As the Civil War ground to an end in early 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. It was a gracious meditation. He noted that both the North and South read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Invoking the mystery of God’s ways, he declared, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither have been answered fully. The Almighty has its own purposes.” He cited Matthew 7:1: “But let us judge not that we not be judged.” Worried that Radical Republicans might try to humiliate the South, Lincoln declared that all Americans were guilty. He instructed the nation to reunify “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Lincoln was speaking in the context of political crisis. According to historian John Fea, he could just have well been speaking about the possibilities and hazards of studying history. It’s a familiar subject for Fea, a former writer for the Anxious Bench and now a prolific blogger at The Way of Improvement Leads Home (which I read faithfully as a matter of professional development). In Why Study History he contends that historians should emulate Lincoln. They too should withhold judgment, revel in the unknowable mysteries of the past, and empathetically study strange historical characters.
The most striking argument of the book, in my reading, is Fea’s articulation of the limits of historical knowledge. This is not a provocative assertion to the trained historian, but it is for many evangelicals, which appear to be Fea’s target audience. He views evangelicals with ambivalence. The positive spin is that evangelicals are passionate and have a strong activist streak that seeks to better the world. But he also sees certain strains of evangelicalism that practice an ugly triumphalism, an American patriotic jingoism, and a willingness to “use” or “preach” history in partisan ways (be sure to check out his evaluations of Steven Keillor and Eric Metaxas). It is to this sector of evangelicalism, which Fea has encountered to varying levels in the classroom, radio talk shows (be sure to check out the account of Fea’s run-in with Glenn Beck on pages 123-126), and outside speaking engagements, that he issues a powerful admonition.
Fea argues that the past is a foreign country. “It is easy to ignore or dismiss the parts of the past we do not like,” he writes. “Yet all historians must come to grips with its utter strangeness. Too much present-mindedness makes for bad history.” He warns against, for example, the providentialist history of Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which contends that God has a special destiny for America. Such a conclusion, Fea says, is impossible to prove and fails to consider the “five C’s” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.The book works hard to instill a sense of limits, reminding evangelical biblicists of St. Paul’s imagery of seeing through a glass darkly.
It’s true that this book metes out firm correction. But don’t think that this book is a grumpy jeremiad. Why Study History is an enthusiastic declaration of the importance of studying history. Fea meditates on the virtues of historical consciousness. He argues that history has the power to transform individual lives and collective identities. History offers us opportunities to practice—and deepen—Christian virtues of love, hospitality, and compassion for our neighbor. In a chapter entitled “So What Can You Do with a History Major,” Fea offers compelling narratives of fulfilling careers and strong skills sparked by the study of history at the college level. A concluding chapter proposes the creation of a Center for American History and a Civil Society.
This accessible manuscript is peppered with stories from Fea’s teaching and speaking gigs. But it’s also learned, drawing from the best scholars in the evangelical world (Mark Noll, Robert McKenzie) and the broader academy (Sam Wineburg, Peter Novick, Carlo Ginzburg, Gordon Wood). Why Study History, written by an evangelical historian with a growing reputation as a public intellectual, is a terrific primer for undergraduates and should enjoy strong sales in historical methods and philosophy courses at religious colleges.
Since 1976 the More with Less Cookbook has sold nearly a million copies to Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Covenant, Wesleyan, and Catholic churchgoers. Author Doris Longacre implored reader-chefs to live simply and eat ethically.
It continues to inspire. Check out this idea from Ben and Heather Kulp of Boston, who are combining More with Less with Lent. Here’s a brief excerpt:
For the next 40 days, we will be taking a Lenten journey through the pages of More-with-Less, cooking exclusively from the over 1,000 recipes Doris Longacre tested and published nearly 40 years ago. We will shop for local ingredients when we can. We will not eat out at restaurants. We will cook from More-with-Less for our friends and enjoy non-More-with-Less meals that others prepare in their homes—hospitality is one of the cornerstones of a more-with-less lifestyle, after all.
In preparation for my next book (which is on global evangelicalism), I’ve been reading Jay Case’s terrific book An Unpredictable Gospel. Check out my review (here and here), which focuses on his case study of missionary William Taylor.
I’m a big fan of Sriracha sauce. So this isn’t good news: A judge may shut down the factory next year. Read about it here.
I was gratified by a panel on Moral Minority at the Evangelical Theological Society last week in Baltimore. Thanks to Miles Mullin, Richard Pierard, Owen Strachan, and Chris Gehrz for their responses to the book. For the text of Chris’s insightful comments, check out the following links:
Last Thursday Baptist ethicist Russell Moore made a case for religious liberty in a way that perhaps startled critics who see conservative evangelicals as theocrats. He advocated on behalf of non-Christians. At a Washington, D.C., symposium entitled “Faith, Culture & Religious Freedom in the 21st Century,” Moore said that evangelicals have done a poor job of paying attention to the religious freedom of others. He declared, “One of the mistakes people made in the past is a kind of majoritarian understanding, maintaining our own rights without diligently fighting for religious liberty for all persons.”
To be sure, too many evangelicals still focus more on their own liberties than others’. But Moore’s declaration reflects the maturing of evangelical thinking on human rights and religious freedom. Late to join the human rights movement, evangelicals began to issue a stream of increasingly sophisticated books and conferences in the 1970s. The evangelical left led the way with hundreds of screeds against human rights violations perpetrated by totalitarian regimes, with special attention directed to Western imperialisms. Soon after, an increasingly invested evangelical right, which had been preoccupied with Communist and Muslim violations, joined the ranks. Frank Wolf, a Republican representative from Virginia, became one of Congress’s most active advocates of human rights. He spoke out against Iran’s “systematic persecution” of the Baha’is, China’s persecution of women and Christians, and genocide in Darfur. Pepperdine University School of Law’s human rights program has blossomed. And a bevy of other human rights organizations has also emerged: the American Anti-Slavery Group, International Justice Mission, and Evangelicals for Human Rights, which has campaigned almost exclusively against American torture of Muslim detainees. Many of these groups lobbied to pass the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Out of a context in which many secular groups, seeing religion as an oppressive force, have been blind to the plight of persecuted Christians, some commentators now argue that evangelicals have become the new leaders of the human rights movement.
And so evangelical activism seems to be moving beyond self-interest. The more expansive approach to religious freedom can be traced to growing ecumenical sensibilities. Emerging out of separatist fundamentalism and hostility toward Catholics and mainliners, evangelicals began to learn from and work with non-evangelicals. In the 1970s Christianity Today’s editors frequently cited secular human rights groups in their reports of persecutions of Christians. In the 1980s World Evangelical Fellowship (now called World Evangelical Alliance) persistently quoted ecumenical sources on human rights in their journal. In more recent years evangelicals have grounded their commitment to human rights in the concept of “imago dei,” a theological move derived from Catholic sources. This emphasis on the image of God and divine transcendence has promoted a more robust sense of universal human solidarity.
Theological cross-fertilization fed new networks of activist cobelligerancy. World Evangelical Alliance, a global body representing over 150 million evangelicals in 115 countries, has worked with Amnesty International, Jubilee Campaign, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity International. Paul Marshall, a specialist in religious freedom and human rights, has collaborated with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Institute of Peace, Catholic University, Open Doors, and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. These networks bore significant fruit in the early 2000s when a coalition of evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, feminists, the Congressional Black Caucus, and secularists drove the passage of the IRFA.
As this ecumenism suggests, the IRFA was not solely the product of an identity politics meant to protect only evangelicals. Christian activists, Allen Hertzke writes, have “created free spaces for other religious minorities in civil society.” Russell Moore’s words last week–“Evangelical Christians need to be the first people in any given community to stand up and say, ‘we don’t want the mayor to have the power to keep a mosque out of here simply because its a mosque’”–reflect this broader evangelical trajectory.
*** Cross-posted at the Anxious Bench ***
In 2001, just one month before 9/11, 32,000 evangelical youth invaded Midland, Texas. Drawn to a Christian music festival called “Rock the Desert,” they clapped and danced to the rock anthems of Newsboys and Skillet. Festival organizers also highlighted a social and diplomatic crisis in Sudan, then a war zone with one of the worst global records of religious persecution and human rights violations perpetrated by the Sudanese government and Janjaweed Arab militias. Over the next several years, as the attendance exceeded 90,000, organizers built a mock slave cell and an authentic Sudanese village and handed out promotional material on the Sudan Peace Act.
Activism surged well beyond the festival grounds. Midland itself, the site of a recent evangelical revival in a city already saturated with churches, hosted the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which directed considerable attention to Sudan. Ex-child slave Francis Bok frequently visited local churches, speaking of his desire “to free his people in bondage.” Midland activists mobilized in support of the Bachus Amendment to the proposed Sudan Peace Act that would deny access to American stock exchanges for oil companies doing business in Sudan. They lobbied President Bush and held a series of vigils at the State Department. Bok even traveled to the White House to speak with the president. For the first time since the nineteenth century, observers noted, an American president had met with a former slave. But it was Midland, according to political scientist Allen Hertzke, that became “ground-zero in the grass roots campaign on Sudan … and a strategic player in high-level negotiations leading toward a peace treaty.” This activism, documented by Hertzke in Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, extended the evangelical efforts that had helped pass the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
These actions on behalf of Sudanese human rights contrasted significantly with the lower levels of evangelical political activism in the mid-twentieth century. First, the human rights work indicated a significant presence in the nation’s capital. Evangelical efforts kept the issue alive at the moment when 9/11 could have swept Sudan off the agenda. “Prayer and hymns,” notes Hertzke, “were matched with strategic analysis and pivotal timing.” A receptive, just-inaugurated president, himself an evangelical from Midland, greased the political gears. As the new century dawned, it was clear that evangelical politics had matured far beyond its parochial efforts of the mid-twentieth century. Second, the issues involved a social dimension. Midland evangelicals demonstrated attention to the economic and political roots of injustice in ways that the previous generation had not in its focus on personal salvation and evangelism. Third, the activism marked a new ecumenical spirit. At mid-century Christianity Today and other significant books contrasted “Catholic power” with “American freedom.” But fifty years later, evangelicals in Midland and Washington, D.C., were collaborating with Catholics, Jews, and other religious actors. This campaign for peace and human rights in Sudan pointed to growing ecumenical, promotional, and electoral sensibilities within evangelicalism.