Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 7.0


O Thou Incarnate Word of God to man, make us this Christmas night to realize Thy truth; We are not Christians because we profess Thy name and celebrate the ceremonies and idly reiterate the prayers of the church, but only in so far as we really comprehend and follow the Christ spirit-we must be poor and not rich, meek and not proud, merciful and not oppressors, peaceful and not warlike or quarrelsome. For the sake of the righteousness of our cause we must bow to persecution and reviling, and again and again turn the stricken cheek to the striker; and above all the cause of our neighbor must be to us dearer than our own cause. This is Christianity. God help us all to be Christians. Amen.

Luke 2:8-14

Christmas

--from W.E.B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, ed. Herbert Aptheker (U. of Mass. Press, 1980), p. 63

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 6.0

Du Bois used a Black Mary (and religion) to comment and editorialize about life in Jim Crow America in the 1930s, a brutal reality compounded by the economic hardships the Great Depression brought. As mentioned in a previous post she appeared in “The Son of God” and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown,” and in his creative writing Du Bois often voiced the political and the prophetic with women.

The contents of today's post comes from a short piece titled “Magnificat, 1931,” and Du Bois’s religious editorial appeared in the January 1932 issue of The Crisis.

Du Bois began this editorial by quoting from Luke 1 where Mary meets Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and of Mary Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

In a response to suffering that reads much like Job’s remarks to Yahweh in the midst of his season of calamity, Mary Black reeled off to God a litany of questions, calling him to account for frustrated ambitions, unfilled promises, and a penetrating silence in the face of murder, mayhem, and disenfranchisement. Mary could not fathom another baby as a blessing since “none of us [have] a job.” “Blessed,” scoffed Mary, “How come? I can’t understand you and God and I don’t see no call for this soul of mine to magnify nothing! Look here: You see how we’ve slaved and worked and kept decent and gone to church and nobody calls us blessed,—they curse us.” Instead of blessing, Mary found nothing but rejection.

Owing to spending a lifetime in and around churches, in this story Mary acknowledged God’s power, holiness, and might, but had little time to contemplate theological concepts. Mary wanted to know what God could and would do in the temporal realm; she longed for mercy, meals, and peace and quiet. “But how about me? How about that mercy on them that was afeared of you from generation to generation?,” Mary asked God, “Didn’t Ma and Pa serve you? Didn’t Grandpa preach your Word? Ain’t I tried to do right? Well, how about me, then?”

While Mary longed for mercy to alleviate the suffering in her own life, and from a historical perspective in the lives and generations of her family, in what sounds similar to Jesus’ disciples James and John, Mary wished to call fire down from heaven on her enemies. She desired justice for the oppressed, and mercy for the marginalized.

In desperation, Mary ended her litany of questions at the pinnacle of frustration; she was hungry, poor, cold, broke, and angry. Bitter about the disparities created by Jim Crow, Mary screamed, “What do you do about it? I’ll tell you: You fill the rich and white with good things and the poor and black you send empty away, or lynch them. You don’t even help the Jews as you promised Abraham when he helped you. And now—my god!—and other baby!”

Set in the Great Depression, Du Bois entertained a question of theodicy, giving voice to Black frustration through the life of a woman.

With "Magnificat, 1931," Du Bois continued to identify white supremacy as a spiritual evil with unholy fruit of segregation and exploitation. Voicing passages and proclamations from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, Mary said: “You got strength in your arm—you can scatter the proud—well, why don’t you put down some of the might white folks from their seats and exalt a few black folk of low degree—why don’t you?”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 5.0

Du Bois continued the theme of justice a year later, in a December 1911 piece titled “Christmas,” yet focused on children as the future hope of and for justice. (An interesting point to illuminate one context for this editorial: at the time Du Bois's daughter Yolande was 8, and Du Bois would go on to publish The Brownies' Book in 1920. Du Bois's first child, a son named Burghardt, died in 1899 at age 2.) Du Bois hoped that the struggled of today would yield the fruit of justice tomorrow. About Christmas, Du Bois refashioned John 3:16 and observed: “It is the day of the little Saviors of the World whom the Fathers so love that they send them to the world that the world may not perish but have Everlasting Life.”

In the following paragraph the shepherds from Luke 2 return and watch their flocks at night, “the long and dreadful night that lowers over the worlds’ darker peoples.” Such a state, Du Bois averred, prompts people to keep watch for a star or “strain their weary ears for the Voice of Angels with Good Tiding of great Joy which shall be to all people, with glory, not simply to other worlds, but on Earth Peace, Good Will toward men.”

From shepherds Du Bois moved to the 3 kings, “toiling heavily across the seas” in order to find the baby. “One King is black; on King is yellow; on King is white; all three are kings; all three see salvation in the justice, mercy and truth which will rekindle the worn and wicked earth.” Du Bois again emphasized that the Christ child represented universal justice and global equality. Some embraced this vision, while others resisted. “Must the Race Problem greet the cradle of the Savior of the World?," Du Bois asked, “It must; and upon the awful majesty of the three kings must dwell equal reverence and social equality.”

Du Bois continued with his Christmas queries: “But why should kings bow to babies in order to save the world? And if to babies, why to babies in mangers and tenements and rookeries? Why not bring this mighty embassage to the frilled and dainty babies of Fifth Avenue or Plaza Hotel?” Jim Crow created an unwelcome environment in places of white wealth, Du Bois replied, and
“[s]o the homage we pay to the low-lying Savior of the World to be is carried to the lower East Side and the upper West Side, to Black Harlem and yellow Chinatown, to the low, the despised…And there the Kings of the Earth shall bow and open their treasures and present unto the Babes three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

These gifts are neither items of ancient import nor twentieth-century consumable products, but for Du Bois blessings of life transcend the temporal realm yet are invariably intertwined with it. Gold meant raising children well and a modicum of stability, spending what is necessary for clothing, food, and shelter. Du Bois called frankincense “the ointment and balm of health,” by which he meant proper dietary habits, regular sleep, and warm and comfortable clothes to survive “the Hell of life in flats—all the Frankinsense on the alter of childhood.” As for myrrh, what Du Bois fashioned “the perfume and inspiration in the nostrils of a living human soul,” he intended “[k]nowledge and goodness—discipline and home life, reverence for parents, honesty, a hatred of lying lips, a love of honest work. All those are the gifts of kings on the alter of childhood.”

In customary fashion, Du Bois took biblical stories and found avenues for practical application whether it involved good deeds modeled on the life of Jesus, or allegorizing familiar Christmas stories. Du Bois believed religious ethics and spiritual morals far more important than claims to divinity or theological systems.

Du Bois closed this Christmas column with a meditation on childhood and its possibilities. Proper training of children might well bring the salvation of the world, since “[t]o childhood we look for the triumph of Justice, Mercy and Truth. As the children of this generation are trained, so will the hope of all men in the next generation blossom to fruition, and the song of the Angels above the Christ Child will be heard again in the old world: Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 4.0

When Du Bois became editor of The Crisis in 1910, he wasted little time registering religious reflections on its pages. (The first issue appeared in November 1910.) Two early editorials display how Du Bois used the holiday season and religion as a way to reflect on the political realities of early twentieth-century America. We’ll take a look at one today, titled "Good Will Toward Men," and then another in the next post.

In December 1910, Du Bois focused on Jesus’ ethical imperatives of serving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy. “This is the month of the Christ Child,” Du Bois began the editorial, “when there was reborn in men the idea of doing to their neighbors that which they would wish done to themselves.”

Christmas, for Du Bois, was not occasion to reflect on the wonder of the Incarnation as a theological concept, but on its manifestation in the world, what he called “a divine idea—a veritable Son of God.” Du Bois claimed to “see glimmerings of the fulfillment of the vision” as
“[i]n blood and tears the world struggles toward this Star of Bethlehem.”

Yet Du Bois sustained a realist hope, a prophetic longing that did not mince words and spoke truth to power. Far too often the fight for equality and the struggle for justice did not live up to its ideal: it “not only miserably failed, but even its truth has been denied,” he wrote.

Du Bois ended this December editorial with a prayer and a plea. “God grant that on some Christmas day our nation and all others will plant themselves on this one platform: Equal justice and equal opportunity for all races.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 3.0

In the last post, from the December 1926 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois editorialized from Luke 2 about the birth of Peace, the Savior. Earlier that year, in January, he fashioned a story from Matthew 2 about the travels of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt titled “No Room in the Inn.”

Du Bois began this editorial by quoting directly from Luke 2, an account of Christ’s birth, swaddling clothes, a manger, and an inn with no vacancy. Then, with the Great Migration in mind, and the attendant issues that emerged with an influx of southern Blacks to the North, Du Bois mused with sarcasm and satire: “Perhaps the inn was really full. Perhaps there was still place for the Rich but none for the Poor. Perhaps the manners of Joseph were not suited to the better bred patrons; perhaps Mary’s condition made the sleek gowned ladies, who could not be bother with children, high incensed; how shocking!” And addressing notions of racialized science present in the 1920s, Du Bois continued, “Perhaps the nose of Joseph was too high and his color too dark for the clerk at the inn.”

Using Mary, Du Bois reflected on the experiences of Black females. He narrated certain moments in her life even as he praised tenacity in the midst of struggle. (And much like the scriptures after the birth of Jesus, Joseph recedes from the picture.) “Ah, but how we black folk can sympathize with the poor little homeless mother of God! Long had been the journey and you had come into the great strange town at night. You hesitate—a stranger, a dark and harried stranger. Then taking desperate courage, you walk into the inn.”

Denied service, denied a place to stay, bewildered and humiliated from the stinging pain and harsh reality of Jim Crow, Du Bois used the experience of Mary and one part of the Christmas story to editorialize about white supremacy and black rage: “And all the time your heart sinks down, down, till the wave of anger and contempt sweeps it up…And so you storm into the night. There is no room in the inn. Not even for Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Book: Jesus and Justice

Just noticed that my good buddy Peter Heltzel's book is coming out next summer with Yale University Press. It is titled Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics. Peter teaches theology at New York Theological Seminary.

Here's a description from Yale University Press's website:

This timely book investigates the increasing visibility and influence of evangelical Christians in recent American politics with a focus on racial justice. Peter Goodwin Heltzel considers four evangelical social movements: Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian Community Development Association, and Sojourners.


The political motives and actions of evangelical groups are founded upon their conceptions of Jesus Christ, Heltzel contends. He traces the roots of contemporary evangelical politics to the prophetic black Christianity tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the socially engaged evangelical tradition of Carl F. H. Henry. Heltzel shows that the basic tenets of King’s and Henry’s theologies have led their evangelical heirs toward a prophetic evangelicalism in a shade of blue green—blue symbolizing the tragedy of black suffering in the Americas, and green symbolizing the hope of a prophetic evangelical engagement with poverty, AIDS, and the environment. This fresh theological understanding of evangelical political groups shines new light on the ways evangelicals shape and are shaped by broader American culture.

I had the privilege of reading this book in manuscript form; it does a masterful job of tracing the historical and theological roots of the various dimensions of evangelicalism. It is a timely book, full of passion, and brimming with rich insight. Read this for a preview of some of what you will find in the book. Peter also recently edited a volume of essays titled Evangelicals and Empire.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 2.0

In the December 1926 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois titled his Christmas reflection “Peace.” And the cover that month featured an Aaron Douglas piece titled “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields.”

Taking his text from Luke 2, out of which the traditional Christmas story comes, Du Bois rewrote the biblical text to fit an early twentieth century context—where life intersected with labor, war, greed, technology, internationalism, wealth, and poverty.

The story, of course, begins with shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields at night, “ignorant, black and striving shepherds—poor silly sheep all a-crying, in the gloom; field of harm and hunger.” Du Bois customarily wrote of striving black souls hard at work, and in the next moment the Angel of the Lord showed up to announce the good news of the Savior’s birth. “And lo, the angel of the Lord, Mahatma Gandhi, came upon them, brown and poor and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid.” Universal in scope, the message the Lord’s angel brought “shall be to all people and nations and races and colors…for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Peace.”

And what will be the sign of peace, Du Bois queried, and where will it be? “Ye shall not find Peace in the Palaces and Chancelleries, nor even in the League of Nations and last of all in the Church; but wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, down among lowly black folk and brown and yellow and among the poor whites who work.”

In the story the shepherds responded: “War was, is and ever will be,” they cried. “Wealth rules. God is with the big guns and the largest armies; the costliest battleships, the swiftest airplanes and the loudest boasters of superior races.”

Du Bois ends the story with the appearance of a “lone, lean, brown and conquered angel” accompanied with “a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth, Peace!”

Once again, with Du Bois, salvation comes from the brown, black and lowly; the marginalized pronounce peace, forgiveness, wholeness, and redemption.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois

When it has struck me, in past years I have marked major holidays with reflections from or on some of the historical figures I’ve studied. Last year I commented about James Baldwin, for example, and also posted a Du Bois prayer about Christmas.

Well, it is the holiday season, and Du Bois returns for this series I’m calling Christmas with Du Bois (this picks up, I suppose, where my short-lived “Devotions with Du Bois” left off in 2007—or rather, never really got off the ground.)

I plan to post once or twice weekly until Christmas, offering my thoughts on what Du Bois had to say about Christmas while editor of The Crisis between 1910 and 1934. In my research I found that Du Bois not only had to say tons about religion (as this book so smartly details), but much about Christmas—and Thanksgiving and Easter, too. Du Bois often narrated Christmas through fiction and non-fiction.

Today’s comments come from a fictional short story, “The Sermon in the Cradle,” which appeared in the Christmas 1921 Crisis number (I’ve posted about this story before in the context of my teaching).

This story retold Jesus’ birth as if it happened under British colonial rule in Benin.

Wise men came from the East to inquire about this “new Christ,” which then troubled the Prime Minister and other officials. In the story, Du Bois rewrote the Nativity prophecy from Isaiah: “And thou Benin, in the land of Nigeria, art not the least among the princes of Africa: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my Negro people.” The star later guided the wise men to the birth site (“in a house”), and upon seeing this new African Christ, worshiped and presented gifts—“gold and medicine and perfume,” presents with symbolic significance and practical value. All of the wise men then left (warned by God in a dream not to return to London), except one black wise man who was from Benin. He “lingered by the cradle and the new-born babe,” Du Bois wrote.

Eventually “the multitudes” showed up and the black Christ child broke into sermon, as Du Bois reconfigured Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor folks for they shall go to heaven. Blessed are the sad folks for someone will bring them joy. Blessed are they that submit to hurts for they shall sometime own the world. Blessed are they that truly want to do right for they shall get their wish. Blessed are those who do not seek revenge for vengeance will not seek them. Blessed are the pure for they shall see God. Blessed are those who will not fight for they are God’s children. Blessed are those whom people like to injure for they shall sometime be happy. Blessed are you, Black Folk, when men make fun of you and mob you and lie about you. Never mind and be glad for your day will surely come. Always the world has ridiculed its better souls.

There are several important points to make about this inventive, creative story. First, the date of publication in the December 1921 issue. Many of Du Bois’s short stories about a black Christ appeared at particular times of the year—in December and in April. Du Bois himself understood the significance of Christian celebrations and the liturgical cycle, and some of his readers no doubt did as well.

Second, “The Sermon in the Cradle” is yet another instance of Du Bois retelling the life of Jesus as a black Christ. Other offerings on this score include Du Bois’s short stories “The Son of God,” published in the December 1933 edition of The Crisis, and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown (1919), among others.

Third, Pan-African and anticolonial movements were underway during the 1920s, and Du Bois understood World War I to be in part a colonial conflict and sought and pursued solidarity internationally. What’s more, Du Bois organized the first Pan African Congress in Paris in 1919 and another in 1921 and so this story is a clear indication that these issues were on his mind at the time. And of course it is significant that Du Bois chose the story and teachings of Jesus as one way to creatively narrate these larger global concerns. Du Bois did not find salvation in Bethlehem, but in Africa.

Fourth, and finally, the reformulated Sermon on the Mount highlights Du Bois’s explicit focus on the ethical dimensions of Jesus’ teaching. There are no miracles and “The Sermon in the Cradle” is devoid of divinity. Du Bois emphasized and hoped social and economic justice would eventually come for those subject to hurt and wrong. Even though there existed a deep thirst for vengeance, Du Bois placed God on the side of Black Folk since “the world has ridiculed its better souls.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Watch This!

My friend and colleage Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has a book coming out in February with the fine folks from NYU Press. It's called Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. (And speaking of NYU Press, check out their new blog, "From the Square.")

Here's more:

Through their constant television broadcasts, mass video distributions, and printed publications, African American religious broadcasters have a seemingly ubiquitous presence in popular culture. They are on par with popular entertainers and athletes in the African American community as cultural icons even as they are criticized by others for taking advantage of the devout in order to subsidize their lavish lifestyles.

For these reasons questions abound. Do televangelists proclaim the message of the gospel or a message of greed? Do they represent the “authentic” voice of the black church or the Christian Right in blackface? Does the phenomenon reflect orthodox “Christianity” or ethnocentric “Americaninity” wrapped in religious language?


Watch This! seeks to move beyond such polarizing debates by critically delving into the dominant messages and aesthetic styles of African American televangelists and evaluating their ethical implications.

With an early focus on Rev. Ike and initial versions of the prosperity message, Walton places the contemporary phenomenon of black religious broadcasting in historical perspective, demonstrating that the types of syncretic and sensational black Christian practices witnessed on today's airwaves have been brewing within African American storefronts and on black religious radio for the majority of the twentieth century. He goes on to illumine the diversity of theology and social thought among popular black religious broadcasters in order to delineate the differences among figures often lumped together as monolithic.

In so doing, Watch This! provides a principled ethical analysis that situates televangelists against a larger cultural backdrop, evaluating them according to their own self-understandings and ecclesial agendas. From T.D. Jakes to Bishop Eddie Long to Pastor Creflo Dollar, Walton argues that despite their emphasis on social and economic advancement in the African American community, these leaders ministries frustrate their own liberatory aims and unwittingly reinforce class, racial, and gender injustices in America.

Such a nuanced examination of black religious broadcasting is certain to enrich our understanding of this prevalent and pervasive form of popular and political culture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Matisyahu.Shattered




One of my favorite musicians released 4 songs yesterday from new record called Shattered. The remaining songs will come out sometime in 2009. There's nothing like Hasidic Jewish reggae with deep spiritual wisdom and biblical history woven into it. And beatboxing, and more beatboxing.

This record has a newer, more mature sound; its deeper, thicker, and more complicated with a crisper, clearer Caribbean sound.

Matisyahu is a storyteller, a traveling spiritual guide, in so many ways a prophet for the 21st century.

Read my previous Matisyahu posts here and here. And check out Matisyahu's new website here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fall Books on Fall Break

I’m on a fall break from teaching right now (although the 6-day hiatus from school for Hurricane Ike was really my fall break), so figured I’d highlight some books out this fall/winter that I've read, am reading, or will read.

First, some of the latest Du Bois: I'm really looking forward to The Souls of W.E.B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections, due out in January with Mercer University Press. Ed Blum and Jason Young edit what I think will be a stellar collection of essays.

Also, literary scholar and college administrator Brian Johnson just published W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward Agnosticism, 1868-1934 with Rowman & Littlefield. Johnson's great Du Bois reader, Du Bois on Reform, has been helpful in my research, and of course I'm looking forward to reading about Du Bois the agnostic in light of already reading about Du Bois as an American prophet. You can bet there will be some future blog posts on these books.

I read Cornel West's new book over the weekend, Hope on a Tightrope. It is a book for the everyday, ordinary reader and showcases West’s prophetic reflections about social justice and Christian ethics. It is a good read, with glossy, slick photos of West throughout the years. The book is apparently published with one of Tavis Smiley’s companies, and has a companion CD with Smiley interviewing West and selections from some of West’s spoken word projects.

There is nothing really new in the book, and I think this will give West’s critics more ammunition that he doesn’t write weighty academic tomes (or at least hasn’t in a while). That said, I think it is commendable that he writes and speaks as a public intellectual, and his voice is surely one of the gadflies of our age. Hope on a Tightrope is the perennial and prophetic West at his lyrical best. I understand now that West is working on his memoir, which I can’t wait to read.

I saw an ad for the book From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor. Looks really interesting, and there are several such books like this one, such as Life On the Tenure Track and many from the University of Chicago Press. I’ve not read From Student to Scholar yet, but here’s an interview with the book’s author Steve Cahn.

The final book I’d like to mention is Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, just out with Harvard University Press. I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, having read Savage’s earlier article on Du Bois, democracy, and religion. Paul Harvey compares Savage’s book to Curtis Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion, so I can't wait to read each side by side. Also, Curtis has agreed to a blog interview about his book, so look for that in the future.

What new books are you reading, or do you suggest to put on the reading list?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention another book I'm reading--Gerardo Marti's Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity and Ambition at a Hollywood Church. This is a good book. Marti's ideas are clear and profound, ethnography thick and descriptive, and writing accessible. From sermons, to church architecuture, to the fabric of everyday belief and ordinary faith, Marti gives readers and up-close-and-personal look at one Hollywood church. The book has a great cover, too.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Race and Religion



Scot McKnight over at his blog Jesus Creed, is currently doing a review series on J. Kameron Carter's new book Race: A Theological Account (Oxford, 2008).

I've not read the book yet, but I've been waiting for it for some time after I first heard about the project a few years back. Looks like a good and important book.

Read the first installment of Scot's review here, and find the second installment here. (Follow this link to read some other blogging reflections on Carter's book.)
Maybe I'll write up some of my own thoughts on the book once I've had a chance to read it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Faith and Politics in the Fall: Obama/Biden


Here's the post faith and politics in the fall for Obama and Biden.

I've actually not seen much on Biden's religion as yet--the best reflection comes from my friend and colleage John Fea in his "Joe Biden's Catholic America."

Unlike McCain, Obama has spoken openly about his faith factor, and there's even a book about the subject. Interestingly, some even ask, "Is Barack Obama the Messiah?"

The following reflection comes from historian Gary Scott Smith in the form of a review of Stephen Mansfield's book on Obama (linked above).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
[BB: The original article appeared in the lastest issue of Christianity Today. Click on the title below to access.]


"A Pilgrim's Progress"

Since Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist in 1800, the religious convictions of presidential candidates have often been an issue in American political history. In 1928 and 1960, the Catholicism of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy, respectively, drew close scrutiny and created controversy. Jimmy Carter's declaration that he was a "born again" Christian and George W. Bush's statement that Jesus was his favorite philosopher injected religion into the 1976 and 2000 campaigns.

As important as religion has been, Stephen Mansfield (author of The Faith of George W. Bush and other faith-focused biographies) argues in The Faith of Barack Obama that it is especially significant in the 2008 campaign, primarily because of the Illinois senator. Four factors have focused public attention on Obama's faith: the Democrats' revamped approach to win the votes of the nation's most religiously devout citizens; Obama's unusual faith journey; his frank admission that his faith informs his policies; and the inflammatory remarks of Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr. Along with the claim that he lacks experience, especially in foreign policy matters, the nature and potential influence of Obama's faith on his presidency will undoubtedly remain a key campaign issue.

After John Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 presidential election in large part because Bush captured the votes of78 percent of evangelicals and 52 percent of Catholics (a higher percentage than Republicans normally win), Democrats developed a strategy to appeal more to religious Americans. They hired advisers and held forums to learn how to speak more effectively to religious groups and created organizations to target specific religious communities. Because many evangelicals are disillusioned by Bush's failure to strongly push their agenda—promoting pro-life policies, traditional marriage, and conventional morality—favor policies that Democrats have historically supported—protecting the environment, furthering social justice, and reducing poverty—they find these efforts attractive.

In his brief but engaging, sympathetic yet judicious religious biography of Obama, Mansfield carefully analyzes these factors and helps readers understand the context and impact of these issues. Mansfield also carefully details Obama's religious background: he was reared by religiously skeptical grandparents and an agnostic mother who encouraged him to view religion in a respectful but detached manner, and was influenced by the "religious tolerance of the Hawaiian Islands and the multiculturalism of Indonesia." His mother moved to Indonesia after she married a Muslim (who espoused a "folk Islam" that focused primarily on using rituals to drive away evil); as a young boy Obama occasional went to a mosque with his stepfather and learned about Islam while attending public school.

Still religiously rootless after graduating from Columbia University, he moved to Chicago in 1985 to work in community development on the South Side. Told that his lack of religious faith erected a barrier between himself and the poor people he strove to help, and already wrestling with his conscience, cynicism, and intellectual approach to religion, Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Wright Mansfield chronicles Obama's journey over many months from skepticism to faith, which Obama describes as "a choice," "not an epiphany." Obama claims to have "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and to believe in his "redemptive death and resurrection:' Despite such affirmations, Obama admits to doubts and uncertainties, discomfort with some aspects of Christianity, and a belief that there are many paths to God and salvation.

Mansfield provides an astute description of Trinity's history, ministry, and worship services, as well as Wright's background and the influence of James Cone's black theology on his views. Convinced that to follow Jesus Christians must work to liberate the oppressed, Wright demanded that the U.S. compensate blacks for slavery and increase its foreign aid to Africa, and denounced the government for failing to obey God's commandments. Even more provocative statements—including damning the United States for its racism and contending that the government devised AIDS to further subjugate blacks—which became public in April 2008, led Obama to break with his pastor and drop his membership at Trinity.

Nevertheless, polls indicate that many Americans are troubled that Obama apparently sat comfortably under Wright's ministry for two decades. Mansfield explains what attracted Obama to Trinity and kept him there: its commitment to social activism and many ministries to the poor; celebration of his African heritage; lively worship services and stimulating sermons; theological justification of political liberalism; and sense of community. Obama stayed at Trinity because he found a faith, a fellowship of like-minded Christians, and a foundation for his political vision.

Mansfield argues that Obama is an "everyman in a heroic tale of spiritual seeking" whom many Americans find to be either "a fellow traveler" or a leader in "a new era of American spirituality:' He contrasts Obama's faith journey with that of John McCain, whose faith emphasizes character and duty; Hillary Clinton, whose faith accentuates the social ethics of Jesus; and George W Bush, whose faith focuses on evangelical conversion. These four politicians "represent the dominant religious forces in American politics today!' Obama, Mansfield maintains, is "unapologetically Christian and unapologetically liberal." His faith is "transforming, lifelong, and real!' It "infuses his public policy" and "informs his leadership!'

Numerous examples demonstrate that the faith of Presidents, if sincerely held, has a significant influence on their world-views, character, agendas, relationships, and policies. Thus, should Obama win the 2008 election, Mansfield argues, his faith will play major role in how he governs. But even if the charismatic, articulate, personable senator from Illinois should lose to John McCain in 2008, at age 47 he will long ''be a political and religious force to be reckoned with in American society."

Readers will likely want more specific assessment of how Obama's faith will influence his priorities and policies if he is elected, but Mansfield's succinct analysis of Obama's religious background, convictions, and public statements on religion and politics is informative and even inspiring. Those who disagree with Obama's approach to politics will reject Mansfield's conclusion that by wedding his faith to his political vision, Obama will help "end the moral scourges of our time": poverty, racism, unethical conduct of the powerful and powerless, and inadequate analysis of the morality of American military intervention. Those who advocate strict separation of church and state or detest the way Bush's religious convictions have affected his presidency will probably dislike the influence Obama's faith has on his policies and campaign.

Many of us, however, share Mansfield's hope that the issues raised in the campaign by faith forums and Wright's charges will prompt continued assessment of how our nation can best advance the biblical values of righteousness and compassion.

Faith and Politics in the Fall: McCain/Palin


Like many, I am starting to feel election season fatigue. Campaigning is well past marathon stage, and thankfully the finish line is in sight.


Nevertheless, I remain interested in the comings and goings of the candidates, keen to read policy positions and issue(s) statements, and attuned to faith and politics in the fall.

There has, of course, been tons written about this already but a few reflections from this week are worth posting. I offer these commentaries (in two separate posts) on the faith and politics of McCain and Obama. And here are a few posts on Palin by Grem, Sutton, Scholes, and Fea. UPDATE: with an HT to John Turner, Time has a piece on Palin and religion.


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[BB: The original article at Religion Dispatches has several hyperlinked sections. Click on the article title below to find those. HT: Paul]


John McCain: No God But Country (by Kathryn Lofton)

“I know how the world works. I know the good and the evil in it.” — John McCain

When talk turns to the intersection of religion and politics, religionists are a bore to have around; what you want is titter and amusement. But scholars of religious studies don’t offer much by way of demonstrative surprise at the obscenities of public faith. Like the manager of the strip club, they’ve seen it all before. Whisper to a religionist that the Christian candidate has a grandchild produced out of wedlock and you’ll get a game of one-upmanship. “Well, if you think that’s crazy, let me tell you about the nun in Dubuque who…the Hindu cleric who…the Catholic soccer mom who…the born-again President who…” Or, just as likely, you might get a little shrug, a roll of the eyes, and a tiny harrumph. “Religious people are just like nonreligious people,” one colleague remarked to me recently, “except religious people have whole cosmologies to explain their failures.”

What may seem like a flippant position is actually an elaborate argumentative vantage point that scholars of religion have been refining for over one hundred years. Religionists are, by their training, by their dispositional nature, less interested in the debunking of the religious subject (“I knew you were lying!”) than we are in the study of the religious subject (“Such a complicated way to understand the world!”). What religionists have learned through all this analysis is that there are no consistent or pure religious subjects. There have been men and women throughout history—of towering, articulated faith and of impressive, practiced piety—who have found ways to sin, prevaricate, and seemingly contradict the ideal postulate of their orthodoxies. It is no surprise that a man of Christian consensus might have an Afrocentric preacher, or an evangelical may have an impregnated teen, or a Catholic may have a weakness for plagiarism, or an Episcopalian may have a hankering for Charles Keating’s cash. These aren’t exceptions in the study of religion, they are the rules. Men and women believe even as they struggle, relentlessly, to behave.

So when I say that John McCain may not believe in God, I do so with serious thought, and with no small indifference. It matters very little to me (as a voter, as a thinker, and as a believer) that John McCain doesn’t articulate a deity familiar to any available denomination of Christianity (or Judaism or Hinduism or Islam). John McCain is, indisputably, a man of courage and intelligence. To suggest that he is not recognizably Baptist (nor ostensibly Episcopalian) is merely to demonstrate that our enterprise of discerning religion from political candidates misses, precisely, the realities of religion. In some contrast to the pursuits of journalism, the religionist does not anticipate the craven, presuming that all words of faith are pandering rhetoric meant to appease men with guns and girls with God(s). Rather, our job is to collect the available artifacts of religion (words and acts supplied in archive or public record) and render an analysis of the subject. For students of religion, this analysis is not an inherently apolitical exercise, but it is, at its best, one disentangled from theological prescription. Somehow, without a God (but not, as we will see, without a powerful creed) John McCain has forged for himself a moral mode, a discourse, a rhetoric of righteousness. What, then, ought it matter whether he is or is not, technically speaking, Christian?

It apparently matters to him, and to his opponent, and maybe it matters to you. McCain has noted several times that the “number one issue... that people should [use to] make a selection of the president of the United States [is] will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principle that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?” A person’s faith is, according to McCain, an “important part of our qualifications to lead.” Bracketing his dubious grasp of constitutional history, McCain’s words direct our assessment. How ought we estimate the existence of such Judeo-Christian principle? And is such a principle properly religious? As I proceed here with a study of McCain’s religious words and religious acts, it is worth noting that there is no test, no catechism, and no shibboleth (as much as the voting public may, for whatever reason, desire one) that will prove religious identity or personal commitment to a specific God. People say and do a lot of things they don’t actually mean. Trying to know what people actually do believe, or what they actually do mean, requires psychic skill far beyond the purview of most refereed journals, most tenured academics, and certainly beyond the polygraph limits of the American media. Remember (yes, you, Senator McCain; you, Senator Obama; and you, voting Americans): words of faith are precisely that: Words. To know a man’s religion as an observer (a voter, a journalist, a scholar, an outside believer) is to know, only and entirely, his language game. This is John McCain’s.

Acts of Faith

From the start, it should be clear that we don’t have a lot to study. The most consistent aspect of McCain’s performance of religion is his droopiness toward expressive devotion. When it comes to communal ritual and institutional affiliation—the social expressions of religious belief—McCain offers little more than a confusing hopscotch of churches and a sense of presumptive Protestantism. His strongest acts of faith have been political maneuvers, like his 2008 attempt to create alliances with evangelical leaders in an effort to convince the party’s base that he is a bible believer. This despite the fact that he denounced the Religious Right in 2000 as “agents of intolerance” and despite the definitional truth that he was not, by any useful meaning of that category, an evangelical. This is one of the many reasons the selection of Governor Sarah Palin was such a brilliant choice as a co-conspirator in 2008. Central casting could not have supplied a better religious beard.

Even in his 2008 convention speech McCain would not admire publicly Palin’s religious belief, choosing rather to note that “she knows where she comes from and she knows who she works for. She stands up for what’s right, and she doesn’t let anyone tell her to sit down.” McCain’s rhetoric is littered with invocations of chutzpah and independence even as his has been a (theological and professional) career bent on a studied moderation. “Ultimately,” writes McCain biographer John Karaagac, “we may say that McCain’s life offers a study in appropriateness.” Yes, McCain has done what was expected of him: he, great-grandson of an Episcopalian priest, attended an Episcopal High School, matriculated to the Naval Academy, then devoted himself to military service before transferring his duty to elected office. In high school, he attended mandatory chapel every morning and mandatory church twice on Sundays. He learned every line of the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, acts of memorization which would later earn him the role of ad hoc prison chaplain in the Hanoi Hilton. When he married a woman more regularly religious, he followed her to church when they had time to go. He would listen, and nod, and think that there was something good about all this fellowship, all this love.

Such a rendition of McCain’s appropriate religious life fails to offer the fleshy, flashy McCain, the McCain of infamy and admiration. McCain’s life story (articulated in memoirs and stump speeches) is suffused with talk (and pride) for insubordination, fearlessness, and nonconformity. He fancies himself a “maverick.” Perhaps this is why he has such a hard time tying with a denomination, and why he doesn’t like talking about anything as singularly conceding as religious devotion. For some observers, the fact that McCain doesn’t talk much about his faith, about his Christianity, is a denominational inevitability. “McCain, actually, is being very authentic by keeping it inside,” writes voter Eric Gorski in a letter to the New York Times,” He doesn’t wear religion on his sleeve because he comes from a generation and upbringing—Episcopalian—that tends not to.”

Such a socially determinist explanation might apply if McCain had not made an abrupt move to a different church in the early 1990s. Although his campaign lists his affiliation as “Episcopalian,” McCain corrected a reporter in 2007, commenting, “By the way, I’m no Episcopalian. I’m Baptist.” That year—preceding his current national candidacy, just seven years after he was outfoxed by Bush in South Carolina—saw many oddly confessional claims from McCain on subjects religious. “It wasn’t so much a rejection of the Episcopal Church,” McCain said in October 2007 of his move to the North Phoenix Baptist Church. “I came into that church, I sat down, I got the message of redemption and love and forgiveness, and it resonated with me. I found going to that church was beneficial to me in my life.” He “got” the “message of redemption.” He’s been “going” to church. These are claims of some acceptance and presence, but not the conversion or holy abjection frequently described by individuals whose worlds have been transfigured by a particular reading of the gospel, a particular preacher’s poignancy, or a particular ritual process. Becoming Baptist was, by McCain's reckoning, a Sunday respite. Conveniently for him, this churchly idyll was found by quitting one of the smallest mainline denominations in order to attend the single largest Protestant sect, by leaving the land of Gene Robinson for the world of Billy Graham, Rick Warren, and Mike Huckabee.

For people who don’t enjoy the intricacies of Christian denominationalism, McCain’s language of change may seem adequate. He once drove a Ford, now he drives a Chrysler: What’s the difference? For religionists (the sort of people who love the messy details of sectarian schism), McCain’s terse description of North Phoenix does not supply nearly enough explanation for what is a jolting swap, like trading the Jetta for a Suburban. Yet McCain supplies no wake-up call, no re-awakening of his spirit to explicate his substitution of Sunday affections. He offers no specifications of the kind of Christ that pressed him from a the Book of Common Prayer to the Baptist Faith and Message. Nor, as mentioned above, has he shown the increased piety of the convert. When asked how often he attends church McCain says, “not as often as I should.” When asked whether he has participated in adult baptism, a ritual requisite for converts to the Convention, McCain says no, calling it “a personal thing,” adding on another occasion that “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs.”

McCain’s decision not to participate in a major ritual of Baptist practice may be laziness, may be diffidence, or it may be a desire to evade hypocrisy. If I don’t take communion when I attend an Episcopal church, it’s not because I am antagonistic to communion (or Episcopalians). I don’t take communion because this ritual act of belonging is not mine because I do not, properly, belong. Why does McCain choose not to belong where he claims to belong? If these rituals are not McCain's, which are? Are his prayers Nicene still? Were they ever? McCain’s acts of faith requires a return to requisite high school ritual. Or, as he would have it, a return to Hanoi.

Words of Faith

For most political leaders, God is littered about their speeches, press releases, floor statements, editorials, and memoirs like verbal pork barrel. Federal executives and legislators tend to collapse into predictable patterns of religious invocation, using lines from the Gospel of Matthew, images of David and Goliath, or talk of covenants to build a City on the Hill in order to flourish their claims of political power. Yet in his years of public service prior to 2008, John McCain’s speeches are models of secular aridity. He doesn’t just occasionally speak of God or faith or America’s Christian promise; he never does. Indeed, John McCain does not like to talk about religion. “I’m unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God,” he has said, “But I do not obviously try to impose my views on others.” When pressed, McCain has been known to snap back to interrogating reporters, “The most important thing is that I’m a Christian. And I don’t have anything else to say on the issue.”

When McCain does use religious metaphor, it is language cribbed from another belated believer. McCain likens himself to Reagan, a man whose faith made a surprise appearance only once he achieved elected office. In his 2008 convention speech, McCain called upon his party to return to the “party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan.” In 2000, McCain separated that same party from the party of the Religious Right, fatefully remarking: “My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”

This Reagan Republican has come around on Pat Robertson politics, volunteering to sacrifice once again for his country a piece of himself. At the “Civil Forum on the Presidency” moderated by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church this past August, and on countless other occasions during the campaign, McCain has canonized one anecdote to answer every question about God, every question about faith, every inquiry about his religious devotion. This is, of course, the tale of the dirt cross at the Hanoi Hilton. McCain describes this period with rehearsed (always dry-eyed) poignancy, recounting how his commitment to The Code of Conduct left him to rot for five and half years, how trapped in solitary confinement he was allowed a minute or two outside on Christmas Day, and how one guard looked him straight in the eye on that day (that holy day) and “drew with his sandal a cross in the ground.”

In recent press events, this moment in Hanoi has become his road to Damascus, the tale told to shunt rumors of irreligion. Conversion narratives have become mandatory formulations in American politics, signaling simultaneously theological affinity with an important voting bloc as well as the character requisite to serve an executive post with populist humility. As political scientist David S. Gutterman has observed, words of conversion feed multiple audiences:


Those who have their own conversion narrative will be able to recognize themselves in another’s story, and those who are not saved will be hopefully seduced by the plot of the story, so that they may know themselves as chaotic and fragmented, needing only to follow the path laid bare by the narrative plot in order to experience Jesus and be made whole.

That conversion talk is so much more common in contemporary politics than it was twenty-five years ago can be paralleled with other signs of the triumphant solipsist, including the success of confessional talk shows, competitive reality programming, and the discovery that celebrities are “just like US!”

Even within this din of come-to-Jesus moments, McCain’s story is discordant, failing to supply some of the basic ingredients for a ritual confession of faith. It includes no mention of God (or Christ) as an actor in his life or even in that dirt-drawn moment. There are no searching first-person studies of his character, expelling moment of personal sin revealed, revelled, and renunciated. His reading of the story varies, most frequently returning to it as a common text for two people seeking fellowship: “For a brief moment, neither one of us were in Hanoi, we were just two Christians celebrating the birth of Christ together.” Another time: “We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas.” Yet another: “I will never forget the fact that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult things are, there’s always going to be someone of your faith and your belief and your devotion to your fellow man who will pick you up and help you out and bring you through.” The story, and its retread morals, has stirred a bit of predictable controversy. Blogger Andrew Sullivan finds it bears a striking resemblance to a tale once told by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. There have also been intimations that McCain only added the story once he entered politics, due to its absence from his 1973 captivity narrative. And historian John Fea has noted, aptly, that no matter the truth of the tale, it “tells us more about the guard’s faith than McCain’s.”

Whatever the origin of the story, McCain can’t stop in the midst of this election cycle from telling it to us. The cross may have been marked in the dirt, and McCain may indeed have been filled with a certain form of communal wonder, but is that wonder a “Christian” awe? McCain’s unwillingness to format the story neatly into a born-again plot line may indicate his own reticence to propagate a rhetorical fraud. In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain does not describe this incident as a conversion to Christianity, but as a conversion to country, as the time when he finally understood his “self-respect in a shared fidelity to my country.” The cross in the ground was a crossroads for McCain, but not from sinner to saved. Rather it was his turn from Lt. Commander Cad to Citizen McCain. He mentions the words “Christian” and “Christianity” rarely, but when he does, it is always—always—connected with an idea of “America” or “American.”

Consider these examples. When Rick Warren asked what faith in Jesus means to him, McCain replied: “Means I’m saved and forgiven. And when we’re talking about the world, our faith encompasses not just the United States of America, but the world.” Elsewhere, in a Time magazine rendition of the dirt cross story, he comments: “I will always remember as well the Christmas services that my fellow prisoners and I held in a cell, when I gave thanks to God for the blessings he had granted me with the company of men I had come to admire and love. In the life of our country, faith serves the same ends that it can serve in the life of each believer, whatever creed we may possess.” McCain admits to a faith, and suggests that this “faith” has been his total “salvation.” “The only reason why I’m here today is because I believe that a higher being has a mission for me in my life—a reason for me to be here.”

That “higher being” isn’t God. That higher being is America. Again, after another telling of the Hanoi Hilton conversion, he proclaims: “This is my faith, the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. That is my religious faith and it is the faith I want my party to serve, and the faith I hold in my country.” Later, in his 2008 convention speech, McCain becomes more explicit, saying that after Hanoi, “I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.” Salvation has but one source: “My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it.” Someone once called atheism an undetectable God. McCain’s God can be detected, it can be found: his God is the country for whom McCain survived.

The strident—near stunning—focus of his religious ardor has been to his nation. You won’t find McCain singing Baptist hymns. You won’t hear him weigh out the meaning of the Episcopal sacraments. You won’t find him doing these things because he doesn’t need them, nor does he (by all public practice and proclamation) want them. He has all the ritual and power, holiness and community he could want. Often McCain draws on images of Theodore Roosevelt’s frontier as his virgin paradise, a place where men followed the strenuous life to messianic effect. These men, the men and women who pursue such new lands and new struggles, are McCain’s parish, and their devotion is his ritual practice. His religion is the civil religion of America. “You know,” he explained at this year’s convention, “I’ve been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment and sometimes it’s not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”

This is the conversion of Hanoi. The cross in the dirt is religious talk, but it is the observation of a man who cannot make religious moments of his own, so he turns to the devotions of others to derive his piety. The real fall-on-the-knees moment is McCain’s conversion to self-sacrifice, to his nationalist orthodoxy. David Foster Wallace, who recently passed away, summarized this attitude with excruciating clarity in his account of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign:

Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the nuts and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

After a vivid portrayal of McCain’s torture (broken ribs, shoulder broken with a rifle butt, broken arm, teeth knocked out), Wallace places us in McCain’s position:


Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would cry out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer…Would you have refused the offer? Could you have?

That McCain did stay, that he did so against his obvious self-interest, in loyalty to the Code, might demonstrate, as Wallace puts it, that McCain is certifiably insane. But we also know...


[F]or a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit—the man does want your vote, after all.

The man does want your vote, after all. And so we return to where we begin. How do we ever know the mysteries of the man’s soul? And what, really, should those mysteries have to do with our political estimations? To declare that McCain is not Christian against his (once rare; now constant) protestations to the opposite is not intended to be insubordinate to his proudly proclaimed truths. It is merely to say that, like policy positions, religion has an evidence pool. If a man says he supports nuclear power, we can check his voting record and decide for ourselves if the votes support that position. If a man says he believes in God, the evidence is harder to find. Did Jesus die for your salvation? We take it as a matter of faith: McCain says so, then it is so. But for the religionist, this is a position that would garner no high marks. Scholars wobble, constantly, between our task of understanding the material (“What, precisely, does the Book of Mormon say?”) evaluating the material (“How, precisely, does this map onto broader patterns of religious behavior?”). John McCain calls himself Christian, yet his religious worldview (articulated in word and act) does not map anywhere near the Episcopal Church of his childhood, nor the Baptist church of his adulthood. Indeed, it is hard to find John McCain’s religion without a lot of conjure, and a lot of (dangerous, on scholarly grounds) imagination.

Yet he has conceded to a religious mimicry, invoking (lightly, never avowedly) from (what just happens to be) the most consequential Protestant voting block in the Republican Party. Contemporary culture, doped up on Daily Show smirks, is certain that all surfaces deceive, all tales are seductions, and all one-liners lie. To be sure, honesty is not the coin of the political realm, and we may be savvy to practice a vigilant doubt. It is tempting, then, to suggest that McCain’s dramatic turn to religious talk in the last few months is the world’s greatest cover-up, hiding the secret truth that this is no man of God. Someday we may find evidence that Rove edited McCain’s texts, that McCain resisted Palin’s Pentecostal panache and that, all along, McCain begged that he might never again have to tell the tale of the cross and the dirt. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find diary upon diary authored by John McCain keening for Christ’s particular grace. Or maybe we’ll hear stories (from his daughters, from his sons) of how embarrassed, how mortified he was to be such a religious monkey, how certain he was that The Code of Conduct was all he should need, and how it was that that man, that eight-year President, made him be so very evangelical in order to win back the very party that (once upon a time, not so long ago) made him lose a primary by calling his daughter black.

But for now, we just have this man, this testifying and freewheeling man who has made his own choices (in word and act). He is a man running hard in the hardest race of his life, a man who believes in his country, who believes he would serve it well, who believes that he is the best American for the job, and since all Americans are assumed to be, at base, Judeo-Christian then it is no lie at all to say that he is, at base, a good Christian man. And so he is. A good Christian man. He says it, and we have to believe him. We, the scholars. You, the voters.

We believe him against the evidence because it feels better to believe that his life—his survival, bound and tied, long ago—is a testimony to Jesus’s mercy. We feel better believing that nobody would ever, or could ever, lie about a loving God, or lie about loving Christ. And despite our own schismatic compulsions (in daily life, in sectarian divide), we like to believe that all denominations look the same in the dark.

Finally, we want to believe that words of faith are different than words of politics, that when a man speaks of God he is more honest, more reliable, than he is when he speaks of policy promises. In short, we just want to believe that belief is. That’s what we want, and it’s what McCain now provides. Who among us could judge him? After all, it’s not in his self-interest: it’s in ours. McCain plays in a theater, with a script, that we designed (not without a little assistance from Them, from Rove and the Southern Baptist Convention and the RNC and the DNC). Despite his disinterest in the subject called Jesus, he dances for our pleasure, he sings a salvation song for us, for those who he seeks—always, relentlessly, with frightening abandon, self-deception, and self-sacrifice—to serve.

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This article was assisted by research completed by Anne Farris and Mark O’Keefe for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (see their religious biography of McCain, as well as the public record of McCain’s speeches).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Bald Guys and Bow Ties


This week is homecoming week at my school, and today was "twin day." After discussion and planning with my friend and history colleague Jim, we decided to be twins. This was Jim's second day in a row to wear a bow tie, so I like where this is going.


Eddie, if three's a crowd, then with your brains and bow ties the department would be unstoppable. We'll have to take another bow tie picture with you when you are on campus next.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Street Knowledge: Homeless Bloggers


A former student of mine, currently attending Belmont, recently brought to my attention the blog of Kevin Barbieux, a homeless blogger from Nashville. He blogs at The Homeless Guy.

After reading some of his posts, Kevin has a lot to say, and I like what he has to say--particularly about the topic of hospitality. I'm not sure if Kevin has kids, but his thoughts on hospitality and children, in my opinion, is right on. Here's a brief sample:

Nothing could be more crucial to parenting as hospitality. It is the most necessary aspect of raising a child. For with hospitality parents are required to recognize the person, and the individual that is their child, and to give this person full respect and consideration. It is striking how often parents fail to do so. And it is not at all surprising how messed up a child becomes when mistreated by a parent. Like the old saying goes, as the tree is bent, so shall it grow. Show me an adult that is lacking proper social skills, and I'll show you someone who was not treated with respect by their parents.


Read the full post here. And read another post about hospitality here. Reading Kevin's posts brings to mind another writer on homelessness, Fr. Gary Smith, whose Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor is perhaps my favorite book. And check out this site, Where's Brandt?, another homeless blogger.

Thanks for sharing your stories, Kevin and Brandt, and gracing us with your wisdom, insight, and perspective.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Travelblogging 3.0 from Atlanta

Google technology
CLOUD COMPUTING

RSS: “real simple syndication”

Connectivism

Network Literacy

METAPHOR
Google reader: Will Ricahrdson’s textbook for subjects related to networking, technology, and teaching; Will can update at anytime; he does not have a passive relationship with this textbook

(Book): Everything is Miscellaneous; creating “folkonomies” not taxonomies

Model: search term—what is your passion?
e.g.—mountain biking; first site Will pulled up had advertisement, so public site making profit….ended up being a personal blog.

Show students how to VET websites

Social Bookmarking

SUMMARY: This session was more about the application of the new connectivity programs; it was a real whirlwind; wish there would have been more time for the discussion. Good, but too short.

As promised, I'll be offering my narrative summary thoughts of the conference sometime over the weekend.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Travelblogging 2.0 from Atlanta

Don't have time to hyperlink notes, but here they are from Will Richardson's morning presentation. Finished up about 15 minutes ago. I'll follow up with narrative reflections as soon as I can.

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Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference (blog)—11 years old; example of young people living in a networked world

Metaphor: kids driving the technology school bus; driving is sketchy; adults holding on for dear life

Implementation in teachers’ own lives: this isn’t just a seminar about adding something to classroom!

Clay Shirkey: Here Comes Everybody: tectonic shift

Technology Review: "How Obama Really Did It"; new mantra—not “It’s the Economy, Stupid” but “It’s Networking, Stupid”

NPR: Internet Cartoon Pays Off For Kansas Candidate (8/12/08): Morning Edition

USA Today: Gray Googlers Strike Gold

Surf the channel.com—movie clips, etc.

What is the fine line between collaboration and plagiarism? (Nathan Barber recently blogged about this.)

“If you are not participating in this technology, conversation, you will most likely get left behind”
Literacies, nuances to participation in this connected culture

Live Scribe” pens

Educational establishment largely opposed to new technologies; my question is why? The world is changing—get on board!

WR: besides having kids, blogging has changed his life the most

Do we address hypertext reading/scanning and textbook reading scanning? What’s/where the disconnect?

del.icio.us network

clustermaps

fanfiction.net—writers can add chapters to books, create sequels, etc.

Myspace.com: 85% of users have public profiles

To teachers: What are we doing to prepare students to get a job at my school in 7 years?

Who is teaching MySpace? (responsible use, thoughtful engagement, etc.)

Using technology: Difference between MODERATING and MONITORING; explain

IMPERATIVE: help students prepare for the global world; savvy, critical, connective, innovative
MIT opencourseware

Content is not scarce; content is not static

“The currency of information is paramount”

Raise kids who are editors….

Clarence Fisher—classroom with “thin walls” (technology)

SCRATCH

“The best teachers in the lives of my kids are the ones that they find”

The Flat Classroom Project

RadioWillowweb

“Be selfish” about using technology for yourself—learning it by yourself

What are my own learning practices? (compare/contrast with/to students: have a conversation)

SUMMARY: The main points of Will's presentation were to document that 21st century education, learning, and communication is here and emphasized the imperative for educators to know the new technologies and develop new literacies, or risk becoming irrelevant. The upshot of the PLP program in which I am involved (and which he and Sheryl co-faciliate), is to walk through a non-linear journey for the academic year to learn, discuss, collaborate, etc.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Travelblogging from Atlanta 1.0

Arrived here in Georgia after an uneventful flight. I've had some great conversations so far about curriculum development and collaborating across disciplines, and what kinds of teaching strategies my colleagues have employed over the years.


Also had a great conversation with the Director of Academic Affairs at my school about teaching full time the last 7 years with 6 of those engaged in doctoral study. I taught 5 classes each day, and two nights a week (with the exception of 1 semester) took graduate seminars.


Some background: I finished an MA in history in May 2001, and began teaching full time in August 2001. I spent 2002-05 taking courses and then essentially writing the dissertation since March 2007, when I took my final research excursion to New England.


The short of it is that it has been an amazingly rich time of interplay between teaching and research/writing. In the conversation earlier today I recounted how I bring teaching questions now to my archival research (or participant-observation)--essentially thinking about how I could teach using primary documents--and while I think of course about content, argument, structure, etc. with my writing, I also think deeply about communicating ideas--in other words, does my writing pass the muster of the scholarly guild and can one of my sophomore students pick it up, read it, and at least get the main arguments and structure? And of course the use of technology has been an ever present tool in the mix of it all. Such a schedule--teaching and going to school in the midst of a growing family--is insanely busy (how thankful I am for a patient and understanding wife!), but has been profoundly transforming and intellectually stimulating.


All these thoughts and observations come flooding back amidst the course of the conversations I had today. I anticipate it will continue tomorrow during the PLP seminar.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

On the Road: Travelblogging

As I wrote recently, tomorrow I leave for Atlanta and the Powerful Learning Practice conference at the The Lovett School. I'm looking forward to meeting other teachers from across the country, seeing what they do, learning new things, and contemplating more ways to collaborate.


Connectivity is a term often used in the context of communications technology and mathematics, but it strikes me as an equally important term for 21st education. It's a term that's collaborative, generative, and participatory.


Since the PLP seminar is only one day, I'm not sure how much time I'll have to blog during the course of events, but I hope to compose a couple of posts while there.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

W.E.B. and Wall Street


Thinking and hearing about the latest news from Wall Street reminded me of some of what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote many, many years ago.

Published in 1935, the year after Du Bois left the NAACP, these paragraphs from Black Reconstruction in America read like many of the creative religious parables and moralistic news stories he wrote while editor of The Crisis. (Read more about this book here; HT: The Proletarian.) And if Du Bois is an American prophet, then these words about religion, commerce, and global capitalism have a certain resonance with recent events. I’m not sure that history repeats itself—the human past and human experience are far too complex—but a wise person once wrote that there is nothing new under the sun. Du Bois, it is safe to say, certainly had an inkling of both.

Anyway, food for thought.

Suppose on some gray day, as you plod down Wall Street, you should see God sitting on the Treasury steps, in His Glory, with the thunders curved about him? Suppose on Michigan Avenue, between the lakes and hills of stone, and in the midst of hastening automobiles and jostling crowds, suddenly you see living and walking toward you, the Christ, with sorrow and sunshine in his face? Foolish talk, all of this you say, of course; and that is because no American now believes in his religion. Its facts are mere symbolism; its revelation vague generalities; its ethics a matter of carefully balanced gain….God wept; but that mattered little to an unbelieving age; what mattered most was that the world wept and still is weeping and blind with tears and blood…[T]he immense profit from this new exploitation and world-wide commerce enabled a guild of millionaires to engage the greatest engineers, the wisest men of science, as well as pay high wage to the more intelligent labor and a the same time to have left enough surplus to make more thorough the dictatorship of capital over the state and over the popular vote, not only in Europe and America, but in Asia and Africa. The world wept because within the exploiting group of New World masters, greed and jealousy became so fierce that they fought for trade and markets and materials and slaves all over the world until at last in 1914 the world flamed in war. The fantastic structure fell, leaving grotesque Profits and Poverty, Plenty and Starvation, Empire and Democracy, staring at each other across the World Depression. And the rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867-1876—Land, Light and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat (pp. 123-24; 634-35).

Monday, September 15, 2008

(Y)ike(s): A Hurricane in Houston



It is now early Monday morning. I began typing my reflections early Saturday morning, as Hurricane Ike was making its way through Houston.

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Saturday, September 13
It is now about 7:30am, and I’ve been awake for 4 hours or so. I went to bed about 12:30am and woke up about 3:30am (Ike made landfall around 2am) to shearing winds and rain pelting the windows of my home. No more sleep for me.

I was surprised we still had electricity when I awoke. Between about 3:30am and 6:45am, the electricity flickered 7 or 8 times, but it has been off now for close to an hour. I was able to catch local newscasts and see the radar. Now that the power is out I’m listening to the radio.

We live in the far northwest part of Houston which means we are on the west side of the storm—the so-called “clean” side. Nevertheless, we are getting some high winds and heavy rain. (My guess is that the gusts are in excess of 50 mph.)

My parents and two brothers (and future sister-in-law) as well as my mother-in-law are on the east side of the storm—the vicious “dirty” side of Ike. My brother is in law enforcement on the east side of town, and my future sister-in-law is a nurse and on call in the medical center area of Houston. [At this point (early Monday morning), I've not talked to them, although I know they are both fine. And I have not talked to any of my teaching colleagues, so I hope they are all doing fine. I did get a voicemail from The Proletarian last night to say they were ok but without electricity. I've not talked with my two Religion in American History blog friends who are in Houston either, Luke Harlow and Gerardo Marti, but hope to connect at some point later on today. UPDATE: Luke reports in the comments that he's doing fine, and all is well with Gerardo as we spoke by phone this morning. Three of my teaching colleagues are doing ok, although without electricity. Haven't heard from everybody, though.]

The kids have been asleep downstairs through it all. They’ve hardly rustled, thankfully. Every so often I hear things pelting the windows and roof, and the general whistling and howling of the wind is a bit unsettling with the gusts. Power lines dot the north edge of the backyard, and they continue to whip and rock back and forth. I’m hoping they don’t snap.


Now that it is getting light outside, I see shingles around the backyard and a few in the front. Two sections of our backyard fence are down—similar to what happened (as I remember it) during Hurricane Alicia in 1983 (I was 6 at the time).

Monday, September 15
Once the rain stopped on Saturday we were able to survey the damage to our home. Thankfully, it was minimal. We lost significant numbers of shingles on the north and east side of the roof, and none of the tar paper (if that is the correct term) was torn, so at this point there do not appear to be any roof leakage. Four sections of our fence fell over due to high winds (the pictures you see), and so with some new wood, some nails, a saw, and a hammer it should be fixed soon. I've already talked with the neighbors, and I'm happy to say it was easy to arrange splitting the repair costs.

We were without electricity all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. We listened to the radio to see what we could gather about getting electricity back, and to find out about the rest of the city. Our cell phone service was spotty, and so we could really only leave voice mails with family and friends. We hopped in the car to drive around the neighborhood to survey the damage and to cool off a bit, and did the same on Sunday.

Overcast skies prevented the house from getting too warm on Saturday, but by that evening it was a bit stuffy. It actually rained early Sunday morning and by midday the sun was out and things began heating up significantly. We had stocked up on water so were able to keep somewhat cool and the kids enjoyed melted pop sickles in the afternoon. Our food supply was getting somewhat low because, well, six mouths to feed is a lot, and because our ice in the cooler in which we had sandwich meat, pasta, milk, etc. was beginning to melt.

We passed the time by reading inside, and by playing outside, chatting with neighbors, and watching the kids run around and splash in the water with neighborhood friends. We saw some dear friends at the store this afternoon (while we were still without electricity), and they invited us over for some a/c, a wonderful meal (they had an industrial size generator installed at their home Friday morning, so they were in pretty good shape throughout the storm), and hearty fellowship.




Now that electricity is back on and we've been able to catch up with the news and with family (some of whom do not have electricity yet), we are fortunate to have escaped with minor damage and minimal discomfort without a/c for a day and a half. Volunteers are out in massive numbers helping those in Houston and surrounding areas who were hardest hit. Thoughts and prayers help at a time like this, no doubt, but so does food, water, shelter, a/c, etc. Many of the schools here will be out through Wednesday, and it appears most local universities will reopen on Tuesday (at this point).

In addition to my own two cents worth about Ike, there are some other news sites you might find of interest: A Houston Chronicle blog, Houston Independent Media's Ike stories (you may have to scroll down the page), a Weather Underground blog, and a local CBS affiliate's Ike site. Here's a resident from my town who posted some YouTube videos of Ike, another video of a neighborhood close to where I teach (about 40 minutes southwest of where I live), and some AP aftermath footage.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

(Inter)Connecting the Past: Digital History



I recently came across an article in the Journal of American History that discusses the future of digital history.

In the round table discussion titled "The Promise of Digital History," William Thomas describes "digital history" this way:

Digital history is an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collections. On another, it is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.....Digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment. He or she can test the interpretations of others, formulate new views, and mine the materials of the past for overlooked items and clues. The reader can immerse him/herself in the past, surrounded with the evidence, and make new associations. The goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections. (Versus the narrative anticipation of what comes next, this is a curiosity about what could be related to what and why.)

This is a very thorough and helpful definition I think. In essence digital history uses computer and Internet technology as a tool to more quickly disseminate information about the past even as it exists as a participatory medium. The fluidity resident in it is an important variable in this equation, as it helps educators to (perhaps) more critically address the different learning styles that exist in our classrooms.

Steven Mintz is another participant in the digital history round table. Formerly at the University of Houston (but now at Columbia), Steve is a wonderful human being, kind soul, and innovative and critical thinker. Two years ago he graciously gave of his time when I organized a technology seminar for history graduate students at UH.

Whereas Thomas defines digital history above, Mintz chronicles the history of digital history brilliantly:


Digital history has evolved through a series of overlapping stages. Stage 1.0 consisted of communication and course-management tools, such as e-mail, online syllabi, Web-CT, and Blackboard, supplemented by content-rich Web sites (like History Matters, Lincoln/Net, and my own Digital History site) that made a treasure trove of high-quality primary source documents, music, historic images, and film clips available to instructors and students.

Stage 2.0 involved the creation of hands-on inquiry- and problem-based history projects designed to allow students to "do" history. Thus in Richard B. Latner's Crisis at Fort Sumter, students read the information available to President Abraham Lincoln from the time of his election on and compare the decisions they make with those that Lincoln made at critical junctures.

We have now entered Stage 3.0, in which the emphasis is on active learning, collaboration, and enhanced interaction. Wikis, blogs, mash-ups, podcasts, tags, and social networking are the buzz words. These technological innovations offer opportunities to students to share resources and create collaborative projects.

Stage 4.0 lurks just beyond the horizon. It includes three-dimensional virtual reality environments, which allow students to navigate and annotate now-lost historical settings. A stunning example is Lisa M. Snyder's reconstruction of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Stage 4.0 is informed by a "constructivist" understanding of learning, in which students devise their own conceptual models for understanding our collective past. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a colleague in instructional technology, Sara McNeil, and I, are completing MyHistory, which will allow students to create online history portfolios, in which they can develop multimedia projects, and construct timelines, annotate images, and keep notes.

While Mintz's Digital History site is cutting edge (I've used it tons in my U.S. history classes), I'm intrigued with his latest venture: MyHistory. Looks interesting.

This post could go on and on, and there is just loads of great material in the article for discussion. What have been some of your best experiences with "doing" digital history? Your most challenging? Why do you think digital history is important?