Feb 27, 2015

John C. Willke, 1925 - 2015

Credit: National Right to Life
John C. Willke in his National Right to Life office, circa 1982.
Willke's rhetoric could exhibit some of the more hysterical tendencies of the pro-life movement. In one letter to supporters, for example, he alleged that abortionists were harvesting and selling organs from fetuses. The information was based on an anecdote from one anonymous source, but Willke relayed it as verified truth.

"These are real baby parts," he wrote, "often from live born babies who have been delivered by Partial-Birth abortion … Now we know why the abortion industry has a vested interest in keeping partial birth abortions legal. They need this grisly procedure so they can get intact bodies in order to harvest and sell the body parts of babies they kill."

He hoped the horror of late-term abortions would spark moral outrage in those who would rather not think about the details of abortion.

Willke said this tactic had worked with the political issue of slavery in 1850s Ohio when the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slavers to re-capture escaped slaves in the North and then march them back to slavery, brought the horror of the practice into plain sight, and shocked many who had been content not knowing about it before.

"This rubbed it in the faces of good people," Willke said. "Not long after that, the whole thing exploded."

Read the whole obit for John C. "Jack" Willke, a doctor who led and shaped the pro-life movement, at Religion Dispatches.

Feb 25, 2015

What would Ishmael read?

Reading the scattered criticism of popular domestic novels led me to recognize -- though I am certainly not the first to have done so -- that the popularity of novels by women has been held against them almost as much as their preoccupation with with 'trivial' feminine concerns. And this led to the observation, again not original to me, that popular fiction in general, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been rigorously excluded from the ranks of 'serious' literary works. That exclusion seems to me especially noteworthy in American literature, since the rhetoric of American criticism habitually invokes democratic values as a hallmark of greatness in American authors. When Melville calls upon that 'great democratic God' and celebrates 'meanest mariners, renegades and castaways,' it is cause for critical acclaim, but when the common man steps out of Moby-Dick or Song of Myself and walks into a bookstore, his taste in literature, or, as is more likely, hers, is held up for scorn.
-- Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860.

Feb 24, 2015

Jonathan Edwards in Oklahoma

Jonathan Edwards didn't know of Oklahoma. The word wasn't even coined until 108 years after he was dead. But do Oklahomans know Jonathan Edwards?

The question is surprisingly controversial at the moment.

A Republican Oklahoma state representative named Dan Fisher, who is also pastor of a Baptist megachurch, has proposed a bill that would defund the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History courses in Oklahoma high schools. AP classes are taught to about 500,000 high school students every year in the US, putting them on the fast track to college education. The AP guidelines for teaching US history was revised in 2014 and Fisher, like many of conservatives, is critical of the new framework.

"Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters," Fisher said. "Now certainly we all know that we have our blemishes, and we wouldn't want to withhold those. But we don't want only our blemishes taught and not have a balanced approach."

Fisher says the biggest problem with the new curriculum is what is left out: "the heroes from American history are pretty much omitted."

One of those heroes, according to Oklahoma House Bill 1380, is Jonathan Edwards. Fisher is afraid Edward, along with others, is being kept out of the US history classroom. The legislation would require that Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" be taught to advanced high school students, along with two other Puritan texts, John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" and the Mayflower compact.

Fisher's proposal was passed last week by the Oklahoma house's education committee with an 11-4 vote on party lines. The news was met with considerable scorn and outrage. Many on the left see this bill as an example of the American right's head-in-the-sand anti-intellectualism. Conservatives, it is alleged, can't handle the truth of American history. They want a of national ideology to overwrite the complexities of what actually happened.

Feb 23, 2015

The printing press and the slaves

Detail of a monument to Johannes Gutenberg, Strasbourg, France.

Feb 20, 2015

'So that never happened in church again'

A tract on spanking children at church, circa 1945-1948, from "The Kids Tract Club," in Winona Lake Ind., distributed by Talking Gospel Pictures in Spokane, Wash. The tracts were sold at $1.50 per 100. 

This was one of a series of five, called "The Tantrums of Lil' Bess," by a woman named Betty Russell. In one tract, a 2-year-old Bess is shown being disciplined with the statement, "God is up in heaven. He sees everything we do." In another, 3-year-old Bess learns that she does bad things because she's sinful. 

More of the Lil' Bess comics can be seen on Ethan Persoff's site. 

Feb 18, 2015

As honest as sin

David Carr was a recovering addict. He wrote a memoir of his recovery, called The Night of the Gun. The story is basically what one expects from the genre -- a colorful fall from grace, "bottom," then redemption. What set it apart was that Carr didn't want you to trust him. The Night of the Gun was re-reported, not just remembered. Carr dug up documents and did interviews and approached the story as a journalist. When he said he loved his children, he went and checked it out.

Really, the memoir started from the premise that memories are suspect.

"Even if I had amazing recall, and I don't, recollection is often just self-fashioning," he wrote early in the book. And then later: "When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception. How is it that almost every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?"

It is a dogma of public confession that you can tell the truth and it will set you free. Carr insisted, however, that baked into that (as he would say) was the tendency to not tell the truth.

"If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?" he wrote. "As a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I'm inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together."

This reflects a commitment to journalism. It also reflects a belief in sin.

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: "David Carr's secret to honesty: sin

Feb 17, 2015

First draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, written and submitted.

Feb 13, 2015

'He thinks he is enjoying life more now than he did five years ago'

"Saddleback Sam" the market target for Rick Warren's soon-to-be megachurch, Saddleback.

Feb 10, 2015

The worst thing about slavery

The worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived, it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire -- this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. 
-- Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Feb 5, 2015

The usefulness of Harry Jaffa's feuds

Internal disagreements are bad for politics. Group infighting isn't particularly productive in the pursuit of power, as politicians have known from Russian revolutionary Alexander Kerensky (who declared "no enemies to the left") to conservative champion Ronald Reagan (who said his 11th Commandment was "Thou shalt speak no ill of any fellow Republicans").

Infighting is good for political philosophy, though. Philosophical issues are clarified in internal struggles in a way they almost never are, otherwise. 

Harry V. Jaffa is particularly interesting in this regard. The late conservative,  a political philosopher who got involved in politics, was always ready and willing to feud with friends. 

He believed, according to the editors of the conservative Incollegiate Review, "that truth is more important than friends." Politics is usually the business of making common cause, finding co-belligerants, and preferring the practical victory to the principled loss, but not for Jaffa. For him, politics was a kind of theology. Deviations were heresy. As William F. Buckley quipped, "If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him."

If this makes Jaffa sound cantankerous, that seems to be right. Larry Arnn, a student of Jaffa's who is now president of Hillsdale College, recalled that Jaffa's quarrels with friends were sometimes a main subject of his graduate seminars. "He drove some students away," Arnn said:
He was absent-minded and didn't always have a glorious lecture ready for class. In fact, generally, he did not. And he loved to bring letters that he'd written to people like William F. Buckley, and you know, everybody famous. And he loved it when he got a letter back, because then he could write him another one and point out why they were wrong. And he would read that out and talk about he'd kicked their tail and why they were wrong. And a lot of students were impatient with that. But the ones who studied with him understood that there was something going on there, and we may be too young and stupid to understand it, but we should listen.
At least part of what was going on in those exchanges, it would seem, was the articulation of basic philosophical questions at the foundation of Jaffa's politics. Those disagreements highlighted foundational questions about what conservatism is, and what it values. In those debates, conservatism itself was thought to be at stake. In a way that fights over public policy can't, the somewhat esoteric disputes within conservative discourse end up clarifying and defining conservatism.

Feb 3, 2015

'Pleasure Mad, and the Penalty of Transgression'

Anti-automobile cartoon from a Sunday School paper, published in 1926. It would appear to be signed by J. Swaggart, but the famous J. Swaggart, Jimmy, wasn't born until 1935.

The context for the cartoon is the anti-car sentiment of the 1920s. For more information, check out "The Modern Moloch," from 99% Invisible, or Fighting Traffic, by historian Peter D. Norton.

Feb 2, 2015

Religious interest continues, even as affiliation declines

Religious affiliation is on the decline. Does that mean people are less interested in religion too?

Jack Miles, editor of the new Norton Anthology Of World Religions, tells Terry Gross that he doesn't think so.

I don't put too much stock, you know, in, for example, the fact that more people now check none when asked, in the United States, to state their religion because more people also state Independent when asked for their political party or shrug their shoulders and say, I have no political affiliation. It doesn't mean they don't care about politics. It just means that they don't like being organized into anything. All organizational activity in our country is in a state of kind of decline, I believe.
This seems to be true. Volunteerism, to take one example of organizational activity, has been on the decline in the 21st century. Now only 1 in 4 Americans volunteer in any way.

As Robert Putnam argued in his 2001 book, Bowling Alone, "most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations -- we've stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings. And all this despite rapid increases in education that have given more of us than ever before the skills, the resources and the interests that once fostered civic engagement."

The social change that is currently visible looks, at one level, to be a change in belief. It may be that, in some ways. More critically, though, it seems to be a change in social organization, driven by economic and technological developments. People aren't showing up at county-level political party meetings, but they're posting political commentary to their Facebook walls. And they're not going to church, but they're buying religious bestsellers.

Feb 1, 2015



Today is Tübingen's Fasnetsumzug. It is kin to Carnival. In Tübingen, there's a parade of bears, badgers, witches, soldiers, and ugly spirits, as above, who perform for the crowds, sometimes giving away candy, throwing confetti, setting off stink bombs, and (especially) smudging girls' faces.

As a religious tradition, it is throughly confused. There are pagan elements mixed with Roman Catholic traditions mixed with modern aspects, apparently without any regard for signification. Parts of it are very faithful to tradition; other parts disregard any appeals to "authenticity." 

It's pretty fun.