Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



I’d Settle for Modest

architecture art clouds landmark

Photo by Pixabay on

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?

Review: City on a Hill

City on a Hill

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020.

Summary: A history of Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, and how the phrase “city on a hill” from the sermon became the metaphor for American exceptionalism.

On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity” that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the community they would found, a mutual care for each other. He concluded with this peroration describing the consequence of such charity:

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

As significant as the sermon would later become, it appears it was more or less forgotten in the concerns of settlement. It’s survival in handwritten manuscript form is a story in itself. In fact, it was forgotten for two hundred years, and only came into political parlance in the 1960’s when the “city on the hill” portion was first quoted by John F. Kennedy. In succeeding years it would turn up in the speeches of nearly every American president. Until President Trump.

Abram C. Van Engen traces the fascinating story of this sermon from its beginnings to the present in his new work, City on a Hill. He considers its initial import as a call to loving community among the Puritans. He follows the history of the manuscript, how it existed in obscurity among papers from the colony’s early years. He profiles archivists like Jeremy Belknap at Harvard and Ebenezer Hazard in New York, who passionately, tirelessly, and often at personal cost collected and contributed these materials at some of the earliest examples of the preservation of historical materials in Harvard and at the New York Historical Society. It was in New York that the sermon was stored, but not noticed for many years.

Van Engen considers the decision to center this historical archival work around the Puritans, rather than earlier arrivals to North America–the Pilgrims, the Dutch in New York, the Jamestown settlers, the French, the Spanish, and the Native peoples. The account was a New England account, a religious account focused on God’s providence. It shaped first the New England consciousness, and then a wider American consciousness, even while the sermon, apart from brief notice in the 1830’s continued to be ignored. He explores why it remained obscure as a lengthy sermon as opposed to a concise statement like the Mayflower Compact.

He then introduces the scholars that brought this Puritan heritage to national notice from Weber to Perry Miller to his successor Sacvan Bercovitch. An striking part of this account are his chapters on Perry Miller, who was concerned about the materialism that arose from Puritan values, and held up “A Model of Christian Charity” as the epitome of the spiritual values that even atheist Miller wanted to see embraced, incorporating it into anthologies used in teaching American history. I hope some day Van Engen follows up with a full-length study of Miller, a brilliant and tragic figure.

Miller’s work was the likely source of Kennedy’s use. Van Engen then follows its usage through successive presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagen who more than anyone appropriated the image for the country’s exceptionalist destiny, no where more movingly than his Farewell Address on January 11, 1989:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the shining “city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim – an early “Freedom Man.” He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

As Van Engen concludes this book, he notes President Trump’s lack of use of this language and contends that it represents a significant shift from rhetoric focused around American ideals to American interests. He argues that our current president focuses not on what makes us exceptional but on what we have in common with all nations–that we put our interests first. The vision of exceptionalism is one of being first. Van Engen wonders whether this shift in rhetoric is a longer term shift or one confined to this administration, acknowledging the flaws in each approach.

This is an important work in so many ways, from tracing the sermon’s origins and after history, to the ways the sermon has been misappropriated, ignoring the body of Winthrop’s appeal, to exploring the ways a focus on Puritan origins has blinded us to other aspects of the American story–the Native peoples, African slaves, settlement in other parts of the country, and the ways the religious focus of the message has been transformed into a founding document of America’s civil religion.

Within this narrative, Van Engen also highlights both the significant contribution and blind spots of archivists and curators in American historiography. Van Engen shows how our histories are shaped by what is collected. In the process, Van Engen also faces us with crucial questions of the substance of the rhetoric we use to describe our sense of national purpose and character at a time where we may be witnessing a sea change in that sense.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: War in a Time of Peace


War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Books For Independence Day


Benjamin Franklin from a painting by David Martin (1835)

“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Benjamin Franklin

Today is Independence Day in the United States, the birthday of our country. What was born on that day was not only a nation but an idea eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in these opening words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In these words are an assertion of the equality and human rights inherent in being a human being created by God. Government does not confer these but rather exist to secure these pre-existing rights, and properly derives its power to govern from these rights-bearers. Finally, there is the opening of an argument for the revolt the Founders led.

Along with a military revolution was an intellectual revolution led by some of the most brilliant political thinkers of the day. Franklin was wise enough to recognize that a thoughtful and well-informed citizenry was crucial in every generation if what was gained and established in our nation’s birth not be lost to anarchy or tyranny.

Might it not be appropriate amid our celebrations to resolve to enhance our understanding of the history, ideas, and challenges that have shaped the American experiment? One could conceive many lists to do this. One work not appearing in the list below that may be essential as any would be The Debates on the ConstitutionThis is not a single work but a series of letters and articles capturing the arguments about the shape our constitution would take.

Here are ten others, most of which have been reviewed at Bob on Books:

  1. The Glorious CauseRobert Middlekauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Perhaps the definitive account of the Revolutionary War, part of the Oxford History of the United States.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. There are many full-length biographies of the founders. Adams is lesser known than some, but worthy of attention for his intellect, his courage, his efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for American freedom, and the incredible correspondence between him and his equally brilliant Abigail.
  3. The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. This narrative not only offers one more reason why Washington was the indispensable man, but also shows the difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation that led to the U.S. Constitution, and recounts the debates that gave us that Constitution. Review
  4. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates the Defined AmericaAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. These debates in 1858 when these two were running for Senate (Lincoln lost) define the discussion around slavery. Guelzo helps us understand the extraordinary phenomenon of these hours long open air debates, the substance of each debate, and their significance in the lead up to the Civil War.
  5. America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. The thesis of this book is: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” The author raises the question of whether we will face that history, understand the deeply engrained character of racism in our society, and begin a walk toward freedom from racism’s burden. Review
  6. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the black migration to the north and west following the failure of Reconstruction, and how it changed the lives of families who made that migration and the cities to which they moved. Review
  7. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A wonderful collection of addresses by the author, mostly at college commencements, articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. Review
  8. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018. Just recently published, it narrates the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul. Meacham gives examples of leaders of both parties who led with hope, even when challenged by a politics of fear. Review
  9. The Global Public SquareOs Guiness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness argues for the critical importance of the human right of the freedom of conscience that undergirds our freedom of speech. Most societies through most of history have ruled by power and violence. The first amendment protections of our country are exceptional and worth not only protecting but extending to other countries, reflecting the equality of all human beings. Review
  10. Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.  Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible. Review

There are hundreds of others, of course, that might be included. I suggest these because they help us understand ourselves at our best and less than our best. They help us understand the ideals that have shaped us, and the compromises we have made with those ideals. They explore what hope there may be for an America that is plural in character–a people of many nations and beliefs–yet dedicated to the idea of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

So, amid the fireworks and picnics and family gatherings, I hope you will find a moment to reflect on the ideas as a nation that make us what we are, and perhaps to grow in your understanding of our rights, leaving no room for the ignorance that is the seedbed of tyranny. Perhaps a book from this list might help!

Review: The Soul of America

the soul of america

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A review of American presidential leadership and the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul.

Jon Meacham thinks that even more crucial than an affirmation of the American creed is the fight for the American soul. Meacham characterizes this fight as a struggle between fear and hope, and surveys the forces in American history that appeal to each and the crucial role of presidential leadership. He summarizes his thesis as follows: “Our greatest leaders have pointed toward the future–not at this group or that sect.” Among others, he quotes Harry S. Truman as one who upheld this ideal:

“You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”

Meacham’s book is a survey of this struggle throughout our history. We begin with George Washington’s expansive vision: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” He was followed by John Adams who passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, leading in turn to Jefferson’s presidency. He explores our “peculiar institution” of slavery that eventuated in the Civil War, Lincoln’s movement to an emancipation vision and a generous peace, and the cruel reaction of the rise of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings during the failed Reconstruction.

His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the mixed record of this president whose progressive agenda fought for the poor and who was the first to welcome a black, Booker Washington, to the White House and invoked high ideals, yet also made racist remarks and yield to the forces of the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, he worked with Jane Addams on poor relief and the rights of women. He epitomizes the struggle between fear and hope in his person and yet articulated a vision of one America:

“There can be no divided allegiance….We have room for but one flag, the American flag; for one language, the English language [an idea some would contest today]; for but one soul loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people.”

The post World War I era brought new struggles even as America prospered. Women’s suffrage finally became the law of the land, yet fear over the rise of communism and a resurgent Klan aroused the fears of Americans against enemies without and within. Prosperity gave way to Depression. Politics contrasted between the demagoguery of Huey Long, and the expansive vision of Franklin Roosevelt who declared that we had nothing “to fear but fear itself.”

Post World War II found America with an expanding middle class thanks to the GI Bill, and a renewed paranoia about communism, incarnated in McCarthyism. Later when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeds assassinated President Kennedy, he uses all his political skill to pass Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, losing the South to the Democrats, but ending desegregation, establishing many civil rights protections, and giving blacks the vote.

He concludes this work with a ringing plea for Americans to enter the arena, to resist tribalism, to respect facts and use reason, to find a critical balance between the extremes of our politics, and to keep our history in mind. It is clear that he has our current political administration in his sights in tracing this struggle between the rival visions of hope and fear that many have used to try to capture the American soul. His argument falls on the side of hope, as he cites examples over and over of how leaders have appealed to our “better angels” to overcome hate, and that this hope should animate us even in a time of fear.

What is somewhat troubling to me in this book is that the book uses, even quotes rhetoric I’ve heard since my childhood–in fact the quotes are one of the highlights of this book–they are so good. And yet, there is a humanistic optimism here that I think does not adequately reckon with the darker angels of our nature as a country. It is evident in the underlying struggle with racism and white supremacy that runs through the book. I don’t think Meacham reckons with how strongly and unrepentantly embraced this is in many sectors of white society, even the parts that try to deny we are racist; that try to pretend we are colorblind. I think Meacham is right to contrast fear and hope, but I would suggest he neither adequately assesses the roots of fear, nor explores the faith and convictions that animate hope amid desperate circumstances. The closest he gets is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s encounter with an inner voice when his home was bombed and his family threatened. The voice said,

” ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ I heard Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

We live in an age of sentiments rather than convictions. Meacham reminds us of people motivated by compelling ideas and moral principles. If hope is nothing more than a preferable feeling to fear, it won’t take us very far. But if a hope grounded in deep conviction takes the measure of the deep roots of fear and hate, and “stands up,” there is yet a chance that the soul of America might be turned. I hope.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A collection of addresses given by the author articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best.

David McCullough has been one of those authors whose books I always make a point to pick up whenever a new one comes out. I was tempted to make an exception with this one, not usually being drawn to read transcripts of speeches. When I found it at a good discount, I took the plunge and I am glad I did.

The thread that links these speeches, given between 1989 and 2016 is what truly makes America great. McCullough would contend that it is the people and the democratic ideas and ideals and the working out of these, that have defined our greatness.  He assembled this collection during the contentious presidential race of 2016, and it is striking that he bookends the collection with speeches discussing the history of congress, and the Capitol building where it does its work. He highlights the distinguished figures who inhabited those halls from John Quincy Adams, former president and ardent anti-slavery advocate to Margaret Chase Smith, who in her first term stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and landmark legislation including the Morrill Land Grant Act establishing public tertiary education in the growing post-Civil War nation. McCullough highlights the collaboration across the political aisle that marked great legislative accomplishments, a challenge to both of our political parties.

A number of the speeches are college commencement addresses. A common theme here was McCullough’s affirmation of the aspirations of his listeners, and his encouragements that they become life long readers, including readers of our nation’s history. To Boston College grads in a speech titled “The Love of Learning” he writes:

“Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first rate murder mystery. But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again (pp. 147-148).”

Couldn’t have said it better!

In every address, it is plain that McCullough has taken some time to look into the history of the place where he is speaking. Given my Ohio roots, I found it fascinating to read his speech at Ohio University and his sketch of the life of Manasseh Cutler, who was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University in 1804. Cutler was a minister, doctor, and lawyer wrapped up in one. Most significantly, perhaps, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress in the creation of the Northwest Ordinance, creating the Ohio company to sell the land and setting aside significant tracts to create universities, including Ohio University. In the end, the ordinance declared:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall be forever encouraged.”

A number of the addresses reflect the high estimation in which McCullough holds John Adams. He recounts two sentences of a letter Adams wrote on his first night in the White House, that are now inscribed in the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room:

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

While McCullough refrains from overt criticism either of Congress or the White House, his narrative of the people and ideas that have “made America great” stands as an implicit challenge both to our leaders and to us as citizens, first to understand the ideas and ideals that have distinguished us at our best, and then to live up to them rather than depart from them.

This pithy collection of speeches, accompanied by a number of striking photo of people and places serves well to whet the appetite to read more into our history, both to learn from and be inspired by it.

Review: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Civil ReligionJohn D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes.

Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I’ve seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God’s “city on a hill,” or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it.

Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows:

“As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.” (IVP Academic Press Kit)

In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of “manifest destiny” in contrasts with Lincoln’s emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white.

The next five chapters consider five theological themes of “closed” exceptionalism:

  1. Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred.
  2. Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to “save the world.” Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America’s role in saving the world from communism.
  3. Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an “America right or wrong approach.”
  4. Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America’s landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation’s resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion.
  5. Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins.

Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church.

Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America’s liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois.

What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God’s global creation for us and our children’s children.

I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term “exceptionalism,” other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term “exceptional” may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I’m not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of “generous care” for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than “exceptional” or “great,” I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.


Review: The Big Change

The Big Change

The Big Change, Frederick Lewis Allen. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2016 (forthcoming,  originally published in 1952).

Summary: A social history of the United States from 1900 to 1950 chronicling the expansion of the middle class, the technological changes that occurred, and the impact of two World Wars and the Depression.

Want to know what life was like for your grandparents or great grandparents, and the changes they saw in their lifetimes? This is a great book for understanding what the U.S. was like during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was fascinating for me, as someone born two years after this work was first published in 1952. The book ends just before I began and the last chapters describe well the Baby Boom years of the early 1950s, and describe well the changes my own parents saw in their growing up years.


Frederick Lewis Allen

Frederick Lewis Allen was a popular, rather than academic historian who served in a variety of editorial positions including editor-in-chief of Harpers Magazine from 1941 until shortly before his death in February of 1954. He was a contemporary of such popular historians as Allen Nevins, Douglas Southall Freeman, Bernard DeVoto, and Carl Sandburg. The Big Change was his last work, and a National Book Award finalist in 1953. He also wrote histories on the decades of the 1920’s (Only Yesterday) and 1930’s (Since Yesterday) as well as an economic history of the U.S. from 1890 up to the Depression (The Lords of Creation). All of these works have been re-published recently by Open Road Integrated Media.

While not having read the other works, I sense that this book is a synthesis of all of them that not only summarizes each of the periods covered by the others, but does so with an eye to the transformation of the United States from an economy with a small percent of very rich who lived in extravagant homes and vast disparities of wealth and poverty to a post-World War II economy with a huge expansion of consumer goods, mass communication via radio and TV, and changing cities with the vast migrations from rural to urban setting, including Blacks (called Negroes in Allen’s time) from the Jim Crow South.

The first part of the book covers the beginning of this period, describing the technology of the period, including the beginnings of the automobile age, the robber barons and their wealth and a relatively limited government, at least until Teddy Roosevelt. Part two chronicles the changes Roosevelt and the muckrakers brought, the growth of mass production, including the revolution Henry Ford led, the 1920’s as the last gasp of the old order, the grinding experience of the Depression, and the acceleration of economic and social change brought on by the war experience. The third part talks gives an economic and social description of the country at the end of the period, describing the growing middle class, the reduction of wealth disparities due to progressive taxes, and the alternative form of luxury spending of the period known as the expense account. He also chronicles the leveling influence of education, mass media, and the wide availability of goods once the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

He concludes with the apprehensions of the early years of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the concerns about an increasingly large government and large corporations, and the growth of educational and economic opportunities for many and the vibrancy of private organizations and individual initiative in the country. Discussions of racial faultlines anticipate both the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and the growing affluence anticipates the counter-culture reaction of the later 60’s and early 70’s.

His style is very readable, even a bit “chatty”. The origin of the book was a Harpers article and it has the feel of a well-informed communicator who knows his audience well enough to engage with them directly. Reading this nearly 65 years after it was first published brings home to me how much we have changed since then–the complexities of a post-Soviet, post 9/11 era, the boom in information technology and the interconnectedness of everything, and the social changes of an increasingly diverse nation. This is a transformation I’ve lived through and makes me wonder who will write “Big Change II.” Whoever that may be, Allen’s book provides a great jumping-off point.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: March 2015

This month I reviewed a dozen books (no, not a baker’s dozen–just a real dozen). My reviews included a couple books on higher education, both recommending a form of “unbundling”. There was an account of Jeff Bezos and the birth of Amazon, a couple of books exploring the paradoxical character of Christian experience, an unusual crime novel, a history of the clashes between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall that defined the Supreme Court, a book on neuroscience, and several books exploring theological topics ranging from political witness to suffering to whether we can still believe the Bible.

What it comes down to is that I find a wide range of things interesting. Even so, I’ve also had the recent experience of refusing several people who wanted me to review their books–either because it was outside my range of expertise, or interest. I guess I still like the idea of defining what I think will be interesting to read and review!  Anyway, here is the month’s tally, along with my best book and best quote of the month:

1. College Unbound by Jeffrey Selingo. The first of two books I read about the challenges confronting higher ed. Of the two, I think this gives the broadest survey of innovative approaches being taken to “unbundle” higher ed.

College UnboundThe Everything StoreChristian Political WitnessFrom London Far2. The Everything Store by Brad Stone. A fascinating chronicle of the rise of Amazon, the relentless passion of Jeff Bezos to serve the customer, and the line between genius and hubris that he walks.

3. Christian Political Witness by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee (eds.). This is a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference exploring a variety of perspectives on Christian engagement in the political realm.

4. From London Far by Michael Innes. A rather far-fetched plot of an Oxford don and a fetching woman scholar who fall into and try to subvert a plot to steal antiquities and art from throughout Europe.

5. The Steward Leader by R. Scott Rodin. Rodin develops a model of leadership around the idea of the steward that challenges the transformational, transactional, and servant leader models.

Minds, BrainsCan we still believe the BibleGrand Paradoxsteward leader6. The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. The author explores the mysteries and apparent contradictions that come with the life of faith.

7. Can We Still Believe the Bible by Craig Blomberg. Blomberg takes on the critics and debunkers of the Bible and makes a scholarly case for the Bible’s trustworthiness.

8. Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods by Malcolm Jeeves. A career professor of psychology explores the brave new world of neuroscience and the questions about the nature of being human and belief in God being raised by the contemporary research.

9. What Kind of Nation by James F. Simon. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall clashed over the developing shape of American Federal government with Marshall playing a crucial role in upholding both a strong Federal government and a strong Supreme Court whose power of judicial review balances the powers of the other branches of government.

What Kind of NationA Glorious DarkCollege DisruptedSuffering10. A Glorious Dark by A. J. Swoboda. Another book exploring the paradox of our glorious hope revealed in the tension between the darkness of Good Friday, the waiting of Saturday, and the wonder of Easter Sunday.

11. College Disrupted by Ryan Craig. Craig describes the “unbundling” of higher education in the face of cost and value pressures, particularly through the use of innovative educational technologies including “competency management platforms.”

12. Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice.  The book surveys seven ways Christians have dealt with the problem of suffering, assessing strengths, weaknesses, and how we might draw from all of these in coming up with our own ways of making sense of suffering.

Best of the Month: I would have to choose A Glorious Dark, because of the honesty and depth of the writing that explored the Triduum and the paradox of the glory of our faith revealed through the suffering of the cross.

Best quote of the Month: I liked this quote on the proper tension of engagement in the political process that Christians must seek, by former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, David Gitari, cited in Christian Political Witness:

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In the month ahead, I will be reviewing a book on shalom in higher education, another book on paradox and faith, a new book on nonviolence by Ron Sider, some historical fiction of Edith Pargeter, and a recent history of Africa (if I get through it in April) and a collection of essays on Christology by majority world authors. Happy reading!

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