Monthly Archives: October 2016



It’s been a week since Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivered his own personal “Gettysburg Address.”  As a historian who has taught and written about the American Civil War for three decades, I have been itching to respond, but free moments have been hard to come by. As it is, I don’t have time to craft a real essay, so the scattered reactions below will have to do for now.

First, the Trump campaign’s choice of Gettysburg for a major policy speech was risky at best. As press coverage of the event has underscored, Americans tend to think of Gettysburg as a sacred space—“hallowed ground”—and there was always the possibility that even sympathetic voters might recoil at the use of a locale where thousands gave their lives as a stage prop for a partisan stump speech.  Furthermore, the location invites—no, demands—explicit comparisons between Lincoln and Trump, and one wonders whether Trump’s staff really thought that those would work in Trump’s favor.  (That Trump himself thinks so he has already made clear.)

Questioned before the event about the choice of locale, an aide said that Trump “has spoken before about Abraham Lincoln” and that “Abraham Lincoln is going to be an important figure in terms of Mr. Trump’s vision for the Republican Party.”  This is scary, given how little Trump seems to know about our sixteenth president.  Has anyone forgotten his deer-in-the-deadlights answer to columnist Bob Woodward this past spring?  Noting that Trump was poised to become standard bearer for the “party of Lincoln,” he asked the presumptive nominee why Lincoln succeeded.  “Thought about that at all?” Woodward queried.


Trump would have been better off answering honestly, “No, I haven’t thought about that for an instant.”  Instead, he gave the following non-answer:

Well, I think Lincoln succeeded for numerous reasons. He was a man who was of great intelligence, which most presidents would be. But he was a man of great intelligence, but he was also a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.

I’m glad we got that cleared up.

Trump aides also identified other motives for the Gettysburg locale in addition to Trump’s admiration of Lincoln (for doing that thing that he did).  The battlefield is a symbol of sacrifice, they explained, which made the location both an ideal spot to honor veterans and to make a plea for unity.

This brings me to my second thought: both defenders and critics of Trump contend that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was all about unifying the country.  Critics have especially stressed this idea, juxtaposing Lincoln’s supposed appeal for reconciliation and unity at Gettysburg with Trump’s divisive rhetoric.

Was Lincoln’s rhetoric at Gettysburg aimed at unifying Americans?  Not really.  He wasn’t remotely offering any olive branches to the one-third of the nation currently at war with his authority.  A year and a half later, when Union victory was imminent, he would do exactly that in his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, but that was not his goal at Gettysburg.  The interpretation of the war that Lincoln offered there was abhorrent to the white Southerners.  He didn’t expect them to agree with his speech, but what is more, he didn’t expect them to hear it.  Lincoln’s effective audience at Gettysburg was the North, not the entire country.

OK, then can we say that Lincoln was at least trying to unify the North in his remarks at Gettysburg?  It depends on what you mean by “unify.”  Did he search for common ground that all northerners could agree to?  No.  Did he make the most eloquent case that he could for a partisan policy and try to avoid unnecessarily offending his political opponents?  I think so.

As Lincoln spoke, the North was split right down partisan lines for and against emancipation; the Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it.  Like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used his public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement.  Even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly, he wasted no time in defending his administration.

Lincoln’s argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid.  The Harrisburg [PA] Patriot and Union concluded that the entire event “was gotten up more for the benefit of [Lincoln’s] party than for the glory of the nation and honor of the dead.  The Chicago Times went further, reminding readers that it was to uphold the Constitution “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.”  What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Today we don’t read the Gettysburg Address as a partisan speech in part because we read it in a vacuum.  In chiseling it in marble, we’ve also wrenched it from its historical context.  But we also don’t pick up on its partisanship because Lincoln himself did a good job of hiding it from posterity.  There are no explicit cues for later generations.  He never refers to his political opponents.  He takes no cheap shots.  His interpretation of the war was effectively the Republican interpretation of the war, but he hoped that someday all Americans would remember it in the same way and so he avoided gratuitous insults of those who disagreed with him.

Which leads me to one final thought: Lincoln rarely referred to himself in his public addresses.  At Gettysburg, he never even uttered the word “I.”  Although Trump’s aides promised that his speech would build on Gettysburg as a symbol of sacrifice and unity, Trump immediately focused on himself, branding those who have accused him of sexual impropriety as liars and promising to sue them just as soon as he is elected.  Make of that what you will.


Even though it feels like it, the presidential campaign isn’t going to last forever.  Thanksgiving is four weeks from tomorrow, believe it or not, and it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in a book about Thanksgiving in advance of the holiday.  There are many good possibilities, but with utter shamelessness I’d like to suggest my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First Thanksgiving

The book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog a few years back, and that is why I spent several years conducting research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.


As a historian, I thought the defining moment in last night’s third and final presidential debate came when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Donald Trump if he was prepared to accept the outcome of next month’s election should he be defeated.  “I will look at it at the time,” Trump equivocated.  “I will keep you in suspense.”  In that one brief exchange the Republican nominee turned his back on centuries of American history and proved beyond doubt his utter unfitness for the nation’s highest office.

The thirty-nine men who signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not foresee the development of permanent political parties and would have been distressed by the prospect.  In Federalist #10, James Madison famously descried the tendency to divide into factions as a “dangerous vice” that threatened free government.  Factionalism produced “instability, injustice, and confusion,” i.e., “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

George Washington similarly deplored political parties and warned the nation against them before stepping down as the country’s first president.  Washington condemned “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and described them at length for his fellow countrymen.  He warned that partisan spirit “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Yet political parties developed, nonetheless, and when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the presidential election of 1796, the country understood that they represented two distinct political factions that had morphed into formal political parties–Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  (Due to a Constitutional quirk, the victorious Adams and his defeated rival would serve as president and vice-president, respectively.)  The election of 1796 did not involve a “campaign” as we would recognize it today, however.  It mostly consisted of elite statesmen writing letters to other elite statesmen on behalf of their chosen nominee, and neither candidate openly sought support for his election, as that was then considered unseemly.

All this changed in the election of 1800.  By this time the country was badly roiled by external dangers and internal dissension.  Britain and France had been at war since 1793, and the parties differed sharply as to how the infant United States might preserve both its neutrality and its dignity in a world at war.  The pro-British Federalists had signed a humiliating treaty with the British just before Washington left office, and then the Federalist majority in Congress had begun to mobilize for a possible war with France.  Convinced that the Federalists were bent on war, the pro-French Democratic-Republicans cried foul.  Viewing their opposition on the brink of war as a threat to national security, Congressional Federalists responded by passing the Sedition Act of 1798, which effectively made criticism of the government a crime.  Refusing to back down, Democratic-Republican leaders Jefferson and James Madison declared the law illegal and urged state legislatures to “nullify” it.  At no time other than the Civil War have Americans been so bitterly and so deeply divided.


In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opponents in one of the most bitter presidential elections in U. S. history.

The genteel, decorous, largely behind the scenes campaign of 1796 devolved into an acrimonious, ugly, public war in 1800 when Adams and Jefferson squared off a second time.  This time both parties mobilized a print campaign, enlisting partisan authors to abuse the other party in newspapers, pamphlets, circulars, and broadsides.  Democratic-Republican writers castigated the Federalists as closet monarchists and Tories in league with Britain to subvert American liberties.  They were the puppets of international financiers whose goal was to reduce the people of the United States to “rags, hunger, and wretchedness.”  At best, their economic policies were products of “imbecility and impudence.”

Federalists gave as good as they got.  Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist (false), of fathering “mulatto” children (probable), and of being an unabashed supporter of the French Revolution (undeniable).  If Jefferson was elected, they prophesied that America would suffer the “just vengeance of Heaven.”  The worst excesses of French radicalism would come to America: “dwellings in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated . . . children on the pike and halberd.”  (Translation: if the other side wins, cities will burn to the ground, the aged will be murdered, women will be raped, and children will be speared.  This was hardly a golden age of civil discourse.)

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans won the election by a hair, with Jefferson claiming the victory in the electoral college by a vote of 71-68.  (Technically, Jefferson tied with running mate, Aaron Burr, but that’s another story.)  John Adams had every reason to view the outcome as illegitimate.  Schemers in his own party, most notably Alexander Hamilton, had failed to support him.  What was worse, Thomas Jefferson owed his slender electoral margin to the fact that his support came disproportionately from states with large slave populations; thanks to the Constitution’s “three-fifths” clause, those states were entitled to extra electoral votes.  Had the Founders not made this compromise with the owners of human property, Adams, not Jefferson, would have gained the victory.

Yet Adams did not contest the election formally, nor openly condemn the outcome.  And Jefferson, for his part, used his inaugural address not to castigate his opponents but to seek common ground with them.   “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind,” he exhorted.  “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

So transpired the first transfer of power from one political party to the other in U. S. history.  It was, despite the acrimony on both sides, remarkably peaceful.  Both parties submitted to it.  Both sides respected the outcome, despite the depth of their differences and the magnitude of what was at stake.  This was not something the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 could  have predicted.  It is not something Americans in 2016 should take for granted.  It is, in fact, one of the most precious legacies we have inherited from our forebears.

Either Donald Trump doesn’t know this, or he doesn’t care.


I continue to feel ill at ease when I speak forthrightly in this space about contemporary politics.  I began this blog some four years ago because I wanted to be in conversation with other Christians about the intersection of the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Put differently, I felt a growing burden to speak to the Church about how to remember the past faithfully.  Many of you have been drawn to Faith and American History because of a similar concern.  I value your time and your trust, and I do not want to abuse either.

And yet I feel compelled to take a public stand.  Every year in my senior seminar for graduating history majors, I require the class to read a 1940 essay by Archibald MacLeish, American poet, playwright, and Librarian of Congress.  Written at the outbreak of WWII, MacLeish’s essay, “The Irresponsibles,” was a passionate jeremiad directed at the American Academy.  Germany, France, and Japan had succumbed to totalitarian dictatorship and the world was erupting in flames, but western scholars, MacLeish lamented, were doing nothing to impede the progress of trends that were systematically, inexorably destroying freedom of thought and expression in far-flung reaches of the globe.  Condemning “the organization of the intellectual life of our time,” MacLeish condemned the “scholar” who “digs in his ivory cellar in the ruins of the past and lets the present sicken as it will.”

The crisis confronting the American people in 2016 is not equivalent to the threat posed by European fascism in 1940, but it is ominous in its own way.  Through his repeated claims that the electoral process is “rigged” or “fixed,” Donald Trump is doing his best to undermine the very foundation of American democracy, namely popular confidence in the democratic process.  This is cynical nihilism incarnate, an utterly reckless willingness to destroy if he cannot rule.

But as dire as this threat to our political system may be, as a Christian scholar I am far more concerned by the threat posed to Christ’s Church.  It is a threat inseparable from the Trump campaign, but ultimately posed not by Trump himself but by evangelicals who continue to defend him.  Evangelical support continues to be robust, even after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video so damaging that even Trump himself was temporarily—very temporarily—contrite.  A poll of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute completed after the release of the video still found that two-thirds of likely evangelical voters intended to support the Republican nominee.  And apart from the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the more “fair and balanced” media, Trump’s most outspoken defenders in recent days have been evangelical leaders such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr.

If there is a silver lining to be found, it is the indication that large numbers of evangelicals are still undecided.  A poll released by the Barna Group last week suggests that nearly three out of ten aren’t sure how they will vote.  If you fall into that category, won’t you please take note of the arguments below?

Rather than make the case myself, I can happily refer you to a growing number of prominent, theologically conservative evangelical voices who make the case against Trump better than I can.  In the last ten days, these were some of the most eloquent evangelical arguments against the Republican nominee to appear:

* Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, “Speak Truth to Trump”

* Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “If Donald Trump Has Done Anything Right, He Has Snuffed Out the Religious Right”

* Julie Roys, journalist, blogger, and radio host on Moody Radio Network, “Evangelical Trump Defenders are Destroying the Church’s Witness”

* Collin Hansen, editorial director for the Gospel Coalition, “This is the Last Spastic Breath from the Religious Right before its Overdue Death”

* R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Donald Trump has Created an Excruciating Moment for Evangelicals”

I encourage you to read each of these carefully and prayerfully and decide for yourself, but here is my executive summary of the five pieces linked above, taken as a group:

First, all agree that Trump is morally disqualified to hold our nation’s highest office.  For example, Andy Crouch writes of Trump,

He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.

Al Mohler agrees, observing that “the Republican nominee is, in terms of character, the personification of what evangelicals have preached (and voted) against.”

Married three times, flaunting Christian sexual mores, building his fortune and his persona on the Playboy lifestyle, under any normal circumstances Trump would be the realization of evangelical nightmares, not the carrier of evangelical hopes.

In sum, Mohler concludes, “Donald Trump is not just disqualified from being a Sunday school teacher. Honest evangelicals would not want him as a next-door neighbor.”

Second, these writers make clear that the most important thing at stake in the current campaign is not a Democratic or Republican victory but the testimony of a Church that claims to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Crouch describes the danger this way:

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

Russell Moore offers a similar warning:

What’s at stake here is far more than an election. In the 1980s, many evangelicals quietly cringed when they saw the endless stream of hucksters called “television evangelists” on the airwaves around them. . . . When one after another fell into open scandal, it wasn’t just their prosperity gospel voodoo that was disgraced before the world, but the reputation of the entire church. And yet the damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.

Julie Roys perhaps puts it best.  “How on earth can evangelicals maintain any moral platform from which to speak out against abortion and gay marriage if we’re going to dismiss and normalize adultery and sexual assault?” she asks.

Donald Trump may do less damage to the country than Hillary, but he’s done far worse damage to the evangelical church than anyone in recent history. And let’s remember, the church — not politics — is the only real hope of reforming the character of this nation and saving it from destruction. That’s why the witness of the church is simply not worth trading for a political victory.

Al Mohler sums it up this way: “The stakes could not be higher. Jesus famously asked, ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26)  Those are the questions now faced by America’s evangelicals.”


Today is my birthday.

Fifty-six years ago this afternoon I was born in the metropolis of Athens, Tennessee right in the middle of the McMinn County High School Homecoming Parade.  Ever the multitasker, my blessed mother spent the early hours of her labor making place cards for the evening’s alumni banquet.  My father, who was not present during the birth–men didn’t do that sort of thing in those days–stopped by to meet me and still made it on time to the banquet, along with the place cards and a fistful of cigars.

I’ve spent part of the day telling myself that fifty-six isn’t that old.  Age-wise, I’m in the same neighborhood as George Clooney, Bono, and Antonio Banderas, although I think they’re rather better preserved than I.  I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking that fifty-six is ancient and marveling at how fast time goes by.  Fifty-six is not ancient–that’s the influence of our youth-obsessed culture talking–but there is no doubt that our days fly by.  Furthermore, being reminded of that fact is one of the best reasons to keep track of our birthdays.

Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger

In saying this I am reminded of a quote from my commonplace book; I’ve shared before but I think it’s worth repeating.  It comes from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.).  A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ.  He was also as pagan as they come.  The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author.  I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate VitaeOn the Brevity of Life:

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it.  But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.  So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short.  Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14).  But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

“Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.”–Psalm 90:12


I was born at a time before it was understood that the purpose of federal holidays was to provide public employees with a three-day weekend, which is another way of saying that I began grammar school before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971.  This means that I can remember when Columbus Day came every October 12th, instead of the Monday closest to that date.  This—along with the fact that I didn’t think of it until now—will explain why I am two days late posting this piece about Columbus Day.

I’m not an expert on Columbus—far from it—and I feel ill equipped to tackle the weighty moral questions embedded in the larger debate about whether as a nation we should have an annual holiday honoring this Genoese sailor.  I’ll leave that minefield to others and simply say that I’ve long found the history of popular memory of Columbus a great way to help students think about the nature of history.

Regardless of the specific course that I am teaching, the first thing that I want my students to understand is that history is not the same thing as the past.  Coming to grips with this bedrock principle is the first, indispensable step to thinking historically.

Academic historians don’t agree on a single, “official” definition of history, but whatever definition they embrace, it always preserves this fundamental distinction.  You’ll find some who define history as the recreation of the past, others who speak of it as the analysis or interpretation of the past, or even as a never-ending argument about the past.  Actually, it’s all of these things.  The definition I like best, however, comes from Christian historian John Lukacs, who defines history as “the remembered past.”

The power of this pithy definition is remarkable.  Once we begin to think consciously of historical knowledge as a form of memory, the analogy points us to a host of important insights into the nature and function of history.  Like our individual memories, historical memory is invariably imperfect; it is faulty, it changes over time, and it is unavoidably influenced by our perspective.  I’ve found that a great way to illustrate that final point is to talk with my students about how Americans have remembered the events of 1492 across the centuries.

"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus," by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1692, the year of the bicentennial of Columbus’ first voyage, few if any American colonists celebrated the occasion because few if any had even heard of Christopher Columbus.  If history is the remembered past, then it is true to say that, for English colonists in 1692, Columbus’ “discovery” of America was not a part of “history” as they knew it.

By 1792, the free citizens of the newly independent United States had discovered Columbus’ “discovery” and were eager to honor the Italian explorer unknown to their ancestors.  While the movement to name the new nation “Columbia” has failed, the Congress had recently agreed to designate the future seat of the federal government the District of Columbia in his honor.  Only a few years earlier, the New York state legislature had changed the name of King’s College to Columbia in recognition of the master mariner.  (Before all was said and done, forty-four cities or counties would take the name Columbus or Colombia in the explorer’s honor.)  No longer part of the British Empire, Americans were struggling to define a new identity, and a new identity required a new heritage less firmly rooted in an English past.

In 1892, on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage, Americans celebrated for an entire year.  Italian Americans raised money to erect a monument to the Italian Columbus in New York City.  Irish Catholics praised the Catholic Columbus and joined a newly formed organization aimed at making them “better Catholics and Citizens” known as the Knights of Columbus.  The nation invited the world to Chicago for the first World’s Fair, known as the “World’s Columbian Exposition.”

In 1992, by contrast, the nation was badly divided as to how to acknowledge the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage—was it a “discovery”?  was it an “invasion”?—and in the end the country did relatively little to observe the occasion.  After extensive debate the United Nations decided not to sponsor any recognition of the event, and the National Council of Churches resolved that the anniversary should be a “time of penitence rather than jubilation.”  In years since, a growing number of states and municipalities have moved away from observing the holiday and some have moved toward replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

When I ask my students what might explain the difference, they understand almost immediately that our changing memories of 1492 have at least as much to do with the present as with the past.  How could it be otherwise?  If history is the “remembered past,” then history, by definition, exists at the intersection of past and present and is inseparable from both.  When it comes to Columbus specifically, our changing priorities and values are always informing how we remember the man.  As writer John Noble Wilford put it a quarter-century ago, Columbus’ “destiny is to serve as a barometer of our . . . hopes and aspirations” and our evolving conceptions of the just society.


Apart from its implications for the nation and the world, last night’s second presidential debate was very humbling for me personally.

First, I learned that Donald J. Trump’s followers on Facebook and Twitter exceed the number of subscribers to my blog by a factor of fifty thousand.  (Notice that I said “factor.”  Mr. Trump doesn’t have fifty thousand more followers than I do.  He has fifty thousand times as many.) Second, and this wounds me as well, it became abundantly clear that, despite my extensive reflections on the topic, Hillary Clinton still thinks someone somewhere once sagely observed that America is great because America is good.  That sound you heard last night was me banging my head against the wall.  Not once, but twice last night Secretary Clinton repeated the vacuous comment long falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

As I concluded in an earlier post,”America is great because she is good” is, at best, a meaningless platitude.  At worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound. I have explained my case at length (here, here, here, here, and here), and if you happen to have connections to Ms. Clinton’s inner circle, feel free to forward the links to her and her speechwriters.  In the meantime, here is my executive summary–the five reasons why we should place an immediate moratorium on the phrase “America is great because she is good”:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words.  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.



So who plans on watching tonight’s vice-presidential debate?  I posed this question this morning to my capstone class for senior history majors.  Of the fifteen students present, fourteen answered “no.”  The fifteenth refused to commit either way, suggesting that he might “stream it online” while doing homework.  Intrigued (though not surprised) by this lack of interest, I asked the class how many of them could name the vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties.  Six of fifteen could do so.  I don’t judge them.  I often forget who our sitting vice-president is.

Should we care about tonight’s debate or be at all influenced by its outcome?  If you feel a profound ambivalence, you’re in good company, and you have good reason.  On the one hand, we know that the vice-president is only “a heartbeat away” from the most powerful office in the land.  In an election when both presidential candidates are pushing seventy, this is no insignificant matter.  And yet the vice-president’s Constitutional role is otherwise so limited and ill-defined as to be irrelevant.  In modern times, the VP’s most important role comes during the general election, when his job is to balance the ticket by appealing to constituencies that his running-mate struggles with.  Once the ticket is elected, the VP’s constitutional role is to serve as president of the Senate, but unless the Senate is deadlocked, the vice-president does not vote and filsl a role that is largely ceremonial.  In sum, as President Woodrow Wilson acidly put it, the vice-president’s only real significance lies “in the fact that he may cease to be vice-president.”

Imacon Color Scanner

John Adams loathed the vice-presidency.

Our nation’s very first vice-president discovered this quickly.  John Adams initially looked on the office of vice-president as tantamount to a republican version of the “crown prince,” i.e., as the office reserved for the “heir apparent” to the presidency.  But George Washington interpreted the Constitution as defining the vice-president as, at least technically, a member of the legislative branch (he is president of the Senate, after all), and determined that it would be improper to include Adams in the cabinet’s deliberations.  The Father of our Country reasoned that allowing the president of the Senate to play a substantive role in the executive branch would effectively undermine the Constitutional separation of powers of the two branches.  As a result, Adams came to think of the office of vice-president as politically akin to being buried alive.  As he wrote to his wife Abigail near the beginning of his second term, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the leisure it afforded.

As much as he bemoaned his fate, Adams perpetuated the pattern when he became the country’s second president in 1797.  After briefly floating the idea of sending Vice-President Thomas Jefferson on a diplomatic mission to France, Adams imitated his predecessor and never seriously consulted Jefferson on any substantive political question.  Unlike Adams, however, Jefferson preferred this lack of responsibility, or at least claimed to.  Writing to prominent founder Benjamin Rush shortly after his election to the vice-presidency, Jefferson noted how grateful he was that he had “escaped” the presidency (he had lost by only three electoral votes) and how thankful he was for the alternative.  Unlike the presidency, which he would later call a “splendid misery,” the vice-presidency was “a tranquil and unoffending” office that promised to afford him “philosophical evenings in the winter, and rural days in summer.”  He would spend most of his vice-presidency at Monticello, his plantation in northern Virginia.

Since Jefferson’s day, a succession of unfortunate souls have made their peace, more or less, with the office’s ill-defined role.  Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, Indianan Thomas Marshall, remembered his time in the office fondly, noting in his memoirs that, while he had no interest working anymore, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice-President again.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s first of three vice-presidents, Texan John Nance Garner, was less sanguine.  Garner is famous for supposedly comparing the vice-presidency to “a bucket of warm spit,” a memorable line that may be apocryphal.  (The evidence is entirely hearsay.)  What we do know is what he told Collier’s Magazine in a 1948 interview: “There cannot be a great vice president.  A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.”  Garner later told another writer that being elected vice-president “was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Garner might think differently had he taken the office a generation later.  While the office remains Constitutionally trivial as long as the president keeps breathing, vice-presidents since the 1960s have often used it as a platform for their own presidential aspirations.  Hubert Humphrey nearly claimed the presidency in 1968 while the sitting VP, as did Al Gore in 2000, and George H. W. Bush succeeded where they fell short.  Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have surely thought about following in the elder Bush’s footsteps.


If you are interested in the possible place of religious conviction and/or religious issues in this year’s campaign, columnist Jonathan Martin calls attention to the primary role of the two vice-presidential nominees in this regard.  See his NYT piece “With Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, Faith is Back in the Mix.”