All posts from "March 2009"March 25, 2009
A political scientist finds much to admire about the sixteenth president—but scant connections between him and our current leader.
We had a guest in my "U.S. History since 1865" classes last week, Thomas Krannawitter from Hillsdale College in Michigan. Krannawitter was in town to lecture on his latest book, Vindicating Lincoln, and address my colleague's political science classes. It fit his schedule to visit my history classes, too. Even though the syllabus indicated that we were heading into the 1960s instead of the 1860s, my guest had no difficulty bridging the chronological gap with an analysis of changing perspectives on the Constitution and what came to be called civil rights.
Before proceeding, let me be clear that I do not know whether Krannawitter would call himself a libertarian. I did not ask him, nor do I know nearly enough about political philosophies to understand who might be flattered or horrified by association with the term. Wikipedia defines at least 10 strains of libertarianism, one of which includes small-government constitutionalists, and that's at least his ballpark. I should also admit that I have not read Vindicating Lincoln, so my comments refer to a guest lecture rather than to any published work. (It seems I'm on a roll with admitting things here. I don't enjoy Tolkien. There. I said it.)
To create a conversation using data points from my History 102 course, I asked Krannawitter, "How did civil rights legislation of the 1950s and ?60s continue or deviate from the Reconstruction Amendments we studied back in January?"
With a little prodding, my students were able to recall those amendments: the 13th, abolishing slavery; the 14th, granting equal protection to all American citizens; and the 15th, granting voting rights regardless of race, color, or prior servitude. Krannawitter then sketched an even longer historical narrative on the board, writing Declaration of Independence, Constitution, 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I will summarize his comments on each.
The Declaration of Independence, Krannawitter said, asserted equality among humans based on equal possession of natural rights. This seemed to be his ideal statement of political philosophy. The Constitution basically translated this notion of rights into government, but it compromised on slavery, because without such compromise it could not have amassed sufficient support of the governed to pass. In the middle of the 19th century, when that compromise frayed, Abraham Lincoln led the country into war to restore African Americans' natural rights. Lincoln had argued for these rights in his debates with Stephen Douglas, and he was willing to sacrifice millions of Union soldiers for this cause. Without Lincoln, Krannawitter averred, there might not have been a Civil War. Few other Americans of the era were willing to take support for natural, inalienable rights as far as he was.
Following the war, the Reconstruction Amendments brought the Constitution in line with the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, instead of ushering in a just and equitable republic, Reconstruction gave way to the long regime of Jim Crow, which Krannawitter described as nothing less than a brutal campaign of domestic terrorism. In Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 case about railroad cars in Louisiana, the Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow emphasis on racial segregation, allowing for "separate but equal" facilities. Only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented from the ruling, complaining not that separate facilities were inherently equal, but that any law taking account of race was automatically unconstitutional, because the Constitution recognizes no such distinction. "There is no caste here," he wrote. "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." According to Krannawitter, Lincoln would have emphatically agreed.
In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court threw out the separate but equal idea, but, to Krannawitter's chagrin, it did not use Harlan's reasoning. Instead, the Court drew on, among other things, a study by educational psychologists that asserted children were mentally harmed by segregation. In other words, the decision rested more on social science and the needs of groups (in this case, African-American children) than on natural individual rights enshrined in a color-blind Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 went even further in identifying and seeking to meet the needs of various demographic groups. Krannawitter finds the ubiquitous racial check-boxes on employment applications prompted by this act especially galling. He checks or writes in "other: human."
Most controversially, Krannawitter ended his guest stint in my class by suggesting that, despite President Obama's many evocations of the Lincoln legacy, the only thing the men have in common is Illinois roots. Lincoln, to Krannawitter, represents the individual rights school of thought. Obama comes from the group rights school founded by early 20th century Progressives (whom Krannawitter really dislikes). Lincoln saw the role of the U.S. government as preventing some citizens from infringing upon the natural rights of other citizens. The list of rights is small and never essentially changes. Obama, as a Progressive, sees the role of the government as granting rights not just for protection from other citizens, but for things like health care, a living wage, and decent housing. The list of rights grows whenever the government is willing and able to expand it.
I don't know if I agree with Krannawitter's narrative. It did make me wonder a lot about intersections between Christian thought and the individual vs. group rights debate. Many, but not all, of the founders who touted natural rights were Deists, taking their philosophical cues from the Enlightenment rather than the church. Many, but not all, of the activists in 20th century campaigns for civil rights were Christians. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any Scriptures that either identify "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as God-given rights or mandate Equal Employment Opportunity. I suspect that Lincoln, who could see both sides of so many issues, could see both sides of this one as well.
Claim “has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.”
Western biblical scholars have long discussed and debated the work of biblical scholars living in Israel, amid the scorching deserts of the Middle East. Now a prominent expert disputes that one of those scholars doesn't exist at all - a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.
Rachel Elior, who nearly destroyed the academic universe as we know it last week when she argued that the ascetic and celibate Jewish community known as the Essenes were a myth fabricated by the first-century historian Josephus, is herself a myth fabricated by journalists desperate for an Eastertime biblical scandal, according to prominent expert Alan Smithee.
The news media and academic world were shaken to their respective cores this week amid reports that a scholar named Rachel Elior, supposedly an professor of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Mystical Thought at the Hebrew University, attributed authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Saducees, or Zadokite priests. A key point of the argument was that the Scrolls themselves do not refer to "Essenes." Likewise, the reported scholar allegedly told media outlets that Essenes are not mentioned in Jewish texts of the time.
"That was the dead giveaway," said Smithee, who has set the cat among the academic pigeons once again with his shocking and astounding theory that Elior does not exist. "Because if you look closely at the work of this supposed ?Rachel Elior,' you note that the words ?Rachel Elior' never appear. Likewise, while there are several books that some publishers have credited this Elior with writing, she does not really appear in the scholarly texts written at the time. Historians do not describe meeting her, her personal habits, her preferences, her food preferences, or the like. If she was as prominent as Time, the Associated Press, and other media outlets would have us believe, you would expect to see her name everywhere in the extant texts. We simply don't have that, and there is no evidence to support her existence."
Likewise, Smithee pointed out, the Dead Sea Scrolls talk about resurrection, something that the Sadducees did not believe in.
Smithee's theory has landed like a bombshell in the cloistered world of biblical scholarship. But some traditionalists say it's possible that the Essenes existed AND that Elior does as well. "You remember when James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at Princeton Theological Seminary pointed out to Time magazine that ?Essenes' was a foreign label that the Essenes wouldn't have used for themselves, and that they preferred identifies like ?men of holiness' or ?sons of light'? Well, kind of like that, it's relatively standard practice for a scholar not to refer to themselves very much in their work," said one expert who did not wish to be named, perhaps because the debate is just so incredibly explosive. But the scholar contends that the trend has been changing lately, pointing the work of Simcha Jacobovici, who made headlines in 2007 by announcing the discovery of the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, their son Judah, and other family members.
"We have far more evidence for the Essenes than we do for Elior," Smithee said, noting that Philo and Pliny describe the Essenes as well as Josephus. "We have only two sources for Elior: A webpage at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which can be faked) and a Wikipedia page. And because Wikipedia has been shown to be so unreliable, full of error, and subject to various biases and agendas, it really almost proves that Elior is a fabrication. In fact, the updates on Elior's page have come from outside Israel, so they really can't be trusted to know what they're talking about."
Not surprisingly, Smithee's speculative theory, and his dismissal of the existence of a reported colleague, has raised the hackles of other scholars. The world of Dead Sea scholarship is insular and notoriously catty, and debate has sometimes strayed from purely academic turf.
A Hebrew University professor said denying Elior's existence is groundless. "She's posting comments about her argument to Jim West's biblical studies website," he claimed.
"Oh, and that can't be faked," Smithee responded. Smithee's work will likely further inflame the argument over the controversial Dead Sea Scrolls. He vehemently denies he is trying to add fuel to the fire and claims his theory is based on nothing more than common sense.
Smithee says he has a list of other biblical scholars who probably do not exist and is shopping a book proposal on his earth-shattering research for publication at next year' Easter media speculation rush.
Public domain photo of Qumran water cistern courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
'Event of the century' offers hope during depression.
If you're not familiar with what renowned Harvard historian Perry Miller termed the "event of the century," now is the time. We're talking about the 19th century, but we're not talking about the Civil War. We're talking about the nationwide revivals of 1857 and 1858. Kathryn Long of Wheaton College notes that historians have largely ignored these revivals, caught between the Second Great Awakening before 1835 and the Civil War, which broke out in 1861.
Early recollections of the revival traced its origins to a lunch-hour prayer meeting held at North Dutch Church in Manhattan, just a five-minute walk from Wall Street. Former businessman turned missionary Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier hosted the sparsely attended first meeting on September 23, 1857. Yet week by week the gathering grew, spawning copycat prayer meetings around New York City. Within six months, businessmen across the country met during their lunch hours to pray that God would work among them in a special way.
What led these businessmen to devote their lunch hours to prayer? Long describes the buildup to the Panic of 1857. "A financial crisis had been brewing through the boom years of the 1850s, a period when Americans had indulged in a 'national predilection for speculations of all sorts,' including get-rich-quick schemes involving commodities, securities, mortgages, and above all, land speculation," Long writes in Revival of 1857-58, published by Oxford in 1998. Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company's New York branch collapsed in August. When banks began demand payment on outstanding loans, panic spread. "Money became tighter, distrust spread, financial uncertainty grew throughout September, and rural banks and city businesses began to fail." While the U.S. economy had suffered other downturns, the Panic of 1857 devastated American families of every class in every state.
Yet the remarkable events of 1857 and 1858 left behind a lasting legacy. Evangelist D.L. Moody, who turned 21 in 1858, longed to relive the events of his youth. "Moody's later evangelistic 'innovations' were in large part systematic recreations of techniques from the prewar spiritual awakening, refined through years of practice with the YMCA," Long writes. Denominations welcomed thousands of new members. Participants evangelized soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Sunday schools blossomed. Anna Warner wrote a new song for these children that would last longer than memory of the revivals.
"Jesus loves me, this I know;
For the Bible tells me so:
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong."
Though written for children, the message sustains Christians of any age during any crisis.
The emotional energy of Cane Ridge and other early frontier revivals arose from a strong emphasis on the Eucharist.
Many evangelicals - especially younger ones - are today re-engaging tradition. Other evangelicals worry about this re-engagement. They feel that to move toward a more liturgical form of worship or a more fixed, detailed style of theological "confession" is to give up the freer, more emotional worship style or more grass-roots, straightforward doctrinal and theological style won for us by such evangelical forefathers as the 18th century's John Wesley or the 19th century's Charles Finney.
I want to suggest that one way forward to healthier engagement with tradition for modern-day evangelicals is through a look at our own recent past. For American revivalism itself grew on unexpected foundations of liturgy and doctrinal confession.
As for liturgical and indeed sacramental worship: few evangelicals know that the drawing power and emotional energy of such early frontier revivals as the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1800 - which set the stage for a century of explosive evangelical growth - arose from a strong emphasis on the Eucharist. It's true! Those deeply emotional and highly demonstrative camp-meeting revivals were in fact multi-day "Eucharistic seasons," in the tradition of old-world Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism (See Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989]). A similar Eucharistic focus characterized the revivalistic "melting times" of exuberant worship and deep christocentric mysticism in the early American Methodist quarterly camp meetings (Lester Ruth, A Little Heaven Below [Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood Books, 2000]).
This seriousness about the Lord's Supper in fact goes back before the early 19th-century revivalists to the people who may reasonably be called the "co-founders" of evangelicalism: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. Both of these men, Wesley in Georgia and Edwards in Northampton, Mass., got themselves into hot water with congregations they were ministering to - for the same reason: they "fenced the table" to keep out those not prepared (sacramentally or ethically) to participate in the Lord's Supper.
As for confessional theology, many early evangelicals worked out of solid Calvinist confessional conviction. For example, New Lights who sprung from America's eighteenth-century season of Awakening "worked to make people more theologically self-conscious, often by rewriting church covenants to include strict doctrinal standards."
Short-lived as many of these sorts of traditional roots were, they did shape evangelicalism in its American cradle. Even the brash New Measures revivalist, Charles Finney, recognized that he built on the foundations of "the evangelical Presbyterian heritage of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," with its Eucharistic piety and confessional emphasis (Schmidt, Holy Fairs, 207). Again, this may prove one "way forward" to healthier engagement with tradition for modern-day evangelicals: examine points at which our recent forebears have found something valuable in liturgy, doctrine, or church order (Nathan Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991], 180).
By looking at our own history with our eyes really, truly open, evangelicals will find that a commitment to tradition, robust theological confession, or liturgical worship is not inconsistent with the free-church commitment to every believer's direct, unmediated access to God in worship and prayer. If you don't believe this, I encourage you to check out CT managing editor Mark Galli's recent case for evangelical re-engagement with liturgy: Beyond Smells & Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete Press, 2008).
One more note: this suggestion is nothing new. Check out the chapter by evangelical historian Richard Lovelace in the book The Orthodox Evangelicals, Robert Webber and Donald G. Bloesch, eds. (Thomas Nelson, 1978), and you'll see something very much like this. Lovelace speaks of "the evangelical spirit," and traces it back not only through the early history of evangelicalism, but back through the Reformation, to the medieval church, and into the first centuries of the early church. This is the kind of vision of continuity--long the "native perspective" of the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox--that evangelicals need to recover today.