NEPCA’s 2017 conference will take place on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday October 27 and Saturday October 28, 2017.
Periodic updates and information will be made on this site and can be viewed by clicking on the Fall Conference tab above.
WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION? (Revised Edition, 2016)
By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 324 pages
For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no need to pose the question raised in the title of John Fea’s monograph. Most self-identified evangelicals adamantly insist that it was, and humanists and political progressives vigorously assert that the Founding Fathers intended that a “wall” be erected between church and state. You might expect Fea to side with evangelicals, given that he’s a believer and a professor at a Christian school, Messiah College. He doesn’t. Nor does he cast his lot with those who take the opposing view. As a historian, Fea sees nuances, not nostrums. His is a take that, depending upon the openness of the reader, will be seen as a rare middle view within a polarized nation, or will induce outrage.
He begins this edition—the first appeared in 2011—with a recounting of recent reactions to his work. Predictably, he has been attacked by both born-again believers and committed secularists. Neither is satisfied with his insistence that how one answers the central question depends upon several subordinate questions. These are not political questions, though the debate is often discursively framed that way. For example, during his values-centered 2016 presidential campaign Mike Huckabee insisted that “most” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers. In truth, just one was a man of the cloth: New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Fea, however, suggests it really wouldn’t matter if all had been ministers; hard-right conservatives such as Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and David Barton fail to define their terms. Was America founded as a Christian nation? It depends upon what one means by “Christian, “founding,” and “nation.”
In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.
Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.
But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.
Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
We are pleased to invite you and your institution to participate in in the 5th International OXFORD SYMPOSIUM ON POPULATION, MIGRATION, AND THE ENVIRONMENT. The summer session will be held 3 and 4 August 2017 at St Anne’s College, Oxford, U.K. Alternately, you may prefer to attend the 6th International meeting that takes place 7 and 8 December at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
Attendees are welcome to either present a paper or participate as a panel member/observer. Participants of the Symposium may submit complete papers six weeks after the conclusion of the meeting to be peer-reviewed by external readers for possible publication in Symposium Books or sponsored academic journals.
Conference Oxford has hundreds of affordable bedrooms in Oxford colleges available, offering splendid views of college quadrangles and gardens. Further accommodation information can be found here. https://www.oxford-population-and-environment-symposium.com/venue/travel-and-lodging/
· Keynote speaker – David Coleman, Emeritus Professor of Demography; Associate Fellow, Department of Social Policy, University of Oxford.
We welcome papers that take an interdisciplinary view of the main themes of the conference: world population increase, human migration and environmental sustainability.
· The Symposium seeks to cover a broad agenda that includes disciplines such as economics, education, environmental studies, agriculture, law, political science, religion, and social studies.
· Topics for presentation may reach beyond these areas; our website contains an extensive list of suggested topics.
· Participant abstracts will be published online in the conference proceedings. Papers presented at the meeting will be subsequently peer-reviewed by external readers for possible inclusion in Symposium Books or sponsored academic journals.
· See abstract submission and registration deadlines below:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions.
Here’s a link for Intellect’s latest newsletter that will inform you of new cultural studies books and journals.
Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI.
By David Grann, Doubleday, 2017, 352 pp.
History books tell us that the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the slaughter of at least 150 Indians* was the final episode in the wars between Native Americans and whites. Perhaps we should revise the texts to take into account the “Reign of Terror” against the Osages in Oklahoma in which as many as sixty Osages were murdered between 1921 and 1925. David Grann’s new book on the subject reads like a detective novel but, alas, everything in it really happened.
Grann focuses on the extended Lizzie Kyle family to spin his tale of how history collided with ethnicity, paternalism, and greed. The 1830 Indian Removal Act—of which the Trail of Tears was a tragic subchapter—reserved much of modern-day Oklahoma as Indian Territory, a vast repository for conquered Indians. The Osages were confined there in the 1870s, after ceding lands in Arkansas and Kansas. The 1887 Dawes Act allowed Indians to own land as individuals and, six years later, the government opened non-reservation land to land-hungry whites. By 1900, whites dominated the territorial government, but few gave heed to a 1906 act giving the Osages, as a tribe, ownership of underground minerals. The next year Oklahoma entered the Union as the 46th state, with whites and Indians living side-by-side. Partial Osage assimilation occurred through intermarriage, forced schooling of children, and chosen adoption of white culture.
In 1917, oil was discovered in Oklahoma, an event that coincided with the takeoff period for automobiles. Suddenly, the Osages were the richest people in the United States. In 1923 alone, the Osages collected royalties on the magnitude of $400 million (2016 value). Intermarriage rates soared and some Osages engaged in ostentatious displays of wealth. Several reportedly purchased new automobiles, to use as makeshift hothouses as their owners didn’t drive. More controversially, numerous whites found themselves working for Osage masters. Alas, the same act that made the Osages wealthy also led their downfall. Each Osage property owner got a “headright” based on the amount of land owned, but the U.S. government could hold royalties in trust, and the bill ominously stipulated the right of non-Osages to inherit headrights.
Grann unveils a tale of fraud in which real and mythical cases of conspicuous consumption justified placing Osages under a 1921 white guardianship law requiring Osages to “prove” their competency; until then, guardians doled out royalties like a teenager’s allowance. Some, such as William Hale, the “King of Osage Hills” and a perceived friend of the Osages, persuaded male relatives to take Osage wives and act as their guardians. Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, married Lizzie Kyle’s daughter, Mollie—who lost much of her family to oil greed. In quick order, Mollie lost her sister Anna, her cousins Charles Whitehorn and Henry Roan Horse, her mother, and—in a massive explosion— her sister Rita, her husband, and their white housekeeper.
Grann presents the violence as a veritable war against the Osages waged by whites that lusted after oil wealth and felt it was their race privilege to possess it. That oil and murder were linked was fairly obvious, but untangling a multi-stranded web was another matter. Local detective James Monroe Pyle sided with his Osage neighbors, but the investigative powers of Bureau of Investigation (BOI) agent John Wren proved invaluable. Wren was often too undisciplined and independent for his superiors, but he was half Ute and an able investigator. To the degree in which the cases were ever solved, Wren and Pyle get the credit. One of Wren’s supporters was J. Edgar Hoover. The Osage murders were instrumental in Hoover’s plan to evolve the BOI into the nation’s primary law enforcement agency, which occurred in 1935 when it became the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Grann’s book has it all: mystery, graft, poison, nitroglycerin, crooked lawyers, and wolves in lambs’ clothing. The pity is that it’s a non-fiction book. Indians became U. S. citizens in 1924 and a year later, the Osage Allotment Act was amended to disallow non-Osages from inheriting headrights. Not that it did the Kyle family much good. Grann’s book puts a punctuation mark to the sad saga of how the West became white. Read the book now, as it has been optioned for a movie that promises to be a more accurate look at history than the fanciful 1959 film The FBI Story.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
* Contrary to the perceptions of those seeing to be respectful, many indigenous peoples from the Great Plains westward prefer the term “Indian” over “Native American.”