Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 24, 2012

Sympathy for John Fea, Kirk Cameron Not So Much

Filed under: Conservatives,Religion — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:54 am

My heart went out to the tireless John Fea earlier today. Trying to keep the faith as a responsible historian, a good Christian, and an extremely active blogger, he seemed genuinely downhearted to have gotten caught between the Far Right and the Professional Left. All the man has done is write a book that tries to carefully and accessibly sort through the vexed issue of the Founders’ intentions toward Christianity, and blog rather ceaselessly against the historical distortions of those he charitably calls “Christian nationalist authors” like David Barton and Glenn Beck. Just for exposing himself to so much of their simulated thought, the man deserves the thanks of a grateful nation. So what happens? On a busy Monday morning, last week of the semester no doubt, he threw up his hands a little at a particularly smug and mendacious chat between Barton and Beck on GBTV, promoting Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies: “I don’t even know where to begin with this video,” Fea sighed, hoping some other bloggers without papers to grade could get this one for him. “Barton’s book is currently ranked #31 at Amazon. It is really sad that the American past is being manipulated for political propaganda in this way. I say this as an historian and an evangelical Christian.”

Within hours, Fea found himself censured as an Ivory Tower academic by Kyle Mantyla of People for the American Way. Here is a quote from Mantyla, and the plaintive response of its target, from John’s blog:

Fea is an Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College and the author of the excellent book “Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction” which I wrote about several times last year, and his comment raises a question that I have been wondering about for a long time, which is why bona fide historians seem so unwilling to take a stand against Barton and his partisan manipulation of history. 

For academic historians to generally remain silent as Barton’s brand of pseudo-history becomes increasingly popular seems, to me, to represent a serious disservice to their field of expertise. Barton’s brand of partisan history remains popular, at least in part, because actual historian so rarely speak out against Barton’s flagrant misuse and misrepresentation of history.

Fea laments that Barton’s book is so popular while simultaneously saying he doesn’t even know what to say about this video.  Those two things are not unrelated. 

If historians, and especially evangelical historians like Fea, remain reluctant to get involved in the task of debunking and discrediting Barton and his pseudo-history, they can expect to continue seeing books by the likes of Beck and Barton at the top of the best-sellers list.

Reluctant to get involved?  Unwilling to take a stand?  Granted, I am extremely busy trying to survive the Spring semester here at Messiah College and thus decided to take a pass on critiquing the latest Barton interview with Glenn Beck, but I would hardly say that I have been “reluctant to get involved” in challenging Christian nationalist views of history.

Having said that, I am a bit jaded and tired.  Thirty years ago Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden wrote The Search for Christian America in order to debunk the faulty views of history promoted by an earlier generation of Christian Right activists.  The book provided thoughtful Christians with a guide to make sense of the faulty views of American history being promoted by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer. But as I mentioned in my talk at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame earlier this month (with Noll and Marsden present), the book did little to stop Christian nationalists from using the American past to promote their political agenda.  In fact, one might argue that the Christian nationalist view of American history, thanks to David Barton and Wallbuilders, has grown stronger since the appearance of The Search for Christian America.

In the end, Mantyla is correct.  Professional historians need to be willing to challenge Barton’s view of the American past.  I think Was America Founded as a Christian Nation made an indirect attempt at doing this.  But individual professors writing books can only make a small dent.  We do not have the kind of organization and donor base of a place like Wallbuilders.

I have tried to think about a creative way of engaging the public more fully on these questions and many others related to the role that American history can play in forging a more civil and informed society.  Many have encouraged me in my efforts and patted me on the back for trying, but very few have been willing to get behind the vision in any meaningful way.  Perhaps I have not worked hard enough.  . . .

I will continue to press on, but I can’t do it alone.

File:Kirk Cameron at the 41st Emmy Awards cropped and altered.jpg

Ahem. John is probably quite right that the rest of us should pitch in, but having logged a few thousand hours at academic history conferences, I am not sure that a lot of what we have to say is likely to be listened to by people who have been forewarned about historians by the likes of, say, TV’s Kirk Cameron, star of Growing Pains.  Cameron has a new career as a right-wing Christian activist, and told CNN all about us:

“No one is more guilty of cherry picking evidence than those who bow to the god of political correctness, especially historians,” Cameron said. “Everyone is going to select the information that is important to their thesis. If you’re bent on being politically correct, it’s very easy to fall into that trap.”

The CNN piece is actually worth reading for its rare-for-journalism efforts to correct some of Barton’s errors while only counter-balancing them with Kirk Cameron. Nearly as good were some of the comments on John Fea’s blog, especially the thoughts of one MikeW, who doubted that much could be done to de-program Barton’s devotees, but did have suggestions about what historians could do:

So that’s where I believe you, and your fellow professional historians and educators need to continue to focus your efforts. Keep teaching our children the actual history of America, and teach them about the scientific method and to think critically about history and historical evidence. Show them how to recognize a conspiracy theory when they see one, and that there are no short cuts in the quest for knowledge, no matter how convincing they may seem.

I am sure you are doing all of those things — though I would be interested to hear if there was a venue in college where professors can teach students (not just history students) about the likes of Barton and their duplicitous ways. Perhaps there is a place for offering a general course on skepticism and conspiracy theories given how prevalent they have become in America today (and not just in the field of history)?

That is a good idea, though I can tell you students do not always like it when you rain on their moon landing hoax parade, or spend too much time on Antimasons.

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April 3, 2012

More Than We Thought

If you thought you knew how many died in the U.S. Civil War, you may be wrong, according to this morning’s New York Times. David Hacker of Binghamton University has offered new estimates in the December 2011 issue of Civil War History of the number of men killed in the Civil War (not women, see the article for why) that increase the total by about 20%. [NB: if you have access to Project Muse, you can read the Civil War History piece here.]

Portrait of Captain Bacon and the 34th Mass. Company E, courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Hacker made the estimates by blending traditional methods of statistical estimation with new tools available digitally:

Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.

Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.

“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.

As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.

Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.

Hacker then revised the data to control for the normal mortality rate and other factors, and acknowledged problems with estimating deaths for women (both white and black) and for black men. The new counts overturn data that historians have relied on for over a century. In a blog post last fall, Hacker answered the question of why the revised higher count matters:

So what? Above a certain count, do the numbers even matter? Well, yes. The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined. Approximately 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died from the conflict, a substantial increase from the 1 in 13 implied by the traditional estimate. The death toll is also one of our most important measures of the war’s social and economic costs. A higher death toll, for example, implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected.

The techniques that Prof. Hacker employed are fascinating, and point to some of the possibilities in thinking about newly digitized data sources. My question, however, is why—after publishing Hacker’s post on the Disunion blog last September, and with his journal article in print for four months—the Times waited to publish this piece until just now.

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