Opinion

Why a study of history is essential for the strength of our democracy

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stand during a prayer before a rally with Trump at Clemson University's livestock arena in Pendleton, S.C., on Feb. 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 24, 2016.
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stand during a prayer before a rally with Trump at Clemson University's livestock arena in Pendleton, S.C., on February 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republishedi with RNS-FEA-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 24, 2016.

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stand during a prayer before a rally with Trump at Clemson University’s livestock arena in Pendleton, S.C., on Feb. 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 24, 2016.

(RNS) Donald Trump told a large crowd at Regent University in Virginia Beach last week that if elected president he would defend religious liberty, champion evangelical values, and repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment forbidding clergy from using their pulpits to endorse political candidates.

His message drew loud cheers from supporters gathered at the university founded by televangelist and former GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson.

Within earshot of Trump’s voice, in a building adjacent to the Regent chapel, sat several hundred Christian historians, most of them evangelicals.

They were at Robertson’s university to attend the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. The topic of the conference was “Christian Historians and the Challenges of Race, Gender, and Identity.”

When Trump took the stage at Regent, Susan Fletcher, a historian who works for the Christian parachurch group The Navigators, was lecturing on how she talks about race with visitors to the Colorado Springs, Colo., organization. A session titled “The Inclusive Classroom” included papers on how to incorporate women and people of color into Christian college American history classrooms.

These thoughtful and nuanced presentations, and many similar sessions, stood in stark contrast to the way the GOP presidential nominee talks about race and gender.

While I am sure that some of the evangelical historians at Regent this weekend will be casting their vote for Trump in November, I think it is safe to say that most of them will not.

Many share certain Christian beliefs — the primacy of a born-again experience, the inspiration of the Bible, the need to evangelize the world, to name a few — with the evangelicals at the Trump rally. But these historians articulated a view of race and gender in the United States that led them to disqualify Trump as a viable presidential candidate. Not all evangelicals think and vote in the same way.

Many conference attendees talked about the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, or the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have inherent worth regardless of gender, race or social standing.

As Christian students of the past they strive to tell the stories of all human beings. The goal of such teaching and writing is not political correctness, but a fundamental belief in the dignity of individuals. Everyone’s story counts.

When Trump disparages women and people of different races and religions he dehumanizes them. He sends the message that some human beings are not as important as others. In the process he fails to recognize the Imago Dei in all of God’s human creation.

Historians know a few things about this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric. We have studied its manifestation in the past and are trained to recognize it in the present.

For example, historians have the responsibility to remind the country that “Make America Great Again” is a historical statement that should raise a lot of questions among American citizens. When was America “great” and do we really want to return to such an era of “greatness”?

If America needs to be made great again, then at what point did it lose its greatness? Though historians are not always in the business of moralizing about the past, they are in the business of explaining what happened in the past as honestly and as thoroughly as possible.

Any politician who wants to make America great again must come to grips with the fact that African-Americans were slaves and the victims of Jim Crow laws. Women were second-class citizens in a patriarchal society that did not give them voting rights. These were the kinds of themes explored from a Christian point of view rooted in the Imago Dei at the conference.

Historians can remind us what happened in the past so that we can make a more informed decision about whether or not we want to return to the golden age of “greatness” our candidates want to restore.

History helps us to judge whether this golden age was truly “great” for all Americans. The study of the past is thus essential to citizenship and the strength of our democratic experiment in self-government.

(John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnfea1)

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John Fea

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  • While I am sure that some of the evangelical historians at Regent this weekend will be casting their vote for Trump in November, I think it is safe to say that most of them will not.

    Which shows how out of touch the left-leaning elites are with most of the rest of the practicing members of the Christian religion. Most practicing Christians are repulsed by Hillary Clinton’s support for partial-birth abortion and her hostility to mainstream Christian teaching about it.

    ““Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/417448/hillary-clinton-religious-beliefs-have-be-changed-accommodate-abortion-joel-gehrke

  • Great is a subjective term.
    I doubt there is a time in America since before the Revolution that somebody will not stand up and say “Now hold on a minute. What about…….”
    Even our Constitution was born more of desperation and difficult compromise than any specific greatness. But if you read the constitution in it’s entirety, including all the amendments, you will see the story of a nation that did not get everything right, but at least tried to fix the problems.
    I suspect that most people probably have an opinion of when we lost our ‘greatness’, each probably different than the last. Personally, I think we started loosing it at the end of WWII. We seemed to have lost our sense of purpose and began surrendering our individuality more and more to fear and reliance on government. We have now reached a point where more and more people seem to want to more like everyone else, and have less desire to have our own identity.
    America is a nation with problems. The biggest one is, in my opinion, that we simply do not know who we are as a nation, or who we want to be.
    And that is the flaw with Trump’s slogan.

  • “As Christian students of the past they strive to tell the stories of all
    human beings. The goal of such teaching and writing is not political
    correctness, but a fundamental belief in the dignity of individuals.
    Everyone’s story counts.”

    When such beliefs are finally applied to groups like unbelievers and gays, by their Christian teachers then such statements won’t sound like complete and utter apologetic nonsense. But unfortunately there is this cognitive dissonance of speaking of a fundamental belief in the dignity of individuals and calls for discrimination and malice to others from many people calling themselves Christian.

  • “Most practicing Christians are repulsed by Hillary Clinton’s support for
    partial-birth abortion and her hostility to mainstream Christian
    teaching about it.”

    Most “practicing Christians” are ignorant as to the reality of partial birth abortion and rely on deliberate misinformation on the subject for hysterical effect.

    “And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

    The religious belief that other people must abide by the tenets of your faith is a rather pernicious one. One which needs to be put aside if one is going to abide by living in a democratic society that extols religious freedom. It leads to all sorts of nastiness and discriminatory abuse of the legal system. Having a religious belief and religious freedom is not the same as an entitlement to force the public to live by its tenets.

  • We have lost the ability to speak ethically and morally. All we talk is law and politics.

    Partial-birth abortion is morally evil. Many of the “Christian” leftist elite have lost the ability to speak out about evil. They have entered into a truce with Moloch.

    They have lost their way.

    “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.“–Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“

  • “Partial-birth abortion is morally evil. Many of the “Christian” leftist
    elite have lost the ability to speak out about evil. They have entered
    into a truce with Moloch.”

    It is precisely this kind of fact free demonizing rhetoric which makes one discount any claims someone like you may have on moral indignation. You are reacting to the term “abortion” but completely indifferent to the issue at hand. Preferring to just not think about the lives in question rather than address them.

    I see nothing unjust about an act which is largely done by women who generally planned to keep their pregnancies but can’t due to medical reasons. I see no sane purpose behind a ban on a medical procedure done largely to save the life and health of women.

    Of course considering women as human beings is generally beyond the keen of people who make ridiculous statements about late term abortion as “ripping them from wombs at the 9th month”.

  • Persons of informed conscience need to investigate for themselves if partial-birth abortion is ever medically necessary or if defending it is merely a unprincipled pandering to pro-abortion extremism.

    I have had my say. Thank you. I reject hiding behind the law in the face of evil. I hope the gentle reader will consider the argument.

  • Why let facts interfere with self righteousness, amirite?

    You received your OB GYN license where?

    Professional medical associations have refuted the garbage you are saying. They are the experts. You are not. Enforced ignorance and indifference is a common trait for your pov.

  • You said nothing of importance but demonstrated how ignorance and self righteousness go hand in hand.

    You’re welcome. Bless your heart. May god eventually show you the error of your ways. 🙂

  • Hillary = Moloch’s baby sister

    (possibly on steroids)

    “I came here to delete emails and destroy America…
    …and I’m all out of emails.”

  • If you don’t like Mrs Clinton, that is as good an endorsement as one can get here!

    I would feel really weird if you suddenly showed some kind of admiration for her.

  • I hope that, as we individually consider our own choices for political offices ranging from U.S. President to municipal clerks, we also consider our own treasured spiritual/existential beliefs; the precious U.S. constitutional protections we enjoy in freely choosing our own beliefs, and in rightfully living our own lives accordingly; the morality of seeking to deny any other Americans the very same constitutional protections to freely choose their own beliefs, and to rightfully live their own lives accordingly; and, especially, I hope that we consider our most basic, timeless, and crucial American principle: that “We must all hang together” in upholding our mutually shared constitutional rights, freedoms, and protections — the hallmark of our great American nation — “or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

  • Now who is indulging in a fact free environment. I have heard it argued many times by qualified Ob/Gyn’s who are supremely qualified to offer expert opinions on the question, that it is rarely, if ever, necessary to perform an abortion for the life and health of the mother (note the term: mother). And your assertion that the “act” is done by “women who generally planned to keep their pregnancies but can’t due to medical reasons,” is not supported by the evidence or the statistics.

  • I generally do not trust the objectivity of historians, sociologists, and other so called academicians, and thus strive to obtain different offerings on any given subject by a variety of authors, and then attempt to suss out the best analysis by comparing their insights. George Santayana warned us in what has become an extremely common quote, “Those that fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Tiresome as the quote has become, it is nonetheless true. As a riposte I would add, that those who remember the past are still doomed to repeat it. As Solomon, the son of David declared, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Still, as individuals, we are called upon to ameliorate the injustices of the past without the wasteful effort of continually belaboring them.

  • You are missing the point here.

    Partial birth abortions are usually done half way through the term, usually for women who had planned to keep the pregnancy, and always for medical reasons.

    This is far different from the overwhelming majority of abortion procedure. It is why the procedure is exceedingly rare.

    The whole ripping babies put of wombs at nine months is just nonsense.

    Plus the fact that an abortion is performed at all for the health of the mother means that categorical bans are potentially dangerous for women. Rare does not mean never occurs.

  • Fea is employed as a historian. His entire column is “moralizing” about the past. He leaves no doubt about his feelings and biases. This is, of course, standard behavior among historians. Their job is to defend Party Orthodoxy against all heretics and deplorables.

    If there is such a thing as “democracy”, which I doubt, it would be best served by totally ignoring all paid historians.

  • Get your head out of the anti abortion propaganda sites. Nothing you described was remotely accurate in describing a late term abortion either in the timing or the procedure.

    BTW if you described most medical procedures with such scare tactics in mind you can make an appendectomy sound like something Jason Vorehees would do.

    Another poster here already described the foundations of such a procedure. You are just slinging BS.

  • If you want to agree with Floydlee, it’s fine by me. It just means that I should be wary of agreement with you.

  • Here you go. It’s from an actual practicing ob/gyn

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_580d4427e4b02444efa3f33a

    “There is a lot of discussion this week about abortion due to Donald Trump reinforcing in front of millions of people the false belief that pregnant women are flocking to their OB/GYNs days before their due date to have their healthy fetuses ripped out with partial birth abortions….”

    If you are not happy with the article, tough luck.

  • I would like to point out that she has said I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare. And I have spent many years now, as a private citizen, as first lady,
    and now as senator, trying to make it rare, trying to create the
    conditions where women had other choices. I have supported adoption, foster care. I helped to create the campaign against teenage pregnancy, which fulfilled our original goal 10 years
    ago of reducing teenage pregnancies by about a third. And I am committed to do even more. (2008) I believe that the potential for life begins at conception. I am a Methodist, as you know. My church has struggled with this issue. In fact, you can look at the Methodist Book of
    Discipline and see the contradiction and the challenge of trying to sort that very profound question out. But for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved. And,
    therefore, I have concluded, after great concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, that our task should be in this pluralistic, diverse life of ours in this nation that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision, because the alternative would be such an intrusion of government authority that it would be very difficult to sustain in our kind of open society. And as some of you’ve heard me discuss before, I think abortion should remain
    legal, but it needs to be safe and rare. (2008)

    When I defend my pro-choice position in the debate over abortion in our country, I frequently refer to Romania, where pregnancy could be monitored on behalf of the state, & to China, where it could be forcibly terminated. One reason I continue to oppose efforts to criminalize abortion is that I do not believe any government should have the power to dictate, through law or police action, a
    woman’s most personal decision. (2003)

  • she has said I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare

    Hillary Clinton is also on record calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the US Government from financing abortions. An educated person such as yourself will surely not deny that anything the government subsidizes, we’ll get more of.

    Hillary Clinton will do everything she can to make abortion less “rare.” Your argument does not hold.

    As for the “choice” rhetoric, it is a sophistry. “Choosing” to take an innocent human life in the womb is a moral evil; you cannot do evil in the pursuit of good. This is a universal ethical code, and certainly a Christian one. You cannot ask any fellow Christian to respect any argument that values utility over human life itself. It’s against everything we believe in: The dignity of the single human life, made in the image of God Himself.

    When we choose to do moral evil, of course it’s a “choice,” a “decision.” These words do not cover up the evil that is done under their cover. They are empty.

    As for the Methodist Church, they are one of the few denominations who have realized the error of their ways. and on May 19 of this year, withdrew their support for “choice” by withdrawing from Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).

    Like Catholic Tim Kaine, Hillary is now afoul of her own church’s teaching. Her problem is not with me, it is with her own religion.

    Don’t ask me to respect that either. Hillary will be the most pro-abortion president in American history. She also favors repealing the Helms Amendment, which forbids the US government from financing abortion in other countries. Under Hillary Clinton, our government will be in the abortion business. This is on the conscience of every Christian who votes for her.

  • As a mother, I have really struggled with the statement of ‘a single human life, made in the image of God.’ When up to 25% of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion and 1 in 160 pregnancies result in a still born child, I wonder at what point the fetus is really a human life. Or whether the choice is a moral evil if it is to save a mother’s life. I also wonder how much people really care about that human life when eliminating abortion is more important than making family leave a policy priority or affordable healthcare.

  • Human life itself is in a different category than family leave. You just can’t discuss them in the same sentence–that’s faulty reasoning.

    As for when a fetus is a human life, Hillary has defended all abortion at any time as a matter of political “right.” This is an extremist view that should nauseate any thinking person. As a mother yourself, you have a very strong idea what your babies were like throughout their development. There was a point probably pretty early on when you no doubt thought of him or her as your baby, not just a “pregnancy.”

    I’m not going to insist on a “moment of conception” definition here, but you seem to be a sincere person and surely must agree that Hillary’s position defending late-term abortion is hideously immoral.

    I think Christians in particular need to do some serious moral re-thinking of this and not just hide behind the law and Roe v. Wade. Law is at best an approximation of morality, but not morality itself. Roe is not moral.

  • I never ever thought of any of my children as babies until they were vulnerable but viable – as in at 36 weeks gestation. Having seen friends have ectopic pregnancies, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths and an infant born with hydranencephaly really did make me think seriously about the morality of abortion and personal choice. Knowing that two of my children would have likely died in childbirth (and possibly me) should they have been born 100 years earlier added to my questions. When a country like Canada that has no laws against abortion but a lower abortion rate (25% lower than the US while for teens both birth and abortion rates are about 50% lower) as well as a lower infant mortality rate than the US, I think worrying about legislation is not the most fruitful response. Rather implementing and funding policies and practices that encourage contraception, sex ed and family planning, health care and tangible support for mothers of infants – hence family leave which to me also represents tangential social valuing of very young lives.

  • I should probably be more suspicious on the internet. Fool that I am. Oh well. Sincerity is no sin in any gospel I’ve ever read.

    You got me good. Congratulations.

  • I never ever thought of any of my children as babies until they were vulnerable but viable – as in at 36 weeks gestation.

    “Gestation?” What mother uses the word “gestation?”

    Babies are viable at 20-22 weeks. This is scientific fact. 4 weeks x 9 months = 36 weeks, the moment of birth. I think you are bullshitting us, ma’am. At this point, I don’t even believe you’re a ma’am, let alone a mother.

    Knowing that two of my children would have likely died in childbirth (and possibly me) should they have been born 100 years earlier added to my questions.

    Uh huh. Had me going there for awhile, you lying sack of internet spit.

  • I actually am a mother of 4 adult children. Surprise, surprise – NICU units of today did not even exist and one key issue for preemies at that time was immature lung development, lung damage and the ability to be successfully weaned of oxygen. And in the 70s – viability in an advanced centre was certainly not 20 to 22 weeks – even now almost 50 years later, it takes advanced medical intervention with a relatively low survival rate. (neonatologists only became a board recognized specialty in the 70s). In the 1950s, the survival of more than a month of a baby born at 28 weeks or less was almost negligible. (CDC historical report) The CDC did not further break down newborn birth data below 28 weeks or 1000 grams in a review of birth weight and survival of the newborn – weight data was otherwise recorded in increments of 500 grams and age at gestation in 3 week intervals .

    Even now, according to the March of Dimes, late preterm infants (those born at 34-36 weeks of gestation) have a greater risk of breathing problems, feeding difficulties, hypothermia, jaundice and delayed brain development. And actually, I did not conversationally use the word gestation – I did my due date minus 4 weeks to come up with my ‘safe’ date for a healthy baby.

    I think advanced medical treatment simply makes the discussion more complex and nuanced. I find it interesting that people are more concerned about abortion and less, if at all, concerned about the rates of infant mortality and increase in premature births – especially among minorities. Premature birth still is the leading cause of death in newborns. Babies who died from preterm-related causes accounted for 36.5% of infant deaths in 2005 and mortality rates for infants born even a few weeks early were three times higher than those for full-term infants.

    PS mothers who inform themselves about their pregnancies become familiar with all sorts of terminology. The same mothers who also then track fetal growth measurements and heart rates between prenatal visits.

  • Is a person on a respirator no longer human? Of course they are. This is a dead end.

    Life itself is not subject to this sort of hairsplitting or to subjective judgments of its “quality.” The baby is either alive or not.

    “Better off dead” is a different discussion and is the only real definition of “playing God.” On the philosophical level I can’t say there can be no exceptions, but I do know that any effort to write exceptions into law will be twisted far enough to kill babies who have the full potential to lead entirely fulfilling lives.

    It’s patently immoral that our first concern should be killing too few babies, not too many.

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