I don’t normally write a lot about politics here, and even when I do it’s likely to be satirical or commemorative in tone. So I admire John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College (one of Bethel’s sister institutions in a couple of evangelical college consortiums), for bringing his expertise and perspective as a historian to contemporary conversations about politics. In a culture that is increasingly fragmented, uncivil, and frankly ugly, John somehow manages to state his mind, challenging preconceptions and falsehood in light of his knowledge of religion and American history (see especially his widely-admired book, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?, just named a finalist for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize), while simultaneously building bridges and restoring some degree of civility to our discourse.
In the last 24 hours I have been called a lot of names. I have been compared to Hitler, Louis Farrakhan, and Woodrow Wilson (yes, you read that last one correctly). Several expressed wishes that I be cast into perdition. A few demanded that the administration at the college where I teach fire me immediately. The culture wars are real.
What prompted such vitriol??
Quick background: in addition to his own fine blog (which you’ll find listed on my home page alongside other news feeds), John has a weekly column with the religion blog Patheos; in his most recent column, he made the case that Barack Obama “may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history.” This was prompted in part by the recent National Prayer Breakfast, where the president spoke once again on the meaning of his Christian conversion and faith, but John also recalled then-Senator Obama’s visit to Messiah in April 2008, when he talked about the implication of his faith for the policies he would pursue. Nearly four years later, John confessed himself somewhat disappointed in Pres. Obama:
Unfortunately, for all of his religious rhetoric, Obama the president has failed to articulate the faith-based political vision he promised us that night in the tiny village of Grantham, Pennsylvania. His handling of the recent contraception issue was a disaster. He missed a wonderful opportunity to explain his health care proposal—disparaged by the GOP as “Obamacare”—as a direct extension of his Christian convictions to care for the poor and the needy. He has failed in his promise to reduce abortions in the United States and, as a result, protect the weakest and most vulnerable of the “least of these.” His plan to tax the richest members of society is driven by populist rhetoric, but it lacks a prophetic edge informed by the radical implications of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels.
Pres. Obama at the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast - Creative Commons (Charles McCain)
I happen to agree almost entirely with John’s column, but that’s irrelevant. Even if I didn’t share some of his disappointment in Obama the president vs. Obama the candidate, or if I didn’t think that Obama was unusually explicit about his faith by contrast with most of his predecessors in the White House, I’d still (I hope!) thoughtfully consider the argument John is making, and appreciate the tone with which he writes: even-handed but not diffident; personal but professional. Typical of the excellent work John does as a historian committed to serving a public broader than academe alone, the column was no puff piece, but an invitation to further conversation about the place of religious belief in rhetoric and policy making. (A timely invitation, given the recent comments by Republican candidate Rick Santorum questioning the president’s theology.)
So you can imagine John’s surprise to find that The Blaze, a conservative news and opinion website produced by Glenn Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts, published an article criticizing him for his “pro-Obama column.” More upsetting than the article itself (which I think is off-target but whose author at least had read John’s entire post, not just the “most explicitly Christian president” sentence) are the 800+ comments it inspired, plus 170 more at the Patheos column and (worst of all) the nasty e-mails and voice mails calling John names and wishing for his firing and/or damnation.
Please read John’s response, in which he clarifies further his already clear comments about Barack Obama (“…I was not making a statement about whether Obama utilizes Christian faith correctly or not. I was rather making a statement about how explicitly Christian Obama’s rhetoric happens to be”) and articulates again his hope that the study of history and other humanities can produce civic virtues like humility and civility. (I’ve previously written in admiration of that vision of John’s.) I’m not sure I could have responded as well as John did; as one sympathetic commenter at his blog put it, John sought “to exemplify Proverbs 15:1, ‘A soft answer turns away wrath,’ with [his] meek yet firm response.”
It’s a hard thing sometimes to be an evangelical scholar committed both to the cause of Christ and to the value of the liberal arts. While I wrote last week, in another vein, that I believe it the task of colleges like Bethel to ask hard questions and consider unpopular answers, there are those in the evangelical movement who would prefer that we retreat from the cutting edge of research, not participate in complex conversations, and not expose our students to multiple points of view.
And I understand that the balance, restraint, and empathy that are hallmarks of good historical scholarship can be frustrating for those who feel passionately about their point of view. So I get why the writer for The Blaze found John’s column insufficiently critical of Pres. Obama.
But it’s telling that the writer slipped in a mention of the fact that Messiah last fall invited political scientist Frances Fox Piven to give its American Democracy Lecture, as if John’s Patheos column and Piven’s talk (critical of the Tea Party, among other things) are all evidence of some grand liberal conspiracy being sheltered by Christian colleges like Messiah. (Piven has also been the recipient of vile comments inspired by The Blaze.) For the record, when John blogged about Piven’s talk, he was often critical of the historical claims made but also affirmed that “You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged.”
Which is exactly right. Both for the sake of the Republic — which, to function as its Founders intended, requires that multiple voices be given a genuine hearing — and for the purposes of Christian higher education — which seeks to help students make their faith their own, not an unchallenged inheritance or residue of their families and churches of origin — Messiah (and Bethel) ought to be inviting such speakers to campus, and John ought to be studying the relationship between faith and politics in the 18th century and, where he feels that comparisons are appropriate, in the present day.
Meanwhile, those who called John “Hitler” or questioned his faith must be confronted and called the cowards and bullies they are.I’m sure John invites constructive criticism (e.g., he approved a comment on the “culture wars” blog post from a self-described “culture warrior” who respects John’s work but suggested that he might do more to address conservative concerns about, say, the influence of liberation theology on the president), but unthinking name-calling deserves no forum. It’s meant solely to squelch dialogue, to intimidate other Christian scholars who would dare to be as thoughtful and open-minded as John Fea.
John, as his readers know well, is a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and has written much about that singer-songwriter’s new album (Wrecking Ball). In particular, we’ve learned that John is taken with the first single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” about which he wrote, in an earlier Patheos column:
Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.
“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?
“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”
“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?
“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”
Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.
Those who believe in a robust vision of Christian higher education and those who wish to see a revival of the “republicanism” that John admires in Springsteen’s lyrics, take heed. We need to take care of one of our own and stand with John Fea.