Child Abuse Prevention Theater

Following the terrorist strikes on 9/11, the American people handed Congress a blank check with only the “For” line filled out: “Make us feel safe again.” Congress has been cashing that check for fourteen years now. Depending on how you juggle the numbers, the USA has spent somewhere between $1.7 and $5 trillion fighting the war on terror (which happens to be the most existential war in American history, the first one waged to defeat an emotion).

However, those numbers don’t reflect the full cost of the war at home. A bevy of federal agencies were created or expanded after 9/11, but the one I have in mind is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA, which employs some 47,000 security screeners and has a ~$7.6 billion annual budget, has done very little to justify its existence. It seems to spend much of its time making air travelers arrive half an hour earlier at the airport, sexually harassing them, helping the DEA steal people’s money, and giving them the chance to show off their smelly socks, all while failing to actually stop weapons or suspected terrorists from making it onto planes.

Critics of the TSA have labeled it an example of “security theater,” or a system designed to make people feel safer without actually making them safer. It’s just a big, expensive show. It was the logical product of the federal government scrambling to do something, anything, to show that they were being proactive in the wake of 9/11.

I was recently thinking of how the concept of “security theater” might apply to other venues. Stripped down to its most essential elements, we should expect such a “______ theater” to be the product of the following circumstances: 1) a crisis provokes widespread outrage, 2) there is near universal public consensus that something must be done to prevent a repeat of the crisis, 3) the governing organization which failed to stop the first crisis tries to maintain its legitimacy by doing something, 4) under those conditions the organization’s prime motive is to insulate itself from blame rather than prevent future occurrences, which means 5) the implementation of processes that prioritize visibility over effectiveness.

I believe my recent encounter with the child abuse prevention program at Penn State more than qualifies under  that definition. Call it “child abuse prevention theater.” This summer, like the past two summers, I am working for a grant project housed at Penn State. The university is in the middle of rolling out a policy mandating that all PSU employees go through three background checks to ensure that they do not have a history of child abuse.

The first background check was the easiest. An hour spent filling out a form online, a $10 payment, and within minutes the state of PA declared that I was not a felon. The second ratcheted up the time commitment by asking for the address of every home I’ve lived in since birth as well as the names of, and my relationship to, every other person residing with me. A week later, the state of PA informed me that none of those addresses correlated to any incidents of child abuse. Finally, it was time for me to send full, and I do mean full, sets of my fingerprints to the FBI. You register online, visit a fingerprint scanner, pay $27.50, and then wait four to six weeks for the FBI to clear you. (The biggest winner of the fingerprint requirement appears to be UPS, which dominates the local fingerprint scanner racket.) The FBI promises to delete your fingerprints after checking you against their national criminal database. (Sure they do…)

In total, filling out the forms, obtaining the fingerprints, and turning in the documents has taken me more than a full working day. And I’m still waiting on the FBI clearance, which means I’m halfway through a summer job without yet receiving a paycheck.

Now, that inconvenience would be well worth it if the process helped prevent child abuse from occurring at Penn State. As someone who was here during the Sandusky abuse scandal, I’m very cognizant of how important it is that Penn State contribute to the fight against child abuse. Go watch the documentary Happy Valley on Netflix this evening for a taste of what it was like here in 2011-2012. Prior to Sandusky, Penn State’s child abuse policies weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Things did (and still do) need to change. Requiring all Penn State employees to go through mandatory reporter training was a good first step.

But I doubt whether Penn State’s universal background check requirement will actually prevent child abuse. Indeed, it might make it even harder to catch.

It throws too wide a net. My summer job is a good example. The job consists of me working from home. I write entries for an interactive, online timeline of American religious history. I’ve never seen a child (other than my own) while “on the job” in my two and a half summers working on the timeline. Most days, I don’t see another human being. Yet I was required to fill out background checks on the basis of pursuing “Employment with a Significant Likelihood of Regular Contact with Children.” There’s a clear mismatch between the two job descriptions.

But maybe you’re asking what harm could result from it? Why not throw as wide a net as possible? Well, the wider the net–and the larger the bureaucracy created to handle the resulting deluge of paperwork–the more likely it is that someone will slip between the cracks. In other words, it may be worth the risk of someone with a child abuse incident on their record working in a non-childcare related job if it made it more likely that Penn State would prevent someone with a similar record from working with children. Throwing thousands of non-childcare related jobs into the same pool as the much smaller number of childcare related jobs runs the risk of diluting the level of scrutiny focused on any one category of employees.

There’s an interesting corollary to this problem in the world of airport security. In the US, the TSA subjects every passenger to a heightened level of security, but in doing so has proven itself incompetent at finding the proverbial terrorist needle in the resulting haystack. In contrast, Israel doesn’t bother with raising the minimum level of scrutiny on all passengers; instead, after the Entebbe incident, Israel’s version of the TSA does a cursory interview with each passenger and only conducts scans or pat-downs on a handful of fliers. There are still civil liberties concerns with Israel’s approach, but from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, it’s the better system. Israel focuses its efforts on fewer, higher risk individuals rather than casting a uselessly wide net.

Following Israel’s example, it makes sense for Penn State to focus its efforts on those actually employed in the on-campus daycares, ie the childcare workers, kitchen staff, janitors, etc. Other jobs make sense for that extra scrutiny as well, like recruiters who come in frequent and direct contact with high school students. The change wouldn’t require much other than a little box labeled “in direct and/or frequent contact with children” when Human Resources creates job postings. The total volume of people to track and documents to process would be much smaller, making it less likely that sex offenders will slip through the system through bureaucratic error. Indeed, it makes sense for the child abuse taskforce at Penn State to go beyond the three background checks by interviewing former employers, validating given addresses, and otherwise checking on the provided information. (Very little of that is done now. “Trust the databases” seems to be the watch phrase.)

Instead, Penn State has almost certainly created dozens of new staff and mid-level administrative jobs to oversee the greatly expanded background clearance process. Who knows what the annual expense will be, but it’s likely significant. I’m concerned that doing so doesn’t actually protect any children; worse, it might make it easier for sex offenders to slip through the system. But it allows Penn State to tell the world (and, more importantly, juries considering tort awards) that it’s doing everything it can to stop child abuse. If every employee is required to go through the process, than nobody can say that Penn State didn’t at least try. As long as every is larger than some, Penn State is insulated from future lawsuits and investigations.

It also fits pretty well into the definition of “_______ theater.” Penn State failed to stop or properly report Sandusky’s crimes. National outrage forced Penn State to show that it was trying to prevent a repeat of its prior failures. In order for the NCAA to repeal its penalties on the football program, Penn State implemented some pretty sweeping policy reforms. Those reforms seemingly emphasize visible action over effective action.

Sounds like child abuse prevention theater to me.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. There has been much hand-wringing over tuition increases, ballooning student loan debt, and the misuse of campus funds for non-academic purposes. These are all legitimate worries. It has been noted recently that underlying these problems is the unsustainable growth in the ranks of university administrators. Every time a new initiative, taskforce, or program is instituted, campus bureaucracy swells. Child abuse prevention is no exception. There’s probably a horde of new assistants to associates to vice presidents in charge of child welfare at Penn State since 2011. Bureaucracies never let a crisis go to waste.

Samuel Davies lectures King George II: A (Mostly) Forgotten Evangelical Myth

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Samuel Davies played a significant role promoting the First Great Awakening among American Presbyterians in the 18th century. He fought for religious toleration in Virginia, preached a series of sermons in support of the British during the French and Indian War, and served as the fourth president of Princeton University. For extra details, here’s a link to my ARDA entry for Davies.

His reputation as a powerful preacher continued after his death into the 19th century and reprints of his sermons circulated widely. He was the “prince of preachers” long before Charles Spurgeon was born. Davies gave one of his final sermons to the students at Princeton on New Years Day 1761. The text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” While exhorting the students to not waste what time in this life remained to them, Davies stated, “Perhaps I may die this year.” A month later, Davies was dead. They don’t make sermon illustrations quite like they used to!

Yet Davies’s most famous sermon was delivered while he was on a fundraising tour of Britain. As the story goes, Davies was called to preach in the royal chapel for King George II. When the king started whispering to others in attendance, Davies stopped talking, fixed his gaze on the King, and said, “When the lion roars the beasts of the forest all tremble; when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.” The chastened monarch later held a private audience with the bold minister, apologized, and donated some money which helped Princeton erect its first major building, Nassau Hall.

It’s a grand story and it’s easy to see why it was so often retold. What ardent republican in the early 19th century could resist a story about a native-born American bearding King George II in his own palace? It certainly would have gone down smoother after the American Revolution than, say, Davies’s eulogy to King George II–“George, the mighty, the just, the gentle, and the wise!”–upon the monarch’s death in 1761. After all, they had just fought a war with his ostensibly tyrannical, unjust, and foolish grandson, King George III.

However, the story of Davies and the King–coming to an Off Broadway show near you!–is a complete fabrication by an infamous 19th century booster of the Second Great Awakening, “Parson” Mason Locke Weems. He was an ordained Episcopalian minister until financial difficulties forced him out of the ministry. As an author and traveling book seller, Weems had a practical interest in compelling stories and didn’t let little things like evidence keep him from spinning tall tales. He specialized in well-selling biographies of prominent men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Francis Marion. The heroes of the founding and the Revolution were starting to die off, first Benjamin Franklin (1790), then Francis Marion (1795), George Washington (1799), and many others.

Americans wanted to memorialize their departed national heroes, but they also wanted to see themselves in them. Weems’s tailored biographies were a particularly smart sales tactic in the 1800s and 1810s as the revivals associated with the Second Great Awakening broke out. America was rather suddenly more evangelical than ever before. Weems was happy to supply that demand by “evangelicalizing” the Founding Fathers. His versions of the historical figures prayed more often, acted piously at all times, and were conspicuously loyal to the idea of America as a nation specially chosen by God.

Weems is famously responsible for the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Here’s a delightful painting by Grant Wood winking at the story by featuring Weems in the foreground pulling back the curtain on a surprisingly adult looking George Washington.) He also invented the story of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Those are both famous examples, but Weems is likely also the author of the Samuel Davies sermon anecdote. Editions of Sermons on Important Subjects, by the late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. were routinely ordered by quite a multitude of booksellers in the 1790s and 1800s. In 1816 an edition was printed in Baltimore for “Mason L. Weems.” Prior editions did not include the anecdote, but Weems did and later editors imitated him. Despite attempts at debunking the story, the fiction was better than the truth.

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Weems’s anecdote has declined along with the memory of Samuel Davies. Myths about the Founding Fathers continue to circulate despite the efforts of historians to stamp them out–that’s a constant!– but few evangelicals today have ever heard of Davies and the political and religious milieu is no longer served by fanciful stories about his showdown with the King of England. Still, the episode is a reminder of the natural human inclination to invent and believe histories that are convenient to those causes which we hold dear.

Mary Dyer’s “Monstrous Birth” and (Our) Puritan Hypocrisy

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Puritans were no more dour, provincial, or narrow-minded than anybody else. That caricature was created much later by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and HL Mencken. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells us more about the theological controversies of the 19th century than it does the 17th century. And when Mencken pithily defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was really criticizing religious conservatives of his own day. In reality, early American Puritans were an unusually cosmopolitan, well-educated lot. Take Henry Vane, who was educated at Oxford and worked for the English ambassador in Vienna before traveling to Massachusetts and serving a term as governor.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have to work too hard to create their caricatures. Puritans gave critics plenty of ammunition, especially in regards to the entanglement of church and state in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It doesn’t take more than a few hanged Quakers or burnt “witches” to make one thankful for religious toleration.

Let’s consider for a moment the story of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous birth.” Imagine that you’re a young mother (~26) who has just given birth to a stillborn daughter with anencephaly and obvious physical deformities. You bury her secretly because at the time deformed children are seen as signs of God’s displeasure. Your religious and political opponents pressure a friend into telling them where your daughter was buried. Then the civil authorities exhume your child without permission, write up a description of her deformities, mail copies to every minister in your area, and further publish a book that uses her as proof that you are under God’s judgement for your religious beliefs. All of this is done in order to bring your good friend to trial and banishment.

John Winthrop exploited the pain of a traumatized woman for political gain on the basis of questionable theology.

Winthrop leveraged the political controversy into a successful bid for the governorship and banished Dyer. She went to England and became a Quaker. When she returned to Massachusetts twenty years later, Winthrop was dead, but his successor and political ally, John Endecott, had enacted a ban on Quakers in the colony punishable by death. He hanged Dyer from an elm tree. Other Quakers were whipped, had their ears shaved off, and their tongues bored through with a hot iron. Like I said, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have too work too hard to construct their caricatures.

I’m no Quaker, but given the circumstances I find myself of one accord with Dyer’s last words. After she watched two other Quakers hanged, she approached the ladder to the gallows. One of her former pastors, John Wilson, called on her to repent and save her life and she replied, “Nay, man, I am not now to repent.” She was then asked if she wanted some of the church elders present to pray for her soul, to which she gave the biting answer, “I know never an Elder here.” Indeed.

I have a short moral for this story. There has been a revival of interest in Reformed theology among conservative evangelicals over the past two decades. Evangelicals are suddenly reading Puritan divines like John Owen. Yale University Press has been steadily publishing the complete works of Jonathan Edwards. You can even buy a t-shirt emblazoned with “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” (That said t-shirt is made of the finest “organic cotton” is no small irony. Ahem.)

Yet while this embrace of Puritan theology and history is heartening, it has been selective. We read Edwards, not John Cotton. Owen, not Cotton Mather. When Winthrop is mentioned it’s usually some imagination-deprived politico spouting off about America as a “city upon a hill.” Winthrop’s scurrilous attacks on a grieving mother? Yeah, that’s been forgotten. This selective reading of American Puritanism prevents evangelicals from learning from Puritan vices as well as their virtues. Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans have rightly been taken to task for their ownership of slaves, but who speaks for Mary Dyer?

A group of Puritan religious dissenters fled England for the sake of their religious freedom, a freedom they then denied to Baptist and Quaker dissenters. For sure, the entangling of church and state was an older mistake, but age did not impart one whit of grace to the harm that necessarily resulted from using the sword of the State to advance the Church. While erecting their city on a hill, Puritans forgot that they were strangers in a strange land. If contemporary evangelicals better understood their Puritan past, perhaps they would be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism – Michael McVicar

Christian Reconstructionism has long functioned as a bogeyman in electoral politics. Politicians identified with the New Christian Right are routinely tarred by accusations of proto-theonomy, the belief that the government should enforce Old Testament civil and moral laws. Fear is an effective means of getting out the vote, so around every election season you’ll find a profusion of essays, even entire books, suggesting that a vote for [insert conservative politician] is the first step towards laws punishing homosexuality, witchcraft, and even childish rebellion with stoning. The slippery slope towards Christian Reconstructionism functions for the Left as accusations of incipient socialism do for the Right.

Apologists for Christian Reconstructionism typically respond by saying that this common depiction of their movement is skewed. Yes, they believe that in an ideal society these sins would be punishable by the civil authorities, but the advent of that society is many generations removed from the present. By that point in time, society will have already been remade voluntarily by Christian families and thus homosexuality and other sins will be much rarer than they are today. Government sanctions would hardly even be necessary. (I’m not sure that this line of Reconstructionist reasoning has ever reassured anybody anywhere who wasn’t already a convinced Reconstructionist.) In any case, the apologist avers, it’s unfair to fixate on one small, controversial part of Reconstructionist ideology while ignoring the broader intellectual framework.

Michael McVicar’s book, the first critical history of Christian Reconstructionism, digs deeper into the ideology of the movement than either the shallow criticisms of previous books or the self-congratulatory work produced by Reconstructionists themselves. McVicar had unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal papers and thus was able to reconstruct the theologian’s intellectual evolution in his own words. The portrait of Rushdoony that emerges is of a theological lone-wolf who patched together a system of thought by borrowing from a surprising variety of sources.

From his mentor at UC Berkeley, German expat Ernst Kantorowicz, Rushdoony imbibed a romantic nostalgia for early modern European Christendom. As McVicar puts it, he was compelled by the “ways in which abstract theological conceptions of God and man had concretized into the political infrastructure of the medieval and modern worlds.” Rushdoony wanted to bring that missing sense of religious enchantment back to American politics. Not long after his time at Berkeley, Rushdoony chanced upon the work of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, a theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, had created a system of Christian apologetics known as presuppositionalism. Van Til argued that epistemology is always grounded in presuppositions about the nature of the universe. In short, a belief in God so drastically alters a Christian’s approach to learning the truth that an uncrossable chasm opens up between theology and secular philosophy. By combining Kantorowicz’s political theology and Van Til’s system, Rushdoony created a critique of State progressivism. He believed that the government’s efforts to solve social ills without reference to God were not only doomed to failure but actively harmful.

Rushdoony’s first ministry was as a missionary pastor to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Rushdoony believed the social disorder on the reservation was the result of the heavy hand of a State that had divorced itself from God’s law. As Rushdoony griped, “[The state] is the giver of all things, the course of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water….The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away, and blessed is the name of the government each Memorial Day.” In the face of widespread drunkenness and gambling on the reservation, Rushdoony’s messages of individual salvation seemed insufficient. The reservation, and American society more broadly, needed a full-orbed reconstruction along Biblical lines.

While on the reservation, Rushdoony encountered the third major ideological strand that composed Christian Reconstructionism. Rushdoony had grown dissatisfied with premillennial eschatology, the belief that society would sink into ever greater depravity until the second coming of Christ to earth. Rushdoony rejected premillennialism’s pessimistic outlook in favor of postmillennialism, the belief that Christians would actively usher in the kingdom of God. Christ would return once a truly Christian society had pervaded every corner of the globe. The telos of history, according to one postmillennial scholar found in Rushdoony’s personal library, “is nothing less than a Christianized world.”

These three major components of Rushdoony’s thought–Kantorowicz, Van Til, postmillennialism–were all borrowed from other sources, but he gave them his own spin by adding a novel scriptural hermeneutic. Traditionally, Reformed theologians had distinguished between three kinds of Old Testament law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled by the first coming of Christ and the civil laws ceased to apply after the transition from theocratic Israel to the New Testament Church. Only the moral commandments remained fully binding for Christians.

Rushdoony rejected this division between “two tables” of the law as excessively facile. He believed that the division between civil and moral law had been read into scripture rather than pulled from the text itself. Furthermore, even ceremonial law, while technically superseded by the new covenant in Christ, remained instructive as a series of principles that should inform proper Christian living today. Rushdoony’s opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, applied these Old Testament laws and principles to modern American society in mind-numbing detail. For example, the OT prohibition on mixing linen and wool threads when weaving clothes and harnessing oxes and donkeys together while plowing (Deutoronomy 22:11) elicited a lengthy discussion on the dangers of genetic hybridization, bestiality, interracial marriages, and the wanton use of the pesticide DDT.

Indeed, that odd list of issues is evocative of the idiosyncratic nature of Reconstructionism. Rushdoony attempted to harmonize three discrete streams of thought and the rough edges show through. For example, Rushdoony believed that America was headed to hell in a handbasket. (Gary North later pinned his hopes on Y2K.) That’s a grand narrative usually associated with premillennialism. Yet once America had been debased Christian Reconstructionists, organized around patriarchal family units, would rebuild a Kingdom society brick by brick. Rushdoony wedded the pessimistic assumptions prevalent on the Right during the New Deal and early Cold War with an optimistic future view of the Kingdom associated with postmillennialism. Similarly, Rushdoony’s distrust of heavy government intervention from his days on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation led him to advocate for a radically decentralized, shrunken State. And yet his hermeneutic also led him to conclude that the Bible commanded a massive extension of civil authority to protect and advance the institution of the church and Biblical morals. It’s the natural outcome of an ideological project that mingled the fears of mid-20th century conservative political culture, the political theology of a German romantic historian, and the theology of two Dutch Reformed intellectuals.

Much of the rest of McVicar’s book is an interesting account of Rushdoony’s mostly failed attempts to work with conservative think tanks. Because of his Van Til-ian presuppositionalism, he kept pushing broadly-based conservative groups to adopt stricter policies on employing Catholics and agnostics. Rushdoony’s disciples, including his son-in-law Gary North, spread his ideas to a wider audience by being willing to view non-Reformed conservatives as co-belligerents in the fight for a Christianized America. They also connected Christian Reconstructionism to the survivalist movement, which turned out to be a very profitable source of income for North in particular. It wasn’t long before Rushdoony, North, and other Reconstructionists started squabbling over who represented the future of the movement. (North even insinuated that his father-in-law had gone insane for living in godless California.)

If I have one critique of McVicar’s book, it’s that I think he exaggerates the influence of formal Reconstructionist thought on the broader New Christian Right. In his final chapter, he argues that everyone from Francis Schaeffer to Pat Robertson borrowed ideas from Rushdoony. I suspect McVicar gets this from Rushdoony himself, who frequently grumbled about people stealing his ideas without giving him credit. Yet while the language of “dominion” certainly bounced about in Right-wing discourse, I’m not sure that McVicar gives strong evidence that those ideas necessarily came from Christian Reconstructionism. New Christian Right intellectuals were more likely to cite Abraham Kuyper or Cornelius Van Til than Rousas Rushdoony. I’ve embedded a Google Ngram for “Abraham Kuyper,” “Rousas Rushdoony,” and Cornelius Van Til. It’s hardly scientific, but it’s suggestive as to their relative weight on conservative Christian political theology.

Take the example of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s books, How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto, were hugely influential among evangelicals interested in cultural engagement during the 1970s and 1980. McVicar credits Rushdoony with a “distant, complex influence on the genesis of Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto” and recounts one of Rushdoony’s journal entries: “Read Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto, another book using some of my material…with no mention of me…Not faith but timidity is the mark of too many Christians today, including able men like Francis.” Yet while Rushdoony may have felt that Schaeffer borrowed his ideas, it seems just as likely that Schaeffer merely pulled from the same streams as Rushdoony had. Schaeffer attended Westminster Theological Seminary and had taken classes from Cornelius Van Til. He certainly borrowed Van Til’s ideas, but I’m not sure McVicar gives any direct evidence that Schaeffer borrowed from, or even read, anything by Rushdoony. A visit to Schaeffer’s archives might have shed light on the matter, but in this and other instances, McVicar is too willing to take Rushdoony’s assertions at face value.

I’ll close with a personal comment. (That’s the advantage of writing a review for your own website!) As a Reformed Christian myself, I found the sections of McVicar’s book that touched on Rushdoony’s hermeneutic of Scripture deeply disturbing. Oddly enough, I do agree with Rushdoony on one point, that the traditional division between “two tables” of Old Testament law is facile. It’s just not that neat and tidy when you get down into the weeds. However, I push that observation to exactly the opposite conclusion. I agree with David Dorsey’s view in “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise.” The New Testament authors say that the entire Old Testament law code is fulfilled in Christ and is thus voided for the New Testament believer. While pieces of the Old Testament law are restated and even expanded upon in the new covenant, the Mosaic law code is no longer binding upon the life of the Christian. Period. The OT law does have value inasmuch as it tells us something about the character of the God who wrote it, but it should not be fodder for endless speculation on how to apply OT law to NT life. That feels more like something learnt sitting at the seat of Gameliel than at the foot of the Cross.

And it’s worth noting where Rushdoony’s hermeneutical logic led him. McVicar includes the following anecdote. At one of Rushdoony’s Bible studies, a student asked him, What would happen to a Hindu in a reconstructed America? Rushdoony, bouncing a child on his knee, responded, “As long as he didn’t practice his faith, the Hindu would be fine.” The student pushed again. And what if said Hindu did practice his faith? Well then, Rushdoony replied, “He’d be guilty of violating the laws of the state.” And? “And be subject to capital punishment.” Rushdoony pushed his vision of a postmillennial Christendom enforcing Old Testament law to its logical extreme.

Jade Helm, Operation Water Moccasin, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories

After the Pentagon planned a series of summer military exercises in the South, conservatives accused the federal government of enabling either a foreign invasion or some kind of military coup. The military futilely protested that the presence of foreign military observers was standard procedure and that all observers were from US allies. Several US congresspeople and state government officials called for the exercises to be cancelled.

While that may sound like a description of the conservative criticism of the Jade Helm 15 exercises planned for Texas this summer, it actually is a summary of a similar controversy in Georgia that riled conservatives more than fifty years ago. In 1963 the US military conducted “Operation Water Moccasin III,” a counter-insurgency exercise in the sleepy rural town of Claxton, Georgia. (Claxton’s town slogan: “The Fruitcake Capital of the World.”) One hundred and twenty-four foreign observers from allied nations attended, including Canada, France, and South Vietnam. The United States had been steadily expanding its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, so the exercise was timely.

Conservatives, however, feared that the exercises were really practice runs for a foreign invasion of the United States. Various versions of the conspiracy floated around, but US Congressman James Utt (R-CA) spread one of the most popular in a letter to his constituents. Utt imagined that Operation Water Moccasin was a rehearsal for a United Nations-sponsored takeover of the United States.

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

While it sounds frankly bizarre today, in the early 1960s conservatives feared that the John F. Kennedy administration was planning to phase out the US military in favor of a global United Nations peacekeeping force. Also, throughout 1963 the Kennedy administration lobbied for Senate confirmation on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would restrict the number and kind of nuclear tests conducted by the US and the USSR. Thus in the summer of 1963 conservatives were on edge concerning the administration, the US military, and the United Nations. It was perfect fodder for conservative politicians, like Utt, with an eye on the 1964 elections.

Utt’s most inflammatory comments regarded the rumored inclusion of “bare-footed Africans” in the exercise. There was no evidence of such, but Utt cited the presence of African troops in Cuba undergoing training for guerrilla warfare as cause for concern. Utt was pandering to a radical conservative fringe. Notice that he lacked any hard information, but he nodded towards the concerns of paranoid anti-Communists. He suggested variously that the United Nations, the Soviets, or even the United States (!) might be responsible for the presence of African troops in Cuba. (As if the same Kennedy administration that had armed Cuban insurgents to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was now sponsoring African troops in Cuba!) Without coming out and saying so, Utt validated conservative worries that these African troops were involved in Operation Water Moccasin. It’s really a piece of scaremongering art.

Utt also uttered some pretty obvious racial dog whistles. His thirteen-year-old Cuban-American correspondent described the Africans in Cuba as barefooted “savages” wearing “short skirts,” “big rings,” and “talk[ing] funny.” This “whole tribe” even “beat a woman.” Utt followed her description by suggesting that these troops would return to Africa to “murder, pillage, and rape.” It’s likely not an accident that violence against women figures so strongly in the letter; lynchings in America often began with accusations of sexual misconduct towards white women by black men. Utt evoked the idea that if these “savage” Africans abused women in Cuba and Africa, it could happen here too. Dog whistle indeed!

Now think about Utt’s words in the context of the civil rights struggle in Georgia in 1963. During the summer of 1963 civil rights activists in Savannah, Georgia–the closest major city to Claxton–held a series of demonstrations callings for the desegregation of restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. Unlike the Birmingham demonstrations earlier that year, Savannah’s business and civic leaders adopted a conciliatory approach and the protests were relatively peaceful. Early in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. gives an address in Savannah in which he calls it “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

That racial progress alarmed die-hard segregationists, providing fertile ground for conspiracy theories linking Operation Water Moccasin to civil rights activism. Some saw Operation Water Moccasin as a plan for a foreign invasion to start an insurgency among discontented blacks in the South. Indeed, versions of this conspiracy resurfaced routinely throughout the rest of the decade. Here’s a map produced by a Christian Right-wing group showing a “Negro Communist State to be Carved Out of the South.” The flyer went on to claim that unless conservatives acted now, “10 Million White People [would] be Driven From Their Homes to Make Room for Black Communist Soviet”!

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

The current brouhaha over Jade Helm 15 follows the pattern of Operation Water Moccasin. Both sets of conspiracy theories began with relatively marginal groups on the conservative fringe. Both received wider attention when more mainstream politicians validated, or at least declined to invalidate, the theories. Both were, of course, hogwash. What’s especially interesting to me as a historian studying the New Right is that Jade Helm switches from the racial dog whistles of Operation Water Moccasin to nativist dog whistles. Fears of African men raping white women have been replaced by worries about Mexican immigrants as a fifth column or as a precursor to Chinese invasion.

All social movements have a paranoid fringe that generate extreme versions of wider concerns. Conservatives in 1963 worried about desegregation, but relatively few of them seriously thought that a United Nations-sponsored African invasion from Cuba was imminent. Likewise in 2015 conservatives worry about the effects of immigration from Central America, but I suspect that not many really buy into the Jade Helm conspiracy theories. Still, politicians are loathe to alienate even a small part of their base, especially when that segment is particularly motivated and loud. It’s easier to try and chart a middle path by pandering to the fringe without formally committing to the conspiracy. Bravery is only infrequently a virtue for politicians.

A Hymn to British/Saxon/American Nationalism

At the American Society of Church History conference in April, Mary Jane Haemig presented an interesting paper discussing how German-American churches in Minnesota commemorated Reformation Day in 1917. It was the four hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous posterizing of a church door in Wittenberg–I like to imagine it looked something like this–but the context was challenging given that the United States was currently as at war with Germany. As I mentioned in a previous post, German-Americans were treated poorly during World War 1, enduring both legal sanctions and unofficial harassment. Many native born Americans suspected them of harboring sympathies for the enemy.

This left German-Americans in a bind. They were predominately Lutheran and they wanted to celebrate the man who gave birth to their religious tradition. But Luther, it must be admitted, was quite distinctly German. Celebrating a German national hero could have further alienated already suspicious non-German neighbors. German-Americans tried to diffuse any tension by emphasizing the ways in which Luther contributed to the development of modern democracy and religious freedom. In that same spirit, the Reformation Day celebrations featured many familiar patriotic songs like the National Anthem.

One of the more popular songs sung that day is a bit more obscure unless you happen to be from a Lutheran background. The hymn is based on a poem written in German, “Gott segne Sachsenland” (God save Saxony). The author was Siegfried August Mahlmann, a minor but popular 19th century German poet. Mahlmann set the text to the tune of the British anthem “God Save the King.” After all, why should only the British get to claim that God would “scatter [the King’s] enemies, and make them fall, confound their politics, [and] frustrate their knavish tricks”? God loves Saxons too!

What’s fascinating about the poem is its timing. It was written in 1815 at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars. Most Americans who are somewhat familiar with the period think of the wars as a clash primarily between Britain and France. It’s easy to forget that almost all of Europe was involved. Saxony had a particularly rough go of it. In 1813 it was the site of French, Russian, and Prussian military campaigns. At the time Saxony, under its ruler Frederick Augustus I, was allied with Napoleon, albeit quite reluctantly having fought against France several years earlier. When Napoleon (and the Saxon Army) were decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig that year, Frederick Augustus was taken into captivity by the Prussians, who had designs on Saxon territory. After a year and a half in prison, the Prussians released Frederick and forced him to sign a treaty giving roughly half of Saxony to Prussia. Still, when Frederick returned home, he was hailed as a hero who had saved Saxony from complete destruction.

Mahlmann’s poem was a hymn to Saxon nationalism. He hailed Frederick as the good King and Father who had stood true through storm and night. Mahlmann’s patriotism isn’t surprising given that he himself had spent time in a French prison in 1813. After years caught between the equally rapacious French and Prussians, Saxony had finally seen the dawn of a new era, or so they hoped. The song’s story might have ended there as a minor monument to a forgotten nationalist sentiment (Saxony would be subsumed by the Second German Reich sixty years later). But in 1844 American musician John Sullivan Dwight translated the hymn, removed the Saxony-specific stanzas, and gave the song a second life. Many Lutheran and Episcopalian hymnbooks still include it. Here is Dwight’s version:

God bless our native land!
Firm may she ever stand,
Through storm and night;
When the wild tempests rave,
Ruler of wind and wave,
Do Thou our country save
By Thy great might.

For her our prayers shall rise
To God, above the skies;
On Him we wait;
Thou Who art ever nigh,
Guarding with watchful eye,
To Thee aloud we cry,
God save the State.

God no longer saved the King of Britain or the King of Saxony, but rather the State, a more fitting designee for divine authority in the democratically-minded United States. Thus when German-Americans sang the song with gusto in 1917, they were able to simultaneously declare their loyalty to the American government and assert that they belonged in their new native land.

Let’s recap. A song proclaiming that God had a special relationship to England became an ode to God’s protection of Saxony. Then an American repurposed it as an appeal for God’s preservation of the US federal government. A generation or so later, German-American immigrants sang it to show that they were as loyal to America as any native born citizen. I’m reminded of a J. C. Squire poem:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout,
“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”
God this, God that, and God the other thing.
“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out!”

Meta-Religion

9k=James W. Laine addressed one of last week’s plenary sessions at the American Society of Church History conference. Laine, whose work on the Mughal Empire was provocative enough to get him banned in parts of India, spoke on the concept of “meta-religion,” an idea coined in his latest book.

If I can ludicrously generalize, meta-religion is a totalizing system that accommodates and/or subsumes individual religions, which are tolerated so long as they do not challenge the power of the empire backing the meta-religion. Laine gave the Roman Empire, the Mughal Empire, and the United States as examples, making the point that secularism and civil religion are much-ballyhooed modern variations on a far older concept.

French secularism (laïcité) received honorable mention as an example of how meta-religion remains invisible until a subordinate religious group resists the State. When a group does so, the meta-religion becomes rigid and thus visible, as has been apparent since the passage of restrictions on Islamic practice like the ban on headscarves in primary schools. I wrote down one of Laine’s punchier lines: “As America debated the extent of separation between church and state, France embarked on the even more radical experiment of replacing the Church with the State.”

laicitc3a9

For non-French speakers: “Integriste” is an epithet in France and the cartoon shows how unevenly it’s applied despite the basically identical meaning of the captions.

 

During the Q&A Laine poked at the audience’s discomfort with conservative challenges to American secularism. Battles over, for example, teaching creationism in public schools are evidences of the rub between an older and a newer American meta-religion. The Protestant consensus of the 19th century is being replaced by a progressive system which is yet equally imbued with faith. After all, Laine noted, the ACLU sides with opponents of creationism in the interests of the separation of church and state. Yet it doesn’t return the favor when a Christian family complains about yoga classes in their public school. When Laine gave that example, the audience chuckled and shifted uncomfortably.

I’d recommend Laine’s book to anybody with an interest in religion and I plan on picking up a copy myself. As an Americanist, I’ll be mentioning it in the same breath as Robert Bellah’s work. As a Christian, it will change how I conceptualize the relationship of the early Church and Rome.

Textbook Wars

Curriculum controversies are a staple of state and local politics. The brouhaha in Kansas is merely the latest in a long line of fights. Creationism is at a constant low grade boil that occasionally overflows the pot. Sex education launched a near revolt in Kanawha County in the early 1970s. Go back still further and you’ll find actual riots over which version of the Bible–the Protestant KJV or the Catholic Douay-Rheims–would be required for use in schools. Since the founding of the first public schools, Americans may have spent more time arguing about textbooks and course content than any other single topic.

Here’s an archival image from a 1970s front in the textbook wars.

School Texts

Image Credit: Harold J. Ockenga Papers, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries Library

You’ve got “Un-Americanism,” the catch-all label for attempts at “debunking” or “falsifying American history.” (Replaced in subsequent decades by the dreaded “revisionist” conspiracy.) It is a letter from the American Association of Christian Schools, so “rebellious spirit” and “disrespect for church, religious, the Bible,” make appearances. It seems that approved textbooks should make America look good, the USSR look bad, encourage respect for authority, and promote middle-class respectability.

Some of the categories are just befuddling. What is a “confusion complex,” are there job postings for “confusion complex” designers, and do they create both commercial and residential complexes? I suspect that my blog, if it had existed at the time, would’ve fallen afoul of at least seven of the eleven offenses. Then again, it’d be rather an honor to be found guilty of “excessive free speech.” Dang it, now I’m a “smart-aleck” and guilty of “vulgarity” to boot.

I will only briefly note that curriculum conflicts are an avoidable problem. The more centralized control of a curriculum is, the more likely a school system is to have a fight over its choice of texts. In Kanawha County, for instance, the state board of education mandated that all local schools include sex ed curricula; a local pastor’s wife ran for the school board and rallied locals in opposition.

Today you see the same pattern with state boards setting curriculum in Texas and Kansas. If each school district was given authority to set its own curricula (and, among other things, test, hire, and fire its own staff), a significant amount of the problem would go away as schools more closely reflected the views of their constituent families.

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do you really think that forcing a kid to buy a textbook promoting creationism or sex education in a class or two will really make that much of a difference in whether they have a positive life outcome? Oh, if only I’d read a few chapters about evolution, I wouldn’t have become a bank robber! That ascribes far too much deterministic power to formal education, I think.

German-American Lutherans and World War II

During World War I, German-Americans had endured a great deal of suspicion and legal persecution. Some states banned them from instructing their kids in German and/or forced them to attend public rather than their own parochial schools. The pressure very quickly turned petty; German cuisine was renamed such that sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and “hot dog” became the new term for frankfurter. A majority of German-American immigrants were Lutheran, but their evangelical identity didn’t do much to protect them from their neighbors.

By World War II, Lutheran denominational leadership had shifted from German-speaking first generation immigrants to a bilingual second generation. As the ties to the old country weakened, Lutherans started embracing American patriotic symbols, flying American flags in their sanctuaries, buying war bonds, and allowing military service and chaplaincy.

Even so, those cultural affinities die slowly and and you might be surprised by what replaces them. In January 1941 a Lutheran pastor in Virginia wrote to a radio station manager. The manager had previously asked the pastor, when speaking on the air, to use “negroes” instead of “darkies” or “colored people.”

One way for German-Americans to fit in was to adopt the dominant racial mores. White supremacy was a way of asserting American identity. Hey, I may be a cabbage-eating Kraut, but at least I’m white! The most extreme expression of this impulse was the German American Bund, the authorized American arm of the Nazi Party. Here’s an infamous picture from a 1939 Bund rally in Madison Square Garden which was attended by 22,000.

Nazi George Washington

 

I don’t know if the pastor in the letter at hand was a Bund member. In any case, he replied to the manager that he would be more careful in the future and concluded with this line:

Living in a southern, pro-British, Rooseveltian atmosphere in itself makes me rather cautious. Behind all this dirty weather in the world the sun of Grace is still shining!

The pastor was an isolationist opposed to US intervention against Germany in World War II. He likely has in mind the pending Lend Lease Act, passed in March 1941, which would funnel military supplies to the British government on credit (before, the Brits had to pay cash, which they were running out of).

It reads strangely today, doesn’t it? I don’t think that’s just because he’s an isolationist, but because he represents a kind of nationalism which is alien to us. He’s writing in English which makes it likely he’s at least a second generation German-American. Yet his affinity for Germany (and antipathy for Britain) is affecting his views of US policy. He then cloaks that nationalism in religious language. The threat of American intervention is “dirty weather” covering up the “sun of Grace,” implying that God is on the German-American isolationist side.

I think moments like these are instructive for us today. I do not doubt that for this Lutheran pastor his hybridized national identity felt as natural as breathing. This should provoke us to reflect on how our own national and racial identities sub-consciously shape our attitudes, politics, and loyalties.

Communists, They Are Everywhere, But Sunday School Will Save Us!

I was reviewing my archival research and came across this cover from Teach (“The Sunday School Idea Magazine”).

Sunday School Communism

The rhetorical question is more than a bit silly. But J. Edgar Hoover took a break from illegally wiretapping civil rights groups to contribute an article. Hoover served up his usual strong dose of civil religion; Christianity had value because it inspired “moral idealism” in America’s youth, protecting the US against Red subversion.

What’s interesting to me about documents like this is that they show the extent to which anti-Communist rhetoric pervaded the post-World War Two cultural and political consensus. Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could be most vociferous in their condemnations of Communism. Everywhere you looked you’d see anti-Communist material, from refrigerator advertisements to graphic novels. It was so pervasive that it became kind of meaningless, just a part of the rhetorical background. (Albeit a “meaninglessness” that could bite. Just ask anybody blacklisted at the time.)

I’m not sure there’s a perfect corollary today. Maybe think of it as the mid-twentieth century version of contemporary consumer environmentalism. You’d be hard pressed to find a major American corporation today that doesn’t give at least lip service to conservation. A few years ago, Poland Spring announced thinner plastic bottles to save the earth. The bank I used to work at changed it’s slogan to “Go Green!” and instituted a cap on our monthly printing. Even oil companies pay for lavish pro-environment ad campaigns. It’s generally just posturing. They dress up moves to help the bottom line as altruism.

The major difference between then and now is that while environmental conservation has reached peak cultural consensus, it hasn’t created the kind of political consensus that backed anti-Communism during the Second Red Square. We don’t have a House Un-Environmental Activities Committee subpoenaing testimony from polluters. Oh, wait. Still, the point stands, I think.