You might lose a few books

A former student wrote me this week to tell me she still has a few of my books.

In Germany, I loaned my books to students a lot. I was teaching American religious history and the libraries didn't have the books I did about American pentecostalism, apocalypticism, evangelical publishing, megachurches, the Klan, New Religious Movements, atheism, etc., etc.

Most of the time, the students were very conscientious about returning my books in good condition. I once had a student wrap my book in linen to protect it. Not a super rare book, just a history monograph.

Sometimes, though, a book would go missing.

I decided, early on, to not worry about this. It's important to me that I'm on the same side as students, supporting them generously and without reservation. If that means I lose a few books, I'm OK with that.

So this student writes me after several years, to say she has not returned several books on pentecostal history. I helped her with her BA thesis on the Catholic Charismatic movement--though I couldn't "supervise" it because I was still working on my doctorate--and she used some of my books. Which she realized she still had.

She realized this because she was going through her books, getting ready to move. She is moving because she's going to join a convent.

My former student is now a nun.

You really never know where your students are going to end up.

It's easy to fall into the thinking that successful teaching leads to students doing what I do. Teachers beget teachers. Historians train future historians. 

But I like being surprised by my students. And I think the practice of history and historical thinking is useful in lots of different ways, for all sorts of careers, and just in life.

My student who became a nun could have been a good historian. But I'm pretty sure she's going to be an amazing nun.

So I'm really happy for her and wholeheartedly support her, like I support my former student who runs a theater, and the one who works in international human rights, the one who's at a bank, and the ones who've gone to grad school.

I think I'm lucky: I get to support them.

But it also reminds me of the challenge every semester: how do you plan a history class so that, someday, it will help a nun be a better nun, an account a better accountant, a homemaker a better homemaker, a lawyer a better lawyer, a physician's assistant, etc., etc.

That's the challenge, I think, of wholeheartedly supporting my students.

Also you lose a few books.

Teach the question

The worst lecture I ever sat through as an undergraduate was a fill-in-the-blanks lecture. The professor would a drop key phrase from every other sentence or so and say, "Anyone? Anyone?" Pause. Then say the phrase. 

"So in 1963," he would say, "Martin Luther King planned __________________. Anyone? Anyone? The March on Washington. This was a major step for the civil rights movement. It was a march for __________________. Anyone? Jobs and freedom. Civil rights and economic rights. So King stood in front of the _________________. Anyone? No? Lincoln Memorial."

It was terrible. 

You know the information, I wanted to scream after every class. We don't. You tell us

About half the lecture, it felt like, was dedicated to calling attention to the awkwardness of the students sitting there, not knowing a specific word. The main point or the real point, as I took it, was that we should know all this stuff. We shouldn't need to be told. But then, really, why were we even there?

I did fine in the course, as I recall. But I l left every class session exhausted from the stress of those blanks. 

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

A teacher now, I feel the temptation of the fill-in-the-blanks lecture. I can feel the pull to that kind of pedagogy. I worry about whether my students know basic facts, basic names and details. I think before I get into tricky questions or complicated historical and historiographical issues, I need to make sure they know the foundational stuff. Start with the simple stuff, the info every educated person should know about the subject, and build from there.

I think that way and then my notes for class start to take the shape of a Wikipedia article. "They gotta know this," I think, "and they should know that. And it would be embarrassing if I did the whole course without covering this other thing." And then I just have a pile of information to recite, and it's pretty boring. I find it boring, the students find it boring, and then I'm half way through a lecture trying to engage them somehow and I start leaving empty spaces in my sentences, hoping to God a student chimes in with a name to save me from my own fill-in-the-blank lecture.

"So in the first 100 days," I say, "Roosevelt launched a bunch of new programs. AAA. Did anyone catch what that stands for, in the reading? What about NRA? Anybody? We need to talk about the TVA too. What's the TVA?"

There's just a prairie of silence. It's terrible.

The best class I had as an undergraduate went a little different. The professor came in and set his stuff down and he said, "here's what I don't know." He said, "here's something I'm wrestling with, when I read the assigned reading for today, something I'm trying to think my way through ..."

And then he launched into ... it wasn't a lecture. It was more like thinking out loud.

I didn't know, the first time I saw it, if this professor was pulling a kind of stunt, pretending to have a question he actually already knew the answer to, as if this were just a more elaborate fill-in-the-blank kind of exercise. Or if he really didn't know. But it seemed like he really didn't know.

He phrased and then re-phrased his questions. He framed his speech as a speculative venture. "Maybe," he would say, "the way to say it is ..." He would try out answers, and then realize they didn't work or weren't quite right and abandon them and start over with the question again, trying again, in another direction. 

And after 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, he would stop. He would stand there with chalk in his hand. Or sit down, leaning forward at the seminar table. And he would say what I had never heard another professor say. He would say, "I don't know." 

And then he'd say, "what do you think?"

It was absolutely electric. It was still fill-in-the-blank, in a way, but the questions mattered. The blank was complicated, because it was important. The questions practically pulsed with urgency. He didn't know. He was asking us. The question was a real question. What was the best way to say it?

Each class, as Pete Blum constructed it, was about thinking. He would think out loud in front of us and invite us to participate and come along, or just watch if we weren't ready, but the class was this space of vulnerability and experiment, a place to be interested and figure out how to be interested and figure out how to respond to what you don't know and be better at not knowing and learn, most of all, how you could go about learning to know what you didn't know. Each class was an essay, in the sense of "attempt," and there was a very real chance the attempt would fail. But it could work, too. 

And either way, it was exciting. And either way, it was engaging.

I return to this idea, in my classes. It's something I try to remember to do, teaching history. The pedagogical lesson I take away is, don't teach "information." Teach the question.

There's always a concern about coverage in history classes, and that's a real concern, but if I focus on a question or a problem that's interesting to me, I engage the students. I pull them in. I show them why I'm interested and what's interesting and how I think historically, and in the process of doing that coverage just happens.

This week, teaching my Great Depression and World War II class, I thought out loud about Franklin Roosevelt's outreach to clergy in 1935. He wrote ministers across the country to ask their input on the Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Was it cynical? Was it earnest? I've seen different historians describe it different way. But I don't know. And I'm not sure how to decide, actually. I wanted to think about it. So I came into class and set my stuff down and said, "here's something I don't know." I said, "I just want to think out loud, here, and maybe you can help me think about how to think about this?" 

In the process, I ended up explaining the failures and the setbacks for Roosevelt's programs, politically and especially legally, and how he responded with a plan to pack the Supreme Court, and that was a political disaster, and the "Second New Deal" needed public support. Coverage, that is to say, happened. More importantly, I think, I modeled what's actually interesting about doing history.

I didn't preform "expert." I showed my class how I investigate, how I venture a question, how I tentatively articulate what it is I want to know, and then try to think it through, and figure it out. I had to be vulnerable, because I needed to show them a question's only interesting if you could be wrong. So I thought about different ways to phrase the question, and what kind of evidence I could look for, and how to read the evidence, and the difference that different assumptions would make in that whole process. Then I said to them, "I don't know. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about it.

It was a good class. 

It's scary to teach out of my ignorance. I think I'm supposed to know and it's my job to know. But the question is what's interesting. Teach the question. Embrace the risk of the question and teach what's interesting.

The problem of the second day

The second day is a special kind of problem.

I have thought a lot about the first day of class, re-thinking and re-working that opening sessions, over the years. When I started teaching, I did a standard, read-the-syllabus first day. I didn't like it. It was bureaucratic. And boring. Every time I heard myself say "attendance policy" and "late assignments policy" and "email policy," I got sad. I also didn't like the way it foregrounded this user-agreement, positioning students as potential, probable rule-violators, and me as someone with an elaborate code I could and would hold against them.

Rules are important. The syllabus is important. But I didn't want that to be the center of the first day or the defining aspect of the class.

Really, what I want to tell students on Day 1 is just a) I am excited about the class, b) they should be excited because it is going to be great, and c) I think we are on the same side.

So, with the advice of a former student, I wrote new class policy. It's a little kick-out-the-jams, a little "solidarity forever." Now, I pledge myself to their eduction and I call them to commit to it too. Details about laptops or absences or anything else that comes up can be worked out, I make it clear, on the basis of our shared commitment.

I spend the rest of the class getting students to engage the material. I set up something they can do, right away, to see for themselves it's interesting. We throw ourselves into doing history and just start.

In my Depression and War class on Wednesday, for example, we looked at a New York Times account of the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. We talked about what the story was about and who it was about. How is the story different, I asked, with different protagonists? A true account of the "Great Crash" can center stock brokers, or Herbert Hoover, or a North Carolina girl who saved up money picking tobacco after the other farm work was finished to buy her first share of Standard Oil right before the crash. The work of history involves choices about the kind of story we're interested in and the kinds of things we want to know.

That works pretty well. Then comes the second day.

There are three kind of technical, pedagogical problems with the second day, which I haven't figured out how to handle. There may be more than three, but these crop up in my classes every semester. 

The first is a problem of context. What context has to be established the second day of class? What do we have to talk about, as a class, before we can talk about the subject of the class? Sometimes terms have to be defined. Sometimes questions have to be explained. There's a pre-history to whatever history the class is focused on, not to mention a historiography. Should the implicit stuff be made explicit?

In Depression and War, I wanted to talk a little bit about the causes of the financial crisis before moving on to questions about how people understood it, at the time, and responded to it over the following 16 years. Of course, the causes of the crash are debated by historians, but also economists and politicians. Maybe the class should get into that? We only have 50 minutes. Also, the financial stuff is complicated. Mechanisms of monetary policy, combined with accounts of how the stock market works (then and now), plus how the stock exchange is related to banks across the country, and how the banking system worked, all in a story about change over time, presents quite the tangle. How much of that is important? If, later, we're going to read about populist resentment of the financial industry, it might be helpful to understand how that industry worked. If, later, we're going to consider claims that poverty is a moral failing, it might be important to start with a structural account of the causes of financial crisis. But it's a lot to do, and the students just have to kind of hang on, not knowing where all this is going. 

Related, the second problem is common knowledge. I often struggle with knowing what students know. Cultural references are hard: they come and go, and I always feel like I'm wasting time when I stop to ask students if they know this or that show or movie or song. It's also a problem with general education. My Depression and War students probably don't know what a call loan is, but do they understand shares? Do they know how interest rates relate to liquidity? If I reference the run on the bank in "It's a Wonderful Life," will they know the scene and if they know the scene, do they understand that explanation of the interconnections (and fragility) of the financial system? 

If I skip seemingly basic stuff and it turns out students don't know it, they'll be lost. If I belabor something they do know, on the other hand, students will get bored and check out. Inevitably, I feel like I'm doing both. 

Later in the semester, I find it's possible to speed up or slow down, go more basic or more in-depth, based on the response from the students. I find it's possible, too, to get reliable responses from students and read the signals about what they need. On the second day, though, I'm mostly guessing based on facial expressions. And, so early in the semester, my real fear is that a lost student or a bored student will decide that's just how this class is and this is what they should expect.

The third challenge is classroom culture. Everything is still awkward, on the second day. The culture of this specific classroom has yet to be established. Students don't know how to engage, which means they don't know how to prepare. Not really. They know they're going to have to talk, for example, but they don't know (and really can't know) what that means, yet. Will I call on them? By name? Will I ask them factual questions or interpretive questions? Will I ask them just about the assigned text, or might I also ask them other things, like what a stock market bubble is and why Christmas-y Jimmy Stewart doesn't have enough money in his bank? (Yes). Beyond that: if students don't know an answer, what are they supposed to do? In some classes, the expectation is you just say you don't know. In other classes you're called to think aloud and maybe try and reason/guess your way to answer. What's called for, in a particular class, might be explicitly stated in the syllabus, but never in that much detail. It's something you learn as you go, with observation and in negotiation with the rest of the class.

On the second day, though, all of this is tricky. I'm trying to send students the message they should hang on, we're going to work it out, we're going to work it out together, and I'm inviting them to be active participants in the process of learning. Some of that seems to get across. I'm fuddling through. What I'm doing now works well enough. But I'd like to figure out how to do it faster, cleaner, and more efficiently, to smooth out the second day.

Five history books I read in 2017 that I might recommend to non-historians who want to read a little history

1. Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot

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I hear a lot of people talk about how American conservatism used to be different. Hendershot shows how and why.

2. Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt

This is a book of weird characters you won't soon forget. Also, it turns out you can learn a lot about American religiosity from the people who are against it.

3. Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin

If you've asked yourself "but what is an evangelical?" this year, reading about one of the most famous evangelists could provide some (complicating) perspective. This is an older book that really holds up.

4. All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

A rollicking narrative about how the press held a president accountable. Oddly relevant to our present political moment.

5. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

There was a lot more liver in 20th-century casseroles than you would expect. This book shows how historical forces influence the food on the table--and how history is, invisibly, at work in our everyday lives.

All 51 books I finished in 2017: 

A Torch Kept Lit, by William F. Buckley Jr.
Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life, by Christopher Lane
March: Book Two, by John Lewis
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, by Kathryn Lofton
Entertaining Judgement: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, by Greg Garrett
Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum, by P.T. Barnum
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot
The Churching of America, 1776-2005, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years’ Recollections, by P.T. Barnum
The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, by Janet M. Davis
Billy Sunday the Baseball Evangelist, by Craig A. Bishop
Exiles from Eden: Religion and Academic Vocation in America, by Mark Schwehn
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, by N.T. Wright
To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by Bethany Moreton
Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt
Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin
Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, by Roger A. Bruns
All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Odeipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
The Remarkable “Ma” Sunday, by Opal Overmyer
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, by Eric D. Lehman
In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday, by W.A. Firstenberger
The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, by Timothy Stanley
The Comedians, by Kliph Nestoroff
Nixon’s White House Wars, by Pat Buchanan
Analects, by Confucius
Basic Writings, by Xunzi
A Whale Hunt, by Robert Sullivan
Basic Writings, by Zhuangzi
Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Genesis, trans. by Robert Alter
Roosevelt and Wilke, by Warren Moscow
In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult, by James Wasserman
The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, by Bob Woodward
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel
My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman
Confessions, by Augustine
The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism, by Garth M. Rosell
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
The Business Turn in American Religious History, ed. Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem and John Corrigan
The Word and Its Witness: The Spiritualization of American Realism, by Gregory S. Jackson
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes

How a small occult publisher changed America

Donald Weiser

Donald Weiser

Ehud Sperling couldn’t find what he was looking for in physics classes. He had a half-articulated question about the ultimate nature of reality — the secret reality beneath or behind ordinary reality — but as he listened to lectures about atoms, energy, and the laws of motion, he felt the answer getting further and further away. He switched to psychology. Pysch classes didn’t help him with his question either. Then he went to Donald Weiser’s bookstore.

“Weiser’s was the place to find out,” Sperling recalled, now more than 50 years later. “At that point in time, we’re talking in the late 60s, there was no other place.”

Weiser’s New York store sold occult books. There, you could find tomes on the traditions and technologies of magick. There were books on astrology and astral projection, tarot, the secrets of Egypt, the traditions of Gnosticism, spirit channeling, and the wisdom of the gurus of the East. The sign out front said “esoterica” and “orientalia.”

Donald Weiser died on April 12 at the age of 89. His death was little noted, except for an item in Publishers Weekly and an intimate memorial with friends and family. The truth is, though, that Weiser and his book business changed the religious landscape in America.

Read the full essay at Real Clear Religion

The IRS rarely targets pastors. But a preacher was once arrested — for saying the word ‘fork’


Despite concerns about pulpit freedom, almost no one has ever faced criminal prosecution for something said from the pulpit. The late Dean M. Kelley, who spent 30 years working on religious liberty issues for the National Council of Churches, could think of only one exception: James L. Delk.

Delk, it would seem, is the exception that proves the rule. He was arrested in Kentucky in 1914. A Pentecostal or “Holy Roller,” in the language of newspapers at the time, he was holding a summer tent revival in the town of Science Hill. He was preaching against sin and telling Kentuckians they needed Jesus to free them from their bondage.

He was arrested and put in jail with charges of obscenity, indecency and disrupting the peace.

There wasn’t a lot of information about the charges, initially, and some Kentucky newspapers got a bit carried away making up accounts about the preacher’s breach of the peace.

For example, one paper in Richmond, about 50 miles north of Science Hill, reported that Delk had been angered because some of the fashionable women in town weren’t taking his sermons seriously. There was a woman in attendance who had “a pink-nosed poodle snuggled in her arms,” and Delk lost his temper.

The rumor was false.

Another paper, from Hartford, about 160 miles to the west, came up with a wilder version. The paper reported that the revivalist got into a fight with some performers from a carnival. The carnival had an exotic dancing exhibit, according to the paper, in a tent set up opposite Delk’s revival tent. As people gathered to hear Delk preach, the “ballyhoo” or “barker” called to them to tell them he had better entertainment on offer in the dancing tent.

“Drop a thin dime,” he shouted, “and see the wonders of Egypt!”

Delk, in the fanciful account, preached loudly against the carnival and the dancers, warning the Kentuckians of the evils of lust and the consequences of sin. He apparently got quite colorful in his condemnations, until the dancer herself decided she’d had enough.

The dancer — whom the paper called Cleopatra — walked across the street to the revival tent, went “down the saw dust trail” like any sinner seeking God’s forgiving embrace, and smacked Delk in the head with an umbrella.

She hit him right in the “clergical cranium,” in the purple prose of the paper, and thus the peace was breached.

That account wasn’t true either.

Read the full story at the Washington Post.

Sam Hose's Christian America

Sam Hose was burned to death in Georgia on a Sunday.

First he was chained to a pine tree at a place called Old Troutman Field, outside the city of Newnan, which is about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Then his ears were cut off. Then he was stabbed several times, blood spurting to cheers from the gathered crowd. Then his fingers were cut off, severed at the joints.

His genitals were also cut off.

Then he was set on fire.

"Now he was twisting around the tree," wrote one man who was there. "Now biting at the bark of the pine, jumping and springing and twisting and fighting for every inch of his life."

The local paper reported that Hose tried to pull himself up out of the fire with his fingerless hands. The chain that held him snapped, and he fell to the ground. His body was again hacked at with knives, but he wasn't dead, so Sam Hose was pushed back into the fire.

Some more kerosene was poured on.

He died after about 20 minutes. It was 2:50 p.m. on April 23, 1899. It was a Sunday.

Sam Hose was one of 27 people lynched in Georgia that year. His lynching was one of the 458 that occurred in the state between the end of Reconstruction and 1930.

His last words, as reported by a local paper at the time, were, "Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus!" because this was America, a Christian country.

Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.

The railroad company was so overwhelmed by the demand it arranged an unscheduled run on the Atlanta to West Point line, with six passenger cars at 1 p.m. The seats were all immediately filled. People who had just come from church were so desperate to get on board they climbed through the windows and clung to the sides of the train. The company arranged for a second train, this one with 10 cars. Those were completely filled too.

"Both trains," writes Dray, "sped south at full throttle."

Conservative estimates say about 1,500 people were on those trains. Others put the figure as high as 4,000, which is the number reported at the time.

Sam Hose was dead already when the people arrived. "Oh," someone in the crowd was reported to say. "He died too quick."

The crowd wasn't going to leave with nothing, though, so they took souvenirs. The chain that was used in the burning was hacked up, the links passed out. The pine tree was cut down and chunks of the charred wood were taken too. Sam Hose's body was divided and distributed like communion.

Meeting the two trains when they got back to the city, an Atlanta reporter wrote that "the excursionists returning tonight were loaded down with ghastly reminders of the affair . . . pieces of flesh and pieces of wood placed at the negro's feet . . . . Persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."

One can find, today, pretty much every day, Christians concerned about how America is not a Christian country anymore. Things have changed, times have changed, and America isn't like it used to be. They don't mean things like this, though. They're not thinking about the "Christian America" that was Sam Hose's America.

All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body.

It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.

When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.

When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.

It may well be that religious liberty is threatened in America today. That's not a good reason, though, to get nostalgic for the past that was Sam Hose's Christian America.

Free religious practice requires conversation, accommodation

Religious pluralism requires real work. It can only be sustained with careful, studied, face-to-face negotiations, adaptations and accommodations. It depends on pragmatic judgements.

To make religious pluralism work -- freely allowing robust religious practices from diverse minorities that variously offend and befuddle the majority while at the same time disallowing any group's imposition of its beliefs and practices on others -- a society has to be willing to make pragmatic judgements. Judgements have to be made case-by-case. The principle calls for compromise. The ideal, in practice, values actual humans and life and its messiness over the clean and clear pronouncements of ideological abstractions.

US law, as it currently stands, does this.

For example, as Eugene Volohk recently explained in the Washington Post, the law since 1972 has required private and public employers to exempt employees from rules they find religiously objectionable, except when the exemption would cause the employer undue hardship.

The law says, essentially, "work it out."

"The rule requires judgments of degree," Volohk writes. "Some accommodations are relatively cheap ... while other are more expensive. The courts have to end up drawing some fuzzy line between them. Maybe that's a bad idea, but that's what Congress set up with the 'reasonable accommodation' requirement."

The rule also, according to Volohk:

    •    turns on specific facts of particular cases,

    •    accepts the risk of insincere objections,

    •    accepts the risk of slippery slopes, and

    •    focuses on what specific accommodations are practical.

Perhaps most importantly, the law rejects the idea the religious minority should just conform. It rejects the idea that people should either "get with it" or "get out." The religious minority has a right to an accommodation -- even if it's stupid. Even if it's offensive. Even if that religious minority is a terrible human being.

That's why it's called tolerance.

This requires work. Perhaps too much work. I have spent more than a little time studying philosophers and theologians who don't think this idea of religious pluralism is coherent or even possible. If it is possible, though, it is only possible with a commitment to open conversations. Pluralistic religious freedom, if it's actually practiced and means anything, depends on dialogue and discourse, valuing other human beings in an open-ended commitment called "society."

The real enemy of this vision of pluralism, then, is political polarization. The real threat is the fracturing and fragmentation of a "public" that could partake in public discourse and work things out.

If that's right, and the Kim Davis case is any measure of how things are now, then things aren't great.

The public conversation around this Kentucky official who objected on religious grounds to personally endorsing marriages in her official capacity as county clerk has only barely been a "conversation." There has been only the scantest interest in accommodation. The loudest voices show no interest in working anything out.

The sides of this conversation are obsessed with winning. And when they win, they really lose.

As Adam Kotsko, a philosophy professor at Chicago's Shimer College, puts it, Kim Davis has defeated us all. Writing from and to the political left, Kotsko argues the whole spectacle has been a disaster for liberals, who seemed to go out of their way to confirm their worst stereotypes.

"Do you think that liberals are smug assholes who think they're smarter than everyone?" Kotsko writes. "Then you'll be really pleased at all the superficial analogies and 'gotcha' logic contradictions that they deploy against people's religious convictions .... Again and again, these dumb talking points show an absolute lack of any thought or even the most minimal empathy -- it's all about feeling smart and building solidarity by pointing and laughing at the dumb Republicans."

From the opposite perspective, writing as a religious conservative to religious conservatives, blogger Rod Dreher makes a markedly similar point. Conservatives in this "conversation" have been congratulating themselves and feeling smug. They've scored points at the cost of persuasion.

Watching Kim Davis become a prop for Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, Dreher writes, "She comes out of jail with that cheesy 1980s song 'Eye of the Tiger' playing, and mounts the stage, holding hands with Huck, and giving God the glory. Now, religious liberty -- our most precious freedom -- is associated in the mind of the public with ersatz culture-war pageantry orchestrated by a cynical Republican presidential candidate."

Winning, as children are sometimes told, isn't everything. And sometimes it isn't even winning.

At least for the moment, the laws are strong enough and humane enough to withstand this sort of "winning." American religious pluralism has survived this most recent breakdown of discourse. The Kim Davis case appears to be settled for the time being.

A fairly practical accommodation seems to have been found -- however inelegantly. The clerk's office changed the marriage forms, taking the elected official's name off the document. So now people can get married, as is their right under the law. And Davis doesn't have to endorse those marriages with her name in violation of her religious commitments, as is her right under the law.

It's a pragmatic judgement, a compromise befitting the principle of religious pluralism.

There are better ways to negotiate to that compromise. There are more sustainable ways to work it out. It does take real work, though -- case-by-case, judgement call by judgement call, pragmatic accommodation by pragmatic accommodation.

Originally published Sept. 11, 2015.


Jack Chick really means business

Charles Finney's argument, according to Jack Chick.

Charles Finney's argument, according to Jack Chick.

If there's one theological argument that drives evangelical Christian publishing, it's probably Charles Finney's point that a revival is not a miracle.

"There has long been an idea prevalent that promoting religion has something very peculiar in it," Finney famously said, "not to be judged of by the ordinary rules of cause and effect; in short, that there is no connection of the means with the result, and no tendency in the means to produce the effect. No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the church, and nothing more absurd." 

Publishing is a business, even if it's understood as ministry too. Evangelical publishers have frequently explained this by talking about the "ordinary rules of cause and effect." Good business is good ministry. 

They have also just published Finney, which makes the same point quite efficiently. At least eight evangelical publishers have packaged and sold Finney's sermons on prayer and revival, making them widely available. Besides biographies and autobiographies, several have published more than a dozen titles bearing Finney's name as author.

In the early 1970s, one of these books founds its way into the hands of a young and recently born-again Jack Chick. He understood about revival not being a miracle and took it to heart. 

As he recalled later, he was eating his lunch and reading his Bible in his car. Then, "an old welder gave me a copy of Power from On High."

Chick said, "That book pushed my buttons."

It made him mad at his church, first of all. Or perhaps just put words to the frustrations he already had about how the Christians he knew weren't passionate enough about evangelism.

The Finney book inspired Chick's first religious cartoon. It was about the need for revival. The sinful hypocrites he drew looked a lot like people in the choir of his church -- something he admitted but refused to apologize for, even a dozen years later.

One of his next books was an illustrated version of Finney's lectures on revival, retitled The Last Call and published in 1978.

"When everything is caving in, and when the world laughs at the church, that's when we need revival," Chick said a few years later. "We're in that position now. We're a big joke out there....Right now, Christians are self-satisfied and complacent. God's got a handful of people out there who really mean business, but the rest are playing games."

Finney's theological argument underlies a lot of evangelical publishing, but Chick's work in particular.

Chick really means business--the business of revival and the business of publishing, and how they're the same.

Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests the money in tracts is not too good, but Chick's reach appears to be quite impressive. He gets his stuff out there.

He has, after all, a "worldwide underground distribution network," as Daniel Raeburn put it in his study of underground comics.

He knows the cause and effects of religious promotion, as Finney might say.

Chick's organization has been pushing the 64-page book about Finney again, 38 years after its original publication. This is in in response to a David Brooks column on the need for moral norms in public education.

"There might be a glimmer of hope," the Chick-tract promotion said, "when you have a New York Times columnist calling for revival. Of course, his definition is slightly different than Bible believers use, but close enough to be noteworthy."

Five copies of The Last Call were selling for $17.85. Like Finney before him, Chick was arguing that people ought not to wait for God to start a spiritual revival, but get started themselves. And right away. Buy now!

"If you are serious about revival in your life, home, and church," the ad copy read, "this book is for you.”

Originally published May 11, 2016.

The 1st Pentecostal scandal

Charles Parham

Charles Parham

In 1907 in San Antonio, in the heat of July and Pentecostal revival, Charles Fox Parham was arrested. Parham, the father of Pentecostalism, the midwife of glossolalia, was arrested on charges of "the commission of an unnatural offense," along with a 22-year-old co-defendant, J.J. Jourdan.

Details are sketchy.

They rumors about what happened are out there, to the extent they still occasionally surface. The whole incident has been effectively wiped from the standard accounts of Pentecostal origins offered by Pentecostals, but references are made sometimes in anti-Pentecostal literature, as well as in academically respectable works. It's a curious historical moment in the history of Pentecostalism, regardless of whether one thinks it has anything to do with the movement's legitimacy, just because Pentecostals are no stranger to scandal, but the scandals talked about and really well known happened much later. In the full light of mass media. Here's one that happened much earlier -- at the beginning, involving those who were there at Pentecostalism's start -- that has almost slipped off the dark edge of the historical record.

It's curious, too, because of how little is known. 

It's not known, for example, where Parham was when he was arrested. Was he in his hotel, or a car, or walking down the street? Was he where he was holding meetings, healing people and preaching about the necessity of tongues as the evidence of sanctification, the sign of the coming End of Time? What was the unnatural offense, exactly? Who reported it to the authorities, and on what grounds, what probable cause, did they procure a warrant and execute the arrest?

We just know he was arrested. This -- unlike almost every other detail -- is not disputed.

Within a few days, this was reported in the San Antonio papers. Within a few days after that, the charge was dropped, as the District Attorney declined to go forward with the case, declined to even present it to a grand jury for indictment. Apparently for lack of evidence. Reading between the lines, it seems like the main evidence may have been Jourdan's testimony, and he was considered an unreliable witness: Besides being arrested with Parham, he had previously been charged with stealing $60 from a San Antonio hotel. James R. Goff, in his book on Parham, notes that the only two records of the man's life are these two accusations. The "unnatural offense" case against Parham and Jourdan evaporated in the court house, though. Jourdan vanished from the record, after that. Parham was joined in San Antonio by his wife and went back to preaching, and the incident, such as it was, came to an end (Liardon 82-83; Goff 140-145).

Except: The story was picked up, re-animated with rumors and speculation and false reports, and repeated widely by people opposed to Parham and Pentecostalism, in particular and in general, respectively.

Those reports can't be trusted, but can't be ignored, either. They form the context of the event, it's first interpretation. They creatively re-interpret the story to their own ends, often citing sources(e.g. newspaper accounts) that either don't actually contain the cited claim, or don't seem to actually exist (e.g. telegrams from reporters). But that doesn't necessarily mean they have no basis in reality either -- some of the rumors and poorly sourced accusations could have been true, or could have been based on information we no longer have access to. Figuring out how to think about this arrest, now, more than a hundred years later, requires one to shift through the rhetoric around the event, calculate the trajectories of the biases, and also to try and elucidate the record's silences. All the false reports tell us something, though what, exactly, is the question. It's necessary to look at these disputed accounts, too, because Parham's defense, as offered by him and his supporters, depends on an understanding of those opposed to him.

The main claim, in these reports, is that Parham was having homosexual sex with the younger man. In their words, he was a "sodomite."

That seems like a likely reading of the Texas penal code. That's probably what "unnatural" mostly meant in first decade of the 1900s, but there's at least one report that says Parham was masturbating, and was seen through the key hole by a hotel maid. Most of these anti-Parham reports, though, say he having a homosexual relationship. In one retelling, Jourdan becomes an "angel-faced boy," a "young man hymn singer." In another, he was a "Jew boy," apparently based on nothing, but adding a layer of anti-semitism to the homophobia.

Parham and his supporters, for their part, have apparently never denied that the charge was homosexual activity, only that the charges were false, were part of an elaborate frame, and were dropped for lack of evidenced.

A second persistent claim of the anti-Parham versions of the report were that he'd confessed. According to this story, he confessed on the day he was arrested so that they'd let him out of the county jail, and he signed the confession. There's some thought he did confess, and then later recanted and chose, instead, to fight the charges, but there's no evidence that this is what happened. If the law enforcement authorities had a confession, it doesn't survive, and there's no explanation for why, if there was a confession, the D.A. who looked at the case dismissed it. The only source of information available concerning any sort of confession is those who benefited from Parham's downfall. According to them, he wrote, "I hereby confess my guilt to the crime of Sodomy with one J.J. Jourdan in San Antonio, Texas, on the 18th day of July, 1907. Witness my hand at San Antonio, Texas, on the 18th day of July, Chas. F. Parham." Posters, with that printed up on them, were distributed to towns where Parham was preaching in the years after the case against him was dropped.

The confessions more likely to come from Parham himself are the non-confession confessions, the slightly odd defenses Parham's opponents cast as admissions. As Goff reports, Parham was quoted as saying "I am a victim of a nervous disaster and my actions have been misunderstood." In context, the nervous disaster and the action could refer either to the recanted confession or the relationship with Jourdan. Less ambiguous, the report goes on to say Parham argued, "I never committed this crime intentionally. What I might have done in my sleep I can not say, but it was never intended on my part." There's nothing corroborating these supposed statements either, but they do have the right sound. These are the kinds of things powerful people say when they're in trouble and attempting to explain things away but actually just making it worse. There's a believable ring to these, though they could still be fictitious. 

The other rumour-turned-report was that Parham had been followed by such accusations for a while. Which, if you think about it, would likely be true if the accusation was true, but would likely also be the rumor reported after the fact of a false arrest if the arrest really were false.

So. I can conceive of four theories for what happened. Two are standard, offered at the time and since, two less so. All serve to account for some facets of the known facts, but each has problems too. There's a certain burden of proof one would like such theories to meet. Short of that, one's left with the open question and maybe, also, a personal inclination about what's believable. 

Theory 1: Parham was a closeted homosexual. 

There are certainly enough contemporary cases of such behavior that this wouldn't be mind-boggling. Add to that a little arm chair psychoanalysis, and his obsession with holiness and sanctification, his extensive traveling and rejection of all authority structures can be explained as Parham being repulsed by his own desires and making sure they stayed hidden.

But, why is this, then, the only real accusation? One would think there would be other rumors that surfaced. I can find reports of rumors, dating to the beginning of 1907 or to 1906, and one reference to as far back as 1902, but haven't uncovered the rumors themselves, nor anything more serious than the vague implications of impropriety that followed most traveling revivalist. If he really was suspected of "sodomy" in all these various towns where he preached, it seems strange that this one case is the only known example of an actual accusation, and there're not more substantial accusations.

Further, it seems odd that the many people who were close to him but became disillusioned and disgruntled and distanced themselves from Parham, never, so far as I can find, repeated these accusations. Nor did they ever substantiate the accusations that were out there. There were certainly people around him who could have known he was attracted to men, and who could have, at later points in their lives, said that this was going on. But they didn't. Those who knew of such accusations and split from him tended, to the extent they explained their moves, to cite his domineering, authoritarian leadership. There may be one case where disassociation was based in part on rumors of Parham's immorality, but it's fairly vague.

The only people to explicit make these accusations (rather than just report they have been made) seem to have based them on this 1907 arrest in Texas, and had a vested interest in his demise, but not a lot of access to facts that would have or could have supported the case Parham was gay. 

Theory 2: It was a set-up by rivals, intended to discredit Parham. 

There's certainly evidence that opponents made use of the arrest, after it happened, and he did have some people, notably Wilber Volivia, who were probably willing to go to extreme measures to bring him down. Volivia felt his authority at the proto-Pentecostal Zion City, Illinois, was threatened by Parham, and put more than a little effort in publicizing the arrest, the alleged confession, and the various rumors around the incident.

There's never been a case made for how the set-up was orchestrated, though. Some ideas have been offered as to who could have actually done it, but there are problems with the theories, and nothing substantiating any of them beyond the belief that Parham just couldn't have been doing what he was accused of.

In one case, at least, the person who could have perhaps orchestrated a set-up -- another Texas revivalist -- lacked the motivation to do so, as he'd already sidelined Parham, pushing him out of the loose organization of Pentecostal churches. In the other case, with Volivia, he might have had the necessary motivation, but doesn't appear to have had the means to pull it off, nor to have known anything about it until after the papers reported the issue.

There's no obvious culprit with a clear connection to the authorities necessary for a frame. In addition to that, one wonders why a set-up would have involved an arrest but not an indictment. It's a peculiarly half-finished conspiracy, if that's what it is. 

Theory 3: It was a set-up by police to drive him out of San Antonio. 

Pentecostals and holiness preachers faced a lot of resistance. They were seen as a threat to order, an offense against people's sensibilities and cities' senses of themselves. The resistance was often violent and often involved law enforcement. Others were shut down over violations of Jim Crow laws. This is well documented.

Given that Jourdan had a criminal record, and a previous case against him had been settled out of court, it is possible he was he was working for the authorities, and made a complaint against Parham when told to do so. 

But why "commission of an unnatural offense"? Wouldn't there have been easier ways to get rid of Parham and his revival? A common tactic in the South was just to burn down the tent where the revival was held. Another was to enact or enforce ordinances against noise, or meetings at certain times, or how many people could be in a building, or whether meetings could be held in a given building. It seems like a strange accusation to come from nowhere, especially when you think of how it didn't actually end meetings or guarantee Parham left town. 

Theory 4: There were false accusations by Jourdan or someone else.

One can certainly imagine, in the Parham case, someone who was opposed to him or offended by him coming up with a false story, intending to hurt him. There are more contemporary cases where people have been falsely acussed of being homosexuals, where that accusation was damaging enough to pressure the person to act a certain way. It could have also been a case of someone,  say a hotel or boarding house employee, imagining homosexual sex was going on, and reporting it. Whether or not it was. Then subsequently, perhaps, the case fell apart, since no one was caught in the act, and there was only a very speculative report to go on as evidence.

Alternatively, it seems possible that Jourdan made a false report. We know very little about him, so it's only speculation, but it's possible he was attempting to hurt Parham, but later refused to cooperate with the D.A. when he realized the affect his story would have on his own life. That would go some way towards explaining the known facts: how the arrest happened, why the case fell apart, with everything else being the opportunism of Parham's opponents.

This depends on their being some sort of relationship between Jourdan and Parham, and besides the fact they were both arrested, we don't know what that might have been. It also works better, as a theory, if one imagines Jourdan as a low life who would come up with a bad blackmail scheme, and is probably even more persuasive if one imagines he himself was homosexual. There's no way to know about any of that though, and it wouldn't actually preclude the possibility any of the other theories. 

Maybe the more serious problem with this theory is why Parham's supporters didn't use it. Why didn't they take the "disturbed young man" or "confused person opposed to the ministry" tact? It would have likely been more persuasive that claims of conspiracy. But they didn't ever make this argument -- whatever one can conclude from that absence.

The record is sketchy, and it's hard to know what to believe.

The most reliable document, the arrest report, doesn't exist any more. There's nothing like a critical, unbiased history of those early days. Instead what we have is a mess of mostly biased accounts, and a lot of gaps. A lot of unknowns. Unlike the scandals Pentecostals are famous for, this one happened just prior to the advent of mass media, in the earliest period of American Pentecostalism, where Pentecostalism was still pretty obscure, so the case is shrouded in a bit of mystery. And likely to remain that way.

All that's really known for sure was there was this arrest in July '07, and that was the first real scandal in American Pentecostalism.

This was originally published on May 18, 2012.