What Historians Do

Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, is not a conservative. His ethic background is both Jewish and Irish, so chances are he is not a Reformed Protestant and so does not have a Christian w-w. He’s a Democrat, an egalitarian, and generally progressive. Plus, he’s a darned good historian and will not let partisan politics shape our understanding of the past.

For instance, he has been outspoken about the inaccuracies of the Sixteen Nineteen Project:

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.

The article goes on, almost in the manner of a legal brief, to do the historical equivalent of math assignments — show your work.

Wilentz was also pretty good about the differences between liberalism and socialism. In defense of Hillary Clinton, in 2018 he pointed out the conceit of Sanders claiming to be merely a liberal on the order of the New Deal:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”

The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.

In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.

The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.

Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.

What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.

I Finally Understand Objections to Lutheranism

Lutherans are pink:

Religious and cultural Lutheran values have shaped Nordic societies for centuries. But instead of encouraging capitalism as in Calvinist Europe, Lutheranism promoted a social-democratic welfare state in the Nordic world.

As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this issue is highly topical.

Robert H. Nelson, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, develops these arguments in Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic. He probes the large role a Lutheran ethic played in the development of the Nordic welfare state and the Nordic social-democratic political and economic system during its golden years from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Nelson sees this Lutheran ethic as parallel to the Calvinist ethic famously examined by the German sociologist Max Weber In his book the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Nelson also compares the American and Nordic ideas of the welfare state in a novel way, discussing the greater influence of Calvinism in the United States as compared with Lutheranism in the Nordic countries.

According to Nelson, fundamental Nordic values, such as a strong work ethic, complete equality between men and women, and others manifested in social democracy are all derived from Lutheran teachings as embodied in the Lutheran ethic.

The Lutheran ethic emphasized The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in the pursuit of an individual calling. This has been the foundation of the concept of 20th century Nordic social solidarity, in particular, states Nelson.

The upside? U.S. is not simply Christian but a Calvinist nation.

Woot!

Except, the Puritans were not exactly capitalists. If you read John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity, you would think he’s a socialist.

Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?

Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

See?

Evidence of Calvinism’s superiority to Lutheranism:

Although it is very capitalist, Switzerland boasts many of the advantages that socialist Scandinavian states are supposed to claim exclusively. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is just 4.5 percent, which is one of the lowest rates in the world. The country’s poverty rate is similarly low (XLS). Those who immigrate to Switzerland have an average employment rate of 76 percent, which is much higher than the European average of 62 percent.

Furthermore, the Swiss educational system is ranked third in the world by the OECD. Only Korea and Japan are ranked higher, which means Switzerland’s educational system is the best in the Western world. Many claim this distinction belongs to Finland, but Finnish schools are in fact ranked 10/37 in math and 4/37 in reading.

Additionally, income inequality and debt are both quite low in Switzerland. This reality persists although Switzerland’s wealthy have the lowest tax burden in the world; the richest decile in the country pays only 20.9 percent of the country’s taxes. Remarkably, even though the tax burden on the wealthy is minimal, Switzerland’s national debt as a percentage of its gross domestic product is lower than Finland’s, Sweden’s, and Denmark’s.

Switzerland is the closest to “paradise” of any European country, yet it remains one of the most capitalist economies on Earth. Its success is a powerful antidote to socialist claims about the benefits of progressive taxation, and all but destroys the assumption that Scandinavia as a bastion of socialism shows that only collectivism can produce success.

This is a test of the Emergency Paleo-Calvinist System. If this had been an actual case of boosterism, you would have been instructed to read Ecclesiastes. This concludes this test of the Emergency Paleo-Calvinist System.

Can Sexism Be Far Behind?

In the run-up to the PCA’s debates about repenting corporately for racism, I wonder if the opponents of racism have left room for excluding women from church office. Consider the following definition of racism (with assertions of gender hierarchicalism for the r-word):

Racism Excluding women from special office is the denial of the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and its implications to someone of another ethnicity sex. Racism Male-only elders and deacons in the church is a contradiction of the visible unity of all believers in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22, Revelation 5:9, 7:9). Racism inside and outside the church Male privilege inside the church and the family is a contradiction of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31, Luke 10:25-37, esp. 29, 37), and of God’s creation of all people in his image (Genesis 1:27, Acts 17:26). So theologically, racism preference for men in church office entails a denial of the biblical doctrines of creation, man, the communion of saints and is disobedience to the moral law. We will not mince words. Racism Male dominance in church office and marriage is not only sin, serious sin, it is heresy.

To be clear, racism is arguably different from excluding women from church office. Furthermore, the consequences of racism have been far more consequential than barring women from special ecclesiastical office (though I know some feminists disagree). But the question is whether the PCA’s condemnation of racism leaves wiggle room for distinguishing racial equality from equality of the sexes. (Have we all forgotten the CRC‘s arguments for ordaining women?)

In fact, the power of egalitarianism is so strong you have to wonder if the PCA will have the wits in a decade to avoid repenting not merely for tolerating financial inequality among its members but even advocating it. After all, once you start down the road of equality, doesn’t history suggest your brake fluid runs dry? Consider the logic of social justice warfare among Roman Catholics:

We have an economy of exclusion, and a polity that refuses to challenge the ideology of the market that has generated the economy of exclusion. We do not start with the most basic human quality, work. We start with an alien and hateful ideology rooted in supposed “economic laws” that are, in fact, human creations, not natural ones, but which are so prevalent, no one dares to question them. This is why, if you go to a conference on Laudato Si’ and they do not speak about both human ecology and multinational corporations, they don’t get it.

Meanwhile Presbyterians Are Separated by More than An Ocean

But they are unified in not practicing the spirituality of the church.

Rick Phillips started the kerfuffle by declaring socialism evil:

So, biblically speaking, why is socialism evil? Let me suggest three reasons:
1. Because socialism is a system based on stealing;
2. Because socialism is an anti-work system; and
3. Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil.

Even without nude scenes, that seemed to be a pretty easy call.

But David Robertson disagrees and — get this — thinks Reformation 21 is too political (has the Moderate of the Free Church missed a chance to weigh in on Scottish politics?). So he tries to correct Phillips and in so doing regards socialism as more loving than capitalism:

Firstly, in the socialist system the idea is meant to be common ownership, not a handful of people controlling or owning it all. (The fact that this does not often happen is a testimony to human sinfulness, not the inherent evil of the system).

Secondly, Capitalism is not primarily about individuals working hard to produce wealth. They work within systems. Sometimes those systems can be corrupt; bribery, greed, exploitation (refusing to pay the workers their due reward cf. James) and corruption are as endemic within the capitalist system, as they are within any socialist system.

Thirdly it is unfettered free market Capitalism, not Socialism, which is concentrating the power to do evil in the hands of a few. It is the big corporations, headed up by a very few wealthy individuals who are pushing the LGBT agenda in the US and elsewhere. It is they who are seeking to negotiate trade agreements that take them out of democratic control and leave them free to regulate their own affairs and control their massive wealth.

But this does not stop Mr Phillips hyperbole. In Socialism everyone is impoverished, everyone is in slavery and a culture of corruption is always produced. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the crass ignorance and grotesque cultural pride on display here. When I first went to the US I couldn’t believe what I saw with my own eyes in some American cities, in the richest country in the world. There was a level of third world poverty and degradation that should have been a shame to any civilised society – but no, some (rich) American evangelicals saw the evils of socialist Sweden, rather than the sick of St Louis.

Robertson even tries to get the upper hand by telling American Presbyterians not to identify so much with the United States:

In this theology, American Capitalism is the essence of America, which is in turn the essence of Christianity. To criticise Capitalism (or at least refusing to agree that Socialism is de facto evil) is apparently unchristian, unbiblical and unconfessional – which is presumably why the Alliance of CONFESSING Evangelicals allowed this post. I don’t confess that socialism is evil, and if the Free Church ever was daft enough to add another chapter to the Westminster Confession stating that it was, I guess I would be out of a job! The equation of the Gospel of Jesus with ANY of the kingdoms of this world has always been a disaster.

Again, this is rich coming from a pastor who regularly comments on Scotland’s political affairs.

Imagine if pastors had to stick to their competency — the word of God. They might recommend authors with a better grasp of politics and economics, people who don’t merely dabble or pontificate.

Whose Calvinism, Which Presbyterianism

I continue to be fascinated by the idea of Scottish independence. In Prospect Magazine this morning I read this account of Scottish Calvinism in David Marquand’s case for a federalist solution to the United Kingdom’s discomfort:

. . . the Scottish government is — implicitly at least — social-democratic. It seeks independence to protect Scottish social democracy against the market fundamentalism of the London government, both within the UK and in its dealings with the EU. The roots of Scottish social democracy go deep. The political cultures of all the non-English nations of Great Britain are very different from their English counterparts. As a civil servant in the Welsh education department put it in my hearing not long ago, the overarching theme of UK governance can be summed up as “choice, competition, customer.” The Welsh equivalent is: “voice, cooperation, citizen.” . . . But ever since Mrs Thatcher crossed the threshold of No 10 all UK governments, irrespective of party, have been in thrall to the imperatives of what Philip Bobbitt, the legal historian and philosopher, has called the “market state.” These imperatives have not only violated the underlying assumptions of Scotland’s political culture; they have also trampled on the religious traditions with which that culture is intertwined. Scotland’s religious traditions are Roman Catholic and Calvinist. Both reject the Hayekian market individualism of Thatcher and the watered down version of it that prevailed under Blair and Brow. Two particularly egregious Thatcherisms stank in Scottish nostrils: her dictum that no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he hadn’t had the money to give effect to his good intentions; and her notorious “sermon on the mound,” in which she insisted that since Christ chose to lay down his life, freedom of choice was the essence of Christianity.

I have no quarrel with Scottish social democrats, nor with the parish ideals that inspired the Free Church of Scotland in the days of Thomas Chalmers. Let Scottish Presbyterians be Scottish Presbyterians. But why Calvinism is responsible for this social outlook when we on the other side of the Atlantic regularly hear about Calvinism’s market friendly and individualistic ways, I don’t understand. Could it be that Calvinism is just as plastic as evangelicalism? The seer sees what she wants to see.