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Table of Contents

--Catherine Brekus, "The Flag and the Cross"
--Naomi Nelson, "God's Americans"
--Ronald L. Numbers, "America's God, Nature's God"
--Leslie Woodcock Tentler, "An Evangelical Republic"

Simon Doubleday, "English Hispanists and the Discourse of Empiricism"

John Lukacs, "Speaking of Books: Amsterdam"

Richard C. Raack, "Speaking of Books: Koba the Dread

John David Smith, "The Lawyer vs. The Race Traitor: Charles W. Chesnutt, William Hannibal Thomas, and The American Negro"

Michael Dennis, "A Community Affair: Luther P. Jackson and Historical Consciousness"

From David L. Chappell's “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Faith, Liberalism, and the Death of Jim Crow”

“Three discoveries . . . have contributed to a new interpretation of the civil rights movement, which sees a deep skepticism about human nature at the center of the movement’s strategy. Regrettably, historians have not taken this skepticism into account, perhaps because it contradicts liberalism’s historic faith in mankind. (The dominant version of liberal faith focuses on an imaginary mankind of the future, in which scientific discovery, mass education, and economic growth eradicate tradition. A variant has dominated the historical profession since the l970s: faith in the ‘ordinary’ grassroots folk who will triumph if only right-thinking scholars help them find their voice.)  Nearly all histories of civil rights have seen the movement as liberal in spirit, and its opposition as a typical conservative defense of the status quo. But black southern leaders of the movement rejected fundamental liberal assumptions, and their segregationist enemies failed to behave like traditional conservatives. Meanwhile, the liberals were ineffectual in their efforts to confront racism—until they were drawn into the wake of the black southern movement, which sounded more like a tent revival than an ACLU meeting.  When that revival ended, liberals became ineffectual again.”

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From Leo P. Ribuffo's “Conservatism and American Politics”
“The prevailing conception of conservatism is so cramped not only because it usually lacks historical depth, but also because even for the last half century, historians focus too much on the intellectuals discussed by Nash or repeatedly trace the origins of the Reagan coalition to the activities of Goldwater, Buckley, and their immediate circle. Although the collected speeches of Karl Mundt, or even of the hamy oratory of Everett Dirksen are much less fun to read than Richard M. Weaver’s assaults on Claude Monet, the congressional conservative coalition that has reinvented itself at least once per generation since the late 1930s deserves much more attention than paleocon or libertarian thinkers. Not least, the history of contemporary conservatism would look much different if scholars were less susceptible to the journalistic convention that re-labels as a moderate every conservative elected president except perhaps Reagan. Eisenhower may have been exaggerating when he claimed to be more conservative than Robert Taft in domestic affairs. Yet, as most participants in the first academic discovery knew in the 1950s, he was a conservative. Anyone who has seen pictures of Eisenhower flashing his famous smile before cheering crowds might conclude that Ike was the most successful ‘populist conservative’ of them all.”

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From Catherine Brekus's “The Flag and the Cross”
“America’s God is not only a fascinating account of how Protestantism shaped America’s national identity, but a profound meditation on the relation between Christianity and culture. By ending his story with the battles over slavery, he forces us to confront the dangers of blurring the boundaries between politics and Christianity, the flag and the cross. No one who reads this book will ever be able to hear America described as a ‘redeemer nation’ without remembering the awful devastation of the Civil War.

Yet while Noll offers a superb study of the relationship between evangelicalism and politics, this book is not about ‘America’s God.’  A more apt title would have been Evangelical Theology and American Politics, 1740-1865.  Although Noll occasionally mentions groups outside of the white Protestant mainstream, his analysis largely ignores Catholics, Lutherans, African-American Protestants, Shakers, Spiritualists, Mormons, and Disciples of Christ, to name just a few.  In a witty aside, Noll admits that his narrow focus may raise questions about why his book is not entitled Elite America’s God, but he argues that evangelical Protestants played a disproportionate role in shaping public opinion.  Noll certainly has a point: evangelical Protestants exercised enormous influence on American culture and politics.  Yet there was no single public sphere in nineteenth-century America, and as different groups competed for converts, they presented different images of both God and humanity.  A full exploration of ‘America’s God’ would require a much more extensive discussion of these theological debates.”

From Naomi Nelson's “God’s Americans”
“Given the existence of previous studies of the development of early American theologies—and in particular the Congregational and Presbyterian theologies—Noll must strive to recapture a sense of contingency in his version of the story to show that, given the international context, many of the changes in Americans’ theological beliefs were unexpected. Noll draws comparisons between Protestant theology during this period in British and European nations and in the United States, highlighting the unique and surprising developments in American theology. The strength of the evidence he marshals, however, makes it difficult to imagine how another outcome could have been possible given the social and political context in the United States. Noll never argues that the secular context determined theological development, but he strives to show that all dogma is grounded, not abstract. The line between context and theology nonetheless proves difficult to walk. Thus Noll argues, ‘Revivalistic republicanism did not write Taylor’s theology, but that theology is very hard to imagine without this American ideological context’ (316).

In Noll’s introduction, he states that he is a confessing Christian and expresses his hope that America’s God reflects his work as a historian more than his work as a theologian—although, as he admits parenthetically, his reasons behind this hope remain ultimately theological.  His Christian faith did not give him special insight into the theologians he studied or special access to historical sources.  His openness to the complexities within his subject, more than his personal faith, enabled him to tell the story of America’s God so powerfully and convincingly.” 

From Ronald L. Numbers' “America’s God, Nature’s God”
"Between the time of Jonathan Edwards (1730s) and Abraham Lincoln (1860s), men of science were transforming the worldview of the West:  exploding the traditional timescale, naturalizing the supernatural, constructing a novel history of life. The more they explained about earthquakes and epidemics, comets and lightning, the less many Americans, including theologians, invoked the direct agency of God and the more they trusted the so-called experimental philosophy. By the post-Civil War period the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge was complaining that the very word science had become ‘more and more restricted to . . . the facts of nature or of the external world,’ that theology was losing its claim to scientific status, and that its practitioners were finding themselves increasingly regarded as objects of suspicion rather than beacons of light. Religion, he sadly concluded, was in a ‘fight for its life against a large class of scientific men.’ Hodge was undoubtedly overwrought, but assuredly not unaware of the unstable status of theology.  Noll, however, never hints at a brewing mortal struggle brewing with science or even at contested intellectual boundaries. In Noll’s narrative, the relationship of theology to science pales in importance beside the battles between New School and Old School Presbyterians, Unitarians and trinitarians, American Romantics and Christological Romantics, even ‘exercisers’ and ‘tasters.’”

From Leslie Woodcock Tentler's “An Evangelical Republic”
“Noll’s achievement rests in large measure on the subtlety of this formulation—religion functions throughout the book as simultaneously an agent of change, its beneficiary, and its unwitting victim. Noll’s achievement also rests on his broad and convincing evidence, particularly with regard to social contexts. The theologians whose ideas are Noll’s first love speak and write against a backdrop of almost frenetic church-founding and a network of evangelical societies that rivaled the federal government in reach and expenditure. As a result, we have a fuller, more nuanced understanding of both the genesis and impact of their ideas. And even the most secular-minded reader can see why these ideas matter. 

America’s God is thus an achievement to give heart to historians of American religion. Noll has constructed a narrative where religion, politics and culture mesh in almost seamless fashion.  But America’s God is also a daunting read for those of us who work primarily on the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Noll, after all, is dealing with a period of relative religious homogeneity, at least by American standards. It is true that denominations and sects proliferated in the ante-bellum decades, and that immigration also made for increased religious variety. (Roman Catholics, lest we forget, constituted the largest American denomination by the eve of the Civil War.) But, as Noll points out, the nation was still overwhelmingly, and militantly, Protestant—a reality that was reflected in its public discourse.  Nearly all American Protestants, moreover, shared a peculiarly literalist approach to Scripture—one grounded in ‘common sense’ assumptions about individual perspicacity and what Noll aptly calls a ‘populist antitraditionalism’ (381). A visceral anti-Catholicism was important, too:  no matter how contentious the various Protestant bodies, their common obsession with the Roman ‘other’ was a potent bond. ‘It was an expansive period,’ as Noll concedes, ‘but with still a relatively cohesive set of widely shared theological convictions and intellectual practices’ (228).”

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From Simon Doubleday's “English Hispanists and the Discourse of Empiricism”
“In the closing pages of La Construcción de la Nación Española: Republicanismo y nacionalismo en la Ilustración, Mario Onaindía, former member of the Basque terrorist organization Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and battle-hardened veteran of Franco's prison cells, confesses that his real vocation would have been that of an English Hispanist. Struck by this curious aspiration, the reviewer for the literary supplement of El País (‘Babelia’) speculates that Onaindía's words reflect a conception of English scholars as models of serene objectivity: an impossible task, he adds, for those who have been directly involved in the tempestuous history of Spain.  Unlike the English—in the eyes of the Spanish reviewer—Onaindía is driven by personal involvement in a present-day conflict, and thus becomes a necessarily anxious observer of the past: in particular, the struggle between republicanism and ethnic nationalism in the eighteenth century.  One might raise questions about the assumption that nationality in and of itself imparts a more (or less) impassioned understanding of historical events; in fact, a good deal of modern Spanish historiography has been characterized by its own allegiance to empiricist methodology. The image of detached observation also glosses over some of the heated polemics that have taken place among the anglosajones, including vigorous debate on the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. This debate, which has recently focused on the role of the Soviet Union in the Civil War, has repeatedly pitted liberal English Hispanists including Paul Preston (of the London School of Economics), Tim Rees (Exeter) and Frances Lannon (Oxford) against more conservative American historians such as Stanley Payne and Ronald Radosh. But the considerably exaggerated reputation of the English for detachment, for a capacity to demythologize, has accounted in large part for the status that an elite of Hispanists–Preston, John Elliott, Hugh Thomas, Raymond Carr, Geoffrey Parker, and others–have enjoyed in Spain since the dark days of Francoist censorship.”

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From John Lukacs's “Speaking of Books: Amsterdam

Geert Mak, Amsterdam, translated by Philipp Blom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). 352 pages. $17.95 (paperback). 

“Mak’s history of Amsterdam gives us a sense of continuity and of change, ‘That curious mixture of old-fashionedness and pragmatism which is so characteristic of this city’ (28). ‘Amsterdam was never a truly medieval city.  No king has ever held court here, the Church has never played a truly all-encompassing role, the social and political structures were never determined by the relations between ruler, vassal, and serf. From the very beginning it was a modern city, its citizens were independent and stubborn enough to take care of themselves.’ Yet ‘Amsterdam was a child of its time, with medieval houses, streets and squares’ (42). Mak’s passages about the colors and sounds and smells of Amsterdam combine evocative impressionism with solid evidence. He cites Johan Huizinga and other fine historians, whom he read as judiciously and well as he read and culled wondrous illustrative evidence and passages from city archives, diaries, memoirs, and journals. Bourgeois history at its best, Mak’s Amsterdam is also a history of urbanism since already in 1514, more than half of Holland’s citizens lived in towns and cities.”

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FromRichard C. Raack's “Speaking of Books: Koba the Dread

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). 336 pages. $14.00 (paperback).

“When a famous novelist takes up the task of reinforcing history, he wins a ready audience and reviews in popular journals. Martin Amis chose as historical adviser Robert Conquest, a family friend and long-time reporter of many of Stalin’s domestic crimes. Amis seems driven by a need to underscore for a forgetful or unknowing public the record of Stalin’s misdeeds, long minimized and prettified by the author’s former Marxist pals.

Many litteratuers once spiritually bedded with Stalin, but since his crimes have been exposed, academics here and abroad have pursued downward revisions of his record of murder, retouching the desolate picture of the Soviet Reich. Amis picks out a few ‘revisionists’ from the American campus crop, many of them tenured nabobs and board members at one or more historical journals. Their potential for reinforcing one another is vast, going well beyond their massed printed arguments. Such studiously articulated intertwinings indicate one reason why today’s historical reporting on controversial subjects remains skewed against an honest account of Stalin’s crimes.”

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From John David Smith's “The Lawyer vs. The Race Traitor: Charles W. Chesnutt, William Hannibal Thomas, and The American Negro
“Throughout Thomas’ career, he evolved from a constructive black social critic to what historian Joel Williamson has termed a Radical racist, a term Williamson otherwise reserves for whites. ‘Soberly speaking,’ Thomas wrote in terms that were anything but sober, ‘Negro nature is so craven and sensuous in every fiber of its being that a Negro manhood with decent respect for chaste womanhood does not exist.’ Single-handedly Thomas fueled the fires of white racism with a force that scores of white bigots could not have hoped to achieve. Never before had a person of color so thoroughly slandered his race . . . .

Significantly, Thomas’ The American Negro united virtually all segments of the African-American community at a moment when the status of African Americans was at low ebb. Opposition to Thomas provided a rallying cry for African Americans of all ideological camps, and his notorious book accomplished the apparently impossible—it temporarily united the warring Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois factions. Both race leaders reviewed the book negatively in national magazines. Washington did so anonymously, constructively, and diplomatically. Du Bois more acerbically denounced Thomas as a race traitor, eloquently describing him as yet ‘another casualty of the color line.’

After the publication of Thomas’ book in January, 1901, and the appearance of two additional printings in March and May, an army of furious blacks worked independently, then collectively, to obtain documents to destroy Thomas’ credibility as a race critic. Here, I explore one small part of the publishing history of Thomas’ The American Negro, specifically, the efforts of the mulatto teacher, lawyer, and celebrated author Charles W. Chesnutt to influence the Macmillan Company to withdraw The American Negro from sale.”

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From Michael Dennis's “A Community Affair: Luther P. Jackson and Historical Consciousness”
“Few African-American historians of the early civil rights era rivaled Luther P. Jackson in the struggle to reconcile professional and public concerns. A voting rights activist, a professor of history at Virginia State College, and a devoted adherent of Carter Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Jackson was also a popularizer. Here I would like to modify the lexicon, since ‘popular’ history carries a ring of vulgarity that suggests doubtful intellectual respectability. Historians invoke ‘popular’ to discredit alleged amateurs and to ward off would-be academic imitators. Luther Jackson was not a ‘popular’ historian as some might define it today, but rather a community historian. Today’s popular historians may not be community-conscious, but Jackson and a good many of his contemporaries were. 

If history is about discovering paths not taken, Jackson offers a stunning example of an alternative to the bureaucratized academician of today. He sought to understand and explain the experiences of people in his own community who belonged to a larger community of southern blacks, who were divided by geographic and demographic variables but bound together by common cultural patterns and the experience of racial oppression. His interests narrowed the scope of his work, which primarily focused upon an examination of the forebears of the black middle class of his own day. Jackson thus engaged in a fairly self-conscious form of community building that included distinctive notions of class, history, and race. He wrote about local communities, turning to them in his effort to reconstruct the lives of the free blacks and slaves to whom many were related. A community historian intimately attuned to the people and places that surrounded him, he also wrote as a leader responsible to the political and spiritual yearnings of average people . . . . In struggling to define a place for the academic in the community, Jackson’s importance as an historian transcended the early civil rights movement.  Regrettably, he undertook this effort at a time when historians, black and white, were abandoning community history for the headier heights of academic obscurantism.”

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INTRODUCTION-Cui Bono? The Proper Place of Engagement in the Writing of History 
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
At a moment at which many people across the world view the United States as an imperialist monster—and many Americans, especially academics, concur—The Journal is doing the unthinkable: publishing an almost entirely “American” issue. Even under the most propitious circumstances, readers might question the decision.  America does not represent the entire world, although as some hope and many fear, it may represent the future of much of the world.  The parts of the world unlikely to be caught up in the rising American tide may be doomed to a dose of poverty and disease that makes hatred for the “ugly American” easy. 

We are under no illusions that America is the entire world, or the reverse, and we decided to publish each of these specific articles because of its intrinsic interest.  But the intrinsic interest of the discrete articles cannot alone explain a decision to publish them in the same issue.  That decision gradually took shape as two considerations imposed themselves.  First, although written independent of one another, the articles—however inadvertently—engage in a compelling conversation about questions of great moment for our times as a whole and for historians in particular.  Second, the questions they engage bear upon countless situations and struggles throughout the world and upon the ways in which historians perceive and write about them.  It is hard not to savor the delicious irony that aficionados of postmodern perspectives on the writing of history are often those most likely to brush aside—or never recognize—the evidence that challenges their preferred orthodoxies.  Thus do the self-styled iconoclasts end up imprisoned by their own verities and perpetuate a status quo ante they claim to be destroying.

This issue returns us to questions we have taken up in the American context and others since our first issue, beginning with the discussion opened by Darryl Hart about the appropriate place of religion in the writing of American history.  Hart’s reflection upon the appropriate place of religious history in a core political narrative prompted responses from David Whitford and Dennis Martin about its place at different moments in European history.  Then 9/11 endowed the relation of religion to politics with an immediacy we could not have foreseen.  The symposium on the meaning, origins, and consequences of those cataclysmic events opened a web of tantalizing trails, all of which end in tangled and seemingly impenetrable thickets, suggesting that our current challenges defy easy solutions—and sometimes any solution at all.  We nonetheless know that their intermingling of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, race, and nationalism is highly combustible and precludes any simple identification of first causes: what ultimately fuels the rage of terrorists and the more general spirit of anti-Americanism? 

To pose the question of religion’s possible relation to forms of political or national allegiance leads many of us back to history in quest of relevant precedents.  Americans remain, by Western standards, an unusually religious people, which, wealth and military prowess notwithstanding, makes us look somewhat more like the non-European than the European world.  Perhaps not coincidentally, we also attract a large number of immigrants, many of whom adhere more devoutly to their faiths than their wealthier, “better-educated” hosts.  Even among native born Americans, until recently, churches grounded and centered the lives of many, notably the African-American community, which was denied access to much secular political, social, and economic participation.  As David Chappell demonstrates in the opening essay in this issue, African Americans’ religious faith figured prominently in their success in the struggles for civil rights—or, more accurately, their struggle for full participation in American society.  The question thus ensues: what role did religion play in the Civil Rights struggles as a whole, and would it be possible to write their history without attending to religion?

Chappell’s essay foreshadows the introduction to his forthcoming book, A Stone of Hope: Relgion and the Death of Jim Crow, to be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.  He lays out an arresting argument, which the book develops in full, about the relation between religion and politics in the struggles against racial segregation in the United States.  Writing against the grain of common wisdom and received opinion, Chappell locates the core of black activism in an abiding religious commitment, but writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular, he further argues that King’s faith—and by extension that of the Movement—embodied a deep kernel of pessimism, “a decidedly negative view of human nature and history.”  In Chappell’s view, the faith that “drove thousands of black southern protesters to their unusual victories in the mid-1960s grew out of a realistic understanding of prospects for justice in this world.”  In contrast, the white liberals who supported the Movement did not share the southern blacks’ sense of urgency and mission.  Their “faith” in reason led them to expect appropriate changes to unfold in a reasonable manner.[1]

That liberals prided themselves on having substituted reason for blind or irrational faith, should come as no surprise, although the source of their pride had less to do with reason per se, which has always played a prominent role in many religions, than with the power of the individual mind to define and embody it.  More surprising is Chappell’s claim that “the most articulate and sensitive liberal thinkers had long been aware of the cultural and political weakness of their faith in reason.” The philosopher John Dewey in particular sadly recognized, as did many other liberals, that liberalism could not offer a substitute for faith but nonetheless believed “that some modern substitute for religion was urgently needed.”  Liberal anxieties on this score persisted into the years following World War II and leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.  Although Stalinism introduced considerable pessimism about society into liberal thought, especially among those who had sympathized with Communism during the 1930s, optimism about human nature persisted and, most significantly for the fight against segregation, permeated the highly influential work on race in the United States, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.

Liberal optimism about race relations and the natural improvement in the position of minorities in general and black Americans in particular directly contradicted the leading black activists’ view of the fallen and depraved character of human nature.  But the black leaders’ low expectations of their fellow citizens derived from the same faith that sustained them through a long and difficult struggle—their “stone of hope” evoked in Chappell’s title and borrowed from one of King’s great speeches.  In a final twist that punctures widespread white liberal scorn for the white southern “Bible Belt,” Chappell argues that the militant segregationists suffered from the same lack of sustaining faith as the Liberals.  White segregationists might well have welcomed justification from their preachers, but their preachers refused them.  Where antebellum preachers had argued with conviction—and massive evidence—that the Bible sanctioned slavery, their post-bellum successors insisted that it offered no justification for racism or racial segregation.  Their message—grounded in their reading of the Word of God—led the segregationists to see Christianity as the enemy.

Chappell’s account of religion and politics in the Civil Rights Movement undermines countless implicit and explicit prevailing views of the dynamics of the Movement and the beliefs of the main players.  In this respect, his work reminds us that precisely where general opinion is most confident of having gotten the story right it may be most vulnerable to having gotten it wrong and backwards.  Especially when studying the recent past, historians are sorely tempted to see what they wish to see—to let passions about current struggles shape their views of their subject. 

According to Leo Ribuffo, contemporary attitudes, if not prejudices, have similarly shaped historical discussions of the emergence of a new conservatism in the United States in reaction to the New Deal.  Following World War II and then the failure of the United States to secure a quick victory in the Cold War, the “new conservatism” mounted a sharp attack on liberalism, which, by the cohesion of the Reagan coalition, it was so successfully discrediting that liberals were adopting the sobriquet of progressives with no apparent concern for its recent (Henry Wallace) radical connotations.  This familiar and widely accepted story, as Ribuffo points out, is not “wrong as far as it goes,” but it does not go anywhere near far enough and “offers a cramped conception of what constitutes—and constituted—American conservatism.”

Ribuffo convincingly argues that scholars and intellectuals’ discovery of conservatism did not originate in the liberal—or left-wing—academic distress at the success of the Reagan coalition, but in the years following World War II, if not well before.  Historians, political theorists, and sociologists like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter, and C. Wright Mills differed significantly on many intellectual and political matters, but all entertained surprisingly similar views of American conservatism.  For various reasons, they all tended to minimize social struggles and to focus on the strong spirit of “consensus” that had dominated American history.  In this spirit, they also depicted American society as a continuous, if not entirely harmonious, spectrum from left to right rather than as divided into warring camps of the people and the special interests.  Finally, they seriously considered the unthinkable: American society had always been conservative.  This last strand—or “shard” in Ribuffo’s words—is the most important and, to the post-Reagan generation of scholars and commentators, the least acceptable.  Their sense of themselves and the superior virtue of their own politics depended upon a view of the American tradition—political and cultural as baptized by Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling respectively—as liberal, and of conservatism as an aberration.[2]

Were we to incorporate “a broad and deep perspective on conservatism” into “the historiographical mainstream,” we would, Ribuffo suggests, be compelled to reconsider “many issues and eras.”  In recent years, a start has been made on a new wave of the historical study of conservatism, but it still falls far short of the thorough reconsideration that might force us to confront the difficult question: “To what extent, and in what ways is the United States a conservative country?”   Like Chappell’s discussion of the main groups in the Civil Rights Movement, Ribuffo’s discussion of the historical study of conservatism invites us to see a different picture—to break free of “our profession’s current cramped conception of conservatism.”  Like cloudy lenses, our preconceptions obscure our view of the contours of the landscape and leave us, like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.  More seriously, our inability to rethink comfortable stories—especially about recent history—may deprive us of the intellectual vigor and flexibility to meet the abundant and dangerous challenges of our time.  Problems of race relations, immigration, and religious pluralism, which may once have seemed typically American, are permeating the entire world as restless populations, driven by economic necessity or lured by economic and political opportunity, increasingly share territories and resources that but recently had been reserved to the native born. 

Notwithstanding the undeniable importance of access to resources, religion is playing—as it has always played—a central role in the most heated struggles among peoples, whether Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics in the former Yugoslavia, or Sunni, Shi’ites, Jews, and Christians in the Middle East. The Journal returned to religion’s proper place in history in our most recent issue, where E. Brooks Holifield, in a review of Mark Noll’s America’s God, implicitly takes up Darryl Hart’s original questions.  While lavishly praising Noll’s formidable accomplishment, Holifield, as readers may recall, also gently chides him for slighting the intrinsic interest of the theological developments and the European influence on them.  Or, to put it somewhat differently, he very delicately suggests that Noll, if anything, gives too much attention to American religion’s engagement with the world and the politics thereof.

In this issue, we pursue the discussion of America’s God through a symposium that includes contributions from Catherine Brekus, Naomi Nelson, Ronald L. Numbers, and Leslie Woodcock Tentler.  The participants speak as one in praising the magnitude of Noll’s accomplishment, but each also raises questions that reflect a range of particular concerns arising from their distinct perspectives.  In one way or another, however, the questions converge in noting Noll’s tendency to merge religion with politics, especially in relation to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  Berkus appreciates Noll’s insistence that “ideas matter” and argues that he traces the emergence of “a distinctively American form of theology that merged evangelicalism, republicanism, and commonsense philosophy” to illuminate the central developments in American history from the growth of the new republic to the advent of the Civil War.  Yet even as she approves Noll’s success in tracing the tightening bonds among the religious, political, and intellectual developments, she calls attention to eighteenth-century theologians’ fears of the threat, evident in tracts such as John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), that “republicanism would pave the way to heresy.”  In this respect, she implicitly links American to European developments, acknowledging some influence of the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment and, especially, Scottish commonsense philosophy on American theology.  Yet more striking, she implicitly identifies ties between such otherwise implacable enemies as the New England Puritans and British High Church men like Charles Leslie.[3]

Nelson however reminds us of Noll’s claim that American theologians borrowed little from European thought.  In this respect, she implicitly seconds Holifield’s view that Noll’s focus upon the ties between religion and politics slights the importance of American theology’s engagement with European thought.  On Nelson’s showing, Noll represents American religion—and theology—as a distinctly American phenomenon and as one that influenced social evolution. Her thoughtful discussion of the relation between theology and society in America’s God culminates, as does the book itself, in Noll’s discussion of Lincoln, whom he reveres.  Like all of the other contributors to this symposium, Nelson picks up on Noll’s claim that Lincoln offered a “profound theological interpretation of the War between the States.”  But she also grasps that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to which Noll attaches such great significance, represented a “striking departure from American evangelical theology.” 

Nelson’s observations reinforce Berkus’ that “American Protestant theologians had been so influenced by their culture that they could no longer separate faith from politics.”  Nelson and Berkus, seconded if anything more insistently by Numbers and Tentler, note that these theologians, who enjoy pride of place in Noll’s work, represent the elite, not American society at large.  Yet, as Tentler observes, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, theology became increasingly “democratized,” characterized by the “pervasive conviction that ordinary men and women could apprehend God’s purposes by means of private religious experience.”  In this respect, theology accommodated itself to “a frankly populist set of human priorities.”  The populism in question nonetheless remained highly selective.  It took no account of the growing numbers of Catholics, much less of Jews.  More portentously, it excluded the devoutly Christian—mainly evangelical protestant—slaveholding South.  When the War did come, it pitted “America’s God” against the Lord of Hosts and—in the southern view—God’s America. 

Numbers adds yet another dimension by focusing upon Noll’s virtual neglect of science.  The symbiosis of religion and politics undoubtedly played a major role in the domestication and privatization of the God of Wrath, but no comprehensive discussion of American religion during the nineteenth century can ignore the mounting challenge of science as a coherent explanation for the workings of the world.  Today, most people probably still see science as the great rival to and leveler of religion’s claims, and it matters little whether they understand much about the subtleties of either.  In the common view, science has served as the great debunker of religion’s claims to offer a coherent and comprehensive explanation of the mysteries of the universe and the human condition—and thus as the primary agent of secularization.

If we credit the arguments advanced in these essays, Noll’s work suggests that Darryl Hart may have underestimated—or minimized—the centrality of religion to the main narrative of American history, but the essays’ claims for religion’s centrality do not amount to a blanket endorsement of Noll’s account.  Never slighting the impressive learning and breadth of America’s God, the authors of these essays gently suggest that Noll may not fully have grasped the significance of his own work, or, to put it differently, may not have chosen to emphasize the extent to which political engagement had transformed American religion from within.  In Tentler’s words, Noll effectively portrays America’s God as an “honorary citizen.”  But the deepest irony may lie elsewhere.  Noll’s view of Lincoln’s “profound theology” fits uneasily with the recognition that Lincoln was a non-believer.  Does the juxtaposition of the two claims mean that we are to view America’s God as also a non-believer, or are we simply to view America’s religion as another form of individualism in which the private views of each person trump any vestige of a creed for all? 

None is likely to doubt that personal conviction often influences the way in which historians assess the relation between religion and politics or between religion and a sense of national identity.  Nor are many likely to contest Hart’s willingness to question the very place of religion in national political history.  If nothing else, we all know that the importance of religion to political life varies dramatically according to time and place.  The lesson from these readings of Noll’s book should nonetheless give us pause, for Noll appears to be saying that as religion lost more and more of its “religious” content and authority, it lost little or none of its social, cultural, and ideological importance.  Thus, however inadvertently, Noll returns us to the world of Sacvan Bercovitch’s American Jeremiad in which the Puritan temperament long outlived Puritan theology.  In this instance, Noll’s vision of Abraham Lincoln as the realization of the true American mission or ideal—the proper end of Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness—decisively shapes his view of religion’s place in American history.  But by ending his account with Lincoln, he leaves for others the task of evaluating the ability of an increasingly secularized religion to engage the politics of the modern world.  In the struggle for integration, as Chappell demonstrates, religion, even when imbued with pessimism, inspired and fortified black resolve, but offered white segregationists nothing at all.[4]

Simon Doubleday’s review essay of Raymond Carr’s edited volume of essays on Spanish history, Spain: A History, moves us to a different continent, but engages disconcertingly similar questions.  In this essay, Doubleday explores the political and national allegiances that inform contemporary visions of and scholarship on Spanish history.  Differences over appropriate historical methods account for some of the tensions, but the differences are not as great as authors on either side would have us think.  British historians of Spain, like Carr himself, claim a devotion to rigid empiricism that their work often belies.  Conversely, Spanish historians, especially those who have been politically engaged, are expected to be driven by nationalist or partisan passions, which make objectivity a mere illusion.  Yet Spanish historians, too, aspire to empiricist objectivity, while British historians have often been drawn by the “passion” they attribute to Spain’s Mediterranean character. 

The stakes for the Spanish historians are high and have everything to do with the history of Spain’s purported “national” identity.  Since what period may Spain legitimately be thought of as a “nation”?  And what character of nation?  Not surprisingly, the Franco regime promoted an unrealistically favorable image of (the canonized) King Fernando III (1217-1252).  Similarly, Richard Fletcher, the author, according to Doubleday, of the “most direct attack on unitary visions of Spanish history” in Carr’s collection, holds that the Spanish Right favored “the transformation of the mercenary Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid, into a model of National Catholic rectitude.”  Myths of Spanish unity have not, however, been a monopoly of the Right. Across the political spectrum, Spanish historians have often cherished a vision of a unified national past.  The contributors to Carr’s volume may emphasize their empiricism, but Doubleday notes that they demonstrably delight in Spanish multiplicity—if not multiculturalism: “the Spanish are now immersed in a world in which territorial borders have apparently been fragile, permeable, challenged, and fluid.”

Doubleday speculates that the attitudes of these British historians (the one American contributor, Richard Herr, who writes about the forging of a sense of nationhood in the eighteenth century, confirms the late onset of nationhood) may bear a direct relation to their own experience of a decomposing sense of national identity.  Throughout the world, economic developments have eroded all national boundaries, and, for the British and Spanish, the emergence of Europe as a supranational political entity has not merely challenged the integrity of their national identities, it has encouraged a measure of internal devolution with the claiming of a discrete national identity by the Scots, the Basques, and others.  The move “Beyond the Patria” has, in Doubleday’s view, shaped a new generation of Spanish historians and encouraged “a variety of new transnationalisms.”    But it is likely to be matched by a resurgent sense of national distinctiveness that promises to mold another school of Spanish historians.  The debate, in other words, will continue and, at its best, embody both high standards of empirical “objectivity” and the passions of the “engaged” historian.

In “Speaking of Books,” John Lukacs and Richard C. Raack invite us to savor two very different works by authors who, although not professional historians, manifest an admirable commitment to the importance of history as the potential custodian of a true—or honest—account of the past and as a proper forum for the expression of contemporary concerns.  Lukacs writes glowingly of the portrait of Amsterdam drawn by the eminent Dutch journalist, Geert Mak.  Lukacs praises Mak for capturing the elements of continuity and change that have characterized Amsterdam’s history—and for appreciating its nature as a bourgeois city in the proper sense of the term.  His appreciation of Mak’s ability to convey genuine learning in fluid prose might well be applied to his own work and should remind all of us that if history is to shape the ways in which people think about our world, we must write a history that people can enjoy reading. 

A deep admiration for the contributions to Western civilization of the European bourgeoisie informs Lukacs’ own extensive and varied historical work and surely contributes to his pleasure in Mak’s history of Amsterdam.  Presumably a comparable commitment to civility and freedom of thought informs Raack’s brief and unabashedly feisty review of Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by the novelist Martin Amis, Raack makes no attempt to disguise the political convictions that inform Amis’ book and his review of it.  Both author and reviewer, however, mobilize their passion in an effort to correct literary and academic “revisions” of Stalin’s well-documented record of mass murder.  Raack’s discussion of Amis provides a salutary caution about the power of well-placed academic “nabobs” to shape a historical record to suit their personal views—and to propagate them as the official version of the way things were.  As in the case of writing—or failing to write—the history of conservatism, Raack’s pithy review reminds us that no groups holds a monopoly on the shaping of history for political ends.

Having opened this issue with Chappell’s analysis of the unexpected complexities of the views of the various parties to the struggle against racial segregation, we conclude it with two thoughtful considerations of equally unexpected complexities within African American intellectual circles during the first half of the twentieth century—the decades that paved the way for the subsequent struggles.  In “The Lawyer vs. the Race Traitor,” John David Smith explores a disturbing struggle between the little known William Hannibal Thomas and the distinguished writer and journalist, Charles W. Chesnutt.  Here Smith develops a theme from his recent book on Thomas, Black Judas.  In 1901, arguably close to the nadir of black status in the United States, Macmillan published Thomas’ book, The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become.  The prestige of the publishing company, which, thirty-five years later, would publish Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, only heightened the book’s affront to black Americans, especially the black intelligentsia.[5]

Smith presents Thomas as “a man of intelligence, erudition, ability, and resourcefulness, who ultimately used his gifts against his people and himself.”  The American Negro embodied all of those attributes, which it deployed in a sustained defense of the Negro’s inferiority.  Thomas’ vilification of Negroes and celebration of mulattoes flew in the face of Chesnutt’s most passionate convictions about the ultimate merging of the races.  Writing to Booker T. Washington, Chesnutt charged Thomas with destroying everything “we” are trying to build, and he determined to do all he could to destroy the book—or at least negate its potential influence.  Chesnutt’s passion seems to have derived from genuine social and political conviction.  A light-skinned mulatto and highly successful author and journalist, he could move pretty much where he chose and, had he chosen, which he did not, could easily have “passed” into the white world.  Thomas’ book posed no personal threat to Chesnutt, who appeared the model of calm self-assurance and confidence, but it directly threatened the racial policies he championed.  The book so enraged Chesnutt that in order to convince Macmillan to withdraw it from publication, he went to extraordinary lengths to discredit Thomas by digging up all of his past lies, deceptions, and misappropriations of funds—and they abounded—and detailing them in a facsimile of a legal brief, IN RE WILLIAM HANNIBAL THOMAS, AUTHOR OF “THE AMERICAN NEGRO.”

As Smith concludes, “Charles W. Chesnutt’s crusade against William Hannibal Thomas reminds us that African Americans were unwilling to tolerate a “Black Judas” in their midst, and they rallied forcefully to drive a stake through Thomas’ troubled soul.”  In this instance, as in many others, the virtues of freedom of expression could not be permitted to jeopardize the political prospects of “the race.”  From Chesnutt’s perspective, black Americans, a good half-century before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, were engaged in a war to establish their position and rights as full citizens of the nation, and the exigencies of waging war justified extraordinary measures.  The vicissitudes of Salmon Rushdie’s work or even Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggest that the fundamental issues remain very much alive: under what conditions and for what ends is the suppression of viewpoints or facts or opinions justified?  Few of us, I suspect, could honestly answer, “never.”  But too many of us, I fear, allow those very viewpoints, opinions, and judgment about the “relevant” facts to color our sense of when and where the lines should be drawn.

Michael Dennis offers us an engrossing discussion of these questions as they surfaced in the debates over ends and means in the writing of African American history during the middle decades of the twentieth century, especially the 1930s and 1940s.  Dennis focuses upon the career of Luther P. Jackson, “a voting rights activist, a professor of history at Virginia State College, and a devoted adherent of Carter Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” but also a highly successful “popularizer.”  As Jackson increasingly directed his research towards providing the black people of Virginia with a “usable” past, he increasingly ran afoul of Woodson, who reproached his emphasis upon family history, his willingness to use oral testimony, and his preference for the local and particular.  Woodson effectively faulted Jackson for betraying his scholarly training and mission.  Jackson saw his mission as bringing history alive for ordinary African Americans, in whom he sought to awaken an interest in the history of their family and community’s past.

Jackson, as “an historical actor in his own right but also an academic who aspired to communicate historical insights to people who lived amidst the evidence of the past’s grip on the present,” sought to combine honest scholarship with purposeful political action.  In the end, Dennis argues, he sought a workable compromise between “conventional notions of scholarship and public intellectual responsibility.”  He deployed his history in “community-building and political mobilization,” even as he tried to remain true to the standards of his craft.  At least in part, the question came down to a judgment about the appropriate uses or ends of history, and Jackson could never allow history to remain a purely academic exercise.  Jackson’s career touches upon issues that remain very much alive today, notably the relation between academic and public historians and between scholarly and popular history.

In various ways, all of the articles and reviews in this issue engage those questions, and all—implicitly or explicitly—acknowledge the impossibility of definitive answers.  It is, as the Ancients often said, a matter of balance or, to borrow Dennis’ quote from John Lukacs, a matter of “the reduction of untruth.”[6]  The one indispensable—and frequently elusive—requirement is our honesty about both our means (methods and sources) and our ends (purposes and external commitments).  When battles rage fiercely, the honesty is hard to come by, but even then we can ill afford to sacrifice the aspiration to it.  The struggles within recent American history and over the appropriate ways to write it cannot pretend to exhaust the myriad variations in experience throughout the world.  But they increasingly embody and typify the social, racial, political, economic, intellectual, and religious tensions that, having migrated here from the four corners of the earth, are now boomeranging back on their places of origin.


[1] David Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
[2] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (repr. New York: Vintage Books, 1989); The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (repr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); and Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Viking Books, 1950).
[3] See William Kolbrener’s “The Charge of Socinianism: Charles Leslie’s High Church Defense of True Religion,” The Journal of the Historical Society III, no.1 (Winter 2003): 1-24.
[4] Sacvan Berkovitch, American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1950);   Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness (repr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).
[5] John David Smith, Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).
[6] John Lukacs, “Popular and Professional History,” Historically Speaking III, no. 4 (April 2002): 2.
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