30 January 2012

The Founding Fathers and Christianity

One of the blogs that I frequently check out as a student of American church history is the the Religion in American History Blog.  Today, there was a really interesting interview regarding the religious beliefs of Patrick Henry and other founding fathers

Baylor University professor Thomas Kidd wrote a book on Henry, and is the interviewee in this particular post.  He brings up a very important point that people often ignore.  Many people today look at the founding fathers as men of great faith and claim that most of them were fervent evangelicals.  This is simply not the case.  The other extreme is false, as well.  People on the other side of the argument try to claim that almost all of the founding fathers were deists like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  Both sides of the argument have ulterior motives in trying to sell their position, but they are both wrong at the end of the day.  It is safe to say that just about all of the founders were profoundly impacted by the Judeo-Christian belief system, but actual beliefs varied widely.  For a previous post on this part of American church history, look here.

One important thing to point out about these people with widely differing beliefs is that they nevertheless came together for a common cause.  Then again, it was only a few years before the niceties wore off.  We haven't come very far in that regard over 200 years.

28 January 2012

Pictures of the Church I'm Writing My Book On

As I've mentioned briefly before, I'm in the process of writing a short book on a church that is about to be demolished as soon as spring comes to North Dakota.  This church has been abandoned for about 14 years, and the structure on the inside and outside show the wear.  The church, as you can hopefully see, blended into the city streetscape of the town.  The lack of a parking lot no doubt contributed to its decline, as it did several other small churches in town.  This is the last of the old-style wood-framed churches in town, and it is a link to the immigrant past of Grand Forks.  This is one of the important threads that I'm trying to bring out in the book, which should be out around the time of the demolition.

Note the proximity to the house, as well as the lean of the wall.  Now, the interior with a sagging ceiling and gutted fixtures:

Note the charred attic, left from a fire in 1944.  More to come about American church history at a later date--including information on how to get the book.

21 January 2012

Evangelical Voters and the South Carolina Primary

Evangelical voters make up a very sizable portion of the electorate in several Southern and Midwestern states.  In my last post, I pointed out that the endorsement of Rick Santorum by several evangelical leaders signaled a shift in attitudes.  Apparently, that endorsement changed few minds. 

The polls have closed, and the people of South Carolina have spoken.  South Carolina is a state with many evangelicals, and exit polls indicated that 65% of the people that voted today claimed to be evangelical Christians.  Apparently, that whole Santorum endorsement thingie didn't really work out too terribly well for the former Senator from Pennsylvania. 

One thing is for sure according to the exit polls from both South Carolina and Iowa, evangelicals are still not overly enthused about voting for a Mormon for president, as a pastor's endorsement of Rick Perry in October predicted.  Romney got 14% of the evangelical vote in Iowa, and his support rose to only 22% in SC, in spite of the dropping out of self-proclaimed evangelicals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who combined for 20% of the evangelical vote in Iowa.  Only 21% of evangelicals voted for Santorum in SC, in spite of the endorsement by some of their prominent leaders.  This is not the biggest surprise, however.

The biggest surprise, in my opinion, coming out of the South Carolina primary was the number of evangelicals who supported Newt Gingrich.  44% of evangelicals supported the former Speaker of the House, while only the 22% mentioned above supported Romney.  For non-evangelicals, Romney got 38% of the vote, while Gingrich only got 33%. 

Christianity emphasizes personal righteousness.  Evangelicals tend to pay serious lip service to this idea.  Only 18% of the voters in SC claimed that strong moral character was the main trait that they were looking for in a candidate.  If all of the these people were evangelicals, 47% find moral character as a secondary consideration to beating Barack Obama or someone having the right experience (Harry Truman did not have the right experience, but most historians and laymen consider him well above average when it comes to leadership).  While I understand that people can change and that there is redemption, I personally have to question the judgment of a serial adulterer who was kicked out of a Congress controlled by his own party for ethics charges.  The average person on the street considers Congressman/woman and ethics as an oxymoron, and this very body, Congress, kicked the Speaker out for ethics, all while his party had a solid majority.  His dealings with Fannie and Freddie have also come under fire.  That's not even mentioning the allegations his wife brought up this week.

But, hey, that's apparently better than having a Mormon as presidential candidate.

15 January 2012

Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and a Shift in Presidential Politics

Yesterday, as I read some of the news headlines on the interweb, I came across one that dealt with the endorsement that some evangelical voters gave to Rick Santorum.  It's not terribly surprising that evangelicals rejected Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism and his supposed liberal tendencies.  Of course, Romney may not know whether he's a conservative, liberal, or something totally different.  The evangelical voters considered Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry.  The very fact that they chose Santorum shows a significant shift in American Protestant politics over the past few decades. 

A major party has nominated a Roman Catholic for president three times.  Each time, it's been the Democrats that have done so.  The first Catholic to run for president was Al Smith of New York in 1928.  He lost to Herbert Hoover, and those who lived through the Depression blame Hoover for that debacle to this day, but that's another story.  Hoover won a landslide largely because a Republican was in office and the economy seemed to be booming.  However, there was also the frequent assertion that the Democrats were the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion."  The 1920s was a period that saw the growth of the second Ku Klux Klan, and Catholics were one of the major groups that these nativists saw as damaging Americanism with their taking orders from Rome.  There was concern that a Smith presidency would subordinate itself to the pope, not the Constitution.

Fast-forward just over thirty years.  In 1960, another Catholic ran for president.  The concern over a president having more allegiance to the Vatican than the US was a big concern for many Protestants.  The candidate for president this time was John F. Kennedy.  A 2007 article in Baptist History & Heritage by Ricky Floyd Dobbs examined the concern that conservative Baptists had regarding a Catholic running for president, using the Texas Baptist Standard as a case study.  Kennedy won, and he is to date the only Catholic to become president.  While some Americans would view him as a liberal, and his presidency was shortened by an assassins' bullet, most people would not argue that Kennedy put the concerns of the Vatican above those of America.

In 2004, John Kerry ran for president against the incumbent George W. Bush.  His Catholicism was not the major issue, as the fear of terrorism seemed to be the overarching topic in this election.  That was a general election, however, and evangelicals have tended to web themselves to the Republican Party in the last few decades.  Most of the Republican candidates over time have been WASPs, with few women, minorities, and non-Protestants attempting a run.  This year, evangelicals chose between Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry.  Of the three, Perry would be the closest candidate to an evangelical.  However, he's come across as less-than-presidential in debates and other public appearances. That leaves Santorum and Gingrich, both Catholics, as the best hope for pro-life, anti-Mormon evangelicals.  While Romney's stand on abortion can be questioned, John Huntsman, another Mormon, seems to be solidly pro-life. 

All of this goes to show the major change in Protestant attitudes toward Catholicism.  Catholics are now considered more mainstream to evangelical voters.  Mormons are not.  Could this shift signal the election of a President Santorum?  Not likely, but the change over time is nonetheless interesting.

12 January 2012

Racists, Christianity, and the Antebellum South

One of the biggest oxymorons that I've run across are Christian racists.  The two terms don't really go together.  Yet, many people in the pre-Civil War South claimed Christianity while simultaneously having few qualms about owning other people.  The quarterly journal of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, conveniently named Baptist History & Heritage, recently arrived at my house.  Since I had not yet begun my studies for the semester, I had a chance to read through the articles. 

The article in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal that most caught my attention was "Pastor Elias Lyman Magoon, the Education of Blacks, and his 1846 Departure from Second Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia," by Craig A Sherouse, who is currently the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Richmond.  Sherouse's article deals with on of the biggest concepts that historians study: change over time.  The change that he recounts in this article deals with racial attitudes in nineteenth century Richmond.  While Virginians were nowhere near the most progressive of people when it came to race, in 1813, they were much more tolerant than they would become by 1846. 

In 1813, William H. Crane and Elder David Roper formed a school for free and slave black students in Richmond.  From this school came the missionary team of Lott Carey and Collin Teage, who became Baptist missionaries to the new African nation of Liberia.  Crane was at the meeting that formed the Southern Baptist Convention (formed because the some in the Baptist Triennial Convention rightly refused to commission slaveholding missionaries), and his son William Carey Crane became president of Baylor University.  A finding about another sons, Adoniram Judson Crane, surprised Sherouse, however.  A. J. Crane was a memeber of a committee that brought a report against Second Baptist's pastor, Elias Lyman Magoon, and recommended Magoon's "separation" from the church. 

Why did Magoon incur the wrath of this congregation?  He had been quite popular before took leave to travel to Europe for study.  Sherouse writes: "What was the dismissible charge brought against Pastor  Magoon?  Advocating in the pulpit and in print the education of blacks, both slave and free--the same ministry that A. J. Crane's father had done thirty years earlier, that which had eventuated in Cary and Teage constituting a church in William Crane's parlor.  How ironic to make that discovery while seated under the painting of that historic event."

What changed over the course of thirty years?  Sherouse points out that the laws of Virginia changed.  The education of African Americans became illegal after the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, led somewhat ironically by a Baptist minister.  Other laws prohibited the meeting of blacks at night and the meeting of blacks without white supervision.  Baptists in Richmond felt that Magoon's advocation for blacks too much to bear, and they asked him to leave.  Other articles in this edition of the journal were David Stratton's "James Madison, Persecuted Baptists, and Religious Liberty," Gary P. Burton's "Armistead Thomson Mason Handey: The Unusual Life and Times of a Nineteenth-Century Church Planter and Pastor in Central Alabama," T. Laine Scales and Craig R. Clarkson's "Preparing College Graduates for Mission: The Role of the Student Volunteer Movement in the Calling and Formation of a 'Baylor Girl,' 1903-1907," and Aaron Douglas Weaver's "'Not in My Backyard' to 'Not in Anyone's Backyard': Black Baptists, the Black Church, and the Environmental Justice Movement." 

This was one of the most interesting issues of the journal that I've read.  I mention the Sherouse article at length because of the major issue that race continues to be, even among people who claim to be Christian.  While much has changed, underlying attitudes often remain the same.  Sherouse's article shows how easy it is for Christians to conform to the culture around them.  This problem is definitely one to be avoided.

09 January 2012

Study on American Religion and the Community

To hear many anti-religious folks hear it, those who belong the religious organizations are a major drain on society.  The religious (especially Christians) are destroying society by spewing their religious dogmas.  Communities would be better without the religious.  An interesting recent study by Pew Research tends to bring this idea into question. The link above goes to a CNN story with some interesting comments.  Here is a link to the actual survey titled "The Civic and Community Engagement of Religiously Active Americans."

Highlights of the study included the following statistics:

Those people who are not involved in religious groups are involved in an average of 2.11 community groups, while those who belong to a religious group are involved in 5.61 community organizations.

45% of those who belong to a religious organization view their community as an excellent place to live, while only 34% of those who are not religious do.

Those  in religious groups spend 7.5 hours a week in group activities, compared to about 5.4 hours for those not so affiliated.  Whether or not attendance at religious services count in this number was not discussed, and would be interesting to know.

College graduates are more likely to belong to religious organizations (which brings the question of the ignorant, superstitious church member into question).

One of the more interesting statistics involves the other types of organizations to which the religious belong.  Religious Americans are more likely to belong to organizations related to art and culture, as well as labor unions and environmental groups, than are the non-religious.

Politically, the religious Americans trended conservative, but the conservatives vs moderate/liberal divide was about even--around 50% conservative vs. 50% moderate/liberal.

While there are notable philanthropists among the atheist/agnostic crowd (i.e. Bill Gates), the numbers are nonetheless telling.  The link above from CNN does not go into causation, but it does indicate a strong correlation between being religious and activity in the community.  It seems to suggest that people who belong to religious organizations just like to belong to groups.  However, I would suggest that perhaps the command to love other people as yourself leads people to have concern for the well-being of their communities. 

Another important point that the study made was that those belonging to religious organizations tend to have a better outlook on their communities and on their ability to enact positive change.  This would probably relate to a general hope for the future.  Religious people (especially Christians) tend to believe that it's ultimately going to get better based upon their religious beliefs.  Those who are atheist/agnostic claim to think  people will get better as humanity evolves (which brings into question the reasons for their apparent pessimism), but they apparently don't want to help that process along.  Regardless, this study would suggest that a religiously active community would be a better community.

05 January 2012

What I'm Reading--Historians and Fallacies

The Christmas Break for this graduate student is about to come to an end.  Over the break, I had the chance to indulge in some relaxation, albeit away from home.  While I enjoy my grad studies, it's good to take a break and smell the roses every once in a while.  My cross-country drives give the opportunity for relaxation, unless it involves the whiteout that I drove through around Cleveland on I-80 on Tuesday.  While there were no crashes, traffic sped along at a whopping 15 miles per hour for a bit.  I'm glad to be back in Grand Forks and in my own bed for a change.

One of the indulgences that I take while on break is reading.  I know what you're probably thinking, "Doesn't a grad student's life involve lots of reading?"  It does, but it's generally on topics that relate to work, not enjoyment.  For Christmas, I got a copy of Carl Trueman's Histories and Fallacies.  I read through it very quickly, as it is an enjoyable read.  I generally don't enjoy books on historiography, but this one was quite readable and practical (probably because it's not written more for laymen).  I would not have asked for the book if it had not been recommended by one of Trueman's former students, himself not a historian, at Westminster Theological Seminary.  After reading this book, I'm glad I got the recommendation and chose to ignore my general avoidance of all things related to historiography (at least in the theoretical sense).  Trueman, like me, has little love for those who only write about the writing of history, rather than actually writing history themselves. 

One of the things that Trueman clearly points out is the fact that historical writing is based upon interpretation.  He discusses the difference between objectivity and neutrality, arguing that the first is possible, while the second is not.  There are facts.  For example, WWII happened.  This is not disputed.  The impact of various actions during World War II are debated, and differing interpretations can shed light on the subject.  While Trueman has no patience for relativism, he understands that there is no one absolute right interpretation of most historical events.  For an example, he uses the Holocaust.  There are two schools of thought on the Holocaust, the functionalists and the intentionalists--who basically argue whether the Holocaust was planned from the beginning or thought up along the way.  Both are able to find evidence that backs up their claims and both are able to shed light on the German activity in this horrific event.  Neither is necessarily absolutely correct. 

The group that troubles Trueman are the Holocaust Deniers who say that either the event never happened  or that the death tolls were nowhere in the millions.  These are folks who misuse historical evidence and make their websites look slick to spread their propaganda.  Trueman walks his readers through the bad historical method of the deniers.  Both functionalists and intentionalists use the accepted methods of historical inquiry.  For the most part the deniers do not.  The moral quandry of the Holocaust allows Trueman to criticize an extreme relativism that embraces the validity of all texts.  To radical postmodernists, Holocaust deniers should not be a problem.  While multiple perspectives can be accurate, there are perspectives that are completely inaccurate or immoral.  I think that Trueman handled this concept quite well.

Much of the rest of the book goes into discussing certain fallacies that historians are prone to fall into.  Entire chapters are devoted to the idea of metanarratives that explain everything and anachronism, while the final chapter discusses a few.  While Histories and Fallacies includes some of the same ideas as David Hackett Fischer's scathing review (Historians' Fallacies) of the logical fallacies that even the most accomplished historians commit, it did not go into nearly the depth of Fischer's book, nor did it give specific examples with names included.

I rather enjoyed the chapter on overarching interpretations of history.  Trueman chose Marxism, and one of its ablest historians, to take apart.  While I would definitely not describe myself as a Marxist historian, I do recognize (as does Trueman) that this school of historians brought the importance of economic considerations in history to the forefront.  Trueman uses the example of a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Roman emperor Trajan that talks about the Christians and their persecution.  Pliny talks about the return of many to the old gods and the joy of some merchants.  Most readers would ignore the last part, which is almost tacked onto the end of the letter, but it actually indicates that merchants who dealt in idols complained about the Christians cutting their business.  Trueman also uses Christopher Hill's discussion of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress as an example.  All of the merchants and gentlemen in Vanity Fair are described negatively in Bunyan.  Hill ascribes it to economics.  Trueman agrees that this could have been an underlying, and perhaps even unconscious, theme in Bunyan's thought.  Trueman is generally quite complimentary of Hill's work.  I've read some of it, and it is very readable and much of it is convincing.  However, I agree with Trueman that economic factors are not the only factors in history.  Ideas are important, and they are not always related to class as the Marxists would generally argue.  In an interesting note, Trueman pointed out that Marxist historians can sometimes deny problems based upon ideology (I've seen right-leaning people do this as well, so the left does not have a monopoly).  He pointed out an interview in which Hill said that there were no famines under Stalin, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that there were.  Frameworks are good, but they cannot be used as absolutes that cannot be falsified.  Marxist history often falls into this trap.

Trueman's book succeeds in bringing the practice of history to a level that laymen can enjoy and understand.  I've studied history for many years, and I must confess that there are books PhD's struggle with.  This is not one of them, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.