By / Jun 24

Last weekend, Americans celebrated Juneteenth National Independence Day, our nation’s newest legal public holiday. The observance honors Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery which dates back to June 19, 1865. But for some Black Americans, slavery both ended before and after that date. 

Here is a brief timeline of the 86-year period of the abolition of slavery within the continental United States. 

1780: Pennsylvania adopts a gradual abolition of slavery

In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery.” The law freed only slaves born after its enactment, and the registered children of slaves would be enslaved until their 28th birthday. Also, while Pennsylvanians could no longer legally import slaves, they could buy and sell those who had been registered after 1780. 

1783: Massachusetts becomes first state to abolish slavery 

When the state adopted its constitution in 1780, slavery was still legal in Massachusetts. But in three related court cases from 1781 to 1783, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court applied the principle of judicial review to abolish slavery, stating the laws and customs that sanctioned slavery were incompatible with the new state constitution.

1787: Slavery is banned in new territories in the northwest

The Confederation Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This law established a government for the Northwest Territory, outlined the process for admitting a new state to the Union, and outlawed slavery in the new territories.

1817: Gradual emancipation adopted in northern and western U.S. 

Following the Pennsylvania model, many northern states adopted a process of gradual emancipation. While about two dozen slaves were still held in those states by the time of the Civil War, by 1817 every state in the northern and western U.S. had committed to abolition

1863: Emancipation Proclamation expands the policy of abolition

On Jan. 1, 1863, during the second year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The “designated States” to which the Proclamation applied were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The proclamation did not free slaves in the border states (which were loyal to the Union) or southern states that were controlled by the Union Army. 

1865: The U.S. ratifies a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery

On Jan. 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed a proposed amendment that stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment needed 115 votes to pass and received 119 (with 56 votes in opposition). The following day, Lincoln approved a joint resolution of Congress submitting it to the state legislatures for ratification. The number of states needed to ratify the 13th Amendment was reached on Dec. 6.

1866: Slavery is abolished in the territories of Native American tribes.

The so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern U.S. (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) were the only Native American groups to formally recognize the institution of African slavery. As the legal scholar J. Gordon Hylton noted, “at the outset of the Civil War, African-American slaves made up 14% of the population of Indian Territory occupied by the civilized tribes.” Because of tribal sovereignty, neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the 13th Amendment to the Constitution directly applied to what Hylton says were the “unorganized portion of the American public domain that was set apart for the Native American tribes.”

The United States government addressed the issue of slavery in Indian Territory in 1866 by entering into new treaties with each of the Civilized Tribes. Until these treaties, notes Hylton, only the Cherokee had taken steps to abolish slavery. In each of the 1866 treaties the tribal signatory acknowledged that slavery would no longer be recognized as a legal institution by the tribe.

The end of slavery within the continental United States thus officially came to an end as a legal institution on June 14, 1866.

By / Jun 22

In her brilliant book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz writes that true education involves “a reaching out past the surface, a questioning of appearances, a longing for more than is evident.” Her contention contrasts with modern conceptions of education that see the goal as absorbing correct opinions and dictating to students the predetermined correct interpretation.

Thomas S. Kidd’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, models the kind of intellectual exploration Hitz celebrates. There is perhaps no more controversial figure from American history than Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and the author of America’s most cherished document, the Declaration of Independence. Kidd succeeds in revealing the complexity of this enigmatic man by, on the one hand, refusing to bypass his moral deficiencies, while, on the other hand, elucidating his intellectual genius and unmatched contributions to America’s political formation. As a result, Kidd’s biography takes readers, perhaps more successfully than any previous attempt, into the inner life of the “sage of Monticello.”

Just like Disney and the COVID-19 pandemic, the telling of history has been unable to evade the forces of politicization. On one side, we are told that figures like Jefferson are anathema and that their contributions should be deleted from the pages of history books because of their obvious moral failures. On the other side, such figures are placed on pedestals and celebrated as heroes with their mistakes fully whitewashed. Kidd wisely avoids both extremes in his biography, which serves as a “narrative of Jefferson’s moral universe more than a traditional biography” (3).

Through Kidd’s close examination of Jefferson’s inner life and corresponding actions, a picture emerges of a man with many contradictions. How could the same man write one of the most compelling arguments for universal human freedom in history while holding slaves in bondage for the entirety of his life? How could the same man champion frugality as a republican virtue, yet pursue luxury to the degree that his entire adult life was lived under a dark cloud of suffocating debt? How could one so skeptical of dogmatic religious assertions call himself a Christian and remain a lifelong reader of the Bible?

The central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe

Of course, perhaps the greatest enigma—and one that Kidd treats in depth—involves Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave (and half-sister of his deceased wife), Sally Hemings. Kidd’s discussion of Hemings occurs in several places throughout the book, and he calls the affair “arguably the central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe” (89). Hemings was inherited by Jefferson upon the death of his father-in-law and was herself the progeny of a sexual affair between master and slave.

Jefferson’s affair with Hemings began in France after Sally served as travel companion for Jefferson’s young daughter Polly in 1787. By this time, Jefferson had been a bachelor for nearly five years after the tragic death of his wife from complications following childbirth. Jefferson apparently promised her he would not remarry. While Jefferson would never speak openly about the affair, it became the source of public speculation and scorn during Jefferson’s many political battles. 

Kidd deftly examines Jefferson’s letters from Paris around the time of the affair to find clues but ultimately concludes that we have no direct evidence concerning the precise nature of their relationship. Jefferson envisioned himself in the style of the biblical patriarchs, ruling over his estate and slaves at Monticello, and followed that lifestyle even in his sexual habits. Sally Hemings would bear six of Jefferson’s children. Her son would later write that she was hesitant to return from Paris to the life of a slave in America but relented when Jefferson promised certain privileges and vowed to free her children when they reached the age of 21.

Sally herself was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will, even though he did emancipate two of her children presumably in keeping with his promise to her. Jefferson likely left her name out of his will to avoid political scandal. Nevertheless, she was informally freed at Jefferson’s death and formally emancipated five years later by Jefferson’s daughter.

Despite expressing early opposition to slavery, Jefferson never expended political capital to end the wicked institution and maintained negative views of Black people as a race throughout his life. In old age, Jefferson wrote against emancipation on the grounds that free Blacks’ “amalgamation with other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent” (195). As Kidd points out, it’s hard to imagine how any man could reconcile such sentiments with his own contradictory actions. But again, we see in Jefferson a man of many enigmatic contradictions. 

Jefferson and the question of religion

What are we to make of Jefferson’s own religious faith? Kidd concludes that Jefferson was a Unitarian. He denied the Trinity, cut out most of the miraculous stories for his infamous cut-and-paste Bible, and despised esoteric conversations on matters of theological doctrine. But he maintained a lifelong belief in a Creator God who providentially ruled the universe and held the teachings of Jesus in high esteem. 

Jefferson’s writings are filled with references to God’s guiding providence, and Jefferson even appealed to God in prayer. He based the Declaration of Independence on the Christian doctrine of creation and adorned the walls of Monticello with French paintings of biblical scenes. He sent his daughter Patsy to Catholic school in France while they were living there during his diplomatic mission and preferred the spiritual temperament of America to the apathetic luxury of Europe. But these words and actions must not lead to Jefferson’s christening; to him, Jesus was a man—the most excellent one—but just a man all the same. 

Further, Jefferson was reared in a context informed by the Bible, and Jefferson himself knew the Bible better than many Christians today. Kidd masterfully recognizes scriptural allusions in Jefferson’s writings and points out how Jefferson and the other founders envisioned themselves repeating biblical and classical scenes from history on the new American stage (29).

But Jefferson’s most intense religious passions were reserved for his political convictions. Kidd deftly points out many instances of Jefferson applying biblical imagery to political happenings. The Age of Revolutions was, for Jefferson, a new creation. His Federalist political opponents were deemed “heretics” because of their longings for monarchical ways. The victory of republican liberty in America was a sure sign of God’s providential hand guiding history toward its climactic end. In Jefferson, we see already the seeds of that tendency to conflate America’s political actions positively with God’s actions in the world. 

In conclusion, Kidd’s biography leaves no stone unturned in examining the inner life of America’s third president. Jefferson’s legacy has loomed large since America’s inception, and Kidd’s deep dive into Jefferson’s moral and religious universe will aid readers who want to understand this brilliant man of confusing contradictions. 

By / Feb 8

In 1964, painter Norman Rockwell was given his first assignment for Look magazine. The assignment, itself a result of the 10-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision which desegregated schools, culminated in his producing the painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With.” In the painting, a young Ruby Bridges is escorted to school by federal marshals, with racial slurs painted on the wall behind her and crushed tomatoes smashed against the wall, thrown by a crowd of onlookers outside the frame. She looks ahead, stoic, as she follows the marshals to school. What is absent from the image are all the others who had to courageously fight and defend her right to be educated and treated as a full member of society: her mother, her father, a watching country, and members of her church. The story of Ruby Bridges is not just the story of her courage, though it is that, but also the courage of her family and community as they fought for equal protection and justice.

The courage of a child

To see the image painted by Norman Rockwell is to be confronted with the courage of such a small child. Bridges is dwarfed in size by the men in the photo (their upper bodies existing outside the frame), and yet she looms just as large in the way it is presented. The focus is on her, with her back straight and her eyes set toward her goal. As one federal marshal there reported: “She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her. As the painting, and multiple accounts have shown, this little girl faced a constant stream of threats and physical violence. Once she was enrolled, some white parents pulled their children from the school rather than let them be in the same classroom. Even the teachers, with the exception of one, refused to teach her. Thus, Ruby Bridges was left in a classroom by herself with only her teacher each day at school. 

Bridges’ courage, even as a young child, is a testimony of the way that individuals must stand on the strength of their convictions and fight for justice and equality. That anyone should face such treatment is abhorrent, but for it to happen to a child even more so. However, the courage of this little girl, and the others like her, was essential in ending segregation and furthering the cause of Civil Rights. It was an immense burden to lay on one so young, but it was one that Bridges was carried with the strength and dignity of one who is on the side of justice. 

The courage of a family

The courage of the Civil Rights Movement is not just the story of individuals, but often of families. This is especially true in the case of Ruby Bridges. Absent from Rockwell’s painting is the person who walked with her every day that first year: her mother. Ruby’s mother, Lucille Bridges, was described as one of the “Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement” at the time of her death. Ruby, reflecting on her mother at that time, said that it was her mother who set her on the path that led to her enrollment in the white school. And that was a courageous event because little Ruby would be enrolling by herself. Though there were six African-American students who were eligible to enroll (because the school district required that the African American students pass a test proving their academic ability), two chose to remain at their current school, and three were sent to another all-white school. When Ruby’s parents made the decision to send her to William-Frantz Elementary School, they were making the decision to trust the federal marshals, as well as their community, to protect their little girl from what they knew would be a barrage of hate, racism, and threats to her safety. 

Though Ruby would face constant threats and harassment, she was not the only one to suffer. Lucille faced it when she escorted her daughter to school. Lucille’s parents, sharecroppers in Mississippi, would be evicted from their farm because of Ruby. Stores refused to sell to Lucille. And Ruby’s father lost his job. All this as a result of their desire to see their daughter, and others like her, receive the same education as their white counterparts. It is right and proper to recognize the role that individuals played, but it is also true that so often that was the result of a family and community who were facing adversity with them. Lucille Bridges, and the rest of Ruby Bridges family, are representative of the power that a community has in calling for justice, and that the courageous actions of one individual, one parent, one spouse, can have for generations to come. 

A day when no one will make them afraid

Rockwell’s painting is a reminder of just how far we have come, but also so much that is left to do. Though school segregation seems like a relic of the distant past, in reality American schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s. Acknowledging that this is not the result of de facto segregation, but rather a number of factors, some that are problematic (such as redlining and housing contracts) and others that are beneficial (developing African-American communities and communities), the separation is not an ideal. As Rockwell’s painting reminds us, this is a problem that we continue to live with. However, as we are reminded in the scriptures, the walls of hostility have been brought down (Eph. 2:14), and we will one day all stand before a throne with the redeemed of history from every nation, tribe, and tongue in praise of our savior (Rev. 7:9). As we work to make the world more just, we should be encouraged by the bravery of Ruby Bridges and her family, and the countless others whose names are lost to history, who were working for a future, to use the language of the prophets, where each person could sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:4).

By / Nov 19

November 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the “Pilgrims” in Plymouth Colony in New England. In other times and other years, the anniversary might have attracted more notice, but in the year of COVID, and amidst a controversial American election, the Pilgrims’ anniversary will undoubtedly be muted. 

The quiet tones about Plymouth also derive from Americans’ general uncertainty today about how to observe and honor such occasions, when much of the American (and Christian) past is viewed as ethically complex at best, and an unrelenting tale of racist and imperial oppression at worst. Such criticisms of American history, and Plymouth specifically, are not brand new. As Malcolm X once said, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us.” 

1619 got far more notice last year than 1620 will get this year, with 1619 being the year of the first documented shipment of slaves to Virginia, and subject of the much-debated New York Times “1619 Project.” The veritable standoff between 1619 and 1620 has rendered sober observers uncertain about what to celebrate in the American past, and how.

Into this uncertainty comes John Turner’s outstanding and carefully-researched book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty. Turner tellingly asks at the outset “do the Pilgrims and their colony matter?” The answer actually remains clearer on a popular level than on an academic one. With all the recent furor over the American past, there is still no hope of displacing Thanksgiving on the American calendar. (COVID may push it to the back porches of America’s homes, however.) Americans are probably as unified about observing Thanksgiving as any other holiday. American Thanksgiving hazily conjures images of Pilgrims and Indians being nice to each other, or something to that effect. As usual, many of the impressions we have of the first Thanksgiving are a bit off: it is more likely that they ate eel instead of turkey, for instance. 

The importance of Plymouth for the story of liberty

Plymouth wasn’t the first permanent European settlement in North America (that was St. Augustine, Florida), or the first English settlement (Roanoke Island), or even the first permanent English colony (Jamestown in Virginia). But no matter: Plymouth is inextricably bound up with Thanksgiving, and so we remember it. Scholars, however, have spent little time on Plymouth since historian John Demos’s landmark study A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony a half-century ago. Part of the reason for Plymouth’s neglect is that the more numerical and better documented Puritans of Massachusetts have occupied the main stage of colonial American studies. Plymouth, which Massachusetts ultimately absorbed, gets treated by historians as a sideshow.

Turner uses the anniversary to reexamine Plymouth as a “fresh lens for examining the contested meaning of liberty in early New England.” If previous historians might have seized upon the Mayflower Compact and its covenanted “civil Body Politick” to show Plymouth’s contribution to the American democratic tradition, Turner uses Plymouth as a vantage point to demonstrate the vibrant but bitterly clashing traditions of liberty that have marked America from the beginning. 

They Knew They Were Pilgrims seeks to understand closely the cultural and religious influences that shaped the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags of southeastern Massachusetts. The Wampanoags’ world was already in turmoil before 1620, but the Pilgrims’ arrival challenged the Native Americans’ aspirations to mastery over the region like nothing before. We learn too about the Plymouth Separatists’ background in England and in the Netherlands, where many of them sojourned for a time before sailing to America.

Clashing visions of liberty

The Pilgrims did not call themselves “the Pilgrims,” but they were radical English Protestants who rejected the established Church of England for having retained too many “popish” practices in the decades following the English Reformation in the 1530s. For Separatists (and for most other leaders of the Reformation), true liberty was freedom to live according to the precepts of God’s Word. That freedom was routinely denied to Separatists in England, and in the Netherlands they found themselves surrounded by Dutch Christians who agreed with Christian liberty in principle, but whose readings of God’s Word differed from the Separatists’ in important ways. Thus, as for many devout Christian groups in the 1600s, a New World colony became a refuge where the Separatists could exercise Christian liberty. 

Yet the Plymouth colonists denied physical liberty to many Native Americans, who lost land to the English colonists, and many Indians also became enslaved to the English. Plymouth trafficked in smaller but significant numbers of African slaves, too. Whatever friendly feelings there had once been between the English and Indians was finally wrecked by the horrors of King Philip’s War in the mid-1670s, which by percentage of population killed was probably the deadliest war in American history. Massachusetts and Plymouth forces killed untold numbers of Indians, and they enslaved and deported hundreds more to the Caribbean and to destinations as far off as Spain.

Even in the Separatists’ churches, there was disagreement about what liberty and the Word of God required. They were among the small minority of English people who abandoned the Church of England, but still they could not agree amongst themselves on correct biblical practices for churches. Founders of the English Baptist movement had deep connections to the Separatists, but most Separatists continued to affirm infant baptism. Their break from the Anglican Church spawned incessant debates among the Separatists about ecclesiology and doctrine, however, such as the one that broke out when Plymouth called future Harvard College president Charles Chauncy as pastor in the 1630s. (Chauncy is not to be confused with his great-grandson of the same name, the Boston pastor who was the most vocal opponent of the revivals of the Great Awakening.) 

Chauncy affirmed paedobaptism, but he thought that infants should be immersed, rather than sprinkled. Some in the Plymouth congregation suggested that Chauncy could offer paedobaptism by immersion in addition to sprinkling, but Chauncy insisted that immersion was the only biblical mode. (Baptists would say he had gone halfway toward the correct view, which is believer’s baptism by immersion.) Some feared that baptizing infants in the frigid waters of a New England pond would threaten children’s well-being. Indeed, one of Chauncy’s own children reportedly died due to exposure to extreme cold in baptism. 

Chauncy’s recalcitrance led Plymouth to rescind their offer of employment. He moved on to Scituate, up the coast from Plymouth. More feuding there led to one of the first church splits in colonial American history, giving tiny Scituate a second separate congregation. Liberty was and is a preeminent Protestant concern. But, Turner seems to wonder, who adjudicates when Protestants do not agree about God’s will? How will we know in this life when we have manifested the true “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1)? Seen in this context, the Plymouth colonists look even more like time-bound pilgrims trudging toward John Bunyan’s Celestial City. 

By / Aug 18

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. . . . Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

-Amendment XIX, Constitution of the United States of America

Exactly 100 years ago today, on Aug. 18, 1920, America took a leap toward realizing its exceptional ideals when the Tennessee House of Representatives was the 36th state to vote to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

The fight for women’s suffrage—for the imago Dei to be recognized and affirmed in half the population of the country founded on the principles of a democratic republic and popular sovereignty—was not a linear one. It took centuries of hard-fought cultural and political battles to achieve. 

The long road to Aug. 18, 1920

In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the source of our natural rights was declared to come from our Creator, a radical shift occurred in human history. A government was created and founded upon the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.  

Or at least that’s what the preamble famously proclaims. 

Yet, in reality, we know that the majority of people living in the colonies were not actually included in this language. Women, the poor, Native Americans, and African Americans were all excluded from this experiment of self-governance because they were all denied the right to vote. 

A simplistic version of American history would make it easy to believe that the fight for women’s suffrage would not begin until after President Jackson expanded the right to vote to poorer white males and the Civil War and Reconstruction expanded the right to vote to African American males. Then, everyone decided it was time to fight for women to have the right to vote.

But the story is much more complex, and more like a Texas two-step, with one step forward, two steps back. Women did have the right to vote in some colonies until state constitutions were adopted after 1776 that denied voting rights to women. The battle for suffrage was an often bitter and heartbreaking one on the long road to Aug. 18, 1920.

The deciding vote in Tennessee

It all culminated in downtown Nashville a couple of blocks from where the offices of the ERLC sit today. After decades of women and men fighting for women to have the right to vote, it all came down to a vote at the Tennessee State Legislature, where the House of Representatives was deadlocked. Hope seemed lost.

Suffragettes wore yellow roses, and their opponents wore red roses. The Hermitage Hotel, a few blocks from the Capitol, was the epicenter of out-of-town activists. Rumors still swirl today, a century later, about backroom deals and bribes. And the fate of every woman in America rested in the hands of 99 men.

The deciding vote was a 24-year-old representative from McMinn County, Tennessee, named Harry Burn. Originally planning on supporting the amendment, he began to vote against motions to bring it to a vote when he received misleading telegrams pressuring him to vote against it due to opposition by his constituents. However, a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, ultimately changed his mind, and the course of history:

“Dear Son, . . . Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet. . . . Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ [National American Woman Suffrage Association president] with her ‘Rats.’ Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.” 

On this the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, may we pray for the eyes to see the mission field the Lord has placed us in, the humility to submit ourselves to his wisdom in navigating the precarious waters of contemporary culture and politics, and the courage to don our own proverbial yellow roses to fight for justice and equality for our fellow image-bearers.

And so Harry Burn changed his vote. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed the ratification of the 19th Amendment by a vote of 50-49. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it, satisfying the constitutional requirement for ratification and giving women the right to vote.

It’s tempting to believe history changed in that moment with that one mother-son relationship. But the fight for suffrage had begun centuries earlier. Generations of women had fought and seemingly failed in their lifetimes. But God was using their advocacy to plant seeds that would be harvested years later.

Learning from Febb Burn

In 2020, our nation continues to grapple with our past and how it will affect our future. But like the yellow-rose clad suffragettes, we must remember it’s the small, faithful action of many that bend the arc of history toward justice. We can learn something from Febb Burn, who realized her relationship with her son allowed her the opportunity to make a difference, to be persuasive, and to speak truth to those in power. 

As Christians, we are called to faithful lives marked by acting justly, seeking mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8).  As representatives of Jesus, we are required to advocate for what’s right and to do so in the right ways.

On this the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, may we pray for the eyes to see the mission field the Lord has placed us in, the humility to submit ourselves to his wisdom in navigating the precarious waters of contemporary culture and politics, and the courage to don our own proverbial yellow roses to fight for justice and equality for our fellow image-bearers.

By / Jul 21

July 21 marks the anniversary of the verdict in one of the most important court cases in American religious history: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or as it is commonly known, “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” This trial—which brought attention to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee—was an open and shut case of guilt. So what attracted so much attention? The trial was a visible clash of the fight raging within Christian denominations at the time between modernist and fundamentalists centered around the teaching of evolution. 

On one side was the fundamentalist, former secretary of state, and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who argued that teaching evolution was contrary to Scriptures. On the other side was self-proclaimed agnostic Clarence Darrow and the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw this case as a chance to roll back the influence of religion in education. The court case, especially when Bryan took the stand in defense of the fundamentalists, was an encapsulation of the ongoing struggle within American Christianity over how literally to interpret Genesis and just how to integrate Christian doctrine with new scientific information. The modernists saw no problem between the two or were willing to change Christian doctrine to fit the new information. The fundamentalists saw this as an attack on true Christianity. 

It was in the courtroom of a small town in Tennessee that these sides squared off for their most visible confrontation, and neither side walked away truly victorious. 


The conflict between fundamentalists and modernists had raged since the late 19th century. At the core of the debate was how to integrate the supernatural claims of the Bible with new criticism coming out of scientific inquiry. New scholarship raised doubts about the authorship of biblical texts, the timeline of their writing, and the details provided. Many of these revisions were attempts to maintain Christianity’s relevance and also find agreement between science and the Bible. Thus, rather than completely abandon the Bible, they choose to reinterpret it, often by disregarding the supernatural elements such as miracles or a virgin birth or a physical resurrection. 

Another point of controversy was in the creation account of Genesis 1-2. Higher criticism raised questions about Mosaic authorship, arguing that there were in fact different accounts of creation that had been woven together by different authors and a final editor. Further, when compared with modern scientific findings as made famous by Charles Darwin and others, it was impossible to square the age of the earth with a literal seven-day creation account. Though there were some Christians at the time—such as Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary—who saw no problem in accepting a theistic evolution account, many fundamentalists saw this as an attack on the special place of humanity in the cosmos. These critics often asked how humanity was unique in God’s design if men and women were descended from apes. 

At the state level, this reached a crescendo when the Butler Act was passed in 1925 in Tennessee outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools. The ACLU offered to defend anyone who broke the law in an attempt to get it overturned. There has been considerable research which has shown that locals in Dayton, hoping that the trial would attract attention and business to the town, encouraged a local teacher known to teach evolution to challenge the law. He was subsequently fired and tried for breaking the law.

Important figures

John Thomas Scopes: Scopes was the defendant in the court case and a high school biology teacher and football coach. As a young, unmarried man who was not a local in the area, he had little to lose in being the ACLU’s test case. Also, there was never a question of his guilt. Scopes would go on to lose the trial and eventually receive a fine of $100 for the misdemeanor of teaching evolution. The fine was later overturned on appeal. 

William Jennings Bryan: Bryan was a staunch fundamentalist Presbyterian and progressive candidate (a not uncommon combination at the time). As a staunch Prohibitionist and anti-evolution crusader, Bryan often found himself seeking to save the conscience of the nation. He was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for president who served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson before returning to his social and legal advocacy. As a lawyer for the prosecution in the trial, he is best known for taking the stand and being questioned by Darrow as to the scientific accuracy of the Bible. 

Clarence Darrow: Darrow was the lawyer for the defense and vocal critic of religion. As the child of an atheist and a self-proclaimed agnostic, Darrow saw this is as a chance to attack the fundamentalist movement and the way he felt it was overstepping the role of religion in the public square. Darrow was famous before the trial for his role as defense attorney in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. By the end of the trial, his questioning of Bryan on the witness stand had helped to humiliate the fundamentalist movement before the wider culture as he pointed out supposed contradictions in the biblical text.

H.L. Mencken: Mencken, journalist for the Baltimore Sun, is perhaps the person best known for describing the trial to the outside world. His columns portrayed the Bryan and the fundamentalists, not to mention Southerners in general, as backwoods yokels. His writing and depiction of Southern fundamentalists was what helped the modernists win the larger culture war, even as they lost the specific court case.

Events of the trial

At the heart of the trial was not a question of guilt. Scopes did not hide that he had taught evolution. He was guilty under the Butler Act. However, the ACLU argued that the law itself was unconstitutional because it violated Scopes’ free-speech. Bryan, arguing for the prosecution, asserted that the people of Tennessee who paid for the school and Scopes’ salary had a right to dictate what was taught, especially when it was something like evolution, which he claimed undermined the Christian faith. However, both sides, especially Darrow and Bryan, came to see the court case as unconcerned with free speech and a death match between science and religion. 

Thus, the most memorable moment of the trial came when Bryan took the stand in defense of the Bible as an expert witness. After asking a series of questions meant to illustrate the use of figurative language in the Bible (i.e., Jesus describing his followers as the salt of the earth in Matthew 5), Darrow attempted to get Bryan to agree that the earth was only 6,000 years old (a theory popularized by Anglican archbishop James Ussher). As historian Baryr Hankins recounts, Darrow interrogated Bryan about world religions, modern science, and even biblical criticism, showing that he was not an expert in any of these fields. Further, Bryan was not even a literal creationist: Bryan believed that the six days in Genesis weren’t, by necessity, 24-hour days, but rather time periods.  

Bryan was shown to be woefully ill-informed and was summarily humiliated. At the same time, Darrow’s attacks, though in agreement in the conclusion by the broader culture, were not all well-received, even by liberal theologians who saw them as attacks against any faith, not just fundamentalism. By the end of the day, both men found themselves ill-composed, shouting at one another and threatening violence against one another. The judge adjourned for the day, and when the case resumed the following day, both sides agreed that the jury should be brought in and deliver their verdict, which they did in a matter of minutes with a verdict of guilty.

Lasting influence

Scopes lost the trial, but fundamentalists lost the broader culture war. Because there was no doubt that Scopes had taught evolution, this was never about his guilt. The jury quickly determined that Scopes was guilty of breaking the law and was subsequently fined $100. This fine was later overturned on appeal. However, for the fundamentalist movement, this trial served to humiliate them on the national stage, largely due to the writing of journalist H.L Mencken. After being cast as uneducated rubes, many chose to retreat and create their own institutions and subculture rather than interact with broader society. 

Although historians such as Daniel Williams and Darren Dochuk have complicated this narrative by showing that though they did not enjoy the larger cultural influence they possessed previously, they did not entirely disappear. Rather, they laid a foundation for what would emerge in the middle of the 20th century as the evangelical movement, encapsulated in figures such as Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and eventually the Religious Right of the 70s and 80s.

However, the trial in Dayton, Tennessee (which is reenacted every July), set the stage for the larger culture wars between fundamentalists/evangelicals and their theologically liberal counterparts over issues such as abortion, the feminist movement, and eventually the LGBTQ movement that would shape the 20th century.

Further reading

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson: Larson’s Pulitzer winning book is one of the most thorough and readable accounts of the trial and its enduring impact on the role that science and religion play in the public square, as well as evangelicalism’s relationship to science and education. 

Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins: Hankins’ book looks at the entire decade of the roaring 20s, and he devotes an entire chapter to the court case which represented the high point of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden: Marsden is the preeminent historian of fundamentalism, and his classic work places the movement in the broader sweep of American religious history. 

Clarence Darrow Papers & Court Transcript: The Court Transcript of Bryan’s testimony and Darrow’s line of questions beginning on day six of the trial can be found in Darrow’s papers contained in the University of Minnesota School of Law.

By / Jul 3

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife to say that he thought July 2 would go down as the most “memorable epoch in the history of America.” This was the day that the Second Continental Congress had voted to accept a resolution declaring their independence from Great Britain. A committee was then selected, with Thomas Jefferson as the chief writer, to write what became the Declaration of Independence, which explained why the colonists made the decision that they did. This was approved on July 4, though many historians now agree that most of the signatories did not sign it until mid-August. 

Though John Adams was wrong about which day that Americans would celebrate, he was correct that the anniversary would be celebrated with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other . . .” Whether you choose to spend the day with bells, shows, or illuminations, below are some books and major works to read about the founding of America. 

Important documents from the Founding Era

Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and The Bill of Rights: As the founding documents of the United States, there is no better time to return to these documents than July 4. They serve as a charter for the American experiment in liberty, and also a reminder of just how imperfectly Americans have carried out the promise of equality, justice, and the securing of those inalienable rights. It is the work of each succeeding generation to reaffirm commitment to these ideals and pursue them for all men and women. 

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” by Patrick Henry: I had never read this speech in its entirety before reading the biography of Henry mentioned below. And there is debate about whether Henry actually uttered the famous words since the first publication of the speech was not until much later. However, whether constructed or authentic, it is a picture of how later generations chose to remember Henry as a proponent of liberty. 

First Inaugural Address and Farewell Address by George Washington: Though these speeches occur several years after the revolution, they are reminders of just what Washington felt they had been fighting to create. The speeches from the beginning and end of his presidency are an excellent example of the kind of statesmanship that characterized Washington’s administration. And they have proved excellent templates for how modern Americans understand what it means for a leader to take up and pass the torch, as evidenced by the fact that this was the theme of the Hamilton song performed for President Obama at the end of his time in office. 


Adams by David McCullough: This biography of Adams, though lengthy, is excellent for the way that McCullough is able to provide a narrative of Adams’ life. Though Adams is significant for several reasons,my personal favorite portion of this biography is in his correspondence with his wife, Abigail (which McCullough quotes regularly) where you come to see the way that he thought of her as an equal partner. Adams’ role in the war, and the events both before (such as the defense of British soldiers after the Boston massacre) and afterward (he served as the first ambassador to the United Kingdom from the United States), provide a window into the world surrounding the American Revolution. 

Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots by Thomas Kidd: Henry is remembered for his speech in which he declared “Give me liberty or give me death!” This excellent biography provides a window into the life of a figure beyond a single speech. Kidd focuses on the way that his defense of liberty often brought him into conflict with the other Founders, especially his opposition to the U.S. Constitution. Though seemingly contradictory, it was his commitment to liberty (sometimes quotes aren’t so misleading after all), that proves to be the through line of his life. 

May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes by Thabiti Anyabwile: A veteran of the American Revolution, Lemuel Haynes was the first African American man to ordained as a minister. Haynes would go on to be an anti-slavery activist and also argue that freed men and women should not be sent back to Africa, but rather should receive the same rights as others in the new country. Haynes is an early example that the declaration “all men are created equal” was not limited in its scope, even if the early country did not apply the truth equally.  

Religious histories

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James Byrd: Not every person who chose to fight in the Revolutionary War was a George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. There were many for whom the cause of liberty was first received through a sermon than through a pamphlet. And there were many who preached against the Revolution. But both relied on the same scripture in their justification. Byrd’s study of the sermons of the period is an excellent look at just how people relied on faith to guide how they responded to the war and the struggle for (or against) independence.

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas Kidd: How was it that Congregationalist and Anglicans could cooperate with Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and even those who were formed more by Enlightenment philosophy than Christian orthodoxy in the founding of a new nation? That is the question that Thomas Kidd’s religious history of the American Revolution seeks to answer. At its core, the book is a picture of the way that Enlightenment philosophy and Christian faith (from across denominations) played a pivotal role in the founding of the country and the creation of its foundational documents.   

The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden: Was America founded as a Christian nation? For many, this question causes considerable concern and reason for endless debates about the religious faith of the Founders. These three evangelical historians examine the evidence and ask what is meant by the term “Christian America.” The narrative that emerges is one in which Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, plays a crucial role. However, it is incorrect to say that America was founded as a Christian nation because of a number of reasons historically, theologically, and sociologically. 

Where the past meets the present

There is no shortage of ways that people in the present look back to the founding for an example of how to make sense of the present. Politicians across the spectrum appeal to the Founders, often the same founder for different purposes. Martin Luther King appealed to the founding documents when calling for justice and equality: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Even the world of Broadway musical looks back to the story of an immigrant who created institutions that were critical to the founding of the country to speak to the present importance of immigrants in the story of America. However you choose to spend the anniversary of America’s founding, consider how you can help to ensure the continuance of the promise that all are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.

By / Aug 17

This Saturday marks the quincentennial of King Charles V of Spain authorizing the slave trade from Africa to the New World. Here are five facts you should know about the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition.

1. The Spanish merchant Juan de Córdoba is believed to have first transported captured Africans to the Americas in 1502. The first slave voyage direct from Africa to the Americas is believed to have sailed in 1526. But even before then, Africans were brought over as slaves directly from Europe, and native inhabitants of America were enslaved by European explorers. On his first day in the New World, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he had ordered six of the people of the West Indies to be seized because he believed they would make good servants.

2. Prior to 1518, the Spanish monarchy refused to allow slaves to be transported directly from the continent of Africa because of a fear they would introduce non-Christian religious practices to native populations in America. That changed on on August 18, 1518, when King Charles V granted a charter to Lorenzo de Gorrevod to transport 4,000 slaves directly from Africa to the Spanish American colonies. The Spanish king circumvented the law established by his grandparents by allowing slaves to be “converted” to Christianity during the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. This action led to a broad expansion of the slave trade in the Western hemisphere.

3. A triangular trade route across the Atlantic took goods from Europe to Africa, African slaves to the Americas and West Indies, and mostly raw materials produced on the plantations back to Europe. The leg of the trade route that transported slaves is known as the “Middle Passage.” Depending on the weather, this voyage could take between three to six months (by the end of the slave trade era it took six weeks or less). The passage was so brutal that the ships lost both the persons transported as slaves as well as a significant portion of the crew (the mortality rate for sailors on slave ships was approximately 20 percent). Slave ships varied in size and passenger capacity, but they all shared the common trait of being inhumanly brutal. African slaves spent most of their day below deck in cramped quarters and were brought on deck only for short periods of forced exercise. Research published in 1794 calculated that a man was given a space of 6 feet by 1 foot, 4 inches; a woman 5 feet by 1 foot, 4 inches; and girls 4 feet, 6 inches by 1 foot. The air below deck was hot, stale, and filled with the incessant smell of vomit, sweat, sickness, and death. Water was restricted to 24 ounces a day—the equivalent of two 12-ounce soda cans of fluid per day—and the diet consisted mainly of rice and fava beans.

4. Because of inadequate records, the number of people taken from Africa through enslavement remains unknown. Based on shipping records, historians estimate that between 9 million and 11 million people were taken out of Africa by European slave traders and delivered alive on the other side of the Atlantic. An untold number, however, died resisting capture in the “slave raids,” during the forced march to the coastal regions, in slave forts while awaiting transport, and as they travelled across the ocean. The lowest number for the total loss of life is estimated to be around 20 million people—a total that is more than all of the people currently living in New York state.

5. In the late 1700s Christians began mobilizing in North America and Western Europe to end the transatlantic slave trade. “The main thrust of Christian abolitionism emerged from the evangelical revival of the 18th century,” notes the BBC, “which spawned dynamic Christians with clear-cut beliefs on morality and sin and approached the issue of slavery from this standpoint.” The Quakers were the first religious group to officially form an abolition movement in the U.S. and U.K., though they were quickly joined by Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. In 1789 the evangelical convert and British politician William Wilberforce began introducing bills that would abolish the trade. He would reintroduce such legislation every year until 1807, when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally abolished the transatlantic slave trade throughout the British Empire. The king of Denmark, Christian VII, also signed a decree in 1792 banning Danish participation in the trade, though it did not take effect until 1803. Due to the influence of the British the Vienna Declaration—credited with having introduced abolition of the slave trade as a principle in general international law—was signed by Austria, Britain, France, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden in 1815. In 1926, the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery was adopted as an international treaty. To date, 99 nations have signed the treaty, with the most recent signatory, Zambia, added in 1973.

By / Jul 3

Independence Day is here. What are some reflections you have about the founding of our nation? Do you have a favorite tradition?

Brent Leatherwood: So I’ll own it and state, unequivocally, I’m an absolute sap for this holiday. When I worked in the political world, my favorite press release to create each year was the Independence Day message. Most communications staffers just yawn at it. Not me. Few things get my rhetorical juices flowing like a little “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on in the background.

But my appreciation for July 4th does have some layers to it. It feels like one of the few remaining occasions where Americans put aside their differences, albeit briefly, to just be with one another. It’s a celebration that harkens back to our communitarian roots and provides a present reminder that, even after 241 years, we still haven’t achieved the lofty heights of human flourishing set forth in our founding documents.

Steven Harris: To be honest, when I think about the nation’s founding, my immediate thoughts orient around the themes of divine providence and hypocrisy. Perhaps odd, but such reflections are generated by the history, this current cultural moment, and my own academic interests. I am particularly reminded of how hypocrisy manifested itself as 18th century colonists engaged in what was, ironically, a fight for the liberty to enslave.

At the same time, I have very vivid memories of my family’s annual trip from Chicago to Alabama, and the stop at a 60,000-square-foot fireworks warehouse in Missouri fittingly called Boomland. Our 4th of July trip “down South” was a familial and communal gathering—a time to reflect on the blessings and the burdens of being black Americans.

Joseph Williams: As a former U.S. history and civics teacher, and now a constitutional attorney, it never surprises anyone how much I love Independence Day. I like what Brent says about it still being one of the only days where we put aside our differences and unite in our common interests. It marks childhood awe—sparklers, fireworks, community picnics, and baseball. When I think of the 4th of July, I think about how we’re free to celebrate as a community and nation because of those who have sacrificed so much for us for centuries. The Founders risked their life and liberty. Americans in the 19th century shed so much blood to make those ideals a reality. Americans in the 20th century fought foreign tyrants and domestic discrimination so that those words written in 1776 would reach to every person in our own country and spread around the world.

It reminds me of an essay I wrote last year for this holiday. I’ve reflected on these two paragraphs often:

The Founders united together to fight to the death for the right to disagree with one another about the most important parts of life. They debated viciously over the enslavement of millions of fellow human beings made in God’s image, arguing over the nature of God, heaven, hell, and human nature in the process. They debated the structure of government, what individual rights should be protected, how much power should be given to each level of government. Virtually every aspect of government and American life was up for debate.

Yet, they did not declare independence and fight for freedom because they agreed on everything. They risked their lives and fought, because they didn’t.

How can Christians approach July 4th in a way that appropriately marks the occasion but doesn’t cross the line into idolizing our country?

BL: As Christ followers, we should have the healthiest level of discernment about where this line is, and yet that is often not the case. Far too many church leaders are willing to mix theology and patriotism in order to further partisan political objectives. These instances confuse Christians about what they should be prioritizing as they worship (Ex. 20:3) and undermine our faith’s witness to the watching world.

Instead, we should be grateful that we are citizens of this nation and appreciative that the democratic ideals of America stand in marked contrast to the vast majority of other societies in human history. That is a powerful notion worthy of celebration in a civil context. At the same time, we have to realize we live in a Genesis 3 world that is fallen—and that reality reaches directly from the garden of Eden, to July 4, 1776, to today’s America. Keeping that truth in mind helps to strike the right balance between our current status and our eternal citizenship.

SH: I think it is important to remember that the temptation for American Christians to idolize the country is nothing new. In fact, it can be argued that the seeds of what would eventually be referred to as “american exceptionalism” were sown in Puritan New England, and began germinating in ways useful for the nation-building cause during the Revolutionary Period. Add to that fundamental democratic ideals reflective of biblical principles, and what results is a recipe for 1) viewing the country in a national Christian light and 2) viewing a certain kind of patriotism as a requisite for legitimate professions of faith.

To be sure, as American Christians we ought to recognize God’s sovereign determination of our present dwelling, and be thankful for the kinds of aspirational ideals that have undergirded our democratic experiment. At the same time, we ought to seek to faithfully be salt and light in a land that prides itself on being free, while at the same time profoundly fallen. I’ve found historian John Wilsey’s work, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, immensely helpful in thinking about this topic.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is in the business of redeeming all of creation, making all things new, and using us to do that.

JW: May we never forget to keep our lives properly ordered. I love how Dr. Moore puts it, “We are Americans best if we aren’t Americans first.” But that is also compatible with realizing that God providentially placed all of us here in America at this time for a reason. This is our mission field. This is the place where we are called to labor and love our neighbors. That means fighting for the dignity of the downtrodden and seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. If we love our fellow Americans because God does, and how God does, that’s faithfulness, not idolatry.

In our current cultural moment, we’re reassessing various points throughout American history, and the Revolutionary period is no exception. Has that review caused you to lessen your own enthusiasm for America? How do you think through the problematic—and in some cases explicitly wrong—aspects of our founding?

BL: Perhaps this is a bit counterintuitive, but this moment has given me a greater appreciation for America. First of all, as a student of history, I love the fact more Americans are opening up books, reading through primary sources, and examining our history. It’s never a bad thing to understand where we’ve come from because that informs decisions we make about our future.

Building upon that, it helps one understand that, in a lot of respects, this democratic experiment we’ve embarked upon has had many instances where it likely could’ve ended but didn’t. What if Washington had not crossed the Delaware, or the Axis powers had conquered in World War II, or the Civil Rights Act had failed? Those are captivating moments where our finest American ideals were advanced and prevailed. Our history shows we have a charge to keep this American project moving forward and improving it as we do so. Lastly, I would say this is overdue. We need to understand the wrongs of our past, how those instances reverberate today, and what can be done to create guardrails that ensure we never fall back into those failures.

SH: I think it’s important to explicitly acknowledge that, in many ways, the cause of the reassessment and review that we’re witnessing is really a growing willingness on behalf of some to take seriously the historical perspectives of others. I’m reminded of the 1988 prizewinning work of historian Eric Foner on the Reconstruction period, wherein he argues for the centrality of the black experience in rightly understanding the post-Civil War years. Well, it turns out that historian W.E.B. Du Bois was the forerunner of that approach, having produced a work on the topic over a half a century prior (Foner acknowledges this in his own work). I mention that brief example to simply point out that what many evangelicals might be discovering as new perspectives on history might not be all that new.

I often refer to differences of historical consciousness (how individuals understand and make sense of the past) based off of different social imaginaries (ways people imagine their social existence and make sense of the world). That is to say, people view history differently, oftentimes based on their place in the world. The fact that more people are realizing this reality is a good thing.

With regard to how I personally reckon with this country’s faults, I’m brought back to the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and am left with a view of history that magnifies the grace, mercy, wisdom, and goodness of God not merely despite the failures of men, but in light of them. As Christians seeking to interpret the past, I do not think our task is to make excuses for sin nor spin false narratives. I think we’re called to reflect honestly on the past, and demonstrate what lives of repentance and faith ought to produce in the present.

JW: It’s dangerous, unfair, and unhelpful to think of our forefathers of the Revolutionary era as cardboard caricatures. They were as impassioned as they were imperfect, just like all of us today. Throughout various stages of our nation’s history, they’ve been both glorified as gods and condemned as monsters. Neither of these simplistic perspectives are helpful. As Christians, we should understand this fundamental truth better than anyone else.

As Americans, we must read the Declaration of Independence and Frederick Douglass’ reflection on the meaning of the Fourth of July for slaves. We have to reckon with every aspect of our past. As President Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Freedom isn’t guaranteed. It wasn’t in 1776, 1865, the 1960s, 2001, or today. We continue to face choices every day about what kind of country we’ll be. May we seek to protect life, liberty, and justice for all.

Are you hopeful that our nation can overcome the original stain of slavery and racism that marked its beginning? Why?

BL: I am. Steven wisely pointed out that in order to do so, we have to reckon with our problematic and hypocritical roots. Granted, as a white commentator here, my analysis is informed by that perspective, but I do believe we can. My sense is, America, throughout her history, has been largely aspirational. At the same time, when shown to be wrong, our nation strives to address those injustices, however inadequately. Our story holds that freedom is the essential ingredient for human flourishing. We’re now grappling with the fact that at the dawn of our nation, this basic element was tragically denied to far too many people. Even with the downfall of slavery, the thread of unequal access rooted in racism has persisted in much of what we’ve built. But I believe Americans have the capacity to prevail over the wrongs of the past.

SH: Last time I checked, pessimism isn’t a Christian virtue—so that’s not an option, though I often find myself fighting against it with regard to this topic. I say that because I think we’ve underestimated the severity of the stain while at the same time overestimating our country’s (and the church’s ) progress with the same. To be sure, there have been great strides made on this front. We can all acknowledge that, in very significant ways, things have changed. And yet, the notion that “things are not as bad as they were” has never served as a truly satisfying sentiment—nor should we take it to be. The institution of slavery has been referred to as the original birth defect of the country. This then suggests that, as Brent referenced, there is a sense in which the very foundations of what has been established and propagated have been affected (I think, too, of the history of indigenous peoples). In light of the fact that we cannot simply undo what has happened, I do think the word “overcome” is appropriate. Christians can and must work redemptively and reparatively in our churches and in our communities.

It starts, however, with an acknowledgment of the history and it’s ongoing residues in the present. It is impossible to correctly treat a misdiagnosed illness. One of the most telling lines in the Frederick Douglass speech that Joseph previously mentioned concerns the question of national memory. Douglass asserted that, “. . . as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor.” I actually think the tendency is not merely an American problem but a human problem. Douglass, however, was thinking particularly of the unwillingness of white Americans to reckon honestly with the reality of chattel slavery, and what it said about the true status of the young nation. There is a significant difference between wanting to look like we’ve overcome and actually overcoming. My hope and prayer is that we continue to press toward the latter.

JW: One of the greatest writings in American history is Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I think it’s worth remembering how he begins the concluding part of his letter:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

At the beginning of that paragraph, he begins by saying he hopes that the Christian church as a whole will meet the challenge of that decisive hour. My hope and prayer is that the church today and the church into the future will be more united in making our Founders’ words more of a reality each generation.

In many ways, politics is inherently a reactionary field, and many are critical of the current state of American politics. Russell Moore often states that politics flows downstream from culture. So looking at this issue through that framing, is the present political world just reflecting a troubled culture?

BL: Years of working with candidates has taught me that is certainly true. Office-seekers and office-holders reflect the communities and constituencies they represent. Sometimes, there are benefits to that. But when a culture is unhealthy, it often produces candidates who are problematic. So how do we help that? It begins with the perspective I touched upon before. I think many of us are tying our hopes to politics in a really unhealthy way. When we find our identity in any human process or structure, it will inevitably lead to disappointment. This is true of politics.

But don’t hear me say we shouldn’t be engaged in the political arena. In fact, I’d advocate for the exact opposite. The public square needs more people of good conscience participating in it. As Christians, we need to go forth and inform, advocate, and participate in civic society. John Piper often talks about the “important role we play in this equation is to help elect (leaders) who do what God intended them to do.” I’d affirm that. But, to maintain a healthy perspective, we must always keep in mind our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

SH: There is a lot that has contributed to the sociopolitical crises of our current moment—too much to try and unpack. I think it is safe to say that the political postures we see inside the proverbial Beltway are, in many ways, reflective of the attitudes and dispositions of the broader culture. While politics plays an important role in society, we must remember that there are many things that politics will consistently prove impotent to accomplish. When one assesses the status of the discourse in the public square, it becomes painfully obvious that politics as a main identity doesn’t work. The professed Christian should best understand this limitation.

JW: As a candidate for public office this year, I obviously believe Christians engaging in politics and policy is vitally important. And as I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, I’ve been encouraged by my neighbors. When you talk to people face to face, their perspectives are more complex and nuanced. They love their neighbors, and they love our nation. They often talk to me about their best friends who live right next door who have very different political viewpoints. But they still love one another. These friendships and interactions encourage me. We just need to get off of Twitter and turn off cable news long enough to realize that’s what the majority of our country is like.

Why should civility be an important aim for Christians interested in furthering the democratic principles of our founding?

BL: I cringe every time I read an article or view a social media post where someone says civility isn’t compatible with action on a given issue. I wholeheartedly reject the formulation that says civility is tantamount to acquiescence. Hardly. What that seems to reveal instead is a rejection of the democratic tradition of public persuasion and civil discourse.

I would argue that the health of our democratic republic is intrinsically tied to our ability to present our cases to our fellow Americans and debate policies in good faith. As Wake Forest University ethics professor John E. Senior notes, to engage in public dialogue with others is to “acknowledge the inherent dignity of the other as a person who bears the image of God.” That basic truth and the implicit respect it shows our fellow citizens should undergird our actions every time we participate in the public square.   

SH: There was an article published a few days ago suggesting that the notion of civility had become a buzzword and, therefore, lost all meaning. I do fear that what has emerged from recent discussions is a very flat understanding of what it means to engage in civil exchange in the public square. After all, in his methodology of nonviolent protest, MLK was often charged with being uncivil. With that being said, I think Christians ought to be mindful of the biblical prescriptions concerning the bridling of the tongue (James. 1:26), prohibition against corrupting talk (Eph. 4:29), the call for gracious speech (Col. 4:6), etc. Moreover, Christians would do well to attend to the love ethic that is called upon by the Great Commandment. We need to always be cognizant of the image-bearers behind ideas, and seek to not merely win points but people.

With that being said, I do want to caution the reader against concluding someone uncivil for passionate protest or critique. As James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This, too, I would argue, is a part of the democratic tradition.

JW: What makes America so special compared to nearly every other civilization in human history is how our fundamental freedoms push us to defend, sometimes to the death, the rights of our fellow Americans who we fundamentally disagree with. That’s special because it allows us to debate very important things in a free marketplace of ideas where we can persuade others and be persuadable. It requires a humility that can only come from realizing how fallen and sinful we are.

How can Christians, either from a lay perspective or from a church leadership platform, help improve the current environment we’re in?

BL: I would submit it boils down to three pathways. First, let’s be grateful for the time and nation God has placed us in (Acts 17:26), and be informed about all that is taking place around us, but realize our country is part of a broken creation. Second, we can participate in the political space and should do so with the aim of doing good so as to provide a preview of the coming Kingdom. And lastly, in all the ways that we engage, we should realize we’re operating alongside fellow image-bearers. So let’s celebrate our nation’s birth but realize the true freedom we enjoy comes from our relationship with Christ.

SH: I think that one of the best things Christians can work on is something that has already been stated: the untethering of one’s Christian identity from a particular political ideology. I’m not saying that Christians ought cease working their political thoughts through a biblical grid, nor am I arguing against the holding of political preferences or participation in political parties. However, Christians on both sides of the political spectrum must disabuse themselves of the fictive notion that any political platform perfectly maps onto the Christian ethical calling. Church leaders can either be especially helpful or harmful here as the binding of consciences ought only take place concerning those things of biblical warrant. That is to say, while we may have good debates and arguments about what the Scriptures require of us with regard to any given issue (and some are certainly clearer than others), we must yet guard against distorting the gospel of grace and dissolving into a legalism that serves nothing and ultimately saves no one.

JW: Politics creates policy, and policy affects people. If we love our neighbors who have inherent dignity, then we have to care about politics and policy. As Christians, we know that Jesus is in the business of redeeming all of creation, making all things new, and using us to do that. This includes redeeming our toxic political environment in which far too many people are demonizing others, focused on sowing discord in order to divide us against one another. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never promised us that being peacemakers or being insulted or hungering and thirsting for righteousness would be easy. But that’s what we’re called to do. May the Lord be gracious to give us his power continuously so that we can participate with him in making all things new.

By / Oct 26

Today the National Archives will be releasing to the public thousands of files related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

Here are five facts you may not know about the Kennedy assassination.

1. A popular movie led Congress to release records related to the assassination

The end of the movie JFK, a popular 1992 conspiracy movie directed by Oliver Stone, suggests that Americans cannot trust official public conclusions when those conclusions have been made in secret. The movie—and specifically this scene—prompted Congress later that year to pass the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, known as the JFK Records Act. The act created the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which in a final report partially credits the film with promoting Congress’s action. The act also directed the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to establish a collection of records to be known as the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection and requires that each assassination record be publicly disclosed in full and be made available in the collection no later than today—October 26, 2017, unless the President of the United States decides to keep them classified.

2. Two branches of the federal government held six investigations into the assassination—and came to differing conclusions

The FBI was the first authority to complete an investigation in 1963. Their report was given to the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy—known unofficially as the Warren Commission—which issued an 888-page final report in 1964. Four years later, Attorney General Ramsey Clark asked four medical experts to review the evidence, in what became known as the Clark Panel. In 1975, a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller—known as the Rockefeller Commission—investigated the activities of the CIA within the U.S. to see if they were connected to the JFK assassination. That same year a Senate committee chaired by senator Frank Church—the Church Committee—also investigated CIA activity as well as FBI conduct related to the tragedy. Skepticism of the Warren Commission finding led the House of Representatives to create the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on evidence that was later discredited, this committee concluded there was a “probable conspiracy” behind the murder and that it is likely Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.

3. Oswald had attempted murder before, and murdering a president wasn’t a federal offense

In April 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to murder an American army officer, Major-General Edwin A. Walker. Upset that the general wanted to invade Cuba and kill his hero Fidel Castro, Oswald used a rifle to shoot at Walker in his home. The bullet missed Walker by an inch, and Oswald escaped. Several months later, on November 22, Oswald was arrested—not for shooting the president—but for fatally shooting a police officer, Dallas police officer J.D. Tippitt. Had he been charged before he was killed by Jack Ruby, Oswald wouldn’t have been charged with a federal crime since killing or attempting to harm a president wasn't made a federal offense until 1965, two years after Kennedy's death.

4. During his life Kennedy was the focus of at least six assassination plots

Two separate plots were planned in Chicago, one in Miami, and one in Tampa was allegedly planned just weeks before Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Another assassination was planned in December 1960, one month after he became president-elect. Richard Paul Pavlick, a 73-year-old retired postal worker, followed Kennedy to Palm Beach, Florida in a car filled with dynamite. Pavlick parked outside the Kennedy’s Palm Beach compound and waited for the president-elect to leave his house to go to Sunday Mass. Pavlick’s plan was to ram his car into Kennedy’s limo, setting off the explosives and killing them both. He changed his mind when he saw Kennedy’s family in the car. Before Pavlick could make a second attempt he was caught by the Secret Service and put in a mental institution.

5. Kennedy may have died because he was wearing a back brace

Kennedy suffered from chronic back pain and had five surgeries to correct the problem. (After a surgery in 1954, his post-operative coma and septicemia was so bad a priest to give him last rites.) On the day he was shot, Kennedy was wearing a heavy, corset-like brace that went from his chest to below his waist. This is why he remained upright after being shot in the back of his shoulder. That same bullet hit Connally and caused the Texas governor to slump over in his seat.

Because of the brace, Kennedy remained in an upright position as the second bullet struck him in the back of the head. The doctor who treated him for the head injury, Dr. Kenneth Salyer, believes that without the brace Kennedy would not have suffered the wound that caused his death.