Category Archives: academics

Chapel Hill Bound for First @AAIHS Meeting

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W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, Courtesy of AAIHS

I am really looking forward to attending the first conference of the African American Intellectual History Society later this week at UNC-Chapel Hill. The university is my wife’s alma mater, so it will be fun to relive some old memories there. Looking forward also to harassing some old friends over in Wake Forest at Southeastern Seminary. And I’m excited to stop in and check in with my mother and father-in-law to make sure they’re behaving.

But I am truly honored to be a member of this society and also to have the opportunity to present a paper on a panel on W. E. B. Du Bois and American history alongside three good friends with sharp minds. Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015) and Edward Carson, co author of Historical Thinking Skills: A Workbook for European History (Norton, 2016) are two of my co-panelists. My third co-panelist is a former student of mine, Vondre Cash, who graduated from Southwestern’s Darrington extension in 2015. While he remains incarcerated at Darrington, he is recording his presentation and I will play it for our audience when his turn comes up to present. I am really excited for him, as he joins the scholarly conversation on Du Bois. Sinitiere’s paper is entitled “Environmental Intellectual: W. E. B. Du Bois and Nature”; Carson’s is “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Editorial Influence on Negro Migration and the Western Color Line;”and Cash’s paper is entitled “Unresolved Problem of the 20th Century: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Continuing Struggle for the Social Regeneration of African Americans.”

My paper is entitled “What, Then, Is The American? Crèvecoeur and Du Bois on American Identity.” I am contrasting two views on American identity, arguing that Crèvecoeur’s view was defined by broad opportunities for material advancement (the American dream), while Du Bois’s view was informed by a generously spiritual notion of human personhood.

See information about the conference and download the conference program here. If you are in the area, please join us.

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A Conversation With Jonathan Den Hartog about American Exceptionalism

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At the risk of shamelessly self promoting my book (!) allow me to direct your path over to the venerable Religion in American History blog for a conversation about American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. RiAH is a fantastic resource, and I was extremely thrilled to be invited to respond to an author interview. I was especially excited to join Jonathan Den Hartog, Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern. By the way, check out Den Hartog’s excellent book, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (UVA Press, 2015). He argues that American religious patterns were shaped largely by the Federalists in the first decades of the 19th century, after John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.

Here is a portion of our conversation:

3. To clarify your ideas, what is the relationship of “Exceptionalism” to “Civil Religion?” Also, you differentiate an “Open Exceptionalism” from a “Closed Exceptionalism.” What sets them apart?

I define civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols, and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (20). In his recent book American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014), Peter Gardella emphasized that civil religion is meant to unify members of a political community around “monuments, texts, and images, along with the behaviors and values associated with them.

So civil religion is a broad term describing what amounts to a real religion, complete with liturgies, traditions, symbols, sacred texts, and even individuals who minister in its name. American exceptionalism is a doctrine of civil religion, and is made up of sub-doctrines. The sub-doctrines, which comprise American exceptionalism are those I mentioned above: national chosenness, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, and glorious past.

American civil religion and exceptionalism are thus exclusive, at least if they are understood in these terms. Exceptionalism is philosophically exclusive in that it divides people into two groups, the Chosen and the Other. And historically, exceptionalism has been articulated in exclusivist terms over the years, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to name a few examples. Furthermore, exceptionalism hijacks its tenets from Christian theology. Election, divine commission, moral regeneracy, theology of place, and historical thinking are all either specific Christian doctrines or they have an important place in the Christian tradition. American exceptionalism often counterfeits these beliefs and practices for nationalistic purposes. Thus, in my historical and theological discussions, I classify this exclusivist, nationalist, and religious brand of exceptionalism as “closed exceptionalism.”

But I also argue that it is not necessary for civil religion and exceptionalism to be rigidly exclusivist, or to hijack Christian tradition or theology. Civil religion and exceptionalism can indeed exist in a way that is not inconsistent with Christianity. This is done through observance in the ideas expressed in the founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. In the final chapter of the book, I juxtapose Justin Martyr with W. E. B. Du Bois to make this argument and to propose a model for open exceptionalist civic engagement.

Read the whole interview here.

Washington, DC Bound for the S-USIH Conference

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I’m looking forward to attending the meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History in Washington, DC this week. The theme of the conference is “Problems and Their Publics.” Here is the theme description:

In his classic 1927 work of political philosophy, The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey theorized that a “public” was only called into being when problems arose that affected the common interests of large numbers of people and that required collective action in order to be solved. But Dewey fretted that “the movie, radio, cheap reading matter,” and other amusements of a growing consumer society had distracted people from attending to the most significant political problems of the day, thus making collective action much less achievable. Contemporary scholarship has often flipped Dewey on his head, arguing cultural forms, even cheap amusements, demand scholarly attention precisely because they invoke collectives, identities, discursive communities, publics. But how have “publics” been defined in the past? Around what problems have they organized, fractured, and reformed? What are the relationships, for example, between forms of media (magazines, radio, film, blogs, television), forms of entertainment (comic operas, cartoons, wild west shows), institutions (universities, museums, corporations), the state (and ideas about it, including consent, rule, and toleration), and the formation of “publics” in the past?

I will be presenting on a panel alongside Seth Bartee, Chad Pecknold, Dan McCarthy, and Randy Boyagoda as we discuss the topic “Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical: Conservatism After the Age of Buckley.” I will be situating free church evangelicalism within the American conservative tradition, answering the question, are free church evangelicals conservatives?

There are a lot of really interesting panels to choose from this year. Here are several I’m interested in attending—

“The Intellectual History of Statecraft
Chair/Commentator: David Wrobel, University of Oklahoma
Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, First Federal Congress Project, “Titling the President: Negotiating Executive Authority in the Early American Republic”
Andrew Porwancher, University of Oklahoma, “The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life”
Amanda C. Demmer, University of New Hampshire, “The Emergence of ‘Normalization’ in Cold War Foreign Policy”

Roundtable: “Framing the History of the U.S. in World Affairs: Imperialism, Isolationism, and Internationalism”
Chair: Raymond Haberski, Jr., IUPUI
Christopher McKnight Nichols, Oregon State University
Michaela Hoenicke Moore, University of Iowa
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

“Nineteenth Century African American Political Thought” (Sponsored by the African American Intellectual History Society)
Chair/Commentator: Kami Fletcher, Delaware State University
Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland, “Samuel Cornish, Willis Hodges, and the Making of American Citizenship”
Kellie Carter Jackson, Hunter College, CUNY, ‘“At the Risk of Our Own Lives:’ Violence and the Fugitive Slave Law in Pennsylvania”
Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Secularism and Frederick Douglass’s Political Thought”

Roundtable: “Christian Nationalism in American History”
Chair/Discussant: Mark Edwards, Spring Arbor University
Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University
Raymond Haberski, IUPUI
Lauren Turek, Trinity University
Steven K. Green, Willamette University
Matthew Sutton, Washington State University

“Rethinking the Confederacy’s Intellectual History”
Chair/Commentator: Ian Binnington, Allegheny College
Sarah E. Gardner, Mercer University, “‘We Need Something To Read Dreadfully’: Reading on the Confederate Lines”
Jonathan Daniel Wells, University of Michigan, “Race and Southern Newspapers under Union Occupation”
Katherine Brackett Fialka, University of Georgia, “Textual Healing: Confederate Women, Occupation, and Reading”

Roundtable “African American Intellectual History: The State of the Field” (Sponsored by the African American Intellectual History Society)
Chair: Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Brandon Byrd, Mississippi State University
Greg Childs, Brandeis University
Ashley Farmer, Duke University

American Imperialism, American Narcissism”
Chair/Commentator: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas
Tracy A. Butler, University of Houston, “Good Neighbors? The Rise of American Tourism in Mexico and Culture as Imperialism”
Donald Earl Collins, University of Maryland University College, “‘We’re #1:’ How US Imperialism Drives America’s Obsession With Itself, and the World’s Obsession With America”
Natalie M. Schuster, Frostburg State University, “Natural Power: Truman, the Cold War, and the Manipulation of Disaster Relief Policy”

“‘To Extirpate These Savages’: Race, Indian Policy, and Early American Expansion”
Chair/Commentator: Stephen Feeley, McDaniel College
Lisa Mercer, Ball State University, “‘As Pleasant Meat As Rice’: Indian Corn, American Identity, and Colonial Expansion”
Nathan Wuertenberg, George Washington University, “‘We May Become One People’: The Revolutionary War, US Indian Policies, and the Formation of American Identity”
James Feenstra, George Washington University, “‘There Are Agents from Some Foreign Power, Instigating Them to Mischief’: The War of 1812 and Anglo-Indian Conspiracism in Creek Country”

“God and the Nuclear State: Accommodating Theology to the Demands of the Cold War”
Chair/Commentator: Healan K. Gaston, Harvard Divinity School
Joshua Mather, St. Louis University, “Cold War Quakers: The Americans Friends Service Committee and U.S. Containment Policy, 1949-53’
Isaac May, University of Virginia, “Theologian of the Quaker Republicans: The Cold War and the Repudiation of Pacifism”
Ian Carr McPherson, Union Theological Seminary, “Window of Vulnerability, Window of Opportunity: The Debate over Nuclear Deterrence and the Soul of the Christian Right in the Reagan Era”

Syllabus-Writing Time of Year Again

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It’s been a wonderful summer, but the time has come to turn our attention to the beginning of the academic year. It’s bittersweet–while I’m looking forward to classes starting and being with my students, I sure did enjoy the time off with my family and friends.

This is going to be a busy semester, teaching Western Civ I, Survey of Church History, Principles and Structure of American Politics, Contemporary Issues in American Culture, and of course, my one hour Orienteering course. I’m also leading a Ph.D. seminar on Marxism, which I’m very excited about.

We’ll also be taking it on the road this fall to some fun conferences.

  • October 9-10: HBCU Symposium at Fisk University. I’ll be joining Edward Carson and Damany Fisher on a Du Bois panel. My paper is on Du Bois and Crèvecoeur on Americanism.
  • October 15-18: Society for US Intellectual History in Washington, DC. Will be on a panel with Seth Bartee, Gracy Olmstead, Dan McCarthy, Patrick Deneen, Chad Pecknold, and Randy Boyagoda discussing “Conservatism After the Age of Buckley.” I’ll be speaking on the relationship between evangelicals and the American conservative tradition.
  • November 18-21: Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, GA. Looking forward to joining Paul Helseth, Andrew MacDonald, J. Ryan West, Rob Caldwell, Glenn Kreider, and Miles Mullin as we discuss “City on a Hill: Conflict, Contest, Commision, and Common Sense.” I’ll speak on John Foster Dulles’ vision of the American divine commission to defeat godless Communism and expand American democracy worldwide.

As Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement here at Southwestern, I also have the privilege of coordinating our three Land Center luncheons for the fall. We’ll be hosting Seth Bartee, Tucker Dorsey, and John Fea, who will be talking about faith and economics, Christian civic engagement in elected office, and the role of history in civic engagement respectively. If you’re in the Houston area this fall, stop by on any of these dates to join us–

  • September 14–Seth Bartee, Visiting Scholar, The Kirk Center and Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies
  • October 26–Tucker Dorsey, Baldwin County, Alabama Commissioner, District 3
  • November 30–John Fea, Professor of History and Chair of the History Department, Messiah College

Teaching at the Darrington Unit–A Look Back

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I wrote this post on my Facebook page on September 7, 2011, right after concluding my second week of teaching courses in Southwestern Seminary’s Darrington Unit extension. Since the first class is graduating tomorrow, I thought it would fun to have a look back on my first impressions of teaching out there.

These men have worked hard the past four years. Their average grade point average is high, but make no mistake. There are no “prison As” here. Every single man has earned his grade.

I’m very proud of these men, and I know that God will use them in wonderful ways as they minister in other prison units across the state of Texas.

Yesterday, when I was packing up my things and getting ready to depart the Darrington Unit after teaching on Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman republic, a student in my class jokingly said to me, “I bet you never thought you’d be teaching a class full of convicts!” He was smiling broadly as he said this, and laughing. I laughed too, and replied, “To be honest with you, brother, it wasn’t the first thought that occurred to me!”

This exchange pinpoints an unstated reality that has existed in my own mind since I first drove up to the front gate at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas.

There are four checkpoints upon entering my classroom. Security officers check and hold my driver’s license, open and examine the contents of my briefcase, have me empty my pockets and take off my shoes, and physically pat me down, even checking the soles of my shoeless feet every time I enter the premises. All of us on the faculty were briefed on procedures for hostage situations, riot outbreaks, recognizing manipulation, understanding gangs, contraband, and counseling victims of sexual abuse prior to the start of the academic year.

None of this is discussed in The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career.

Still, of the thirty-nine students (the official designation is “offenders”) that are in my class, I can honestly say that every single one of them treats me with a level of respect that I have rarely encountered in twenty years of teaching and pastoral ministry. To describe their attitude about the course as enthusiastic would be slight. This is a group of students who, on the whole, are fully engaged in every aspect of the material. They react to every reading assignment—some positive, some negative—and they articulate their reasons for their reactions. They ask so many questions during the lectures that I am already behind on my course schedule—but I cannot in good conscience curtail this. Their dialogue with me during the lectures is critical to their understanding and beneficial to everyone in the classroom, including myself, in bringing clarity to the material. At the breaks, they file into a queue to ask me questions and make points. At the end of class, I spend at least an hour continuing to dialogue with them on the day’s lectures and discussions. One of my students asked if he could be allowed to write a second eight page critical book review, in addition to the one he is already writing on the Aeneid.

Not only are they in profound earnest about their studies, they are overflowing in their expressions of faith and worship of God. We conclude every prayer with a recitation of Psalm 118.17. They vociferously declare in one voice, “I shall not die, but live!” Yesterday, their voices boomed and echoed throughout the entire educational wing as we sang “My Hope is in the Lord.” What a thrill it is to be in the presence of such men.

I have never encountered an entire group of students like this anywhere I have been a student myself, or anywhere I have taught in my memory.  What a profound honor; what a unique privilege is mine, not only as a teacher, but as a human being in the position to behold God’s hand so clearly at the work of redemption in the lives of persons.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere Lectures on W. E. B. Du Bois in the Prison

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Last summer, Phillip Luke Sinitiere graciously invited me to lecture on American exceptionalism in his American religious history class. Today, I had the opportunity to return the favor. Phil was the guest lecturer today in my course on Contemporary Worldviews, a philosophy course I teach to the fourth year students who are enrolled in Southwestern’s Darrington Unit extension. These students are all serving life sentences at the maximum security state prison at Darrington, but will be placed at other units around the state of Texas to serve as inmate chaplains, counselors and teachers after they graduate.

Our first class graduates this May 9. They were the first class in the program, and I was there with them at the beginning, teaching them Western Civ I. They are a tremendous group of men, and I’m very excited for them.

I was really excited to hear Phil lecture today, one which he titled “Forging Freedom in Thought, Word, and Deed: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Life and Times.” As many of you know, Phil just completed his history of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church (due out this October from NYU Press), but Phil is also a W. E. B. Du Bois scholar. The timing of the lecture was perfect. In many ways, I see Du Bois’ life and work as something of an encapsulation of much of what I have attempted to teach these men over the past four years. And Phil’s lecture was outstanding–he effectively communicated the significance of what Du Bois meant to the advancement of human flourishing in America and the world in his long and fruitful life.

The students were riveted as Phil opened Du Bois to the class, introducing him to us as he would a personal mentor and friend. In the first half of the lecture, Phil discussed Du Bois’ early life and career, namely his being the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, the formation of the NAACP, his controversy with Booker T. Washington, and his friendship with Albert Einstein.

After this first half, Phil opened the floor up for questions, and he received many thoughtful insights and questions from the students. He had provided them with a packet of readings from Du Bois last week to have read by the beginning of the class, and they were well prepared. Included in the packet were Du Bois’ “Prayers” (1910), “Credo” (1920), “The Negro and Communism” (1931), “If I Were Young Again: Reading, Writing and Real Estate” (1943), “An Appeal to the World” (1947), and “Whither Now and Why?” (1960) among several others.

One of the questions Phil received was this two-part question: how many times have you lectured on Du Bois, and what is the most challenging question Du Bois raises that you grapple with as you study him? Phil said that he has lectured on Du Bois hundreds of times, perhaps thousands if you count the many lectures he has given in his classroom teaching. But despite the number of lectures he has given on Du Bois, Phil said that he continues to grapple with this question raised in all of Du Bois’ writings over an eighty-five year period: what does it mean to be a human being, and what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?

Such a profound set of questions, and yet so simple. So simple, even a child can understand their meaning and importance, but so profound as to tax the mind of a thinker and doer such as W. E. B. Du Bois in the period of almost a century while he walked this earth. Indeed, Du Bois challenges us Christians to put our faith into practice.

In the second half of the lecture, the part dedicated to what Phil described as his “twilight of years,” Phil related some local history pertinent to the life of Du Bois. He talked about his visit to Prairie View A&M in 1945, and specifically talked about a student named Mayme Ross who assisted in hosting Dr. Du Bois when he came to speak at the school. Mayme was a junior when she served as a student host for Du Bois. Phil had recently gotten in touch with her, and was able to speak with her about her first hand experience with Du Bois. Well into her nineties when she spoke with Phil, she told him that she grew up in humble circumstances, and wasn’t sure how she’d feel around such a towering scholar as W. E. B. Du Bois when he came to the campus at Prairie View. But when she met him and interacted with him, she said she felt herself totally at ease–here was a man truly interested in her life, her ideas, her dreams, and her faith. Through Ms. Ross’ testimony, Phil gave us a window into the man W. E. B. Du Bois, and not merely the scholar.

Phil discussed many aspects of Du Bois’ life and teachings in the course of his three+ hour time with the class. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Du Bois’ life was the occasion of his joining the American Communist Party and his emigration to Ghana in the last years of his life. Phil masterfully put Du Bois’ decision in context, and helped us to move beyond simple explanations of that decision–a decision that Du Bois did not make hastily, or without the deepest consideration for what it would mean for him personally and professionally.

In Du Bois we see a man who grappled with what it means to be human, what it means to live in freedom and equality, and how justice is truly applied. We see a man who is concerned with what it means to be a “true American”–not in a jingoistic or boorish sense, but in the truest sense, that is, being in community with other Americans who cherish freedom, human dignity, economic and social justice, and concern for the well-being of others.

The meaning of human dignity–it is a historical issue, a theological issue, a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, an ethical issue, and a practical issue. Through critical thinking, activism, historical and theological reflection, and love for others, Du Bois showed us what it means to truly grapple with this issue that immediately concerns us all.

Thanks Phil, for teaching us today, and for being a model for us of the man Du Bois was.

Cover Art and Blurbs for American Exceptionalism Book Have Arrived

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I am really excited about the cover for the exceptionalism book. I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying cover than this. The folks at IVP know what they’re doing.

John Fea wrote a wonderful foreword to the book–he was the first person to encourage me to write this book and I am truly grateful for him.

Here are the endorsements–

“John Wilsey has delivered a provocative and much-needed account of the promise and perils of American ‘exceptionalism.’ Few other writers possess the combination of historical and theological insight required to produce a book of this kind.”
Thomas S. Kidd
Author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
Professor of History, Baylor University

“Nations are what we make them. Inherently, they are neither godly, nor wicked. Most are both. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John D. Wilsey demonstrates this and much more. Deeply thought and engagingly written, this book delves into religious claims about American exceptionalism with passion and compassion. Through the twists and turns, Wilsey offers entirely new ways to be faithfully Christian while participating in the life of the nation.”
Edward J. Blum
Author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet
Professor of History, San Diego State University

“This unsparing recitation of manifest destiny, Indian removal, slavery, Cold War dualism, and pervasive jingoism should give all American Christians pause. John Wilsey, in offering an alternative model for Christian engagement with the state, moves the conversation toward a higher ideal of global and kingdom citizenship.”
David R. Swartz
Author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Assistant Professor of History, Asbury Theological Seminary

“Distinguished by rich historical details and astute theoretical insights, John Wilsey liberates academic discussions of American exceptionalism and civil religion from their ivory tower confines, and presents them anew to a broad audience. Positioning himself as both an unapologetic American citizen and Christian, Wilsey skillfully describes, defines, and critiques these interlocking categories. This book will be of great interest not only to scholars, but also to all people of good will who cherish American diversity alongside the worthy pursuit of establishing a broad and inclusive consensus.”
Arthur Remillard
Author of Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Francis University

“Wilsey provides the most up-to-date history of the concept of American exceptionalism available and shows an astute understanding of its relationship to civil religion. He argues for the adaptation of a pluralistic exceptionalism based on the nation’s continuing struggle for and commitment to equality, freedom and justice, rejecting the frequently invoked model that frames America as an innocent nation chosen and commissioned by God.”
Anne Blankenship
Assistant Professor of History, Philosophy & Religious Studies, North Dakota State University

“In an age that appears as confused as ever about the connections between the kingdom of Christ and American identity, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is vital reading. John Wilsey has charted the complex course of an historical idea, American exceptionalism, in a way that is fair and nuanced, yet honest and timely. Combining far reaching interaction with the most current scholarship and careful theological reflection, Wilsey tells this story in a way that will be accessible to a broad audience. I am delighted to recommend it widely and enthusiastically!”
Matthew J. Hall
Vice President for Academic Services, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary