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Considering the candidates and campaign context of 1920 in light of 2020

21 Sep
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Republican Warren G. Harding spoke to voters from his front porch in Ohio.
Photograph from A.P.

Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.

A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the covid-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.

The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.

When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.

So begins Thomas Mallon’s engaging reconsideration of the 1920 presidential selection and campaign. You may read his entire New Yorker piece here.

God Gave Rock and Roll to You

14 May

Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

The television preacher Jimmy Swaggart became a Christian megastar in the 1980s broadcasting from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His popular crusades and regular services appeared on television sets across the United States and around the world. At its peak, his ministry was taking in over one million dollars a week. He had honed a brash, bold, loud style of preaching that made him a revered figure, both in the context of the Assemblies of God – a group of affiliated churches that formed the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination – and in the broader world of evangelicalism. Critics reviled his holier-than-thou pulpit posturing and his bellicosity. Some stations even took him off the air for his religious and cultural bigotry.

Like many other Pentecostal preachers – who were moving into politics at a rapid rate – Swaggart believed that the Holy Ghost emboldened him to witness the arrow-straight truths of the Bible. With his southern drawl, he thundered against Hollywood celebrities, evolutionary scientists, communists, homosexuals, Catholics, feminists, secular liberals and other ‘enemies’ of the faith. Americans had lost interest in the Bible, he warned with deadly seriousness. A reporter at the New York Times took note. The Reagan-era televangelist was ‘tapping some powerful resentments here; he is speaking to the disenfranchised’. The country rightly deserved God’s judgment, Swaggart assured his audience with fury.

In the summer of 1985, Swaggart was on the road, conducting one of his mass revival crusades in New Haven, Connecticut. Before the cameras and the glare of stage lights he paced back and forth, waving his arms like he was fending off a swarm of bees. He raised his Bible high above his head. He shouted at his audience about the moral degeneracy that dragged reprobates through the gates of hell. At one performance, he took aim at ‘the devil’s music’: rock and roll.

How had Christians made peace with this vile, hideous music, he asked with urgency in his voice, drawing out words like ‘pul-pit’ and ‘bye-bull’. The issue was a personal one for him, he confided, pausing for emphasis and lowering his voice before lunging at the crowd, finger pointed upward to drive home his jeremiad.

‘My family started rock and roll!’ he exclaimed in front of the silent assembly of thousands. ‘I don’t say that with any glee! I don’t say it with any pomp or pride! I say it with shame and sadness, because I’ve seen the death and the destruction. I’ve seen the unmitigated misery and the pain. I’ve seen it!’ His voice cracking with emotion, he railed: ‘I speak of experience. My family – Jerry Lee Lewis, with Elvis Presley, with Chuck Berry … started rock and roll!’ His claim served an obvious rhetorical point, but there was also much truth to it.

So begins Randall Stephens’ concise summary of the argument of his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). You may read his entire History Today piece here.

Who Defines Evangelicalism? An Interview with Mark Noll

29 Apr

President Donald Trump holds an Evangelicals for Trump rally at a Miami megachurch in January of 2020. (Adam DelGiudice/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty)

Now more than three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, amid the coronavirus pandemic and his run for reelection, the debate over his white evangelical base continues to rage. Columns and editorials have been written, pundits have clashed, friendships and family ties have been strained. Through it all, some basic questions have underwritten the exchange—What is an evangelical? To whom does the label apply? What policies and politicians should an evangelical support? Of all the recent books tackling these questions on American evangelicalism—and there are many—one stands out as complete and comprehensive.

Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden—all esteemed scholars of American religious history—have assembled an impressive line-up of contributors in their edited volume, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Bebbington, now retired from Scotland’s University of Sterling, is perhaps best known for outlining four main characteristics of evangelicalism. Marsden and Noll, who held the same chair in succession at Notre Dame, have also long explored the salient traits of evangelicals, including their role in higher education. In Noll’s 1994 book about the tension between his twin loves of intellectualism and evangelicalism, he famously wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

In this latest volume, Noll has helped bring together many minds to ponder different facets of the questions facing evangelicalism. Among them are names that have appeared in the pages of Religion & Politics and around the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, including Darren DochukMolly WorthenKristin Kobes Du MezJemar TisbyTimothy Keller, and Thomas S. KiddEric C. Miller spoke recently with Noll about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So begins a fascinating interview by Eric C. Miller of historian and evangelical Mark Noll about a new book on evangelicalism. You may read the entire Religion and Politics piece here.

The Evangelical and the Journalist: Billy Sunday & A.B. MacDonald

22 Apr

Crowds jam New York’s Penn Station to see Billy Sunday arrive. Bain News Service, between 1910 -1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A. B. MacDonald was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in the early decades of the 20th century who had a front-row seat to the sermons of Billy Sunday, one of the most electrifying preachers of the day.

MacDonald, based in Kansas City, was an evangelical Christian himself. He spent much of 1917 to 1919 traveling across the country and proselytizing with Sunday, a man MacDonald repeatedly described as a “genius” and “the greatest man I have ever known.”

So begins Ryan Reft’s description of a new manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. You may read the entire post here.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM 1918 INFLUENZA DIARIES

13 Apr

Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918

Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Dorman B.E. Kent, a historian and businessman from Montpelier, Vermont, contracted influenza in fall 1918, he chronicled his symptoms in vivid detail. Writing in his journal, the 42-year-old described waking up with a “high fever,” “an awful headache” and a stomach bug.

“Tried to get Dr. Watson in the morning but he couldn’t come,” Kent added. Instead, the physician advised his patient to place greased cloths and a hot water bottle around his throat and chest.

So begins Meilan Solly’s introduction to selections from 1918 diaries during the Great Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. You may read her entire Smithsonian post here.

Why Telephone Companies Once Discouraged People From Chatting

13 Apr

During the flu outbreak of 1918, phone operators took precautions—and many companies asked people to stay off the line.

During the flu outbreak of 1918, phone operators took precautions—and many companies asked people to stay off the line. BETTMANN / CONTRIBUTOR / GETTY IMAGES

AS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CONTINUES to sweep across the world, putting billions in isolation, many people are scrambling to stay tethered to friends, family, and coworkers. More than 80 percent of people surveyed in the United States and United Kingdom report spending more time squinting at their phones and other screens, according to data published by the World Economic Forum. Those little screens have come to feel like a lifeline, offering a sense of community and a sliver of normalcy.

That’s not exactly new. Decades ago, Bell and AT&T ran ads exhorting people to “reach out and touch someone.” The ads promised that phone calls could collapse the physical and emotional distance between people. In one commercial from the late 1980s, a kid phoning his parents from college was able to picture his family’s routine—sister primping for a date, brother rushing in from soccer practice, dad rifling through the refrigerator just a few hours after dinner.

But, of course, it wasn’t always this way. The last time a pandemic of comparable scale stampeded around the world, in 1918, only around a third of American households had phones, The New York Times recently reported—and, obviously, those devices were much lower-fi. For decades, people with phones had been largely discouraged from using them for gabbing, ostensibly because some towns only had a few lines to serve everyone. Then, when the flu began to devastate communities, some phone companies begged people to keep their calls to a minimum, Fast Company reported. In October 1918, for instance, the Michigan State Telephone Company took out an ad in a Battle Creek newspaper, asking locals to “please restrict your use of the telephone to calls which are absolutely essential,” thus freeing up operators to attend to “the essential business of the community.” Similar messages went out in New Jersey and North Carolina, where an ad asked the public to “refrain from using the telephone except when necessary so that prompt service can be given to the sick.”

So begins Jessica Leigh Hester’s Atlas Obscura post on the changing uses of the telephone. You may read her entire post here.

Triscuits–what’s in a name?

12 Apr

On March 25, Sage Boggs shocked the twittersphere with his revelation that the brand name Triscuit was a portmanteau of “electricity” and “biscuit.” In a time when seemingly all anyone can talk about is the coronavirus pandemic, Boggs’s thread provided some much-needed levity and excitement. It elicited a statement from Triscuit’s official Twitter account: “We had to go all the way up the ladder but we CAN confirm.” The account even added a lightning bolt to its username and changed its bio to “elecTRIcity biSCUIT.”

But do we really know Boggs is right?

So begins historian Charles Louis Richter’s investigation of the origins of the name of the Triscuit cracker–pushing back against the Twitter linking of the naming to electricity. You may read Richter’s entire Contingent Magazine post here.

Seven spiritual beliefs of young adults

6 Apr

For more than a decade scholars have been investigating the spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults in the US in a sustained research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion. In the latest installment in this project, we interviewed a range of emerging adults about their lives, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and even their failures. The young adults responded in articulate and insightful ways about these aspects of their lives.

But their articulateness did not extend to talking about religion or spirituality. This inarticulacy has been noted over the life of the research project, starting when the subjects were teens. In the intervening years, their ability to articulate religious teachings and exactly what they believe doesn’t seem to have improved in any significant way.

So begins an excerpt from a new sociological study of the religious beliefs of emerging adults. You may read the entire Christian Century piece by Denton and Flory here.

HOW EPIDEMICS SHAPED MODERN LIFE

2 Apr

How Epidemics Shaped Modern Life | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

A lithograph by Alice Dick Dumas depicts children going to a clinic for a health check to prevent the advance of disease. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the 19th century, one in seven people around the world had died of tuberculosis, and the disease ranked as the third leading cause of death in the United States. While physicians had begun to accept German physician Robert Koch’s scientific confirmation that TB was caused by bacteria, this understanding was slow to catch on among the general public, and most people gave little attention to the behaviors that contributed to disease transmission. They didn’t understand that things they did could make them sick. In his book, Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Its Modern Prophylaxis and the Treatment in Special Institutions and at Home, S. Adolphus Knopf, an early TB specialist who practiced medicine in New York, wrote that he had once observed several of his patients sipping from the same glass as other passengers on a train, even as “they coughed and expectorated a good deal.” It was common for family members, or even strangers, to share a drinking cup.

So begins Katherine A. Foss’s concise and insightful essay on how some past epidemics have reshaped modern society. You may read her entire Zocalo essay here.

Diaries & Journals are what historians will look for to source the history of this pandemic.

31 Mar

Ady calls her diary Ela, as in the first syllable of the word “elephant” (one of her favorite animals).

Credit…Ady

Before the end of life as we knew it, Ady, an 8-year-old who lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco, read a biography of Anne Frank.

When she realized that she, too, was living through what would soon become history, Ady started keeping her own diary.

In one early entry, she recorded that the judging for her county’s science fair would be conducted over the phone, rather than in person. “Not ‘fair’!!” she wrote. “Har, har, very funny.”

When Santa Cruz County enacted a shelter-in-place order on March 16, she again picked up her pen.

“I’m REALY scared!” she wrote. “Did you know this is getting so bad that I have to go my clarinet lessons on the cumputer!!”

So begins Amelia Nierenberg’s New York Times piece on diaries and journals of this pandemic time. You may read her entire article here.

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