Monthly Archives: June 2014

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

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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.

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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!

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“Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History”

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An attack on a Puritan settlement, King Philip’s War (1675-78). Seventeenth century New England Puritans interpreted such events as God’s chastisement for sin.

These were among the closing words of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress. In that message, Lincoln proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would provide for a gradual and compensated abolition of slavery by January 1, 1900. Furthermore, Lincoln proposed that Congress would encourage colonization efforts to locate former slaves in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

This address was one of many issues we covered and discussed last night at Phil Sinitiere’s religious history course at the College of Biblical Studies (see here). The students were interested, engaged, and curious about the development of American exceptionalism between the 1600s and the 1800s. They were particularly interested in how to apply providence to the interpretation of events–this question came up when I was going over the Puritan use of the jeremiad during the late 1600s, particularly around the time of King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

This question comes up a lot in my own classes at Southwestern Seminary, and it comes up even more when I speak in churches. It is a question having to do more with theology and philosophy of religion than it is a historical question. The very best explanations I have seen on the question of providential interpretation of history are in Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, John Fea’s Why Study History, and Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving. The short answer is that, absent special revelation concerning God’s mind on any particular event, any word we could ever give on God’s providence in history is pure speculation. Because speculating on things residing in the mind of the Creator is so intellectually and morally problematic–and dangerous–it’s best not to give in to that temptation. McKenzie gives Christians a good word when he says that trying to find God’s purposes in particular events actually “reflects a low view of Scripture” (McKenzie, 177). When we resort to providentialism, we are neglecting Scripture as divinely inspired and trusting in our own ability to discern with certainty God’s purposes absent His revealed word. No biblical prophet or apostle dared anything approaching presumption of this sort. If they didn’t, we shouldn’t.

Phil started off the class with a fascinating lecture on the history of Islam and Hinduism in the United States–he played a recording of the Islamic call to prayer and included a transliteration so that we could follow along. He also played an 1893 recording of a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. You can listen to it here, and find a transcript of the speech here.

After the break, I started my lecture. I began by discussing the English origins of American patriotism, exceptionalism in particular. We began with a recording of the closing of the Proms in London (see here), which set the table for the rest of the evening’s lecture and discussion. We talked about the theological, political, exegetical, and historiographical roots of American exceptionalism before discussing the assigned primary readings from John L. O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity” and Lincoln’s Annual Message.

It was a great evening, and a thrilling opportunity for me to get to join in on what Phil is doing at CBS. Thanks again, Phil. I look forward to this fall when you will come and teach on race and religion for my Issues in American Culture course at the Darrington prison!

Interactive Map of the Territorial Expansion of the US, 1783-1912

us_expansion_1848If you have any interest in the territorial growth of the United States, go over to Lincoln Mullen’s historical blog and check out his interactive map of American expansion. It is meticulous in its detail. You can activate a timeline with your mouse and roll over any particular territory for pertinent information. It is user friendly, and really engaging. I showed my 8 year old daughter the map, and she was mesmerized. We spent a half an hour playing with it the other evening.

Mullen has another interactive map of the expansion of slavery in the US from 1790-1860. Here is what he says about his methodology and purpose:

Using Census data available from the NHGIS, the visualization shows the population of slaves, of free African Americans, of all free people, and of the entire United States. It also shows those subjects as population densities and percentages of the population. For any given variable, the scales are held constant from year to year so that the user can see change over time. You can use the map for yourself, and I’ve also written briefly about what the map shows below. Historians have of course often made use of maps of slavery, in particular maps based on the Census, in support of their arguments. What I’ve tried to do in this interactive map is make it possible for users (including me) to explore the census data in support of making historical arguments.

Quote of the Day

Wilson460“This is the time of all others when democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

-President Woodrow Wilson, Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1920

According to intellectual historian Milan Babík, author of Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology, (Baylor University Press, 2013) Wilson is the only president ever to use the term “manifest destiny” prescriptively in his official capacity.

Guest Lecturing at Houston’s College of Biblical Studies

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My profound thanks to Phil Sinitiere of Baldblogger fame for inviting me to join his American religious history class at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston this coming Monday evening. I am really looking forward to it, and am honored to receive the invitation.

Phil is an American historian who focuses on religion and culture, race and religion in America, and African American studies. He is the author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (with Shayne Lee), co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion After Divided By Faith with J. Russell Hawkins, and co-editor of Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. DuBois, the Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke. He is an award winning teacher of World History, American history, African history, African American religion, and many other courses. Phil is a true scholar and gentleman, and I am honored that he asked me to spend some time with his class.

We’ll be talking about American exceptionalism in the nineteenth century as it diverged into two civil religious expressions during the 1840s-1860s. One of these expressions is represented in the writings of John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and the person responsible for coining the term “manifest destiny.” O’Sullivan’s brand of exceptionalism was heavily nationalistic, overtly Anglo-Saxonist, strongly expansionist, and based on an Enlightenment style certainty in the ways of providence. Manifest destiny is the brand of exceptionalism I am classifying as “closed exceptionalism” in my forthcoming book.

The second expression of nineteenth century exceptionalism is represented by the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s exceptionalism was based on an objective and universal conception of justice. He derived his exceptionalism from the Declaration of Independence, which he elevated to near-biblical status. His clear conception of right and wrong animated his views on patriotism, slavery, and disunion. And his humble agnosticism regarding God’s providence set him apart from almost everyone else of his day. While he regarded the United States as the “last, best hope of earth,” he believed that the nation was fallible, as was clearly seen in the nation’s failure to do right by African Americans and prevent the Union from breaking up. But he also believed the nation had an innate instinct to strive toward the right, and it was Lincoln’s mission to set the nation on that path. I am calling Lincoln’s expression “open exceptionalism.”

The students will be reading a couple of primary texts in preparation for the lecture. The first is O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity,” in which he wrote that America represented a formal break with the past. America was God-ordained to be the nation at the tip of the spear of human progress. The second is Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress, in which he made his famous statement, “Friends, we cannot escape history.” He advocated for a new way of thinking about the abolition of slavery, but his proposed solution represents a step on the way of his own moral and intellectual development on the subject.

Phil is helping me out immensely by inviting me to come and teach on nineteenth century American civil religion and exceptionalism. I also owe him big time for reading and offering suggestions on the drafts of my chapters. He loves a good philly cheese steak, and he definitely deserves a lifetime supply. Thanks a lot for your help and friendship, Phil!

Trigger Warnings in Maximum Security Prison

Trigger-warningI must say, I am enjoying the fact that at the moment I have no lectures to prepare, no papers to grade, and no classes to lead. The past couple of weeks, I have written another two chapters of my forthcoming book on exceptionalism, and things are looking good for a productive remainder of the summer in terms of my research.

But just because I haven’t been in the classroom for a month now doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the past year and thinking about my classes for next year. I have a really full load in the fall–one graduate course called Makers of the American Mind, and five undergraduate courses: Western Civ I, Contemporary Worldviews, Issues in American Culture, History of Philosophy, and Principles and Structure of American Politics (which I have made primarily into an intellectual history of the Constitution). Fall is going to be busy–but with any luck, my book manuscript will be finished so I can focus on teaching.

Three of my classes–Western Civ, American Culture, and American Politics–will be at the prison. This will be my fourth year teaching out there, and I’ve been following the hubbub on trigger warnings–see here, herehere, and here.

It seems to me, that if there is anywhere one should be careful about creating a stir in the classroom, it would be in a room with forty convicted felons with no guards present. But to be honest, in the six semesters I have taught courses in the prison at Darrington, I haven’t given much thought in setting up a particular topic with a trigger warning. Perhaps I should–for example, in my American politics course, we devote six hours of class time to slavery and the civil rights movement. Lynching is one disturbing sub-topic (among many) I cover, and I have never encountered a problem with the students. In fact, many of the inmates have expressed their appreciation to me for not watering down the African American experience since 1619.

Still, I think it shows some common decency to at least think about how students may react to traumatic events in the past. I mean, I have no idea what the students in my prison courses have experienced in their lives–but I do know that many, if not most of them, reacted to their life experience by destroying other people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. And gaining trust among the inmates at Darrington is a much taller order than in a traditional classroom. Inmates are suspicious and contemptuous of authority in many cases, and building trust is key if I am going to be successful in educating these men.

I’ve learned a lot about teaching, being in the Darrington Unit. While I think that it is easy for folks to get upset about the over-sensitivity of college students, freedom of speech, and a host of other issues surrounding the idea of trigger warnings, I still think that a bit of care and thought toward undergraduates and their backgrounds and feelings can go a long way.

Writing for Avelist

I started as a staff writer for Avelist last week, and have posted some content. Avelist is a tool for anyone looking for practical information on just about any topic, ranging from building a career, starting a business, managing finances, or taking a vacation on a budget.

Now, I realize, I know absolutely nothing about much of the content on Avelist–in fact, I find it quite useful for myself on a lot of day to day issues. I will be writing about things that are interesting to me, and hopefully helpful to others–like writing, blogging, and teaching. I’m also going to be posting content related to the outdoors–stuff on orienteering, wilderness survival, gear, and the like. The things I’ll post will be practical, and will be aimed at an audience of folks from the ages of 18-35.

I was introduced to Avelist by my friend Jody Porowski, a former student of mine years ago when I was teaching 5th grade in Raleigh, North Carolina. Jody is enormously gifted–she had been working as a social media analyst for SAS in Raleigh (Fortune magazine’s #2 best company to work for), after having graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. She quit her job to launch Avelist about two years ago, and things are looking very good (see here and here).

Avelist is a great resource, and a good place for anyone to keep and share information that can be helpful to others. I’m looking forward to writing for them!