Archive for November, 2010

Thanksgiving in the Crisis

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

It seems strangely ironic and yet appropriate that the official proclamation of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday should occur in the middle of the bloodiest crisis in our nation’s history.   The year was 1863 and after almost three years of brutal fighting there was no evidence that an end to the war was in sight.  In that year several significant events had occurred that would eventually shape the nation’s future.  In January Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring that all slaves in the  rebellious states were now free and in July the Army of Northern Virginia’s attempt to invade the North and thereby gain an alliance with Great Britain was crushed during a three day battle in and around a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

The nation was in the midst of a terrible crisis with its very future hanging in the balance when Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving.   Clearly Lincoln did not associate thanksgiving with the absence of crisis, problems, uncertainty, anxiety, fear or worries about the future.   Instead, thanksgiving was the willingness to stare reality in the face and still declare that life was good, that there were blessings to count, that there were reasons to be thankful.  Thanksgiving was not denying a terrible crisis existed, it was declaring that out of that crisis a better future could be shaped and that, somehow, the willingness and ability to be thankful in the midst of the crisis would offer people the hope and the perspective needed to create a different and better future when the crisis had passed. 

Here  is Lincoln’s Proclamation…and the hope that we too can find reasons to be thankful and thereby shape a better future when our crises have passed.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln



 The Classical Library, This HTML edition copyright © 2001.
Abraham Lincoln Home

Interpreting America’s Religious History

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

I just finished teaching a ten week series on the History of Christianity in America.  We ended by asking a set of questions and reminding ourselves of some key themes that served as signposts for interpreting the role and nature of Christianity in this country.

The following four themes were offered as a way to create a framework for understanding the past 300 years of American religious history:

We are and always have been a nation of paradoxes where justice mixes with injustice, benevolence with greed, honor with treason, and sacrifice with consumption.

We have been both religious and secular from the beginning.  There is no year, decade or century to which one can point and say “now that is when the nation really believed in God” or ”that was when we rejected God as nation and became secular.”   Rather, the dynamic interplay between the religious and the secular shaped and continues to shape who we are.  The process of secularization in this country has not been the triumph of the secular over the religious or vice versa, but rather, the continual repositioning of these two cultural forces in a way that allows religion to thrive and grow in an environment that is essentially secular.  Go figure. 

America is a nation of insiders and outsiders, meaning that there are those who get to shape the nation’s direction with their moral vision of who we are and where we are going and those who struggle to find a voice and the means to contribute their vision for the country.  Our history has  been one of competing moral visions and the amazing story of how outsiders become insiders in America.

Protestants dominated this country for the first 150 years of its existence, and though they still retain a powerful influence over the culture, they no longer dominate it the way they did in the nineteenth century.  Religious diversity has come to characterize this country in a way that no one living in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries could have foreseen or imagined but they helped accelerate this process by their social and political choices.  Of course we still insist that our presidents are Protestants (see my last post), but Protestants are no longer America’s cultural masters.

And we ended with these questions:

What will America look like in 2035?

Whose moral vision will shape the next 25 years?

But for me the most penetrating question is a two part-er.  Does America still have a single, compelling and galvanizing story that truly connects us all and binds us together?  And, if so, what is that story and who is telling it?

Catholic Conspiracy?

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

This week marked the 5oth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon to become the thirty-fifth president of the United States.  JFK is remembered for many things:  his famous inaugural speech, the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs incident, his visit to Berlin, creation of the Peace Corps, launching of the American space program, integration of the University of Mississipi and perhaps most of all his assassination that ended the era of what some commentators referred to as the “American Camelot”. 

What some are unaware of is the social and political opposition JFK faced in the 1960 presidential campaign due to his religious beliefs.  JFK was a Catholic.   In fact, JFK was and is the first and only Catholic to be elected President of the United States. 

Suspicion and fear of Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.  This fear has its origins in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Protestants from Britain and Europe were settling this country.  They brought with them a deep seated distrust, fear, and hatred of a Catholicism that they associated with those long centuries when the Catholic Church allied itself with the kings of Europe to dominate that continent.  The 100 Years War that ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 were actually a series of wars fought over religion.  In particular, they were wars fought to decide which religion would dominate Europe, Protestant or Catholic.

For eighteenth and nineteeth century American Protestants, to be Catholic meant to be ruled by the Pope which in their minds was associated with tyranny and slavery; therefore, even though the Constitution ensured that there would be no religious test for holding political office, until JFK, there had never been a Catholic president.  The assumption was that a Catholic president would be under the control and influence of the Pope thereby threatening America’s Protestant culture.

In a bit of irony Black Americans could appeal to biblical stories and parables as they argued for their right to freeedom and justice but Catholics were forced to make arguments regarding their social and political status without referencing the Bible for fear that that a dominant Protestant culture would reject those arguments out of hand as illegitimate.

The last half of the twentieth century witnessed the easing of tensions regarding the role of Catholics in the American political process but some of the old prejudice still remains.  It will be interesting to see how the culture responds the next time a Catholic runs for country’s highest political office.

For more information on this and other issues associated with American Catholicism read Jay Dolan’s In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension, Oxford University Press, 2003.

We Have Met the Enemy; They Are Us

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Over the past thirty years I have listened to evangelicals bemoan the fact that American higher education is prejudiced and downright antagonistic toward students and professors who openly voice their Christian beliefs.  This prejudice and antagonism has been well documented and I have experienced it first hand so I have no reason to doubt that it exists; however, the mere existence of prejudice and antagonism toward personal and public expressions of  Christian faith in the halls of higher education is not an explanation for why it exists.  How and why did personal and public expressions of Christian faith in academic settings come to be viewed as inappropriate and unprofessional?  

In searching for an answer to this question it has become customary for evangelicals to adopt the following answer.   During the twentieth century American higher education became secularized.  This process of secularizing higher education was promoted and advanced by professors and administrators who had adopted liberal, evolutionary doctrines that were then applied to the sciences as well as to the disciplines of sociology, psychology, literature, history, law and religion.  These educators were themselves irreligious.  These were scholars rejected the notion of God and were  intent on eradicating religious beliefs, and Christianity in particular, from colleges and universities across the country.

In other words, sometime during the twentieth century secular humanists in the guise of scholars and educators formed an alliance with one goal, to eliminate any vestiges of a Christian worldview from American higher education.  This is the reason for the current prejudice and antagonism.  As compelling an argument as this may be and as much as this argument may have some merit considering current struggles over academic freedom and the lack of  toleration toward the expression of certain religious views in higher education, this is not the whole story or even an accurate account of the story.

Darwinistic ideas and secularization were indeed forces at work in American higher education during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but these forces were not harnessed and accelerated by secular humanists educators.  Until the middle of the twentieth century, many American universities was firmly in the hands of Protestants who assumed that Christianity was the dominate cultural faith of the country and because they believed Christianity was the  country’s dominate cultural faith, they believed that it would always be so.  It was these Protestant leaders who began questioning whether sectarian beliefs should govern the university and whether religious views should inform scholarship.  It was these Protestant leaders who took it upon themselves to distance higher education intentionally from specific sectarian views and from Christianity in general.

In other words, if you’re looking for the bad guys who initiated the secularization of the American university, they were self professing Christians.  Admittedly, their attempt to create a nonsectarian educational process evolved into a system now dominated by a secular agenda often intolerant of Christian perspectives, but it did not start there.

This is not a happy history for those evangelicals who like the secular conspiracy accounts better, but if Christians are to address the current situation in higher education and find workable solutions let’s at least start with a more accurate picture of how and why we got where we are today. 

If you are interested in reading a thorough historical account of this part of America’s story, read George  M. Marsden’s, The Soul of the American University:  From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.