Columbus Day is Racist. Columbus Day was Created to Fight Racism. Wait. How Does that Work?

Happy Belated Columbus Day. Or Happy Belated Indigenous Peoples Day. Or Happy Belated Thanksgiving, if you happen to be Canadian.

Now I’m done with Canada for this post. Back to the United States.

Monday, of course, was Columbus Day in the United States — unless you happen to live in St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Ore., Albuquerque, N.M. or several other cities in the United States. Then it was Indigenous Peoples Day.

So what is going on here?

Well, in addition to finding an excuse to sell mattresses at half-price, we Americans use our holidays to remember history in particular ways. For about two centuries, we told the story of Columbus as a way to try to explain something about American character, even though Columbus never set foot on any territory that would eventually become the current 50 states.

(Columbus did land in Puerto Rico, so we do have a US territory to geographically connect us to the man. Interestingly, Caribbean and Latin American nations have not historically honored Columbus like the United States has. But that’s a different post.)

Columbus in our nation's capitol, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Columbus, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Americans have honored Columbus for quite some time. Since 1792, in fact. Columbus symbolized progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions. So, rightly or wrongly, he entered our historical consciousness as someone fundamental to American identity.  In 1836, for instance, Congress commissioned a large painting of Columbus’ landing for the US Capitol building. You can still see it there.

In the late 19th-century, Catholics had additional reasons to praise Columbus. Christopher Columbus was Catholic, a historical fact rarely highlighted by wider American society. This was important because at that time, Catholics were seen by many Protestants as a threat to American democracy. They argued that the Roman Catholic Church was hierarchical. It did not believe in the separation of church and state. Catholics believed that only priests could interpret the Bible properly. Because the nineteenth century was an era when the Bible was frequently read in public schools, Catholics often set up their own private schools, rather than have their children subject to instruction and biblical interpretations from Protestant teachers.

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don't be silly. Look closely. They are Catholic cardinals. Ah, yes. That makes sense. (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don’t be silly. Look closely. Those are Catholic cardinals creeping up the beaches. Well, now. That makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

In response, Protestants believed Catholics were undermining public education and, with it, the character of the American republic. Many Protestants formed organizations to limit Catholic immigrants. Anti-Catholic Americans even formed a political party in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party, to try to keep Catholics out. The Know-Nothing party dissolved in the sectional conflicts that led to the Civil War, but by 1890s, the impulse was back. The American Protective Association was established to limit Catholic immigration.

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.

And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.

The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”

This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.

So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?

In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.

Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.

Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

Columbus is inside. But that's Mary up there at that top.

Columbus is inside. But that’s Mary up there at that top.

Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.

The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.

OK, that’s enough of that.

Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).

I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America.  They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.

Plus, we’ll always have Columbus, Ohio. Just like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” will always have Paris. Only not quite as romantic.

There is a historical and theological point here, too. Indigenous Peoples Day would remind us of our national sins, while recognizing the dignity of a segment of American society that has often been pushed to the side. Confessing our historical sins can be a healthy thing, provided we also accurately recognize our historical virtues, which does not seem to be a problem for most Americans.

In fact, it can be a virtue to honestly and soberly face and admit our national sins.  Those of us who are Christians ought to understand this on a deep and profound way.  As with individuals, nations that fail to admit their sins end up falling into disordered, harmful behaviors. Ignoring our historical sins can lead us to imagine ourselves to be a people without fault. Having mis-diagnosed the past and our national character, we can end up blaming problems on something or somebody else. Believing that we pretty much have everything together, we can fail to take seriously those who point out issues of injustice.

This is actually a difficult thing to do as a nation — most nations only face their historical sins when they are forced into it politically (more on that in my next post).

We’ve overcome racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Italian-Americans. Great.   So throw out Columbus Day. Let us face the more difficult cause of overcoming racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Native Americans.  Bring on Indigenous Peoples Day.












The Confederate Flag vs. The American Flag

Recently, a former student of mine, Dale Swearingen, posted the following on Facebook:

“I just want to post this as a discussion point:  If the Confederate flag should be removed because it’s mostly being linked to racism and violence, then shouldn’t we also remove our current flag due to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans?”

Let me first point out that this is a fine example of how to approach a difficult and controversial subject.   How we say what we say is as important, I believe, as what we say. Dale’s post is not accusatory, insulting or overbearing. It invites discussion and reflection. Civic discourse — the way we talk about social issues in public — is actually quite important. As historian Tracy McKenzie points out in The First Thanksgiving, all too often we use history or civic discourse for the purposes of ammunition rather than illumination. I’m guilty of that too often, myself.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.  What flags do you see?

Selma, Alabama, 1965. What flags do you see?

Second, a short answer to Dale’s question is that while it is true that both flags point to a history linked to racism and violence, there is still a significant difference between the two. The American flag has been used to justify unjust situations, but it has also been used, historically, by the oppressed in American society to remind Americans that we are still not as just as we could be. It was carried by black civil rights leaders in all the key civil rights moments, including the march in Selma. Native Americans commonly fly the American flag at events tied to their identity, such as Indian rodeos. Cesar Chavez, who worked for the rights of poor Mexican-American farm laborers was often pictured in front of the flag. It is a flag that has been embraced by just about all American communities. (Jehovah Witnesses and the Amish are exceptions, for theological reasons.) Some members of these communities have protested against the American flag or seen it as a sign of oppression, but they tend to be minorities within their own communities.

However, when have blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, religious minorities or other “outsider” groups working for justice flown the Confederate flag? What causes for justice has the Confederate flag stood for? Some fly it for the cause of states rights, or the cause of southern whites who feel marginalized, or vague principles of being a “rebel” against the establishment. But these have been narrow and limited causes.  And they have all been bound up in racism.  Am I missing a bigger cause that the Confederate flag stands for that includes all Americans?

So there is, I believe, a qualitative difference in the ways the two flags have been used in American society. When the day arrives where whites and blacks march together with the Confederate flag for causes against some sort of evil or injustice — particularly against racism –then I will start to change my view of the overall cultural meaning of the Confederate flag.

But even that response, while valid, does not get at all the issues.

There is another, deeper, more sobering point that all Americans need to consider. Dale’s question gets at a hard but an important historical question for all of us who are Americans: what about the injustices that have been tied to the actions of the American nation? It’s possible for white northerners to argue about the Confederate flag in a way that puts all the hard ethical, social and relational work on someone else. But addressing racism and race relations in our society is hard work that applies to all Americans.

What is included and excluded in "heritage?"

What is included and excluded in “heritage?”

One way to think about Dale’s flag post is to consider the way that the word “heritage” is often used. Some have argued that the flag (and this applies to both the Confederate and American flags) has been used for racism or hate, but that is not what the flag is really about. It’s really about our heritage. And heritage is about what is good in our past. Therefore, both the American flag and the Confederate flag are really about noble ideals.

That can be a tempting route to take because it is optimistic and easy to understand.

Too easy. That understanding of heritage produces national denial. It pains us to see a friend or a loved one deny that they have a problem when it is clear they are struggling with something like addiction. Similarly, it should pain us to see our culture in denial when struggling with a social problem like racism.

Slavery. Indian Removal. Discrimination against immigrants. Gender inequities. Segregation. Religious discrimination. These are inescapable aspects of American history. As such, they are part of our heritage, just as much as the Bill of Rights, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and votes for women are part of our heritage. Furthermore, the American heritage of racism would not be a great problem if we were at a point today where we have figured out racial problems. We haven’t. So let’s try to understand the problem better.  You can’t do that, fully, without understanding history.

Others have said that the flag is a sign of hypocrisy. American history is full of people in power who have preached justice, equality, and freedom, while denying it to those outside of their group. Therefore, the flag is about historic injustices.

That can be a tempting route because it takes a strong stand on justice and is easy to understand.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America's past.  And feel self-righteous about it.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America’s past. And feel self-righteous about it.

Too easy. That understanding removes me from having to search myself for any connection to injustice. That makes it pretty easy to be self-righteous. You can do this if you are white, by the way. Just identify with the oppressed in America’s past in such a way that enables you to say that the collective problems of injustice in America are caused by other people, or groups that you don’t identify with. The historian Howard Zinn tended to write history this way. If you have ever run into his books you see he presents a searing critique of the United States. (Actually, his work is a bit more complicated than that because of his Marxist worldview, but I think the basic stance still holds). He was provocative, which can be helpful, but mostly I found it was too easy to agree with him in a way that produced self-righteousness.

Nobody likes to face sin within themselves. In the same way, we don’t like to face sin in those in history we identify with. And who, from the past do we identify with?   Southerners, blacks, whites, Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, workers, women, Indians, Democrats, Republicans, immigrants, business leaders — there are many, many options here. But we’ll instinctively and unconsciously want to defend those we identify with, while ignoring their sins. That’s one way we sin.

Christians ought to be good at confessing the sins of those we identify with. Alas, I confess that we are not always good at this. I include myself in this. We ought to be good at confessing the sins of Christians in the past because we believe that sin infects all of us. We Christians ought to be good at this because we should be humbly and sincerely confessing our own sins on a regular basis. And we Christians ought to be good at this because we know that, by the grace of God, we are forgiven when we confess our sins. And Christians we ought to be good at this because we know that through this grace, God transforms us into more of what we should be.

So where does that leave our discussion on history and the flag? I’ll say this about the United States: it is a land that has been deeply stained by slavery, segregation and racism, but it is also a land that has provided opportunities to address these evils. Democracy doesn’t make us good, but it can provide the freedom for good people to address injustices, sins, and problems within society.   And it can give us the freedom to try to change them. It’s not easy, but we have the freedom to do the hard work. The problem is that we also have the freedom to completely ignore the hard work. (Hey, do you want to play a video game or go the mall?)

A truly good patriot and good Christian, then, does not deny the sins in America’s history.   A good patriot and good Christian will soberly look at America’s history to gain deeper understanding about how past sins have been effectively addressed and what, historically, has brought about justice, freedom and equality in an American society stained by sin. And a good patriot and good Christian will then ask, how am I a part of a system, an institution, a way of thinking that is bound up in this?

Is Religion Declining in the U.S.? Don’t Bet On It.

Every now and then, some very smart people in the United States take a look at society and conclude that religious commitment is declining.  These smart people have been saying this since…..1660.  That’s when the second generation of Puritan ministers started preaching sermons, which we call “jeremiads,” bemoaning what they saw as the decline of religious faith in New England.

And with that, a proud American tradition was born:  predicting the decline of religion in America.  Secular leaders have declared this with some satisfaction, seeing it as an example of progress.  Christian leaders, like the Puritans, have declared this with anguish, seeing it as a way to stir complacent congregations to action.  The reported decline of American religion is such a common practice that that is has popped up every two decades or so for the past 350 ears.  And then the smart people are proven wrong by reality.

The line between secularism and religion keeps shifting and taking on different forms, but religious commitment keeps persisting.  I’ve been suspicious of the recent declarations that the rise of the “nones” mean that religion is declining in the United States.  I have been doubtful, not just for historical reasons, but for the way that the data has been interpreted.

Thomas Kidd, a professor of American history at Baylor University, (and an excellent historian, I should add) analyzes the data much better than I can.  You should read his blog post, which can be found here.

(For those that read my last post, I should tell you that, yes, I am still planning another one on the flag controversy.  In case you are interested, that is).




A Quiz Over Your Knowledge of Riots!

Do you remember that riot in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love?”

The one that lasted for three days, where crowds burned more than thirty buildings to the ground, including two churches? And four people died?

It was the one where the poor people in the urban areas felt they were being systematically discriminated against. So they rioted.

Over the Bible.

Yep, I’m talking about that event in American history that we all learned about in high school history class: The 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots.

As my students might ask, “That was a thing?”

Yes. The Philadelphia Bible Riots were a “thing.”

(The riots are also known as the “Nativist Riots of 1844” but some people called them “The Philadelphia Bible Riots.”  That’s the term I prefer, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.)

The situation? The Philadelphia school board had passed a policy allowing Catholic students in public schools to take their religious instruction from Catholic leaders. In response a mob marched into a Irish neighborhood and approached a fire station operated primarily by Irish Catholics. Somebody fired a shot and the riot was on.

So, you see, I was not giving you the whole story. They did not really riot over the Bible. They really rioted over a school board policy.

As if that makes more sense.

And this was caused by....the Bible?  Well, not exactly.

And this was caused by….the Bible? Not exactly.

Why burn down thirty buildings over a school board policy?  How can a committee meeting lead to four deaths?

Yes, we still do not have the whole story.

Here, then is my main point about riots: there is always a backstory. We may read about an event that sparks a riot, but the spark is not the cause of the riot. The causes lie in patterns, systems and actions that have been in place for years beforehand. That’s the backstory.

Let me briefly explain the backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots. (The whole story is more complicated, but this is a blog post, so you get a summary.  For a fee, or a good hamburger, I’ll give you more than a summary).

The backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots is that Irish immigrants, escaping poverty in Ireland, had been pouring into eastern cities for about a decade. They were poor. They were also more likely to commit crimes, fall into domestic abuse and abuse alcohol than the wider population.  And they faced prejudice and systematic discrimination.

You may have heard the old phrase, “No Irish Need Apply.” This was that era. Because many native-born Americans viewed the Irish as dirty, disruptive, violent, drunkards, the Irish often had a hard time getting decent jobs. Like many immigrants down through history, they took the jobs that other Americans did not want: digging canals, building sewers, cleaning streets and hauling manure.

For most non-Irish Americans, it was just fine that the Irish took these undesirable jobs. But what if the Irish immigrants started to work their way into higher level jobs? And what if they agreed to take these better jobs for less pay?

In fact, that is exactly the Iris immigrants would do. Employers knew this. Employers also knew a good thing when they saw it. If they could hire two dozen Irish immigrants for semi-skilled work for less pay than the non-Irish, they’d fire two dozen semi-skilled non-Irish workers and hire the Irish. As a result, job competition led a lot of working class non-Irish Americans to resent the influx of Irish immigrants.

Then -- as now -- community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict.  This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Then — as now — community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict. This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Remember also that this was an era before unemployment compensation, food stamps, insurance or pensions. There were no safety nets. So if you did not have a job, you faced starvation. The stakes were high. Many would be willing to turn to violence against those who threatened job opportunities.

But there is more. The Irish were also Catholic. Many Protestants at this time (who dominated the nation, numerically and culturally) thought of the U.S. as a Christian nation.  But in their minds a Christian nation meant a Protestant nation.  Catholicism was seen as anti-democratic and a barrier to progress. Many Protestants believed if a conflict arose between the pope and the Constitution, Catholics would blindly follow the pope. (Protestants never thought to ask what they themselves would do if a conflict ever arose between the Bible and the Constitution. Would they “blindly” follow the Bible?)

For their part, Irish immigrants were desperate to escape poverty in Ireland. Like your ancestors (if you are an American but are not completely Native American or African American) they came to the United States for opportunity. They were willing to take lower wages because that economic opportunity was better than what they had in Ireland. And most Irish were loyal Catholics. This meant they felt deeply the Protestant charge that they did not fit into America, despite its rhetoric of freedom. They held to the Catholic teaching that the Bible could only be properly interpreted by church authorities. Many were not happy to send their children to a school where the teachers would, in essence, teach a Protestant view of Christianity.

Neither the working-class non-Irish nor the Irish immigrants felt like those in power were really listening to their concerns.  Working class non-Irish felt threatened by immigrant Irish, who felt threatened by working-class non-Irish.  All believed their rights were threatened.

For just a glimpse of the passion and sense that immigration was a threat, check out this broadside from Protestant Philadelphians right before the riot broke out:

“The Americna Republicans of the city and county of Philadelphia, who are determined to support the NATIVE AMERICANS in the Constitutional Rights of peaceably assembling to express their opinions on any question of Public Policy and to Sustain them against the assaults of Aliens and Foreigners are requested to assemble on THIS AFTERNOON, May 6th, 1844, at 4 o’clock, at the corner of Master and Second streets, Kensington, and to take the necessary steps to prevent a repetition of it. Natives, be punctual and resolved to sustain your rights as Americans, firmly but moderately.”

Is it possible to riot “firmly but moderately?”  Probably not.

So, you put all this together — cultural prejudices, intense job competition, perceived threats to American democracy, conflicts over the role of religion in the schools — and you have mixed together dry wood, oxygen and gasoline. That’s the backstory.

All it needed was a match. That was the school board decision.

This history can help us as we think about the riots of the past year. It is easy to focus in on the specific event — a police shooting — and think that this one incident is what caused the disturbances.

No. There have been hundreds of police shootings every year for years and they do not produce riots. An event like a police shooting is simply the match. The backstory is the wood, oxygen and gasoline piled up together.

The question for us, then, is this: how well do we understand the backstory of the recent riots?


Think For Yourself When I Tell You That You Should Think For Yourself By Refusing to Consider My Advice That You Should Think for Yourself.

As I was shaving the other morning, I listened to an NPR report on a new development in genetics research and the ethical questions that it raised.

Immediately after the segment concluded, the station jumped to their spring fundraising drive, which included a testimony from a local listener who praised NPR because it gave her the facts of an issue.  This allowed her to “decide on her own,” without having anybody tell her what she ought to think about the issue.

In America, of course, the ideal of thinking for oneself is considered a Great Thing.

But let me lay out a few reasons why I think we have problems here.  When I am finished you can decide for yourself whether or not thinking for yourself is really such a great thing.

Consider the NPR segments. I have to confess that I really do not know a lot about the field of genetics and bioethics.  However, I know enough about academic life to know that very bright people spend long hours every day for decades on a rather specific set of intellectual questions.  This is true of the fields of genetics, ethics and bioethics.  Every year, academics produce hundreds of dense books in these areas. And they do not agree with one another.  Quite frankly, it is all very complicated.

So how is a five-minute news segment that I listen to while brushing my teeth going to provide me with what I need to know?  If I am “thinking for myself” here, am I going to reach a clear conclusion on these very complicated issues?

Answer:  no.

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as.......

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as…….

Yet we are pretty convinced that we have the ability to arrive at the truth — even of very complicated matters — simply by “thinking for ourselves.”  Interestingly, those of us who believe that we should “think for ourselves,” did not arrive at this conviction on our own, but largely believe it because we believe the authority of others who tell us we should “think for ourselves.”  This faith in our own thinking has been handed down to us in our culture from a peculiar mix of Enlightenment views of rationality and American democratic faith that every person can easily discern what is true.

But there are some things — many things — that are far too complicated to figure out without the help of knowledgeable, thoughtful people.  Like genetics and bioethics.

Maybe, for instance, I can figure out ethics and religious truth on my own, especially if I have the Bible in my hands.  Can’t I figure out right and wrong and the truths of Christianity without anybody telling me what to think?

Consider how the following individuals from the past approached the study of the Bible and the quest to determine what is true.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1791).  “I shut myself up chiefly in my chamber, read the Scriptures, and prayed to God to lead me into all truth, and not suffer me to embrace any error; and I think with an upright mind, I laid myself open to believe whatsoever the Lord had revealed.”

Noah Worcester  (1758-1837) Individuals should abandon a “passive state of mind” that deferred to great names in theology.  “The scriptures were designed for the great mass of mankind and are in general adapted to their capacities.”

Lucy Mack Smith (1776-?)  “I…determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and the disciples as my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away…The Bible I intended should be my guide to life and salvation.”

Alexander Campbell  (1788-1866)  “The Bible alone must always decide every question involving the nature, the character or the designs of the Christian institution. Outside of the apostolic canon, there is not, as it appears to me, one solid foot of terra firma on which to raise the superstructure ecclesiastic.”

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886)  “I had long been in the belief that the Bible was not a book of inexplicable riddles, and I determined to solve this mystery (of Christ’s second coming).  Accordingly, I read the New Testament ten times with an eye on the question as to the time of Christ’s second coming, and my heart struggling in prayer for full access to the truth.”


....the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like......

….the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like……

What we have here are five individuals who, in all sincerity, tried to determine the truth of what the Bible says.  All believed that the Bible alone would be their authority for religious truth.  Each one believed that they could clearly ascertain the truth of the Bible by reading it without any authority, theology, creed, system or philosophy guiding them.  They would “think for themselves” on these issues.  The truth of the Bible, in other words, would be plain to them, just as it would to anyone who read it.

And what did they conclude?

Elhanan Winchester concluded that the Bible taught that God will save everyone and that nobody would go to hell.  He became a leader in the Universalist church.

Noah Worcester concluded that the Bible showed that there was no Trinity.  Jesus was not God and there was no such thing as the Holy Spirit.  He became a Unitarian.

Lucy Mack Smith concluded that Bible showed that current churches were all corrupt.  She (somehow) convinced a minister to baptize her as a solitary Christian, without any connection to any church.  Interestingly, years later her son, Joseph Smith, also prayed that God would show him the truth clearly, and he went on to found the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons.

Alexander Campbell became convinced that the Bible showed that Christians should not bring anything into church life that was not mentioned in the Bible.  Denominations, for instance, were not found in the Bible, so Campbell helped found the Christian Connection, which was a movement that attempted to operate without denominational organization.  This is what we know as the Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ.  Campbell also believed the Bible showed that communion should be offered every Sunday and that no musical instruments should be used in worship, other than those specifically mentioned in the Bible.

John Humphrey Noyes became convinced that the Bible showed that Christ’s Second Coming already took place in the first century.  We therefore have the means to become perfect.  His solution to this was to found the Oneida colony, based on Christian perfection and mutual sharing.  Under Noyes’ direction, the Oneida colony shared all possessions, experimented in eugenics, created a “theocratic democracy” and instituted “complex marriage,” in which all males were married to all females.  (The Bible may be simple.  But complex marriage?  It’s complicated.)


....H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like.....

….H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like…..

Now, there are truths in the Bible that are simple to see and understand.  Six year-old children can understand that God loves them.  Do not expect the little ones, however, to explain how we Christians are supposed to use the Bible to work out proper political, military, social and cultural policies to address the problems of the Middle East.

We have here a particular tradition of thought in American culture.  Winchester, Worcester, Smith, Campbell and Noyes — as well as the woman who gave the testimony on NPR — all believed in the perspecuity of truth.

“Perspecuity” refers to truths that are plain and obvious to all. It is a fun word.  Try it out some time.  Amaze your friends by slipping the word in during conversations at dinner parties, the water cooler at work, chats at the fitness center, or pot-luck dinners.

We would say the equation 2+3=5 is “perspicacious” (which is a rollicking variation on the word “perspecuity,” for those of you who want to really cut loose).  In other words, the truth of this mathematical sum is obvious to everyone who can grasp the concepts of numbers and addition.  Christians, Hindus, Democrats, Republicans, Chinese, Zulus and even New York Yankee fans can all see clearly that 2 and 3 make 5.

....that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but...

….that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but…

American Christians have often argued (whether they realize it or not — it hasn’t always been obvious to them) that the Bible is perspicacious.  Anybody, regardless of their faith commitment, ought to be able to pick up the Bible and see everything there in a clear, simple and obvious way.

But it is important to note that for most of history, the leading Christian thinkers and theologians understood that sin distorted our thinking.  Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards — all the heavy hitters –argued that sin could affect our thinking in such a way that we would not always see truth clearly.  Of course, they were building on biblical texts — such as Jesus’ famous admonishment to take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  Or read John 9 carefully, with this in mind. We often believe we are seeing the truth clearly when sin is actually distorting our perceptions.  This was an accepted part of Christian theology for centuries.

And then something switched.

American Christians largely stopped discussing how sin affected our thinking.  Sin, it was thought, was primarily the conscious disobedience of a principle.  In other words, I know and see what is right, but I don’t do it.  That’s pretty much all that sin is, it was thought.  Erroneously.

When did this happen?

October 24, 1790 at 10:37 a.m., Eastern Standard Time.

Well, no.  Even as a historian, I can’t see the past clearly enough to put an exact date on the shift.  (And time zones weren’t invented until nearly 100 years after this.  The EST comment was just one of those tricky things that historians sometimes throw at you for their own weird sense of entertainment.)

....rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to anybody but themselves.  Right?

….rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to us or anybody else but themselves. Right?

But there was some sort of intellectual shift that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as can be seen by the individuals described above.  It is still with us today, in different forms, as evidenced by our great desire to “think for ourselves.”

As for me, I should remember that I need the help of many others to see more clearly.  For instance, I’m thankful for a nice little book written by my colleague, Steve Moroney, that outlines these points.  It’s not easy to find, but you might look for The Noetic Effects of Sin, if you want to explore this topic further.  This post also draws upon chapters by Nathan Hatch and George Marsden in a book called The Bible in America.  Most importantly, the Holy Spirit helps convict me when I don’t want to see certain truths and would rather see a distorted view of things.  (Of course, I need to listen to the Holy Spirit in these situations, which I don’t always do.)

Think for myself?  I can’t come up with any of these points on my own.  I can’t see things clearly without listening the insight of others.  And quite frankly, I’d be an unbearable human being if I simply thought for myself.

I apologize that this post is so long.  It turns out that the idea of the perspecuity of truth is not an obvious, clear and perspicacious thing to explain.


The Challenge of Being a Religious Minority. And Majority.

This is the wall on the back part of the property, with a mosque just beyond it.

The wall on the back part of the property, and a mosque just beyond it.

The accompanying picture is of a wall on the back portion of the property of Anafora, a retreat center in Egypt run by the Coptic Church.  If you look closely, you will notice a building beyond the wall.  That’s a mosque.  There are actually three mosques bordering the property of this facility, which is located out in a farming area south of Cairo.  Therein lies a story.  Or an observation, at least.

In early January, my wife and I returned from a week in Egypt, where we visited my daughter Brenna, who is working for a year at Anafora.  Actually, Anafora is more than a retreat center.  It is also a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing.  You know.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Anyway, the church purchased the land about thirty years ago and began building on it about fifteen years ago.  Among the structures they built, the Coptic Christians, unsurprisingly, erected a church.  After that happened, three mosques were built at different places around the edges of the property.  A couple of Coptic Christians told me that whenever a church is built in Egypt, Muslims will build a mosque as close to it as they can.  One Coptic Christian laughed a bit in explaining this, saying, “They like to keep us company.”

As Brenna gave us a tour of the Anafora property (which I estimate to cover about 85 acres, a good size for a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/ counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing), we walked along the back edge and looked at the mosque beyond the wall.  That’s when I noticed a speaker, one speaker, up high on the tower and pointed directly at the Anafora property.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

And the purpose of the speaker?  The Islamic call to prayer.  Five times a day, mosques in Egypt broadcast a chant in Egypt that is the call to prayer.  You hear it everywhere in Cairo.  You also hear it at the Christian retreat center of Anafora, as I did at 6 a.m. when I was turning over in my sleep.  (Many Muslims get up earlier than I do, apparently).  It is not even clear that anyone attends the call to prayer at the mosque at the back of the Anafora property, which is out in the middle of a bunch of irrigated fields.  One story, unverified but probably true, is that somebody investigated the mosque during the call to prayer.  They not only did not find any Muslims engaged in prayer, but did not even find a muezzin there singing the prayer.  The prayer floating out over Anafora seemed to be just a recording.

I’m not sure, exactly, what motivates the Egyptian Muslims to aim that speaker right into the Christian retreat center.  It might stem from a desire to harass and intimidate.  It might be a desire to constantly remind the Christians that Egypt is an Islamic nation.  It might stem from an anxiety that Christians pose a threat to an Islamic society. It might even be a pretty bad attempt at evangelism.  And it might be some sort of combination of these things.

Whatever it is, I would not call it a good thing, even though I wouldn’t put it in the category of religious persecution.  Harassment, maybe.

Here is my main observation:  it is at this point that we Christians (and other non-Muslims) are tempted to shake our heads at this behavior and file the situation away in our mind as another example of the problems with Islam.  I know I am tempted that way.

I use the word “tempted” because there is a danger here that sin would distort our thinking.  I’m not saying these particular Muslims are innocent of bad behavior.  I’m saying that the flip side of the “problem with Islam” way of thinking is that it subconsciously and conveniently assumes that a “Christian” or “secular” society (take your pick) does not have the same problem.  In other words, we are tempted, even in an unconscious way, to think, “I’m sure glad we aren’t that way.”

A colleague of mine, Steve Moroney, identifies this sort of things as a “self-serving comparison.”  Moroney published an interesting study which drew upon social psychology and theology to explain how sin affects our thinking.   Simply put, when we are considering a trait that is socially desirable, most of us report that we are better than average.

Of course, it is impossible for a majority of people to be better than average.  (Do the math).  But consider that most Americans consider themselves to be safer drivers than other Americans.  Most business executives consider themselves to be more ethical than the average business executive.  78% of Australians consider themselves to be better parents than average. When high school students were asked to rate how well they got along with others, all rated themselves as at least average, 60% considered themselves to be in the top tenth of this trait and 25% thought they were in the top 1% of those with the ability to get along with others.

Ah, those funny business executives, Australians, and high school students just can’t see themselves as clearly as, say, professors.  After all, it is our job as professors is to think clearly.  Right?  Well, 88% of all professors think their teaching is above average.  10% rate their teaching as average.  Only 2% consider themselves to be below average, which just goes to show you that just about every college class produces great teaching that is well above average.

Of course, Jesus understood all of this two thousand years ago, when he asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

A question to ask, then, is how do we treat Muslims in the United States?  Do we have our own version of speakers blaring into their retreat centers which, I should say again, is a very bad method of evangelism?  Maybe we do a better job, but we should not assume we do.  Instead of assuming that obnoxious or bad behavior is a “problem with Islam,” we should probably ask different questions, individually and as a society, as to whether we might have blind spots in this area and how we would find out if we did.  We need to get better at recognizing our own blind spots.

A friend of mine told me that he once heard a lady walking out of his church one Sunday morning saying, “I’m sure glad we Quakers don’t stereotype other people like the Baptists do.”

And I’m sure glad I’m getting better than that Quaker lady at recognizing my own blind spots.


Easter vs. Halloween

Well, I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time.  But now that Easter has come, I am going to get back into the routine of regular posts.

One might say that I gave up blogging for Lent.  There are, however, two small problems with this:  1) it is not true   2) blogging is not the sort of thing I would need to give up for Lent.

The reality is that I have had a rather rugged semester, in terms of demands upon my time, energy and commitments.  Something had to go.

But the aftermath of Easter seems like a good time to try to bring the blog back to life.

The aftermath of Easter seems like a good time to do this because I’ve been wondering about how Easter works in our holiday culture.  This hit me again after we drove out to visit my daughter in Boston over the Easter holidays.  This year Easter fell on the same weekend as Patriots Day, so Boston was all abuzz with the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox game and the anniversary of last year’s bombing.

Easter vigil with the Anglicans:  candles!

Easter vigil with the Anglicans: candles!

That was all well and good, but my daughter attends an Anglican Church, and the Anglicans were all abuzz with worship services:  a Good Friday service, an Easter vigil on Saturday night and an Easter morning worship on Sunday.  (We didn’t get there in time for the Maundy Thursday service).  High church Anglicans don’t skimp on these things:  communion each night, lots of singing, Bible readings, candles, bells, incense, sermons, responsive readings, etc. etc.  The three services added up to more than six hours worth of worship, which would make me seem super-spiritual except that I just had to let you all know that I was in church for six hours, so my worship-bragging negates any spiritual reward I get.

Actually, I was deeply moved and blessed by these services.

A lot of people don’t know what goes on inside different churches during Easter, even though Easter has a rather public presence.  And so, I began to think about how Easter compares to other holidays in the public imagination.  For instance, I had the impression in recent years that Halloween is gaining in interest among most Americans.

A little research indicates that our spending habits bear this out.  According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent about $16 billion on Easter this year, (mostly on the Easter meal, clothes, candy and gifts).  Meanwhile, we spent $7 billion on Halloween last year.  That’s  a little more than half of the Easter spending, which shows that — at least in monetary terms — Easter remains a bigger holiday.  But here is the kicker: that $7 billion on Halloween is up from  $3.3. billion 2005, which means that if trends continue, we will spend more on Halloween than Easter a few years from now.  (Christmas, of course, completely blows all holidays out of the water when it comes to spending:  $438 billion).

The economics of the thing supports my suspicions. Those of you who are close to my age probably remember that several decades ago Halloween was a low-budget event for kids.  When I was nine my parents spent a few bucks on red paint and white cardboard so I could make myself into a rocket costume.  (I usually dressed up as inanimate objects, probably for complicated psychological reasons that I still have not figured out.)  They then bought some cheap candy for trick-or-treaters.

Aren't we grateful that God has blessed us with so much prosperity that we can....put giant purple spiders in our yard?

Aren’t we grateful that God has blessed us with so much prosperity that we can….put giant purple spiders in our yard?

Think about the billion-dollar Halloween industry today.  Singles spend money by going to parties to get drunk and flirt in sexy costumes.  Major TV networks spend millions on Halloween TV events.  We plop down money for spooky haunted houses and corn mazes.  And what is up with the surge in Halloween lawn decorations?  I don’t know what your community is like, but does your neighborhood sport huge inflatable cats, pumpkins and ghosts in their lawn?  And do they string their houses in orange lights, in imitation of Christmas decorations?  Why do this, I ask myself?

It all makes me wonder why Americans are increasingly fixated on Halloween.

Maybe because it is a chance to revel in self-indulgence, romance, sexuality, and morbidity.  Maybe it is because, lacking any strong sense of regular worship, many Americans are trying to find meaning and contentment in annual festivities.  Maybe Halloween revelers are acting on religious impulses, but because these impulses are devoid of any specific theological content, they get diverted off into these other directions.  Or maybe, we subconsciously just have to bring the topic of death up in a non-threatening and non-serious way, because our culture avoids facing death everywhere else.  Or maybe it is just that we simply want an excuse to have fun — though given all of the other ways we have fun all throughout the year, I think there is more to Halloween’s fascination than that.

Halloween increasingly strikes me as about as fully pagan of a holiday that we have (“pagan” in the older meaning of the word, which refers to pantheistic, nature-worshipping religions, not the more recent meaning which is intended as an insult.)  If so, the rise of Halloween could be seen as another example that we live in a post-Christian culture.

The morbidity of Halloween bothers me a bit, but as I think about it, my concern on that point fades.  In the end, I am more concerned about the ways that consumerism has captured our hearts and souls than I am with how Halloween has captured it.

In other words, I don’t want Easter spending to grow.  I’d rather Easter be celebrated in churches than in shopping malls.  I’d rather the theology of Easter be worked out by pastors than by TV writers.  I’d rather we walked through the patterns and liturgies of Lent and Easter with the biblical story in mind than through the patterns and liturgies of haunted houses with nominally entertaining stories in mind.  Or to compare it to another holiday, I’m thankful that the Easter bunny just can’t compete with Santa Claus, who has co-opted Christmas in so many ways.

So I guess I’m also OK with all the money and media glitz being thrown at Halloween, if it means that it won’t be thrown at Easter.  It’s easy enough to get distracted in our holiday culture as it is.



Those Missionaries. I’m Sure Glad We Don’t Stereotype People Like They All Do.

Remember back when the American establishment admired missionaries?  No you do not, because that was 1901 and you were not born yet.

I say this because I’ve been re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible for a faculty/student book club I am in.  It’s a clever novel, but I am finding it more annoying than the first time I read it about fifteen years ago.

I’m afraid, then, that a tone of annoyance will probably run through this post.  I apologize to all of you for this, except to those former students (this for you, Brian Faehnrich, if you are reading this) who said they enjoyed times when I ranted in class.

(Sigh.  I really shouldn’t do that.  Rants often reinforce stereotypes, which is the main problem addressed in this post.  We humans are a messy lot, aren’t we?)

imgresKingsolver’s novel tells the story of a missionary family (parents and four daughters) in the Congo in 1960.  The missionary father is strict, stubborn, uncaring, narrow-minded, obtuse, controlling and tragic.  The first time I read it, I was willing to let this go as a story about an outlier — every group has their disturbed individuals, after all.

I was too charitable.  This time through, I see the novel as a critique of a patriarchal system that encompasses families, religion and politics.  Men dominate these systems in the novel and that creates all sorts of problems for everyone they interact with.

And it is all too simplistic.  Patriarchy is a complicated and problematic feature of many societies, but I’d like to leave that aside for now to draw attention to Kingsolver’s understanding of missionaries.  She seems to have picked up these perceptions from the American establishment.  None of the twenty-eight books that she lists as sources effectively address missionaries or evangelicals, with the exception of a book written by David Livingstone in 1872 and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So it seems Kingsolver is basing her understanding of missionaries on the assumptions of her culture.  Granted, I am sure she ran into missionaries and a few evangelicals when she lived in the Congo, but of course, real-life missionaries apparently ran into a few Africans when they lived in the Congo, and that didn’t always guarantee that they understood them well.

As I mentioned, the American establishment admired missionaries in 1901.  You could see changes coming in 1901.  That was the year that Mark Twain published a number of pieces that accused missionaries of behaving badly.  Actually, he depicted them of being hypocritical, narrow-minded imperialists.

Mark Twain:  expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology.   Or wait a minute...maybe he was the guy who wrote *The Adventures of Tom Sawyer*

Mark Twain: expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology. Or, wait a minute…maybe he was the guy who wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

Twain’s writings were controversial at the time, but these kinds of ideas gradually caught on in the American establishment.  In 1927, the nationally known pundit, H.L. Mencken, wrote that the Chinese “see that the missionary is not only a most unpleasant theological propagandist, but also that he is the advance agent of all sorts of commercial exploiters, and even of military assassins…..If the missionaries will retire gracefully, shouting polite hosannas, well and good; if they linger, they will be heaved out.  Who will blame the Chinese?”  By the 1970s, social scientists were using the term “missionary position” to explain how missionaries tried to convince South Pacific Islanders the “proper” position for sexual intercourse.  This was, of course, an illustration of how missionaries thoroughly impose their cultural values on others.

Imagine, then, the situation faced by a student that I had taught in the early 1990s when my wife and I served at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya.  This student, whose parents were missionaries, had gone off to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  During arrival weekend she was involved in one of those mixers that help students get to know one another.  A fellow freshman asked her where she went to high school and she told him Kenya.  When she explained that her parents were missionaries, he replied, “Oh. Your parents are cultural imperialists.”

Now, this guy was quite bright, if not especially blessed with tactfulness.  Northwestern is a prestigious university and it does not accept dull-witted types.  But I should point out that this guy was 18 years old and had not yet had a single college class.  (Not that his college classes would have changed his thinking on this issue).  He hadn’t been to Africa and he did not even know any missionaries.  In other words, he didn’t know a hill of beans about missionaries except for a stereotype he had picked up somewhere in American culture.

The same goes for Mark Twain.  And H.L. Mencken.  And those social scientists in the 1970s.   And Barbara Kingsolver.

Let’s start with Twain.   Some missionaries in 1901 — the ones Twain was writing about — were behaving badly in China in their reaction to the Boxer Rebellion.  They were demanding that the Chinese government pay reparations to missionary agencies in response to rioters who had killed a number of missionaries and destroyed property.  And they wanted the militaries of the western imperialist powers to back them up.  That is not good.  But most missionaries did not respond this way.  Hudson Taylor, who led the China Inland Mission, for instance, which suffered more missionaries killed than any other agency, stated that CIM missionaries would not demand anything, but proceed with gentleness and meekness.

H.L. Mencken, champion of the "smart set" in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the "smart set" understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, "smart."

H.L. Mencken, champion of the “smart set” in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the “smart set” understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, “smart.”

H.L. Mencken?  He regularly wrote things like, “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”  Hey, that’s clever, H.L.  It’s also a fine example of a statement that does not give careful consideration to clear thinking, honesty, fairness and the love of truth.  Mencken regularly reached for ammunition rather than illumination when it came to areas of religious faith.

Those social scientists in the 1970s?  Recent research has shown that the “missionary position” story is an academic myth.  There is not a shred of evidence that any missionary anywhere ever said or did anything like this.  We can, however, trace the story to speculation by social scientists in the 1940s.

Twain, Mencken, the social scientists and Kingsolver are not the causes of missionary stereotypes.  Due to twentieth-century cultural, theological, and social forces (hey, that all sounds exciting and clear, doesn’t it?) the stereotypes would have emerged from others anyway.   And they did, in fact.  The point is that missionary stereotypes permeated the twentieth-century American establishment.  As I hope to show in the next post, there are important reasons why these stereotypes need to go.

Oh, and my former student at that freshmen mixer at Northwestern?  She asked the guy what he knew about the world and he explained that he had a good awareness of the world.  His parents actively supported international organizations that promoted family planning around the world.

“Why then,” she said, “are my parents considered cultural imperialists and yours are not?”  He did not have a good answer.