I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Okay, so now that the Packers are out of the playoffs we can see what else is going on in the world. Here are some top stories from last week:

Kicked out for a gay cake. How conservative school leaders can mess up on LGBTQ stuff, at ILYBYGTH.

gay cake

Out, vile monster!

FL teachers march, at TD.

Teachers, parents and their supporters brought downtown Tallahassee to a standstill Monday as they protested what they said has been a systematic attack on public education dating to the late 1990s — when, coincidentally, Republicans took over the Legislature and Governor’s Office.

fl teacher march

Progressive college has to change to survive, at IHE.

“They have a very different vision of what college would be and have different needs,” [President George] Bridges said. “They want to leave Evergreen with a degree they can use in a career, in a market,” and that’s explicable to employers. Students who attended in past decades grew up in a different economic climate, he said, and weren’t seeking such specific outcomes.

RIP, Roger Scruton. Eulogy at AC.

Taking Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as his exemplars in thought, Scruton’s traditionalist conservatism always revolved around his love of place and the need for real and organic community, held together by habit, custom, and experience. All good in society, then, flows from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

Who is an evangelical? An interview with Thomas Kidd at R&P.

the media has come to discuss evangelicals in a very narrow way. The implication is that, when we use the term, we are talking specifically about white Republicans in the United States. But when you think about the evangelical movement on the world stage, this is very misleading.

Trump’s new guidelines for school prayer. What’s new? Not much, really, for schools, but a reversal of other rules, at WaPo.

Under current regulations, faith-based providers — such as health care entities, child welfare organizations, educational nonprofits — need to give beneficiaries notice of their religious character and their right to get services elsewhere. They also have to make reasonable efforts to refer beneficiaries to another provider if the person receiving services is uncomfortable. . . . The Trump administration announced rules to end the requirement, created under the previous administration.

god-is-my-heroMormon Sunday-school manual accidentally includes racist Mormon history, at SLT.

several early readers of the 2020 “Come, Follow Me” manual were troubled to see a note in one lesson that is a throwback to previous thinking.

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith.

From the Archives: Protecting Children from Imaginary Threats

Okay, so we know Trump’s recent announcement about protecting student prayer in schools was nonsensical. Students already CAN pray in school if they want. In a different sense, however, Trump’s prayer defense was not only politically savvy, but a continuation of a long tradition of wildly disproportionate responses to non-existent threats. This morning, a few examples from the archives.

Trump prayer anncment tweetExample 1: Harold Rugg’s textbooks, 1939. I’ve read them. In a word, they are bland. Hardly the stuff to inspire violent protests. They were hugely popular in the 1930s, selling millions of copies. In 1939, conservative groups such as the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers fretted that these books were indoctrinating students in left-wing directions.

What happened? In cities across the Northeast and at least one town in rural Wisconsin, conservatives threatened to pile the books up and burn them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Burning textbooks in an era of Nazi occupation in Europe seems like a remarkably disproportionate response to a popular textbook. So why do it?

Among themselves, Legionnaires warned darkly that Rugg’s books were only the sharp edge of a long-planned socialist revolution. As one Legion activist wrote in a private letter, colleges like Teachers College at Columbia University had become nests of “socialist fanatics” who schemed to use Rugg’s textbooks as part of their plan to subvert American institutions.

roscoe letterWe can only make sense of the violent response to Rugg’s textbooks if we put the story in this imaginary context. In the imaginations of many conservatives, Rugg’s textbooks were an immediate threat to American society as a whole. Destroying them was the only way to protect children from that imaginary threat.

Example 2: Fast forward a few decades and conservatives again responded violently to an imaginary school threat. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks was approved by the state. When conservatives previewed the books, they were alarmed by what they saw. School-board member Alice Moore denounced the books as anti-American, anti-Christian, and even simply anti-proper-English.

Local conservatives agreed and they boycotted local schools until the offending books were removed.

The boycott became violent. Schools were firebombed, busses shot, and the school-board building dynamited. Two people got shot along the picket lines.

alice moore posterAgain, seems like a startlingly violent reaction to a fairly humdrum textbook problem. Along the picket lines, however, activists were circulating flyers with shocking language. The quotations were purportedly from the offending textbooks, but the offensive language was not found in the actual adopted textbooks. In the imagination of the protesters, however, it seemed entirely believable that school textbooks in 1974 might really include offensive sexual language. They were willing to take extreme measures to protect children from these threats, even though the threats never really existed.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

We could cite other examples from throughout the twentieth century. When it came to racial integration, for example, attempts to integrate schools from Boston to Oxford, Mississippi were routinely met with ferocious violence.

It’s not surprising to find such violence in educational politics. People care a lot about their kids, obviously. And they care a lot about controlling schools. In this case, though, there’s a particularly virulent form of culture-war violence at play. It’s not only about actual policy, but of imagined threats to an imagined past.

For many conservatives, public schools traditionally included God. And that’s not imaginary–public schools really do have a long history of being dominated by white evangelical Protestants. The history of the twentieth century can be seen as a long struggle to nudge or shove evangelicalism out of its historically dominant role. Integration, school prayer, sexuality, history textbooks…all became symbols of the ever-diminishing clout of white evangelicals in public schools and in public life.

Consider one final example of the unique power of schools in America’s culture-war imagination. Years after the fact, one of the schemers behind the “New Christian Right” in the 1970s and 1980s remembered the issue that got conservative Christians most riled up. As Paul Weyrich recalled, it wasn’t “abortion, school prayer, or the ERA.” Sure, those things made conservatives mad in the 1970s, but they didn’t push conservative Christians en masse to the GOP. The issue that did? According to Weyrich,

Jimmy Carter’s [1978] intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.

Against this historical backdrop, Trump’s nonsensical protection of school prayer makes a little more sense. Schools play a unique and uniquely influential role in culture-war politics. Even imaginary threats—perhaps especially imaginary threats—get people roused with violent fury.

In that sense, it should come as no surprise that Trump played the school-prayer card. It isn’t sensible policy, but it tends to get people angry. In that sense, it seems like a perfect example of Trumpism in action.

Why Would Trump Talk about School Prayer?

On the face of it, the statement was meaningless, or even weirdly insulting to evangelical activists. Yet President Trump announced yesterday that he was taking “historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools.” If students already had that right, why would Trump bother?Trump prayer anncment tweetThis move is not a new one for Trump. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall he made similarly meaningless promises to defend the use of the Bible in public schools. In his announcement yesterday, Trump declared,

in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable.

Such a statement might seem ill-advised. After all, Trump has always bent over backwards to court support from evangelical Protestants. And evangelicals have long bent over backwards to prove that students DO have the right to pray, share their faith, and follow their religious beliefs in public schools.

For example, the See-You-At-The-Pole movement is all about demonstrating students’ continuing right to pray in their public schools. One might think that these evangelical activists would be offended at Trump’s assumption that they have not been praying in schools already.

I don’t think they will. Instead, I think a lot of MAGA Christians assume that their children are under threat. And to be fair, if you were to read only MAGA/Christian news, you’d get plenty of support for that mistaken notion.

Consider a couple of examples of the things some conservative Christians are hearing. Organizations such as Focus on the Family warn readers of experiences like the following:

  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.

  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction.

Or what about the sad story of ten-year-old Erin Shead? Erin was told by her teacher to think about her hero. She did. It was God. But then her teacher told Erin that God could not be her hero.god-is-my-hero

We could go on. Plenty of conservative Christians read stories like this and they fret about the state of prayer in America’s public schools. They might even send their own kids to public schools like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana, where old-fashioned evangelical Christianity still dominates the school. As the superintendent in Greenwood explained,

I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values.

What does Greenwood, Indiana have to do with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I don’t want to accuse President Trump of thinking strategically, but I think his announcement about school prayer might make political sense even if it makes no policy sense.

Yes, students are free to pray in their public schools if they want. And plenty of public schools—like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana—incorporate Christian values deeply into everything they do. It doesn’t really matter. When Trump voters read that a fourth-grader got in trouble for announcing that God was her hero, Trump wins. And when voters read that school officials are stopping students from praying, Trump wins.

It doesn’t matter that students actually have plenty of prayer rights already. Trump stumbled onto an issue that matters to a lot of people. Students’ right to pray is beyond dispute. But people still think it is under attack.

Were You Trumpared, Part Deux

Thank you, The Internet! Yesterday I asked you if you were surprised by the rise of Trumpism. Over on The Twitter, some topnotch academic historians shared their experiences. I’ll share a few highlights here for those SAGLRROILYBYGTH who don’t tweeter.

It started with an offhand comment by blogger Peter Greene. As he reflected on the end of 2019, he noted,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Unlike The Curmudgucrat, my experiences in the 2010s left me utterly unprepared for the rise of Trump. The archives I explored for my book The Other School Reformers led me to conclude that Trumpish tendencies were usually quashed by conservative organizations, in the name of “respectability” and “mainstream” appeal.

It appears I wasn’t alone. As Rick Perlstein shared, he had to re-calibrate his thinking. He had written back in 2016,

I’ve been studying the history of American conservatism full time since 1997—almost 20 years now. I’ve read almost every major book on the subject. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Then along comes Donald Trump to scramble the whole goddamned script.

And, as Natalia Mehlman Petrzela noted, the “time and style” of Trumpish conservatism feels a lot different from the conservatism of the later twentieth century. As Prof. Petrzela asked,

There’s no way “F*CK YOUR FEELINGS” as a tee-shirt saying for the winning GOP presidential candidate in 2016 was foreseeable from the 60s/70s, right?

natalia on TrumpIt seems that Trump’s ascendancy has changed the way historians of conservatism approach the topic, or at least pointed us in slightly different directions. As Kevin Kruse wrote, he is now working on a new book about

“law and order” politics as seen through NYC[.]

It doesn’t usually work this way, but yesterday at least Twitter helped me learn a lot about a complicated topic and gave me a new reading list. I just ordered a copy of Timothy Lombardo’s book about Frank Rizzo and blue-collar conservatism in Philadelphia.

From the Archives: Were You Trumpared?

I wasn’t. Studying populist conservatism taught me the wrong lessons—I thought conservatives would never tolerate an anti-strategic leader like Trump, even if they liked his policies. I wrongly believed more conservatives would do anything to maintain their reputations as respectable mainstream traditionalists. Did anything in your background prepare you to have a president who flits from tweet to tweet and treats foreign policy like a reality-TV ratings sweep?

Peter Greene says his did. As he wrote recently,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Here’s where I went wrong: In my 2015 book The Other School Reformers, I looked at the kind of populist conservatism to which Trump appeals so strongly. I didn’t study conservative intellectuals, but grass-roots activists who tried to push schools in conservative directions.

SPL 1

From the American Legion Archives, c. 1936.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservatives refused to be dominated by the anti-strategists in their camp. Time after time, conservative organizations carefully curated their public image to avoid the “extremist” label. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that really mattered. I thought—wrongly—that this pattern would continue.

My surprise is not about Trump’s specific policies. I can see how any conservative would love having Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on SCOTUS. My surprise is about style and strategy. In the history of American grass-roots conservatism there has always been an element we might call “Trumpish.” Meaning mercurial, impulsive, and unwilling to think through the likely consequences of any given action. Meaning acting first—speaking without reflection—heedless of accusations of radicalism or extremism. In Krusty-the-Klown terms, Trumpism means saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.

In the past, that element was always held in check. Not by “faculty lounge” conservatives, but by practical, hard-nosed activists who wanted to win votes long-term.

This morning I’ll share an example from the archives that I hope will illustrate the tradition and demonstrate why I was so un-prepared for the triumph of Trumpism among American conservatives.

Exhibit A: The American Legion and the Student Patriot League, c. 1935. In the mid-1930s, the American Legion had a hard-earned reputation as a tough defender of a conservative patriotism and flag-waving militarism. The Student Patriot League was formed separately as part of a desire to get young people involved in fighting—literally fighting—for those values. The unofficial goal of the SPL was to send uniformed brigades of conservative youth to leftist rallies to disrupt them.

How did the American Legion respond? At the time, the obstreperous head of the Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux, engaged in a careful two-sided interaction. Officially, the American Legion had no relationship with the SPL. Chaillaux was worried that any violence would ruin the Legion’s already-shaky reputation as a reputable mainstream group. Publicly, Chaillaux maintained a careful distance between the SPL and the Legion. He told SPL leaders that he could not officially endorse their activities.

Unofficially, however, Chaillaux distributed SPL materials among his friends and allies. Chaillaux privately told his friends the SPL was a

splendid organization of scrappy young Americans who are students in high schools and colleges of the United States.

So what? The interactions between the Legion and the SPL demonstrate the ways grassroots conservative organizing used to work. There is no doubting Chaillaux’s dedication to his conservative principles. When it came to a new and untested youth organization, however, Chaillaux maintained a cautious official distance.

SPL 2

Conservatives used to care about their reputations for mainstream respectability.

That has always been the strategy of (most) conservative organizations. They have thought carefully and deliberately about their public image. They have been leery of losing credibility and ending up dismissed as extremists, like the Ku Klux Klan or eventually the Birchers. Or even Barry Goldwater or Curtis LeMay. Mainstream respectability used to matter to conservatives. A lot.

Trump doesn’t seem to care about his respectability. He doesn’t seem to mind the outrage and consternation caused by his last-minute decisions, even when the outrage comes from his own conservative allies. Instead, Trump does Trump and lets the chips fall where they may. That’s what I was unprepared for.

How about you? Were you like Peter Greene, prepared for the triumph of Trumpism? Or were you more like me, expecting GOP leaders to care primarily for their public image as respectable maintainers of the mainstream status quo?

From the Archives: “The Ku Klux Klan: Is It of God?”

Will they or won’t they? Ever since editor Mark Galli broke the internet by denouncing Trump in Christianity Today, pundits have been struggling to decide if white evangelicals will turn anti-Trump in 2020. Historians like me can’t help but notice the pattern: When it comes to political controversy, interdenominational evangelicalism has always been hopelessly divided. From the archives today, a look at a similar division back in the 1920s.Gospel-According-to-the-Klan-Cover-320x483

First, in case you’ve been living under a holiday rock, a little context: White evangelicals voted for Trump in droves in 2016, and they remain as a group one of his most solid voting blocs. So when “flagship” evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal, it caught people’s attention. Outgoing editor Mark Galli looked his fellow evangelicals in the eye—so to speak—and offered this blandishment:

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

Would evangelicals listen? Some evangelical Trumpists immediately fired back, doubling down in their support for Trump. As Wayne Grudem wrote,

On issue after issue, President Trump is changing the direction of the country for the better. When I weigh these results against his sometimes imprecise and coarse speech, there is no comparison. . . . I’ll vote again for Trump.

I know people won’t like the comparison, but this 2019 debate sounds a lot like a 1920s debate among white evangelicals. Back then, white evangelicals engaged in a similarly vituperative political debate. Back then, white evangelicals wondered if they should support the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying Trump is a 21st-century Hiram Evans. Or even a 21st-century Warren Harding. But I AM saying that evangelicals have always been divided on similar sorts of political issues.

To get the gist of the 1920s debate, we have to understand the nature of the 1920s Klan. Most people these days, if they think about the Klan at all, think mostly of the Civil-Rights-Era Klan, when it was a violent fringe group dedicated to upholding Southern racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, the 1920s Klan was plenty racist, but it was a very different organization in a lot of ways from the later 1960s Klan. First of all, it was much, much bigger, with millions of members all over the nation. It was also depressingly mainstream, with members openly joining and touting their membership. And though the Klan has always been devoted to racism and white supremacy, the 1920s Klan was also ferociously centered on fighting CATHOLIC influence.

Back then, as historians such as Kelly Baker have described, the Klan was all about white supremacy, for sure, but specifically more about white Protestant supremacy.

And, as historian Felix Harcourt argued brilliantly in his book Ku Klux Kulture, the 1920s Klan was controversial in ways that sound creepily familiar today. Back then, civil-rights groups felt a need to prove to America that the Klan was a “poison flame,” attracting “bigots,” “busy-bodies,” and “lame-duck preachers.”

Among evangelical leaders—both intellectual and populist ones—the question of the Klan was difficult. Indeed, in ways that later generations of white evangelicals would find eternally embarrassing, white evangelicals back then conducted a high-profile debate that sounds depressingly similar to today’s.

Back then, some evangelical pundits were unwaveringly pro-Klan. Down in Texas, Baptist fundamentalist pundit J. Frank Norris ardently supported the Klan. In 1924, for example, the Texas Baptist Convention planned to debate a resolution denouncing the Klan. As Norris put it in his trademark style,

suffice to say that every Roman Catholic priest and Knights of Columbus would be glad to sign the [anti-Klan] resolution, and the Pope at Rome will have [anti-Klan Baptists] cannonized [sic] as a Saint for all the ‘faithful’ to worship.

Up in Chicago, a similar Klan debate unfurled in the pages of the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. One contributor from Texas argued in 1923 that evangelicals must not fall for the siren song of Ku-Kluxism. As he wrote, the Klan failed the Biblical sniff test in a number of ways. First, the Bible clearly denounces any sort of anti-Semitism. Second, the Klan’s viciousness was not Christian. When it came to Catholics, this preacher wrote,

The Bible says, ‘Do good to them and pray for them.’ The Klan says, ‘Drive them out.’

In the end, this preacher opined, the Klan should not be supported for merely political ends. Yes, they do fight against alcohol, he admitted. And divorce. And gambling. And other sorts of public sin. But those shared goals did not make the Klan Christian. As he concluded,

The great principle of Christianity is love.  The outstanding principle of Ku Kluxism is hatred.

In response, a preacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania defended the Klan as a good Christian organization. In the tumultuous ‘twenties, he wrote, subversive communism, drug-peddling immigrants, and corrupt politicians called for drastic action. As he concluded,

Investigate the Klan. So far I have found that the churches never had a more active ally, the state a more determined champion; our homes a more resolute defender, and lawlessness and vice a more powerful foe than the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate in MBIM went on throughout the early years of the 1920s. As celebrity pastor Bob Shuler wrote from California, the Klan had its problems, but overall it deserved evangelical support. Shuler offered a careful six-point list: The Klan defended Protestantism, public schools, “women’s virtue,” law enforcement, and American idealism. Plus, all the enemies of the Klan were dangerous types—bootleggers, pimps, and Catholics. As Shuler concluded,

I have for over twelve months conducted a most comprehensive investigation of the ideals, principles, teachings and activities of the Klan and have come to the slow and deliberate conclusion that there is not now organized in America a more hopeful secret society.

What was the upshot? MBIM editor-in-chief James M. Gray was no Mark Galli. He came out against the Klan in 1924, but in a very wishy-washy way. However, by the middle of the decade it was no longer quite so difficult for white evangelicals to know what to think. A series of scandals plagued the Klan organization and it became clear that they were not spotless warriors for Christian virtue.

None of that has any direct bearing on today’s Trumpist debate, of course. There are a million factors still at play for 2020. In the 1920s, it took blockbuster events such as Indiana’s DC Stephenson’s shocking conviction for a particularly brutal rape to push the debate about the Klan’s virtue off the evangelical front page. Will there be a similar deciding event in the evangelical debate about Trumpism? Has there already been one?

We Need LESS History, Not More

With apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, I just couldn’t shut up and enjoy Christmas in peace. Instead, I had to keep brooding over the reasons why Andrew Ferguson’s piece was so silly. trump meanHere’s the upshot at Washington Post. Not only should historians be encouraged to talk about politics, but the best reasons for historians’ engagement can be pulled from history itself. In this piece, I pull from my new book about American creationism to point out the obvious: Historians’ expertise is important and it can move the needle on issues like impeachment.

In this case, America is not suffering from a lack of historical awareness. Rather, we find ourselves with a wide variety of histories to choose from. Like President Trump, we can assume that George Washington would smile on Trumpism. Or like the thousands of historians who support impeachment, we can point out that Trump’s misdeeds fit the Founders’ definition of impeachable offenses.

What does this have to do with creationism? A lot. The problem with creationism is not a lack of science. Rather, it is the fracturing of science. When Darwin first made his claims about natural selection and evolution, some fans assumed that people would accept it as soon as they heard about it. But we all know that’s not what happened. Instead, a bunch of different sciences developed, competing for followers.

We’re in a similar situation with history. There is not one history to learn, but a million. People are forced to pick a history to trust. They can believe Trump’s version, or they can listen to thousands of professional historians who disagree. In situations like this, expertise matters. Historians can help people agree on the historical truths that have the best claims, instead of just picking the ones they find most convenient.

At least, that’s the argument I made this week over at Washington Post. Click on over and read the whole thing.

Should Historians Talk Politics?

The question is not whether or not historians should get into politics. The proper question is whether or not historians should get into history. In case you missed it, journalist Andrew Ferguson just antagonized historians by mocking their attempts to weigh in on impeachment. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, sometimes the intellectual “sloppiness” Ferguson condemns is right on the money.

president supervillain

Should cartoonists weigh in on cartoons? Should Red Skull weigh in on villainy? [Side note: If you’re not following President Supervillain (@PresVillain) on Twitter, you’re missing the best part of today’s politics.]

Full disclosure: I signed. Ferguson was fluffed about the petition signed by over 2,000 historians in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal. And, no doubt intentionally, Ferguson used provocative language to condemn activist historians, calling them merely “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

Beyond my hurt feelings, I think it’s fair to wonder if Ferguson’s accusations have any merit. The basis of his complaint is that historians are calling for impeachment based only on an argument from authority. As he puts it,

It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick.

In this case, though, Ferguson misses the central point. Historians are not merely weighing in as credentialed experts who have a certain political belief. Rather, in an age of fractured truth, historians are weighing in on an historical issue, as credentialed experts who have earned their expertise at great cost and toil. They are signaling to a bewildered public that not all forms of history have equal merit. All historical claims are tentative, but some are far more wildly bogus than others.

Trump letter pelosi

It is no longer self-evident that all historical arguments are not born equal.

The disagreement in this case is not merely whether or not historians as individuals think Trump is a dangerous lout. More specifically, the impeachment case hinges on the nature of American history itself. In his self-defense, for example, Trump has made all sorts of claims based on his reality-TV-level understanding of history. As he wrote in his recent letter to Speaker Pelosi,

You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.

In other words, Trump is leaning on history to make his case against impeachment. Trump is not only defending his “perfect” phone call, but insisting that his actions are in line with the intentions of America’s founders centuries ago. The fight here is not only about today’s politics, but yesterday’s. To say that historians should not weigh in on events of the past seems more than a little silly. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse put it,

The GOP invoked “history” repeatedly in their defense of the president — making claims about the Constitution, Franklin, Hamilton, past precedents of impeachment, etc. Don’t get angry when actual historians respond to those claims to point out they’re wrong.

Right on. In this case, historians are not merely voicing their views about politics based on their PhDs and institutional authority. They are speaking to the public on issues in which they have reasonable claims to expert authority.

Consider a parallel from another field of fractured truth. As science historian Adam Shapiro noted, telling historians not to speak politically is similar to the ways scientists have been told to stay in their labs. And it is just as meaningless.

Back in 1968, for example, SCOTUS was considering the constitutionality of a bunch of 1920s anti-evolution laws. As SCOTUS considered, scientists weighed in. The scientific case was clear. Leading biologists, 179 of them, signed a brief informing the justices that “scientists and other reasonable persons” no longer doubted the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. The justices eventually agreed.

These days, too, mainstream scientists happily lend their authority to the prestige of mainstream evolutionary theory. As the National Center for Science Education playfully demonstrated with its Project Steve, the number of scientists who support evolution—JUST NAMED STEVE—stretches to over a thousand.

Are these arguments from authority? In a way, but what Ferguson misses is that in an age of fractured truth, when politicians and preachers make outlandish claims about history and science, the authority of historians and scientists has real value. To a public confronted with bogus ideas about the past or about DNA, arguments based on the number of experts who attest to the truth of the matter is not only acceptable, but absolutely vital.

The Politics of Evangelical Magazines

The kerfuffle over Christianity Today got us thinking: How often have evangelical magazines gone out on a political limb? And what happened when they did?

First, the basics: Outgoing editor Mark Galli got people’s attention yesterday when he called for the impeachment and removal of Trump. As Galli wrote,

the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

Some observers wondered if this statement by a leading evangelical publication signaled a “crack in the wall of Trump evangelical support.”

Trump’s evangelical supporters didn’t seem to think so. Conservative stalwarts such as Franklin Graham blasted CT‘s statement, saying his father, CT-founder Billy Graham, “would be embarrassed.”

trump et

Taking a bold stand against aliens…or Entertainment Tonight.

True to form, Trump himself blasted the decision in confusing and seemingly uninformed ways. He called CT a “far left magazine” and concluded that he “won’t be reading ET [sic] again.”

SAGLRROILYBYGTH already know all that. What they might not know is the history of political statements by leading evangelical magazines. From my Fundamentalist U research, I pulled up an example from the twentieth century.

Back in 1957, Billy Graham started a similar political firestorm among the white evangelical community by integrating his revival meetings. Based at Biola University in Los Angeles, the popular evangelical magazine King’s Business came out in favor of integration.

Editor Lloyd Hamill made clear in a scathing editorial in November, 1957, that King’s Business supported racial integration. As Hamill put it,

Graham was only proclaiming what the Bible plainly teaches. . . . No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Another writer wrote in the same issue,

Now and then you hear some Christian say, ‘I don’t want any Negroes or Mexicans in my church.’  In whose church?  Christ paid for the Church with His precious blood and some saints seem to think because they put an offering in the plate on Sunday they have bought the Church back.

Bold words for the world of white evangelicalism in 1957. And predictably, the president’s office of Biola University was immediately flooded with mail. A few white evangelicals agreed with Hamill. But by a factor of about ten to one, the readers expressed their outrage.

earnestine ritterHamill did not back down. He pointed out that the offices of King’s Business did not only advocate racial integration, they practiced it. As Hamill noted in the following issue,

As a matter of record The King’s Business has had a Negro on the editorial staff for nearly a year.  She is Earnestine Ritter who has studied journalism at New York University and Los Angeles State College.

What happened? Hamill was fired. Biola President Samuel Sutherland apologized to Billy Graham for the “very foolish letters [Hamill] wrote and statements which he made.”

Mark Galli won’t be intimidated. He already planned to retire soon. But the controversy unleashed by his anti-Trump editorial is far from the first time an evangelical editor has tried to push the needle among evangelical Americans.

The OTHER Myth about Evangelical History

Thanks to leading historian Matthew Avery Sutton, we see a reminder this morning that Trump is nothing new. Conservative evangelicals have always backed morally besmirched leaders. The idea that evangelical voters previously preferred “clean” candidates joins the myth that evangelicals retreated from politics in the twentieth century. It’s just not true. Weirdest of all, though, white evangelicals have long tended to pretend—maybe even believing it themselves—that their immoral candidates somehow personally embody Christian virtue. Why?

saint-donald1

St. Donald the Orange?

Professor Sutton, author of field-defining books such as American Apocalypse and now Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States during the Second World War, points out that conservative evangelicals have a long history of supporting Trumpish crooks. Back in the 1920s, for example, prominent institutions like the Moody Bible Institute gave cigar-puffing, booze-swilling, corrupt wheeler-dealer Warren Harding their full-throated support. As Prof. Sutton relates,

The editors of the leading fundamentalist periodical Moody Monthly routinely praised Harding for his leadership. “We are thankful just now for a Federal administration,” they acknowledged, “which seems honestly disposed to do its best for the nation.” They insisted that “it is generally admitted that the President has gathered around him an efficient cabinet with a genius for team work.”

Conservative evangelical support for the train-wreck presidency of Warren Harding was not the exception. As Prof. Sutton writes, conservative evangelicals also picked divorced actor Ronald Reagan over Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter in 1980. They ignored Eisenhower’s meh attitude toward organized religion. Support for Trump among white evangelicals is just more of the same. As Prof. Sutton concludes,

Fundamentalists in the 1920s separated Harding’s personal morality from his pro-fundamentalist policies. Evangelicals in the Trump era do the same. If politicians champion white evangelicals’ proposals on immigration, foreign policy and religion in the public square, they are willing to forgive many, many personal sins. And when Trump’s nonvirtuous behavior serves their political goals by boosting his political power — for example, by accepting election interference from the Russians or by allegedly trying to pressure the Ukrainian president by withholding aid — they may see these acts as advancing a virtuous cause.

And evangelical support for dodgy politicians is often more than merely a pragmatic political decision. As Professor Sutton reminds us, white evangelicals have talked about their support for moral monsters in odd terms. As some evangelical leaders are doing these days with Trump, evangelicals have tended to lavish praise on their chosen political leaders, as when they hailed President Harding as “the Christian president,” or as “‘an earnest Christian man’ who ‘in all his speeches … advocated a return to the Bible and to Bible righteousness.'”

Support for Trump among white evangelicals is not an exception. It is the rule—white evangelicals have always done more than just hold their noses and vote for candidates based on hard-nosed policy considerations. In every case, some evangelicals will pretend to themselves that their candidates are actually good Christians.

Can anyone explain that one to me?