exchanges between Mexico and the United States suggesting that war was imminent. He also knew that his government feared that France or Britain had designs on California. A clipping from a Mexican newspaper said that a war had really started. Jones planned to take California.

Jones ordered his guns to fire a few rounds. The crowd on shore cheered, because the governor, General Manuel Micheltorena, told the people that the yanqui sailors were saluting. A ship’s boat flying the Stars and Stripes headed ashore, and the portly governor drew his sword in order to salute in return. A young officer stepped out of the boat and read a statement declaring that a state of war existed between his country and Mexico. The United States Navy was taking possession of the port of Monterey and demanded its surrender. The governor said that there was no war that he had heard of, and he must confer with his council before answering the summons. A party of sailors and marines landed the next morning, the demand was renewed, and the governor surrendered to the overwhelming naval power. The Mexican flag came down, the United States flag rose, and the marines began patrolling a very friendly place. Jones received a dispatch that night informing him that there was no war. The next morning he apologized and returned Monterey to its own leaders in a ceremony oiled by many toasts of brandy. Jones’ ship fired a real salute, this time to the Mexican flag, the happy people of Monterey waved goodbye, and the Pacific Squadron weighed anchor and headed out.*

This event gives us some insight into several things, a few of which include: 1) the hair-trigger status of relations between Mexico and the United States–war would commence between the two republics just four years later, 2) American designs on California which were fueled by the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny in the 1830s and 40s, 3) American fear that a rival state would arise and bar it from extending itself to the Pacific coast–Oregon at this time was jointly held by Britain and the United States, and it was becoming clear that this situation could not go on indefinitely.

Jones made his attempt on Monterey four years too early. James Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico in May of 1846, and after 22 months of hostilities, Mexico was completely defeated. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo formally transferred the Mexican Cession to the United States, which included, in part or whole, the present states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Including Texas, Mexico lost over 900,000 square miles to the United States.

President Polk, in his Second Annual Message to Congress of December 8, 1846, said, “The war has not been waged with a view to conquest, but, having been commenced by Mexico, it has been carried into the enemy’s country and will be vigorously prosecuted there with a view to obtain an honorable peace, and thereby secure ample indemnity for the expenses of the war, as well as to our much-injured citizens, who hold large pecuniary demands against Mexico.” Interestingly enough, there is abundant evidence that Polk intended to grasp all of the present Southwest to the Pacific, and to fight Mexico for it if necessary.

Under Polk’s administration–which was for only one term–the United States acquired more territory than under any other president, including Thomas Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase.

*David A. Clary, Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (New York: Bantam, 2009), 40-41.

My Mother, Sally Dorsey Miller


My mother hiking to base camp beneath Mt. Everest

On this Mother’s Day, allow me to share with you some thoughts on my mother. Consider this an introduction to her, for those of you who do not know her. She is a remarkable woman.

My memories of Mom stretch back, of course, to my very first memories. In those days, we lived on Lake Forest Drive in Atlanta, near Chastain Park. I remember Mom drinking her coffee at the breakfast table in the mornings in that house. I have faint memories also of Tucker and I climbing in bed with Mom on Saturday mornings. One vivid memory is of Mom rescuing me from a tornado in that house on Lake Forest. She sprinted to the basement, clutching my wrist as she and I ran together to safety.

Mom is a truly lovely person, and always had a servant’s heart as we were growing up. We moved to our house on Brook Hollow Road when I was seven, and that’s where I grew up. She made my lunch for school every day, from elementary school to high school. Every morning, she would wake us up for school, and have the cereal laid out for our breakfast. She participated in the car pool for our school–Tuesdays were her usual day to drive a group of us to school. She would have the radio on to Z-93, which was the “cool” station. As I got older and car pooling was no longer the rule, she drove me to school and picked me up each day. It was the highlight of my day to see her car in the pickup line at school for many, many years. Mom drove us to school, to sports practices, to all sorts of different events. She attended every athletic event I ever played in, and was a glad participant. She was team mother for our teams, and class mother at our schools. She even helped my high school get on the National Registry of Historic Places. Mom was deeply involved in all aspects of our lives. She was key to my success as a student, from my earliest days of school.

I remember when Mom went to work when I was in the third grade. She was an interior designer. She made it her custom, however, to be home when Tucker and I got home. It was a rare occasion indeed when Mom wasn’t home when we got home from school. She offered us cookies from the cookie jar for a snack every day after school. The taste of a Chips Ahoy cookie still reminds me of coming home from school!

Mom has a tender heart. My dad would come and pick us up some weekends. I remember the summer after my sixth grade year, Dad took us on a month long trip to Montana. I have the most distinct memory of pulling away from my house, and seeing Mom standing in the window, watching us drive away.

Of course, Mom was no pushover. Tender, yes. Weak, never. She endured endless trials and tribulations brought on by Tucker’s and my (mostly Tucker’s) foibles and indiscretions as youngsters. Punishment was swift and harsh, but just. Mom spanked my rear end when I was twelve years old–right in front of my friend–for talking back. She washed my mouth out with soap for using foul language when I was in fifth grade. Mom was never one to suffer fools. She forbade me from playing with Jonathan in my neighborhood, because he was “sneaky.” She said that his parents did not care about him because they did not care what he did. She was right.

Mom taught us to do unto others as we would have them do to us. She taught us to be positive by her example. Mom smiles a lot, and growing up in her household, we were always smiled at. Being smiled at is a very simple thing, and yet, it can make all the difference in the world for a young person or a child. One thing that has never changed in my 45 years of knowing my mother: she has an unforgettable smile. I cannot count how many times in my life, sitting at the table, riding the back seat of the car, or countless other times and contexts, making the slightest eye contact with Mom, and being met with a genuine smile of affection and encouragement. She still does that.

My mother has a magnetic personality. She is an engaging conversationalist. She is deeply concerned for others. She is a loyal friend. Some of her friends she has had for a lifetime. She is sought after by hundreds of people. She is my mother. I am proud to own her. I am proud of who she is. I am proud to be her son. I love her, and those who love her, I love.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Consider this my act of rising up and calling you blessed (Proverbs 31.28).