Gary Scott Smith on America as a Blessed But Not Chosen Nation – Thanksgiving 2019

Today is the last in the series of articles by historians posted during Thanksgiving week. I deeply appreciated the contributions of my distinguished friends and colleagues John WilseyJared BurkholderBarry HankinsAndrew MitchellFred Beuttler, and today Gary Scott Smith.
Happy Thanksgiving!
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Dr. Gary Scott Smith formerly chaired the history department at Grove City College and is now professor emeritus there. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011) and “Suffer the Children” (Wipf and Stock, 2017) about worldwide poverty.
Thanksgiving Revisited: A Blessed But Not a Chosen Nation
In November 1620, 102 English Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod after an arduous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic. The first winter, half of their company died. Nevertheless, after the residents of Plymouth gathered their first harvest the next November, Governor William Bradford invited Chief Massasoit and other Wampanoag Indians to join them for a feast that lasted three days. Describing the first Thanksgiving in “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” in 1621, Edward Winslow thanked the “goodness of God” for the venison, wild fowl, and other food they enjoyed.
In 1777, during another trying time in American history, the Continental Congress issued the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation. Twelve years later George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to give gratitude to God for the newly ratified Constitution. The first president urged Americans to render unto “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” “our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country … for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence,” evident in the nation’s “tranquility, union, and plenty.”
This belief that God has specially blessed America has been widespread in our history. Many Americans have insisted that this country has a unique calling from God. This theme is evident in the nation’s sacred ceremonies, quasi-sacred scriptures, and presidents’ inaugural addresses. Strongly identifying with ancient Israel, many Americans have concluded that God chose us to play a principal role in bringing his kingdom on earth.
The Puritans contended that they had a “divinely appointed errand in the wilderness.” John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose residents came ten years after the Pilgrims, declared in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, expected a “great work of God” to soon begin in America. His grandson Timothy Dwight, an early president of Yale, claimed that the new nation was “by Heaven designed, the example bright to renovate mankind.”
Numerous presidents have argued that God selected the United States to perform a special mission: to spread democracy, liberty, and biblical morality to the world. They asserted that its seemingly miraculous birth; rapid spread across the continent; remarkable increase in population, industry, affluence, and might; successful assimilation of millions of people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds; modeling of republican government; and pivotal role in deciding the outcome of international wars all testified to God’s choice, use, and blessing of America.
Washington announced in his first inaugural address that “the destiny of the republican model of government” depended on America’s success. Thomas Jefferson labeled the American experiment “the last best hope of mankind,” and Abraham Lincoln called the Union “the last best hope of earth.” “Upon the success of our experiment,” alleged Theodore Roosevelt, “much depends … as regards the welfare of mankind.” “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history,” declared George W. Bush, “to be a model to the world of justice.”
The United States’ success and support has encouraged people in countries around the globe to throw off the shackles of despotism and embrace democracy. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, [and] opportunity.”
Although the conviction that God has selected the United States for a special mission in the world has contributed to some good results, it is biblically suspect. The Bible provides no basis for believing that any nation enjoys a unique relationship with God, as Israel did in Old Testament times. This Thanksgiving (and continuously) we should thank God for the many blessings our nation has enjoyed. Our geographical location, rich resources, fertile soil, unique blend of peoples, numerous liberties, and outstanding leaders have indeed been great blessings.
At the same time, we must reject the idea that we are God’s chosen people, a conviction that has helped motivate and vindicate America’s actions at home and abroad. Belief that God has assigned the United States a mission has helped inspire Americans to engage in countless acts of self-sacrifice, generosity, and charity. However, it has also contributed to imperialism, concepts of racial superiority, cultural insensitivity, and unwarranted interference in the affairs of other nations. It has stimulated Americans to fight injustice at home and abroad, but it has also contributed to simplistic moralizing, overlooking of our national flaws, ignoring moral complexities, and a hatred abroad of American hubris.
Therefore, while we celebrate Thanksgiving and give gratitude to God for his bounty, let’s remember Christ’s statement, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Hopefully this will motivate us to reach out in compassion to the needy throughout our world
For more from this Thanksgiving in history series, please click the links below:

John Wilsey on the Past as a Foreign Country

Jared Burkholder on Politics And The First Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on Thanksgiving as the Perfect Civil Religion Holiday

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Fred Beuttler on the First Federal Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on America’s Perfect Civil Religion Holiday – Thanksgiving 2019

The third post today is a brief note from Barry Hankins. Hankins is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History and Resident Scholar, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

Christians can celebrate Thanksgiving by infusing it with all kinds of religious and national significance.  But, people of other faiths and of no faith at all can celebrate the holiday equally.  Christians have no corner on being thankful.  Moreover, Thanksgiving has an advantage in this respect over Christmas and Easter.  Although those holidays, especially Christmas, are commercialized and secularized to a large extent, they are still specifically Christian.  In fact, they are the two central events of the Christian liturgical calendar, which means that to celebrate them commercially non-Christians have to ignore their potent religious meaning.  Not so for Thanksgiving, which commemorates a national event, not a religious event.  So, Thanksgiving is what I call “America’s perfect civil religion holiday.”

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019. Tomorrow I have a post from retired Grove City College history professor and first professor emeritus from the school, Gary Scott Smith on America as a blessed but not chosen nation.

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s second guest post is from friend and Grove City College colleague Andrew Mitchell who is an associate professor of history at the college. 

Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of only two holidays Americans celebrate that consciously looks back to a colonial past.  It also happens to be the only national holiday that is relatively free of political implications, at least on first glance.  That is quite remarkable, since Americans are, and have been, a diverse group of people—of different ethnicities and faiths—who have agreed to unite over a number of political principles.  It has been our commitment to those principles, rather than to specifically religious or economic ones, that has helped the nation endure for close to 250 years.  Recently, historians, following the general trend of academia, have directed their research at exploring American diversity, and holiday celebrations have not escaped scrutiny. By stripping away the legends associated with “Pilgrim Fathers,” a fascinating story emerges.

It is quite evident now that the first “American” Thanksgiving celebration did not take place in 1623 at Plymouth, nor in 1619 at Berkley Hundred, nor in 1610 at Jamestown, but rather on 8 September 1565, in present-day St. Augustine, Florida.  On that day a group of Spanish-speaking Catholics gave thanks to God for their safe travel across the ocean and afterwards held a modest feast, inviting the local tribe of Timucuan Indians to join them.  In fact, regardless of whether the Plymouth Separatists were giving thanks to God or to Massasoit and the Wampanoags, it is clear that the Puritans of New England and their descendants ignored them entirely.  The word “Pilgrim” to describe the Plymouth colonists only shows up in 1799; the record of their 1623 celebration first published in 1841, during a time when New Englanders and Southerners were ransacking historical sources, engaged in a fierce fight to prove that their traditions (and theirs alone) were authentically “American.”  In light of this, Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 proclaiming a “day of thanksgiving” on the last Thursday in November appears more controversial—an affirmation right before his reelection that the Northern (New England-influenced) side had won.  Indeed, despite subsequent presidents continuing Lincoln’s tradition, most Southern states did not acknowledge the day, or develop any rituals around it, until the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Sadly, the history of Thanksgiving is not devoid of political wrangling and gamesmanship.  Franklin Roosevelt—in this as in other elements of his presidency—deviated from the traditions established by his predecessors, by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939.  Roosevelt was acting on the recommendation of his Secretary of Commerce who was concerned that the lateness of Thanksgiving (30 November) would compromise Christmas-season retail sales.  The president’s decision created a significant uproar across the country.  In a response that demonstrated how politicized America had become, nearly one-half of the states ignored the presidential declaration and celebrated a “Republican Thanksgiving,” instead of “Franksgiving.”  The following year, 16 states kept to the traditional date.  In 1941, after conclusive evidence that retail sales had not significantly improved, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in November as “Thanksgiving Day.”  Nevertheless, the reality of rationing during the Second World War meant that most Americans did not come to share in Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of until 1945.

Rather than being disconcerted by revisionist demonstrations that popular conceptions about our national celebration is little more than a peculiar New England tradition writ large and embellished, traditionalists should see in them a chance to celebrate.  Despite the diversity of language and creed, all European colonists to the Americas acknowledged their need for giving thanks, and demonstrated their joy through unusual periods of festivity, whether the religious ceremony was accompanied by culinary indulgence or not.  Furthermore, all of these thanksgiving celebrations, from Florida to Virginia to Massachusetts, included guests: strangers who were made welcome and encouraged to share in the community’s bounty, and for a few moments, perhaps, united in fellowship.  For these people, most of our ancestors, thanksgiving was not a single day made special through capitalization, but one of life’s essential rituals, too important to practice only once every 365 days, and too special to keep to one’s own.

With increasing evidence from the realm of psychology that giving thanks is good for the mind as well as the body, perhaps this provides Americans today with something solid to grasp.  In a society whose members are increasingly concerned about diversity and yet increasingly isolated from one another, whose daily call to self-indulgence tends to dull our physical and spiritual palates, perhaps we need to focus on the thankful theme that has united us in the past.  By scaling back our own daily consumption (starting, perhaps with the last Friday in November), by beginning to reach out in loving hospitality to the strangers in our midst, we might be able reclaim some of that attractive spirit—and lifestyle—of giving thanks that all our ancestors (and their guests) shared.

For further reading, Dr. Mitchell recommends:

Diana Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History.
Kathleen Curtain, Sandra Oliver, and Plimouth Plantation, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.
Robert Emmons, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.

John Wilsey on Thanksgiving and the Past as a Foreign Country – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s first guest post is from John D. Wilsey. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

One of the fascinating things about the Thanksgiving celebration is its endurance in the national memory. From the “first Thanksgiving” in the autumn of 1621 to our own day, Thanksgiving as a civil religious high and holy day offers us a cultural and religious artifact in considering the process of change that occurs in a national community. Just think of Thanksgiving in terms of three benchmarks in history—1621, 1863, and the present day.
Here’s a little perspective: when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, he was more distant in time from the 1621 celebration than we are in 2014 to Lincoln. How much had changed in North America from the first Thanksgiving to the Civil War? And how much has changed from the Civil War to the present? As many historians like to point out, the past is a foreign country—but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the past is made up of many foreign countries.

It is good to remember that our present day context is different than that of the past. As a Christian, I remember that many things in the human experience do not change, namely, human nature itself. But I also remember that trying to draw a straight line from the Pilgrims to the present in an effort to make some point about “restoring America” can be dangerous, and in some ways, contrary to my own Christian tradition. That does not mean that we ignore the past. We can glean wisdom from the past without using it to advance an agenda. Considering Thanksgiving as a cultural and religious artifact helps us to do just that, while we celebrate and enjoy it in our own homes on November 27.

For all articles in this series, please click Thanksgiving 2019.

On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Died – Happy Independence Day 2019!

With slight editing, this post is reprinted from prior posts on Independence Day. In 2015, it was the culmination of my Daily Jefferson series.

Happy Independence Day!

john adamsIn addition to being Independence Day, this is the day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826.

On this day in 1826, former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were once fellow Patriots and then adversaries, die on the same day within five hours of each other.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were friends who together served on the committee that constructed the Declaration of Independence, but later became political rivals during the 1800 election. Jefferson felt Adams had made serious blunders during his term and Jefferson ran against Adams in a bitter campaign. As a consequence, the two patriots and former friends fell out of touch. Mutual friend and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush hoped to bring the men back together. Rush was on good terms with both Adams and Jefferson and after the end of Jefferson’s second term, endeavored to help them bridge the distance. In his letter to Adams on October 17, 1809, Rush used the device of a dream to express his wish for Adams and Jefferson to resume communications. This letter is part of a remarkable sequence of letters which can be read here. In this portion, Rush suggests his “dream” of a Jefferson-Adams reunion to Adams.

“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.

“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country, and their views of the importance and probable issue of the struggle with Great Britain in which they were engaged being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends.  They met in England during the war while each of them held commissions of honor and trust at two of the first courts of Europe, and spent many happy hours together in reviewing the difficulties and success of their respective negotiations.  A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms, the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country (for they outlived the heterogeneous parties that were opposed to them), and to their numerous merits and honors posterity has added that they were rival friends.
With affectionate regard to your fireside, in which all my family join, I am, dear sir, your sincere old friend,
BENJN: RUSH

I don’t think Rush had an actual dream.* He may have used the dream narrative as a clever device to prod his friend into reconciliation with Jefferson. On more than one prior occasion, Rush communicated his views to Adams via writing about them as dreams. For instance,  Rush responded to a political question from Adams in a February 20, 1809 letter via a dream narrative.  Adams responded on March 4, 1809 (the same day Jefferson’s second term ended) praising Rush’s wit and asked for a dream about Jefferson:

Rush,—If I could dream as much wit as you, I think I should wish to go to sleep for the rest of my Life, retaining however one of Swifts Flappers to awake me once in 24 hours to dinner, for you know without a dinner one can neither dream nor sleep. Your Dreams descend from Jove, according to Homer.
Though I enjoy your sleeping wit and acknowledge your unequalled Ingenuity in your dreams, I can not agree to your Moral. I will not yet allow that the Cause of “Wisdom, Justice, order and stability in human Governments” is quite desperate. The old Maxim Nil desperandum de Republica is founded in eternal Truth and indispensable obligation.

Jefferson expired and Madison came to Life, last night at twelve o’clock. Will you be so good as to take a Nap, and dream for my Instruction and edification a Character of Jefferson and his Administration?

More substantial evidence for questioning whether Rush reported an actual dream is the existence of a draft of this letter which demonstrates that Rush considered another literary device for his prophecy. A footnote in Lyman Butterfield’s  compilation of Rush’s letter explains:

In the passage that follows, BR [Benjamin Rush] made his principal plea to Adams to make an effort toward reconciliation with Jefferson. That pains were taken in composing the plea is shown by an autograph draft of the letter, dated 16 Oct. in Hist. Soc. Penna., Gratz Coll. In the draft BR originally wrote, and then crossed out, the following introduction to his dream history: “What would [you omitted] think of some future historian of the United States concluding one of his chapters with the following paragraph?” The greater verisimilitude of the revision adds much to the effectiveness of this remarkable letter. (Butterfield, L.H., The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. II, 1793-1813, Princeton Univ. Press, 1951, p. 1023)

The evidence shows that Rush considered at least two options to get across his message of reconciliation: a dream or an appeal to a future history book. He first wrote about the history book, then he chose a more creative device, one which he had already used in letters to Adams and which Adams had actually requested in March of that year.

In any case, real dream or not, Adams liked the proposition and replied to Rush on October 25, 1809, about the “dream” saying,

A Dream again! I wish you would dream all day and all Night, for one of your Dreams puts me in spirits for a Month. I have no other objection to your Dream, but that it is not History. It may be Prophecy. There has never been the smallest Interruption of the Personal Friendship between me and Mr. Jefferson that I know of. You should remember that Jefferson was but a Boy to me. I was at least ten years older than him in age and more than twenty years older than him in Politicks. I am bold to say I was his Preceptor in Politicks and taught him every Thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct. I served with him on many Committees in Congress in which we established some of the most important Regulations of the Army &c, &c, &c

Jefferson and Franklin were united with me in a Commission to the King of France and fifteen other Commissions to treat with all the Powers of Europe and Africa. I resided with him in France above a year in 1784 and 1785 and met him every day at my House in Auteuil at Franklins House at Passy or at his House in Paris. In short we lived together in the most perfect Friendship and Harmony.

Although in a less poetic manner, Rush also wrote Jefferson to suggest a resumption of friendship with Adams. It took awhile (1812), but Adams and Jefferson did resume contact. As predicted by Rush, they carried on a vigorous correspondence until late in their lives regarding their personal and political views. Then 50 years after July 4, 1776, Jefferson and Adams “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country…”**

*Christian nationalists often point to this story as an illustration of a supernatural event. For instance, David Barton says that Rush had a dream which God brought to pass in a manner similar to those in the Bible. If Barton knows about Rush’s rough draft of this letter, he doesn’t disclose this information to his readers. He doesn’t also consider the fact that Rush often used the word dream to describe his thoughts about other issues.

Clearly, the accuracy of what Rush predicted is uncanny and from a reformed vantage point represents the working of providence. However, the processes seemed to be quite natural in that Rush thought a lot about his friends and worked behind the scenes to make the reunion happen. Given the early chemistry of Adams and Jefferson, their later relationship could reasonably be expected. The spooky part is their common day of death.

**Much of this post was adapted from a prior post on John Adams and the Holy Ghost letter and published on this blog May 31, 2011.  Read more about Jefferson in Getting Jefferson Right by Michael Coulter and me.

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Images: public domain

Happy Juneteenth 2019

Note: This is a reprint from last year with current amendments.

Happy day to celebrate the end of slavery in the U.S.  Juneteenth is a holiday in 40 states.

Here is a tweet from Jamar Tisby which links to an article which makes a case for Juneteenth as a national holiday. Whether Juneteenth should be the day or another day should be designated, there should be such a holiday to commemorate the end of slavery.

Photo: Public domain: Source: The Portal to Texas History Austin History Center, Austin Public Library. Date: June 19, 1900. Author: Mrs. Charles Stephenson

A Teachable Moment: Dinesh D’Souza Refuses to Take Back False Claim about Republicans Owning Slaves in 1860 (UPDATED)

(UPDATE – 6/11/19) – See below the post for an update.

For Dinesh D’Souza watchers, this headline is as shocking as proclaiming that water is wet. I post this incident because it is a clear and convincing demonstration that D’Souza shows zero interest in academic integrity.  Let me lay out the basics. First, D’Souza claimed in a speech that no Republican owned slaves in 1860. Here is the speech:

He said one Republican who owned a slave in 1860 would require him to take back his claim.

Historians on Twitter, led by Princeton’s Kevin Kruse, quickly rose to the occasion and found ten. Follow the thread below for the receipts.

To go directly to the thread with the breakdown of the ten found thus far, click here.

In essence, the method of finding Republican slave owners involves an examination of those who attended the Republican convention as delegates and then comparing that list with registries of slave owners.

For his part, D’Souza said the instances offered by the historians are “invalid” and he repeated his claim this morning.

I looked for counter evidence in D’Souza’s threads and nothing shows up. D’Souza said no Republican owned slaves in 1860, but in fact at least ten Republicans are on record as being slave owners during that year. It doesn’t change the fact that the Republican party generally opposed the expansion of slavery but it does prove that D’Souza’s specific claim is false. His handling of the matter also shows that he cannot be trusted in a dispute like this (as if there was any doubt).

This incident is a case study in cognitive dissonance for D’Souza followers. Will they believe their senses or go along with their loyalty to D’Souza? There is a solid research base in social psychology which suggests his followers will find some way to ease the dissonance and stick with D’Souza. Most will never know about it because they won’t read any of the historians’ posts. Some will simply assume the historians can’t be right because they are “libs.” Those who do engage with the material will have the most trouble. They will hang on D’Souza’s denials and assertions. A few may file this away as a “rare” mistake on D’Souza’s part so they can hold on to other things about him they like. A very few may actually reconsider his integrity.

Where this challenges to D’Souza eventually may have some benefit is to cause venues like Christian colleges and other organizations who might consider having him in to speak to reconsider. I use instances like this one in my classes as illustrations for concepts like ingroup bias, confirmation bias, belief perseverance, and cognitive dissonance. This one will go to the top of the class.

UPDATE – D’Souza admitted he was wrong on his claim with a sorry, not sorry tweet.

If you click the tweet and read through the thread, you will see the “sorry, not sorry” attitude of the response. He still hasn’t taken down the original tweet. D’Souza insists on promoting a false picture of historiography surrounding party realignment. He tells his followers that historians obscure the role of Democrats in the defense of slavery. They don’t obscure anything. He isn’t a great revealer of hidden truths. What D’Souza obscures is the fact that the parties realigned and that there were Republican racists all along the way. He also insists that the parties now are of the same character as they were 150 years ago.

His admission is striking and had to happen because he was caught red handed. His reputation should be in some jeopardy now for anyone who objectively evaluates his rhetoric. Prior to his admission, his claims were absolute. He said many people had already spent much time trying to debunk his claim. In fact, it took a few historians about 30 minutes to counter it. This was a devastating rebuke. D’Souza’s confident claims should never again be taken at face value by anyone. It isn’t that scholars don’t make factual mistakes, of course they do. However, true scholars aren’t as absolutistic and arrogant as D’Souza. He went out on a limb above a canyon, and it was cut off.

Against Sohrab Ahmari-ism

Subtitle: As Rick Wilson says, “Everything Trump touches dies.”

As I read Sohrab Ahmari’s betrayal of conservative principles in First Things (!), I thought of those who predicted Trump would kill the GOP and conservatism (even this one). If Sohrab Ahmari speaks for Trump supporting religious conservatives, the never-Trump religious conservatives have been vindicated. Here is Ahmari relegating civility and decency to one’s own tribe:

But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

Ahmari wants to win the culture war and he doesn’t want to be nice about it. For Ahmari, nice in this essay is embodied by National Review writer and religious conservative David French. Curiously, what really set Ahmari off was a drag queen reading a book during a library story time.

I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)

I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.

Ahmari complains that French is too nice and too wedded to pluralism to be of much help in winning the day for Christian morality.

Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.

Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time…

Here is what I get out of Ahmari’s criticism of David French-ism:

  • Fellow citizens of different faiths and beliefs and moral views are enemies of Ahmari’s brand of morality.
  • To the degree that those citizens disagree with his morality and want to act in accord with that disagreement, they must be opposed without civility and decency.
  • The salvation of individuals is insufficient to achieve the common good.
  • The battle is a zero-sum situation. Ahmari’s team wins or the other side wins. Divergent views of what is morally good cannot coexist.
  • Once the enemy is defeated, the righteous victors (Ahamri’s team) will enjoy “the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

What else does Ahmari suggest as a conservative answer to moral decay? He leaves a lot to the imagination of his readers. He implies at one point that government might intervene in social media platforms where he believes conservatives have been censored. What about the drag queens? Does he want to violate freedom of expression, speech, and association? If so, how?

What would this re-ordered public square look like? Would businesses close on Sunday? Would store clerks have to say Merry Christmas? Surely, there would be no drag queens in libraries. Would they be allowed anywhere? Who gets to define the Highest Good? Ahmari tells us that culture will never favor Christianity so he must have something more top down in mind. I think he gives us a clue in his piece when he writes:

Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality. That horror is a corollary to its autonomy-maximizing impulse.

This goes back, I think, to its roots in English non-conformism. In Culture and Anarchy, his great Victorian critique of this mode of thought, Matthew Arnold says of the nonconformist that, because he has encountered the Word of God by his own lights, he sees no need for the authority and grand liturgies of a national church (still less the Catholic Church).

But as Arnold notes, while the nonconformist vision of an austere, no-frills, solitary encounter with God might be suitable in one context, it doesn’t satisfy other necessities, such as collective public worship befitting public needs.

Ahmari adds:

Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.

Ahmari doesn’t like French-ism because he claims that French hopes individual salvation will make people moral and lead to a moral culture. Ahmari disagrees. He argues that “public power” and “moral regulation” will “advance the common good.”

So many questions come up. What is this “public power” and what are these “moral regulations?” Is it a state church? A oath to Dear Leader? Would Ahmari regulate drag queens? Libraries? The press? Free speech?

If this is Sohrab Ahmari-ism, I am against it.

David French?

Since attorney French has been a major player in religious liberty court cases, I would never have gone to him as a figure head for Ahmari’s opposition. Apparently, Ahmari doesn’t like French’s refusal to bow the knee to Trump and the fantasy of a Trump crafted “social cohesion.” However, reading French over the past two years, I think he is as fine as anyone to cast as a foil to Ahmari’s grand re-ordering plan. French knows who he is morally and spiritually, but he also writes convincingly about respect for freedom of conscience.

A serious problem with Ahmari’s plan to re-order the public square in his fuzzy image of the Highest Good (note the caps) is that such a re-ordering would have to rely on coercion. Someone’s conscience is going suffer. Ahmari doesn’t want it to be his so to hell with civility and decency. I mean that literally. If it takes hellish strategies to get the job done, then we must be realistic. The other side isn’t squeamish. And remember, the other side is made up of libertine pagans (Ahmari’s words), so they will surely use every demonic method available.

For Ahmari, these pagans aren’t just fellow homo sapiens who happen to see the world differently. On the other hand, French and his fellow French-ists respect the Constitutional freedoms available to all citizens. In his rebuttal to Ahmari, French made a point that is foundational to our ability to be one nation.

My political opponents are my fellow citizens. When I wore the uniform of my country, I was willing to die for them. Why would I think I’m at war with them now?

I agree. I get that Ahmari doesn’t like it when other people see the world differently and act on that difference. Most of us try to make the world more comfortable for us. Our founding documents ensure equal treatment before the law to pursue our aims. Ahmari also wants very much to do that for himself and those he likes. However, his ode to group serving bias isn’t a way forward for me, even though we may share some similar doctrinal beliefs. I can’t reconcile it with basic Constitutional freedoms which conservatives claim they want to conserve.

Kevin Kruse Dismantles Blexit’s Faulty History

Trump supporter Candace Owens has started something she calls Blexit which stands for Black exit from the Democrat party. It is a movement and a website.

African-Americans haven’t voted in great numbers for a Republican presidential candidate since 1960 but Owens hopes to change that with her movement of Black conservatives. However, she will need to clean up her historical act if she is going to succeed. As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse pointed out today on Twitter, the first three historical claims on her website aren’t accurate.

If you click the tweet, you will get to a thread which debunks the claims made by Owens. A little later in the thread actress Stacey Dash challenges Kruse with a altered photo of Margaret Sanger at a KKK rally.

Kruse then demonstrated that the photo was fake.

Although Dash seemed to offer some respect to Kruse’s efforts, the fake information is still up at Blexit.

On the Blexit website, I did not see any citations or sources for information. Some of claims appear to have originated with David Barton and/or Dinesh D’Souza. Some appear to be deliberate misinformation. It is an insult to the intelligence of the audience OWens and others are trying to reach to put up so much faulty material.

I am thankful that Kevin Kruse is so “informative” to quote Ms. Dash. If only she and others would go a little further and question the rest of the material.

David Barton Again Uses Fake Abe Lincoln Quote on Education to Criticize Education

On Friday, David Barton tweeted a video of a talk he gave to legislators in 2017 about education. In it, he gave lots of statistics and what he claimed were historical facts. Much of what he said sounded either obvious or false but I can’t say for sure since I haven’t checked it all. However, at about 30 minutes into the talk, he said something that was vintage Barton. Watch:

He showed a picture of Abe Lincoln and claimed Lincoln said:

The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

Veteran Barton watchers will know where I am going. The quote can’t be found in Lincoln’s writings or speeches. At one time (as late as 2012), Barton considered it an “unconfirmed” quote. Barton knows the quote can’t be sourced to Lincoln but he attributed it to Lincoln anyway.

This isn’t how actual historians behave. They don’t try to fool their audiences into believing something that isn’t true. And this isn’t the first time with this exact same quote.

How can an audience rely on Barton’s claims when he fudges a quote he knows can’t be found in Lincoln’s works? A fair questions is: what is he fudging on more important claims?

Student Follows Teacher

One of Barton’s warnings to legislators is about professors who have the wrong philosophy. He asserts that liberal professors will turn students liberal. The fake Lincoln quote was designed to put the exclamation point on that principle and warn that liberal professors today mean liberal politics tomorrow.

(As an aside, I have to ask if that’s true, then where did Trump come from?)

In any case, I also have to ask if that’s true, what do we have to look forward to from Barton’s students? Find a quote you like and attribute it to your favorite historical figure. Go out of your way to stretch the truth to create an impression that helps you politically. Deceive your audience for the sake of Jesus and his chosen nation, America?

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