Trump’s Pastor, My Review of Christopher Lane’s “Surge of Piety”

The Gospel Coalition recently posted my review of Christopher Lane’s new book on Norman Vincent PealeHere’s the opening, but you can click through to read the full review.

When asked about his religious background during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump frequently mentioned Norman Vincent Peale. Peale, who died in 1993, was the most famous clergyman in America during the 1940s and early 1950s. When Trump was a child, his family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church, and the minister presided over Trump’s first wedding ceremony. Trump credited Peale’s bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking with helping him maintain an optimistic attitude during his difficult bankruptcy in the early 1990s. With Peale as his inspiration, Trump said he “refused to give in to the negative circumstances and never lost faith in myself.” Now that one of Peale’s disciples sits in the Oval Office, there couldn’t be a better time for the publication of Christopher Lane’s Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life.


Epistemology, Media Ecosystems, and the Radio Right

I presented a paper at the American Historical Association’s annual conference last January. My paper, titled “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” illustrated the power of conservative radio with the story of a little known yet wildly successful 1962 boycott of Eastern European imports by conservative housewives. Afterwards, David Farber, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, asked me a particularly important question. Before I get to the question, I should note that it was an honor to have him in attendance; my dissertation, of which this paper was a part, can be traced back to a graduate seminar I took with him while he was at Temple University. His encouragement and advice came at a key moment in my academic career.

My memory is not exact, but what Farber asked was, “What is the epistemology of Right-wing radio? How did conservative listeners know what they were being told was true?” It was an excellent question. After all, it’s not just that conservative radio listeners believed what they were being told, but that they believed so strongly that it inspired action. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks translated radio into activism, the kind of sign-waving, door-knocking, literature-passing, coffee klatch-holding, card party-organizing activism that only true believers participate in. You have to be really sure of something to engage so fully, to commit so much of your resources and time.  A vibrant grassroots movement like the New Right of the early 1960s must have required a powerfully convincing epistemology to attract and maintain activists. I stumbled through an answer at the time, but I think I can answer more fully now that I’ve had time to reflect.

The very nature of radio broadcasting as a thing consumed in the privacy of the home or car encouraged listeners to feel a sense of personal connection to the broadcaster. Hearing a voice express emotion is a more intimate experience than reading words printed on a page. Politicians have long taken advantage of this broadcast media effect, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” during the Great Depression. Americans at the time often reported feeling like Roosevelt was talking to them personally, that he truly cared about their individual struggles. Conservative broadcasters in the 1960s benefited from the same effect. Their listeners–who skewed middle-aged, middle-class, and female by a two to one margin–wrote to McIntire and poured out their concerns for their wayward children, ill spouses, and the decline of their nation. A grandmother in Illinois wrote of her concern for her grandchildren who attended a public school since their father had lost his faith in high school (though combat during WW2 partially restored it). A mother in Pennsylvania included a post-script to her letter in order to brag of her tenth-grader’s prize-winning oratory describing the Navajo Indians. A mother in Wisconsin worried about her daughter drinking alcohol, dating a Catholic boy, and refusing to help with household chores; her husband only attended church part-time and didn’t share her concerns. Another woman watched the 1960 election returns until 4am, confessing that she cried herself to sleep after realizing that the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy had won.

That sense of intimacy fueled a willingness to trust conservative broadcasters when they spoke on political and social issues. A correspondent from Kansas felt that McIntire’s program armed her with the “facts at hand” and made her feel “a place along with many others who are listening.” That last statement is vitally significant. Radio bound listeners not only to the broadcaster but to each other. The Kansan went on to say that she felt “no longer alone and helpless.” And when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations shut down conservative broadcasting in the late-1960s, these listeners did not just lose a show. No, they suddenly felt disconnected from a movement of like-minded conservatives. As one listener from the southeast corner of Washington State wrote after the local radio station dropped McIntire’s show, “I feel as tho [sic] my life-line has been cut.” This was not merely hyperbole. Every single weekday for the past five, ten, or fifteen years these listeners had turned on their radios and heard Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and other conservative broadcasters tell them that they were part of a national movement to reclaim America for God and the Constitution.

The sharper among my readers have likely already noticed a disconnect between my argument and my chronology. After all, mass radio broadcasting had existed since the 1920s and there had been conservative voices on the air from the beginning. So it’s only logical to wonder why conservative radio broadcasting would have sparked the creation of the New Right in the late-1950s and early 1960s rather than at any other moment in the preceding four decades. Why at that moment did millions of Americans turn on their radios and suddenly find conservative ideas so much more convincing than before?

What changed between the 1920s and 1960s was the sheer number of conservative programs as well as the number and reach of stations willing to air those programs. There had always been conservative broadcasters, like Father Charles Coughlin, but they were confined to a handful of isolated time slots on stations mostly controlled by the major radio networks. You might hear Coughlin criticize the New Deal on air, but he would be followed by a pro-New Deal program or even one of the President’s own fireside chats. Conservative broadcasters in the early 20th century did not, in other words, have their own media ecosystem. Their listeners were exposed to the broader political spectrum. Also, their reliance on the major networks left them vulnerable to cancellation should they be too strident in their political attacks or if they strayed too far from consensus liberalism.

But that all changed in the 1950s as the major networks shifted their attention to television. The number of radio station licenses continued to climb steadily, but an increasing number went to small, independent station owners unaffiliated with the big networks. These stations were continually strapped for cash and willing to accept programming from previously unthinkable radicals including conservatives.  As a result, conservative broadcasters started popping up all over the country. They cobbled together an informal network of stations that aired predominately conservative programming even if the owners were not themselves conservatives.

For the first time in broadcast history, the vast majority of Americans could listen to conservative radio programs from dawn till dusk every day of the week. During the morning drive, you might listen to an hour of Dan Smoot attacking the Kennedy Administration’s Cuba policy on Life Line. Then you could listen to Christian Crusade as Billy James Hargis ferreted out Communist-sympathizers at the highest levels of the federal government. Next came Howard Kershner’s fifteen minute weekly sermonizing on “the Christian religion and education in the field of economics.” Perhaps your station, particularly if you lived in the South, aired The Citizens’ Council, the radio home for white massive resistance. During lunch, you might listen to McIntire’s Twentieth Century Reformation Hour as he applauded the Polish Ham Boycott. And so on throughout the rest of the day, one conservative program after another keeping up the same basic drumbeat: Communists were everywhere, the Kennedy Administration was weak, and only conservative action could save America. It was a torrent of conservative ideas and calls to action, the first wave of talk radio.

When I call this a media ecosystem I’m referring to the manner in which these programs, despite a lack of any coordination, authenticated each other in the minds of their listeners. How did a listener know that what they were hearing was true? Well, an idea would be repeated in slight variations across dozens of programs. Perhaps one broadcaster might be wrong, but an entire channel’s worth of programs? Surely not. These weren’t the ideas of any lone radical; the same basic opinion on any given current event might be uttered by a range of seeming experts, from preachers (McIntire, Hargis, Fulton Lewis), an economist (Milton Friedman), a lawyer (Clarence Manion), a rear admiral (Chester Ward), and so on and so forth. All ecosystems require critical mass. Chop down too much of the Brazilian rainforest and the jungle may go into a death spiral on its own. The same is true for the conservative media ecosystem in the 1960s. As an unintended consequence of technological innovation, conservative broadcasting could attain the critical mass necessary to persuade millions of listeners that conservatism was no longer a fringe ideology. It was self-authenticating in a way that was previously impossible.

This idea of a media ecosystem–although I’m not sure we used the term–came up briefly during our AHA panel Q&A. Nicole Hemmer noted that all media ecosystems have this self-authenticating epistemology. It is quite simple to construct a left-of-center media ecosystem that provides a similar self-authenticating function today. I might subscribe to the New York Times, check Slate and Vox on a daily basis, fill my social media feeds with like-minded liberals, and end up *knowing* that the news I receive is accurate because I’m hearing similar ideas across a range of sources. Sure, this can easily lead to group think–Someone like Trump could never win the presidency! No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals!–but on some level we are forced to do so because we are inherently limited human beings who have neither the time nor skill to be experts in every subject.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that all ecosystems are created equal, but it does mean that we all rely on ecosystems to provide our minds with an epistemological shortcut. Conservatives in the 1960s were no exception.

George Wallace v. Donald Trump, Guess Who?

"Make America Great Up for America!"

“Make America Great Ag…er…Stand Up for America!”

On Election Day last week I lectured on the election of 1968 for my class at Penn State, “From Hippies to Yuppies: America in the Long 1960s.” I am hardly the first to note the many echoes of 1968 on both sides of the contest in 2016. The anger of Bernie Sanders’s supporters at the Democratic Party placing a super-delegate-sized thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton is an echo, albeit a pale one, of the protests that erupted in Chicago in 1968. To the chagrin of younger, more radical voters, the Democratic National Convention had nominated Hubert Humphrey for President despite the veteran politician winning not a single primary contest. On the Republican side in 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign explicitly embraced the slogans of Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns, calling for a return to “law and order” and claiming to represent a “silent majority” of American voters (insomuch as 47.3% of the popular vote counts as a majority).

But the strongest resonance between 1968 and 2016 may well be the populist rhetoric of George Wallace and Donald Trump. Both men appealed to white working class voters who felt alienated from the major party establishments. In 1968, white ethnics (Poles, Irish, Italians, etc) had a long tradition of voting for the Democratic Party going back to before the New Deal, but the national party leadership had embraced civil rights reform. Wallace stoked these voters’ anger about a federal government more concerned with giving jobs and welfare subsidies to African-Americans than supporting the white working class. Wallace crisscrossed the South and the Rustbelt promising jobs and a government that prioritized the interests of white workers. Nearly fifty years later, Donald Trump has made a similar appeal but with illegal immigrants as the focus of white resentment rather than African-Americans. (He routinely criticized the Black Lives Matter movement but along another axis that more closely resembles Wallace’s criticism of anti-Vietnam War protesters.)

It can be a mistake for history teachers to spend too much time in class making direct (and sometimes tortured) comparisons between past and present. However, the 1960s fall well within living memory and continue to form the political, cultural, and religious background of our lives today. When speaking of the fall of modern conservatism at the hands of the alt-Right, one must first explain its rise in the late-1950s and early-1960s. When discussing the #blacklivesmatter movement, one must refer back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and so on with nearly every facet of contemporary American life.

Play along.

To help my students make some of these connections, I decided to create an in-class game show. Seven students were called to the front of the room. Each was given a microphone and a short quote. If they could correctly guess whether the statement was by Donald Trump or George Wallace, then they would receive a bonus point on their next quiz. If at least four of the seven contestants answered correctly, the entire class would receive a bonus point. To keep the entire class of ~160 involved, I posted an online poll for each quote so that the class could impart the wisdom of the crowd to the contestants. Below I have posted the quotes with links to the online polls. See if you can answer all seven correctly. The answers will be listed at the very bottom of the post, but no peeking.

Question #1: “I remember speaking at Harvard. I made them the best speech they’d ever heard. There are millions like you and I throughout this country. There are more today of us than there are of them.”

Question #2: “But you ladies and gentlemen take heart–gentlemen. I reckon there are some ladies here. I see by the [news]paper that not many ladies are here. [applause and cheering] You’re having the same fight that we’re having in some quarters. But it’s very bad for the folks try[ing] to destroy your traditions and your customs. But you got to get in the mainstream.”

Question #3: “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.”

Question #4: “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”

Question #5: “I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore … I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

Question #6: “I have a great relationship with the blacks.”

Question #7:
Demonstrators: ________ go home! ______ go home!
________: Why don’t you young punks get out of the auditorium?
________: [whispers to someone off camera in audience] What’d you say? You go to hell, you son of a bitch. …
Crowd: We want _______! We want _______!
________ supporter: You ought to take them people over there and put them in a bunch of cages and ship them off in a ship and dump them!

"You win a car, well, a bonus point! And you win a bonus point!"

“You win a car, well, a bonus point! And you win a bonus point!”

The contestants in my class did very well, answering six of the seven correctly. The average margin for the wisdom of the crowd was 2-1 for the correct candidate. Ironically, one of the contestants was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He received question #6 and answered correctly; you can’t say that he went to polls unaware of exactly what kind of person he was voting for! In any case, I figure that this poll will remain an enlightening classroom exercise for at least the next four years. (#silverlining)

From my fellow history instructors, I would be interested in hearing how you connect past with present in your class and about any exercises you use to do so. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment.



Question #1: Wallace
Question #2: Wallace
Question #3: Trump
Question #4: Wallace
Question #5: Trump
Question #6: Trump
Question #7: Wallace

Hillary Clinton’s John F. Kennedy Moment: From the John Birch Society to the Alt-Right

Rights: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Rights: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday Hillary Clinton took to the stage in Reno, Nevada to criticize the Trump campaign’s ties to the alt-Right. She spoke of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Obama’s birth certificate, the anti-Semitic slurs that stream from his alt-Right supporters online, and the casual racism and misogyny he himself utters on a seemingly daily basis. Although Trump did not create the alt-Right, he has become the movement’s figurehead; white nationalists see in Trump a potential for national influence that the far Right hasn’t had since the 1920s-30s. 

The New Right was the Alt-Right of the 1960s

There is an interesting historical echo of this moment. In the fall of 1961, President John F. Kennedy was worried about the “radical Right.” A collection of Right-wing broadcasters had taken advantage of changes in the radio industry in the late-1950s to create a loose network of independent radio stations willing to air conservative programming. By 1961 a dozen Right-wing broadcasters aired on a hundred or more radio stations nationwide. It was the first wave of conservative talk radio and there had never before been anything like it in radio in terms of size and mass influence (not even Charles Coughlin or Huey Long in the 1930s). These conservatives had very different politics from the moderates then in charge of the Republican Party, who during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower had promoted a vision of the welfare state and internationalist foreign policy that was different from progressivism in degree rather than in kind.

Some of Kennedy’s allies counseled that he should ignore these radicals. After all, they were tearing apart the Republican Party for him; let them be a thorn in Richard Nixon or Nelson Rockefeller’s side! But Kennedy and his advisers saw the potential of this conservative network to energize grassroots conservative activism. They were “harass[ing] local school boards, local librarians, and governing bodies”; they were “the mass base without which the Right-Wing movement would be ineffective.” Worse, they would not vote for Kennedy, who had barely squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 and anticipated an equally close re-election battle in 1964.

So on November 18, 1961 Kennedy gave a widely-publicized speech at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. In the speech, Kennedy deplored those on the conspiratorial “fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution,” a veiled critique of anti-communists who blamed all the nation’s ills on communist infiltration. He described conservatives as those who “look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders” and who “call for ‘a man on horseback’ because they do not trust the people.”

Rights: Russia Insider

Rights: Russia Insider

That phrase, a “man on horseback,” was shorthand for the idea of a military dictatorship. In the early 1960s the Left was afraid that a conservative Army or Air Force general might launch a military coup. That fear was a commonplace in cinema at the time, popping up in the plots of blockbusters like Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove. The Left-wing conspiracy theory went like this: conservatives, frustrated with the Kennedy Administration’s bungling of the Bay of Pigs and its lack of anti-Communist oomph, would rally to a “man on horseback” riding into the metaphorical town to save the day. The only way to save America from the global Communist conspiracy was to put a strong man in charge who could utter the hard truths and cut through the bureaucratic (and democratic) red tape to get things done. Sound familiar?

Rights: JFK Presidential Library

Rights: JFK Presidential Library

Kennedy was also worried about the conspiratorial logic of a growing number of conservatives. “They find treason in our churches, in our highest court, in our treatment of water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, socialism with communism.” In other words, the emerging New Right had a conspiracy theory problem. It was inculcated in the anti-Communist anxiety of the Second Red Scare, but it became increasingly detached from reality. For groups like the John Birch Society, John F. Kennedy and other liberals were not merely wrong, they were treasonous; John Birch Society leader Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer, accused the President of being a Soviet plant just like every President since Harry Truman.

This conspiratorial mindset has a rather loud echo in the current election. Donald Trump differentiated himself from the other Republican presidential candidates in 2012 by promoting the “Birther” conspiracy theory, claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus unqualified to be President. Like all conspiracy theories, this one was non-falsifiable and every piece of counter-evidence–including a birth certificate–was dismissed as a trumped up phony. It also carried a white nationalist and kulturkampf undercurrent, suggesting that no mixed race African with an Arabic name could  “truly” be American or Christian. (Disgraced former college president Dinesh D’Souza has carved out a niche for himself peddling the idea to gullible moviegoers.)

Conspiracy theories are impervious to evidence and reason, so how do you combat that way of thinking? Kennedy chose to appeal to independent voters rather than fruitlessly trying to convince the committed. He called for Americans to “let our patriotism be reflected in the creation of confidence in one another, rather than crusades of suspicion. Let us prove we think our country great, by striving to make it greater. And above all, let us remember, however serious the outlook, however harsh the task, the one great irreversible trend in the history of the world is on the side of liberty–and we, for all time to come, are on the same side.” Simply put, things aren’t as bad as the John Birchers make it seem.

Hillary Clinton took the same approach last night (and at the Democratic National Convention) beginning with the slogan adorning her podium, “Stronger Together,” an echo of Kennedy’s final “we…are on the same side.” She appealed not to die-hard Trump supporters but to those on the fence, both Republicans disgusted with their Party’s nominee and independent voters. In contrast to Trump’s doom and gloom predictions of American decline, Clinton spoke of hope in a “rising generation of young people who are the most open, diverse, and connected we’ve ever seen.” And her closing line–“Let’s prove once again, that America is great because America is good”– was a dead-ringer for Kennedy’s statement, “Let us prove we think our country great, by striving to make it greater.” (Both were channeling Alexis de Tocqueville, although they arguably mangled his actual meaning.)

A Cautionary Tale

Of course, not all conservatives in the 1960s were members of the John Birch Society, just as not all conservatives in 2016 are eager to support Donald Trump. Indeed, after the 1964 election William F. Buckley, publisher of the influential conservative magazine The National Review, purged the Birchers from his editorial board and caused a sharp division between a fusionist conservative mainstream and a conspiratorial fringe. (Although it’s easy to overstate how different Buckley was from the Birchers; he was not above dabbling in conspiracy theories now and again himself, especially when it came to accusing the civil rights movement of acting as a Communist front). Still, scholars tend to credit Buckley’s purge of the John Birch Society with cementing the New Right as a major player in national politics and conservatism as an intellectually-respectable ideology.

The story of Buckley’s purge might be interpreted as a hopeful historical sign for the aftermath of the 2016 election. Perhaps if Trump is defeated, the Republican Party leadership will be able to “purge” the Party of the alt-Right and assorted Trumpians afterwards. I’m not so optimistic, not least because we have no William F. Buckley. I don’t mean that literally; he died in 2008. But even if conservatives had the will and united purpose to excise Trumpism from the Republican Party–and that’s a massive “if”–I’m not sure there’s an individual that exercises that kind of influence in the much larger and even more splintered conservative movement today. 

Furthermore, some of the most influential voices in contemporary conservatism–including second wave talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh–have rallied behind Trump. Indeed, Trump has essentially bought himself a media outlet in the form of Breitbart. There are whispers that should he lose, Trump will plow time and resources into turning the outlet into an alt-Right counterweight to Fox News. Win or lose, Trumpism is likely here to stay. There will be a contentious debate over the future of Republicanism after the election that could easily last as long as the tussle over conservative control of the Republican Party did (roughly 1960-1980). The prospect of twenty years of intra-party fighting with an uncertain outcome at the end should be sobering to conservatives. The Republican Party leadership, which has almost universally endorsed Trump, albeit with some reluctance, assumes that 2016 represents a momentary eruption of populist energy that can be safely neutered in future election cycles. But if they are wrong, they may be handing fusionist conservative control of the Republican Party over to the insurgent alt-Right for an entire political generation. 

Alt-Right v. New Right

The term “alt-Right” was coined by Richard Spencer in 2010 to describe an amorphous community of white nationalists, monarchists, men’s’ rights activists, and other previously marginalized groups on the far Right. What these groups share is an equal distaste for both the progressive Left and the conservative Right. They accuse progressives of political correctness run amok as evidenced by their unwillingness to express unqualified pride in the accomplishments of (white) Americans. But alt-Righters also attack conservatives as effete defenders of corporate capitalism. (Their favored term is “cuck” or “cuckservative,” a reference to a racist sub-category of porn.) From the perspective of the alt-Right, both progressives and business conservatives are selling out America’s cultural heritage by welcoming in hordes of non-English, non-white immigrants who steal the jobs of American workers, sexually assault native-born women, and refuse to assimilate.

The differences between conservatives and the alt-Right run deep. For the past seventy years, American conservatives have embraced what scholars call “fusionism.” The New Right emerged in the mid-20th century from a loose coalition of Catholic traditionalists, libertarian economists, Southern agrarians, and anti-Communist hawks. Although each group weighted their priorities differently, the uneasy consensus that emerged would call for a laissez-faire approach to State intervention in the economy, robust spending on the military-industrial complex, and regulation of public morality. There have always been fracture points between the various wings of the New Right, but the coalition has more or less held together for sixty years thus far.

Rights: Statista Charts

Rights: Statista Charts

The alt-Right is attempting to give the American Right a European makeover. European Right-wing parties–like the French National Front, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Freedom Party of Austria–generally reject laissez-faire ideas about free trade and free markets. (Bear in mind, several of the most influential libertarian economists, like Freidrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, were themselves refugees from the European Right, which had then taken the turn into fascism.) They do share with the American Right a belief in societal decline, but they assign the blame for that decline quite differently. Whereas American conservatives typically blame the secular Left, or to use Francis Schaeffer’s term “secular humanists,” for America’s slouch toward Gomorrah, the European Right has traditionally blamed Jews and immigrants. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism are high on the list of Right-wing concerns in Europe.

Part of this difference is a function of America’s history as a nation overwhelmingly composed of immigrants (some voluntary, some not, though for now I’ll set aside America’s original sin of race-based chattel slavery and its lingering social and institutional aftershocks). Whether English, Irish, German, French, or African, most of us are descended from immigrant stock. Nationalism in America has not traditionally been an ethnic nationalism but an ideological nationalism. To be American meant believing in individual liberties, religious toleration, and a variety of other civic virtues (which are continually contested, to be sure). To the extent that white ethnicity matters, it’s to idealize its erasure via the cultural melting pot. “Idealize” is an appropriate term given the periodic eruptions of anti-immigrant nativism throughout American history, from the Native American Party of the 1850s to the Second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the alt-Right today. Despite those nativist moments, Old World ethnic boundaries have gradually been eroded away as each new wave of immigrants arrives, beginning the process of acculturation even as they transformed American society in return.

This kind of acculturation–the idea of being changed by immigrants in any substantive way–is as verboten to the alt-Right as it is to the European Right. Immigrants are framed not as potential, productive citizens coming to participate in our grand, national experiment but as criminally-inclined, religiously-extreme, disease-ridden, dangerous others. They do not speak the native language, share her customs, or pray in her churches. Allowing them to settle in the homeland creates an existential threat to the traditional or national way of life; it is tantamount to cultural and ethnic genocide. These concerns are usually framed in apocalyptic terms as a clash of civilizations. A generically-defined Christian West is besieged by hordes of radical Islamic militants. Unless extreme measures are taken–Close the borders! Build a wall! Ship them back!–they will swamp their new homes and replace its values, institutions, and governments with their own. Mosques will replace cathedrals, sharia law will swallow up constitutional law, and the burqa will symbolically dominate the public square (and the beach). In its most extreme expression, European Right-wing radicals have taken up arms to attack Muslims and their progressive enablers, like the slaughter of 77 Norwegians, mostly teenagers, by Anders Breivik in the name of a “monocultural Christian Europe.”

With the enthusiastic help of the alt-Right’s army of twitter trolls, anti-Semitism and xenophobia have been weaponized. Anyone who offers less than a full-throated condemnation of immigration, full stop, may be rewarded with a triple parenthetical around their name, ie (((Paul Matzko))), which is internet shorthand for “Jew,” someone who, according to alt-Righters, is willing to sell their cultural birthright for a politically-correct mess of pottage. Death threats are par for the course. Donald Trump has actively engaged with the alt-Right online, routinely retweeting their comments, fascist quotes, and signaling approval for alt-Right elder statesmen like Klansman David Duke.

And the alt-Right has evolved from a few thousand online Trumpian shock troopers to members of his core campaign leadership. Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News Network, has boasted about creating the perfect “platform for the alt-right.” And Bannon and Breitbart’s editorial team routinely echo the alt-Right language of kulturkampf, the idea that (white) America will be destroyed by creeping Islamization and Hispanicization unless a strong “man on horseback” rides in to save the day. The American Right hasn’t looked this European since the 1920s and 1930s, when anti-Semitic preachers like Gerald Winrod blamed the Great Depression on an international Zionist conspiracy and the Second Ku Klux Klan supported immigration laws that would keep out Eastern European Catholics. (Incidentally, Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was arrested after a Klan riot in Queens in 1927. The rotten apple doesn’t appear to fall far from the rotted tree.)

A Silver Lining?

If there is a hopeful silver lining to the rise of Trumpism, it is the possibility that this presents a moment for conservatives to reject the politics of xenophobia and rhetoric of kulturkampf. I have been speaking of Trumpism and conservatism as discrete movements thus far, but the reality on the ground is messier. In the past decade, conservative Republicans, while claiming the mantle of Reagan and Buckley, have adopted alt-Right policy positions. Support for restricting immigration has become the new litmus test for Republican Party candidates, with even former immigration reform supporters like Marco Rubio hastening to adopt a harder line. Or consider Ted Cruz, hailed as the last hope of the Never Trumpers in the Republican primaries, who advocated building a wall on the border with Mexico just as vehemently as Trump, sparking a moment of oneupsmanship as Trump added dozens of feet to the height of his imagined wall. The question stopped being whether a wall was a good idea and became instead who could build the biggest. In immigration policy substance Cruz was not far removed from Trump and he played the same paranoid tune, muttering about Ebola-carrying immigrants, radical Islamists and sharia law, and the influx of gang members and drugs.

The question that confronts the Republican Party, both its leadership and its rank-and-file, is whether they want a Party that embraces immigration, diversity, and toleration, or a Party that tries to resurrect the politics of white, nativist resentment. Trump and the alt-Right argue that the alienation of Hispanics is fait accompli, that taking a hard line on immigration is the only way to prevent a permanent Democratic majority. But it was not so long ago that George W. Bush was able to win 44% of the Hispanic vote. If conservatives had not rejected comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007, if support for immigration had instead become a Republican point of pride, then it’s not hard to imagine an alternate history in which the Party enjoyed the support of a growing majority of Latino-American voters, acting as a Republican counterweight to Democratic dominance among African-American voters. (A reminder that the Republican Party has made this mistake before and is still suffering the consequences.)

Rights: Getty Images

Rights: Getty Images

Instead, talk radio fulminated and conservatives rallied, defeating the measure and beginning a decade-long slide towards the alt-Right. Inertia is on their side. Demographic realities might eventually force the Republican Party to change tacks, but waiting for angry, older white voters to die off will take decades, condemning the Party to a Groundhog’s Day nightmare for multiple election cycles. However, steering the Republican Party away from nativism would require a degree of political courage nowhere to be seen among the Party’s current leadership and an unlikely commitment from grassroots conservatives that have been fed a steady diet of fear-mongering and hyperbole for years.

Radio Politics, Origin Myths, and the Creation of New Evangelicalism

Issue #1 - Note Center Article (Billy Graham Center Archives, NAE Papers)

Issue #1 – Note Center Article
(Billy Graham Center Archives, NAE Papers)

I have an article in the latest edition of Fides et Historia, which is the journal of the Conference on Faith and History. You’ll have to subscribe or borrow a copy from your university library to read it in full, but I’ll give you a short excerpt.

Conservative Protestants in the early twentieth century described themselves as evangelicalfundamentalist, or orthodox more or less interchangeably. It was not until the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1943 that evangelicalism turned from a mere description of theology into a term of identity. The organization’s founders chose the word evangelical to symbolize a third way between militant fundamentalism and liberal modernism. A surprisingly wide range of denominations joined the NAE despite traditional distrust among groups divided by theology and practice, including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. Uniting such disparate groups under the banner of a new evangelicalism required a powerful set of incentives. Yet while religious historians agree on the significance of the NAE’s creation, the reasons for its formation remain disputed.

There are two ways of conceptualizing what motivated people to join the National Association of Evangelicals. Groups were either pulled or pushed into the organization. The NAE attracted, or pulled, members through positive appeals to what could be accomplished through joint action. Most accounts of the formation of the NAE focus on these internally generated motivations. Thus, historian Joel Carpenter credits the NAE’s creation to the “religious imagination and statesmanship” of its founders, J. Elwin Wright and Harold J. Ockega, who traveled around the country “romancing evangelicals of every variety with [a] vision of national unity.” After all, the NAE’s original name was United Evangelical Action. In keeping with that title, Wright and Ockenga painted a picture of combined missionary outreach, war relief efforts, and evangelistic rallies. Yet while Wright and Ockenga certainly were compelling individuals, there has never been a shortage of personality in American evangelicalism, and Carpenter’s proposal does not convincingly explain why such diverse, antipathetic Protestant groups were predisposed to listen to such appeals in 1943 rather than at any other point in the preceding decades.

New evangelicalism coalesced in response to wider political and industrial struggles in which evangelicals were merely bit players. As the major national broadcast networks fought for market share, they enacted policies that potentially limited evangelical access to the airwaves. At the same time, the Roosevelt administration attempted to suppress opposition to the New Deal by barring newspaper ownership of radio stations, discouraging editorializing, and undermining network control of the airwaves. None of these developments targeted evangelical broadcasters, but that was cold comfort to evangelicals who were told they could no longer purchase airtime from the major networks. Evangelicals’ anxiety over potentially losing access to the airwaves fueled their support for a front organization to represent their interests before the networks and the government. The founding of the NAE, and thus the creation of new evangelicalism itself, was entrenched in the politics of the early radio industry. Fear, not romance, gave birth to the new evangelicalism.

To further whet your appetite, here are my section subheadings:

Lutherans and Catholics Together
Revising the Origin Story
The Mayflower Doctrine
Add Pentecostals and Stir
Who Framed the Federal Council of Churches?
The Mutual Crisis of 1944
The ACCC Fights Back
National Religious Broadcasters

Movie Review: Free State of Jones

I watched the recently released Civil War / Reconstruction movie Free State of Jones. It stars Matthew McConaughey and is directed by Gary Ross, previously best known for Seabiscuit. The movie is based on the book by historian Victoria Bynum and had an all-star cast of historical consultants including David Blight, Eric Foner, and John Stauffer. Ross even went so far as to post primary sources related to the story online. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a movie director showing his work like that, but you’ll never hear a historian complain about having footnotes! Bravo!

I went to see the film with some trepidation given the poor review scores on Rotten Tomatoes. After first watching the trailer several months ago, I shared the concern of several reviewers that the script would elevate McConaughey’s character into a “Great White Savior.” (He literally walks towards the camera with fire in the background and steel in his eyes. That’s about as Saviour-y as you can get!) This isn’t modern political correctness speaking. The white savior idea has a long history that goes back to the deification of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, who gave his life so that poor, passive slaves might be freed. In contrast, the last half century of historical work has focused instead on the ways in which slaves freed themselves through resistance in slavery, attempts at escape, and those who enlisted as soldiers in the Union army.

Great White Savior? Yeah, They’re Not Impressed.

I also worried that the movie would get the typical Hollywood treatment. Often what happens is that the director’s concern for accuracy extends primarily to the least important details. They make sure the outfits are accurate down to the proper brass buttons, or that the buildings have the correct architectural details, or that the accents line up. Directors get so wrapped up in these little things that they miss the forest for the trees. They end up modernizing the more important general themes and then cloaking them in period costume. It’s also hard for filmmakers to avoid heightening the story, adding in dollops of additional drama, romance, and action beyond what’s naturally there. It’s a habit seemingly motivated by a low view of moviegoers, who are assumed to have the…SQUIRREL!…attention span…CAR!…of a pet border collie.

I’m happy to report that I was (mostly) wrong. McConaughey was obviously the protagonist, so he received more screen time than any other character. Newton Knight is going to be the central figure in any story about Newton Knight, no surprise there. But the scriptwriter created a major supporting character, named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali of House of Cards fame), who steals every scene he’s in. Likewise, the filmmakers give a major supporting role to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Knight’s black common law wife. Furthermore, they resisted the temptation to smooth all the rough edges off the love triangle between Knight, Mbatha-Raw’s character, and Knight’s white first wife (played by Keri Russell). To appease some critics of the movie would’ve required telling the story of someone other than Newton Knight, but short of that I think the filmmakers did a reasonable job of not whitewashing the story.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers don’t make some questionable calls. For example, there are two scenes set at Union League meetings during Reconstruction. Union League chapters in the South were almost entirely composed of black Republicans. It’s certainly possible that Newton Knight attended meetings given his involvement in the interracial state militia (white officers, black enlisted), but it’s one thing to have Knight sitting in the audience and entirely another for the filmmakers to give him one of only two League speeches (the other going to Moses). There’s no indication that Knight spoke at a Union League meeting in the historical record, so why add unnecessary fuel to the Great White Savior bonfire?

Rights: STX Entertainment

Rights: STX Entertainment

The story did get the Hollywood treatment. There are major battles involving cannons and even a funeral ambush led by pistol-packing, female mourners. In reality, Knight’s company fought in a few minor skirmishes with no more than a handful of casualties on either side. There’s also no evidence of women fighting for Knight although they contributed to the movement in other important ways. Not only are these battle scenes inaccurate, they’re also the most boring part of the movie. We’ve all seen plenty of military action movies filled with blood and smoke; we don’t need another one with mediocre production values that panders to contemporary gender expectations.

That said, the movie is saved by its third act. Up until then I thought it a well-intentioned film that missed more often than it hit and that it said little about the Civil War that audiences didn’t already know. We’ve already had movies dealing with Confederate desertion (Cold Mountain) and home-front unrest (Pharoah’s Army). I was prepared to leave disappointed. But when the movie finally gets to Reconstruction it leaves a mark! Partly that’s because Reconstruction always gets short shrift in film. Everybody appreciates watching battlefield heroics, the drama of the fight for abolition, and the human tragedy of slavery. But Reconstruction is a story of defeat. The North won the Civil War but the South won Reconstruction. Blacks were re-subjugated into a Jim Crow segregation that was as near to slavery as southern states could get away with. Free State of Jones tells that story with pathos and understanding.

The lynching scene was properly horrifying. As I tell my classes, in just six months of 1868 in just the state of Louisiana, 1,081 mostly black Republicans were murdered by white paramilitary organizations including the White League (contra the Union League). For sake of comparison, that’s more killed in half a year than the total number of American soldiers killed during any single, full year of the Iraq War. In other words, the white supremacist insurgency in a single state following the Civil War was more than twice as deadly as the Iraqi insurgency on a year by year basis. If anything, Free State of Jones underplays the scale of the tragedy, although it does better than any other movie I can think of.

Harper's Weekly, "The Union As It Was"

The movie includes the first ever scenes involving Union League meetings. It also depicts the Black Codes, a Freedmen’s School, and even the renaming of Jones county for Jefferson Davis. Each of these moments is evocative of a wider phenomenon in Reconstruction history. If only the director had cut some of the lingering shots of Knight’s company lounging in the swamps or the lengthy (and ahistorical) action sequences and instead expanded his coverage of Reconstruction.

After finishing the movie, a friend objected to wasting time on a story that “doesn’t matter.” Indeed, the movie ends with a series of failures. Knight’s black allies are dead, his white allies cowed, and his white enemies in charge. The final scene shows Knight’s great-grandson being convicted in the 1940s of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law by marrying a white woman despite being 1/8th black. He defiantly refuses to accept a reduced penalty in exchange for annulling his marriage, but even so the movie hardly ends on a high note. The overwhelming power of white supremacy effectively erased the memory of the Free State of Jones. (And to this day, you’ll find historical markers and monuments honoring Confederate stalwarts littering southern highways and towns. Former slaves and anti-secessionists are conspicuous only by their absence.)

So does that mean the story of the Free State of Jones isn’t worth telling? Should we skip Reconstruction in our filmic diet, instead watching only films about the victories of the 20th century civil rights movement? By no means!

Historians of the 20th century civil rights movement often describe it as the “Second Reconstruction.” Reconstruction was a promise unfulfilled, but African-Americans following the Civil War fought every bit as hard as their descendants would several generations later. And they died in even larger numbers. Lynching was at its peak during this period, not during the 1950s-1960s. They gave even more blood, more sweat, more tears. It was not their fault that white supremacists–typically led by former Confederate officers–were willing to kill and abuse on a truly massive scale to disenfranchise black Republicans, something that a century later more (though by no means all!) white southerners had lost their stomach for. If we don’t remember their struggle and their sacrifice, we dishonor their memory. It was not their fault that they failed, but it is our fault if we forget.

Furthermore, the failure of Reconstruction reminds us that social or racial progress is not inevitable. It is a conceit of modernity to believe that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Since progress can be made, it can be unmade. Rolling back the advances of the civil rights movement or any other progressive social movement is as simple as exploiting the apathy of the current generation. If we only consume film and television that comforts us with progress already made, we are more likely to become apathetic about the necessity of fighting to maintain those rights.

If you’ve seen the film and are interested in learning more about the historical Free State of Jones, you should get a hold of Bynum’s book. The Smithonian also has an interesting article about the revolt as well as our memory of it.

Trump Wins, Sad! Panel Accepted by the American Historical Association, Glad!

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey,

Last Tuesday featured an odd juxtaposition in my little corner of the academic world. I’m a modern American political historian, among other things, so I pay close attention to topics that I might write about later in my career. Possible future monograph titles ranked from least to most depressing:

Trumpmania: How America Lost Its Mind in 2016 But Regained It In 2020 
The Passage of Power: The Years of Donald Trump 

The Rise and Fall of Trumpism 

But within hours of hearing about Trump’s win in the Indiana Republican primary and the subsequent suspension of Ted Cruz’s and John Kasich’s campaigns, I also received word from the program committee of the American Historical Association. They accepted a panel I had organized along with Michael McVicar, Nicole Hemmer, Heather Hendershot, and Kevin Kruse.

Our panel title is “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.” There was something oddly poetic about having our panel on the rise of the New Right fifty years ago accepted even as we watched the movement implode in real time.  Maybe. (I’m a historian; give me at least 20 years to figure it out.) If the Republic falls before then, a member of the panel has suggested that we escape to the Colorado Rockies and join the resistance a la Red Dawn.

Anyways, if you are planning on spending January 5-8, 2017 in balmy Denver, let me know and we can get coffee.

“Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right”

In the two decades since Alan Brinkley called conservatism the “orphan” of political history, scholars have responded by looking for the primary issue(s) which ignited Right-wing activism in the mid-twentieth century. Yet while hot button issues are necessary to rouse support, they are by themselves an insufficient cause. There are always means, media, or institutions around which movements coalesce. To put that in other terms, historians often explain the rise of the New Right by looking at shifts in the demand for conservative ideas. Yet changes in the supply of those ideas were equally important to the rise of modern conservatism. This panel focuses on the media infrastructure of the New Right. Radio, television, paperback publishing, and private intelligence agencies forged scattered conservatives into a national movement.

As Paul Matzko shows in “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” conservative radio broadcasting in the early 1960s stimulated grassroots activism. In one instance, broadcaster Carl McIntire condemned the John F. Kennedy administration for allowing imports from Communist Eastern Europe; a large group of his listeners, mostly housewives, organized boycotts of stores selling Polish hams and other goods. As amusing as the incident sounds in retrospect, it was no laughing matter for the Kennedy administration as detailed in internal White House memoranda.

Anti-ham housewives were an irritant during the 1962 midterm elections, but during the 1964 election season Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign encountered a flood of cheaply-produced, best-selling conservative paperback books. Nicole Hemmer, in “’Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths,’” details the surprising success of these campaign paperbacks, which despite being authored by little known grassroots activists managed to sell upwards of 16 million copies via an informal network of Right-wing publishers and marketing outlets.

Michael McVicar, in “Surveillance—Dossier—Exposé,” reveals a darker side to the campaign to put a conservative in the White House. Using do-it-yourself manuals, Right-wing activists created private intelligence agencies that compiled dossiers on Left-wing politicians and activists. Their goal was to expose embarrassing connections between the Left and Communist front organizations. The anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s had been democratized, commodified, and placed in the hands of grassroots activists.

Despite a self-imposed distance from grassroots activism, even conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley needed a way to circulate their ideas. In “Firing Line,” Heather Hendershot describes how Buckley used his television program to create a more cerebral strand of the New Right. Grassroots activists are adept at disruption, but Buckley gave the movement an intellectual foundation on which to build a more sustainable movement.

By the 1960s, New Right activists could access conservative ideas in new ways, whether on the car radio on the way to work, as a family gathered around the television set at night, reading a campaign paperback in bed, or writing in to a private intelligence agency for information on a local political candidate. The expansion of the media infrastructure of the New Right enabled new forms of conservative, grassroots activism which would dramatically reshape national and party politics.

Session Participants

Kevin Kruse (Chair), Princeton University
Paul Matzko, Pennsylvania State University
Nicole Hemmer, The Miller Center at the University of Virginia
Michael McVicar, Florida State University
Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Why Mormons Love Ted Cruz

The Ted Strikes Back

In my last post I dug into the South Carolina Republican primary results to suss out the implications of evangelical support for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.  Since then, Rubio has dropped out, leaving only Trump and Cruz with a shot at reaching the delegate threshold needed to avoid a contested convention. Trump remains the frontrunner, but Cruz’s campaign received a significant boost by winning an outright majority of the vote in Utah, giving him all the state’s delegates.

Why did Cruz win? Certainly, a flurry of campaign pitter-patter in the days leading up to the caucuses hurt Trump’s chances–including Mitt Romney’s endorsement of Cruz and the unseemly back and forth over the relative physical attractiveness of the candidate’s wives–but given that Cruz pulled 69.2% of the vote versus Trump’s 14%, the outcome wasn’t dictated by late-deciding swing voters.

No, Cruz won because he was the overwhelming favorite of the largest voting bloc in Utah: Mormons. As you can see, there was a strong, positive correlation between Mormon adherence rates by county and the percentage of voters who pulled the lever for Ted Cruz. The side-by-side map comparison isn’t as distinct as the one I made for South Carolina (in part, I suspect, because of the visual distortion caused by the large, sparsely populated rural counties), but the line of best fit is actually even more compelling.

I’d like to note that the relationship would be even stronger if we took into account the population density of the counties. Let’s compare two counties with similar adherence rates, Daggett and Salt Lake. Since I gave all counties equal weight, Daggett County (total population: 1,059) and its 94 caucus goers counted just as heavily as Salt Lake County (total population: 1,029,655) and its 46,723 voters. Indeed, the outlying data points tend to be thinly-populated counties like Daggett.

That’s not surprising. Bear in mind that these are caucuses, which tend to feature more variability than primaries. Also, smaller sample sizes lead to noisier data. When you’re dealing with a sample size of just 94 caucus goers in a single precinct, one particularly persuasive speaker can easily swing a dozen votes and help their candidate outperform the state average in that one county. If we accounted for population density, the line of best fit would be even steeper.

It doesn’t take more than a glance at the Utah data to see that Ted Cruz did best in places with the most practicing Mormons. Indeed, Cruz earned a significantly higher share of Mormon voters than he did evangelical voters in any other state. At first blush that might seem surprising. After all, Cruz is a member of a Southern Baptist church and his father is a Pentecostal pastor. Indeed, when I hear Cruz give his stump speech I’m reminded of all the fundamentalist summer camps I attended as a kid; he’s got the southern evangelist’s cadence and pitch down pat. He walks like an evangelical, quacks like an evangelical…yet he swims like a Mormon. What gives?

The Return of the Mormon Moment

Religious scholars who study Mormonism were suddenly in demand in the spring of 2012. Former Massachusetts Governor and dedicated Mormon Mitt Romney was the frontrunner in the Republican race. And journalists love it when odd religious groups burst onto the national political scene. Less than forty years earlier Newsweek had declared that 1976 was the “Year of the Evangelical,” as Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher (and sometime Georgia Governor) Jimmy Carter rode a wave of evangelical support into the White House. And in 2012 Newsweek jumped on a new trend, with Mitt Romney heralding a “Mormon Moment” as conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons formed a new faith-based coalition.

Although I couldn’t track it down, I remember a 2012 interview with a South Carolina Republican Party doyen who was also a Southern Baptist. The reporter asked her, “Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Do his theological differences bother you given that you’re an evangelical?” She stoutly replied, “Well, he says he loves Jesus and that’s good enough for me!” In the end, Newt Gingrich, a twice-divorced Catholic, actually won South Carolina and outperformed his average among evangelicals. But Romney won a larger percentage of the evangelical vote than Ron Paul, the only evangelical candidate in the race at that point. And in the general election that year, white evangelicals preferred Mormon Mitt Romney over Protestant Barack Obama by 69% to 30%, a higher ratio than either John McCain or George W. Bush received from them in 2000-2008.

Mormons are returning the favor in 2016. That’s not to say that all Mormons are lockstep with Cruz on all issues. For example, the Church is less nativist on immigration than Ted Cruz’s other supporters. The Mormon Church President supported 2014’s failed bi-partisan immigration bill, the same measure which Ted Cruz now brags about defeating. In part, that’s because there are more than twice as many Latter Day Saints living abroad as there are in the United States; they are more truly a global church than any individual American Protestant denomination (with the exception of the Assemblies of God, which not coincidentally also supports comprehensive immigration reform). American Mormon’s internationalism is further boosted by the two years of missionary service that most undertake, often overseas.

Attack of the (Second Great Awakening) Clones

There’s a nice parallel between evangelical support for a Mormon in 2012 and Mormon support for an evangelical in 2016. While this strategic alliance may appear to be a recent phenomenon, it draws on a shared history and theology that goes back to the 19th century. What’s surprising about the rapprochement between Mormons and evangelicals isn’t that it has occurred, but that it’s taken this long.

Cruz’s evangelicalism and Romney’s Mormonism are both children of the Second Great Awakening(s). Now, I’m not suggesting that we collapse the theological tensions between Mormons and evangelicals. Mormon views on Christology, revelation, and soteriology are so divergent from Christian beliefs that I am comfortable defining them as unique religions, not just different denominations within a shared faith.  But while they differ on matters of doctrine, they share an elevated view of America’s role in the history of redemption. That affects how both groups engage in politics. In other words, their systematic theology might differ, but their political theology is really quite similar at key points.

Library of CongressIn part that’s because the Book of Mormon made explicit what early 19th century evangelicals believed was implicit in the Bible. For example, both Mormons and 19th century evangelicals encoded racism in their respective sacred scriptures. By the 1820s pro-slavery evangelical theologians had inserted race into Bible stories, like that of Ham or Cain, which made no mention of skin color. And when Joseph Smith wielded his seer stone, he found that Moroni had quite a good grasp on the racial views of antebellum Americans considering that he was a resurrected, angelic being from the 5th century AD. Mormons didn’t have to read race into the stories of Cain or Ham; the Book of Mormon baldly stated it.

Today, evangelicals and Mormons both tend to sweep these old views on race under the carpet, but their views on America’s exceptional role in God’s plan for humankind also reflect 19th century cultural values. Second Great Awakening evangelicals believed that God would bless the nations of the world through the Christian example of America. After all, hadn’t John Winthrop declared in 1630 that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a “city upon a hill,” a reference to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount? And hadn’t the Founding Fathers enshrined Christian values in the US Constitution and through early legislation?

Evangelicals were warming up to the notion that America was, at least temporarily, fulfilling Israel’s former role as God’s chosen nation. While this impulse would come to full flower in the 20th century with Christian Zionism, 19th century preachers like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher had argued much earlier that America would usher in the postmillennial reign of Christ on earth. A little bit of revival here, some social reform there, a dab of the American missionary movement everywhere, and the world would be ready for Christ’s return. In Beecher’s words, America was “destined to lead the way in the moral and political emancipation of the world.”

Rights: Library of CongressAnd the actual religious history of America could always be rewritten to order. As the Founding Fathers died off, veneration of the revolutionary generation reached a fevered pitch. The major political parties of the time battled over who best upheld the values of the Founders. Evangelicals and other religious groups followed suit. I’ve written before about “Parson” Mason Locke Weems, but there was a cottage industry of authors who embellished the lives of the Founders to make them more pious and more orthodox. It was a retroactive “evangelicalization,” a literary baptism for the dead.

But whereas evangelicals only inferred a sacred role for America from the Bible, the Book of Mormon explicitly codified American exceptionalism. Moroni took matters a step farther, revealing to Joseph Smith that America was not just a rough corollary for Israel. No, America was populated by actual Israelites. As the story goes, several of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which had been taken captive by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BC, escaped to the Americas. These Nephites colonists built an ancient civilization complete with cities, kings, and currency; but they were opposed by the wicked Lamanites, also immigrants but whose rejection of God was marked by their dark skin (again, with the race obsession). The groups warred for a while, but eventually the Nephites also rejected God and intermarried with the Lamanites, producing a degraded remnant that the early Mormons identified as the ancestors of the Native Americans. Furthermore, Joseph Smith believed that 19th century Mormons were themselves blood descendants of the lost tribe of Ephraim.

Modern archeologists have found no trace of this pre-modern, Israelite civilization in the Americas, but at the time it was transcribed the Book of Mormon narrative adhered closely to widespread Christian speculation about a connection between Native Americans and the ten lost tribes of Israel. As ahistorical and fantastical as it sounds today, the Mormon account of the ten lost tribes seemed quite believable to the many evangelicals who converted to Mormonism. America was quite literally a replacement for ethnic Israel, a new land populated by the remnants of several tribes. And Mormons had divine warrant to go out and gather the other lost tribes so they could return to their new homeland in New York Illinois Utah.

Later Mormon Presidents–who can speak ex cathedraspecified that the US Constitution was inspired. President Ezra Taft Benson called America God’s “base of operations” from which He would prepare a “new gospel dispensation” for the salvation of the nations. It’s no accident that Benson played a major role in bringing Mormons into the New Right during the mid-20th century. (Imagine the political ramifications if a Catholic Pope had joined the John Birch Society. That’s Benson for you.)

Space Jesus: The Mormons Awaken

Given the significant overlap between 19th century Mormon and evangelical views on America’s divine calling, it’s not surprising that their 21st century descendants are getting along so readily, especially now that some of the rough edges (*cough,* polygamy, *cough*) have been worn off, thus reducing the cultural and religious tension between Mormonism and broader American Christianity. There’s a potent symbol of that rapprochement in the main Salt Lake City Temple. If you take a tour, you’ll end by staring up into the face of Space Jesus.

Rights: Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the few concrete moments I remember from my visit to Salt Lake City as a 12 year old kid, which also happened to be about when I first watched a movie series set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” It’s a fitting image. After all, Mormons are rightfully known for their love and authorship of amazing fantasy and science fiction. And some other…stuff. Hey, no religious tradition gets EVERYTHING right.

It’s not hard to see why Ted Cruz’s Christian Nationalist rhetoric appeals to conservative Mormon voters. As he told Breitbart News, America is “a unique nation, the indispensable nation, a clarion voice for freedom that we will speak for liberty, for truth. That we will be as Reagan put it, a shining city on a hill.” (The estate of Jesus Christ has since notified the FTC that it trademarked the phrase “city on a hill” some 2,000 years ago. The pending lawsuit may be settled out of court, depending on when the next Judgement Seat session is convened.)

But these word choices–America as “unique” and “indispensable”–are coded for Mormon and evangelical ears alike. Potential Cruz supporters who aren’t religious won’t necessarily pick up on the Christian Nationalist overtones. Those who are Christian Nationalists understand that Cruz is signaling that he’s one of them without coming right out and saying so. His current slogan is “Reignite the Promise of America.” Several of his Super PACs are named “Keeping the Promise.” That kind of language appeals on an almost subconscious level to evangelicals and Mormons who believe that God and the Founding Fathers entered into a special, covenantal relationship. If America is to prosper, it needs to keep up its end of the bargain with God, just like Israel before it.

And while Cruz never explicitly says that he believes the Constitution is divinely inspired, he gets as close to the curb as he can without scraping his rims. In his announcement speech at Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world, Cruz said, “God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. It is a time for truth. It is a time for liberty. It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.” Inspiring words that he followed by asking the audience to “text the word Constitution to the number 33733” and join his campaign.

The message is certainly getting through to Cruz’s biggest Mormon fan, talk radio host Glenn Beck. In a joint appearance with Cruz at a pentecostal church in South Carolina, Beck begged the attendees to “Ask our dear Lord to show you who the man is that has the integrity, who has the connection, who will fall to his knees at the Resolute Desk, who, before he acts doesn’t think of a poll but looks to the Constitution and the holy scriptures; our Bible and the Constitution both come from God, they are both sacred scriptures!” While elevating the US Constitution to the level of divine inspiration is perfectly in keeping with Mormon doctrine and practice, you would expect evangelical listeners to at least shift uncomfortably in their seats when faced with a heterodox statement about extra-Biblical revelation. What Beck got instead was applause.

One of the most surreal moments in an election cycle that even the Dadaists would have found far-fetched was the spectacle of Mormon Glenn Beck and Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress sparring over whether God preferred Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. While speaking to a Mormon audience in Utah, Beck implicitly appealed to the Book of Mormon’s ancient American history of struggle between the people of God and the Lamanites. “The Book of Mormon is a book that was given to us for this time in this land. And it explains exactly what it’s going to look like when trouble comes. And I don’t know about you, but I can put new names against old names, and it all works.” Beck’s hope was that if Mormons stood up and delivered a win for Cruz in Utah, then evangelicals would start “listening to their God” and back Cruz in larger numbers.

Jeffress took umbrage at Beck’s criticism of southern evangelicals, although not Beck’s assertion of American exceptionalism. Just a month or so before, Jeffress had introduced Donald Trump at a rally in Texas, right in Cruz’s backyard. In a tweet–since deleted–Jeffress explained his support for Trump with an appeal to Matthew 5:13, the Sermon on the Mount again: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again.” Christians were called to influence the broader culture and Jeffress thought Trump was the man for the hour. Thus Beck’s comments struck Jeffress as “wacko” and he found himself “somewhat puzzled that Beck claims to know how the God Christians worship would vote in the Republican primaries” given that he is a Mormon.

Indeed, if you weren’t familiar with the long history of Mormon/evangelical belief in America’s sacred calling, I suppose it might have seemed “wacko” to witness Mormons battling for the evangelical candidate and Southern Baptists backing a twice-divorced, Easter-and-Christmas, mainline Protestant. All it takes is mentally inserting the adjective “American” in front of the phrase “city on a hill,” ignoring the Sermon on the Mount’s context, and waiting for applause.

What Evangelical Support for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump Suggests About the Future of American Evangelicalism

Journalists have spilled a great deal of ink trying to suss out which candidate conservative evangelicals would choose in the Republican primary. After all, two thirds of self-described evangelicals identify as Republicans, which makes them roughly half of the party’s base. Since 1976, Republican candidates have actively wooed evangelicals because they are the largest single voting bloc within the party.

Yet the question of which candidate evangelicals prefer is problematic because it assumes a certain homogeneity among evangelicals, as if they have one mind when it comes to politics and faith. That is a false assumption and this primary season has already highlighted major fault lines between Republican evangelicals. Those divisions presage significant changes within American evangelicalism that will affect how evangelicals in the coming generation vote, worship, and think.


It’s certainly true, as others have noted, that although Trump has won a plurality of evangelical voters in multiple states, a majority have opted for other candidates. And there’s a slight but significant negative correlation between religiosity and support for Trump. In short, Trump wins among evangelicals because he’s winning, period, but he under-performs with evangelicals compared to how well he does with non-evangelical voters. That said, I’m not sure we can just dismiss the fact that a third of evangelicals in, for example, South Carolina have voted for Trump. They certainly aren’t doing so because of their admiration for Trump’s business practices or the depth of his religious commitment.

However, when you dig a little deeper into the data a telling pattern emerges. Trump does well among self-described evangelicals, but not nearly so well with evangelicals who actually attend church. I’m not the first to notice that pattern–J.D. Vance’s article sparked the thought for me–but since no one has yet visually illustrated the point, I thought I’d do so with these side-by-side maps. On the left is a map showing the adherence rate in South Carolina, how many people per 1000 are members of churches. [I used the ARDA website, which should be a go to source for anybody looking for good data on religion in America.] On the right, is a map I made of county-by-county Republican primary results; the darker the color, the higher percentage of the vote Donald Trump received.

The correlation between church membership and a decreased likelihood of voting for Trump is especially apparent in the Upstate, where people are two or three times more likely to go to church regularly…and were half as likely to vote for Trump. There are individual county results that don’t fit the pattern, but there’s a clear line of best fit when you scatter plot the data. Counties with lower church adherence tend to have a higher percentage of Trump supporters.

Evangelicals who support Trump are more likely to be evangelicals in name only. They join evangelical churches at lower rates, attend church less regularly, and, I suspect, are less likely to adhere to key evangelical doctrines. They are cultural evangelicals. Think of them as you would Catholicism in France, where a majority of people profess to be Catholic (75%) but only a handful attend mass weekly (4.5%), give confession, or even ascribe to key church teachings. I grew up in South Carolina and can testify to the simultaneous pervasiveness and thinness of evangelicalism in the South. It’s the universal patois of the Bible Belt–a “Bless his heart” here and a “I’m born again” there–rather than a truly shared faith.

I don’t think we can consider these cultural evangelicals to be either the heart of the tradition or its future. If anything I’d expect that as the “sacred canopy” of Christendom cracks ever wider, these cultural evangelicals will slough off, dropping self-identification and formally (rather than simply practically) joining the ranks of the “nones.” For committed evangelicals, like popular pastor Tim Keller, that prospect isn’t all that alarming, because they see in that trend a healthy winnowing process that sorts true evangelical wheat from cultural evangelical chaff. Viewed in this light, Trump’s support among evangelicals signals the declining hold of evangelical social values on Southern culture and politics, but that might not be a bad thing for evangelicalism as an authentic religious movement.

What Concord Hath Cruz with Rubio?

Even discounting those cultural evangelicals backing Trump, the rump of evangelical voters in the Republican Party have split fairly evenly between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It’s been proposed that the divide is generational, that older voters prefer Cruz while younger ones skew towards Rubio.  And there may be something to that idea. For example in Texas, Rubio outperformed among voters 18-29, barely losing that bracket to Cruz, who wiped up among older voters age 30-65. However, if you look at the SC exit polls then you’ll find Cruz outperforming his average with the youngest voters while Rubio has a slight edge among the oldest. (The Carolina polls are particularly useful because the state has a high percentage of evangelical voters at 72% and because Rubio and Cruz ran neck and neck in the final results.)

A much stronger variable that explains the divide is voters’ level of education. In SC Rubio took 32% of voters with postgraduate degrees to Cruz’s 18%. But the script flipped for those with no more than a high school education, giving Cruz 27% to Rubio’s 16%. I suspect that this educational divide explains the income gap as well, with wealthier voters in better-compensated occupations that require college or professional degrees favoring Rubio.

It’s possible that the evangelical divide between Rubio and Cruz is primarily a function of class. Cruz appeals to a similar demographic as Trump, the white working class (albeit those who take their evangelicalism a good bit more seriously). That’s because Cruz has, at least since 2013, adopted the hardest line on immigration among Republican candidates; or he would have were it not for Trump. The difference between the two on the issue is more about rhetorical style than policy substance. Educated professionals feel less threatened by wage competition from illegal immigrants than the working class does. So evangelical workers favor Cruz’s hard line on immigration while evangelical white-collar professionals prefer Rubio’s relatively moderate stance. Class is the primary variable on this issue, not religiosity.

Four Evangelicals (Two Politicians, A Historian, and a Pseudo-Historian) Walk into a Presidential Primary 

While class distinctions affect several of the major issues in this election cycle, I do still believe there are substantial theological differences between the evangelicals backing Ted Cruz and those backing Marco Rubio. And the easiest place to examine that divide is also one of the most surprising. Both campaigns have sought endorsements from prominent evangelical historians (although they are prominent in very different ways).

Ted Cruz gained the backing of David Barton, a self-taught historian who now runs one of Ted Cruz’s multi-million dollar Super PACs. Barton’s books and dvds are widely used by evangelical homeschoolers, who are attracted to his message that America was founded as a Christian nation. Barton portrays the bulk of the founding fathers as essentially fellow evangelicals. [Disclosure: As a high schooler, I took a tour of the Capitol in DC led by David Barton himself. No Bible verse etched in marble was left without comment.]

His work, however, has attracted scorn from trained historians, even those who are themselves evangelical. Barton uncritically cites secondhand sources, repeats fake quotations from the founders, and shows little understanding of the broader religious and political context of the late 18th century. Controversy over the scholarly demerits of Barton’s work erupted in 2012, resulting in one of his books being pulled by Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson.

One of the major, critical voices in that controversy was Thomas Kidd, a well-respected professor of history at Baylor University and a conservative Southern Baptist. Kidd’s research focus is 18th century evangelicalism; he’s written books on George Whitefield, Patrick Henry, the First Great Awakening, and the role played by religion in the Revolutionary War.  [Disclosure: During my first year in the history PhD program at Penn State, I worked remotely as a research assistant for Kidd.]

A few months after Barton signed on to Cruz’s Super PAC, Kidd joined a pro-Rubio religious liberty advisory board along with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, and a bevy of other evangelical heavyweights. In his explanation for signing on, Kidd referred to Barton’s support for Ted Cruz. Kidd had helped discredit Barton’s historical work and now he sought to minimize his influence with evangelical Republican voters. While the position seems mostly honorary, Kidd has since published several blog posts criticizing the Cruz campaign for its faulty use of history in the service of Christian nationalism.

It’s a remarkable moment. In the past evangelical intellectuals mostly stayed on the sidelines of intramural Republican politics. I can’t imagine Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, or the previous generation of evangelical academics getting involved in partisan politics quite like this. They certainly took a few shots at a prior generation of Christian nationalists, but not in the formal, political arena. And their ideas did not penetrate very deeply into most church pews. Stop by an evangelical church book store today and you’re much more likely to find The Light and the Glory than you are The Search for Christian America. Up until now, the amateur evangelical historians have roundly beaten the professionals at their own game, but Kidd and other evangelical academics have been getting more play among evangelical clergy and laity than has previously been true. While it’s much too early to declare an end to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” these are positive developments.

Which Great Awakening?

Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said of the three leading candidates, “I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing, and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.” I don’t think this is a particularly useful taxonomy because 1) you’d think that Cruz, with his Pentecostal background and the backing of several prominent Pentecostal preachers, would be best qualified for the Swaggart nod and 2) Graham’s legacy is so widely embraced by evangelicals that the comparison with Rubio is mostly meaningless. Moore likes Rubio the best so he compared him to the historical doppelganger he admires the most. That said, I think Moore is right to try and put a finger on some substantive differences between the candidates and their supporters.

There’s a better historical comparison to be made between Cruz/Barton and Rubio/Kidd, but you have to go back several centuries. In short, Thomas Kidd’s view of evangelicalism hearkens back to the First Great Awakening, while David Barton is the heir of the Second Great Awakening. These two historians are promoting authentic but contradictory evangelical visions for engagement in the public square. And the tension between them says something about present day disagreements over the future of American evangelicalism.

Let’s deal first with my comparison of Ted Cruz / David Barton and the Second Great Awakening. There is a direct, lineal connection. Both Barton and Cruz were raised Pentecostals, an early twentieth century offshoot of the Holiness movement, which was itself tied to the rise of Arminian soteriology. 19th century revivalists emphasized humankind’s free will to choose or reject God. This perspective also encouraged social activism as evangelicals felt newly obliged to take an active hand in reshaping America even as they remade themselves. America would be purer, holier, and less given to sinful pursuits like drinking, gambling, and pornography. And by the second half of the 19th century, evangelicals had the cultural and political influence necessary to transform even Constitutional law. At the same time, dispensational theology grew in popularity by promising ordinary evangelicals that they could understand the pattern of world history and current events if they just read the Bible plainly, using their common sense. You didn’t need a fancy seminary degree or knowledge of Hebrew or Greek to understand the Scriptures.

You may already have grasped the similarities between this 19th century evangelical vision and that of Ted Cruz / David Barton. The issues have changed somewhat–Prohibition is no longer the dominant issue that it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries–but the basic logic is the same. They see an active role for evangelicals in making America more pleasing to God. They are culture warriors, children of the New Christian Right who seek to use political power to stem the social changes that they believe threaten an essentially Christian America. Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, who has actively campaigned for his son, is a “Seven Mountains Dominionist,” which combines a heaping of Christian Reconstructionism with a dose of the Prosperity Gospel and a pinch of a messianic complex.

Barton and Cruz, looking back to the 19th century, seek to maintain evangelicalism’s grasp over the American religious and cultural consensus even as that hold slips. As Rafael Cruz put it, “God has raised him [Ted Cruz] up for such a time as this….to beat back secularism and take control of this nation.” To which another pastor added while laying hands on Ted, “There’s a new birth, right now, for America, and it’s taking place right before our eyes….We see this nation being completely restored, completely delivered.” Even so, come, Ted Cruz!

Furthermore, there is a strain of anti-intellectualism in the Cruz / Barton community. Whenever Barton is criticized for his historical inaccuracies, he grumbles about historians belonging to “the most hostile to God…of any profession in the nation.” You don’t need that fancy book learning and formal training to recover America’s Christian past; all it takes is a common sense reading of historical documents. For the sake of time I’ll just briefly note that Barton’s lack of training shows in his credulous reading of secondary sources produced during the Second Great Awakening. He has taken up the two-century-old mantle of “Parson” Mason Weems, who fabricated stories in order to sell books to 19th century evangelicals who wanted to see themselves reflected in the image of the Founding Fathers. And now 21st century evangelicals are looking into the same, distorted mirror and falling in love with themselves all over again, Narcissus reborn.

Cruz and Barton share a majoritarian vision of evangelical public engagement. If most Americans are evangelicals, or so the logic goes, then holding back the tide of depravity simply requires waking Christian people up to the social changes happening before their eyes. Cruz’s presidential campaign is predicated on this very assumption, that winning the White House only requires boosting evangelical turnout on election day. We’ll see, but I want to highlight the way in which this majoritarian vision of evangelicalism clashes with the post-Christian turn in American society.

Simply put, Americans today may be as spiritual as ever, but their adherence to traditional Christian denominations is in decline. Now, it’s become something of an annual tradition for secularization theorists to predict the utter collapse of religion in the West and then be proved wrong. Still, in the last decade the numbers of religiously non-affiliated have risen sharply, membership in mainline and Catholic churches have dropped significantly, and even evangelical groups have seen a modest fall. If you look at the figure to the left, that’s a decline in the combined Mainline / Evangelical / Catholic adherence rate from 68.3% of Americans in 2007 to 60.9% in 2014. That’s a huge drop in just seven years! For sake of comparison, those groups had a combined share of of 87.7% of American churchgoers in 1850 (see Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, page 56). To find adherence rates as low as today’s, you have to go back to the 18th century. In other words, you have to look at the time of the First Great Awakening.

In the 18th century evangelicals were religious upstarts, tiny new denominations dwarfed by the much larger, established Congregationalist and Anglican churches. Evangelical ideas–especially their emphasis on individual soul liberty and congregationalism–challenged the existing social order, including paternal authority, slave-holding, and the entanglement of Church and State. Frequent jailings, beatings, and civil fines profoundly shaped how 18th century evangelicals like John Leland, Isaac Backus, and Samuel Davies thought about the role of their faith in the public square. They were a persecuted religious minority yearning for the liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson and successfully fought for religious disestablishment in the brand new United States of America. They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy, or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone, to “live peaceably with all men,” a Biblical injunction which Leland said “must come with greater force upon the conscience than the mere institutions of human legislators.” Political power could at best enforce the appearance of true religion, but it could not transform hearts. They opposed religious test clauses in the US and state constitutions and argued that true religious toleration required that even “Mahometans” be given the right to freely practice their religion.

I think it no accident that Thomas Kidd shares that more limited view of what evangelicals should seek from politics. At heart, he’s an 18th century evangelical. He’s not searching for “a political messiah,” a chosen one to turn America back to God. And his preferred presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, doesn’t dabble as much in Christian nationalist rhetoric; after all, Rubio is a religious polyglot, currently a member of the Catholic church but previously a Southern Baptist and even, for a brief period as a youngster, a Mormon. All three traditions know something of what it means to be a persecuted religious minority in America.

Kidd joined Rubio’s religious liberty advisory board, not a super PAC with the suspiciously covenantal name “Keep the Promise.” While Cruz and Barton cling to a majoritarian vision of a nation run by and for evangelicals, Rubio and Kidd promote a principled pluralism that ostensibly defends religious liberty for all. (Although it would be nice if in his advisory capacity Kidd would tell Rubio to lay off with the anti-Islamic hyperbole. Kidd did quite literally write the book on Islam and evangelicalism in colonial America.)

American evangelicals are two centuries out of practice when it comes to living as “strangers in a strange land,” but the pluralistic vision of evangelicalism promoted by Thomas Kidd and Marco Rubio is a better fit for our increasingly post-Christian society than the majoritarian fantasies of Ted Cruz and David Barton.

Donald Trump Admires a (Fake) War Crime; or, Why the Philippine-American War is a Cautionary Tale for Nation Builders

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Surprising nobody, Donald Trump is making headlines yet again for an outrageous statement. On the Friday before the South Carolina Republican primary, he told the story of US Army General John Pershing who, faced by recalcitrant Muslim insurgents during the US occupation of the Philippines, ordered the execution of 49 prisoners. To add quite literal insult to injury, Pershing ordered the executioners to use bullets dipped in pig’s blood, a violation of Islamic halal dietary restrictions. The goal was to strike fear into the hearts of Muslim Filipinos who may have been thinking of joining the resistance. The only way I can imagine making that story more appealing to neo-conservatives is to have Pershing, holding machine guns in both hands, howl, “Eat lead, pigs!”

New York Public Library, DIgital Image ID: 814469

Now, this is the point where I’m supposed to note that the story is false and, indeed, it is. It’s a variation on a long-running, chain letter hoax. Some versions have Pershing burying pig corpses with the bodies of slain insurgents and others have him dipping bullets in pig fat rather than pig blood. I suspect that the author of the story may have conflated an incident from the 19th century British occupation of India with the Philippine-American War. In 1857 a group of British-Indian soldiers, or sepoys, mutinied in part because of rumors regarding the use of pig fat in the ammunition for the newly-issued Enfield Rifles. That revolt was put down viciously by the British, who employed an execution tactic called “blowing from a gun,” which involved tying prisoners to the mouth of a cannon, which, when discharged, turned the victim into a collection of miscellaneous body parts. These public executions were designed to cow the locals; in other words, it was an act of terrorism.  In any case, you have here all the essential components of the Pershing hoax albeit jumbled up: Muslims, executions, pig residue, terrorism.

But I’m less interested in disproving the hoax than I am in highlighting that this hoax actually isn’t all that unbelievable in the context of the Philippine-American War, which was fraught with very real atrocities committed by US soldiers (although official accounts of the time valorized the conflict). The low end of estimates for people killed during the conflict is just under a quarter of a million, most of whom were civilians. Bald statistics are less compelling than individual stories, but we also have a multitude of accounts of massacres and torture inflicted on Filipinos from US soldiers writing home at a time before military censors were a commonplace. They describe US soldiers looting houses, killing “dagos”/”Injuns”/”niggers” indiscriminately, and executing wounded prisoners. Soldiers with some remaining shred of personal honor wondered why the US was in the Philippines at all or called for a general withdrawal from an unjust war. Soldiers without consciences described the slaughter either with glee or without passion, as something akin to hunting animals. It’s worth clicking through to the link above and reading some of these accounts. If your natural response afterwards is still applause, well, then I suppose I know who you’re voting for in the Republican primary.

A pro-McKinley political cartoon which presents a false choice.

A pro-McKinley political cartoon which presents a false choice.

And yet this was a war waged ostensibly for the betterment of the Philippine people. After the US took the islands from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley was faced with a choice, either give the Philippines–who had fought alongside the US against the Spanish–their independence or turn them into the largest colony in the United States’ growing empire. Empire won, of course, or we wouldn’t be telling this story. But McKinley justified that decision through a religious appeal, telling a group of Methodist clergymen that God had gifted the Philippines to the United States so that we could “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.” A quarter of a million dead Filipinos give the lie to that reasoning, but it’s a logic that undergirds many instances of American foreign adventurism, from Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world “safe for democracy” through George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s “War on Terror.” And yet such high-minded rhetoric routinely masks unnecessary deaths, insurgent blowback, and even outright war crimes committed by the US or its allies.

Which makes it rather bizarre that Trump would approve of the Pershing massacre story. After all, he is the only remaining Republican candidate to publicly condemn the US invasion of Iraq, blaming the US for the destabilization of the region and the subsequent rise of ISIS. Insurgents feed off of accounts of oppression and atrocities, the realer the better. ISIS was born in the bowels of Abu Ghraib prison and the US mistreatment of prisoners there is commonly cited by Sunnis fighting against the US-backed Shiite government of Iraq. The lesson of the US invasion of Iraq is the same as that of our occupation of the Philippines. Just stop doing it. Oppression begets resistance. Hatred breeds hatred. And every time we forget that lesson, we end up with blood on our hands.

If you are interested in scholarly work on the Spanish-American and/or Philippine-American War that highlights the role of religion, I’d recommend the following:
Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Wisconsin, 2014).
Susan Harris, God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Oxford, 2011).
Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Harvard, 2016).