Category Archives: religion

Talking Tocqueville at the Acton Institute

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Just returned home from Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was honored to give a talk on “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America” for the Acton Lecture Series. I lectured for about half and hour and then we had a great Q&A session afterwards about the role of voluntary associations in public life, religion and politics, the frontier and American identity, racial prejudice and slavery, and thinking historically about Tocqueville’s classic work. The audience was exceptionally well read, as evidenced by one person who brought along her copy of George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville in America to the lecture and referenced it in her question.

My host for the event was Trey Dimsdale, my former colleague at Southwestern’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He accepted a position at Acton this past July as Program Outreach Director. Trey had a big year this year–he finished his Ph.D. residency at Southwestern (AOS, ethics), passed the Texas Bar exam, and moved himself and his family from Ft. Worth to Grand Rapids in a U-Haul with no power steering and no cruise control.

My lecture was focused on the importance of grasping the historical context of Democracy in America as a necessary discipline for appreciating the many insights and perspectives Tocqueville offered in his classic work. Tocqueville was born into an ancient, yet only moderately wealthy, aristocratic line in 1805 and died in 1859. His great grandfather went to the guillotine during the Terror, and his father and mother were imprisoned and scheduled for execution. They were released from prison only after the execution of Robespierre. The experience of the Revolution lingered over the family for decades, and Tocqueville’s perspective on America was shaped by his family’s experiences. He was also deeply impacted by the rise and fall of Napoleon and the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled the restored Bourbon monarchy and raised Louis-Philippe to power. Perhaps the most salient feature of French political, social, economic, and religious culture during Tocqueville’s life was instability. When Tocqueville came to America, one of the features that struck him was the comparative stability of American culture, even though the United States was born out of a revolution.

We also have to understand that Tocqueville visited America during a ten month window of time in 1831-1832. That world is long gone. Tocqueville is often considered to be something of a prophet, because there are some uncanny warnings and prognostications in his work that we clearly recognize in contemporary times. It is also tempting to be nostalgic about the America that Tocqueville saw in the early 1830s. Tocqueville strenuously believed in human freedom, that persons were responsible for their own choices and actions. Although he believed that the spread of democracy was being directed by God, and hereditary privilege would soon be irresistibly supplanted by a providentially directed world movement of equality, he rejected historical determinism. He never considered himself anything more than a studious observer of America–an America that, while he admired many characteristics about its people, institutions, and habits, still did not escape his criticisms. One of his most penetrating censures was how Americans tolerated slavery, and more importantly, race prejudice. “Slavery recedes,” Tocqueville said of free blacks in the North, “but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. . . . Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the affictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.” Nostalgia for 1831 America is misguided for many reasons–but with regard to reading Democracy in America, we completely miss the point of the book if we pine for a recovery of the past.

So it was a great visit. Ben Domenech of The Federalist will be up next, speaking on “The Rise of American Populism.”

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Cover Art for *Democracy in America* Abridgment is Ready

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Looking good! Available early November.

Paul Putz’ List of New Books in AmRel History is Out

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Over at Religion in American History, Paul Putz has given us his first of three updates on new books in American religious history for 2016. His first post of the year covers books that will be released from January to April of this year. There are a lot of exciting new titles forthcoming, such as:

Stephen Prothero, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne, January)

Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk, eds., Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics (Oxford University Press, January) 

Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, January) 

Michael S. Evans, Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life (University of California Press, February)

Peter Randolph, Sketches of Slave Life and From and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, ed. Katherine Clay Bassard (West Virginia University Press, February)

George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, March)

Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, March)

John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, March)

These few merely scratch the surface. Paul’s lists at RiAH are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in keeping abreast of the field of American religious history. Not only does he include the titles of forthcoming works, he also includes a link and short description–either a blurb, or the publisher’s summary.

See the entire list for January-April here.

Two American Exceptionalisms in Sam Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism

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Just finished reading Sam Haselby’s excellent book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford, 2015). I am writing a review of the work for Fides et Historia, but I thought I would write a few things about it here on the blog as I collect my thoughts for the review.

The book’s thesis is two-fold: first, westward expansion from 1783 through 1830 answered the question about what American nationality would mean. Second, American nationality was decided largely as a result of a conflict between frontier revivalism of the early Second Awakening and the missionary movement of Northeastern Protestant elites. In sum, frontier revivalism won out over Yankee reformed Protestantism. The presidency of Andrew Jackson, with his attack on Bank of the United States and his policy of Indian removal, demonstrated that American identity would be expansionist and nationalist. The immediate beneficiaries of this new concept of American nationality were the Southern planters, who were able to export slavery and a plantation society into the territories of the Old Southwest and subsequently become the wealthiest ruling class in the world.

While there are many interesting parts of the book, one of the most arresting points comes toward the conclusion. Haselby places Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress (December 6, 1830) in contrast with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863). While Lincoln sought to bring the Declaration of Independence to its logical conclusion by recognizing human dignity in “all men,” he cast the Civil War and emancipation as “the transformative events of nineteenth century American history,” in Haselby’s words. But Jackson’s 1830 address to Congress, which in part explained the rationale for the explusion of Native Americans from locales ranging from the southern Appalachians to Louisiana was, according to Haselby “the first explicitly racist statement on the political community from a sitting US president, and it was also the first time a US president turned to a theological justification for an imperial act.”

In answering his Northern critics who “often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country,” Jackson claimed that “no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself” for Native Americans. (Seriously?) Benefits to the Native Americans included separation from the white settlers, freedom from the power of the states from which they were leaving, and furthermore, they could “pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions.” Perhaps they would even “cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Nevertheless, the Native Americans should be grateful for their removal, Jackson said. “Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. . . . To save him . . . from utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”

As Haselby pointed out, Jackson’s policy was exclusionary, while Lincoln’s vision was one of inclusion. Jackson’s policy of removal was the perpetration of a great theft, but Lincoln’s purpose was to seek, as Haselby described, “the righting of a wrong.”

Both Jackson and Lincoln represent two distinct forms of American identity. One is a closed form, and the other is open. One is imperialistic, the other exemplaristic. One is self serving, the other is self examining. One lays hold of “Christianity” for justification, while the other looks to political and ethical ideals on which the country was founded: equality of the human condition, individual freedom, and democratic republicanism.

Americans have always seen themselves as the exception to the rule in human history. Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the unique geographical, political, religious, and social circumstances of America’s founding and early career and said “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” Both Jackson and Lincoln saw America in exceptional terms. But Jackson’s and Lincoln’s brands of exceptionalism were polar opposites in that one was closed, the other open.

We see these two articulations of exceptionalism throughout America’s career as an independent nation. Closed exceptionalism always hijacks Christian theological themes, whereas open exceptionalism is a political/social construct devoid of appeals to theology. In this way, open exceptionalism establishes a helpful starting point for patriotism and civic engagement that is not idolatrous, nor does it depend on twisting Christianity into an American form.

Haselby’s work presents a detailed and well-argued history of where religious nationalism—closed exceptionalism—comes from in the early republic. And once religious nationalism was ensconced in the American mind, it took on a life of its own. We continue to live with its legacy in our own day.

What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.

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

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part IV

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Let’s summarize our findings in this last part of the series on whether or not the gospel accounts of the resurrection are contradictory.

I am going to list all the events that are pertinent to the resurrection in chronological order. You can use the key below to reference each event as narrated in the gospel accounts.

Directions: Each event is listed in chronological order according to the gospel accounts. References are cited by the following code

a—Matthew 28

b—Mark 16

c—Luke 24

d—John 20-21

e—Acts 1

f—I Corinthians 15

g—Acts 9

The appropriate citations that correspond to the specific reference are given in superscript following the event.

  1. Mary Magdaleneabd, the other Maryab, Salomeb went to the tomb at early dawnabcd on the first day of the week.abcd

2-4 occur while the women were en route to the tomb.

  1. There was an earthquake.a
  1. An angel descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and sat on it.a
  1. The guards were afraid and became as dead men.a
  1. As the women were drawing near to the tomb, they wondered who would roll away the stone for them.b
  1. They saw that the stone had already been rolled away.bcd.
  1. They entered the tomb and did not find Jesus’ body.bcd
  1. Mary Magdalene left the tomb to find Peter and John and tell them that Jesus’ body was missing.d The other women stayed behind while Mary Magdalene left in despair, confusion and grief.

9-11 takes place while Mary Magdalene is absent from the tomb, looking for Peter and John.

  1. At the tomb, while they were still inside, they were perplexed,c and saw two angels,c one of them on the right side.b
  1. One of the angels spoke, and said, a) Fear not,ab b) I know you seek Jesus,ab c) why do you seek the living among the dead,c d) Jesus is not here,abc e) He is risen,ab f) just as He said,a g) remember how He told you that He would be crucified and rise again,c h) come behold the place where they laid Him,ab i) go, tell the disciples,ab j) He is going before you into Galilee,ab k) you will see Him there.ab
  1. They left the tomb quickly in fear and joy going to the disciples, saying nothing to anyone.abc

By this time, Mary Magdalene had found Peter and John and told them the tomb was empty.

  1. Peter and John arrive at the tomb, John having outrun Peter.d
  1. John did not go in, but stooped down and looked inside—he saw the linen cloths by themselves.d
  1. Peter went inside the tomb and saw how the linens were arranged.d
  1. Neither understood the Scriptures, which said that He must rise again.
  1. Peter and John went to their own homes.d
  1. Mary remained outside the tomb weeping, and she stooped down to look inside the tomb. She saw the two angels, one at the head, and the other at the feet of where Jesus had lain.d
  1. The two angels reappeared.d
  1. They asked her, “Why are you weeping?” She replied that she did not know where the Lord’s body was.d
  1. She then turned around and saw Jesus, but she thought He was the gardener. He asked her the same question, and “Whom do you seek?”d
  1. She answered again, and Jesus said her name, at which time she recognized Him and worshiped Him.d
  1. Jesus told her to go and tell the other disciples that He was alive.d
  1. Jesus met the other women as they were going—they worshiped Him and He told them to proceed on to the disciples.a
  1. Mary Magdalene went to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive, but they did not believe her.bd
  1. Jesus appeared to two other believers on the road to Emmaus, who did not recognize Him at first. They told the disciples that Jesus was alive.bc
  1. The disciples did not believe them either.bc
  1. At evening on the same day,bcd Jesus appeared to the disciples.abcd They thought He was a ghostc until they touched Him and gave Him something to eat.c
  1. Christ expounded to them in all the Scriptures and opened their understanding.c
  1. After eight daysd Christ appeared to Thomas in order to disspell his doubts.
  1. Christ appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, whereupon He asked Peter three times if he loved Him.d
  1. Christ appeared to five hundred at once, of whom Paul said several were still alive in his own day.f
  1. Christ gives the Great Commission to go into the world making disciples and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.abc
  1. Christ appeared to James, as reported by Paul.f
  1. Over the course of forty days, Christ appeared to the disciples, and spoke to them concerning the things of the kingdom of God.e
  1. Christ commanded the disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they had been endued with power from the Holy Spirit.ce
  1. Christ led the disciples out as far as Bethanyc and then was taken into heaven as they worshiped Him.c
  1. Two angels told the disciples that this same Jesus who had ascended would return in like manner.e
  1. Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.g