“Our Collective American Blind Spot”: To Teach Only ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is To Ignore Half The Country’s Story
In late July, the College Board, the administrators of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, issued new guidelines for teaching AP United States history. One change was to add a section on “American exceptionalism,” a concept as old as the country itself that the United States is qualitatively different – and, arguably, better – than other nations.
While “exceptionalism,” at its best, nurtures civic pride, at its worst, it blinds Americans to the country’s long history of remarkably unexceptional ideas and actions. What George Santayana so neatly encapsulated over a century ago remains painfully true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a historian and tour guide, I often see this collective American blind spot on display as I lead walks of historic New York City. On Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, a quaint carving of a witch on a broomstick is a jumping off point for discussing the deep anti-Irish sentiment in the city following the influx of immigrants after the 1845 potato famine. Political cartoonists like Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes and Catholic bishops as monsters; “No Irish Need Apply” signs appeared in shop windows.
As I tell these stories, I can see the anger grow in some of my listeners. One woman flat-out told me to stop talking. “You can’t say that,” she admonished. “It’s not true.” I clarified that these were not my opinions, but those of many Protestant New Yorkers a century and a half ago. “No,” she repeated. She did not want to know about an America where such things were possible – which, of course, meant she didn’t want to confront the idea that she might still live in such a place.
Similarly, in Chinatown one day, my explanation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively banned Chinese immigration for six decades, led one visitor to launch into a tirade about America’s porous borders. I shook my head – not at his critique, which had some valid points – but at his inability to connect the country’s history with his own past. You see, he was Chinese American. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been an affront to his heritage; current immigrants were an affront to his political and economic ideals. He saw no link between the two.
In revising their standards, the College Board is hoping to bridge this gap between the nation’s history and students’ contemporary experiences by providing “sufficient time to immerse students in the major ideas, events, people and documents of US history,” where before “they were instead required to race through topics.” The revisions were also a reaction to conservative input on the AP curricula revision process – beginning in 2012, there had been a groundswell of conservative criticism against the proposed standards, which the Republican National Committee argued “emphasize[d] negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The College Board sought input from teachers, historians and parents to shape teaching guidelines that present a “clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history.”
Unfortunately, the new standards have also softened the language about the country’s most shameful episode: its 244-year history of slavery. As recent “heritage not hate” rallies centered on the Confederate battle flag illustrate, there is perhaps no greater myth in America today than the idea that the Civil War was predominantly about states’ rights. Well, it was about one right: the right to own Africans as chattel.
In Texas, new textbooks minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, despite the fact that the state’s own “Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union” explicitly stated that the Confederacy was “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity” and that “the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free….” Gone from the state’s new books are mentions of Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the “you can’t say that” woman in Central Park writ large. This is especially troubling since Texas’s large population means that its curricular standards influence textbook buying in other states.
America is, in fact, an exceptional place. Founded by groups as diverse as indigenous Native Americans, Dutch merchants, English separatists, Spanish missionaries, French frontiersman and Africans – both free and enslaved – the country’s diversity stretches back four centuries. Each of these groups, and the many immigrants who followed them, brought strengths, and weaknesses, with them. We are right to celebrate the strengths, but if we don’t shine a light on the weaknesses, we are ignoring at least half the story.
By: James Nevius, The Guardian, August 3, 2015
Pundits have been trying for weeks to explain why Donald Trump has continued to lead Republican polls, drawing massive crowds and attracting a media circus, despite stepping in it time and again on camera. But the Donald tweeted something yesterday that may help answer all their questions. (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/626375770856927232)
While the tweet reads as nothing more than Trump’s typical bombast—more bluster than substance—the Republican frontrunner seems to be invoking a secretive political organization that dates back to the first days of the Republican Party: The Know Nothings.
The Know Nothing movement emerged during the years leading up to the Civil War as a few politicians searched for ways to build a new political party that could compete with the Jacksonian Democrats who had dominated American politics for decades. The group’s name purportedly comes from its somewhat secretive party structure. When asked about its activities, members were supposed to respond: “I know nothing.”
The Know Nothings were rabidly xenophobic. Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy had flooded the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. This was the first time that Americans had to confront an immigrant class whose origin stories, last names, and religious beliefs set them apart from the British settlers who had cleared her forests and populated her first towns centuries earlier. The Know Nothings claimed that Catholics immigrants owed their allegiance, not to the burgeoning American government, but to the Pope, whose autocratic ruling style was antithetical to American democratic values (the same argument that was trotted out when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for president). And for a country whose founding fathers had written about religious tolerance only a few decades earlier, the message was surprisingly effective.
The movement took hold of the country, establishing particularly strong footholds in the Northeast. At its peak in 1854, the party (which had taken the name American Party in 1849) got 52 candidates elected to the House of Representatives under the Know Nothing banner in a single election year. That landslide propelled Nathaniel Banks—who would later become Speaker of the House, a prominent union general, and governor of Massachusetts—to Congress for the first time. That Milliard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States who was ousted from the White House in 1852, ran for president four years later as a Know Nothing demonstrates their influence at the time.
Elected Know Nothings installed sweeping programs to trample any Catholic influence on American politics. They required reading the Protestant bible in schools, purged Catholic objects from public buildings (including the Washington Monument, where Know Nothings led a covert mission to remove and destroy a stone sent by the Pope in 1854), and moved to prevent Catholics from holding public office. In Massachusetts, where the party controlled both the state house and the gubernatorial mansion, the Know Nothings convened a “Nunnery Commission” designed to ferret out the dangers posed by nuns to society at large. According to John R. Mulkern’s book on the Know Nothings, the commission was disbanded after the Boston Daily published a scintillating expose of the exploits of the commission: Joseph Hiss, the “Grand Worshipful Instructor” of the Commission, had apparently made suggestive remarks to two nuns; his compatriots had laid in wait in the attic of a Catholic school near Boston, popping out to terrify the children.
As slavery eclipsed immigration as the political hot topic in the late fifties, the Know Nothing movement started to decline, and it was the (then still very young) Republican Party that eventually subsumed the movement, its nativist bent muffled, for the most part, by Lincoln, who spoke out sharply against it.
Since the Civil War, Know Nothings have appeared in American discourse, persisting in popular culture or in charges leveled at fringe members of the Republican Party. In Gangs of New York, Daniel Day Lewis played William Poole, a real Know Nothing leader in Manhattan during the 1850s. When Republican House Representative Eric Cantor lost his reelection campaign in Virginia, Paul Rosenberg wrote that it represented a triumph for the wing of the Republican Party that still adheres to Know Nothing nativism. Timothy Egan has written that the birther movement, which claims that President Obama was born outside the United States, was “building a nation of Know Nothings.”
This brings us back to Donald Trump, himself a candidate who has catapulted to the top of the Republican field by stoking fears about an influx of immigrants. Just last week, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer accused Trump of running his campaign on “know-nothing xenophobia” that would “damage” the Republican Party.
Like his predecessors the Know Nothings, Trump faces a challenge: how to win supporters from an electorate that, for the last eight years, has seemed to gravitate more and more toward the Democratic Party. Like the Know Nothings, Trump has chosen to denigrate immigrants, playing up the xenophobic idea that they are stealing jobs and resources from American citizens. He even went so far as to accuse Mexican immigrants of raping American women.
The rise of the Know Nothings, an episode in American history often brushed under the rug or simply forgotten, demonstrates that Trump is a part of a tradition dating to the earliest days of the Republican Party. The fear of immigrants has long driven American politics, bringing together coalitions that have propelled even the most unlikely candidates to the halls of American political power. If nativist sentiment continues to rise, just as it did in 1854 when the Know Nothings swept Congress, Trump could be a candidate to be reckoned with. And if he runs as a third party candidate—a prospect that has Republican leaders quaking in their boots—maybe Trump will choose to run as a “Know NOTHING!”
By: Laura Reston, The New Republic, July 30, 2015
Poor Marco Rubio. With history rushing past him, its dust gritty in his eyes, he, the bully, resorts to playing the victim.
And so it was on Tuesday, when he tried—in this now-practiced right wing way—to claim that he and other Christians were the victims of LGBTs and their demands for, er, basic equality and civil rights.
What else can Rubio do? People like him have lost the argument.
All they can do now, after years of fostering a climate of prejudice and persecution against LGBTs, is to claim that with the prospect of equality, it is they, the bullies, who are persecuted.
They cannot argue how equality affects them negatively, so merely claim to be victims.
This is all they have, after years of using every trick in the book to keep LGBT people unequal, feared, and stigmatized.
It would be funny, this attempted sleight-of-hand, this laughable co-opting of the language and mantle of victimhood, if Rubio’s words were not so disgusting, and such canards.
On Tuesday, Rubio dared to use the phrase ‘hate speech’ when describing how, one day, those who objected to marriage equality would be seen as propagating hate speech.
Does Marco Rubio have any idea of the toxicity of the phrase he is flinging around to score some cheap political capital?
Does he have any idea of the true ‘hate speech’ LGBTs have suffered, not just on political platforms at the hands of people like Marco Rubio in their stoking of their Christian voting base—words like ‘unnatural,’ ‘pretend families,’ words of exclusion that seek to put us outside the boundaries of family, home, and love?
Because ‘hate speech’ doesn’t end on political platforms. They’re the words that LGBTs hear before they are beaten by homophobes on street corners and in schoolyards. Beaten, sometimes fatally. How dare Marco Rubio seek to invoke a phrase like ‘hate speech’ to feed his own pathetic persecution complex? Has he any idea of the true cost of ‘hate speech’ as it has been used against LGBT people?
Rubio said ‘mainstream Christian’ teachings would soon be seen as hate speech in his scary new world where those pesky homosexuals are treated just as the same as everyone else under the law.
“Because today we’ve reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage you are labeled a homophobe and a hater,” Rubio said. Absurdly. You are only labeled a ‘homophobe’ and ‘hater’ if you come out and say something homophobic and hateful.
Mr. Rubio, despite great provocation by you and others like you, LGBTs and their supporters—many of whom are Christian, by the way—who back equality actually think you can say and think whatever you like, as long as it doesn’t incite violence and hatred. If it does, they will object, as any reasonable person might.
If you claim that LGBTs do not deserve marriage equality, and your argument has the ring of prejudice about it—and it necessarily would because you are arguing against the principles of equality—then expect to be called out for it.
But you are not being silenced. You are being disagreed with. And now you’re feeling persecuted because it’s not just LGBTs calling you out on it, but all those who believe people should be treated equally under the law.
Simply, Mr. Rubio, when will you stop scapegoating LGBTs to score votes? Why are you so dead-set on maintaining inequality and discrimination? What’s in it for you? Rubio also said, “After they are done going after individuals, the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech and there’s a real and present danger.”
Again, this is doom-saying nonsense, and yet another attempt to paint “the gay agenda” as an uncontrollable monster, out to silence its objectors.
The truth is that for years LGBTs have had to fight to be heard themselves, to be visible, to lobby for equality under the law.
LGBT activists have never said the teachings of mainstream Christianity or the catechism of the Catholic Church are pernicious. They have argued against those teachings being warped by bigots and opportunists like Mr. Rubio to attack LGBT people, and deny them their civil rights—but not for them to cease to exist or be practiced.
In a way, Rubio’s nonsensical words are heartening. They are like the last gasp of a poisonous old world order of determined prejudice and discrimination. How furious and scared he must have been to see Catholic Ireland face down the kind of misinformation and lies he and his cronies propagate against LGBTs on Saturday, and vote instead for a future of equality.
Rubio and others like him know their grip on fear and prejudice is loosening. And so now, he plays the victim: it’s the last pathetic piece of pantomime left to him.
Quite simply, even Rubio’s followers and supporters know LGBT people—and they do not like to see these family members and loved ones persecuted so viciously for whom they choose to go to bed with. And so, with the grit of history in his eye, Rubio continues howling in the wind—his words more and more lost in the tempest of history passing him by.
By: Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast, May 26, 2015
“There Isn’t Going To Be An Evangelical President”: Huckabee Doesn’t Seem To Understand The Place Of Evangelicals In Today’s GOP
There was no doubt that when Mike Huckabee announced his candidacy for president, God would come up. After all, Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister who made a strong showing in his 2008 race in large part because of the support of evangelical voters. Huckabee made crystal clear that he’s running to get the support of those evangelical voters again.
Huckabee talked about how much he prayed in school as a child in Hope, Arkansas, where he “learned that this exceptional country could only be explained by the Providence of God.” He asserted that “the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God,” a clear reference to same-sex marriage.
But for someone who wants to be the candidate of evangelicals, Huckabee doesn’t seem to understand the place of evangelicals in today’s GOP.
Huckabee’s most fundamental miscalculation has two parts: first, that there can be one candidate who garners the support of most religious right voters, and second, that even if he pulled that off, it would be enough to make him the party’s nominee (for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to talk about evangelicals and the religious right interchangeably, but they’re obviously not exactly the same thing).
If you’re an evangelical Republican voter looking for a presidential candidate who shares your values, you’re faced with an embarrassment of riches in this election. In addition to Huckabee, you’ve got Scott Walker (the son of a Baptist minister), Rick Santorum (whose commitment to “traditional values” will stack up against anyone’s), Rick Perry (whose best-remembered ad from four years ago began, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” tapping into the religious right’s narrative of oppression), Bobby Jindal (who holds prayer rallies), and other candidates like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson who wear their piety on their sleeves. With all that to choose from, it will simply be impossible for any one of them to become the candidate of the religious right.
Huckabee might say, well, I was pretty much the candidate of the religious right in 2008, and I won Iowa! Indeed he did — and then he lost the nomination, as did Rick Santorum four years later following the same script. Evangelicals are particularly important in that first caucus state, but far less so in the rest of the country, which is why their chosen Iowa candidate almost never wins. They made up 57 percent of GOP Iowa caucus voters in 2012 — but only 43 percent of Romney’s voters in the general election, and only 26 percent of general election voters overall.
Furthermore, there are plenty of evangelicals who aren’t so attracted to the old-school style of a man who wrote columns as a teenager warning against the evils of dancing. Here’s how religion reporter Sarah Posner describes the feelings of many evangelicals, particularly younger ones:
These evangelicals are listening for a candidate who can signal he is “one of us” without pandering. Both evangelical and Catholic candidates who have earned the culture warrior label for their strident pronouncements—Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, or Mike Huckabee — are seen as embarrassing embodiments of stereotypes these conservative Christians would like to shed.
When the entertainment at Huckabee’s announcement event is Tony Orlando singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” — a song that topped the charts 42 years ago — he isn’t exactly reaching out to a new generation.
Does this mean that the evangelical vote no longer matters in the Republican primaries? Not at all. It still matters a great deal, but the fact that evangelicals won’t vote as a bloc means they matter in a different way. If any of the candidates can get at least some of their votes, then every candidate has an interest in speaking to them (or pandering to them, depending on how you want to think about it). So their concerns and their issues will be on all the candidates’ minds and on their lips.
The evangelical vote is still important, but there won’t be an evangelical champion — Mike Huckabee, or anyone else. Yes, an evangelical such as Scott Walker might be elected president. But he wouldn’t be the evangelicals’ chosen candidate. No one will.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, May 6, 2015
“Bigotry, The Bible And The Lessons Of Indiana”: The View Of Gays, Lesbians And Bisexuals As Sinners Is A Decision, Not A Choice
The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.
They’re not — at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will.
And homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.
That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.
But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.
It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.
It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.
And it elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance, above the evidence in front of you, because to look honestly at gay, lesbian and bisexual people is to see that we’re the same magnificent riddles as everyone else: no more or less flawed, no more or less dignified.
Most parents of gay children realize this. So do most children of gay parents. It’s a truth less ambiguous than any Scripture, less complicated than any creed.
So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.
“Human understanding of what is sinful has changed over time,” said David Gushee, an evangelical Christian who teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University. He openly challenges his faith’s censure of same-sex relationships, to which he no longer subscribes.
For a very long time, he noted, “Many Christians thought slavery wasn’t sinful, until we finally concluded that it was. People thought contraception was sinful when it began to be developed, and now very few Protestants and not that many Catholics would say that.” They hold an evolved sense of right and wrong, even though, he added, “You could find scriptural support for the idea that all sex should be procreative.”
Christians have also moved far beyond Scripture when it comes to gender roles.
“In the United States, we have abandoned the idea that women are second-class, inferior and subordinate to men, but the Bible clearly teaches that,” said Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who was removed from ministry in the church after he performed a same-sex marriage ceremony in 1999. “We have said: That’s a part of the culture and history of the Bible. That is not appropriate for us today.”
And we could say the same about the idea that men and women in loving same-sex relationships are doing something wrong. In fact the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have said that. So have most American Catholics, in defiance of their church’s teaching.
And it’s a vital message because of something that Indiana demonstrated anew: Religion is going to be the final holdout and most stubborn refuge for homophobia. It will give license to discrimination. It will cause gay and lesbian teenagers in fundamentalist households to agonize needlessly: Am I broken? Am I damned?
“Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people,” Gushee said.
Polls back him up. A majority of Americans support marriage equality, including a majority of Catholics and most Jews. But a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that while 62 percent of white mainline Protestants favor same-sex marriages, only 38 percent of black Protestants, 35 percent of Hispanic Protestants and 28 percent of white evangelical Protestants do.
And as I’ve written before, these evangelical Protestants wield considerable power in the Republican primaries, thus speaking in a loud voice on the political stage. It’s no accident that none of the most prominent Republicans believed to be contending for the presidency favor same-sex marriage and that none of them joined the broad chorus of outrage over Indiana’s discriminatory religious freedom law. They had the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary to worry about.
Could this change? There’s a rapidly growing body of impressive, persuasive literature that looks at the very traditions and texts that inform many Christians’ denunciation of same-sex relationships and demonstrates how easily those points of reference can be understood in a different way.
Gushee’s take on the topic, “Changing Our Mind,” was published late last year. It joined Jeff Chu’s “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” published in 2013, and “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,” by James Brownson, which was published in 2013.
Then there’s the 2014 book “God and the Gay Christian,” by Matthew Vines, who has garnered significant attention and drawn large audiences for his eloquent take on what the New Testament — which is what evangelicals draw on and point to — really communicates.
Evaluating its sparse invocations of homosexuality, he notes that there wasn’t any awareness back then that same-sex attraction could be a fundamental part of a person’s identity, or that same-sex intimacy could be an expression of love within the context of a nurturing relationship.
“It was understood as a kind of excess, like drunkenness, that a person might engage in if they lost all control, not as a unique identity,” Vines told me, adding that Paul’s rejection of same-sex relations in Romans I was “akin to his rejection of drunkenness or his rejection of gluttony.”
And Vines said that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, outlines bad and good behaviors that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today. Why deem the descriptions of homosexual behavior any differently?
Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to L.G.B.T. people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”
Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”
His commandment is worthy — and warranted. All of us, no matter our religious traditions, should know better than to tell gay people that they’re an offense. And that’s precisely what the florists and bakers who want to turn them away are saying to them.
By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 3, 2015