Editor’s (admin’s) note. Embedded video features an hour-long panel discussion at Harvard Divinity School by James Kloppenberg of Harvard and E.J. Dionne of Georgetown University, moderated by Catherine Brekus.
Catherine Brekus of Harvard Divinity School, who teaches a survey of American religious history, explored several topics crucial to my research on Swedish immigrant Lutheran churches in the runup to the Civil War in a supplementary interview on the website for the PBS series God in America. I linked to the blog HERE, under a headline “Wide-ranging Catherine Brekus interview with PBS on conversion, frontier revivals, normative Protestantism, lasting influence of ante-bellum evangelicals; press release on ‘chosenness’,” which isn’t one of my better headlines but does indicate why I want to go back to it.
Brekus also has a book in progress on John Winthrop’s “city of a hill” sermon and the idea that America is a chosen people — her shorthand for it is “chosenness” — and took part in a forum “Chosen Nation: Christianity, Politics, and American Destiny” in Miami Beach in May 2017. I linked to it HERE — the transcript would run to 80-some pages printed out.
Some more recent notes and quotes:
1. She’s quoted by John Rash of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in a piece headlined “America’s Divide Seen in a Clash of Symbols,”
[…] Captured graphically in video and photo form, some in the MAGA mob beat a police officer with an American flag on the Capitol steps (so much for this crowd’s frequently incanted “Blue Lives Matter” mantra). In other disturbing images, an invader inside was photographed parading the Confederate flag in a scene not seen even during the Civil War.
The use of such symbols deepened the shock to the conscience many in the nation felt. In fact, symbols, said Harvard Prof. Catherine Brekus, “evoke such strong emotional response because they are fundamental to the way we identify ourselves.”
Brekus, chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion who also is associated with Harvard’s History and American Studies departments, added in an e-mail interview that, “The Confederate flag and the noose are deeply disturbing because of their close association with racial violence. Some have tried to argue that the Confederate flag is actually a symbol of states’ rights, but this ignores its long association with white supremacy and racial violence. The American flag is supposed to stand for patriotism (remember when Trump kissed it?), but too often, it has also been used to sanctify violence against ‘enemies’ — real or perceived — of the United States. For some of the rioters last week, the enemies were the police.”
Amplifying the ample racist symbols were numerous nooses and even a gallows on the hallowed grounds of the People’s House. QAnon, white nationalism, antigovernment and anti-Semitic sentiments were also present in banners, flags and T-shirts, including a widely seen one with “Camp Auschwitz” disgracefully emblazoned on it.
“Symbols generate meaning,” said Ronald Greene, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. And no one, Greene said, “sees a symbol out of a particular historical context.”
This particular historical context is, well, one for the history books. Describing the recent weeks’ whirlwind as seminal events might not even do it justice. Just in a fortnight, after all, the Electoral College recorded its votes following a free and fair but falsely disputed presidential election; an insurrection interrupted but did not stop Congress from certifying those results (with notable, notorious exceptions of 139 Republican representatives and eight GOP senators); and the U.S. House impeached President Donald Trump for the second time for what it termed “incitement of insurrection.”
Rash is an editorial writer and columnist for the Star-Trib. He quoted Brekus again in the context of what President Biden hoped to achieve with the inauguration:
It’s not just important, but imperative that unifying symbols replace the divisive ones.
“A nation-state falls apart when it loses its ability to have a shared meaning about its core symbols,” Greene said.
Shared meaning can still be found at the Capitol, especially at its next consequential event: Wednesday’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“Biden is intent on taking his oath on the steps of the Capitol because he understands its symbolic power,” Brekus said. “He is determined to reclaim the Capitol from those who claimed, in the midst of erecting nooses and wreaking violence against the police, to be America’s truest patriots.”
The symbolism of the inauguration, Greene said, “is to pull us all together again. We are all supposed to experience the peaceful transition of power and the reset of our democratic debate.”
2. Interviewed by Elizabeth Aeschlimann in June 2017 (“Christianity, Politics, and American Destiny”), she spoke of: (a) our current divisions, exacerbated by President Trump’s election in 2016; and (b) John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon:
This past academic year I taught a year-long survey of American religion. The first half of the course explored religion in America from 1580 to 1865, and the second part focused on 1865 to the present.
The second part of the course started with Reconstruction, and this was right after the 2017 presidential inauguration. Our political climate right now is divided and toxic, so the course was more challenging to teach than other classes in the past: students seemed to feel a certain sense of despair and anxiety. Talking about Reconstruction with students was difficult in some ways, but I think it was a valuable conversation. At the beginning of Reconstruction, there was a lot of hope for change, and there were remarkable things that happened in terms of African-American voting rights, but then the collapse of Reconstruction led to sharecropping, segregation, and literacy tests that prevented black equality.
Because of students’ unease about the election, it was hard for them to approach the past in an empathetic spirit. Since they are fearful that our current moment is failing them, they are very aware of the failures of the past. So that was something we worked on pretty self-consciously—how we could try to understand people in the past before we judged them. Being critical is really important, and judgment is important, but first we need to sit with people in the past, listen to them, and try to understand why they made the choices that they did. Why were people in the past so afraid of black rights and women’s rights? Why did so many Americans discriminate against Jews and Catholics? How did their judgment get twisted?
Without an ability to have that sort of dialogue, it’s hard to imagine any kind of meaningful change in the present. Part of what I hope happens in my courses is that, when people try to approach people in the past in a spirit of understanding before judging, then they will do the same in the present. And if they can identify the structural forces that have constrained people in the past, then they can start to look around our world and think about the things that we take for granted—the injustices we live with every day that we may object to but don’t actively try to dismantle. If people in the past were blind to the evil of some of their beliefs, so are we today.
Also John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” speech, in this exchange:
EA: If you could teach a course for everyone in this country, or give one lecture, do you have a sense what you might like to teach or convey?
CB: Wow, that’s a hard one. Because I am working on a book project right now and because this speech has been so important in American history, I think I would have everybody read John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” known more popularly as his “City upon a Hill” speech. We would then sit down and talk in-depth about his vision of New England. He did not imagine a future United States—he was speaking about Massachusetts Bay—but one of the reasons I love that document is that it contains so much of the future trajectory of what would become the United States—in both its positive and negative features.
At the beginning of the speech he says that God created different stations in the world, repeating a belief in hierarchy that was common in the seventeenth century. But then he says that we are going on a new journey together. This is an experiment, an extraordinary time, and in this extraordinary time, we are going to have to support one another wholeheartedly. We’re going to have to give each other our surplus, clothe the people who are poor, and make sure everybody has food. We’re going to have to treat each other as if we’re all members of one body of Christ, and we will have to think about the collective whole and the common good for all of us: we’ll rejoice together, we’ll weep together, and we’ll bear one another’s burdens.
What he never really makes clear is: How are we going to treat the people who are already here, the Native Americans? How are we going to treat the outsiders? And he makes one or two brief references to biblical passages from the Hebrew Bible in which the Amalekites are exterminated, where the Israelites are called to take their land. He has a beautiful vision of the common good, but he also implies a future of violence.
The speech ends not with a triumphalist vision of success, but words of warning. He says that if we don’t live up to the covenant that God has made with us—if we don’t love one another, rejoice with one another, and bear one another’s burdens—then God will withdraw his favor: we will be a byword to all people, a disgrace. Even though this speech is remembered today, almost no one remembers that Winthrop thought that America could end up being a failure.
So, the speech points to a future American desire for the common good, but it also anticipates violence and exclusion. It’s a speech that troubles everybody in some ways, and that’s why it would be good to discuss, because I don’t think that it gives us a single vision. His speech points in multiple directions, and in some ways Americans have been arguing about who we want to be ever since the first settlers, even if they didn’t know we would eventually be a nation. The central questions are: Who should be included in our “model of charity”? What are our obligations to one another? What should be the balance between individual wants and the common good?
3. And in a press release the PR office put up in December 2015 on a new course by professors Catherine Brekus and David Holland, “Narratives of American Religion: The Canon and Its Revisions.” Not long after she went from the U of C, where she taught a similar course with Martin Marty, to Harvard Divinity. One snippet:
Brekus and Holland refer to the texts assigned in the class as stories about religion in America, and for good reason. These may be books of history—often very large ones, as students will point out—but they also resemble novels, with a defined cast of characters and a plot structure. For more than a hundred years of the writing of American religion, according to Brekus and Holland, the characters and plot remained sadly predictable.
Throughout the “canonical” half of the course, the heroes of the story are white, male Protestants, and the villains are other religious groups, and many types of people remain offstage completely. Meanwhile, the plot structure is usually a hopeful one, about challenges to Protestantism overcome.
According to Brekus, “It’s a very positive plot, the story of how white Protestants have shaped America in positive ways, how they invented democracy, provided cohesion and a sense of national purpose. It’s a consensus story about how Protestants have shaped the American nation in their own image, and to make that argument authors have to sideline critical voices.”
Brekus continued, “Then we see a change in the 1970s, which is a change in the academy generally regarding whose stories get told and why. So the second part is revisions to the older narratives, especially in terms of attention to groups that were ignored by earlier histories, such as women, Native Americans, African Americans, as well as religious groups like Spiritualists, Mormons, and so on. The difference between the book published in 1844 and the book published in 1972 is not as great as you might hope, but a different kind of history writing starts to happen after that.”
Catherine Brekus, “Christianity, Politics, and American Destiny,” interview by Elizabeth Aeschlimann, Harvard Divinity School [News and Events], June 29, 2017 https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2017/06/29/christianity-politics-and-american-destiny.
John Rash,”America’s divide seen in a clash of symbols,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 15, 2021 https://www.startribune.com/america-s-divide-seen-in-a-clash-of-symbols/600011277/.
Walter Smelt, “Examining Stories about Religion in America,” Harvard Divinity School [News and Events], Dec. 17, 2015 https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2015/12/17/examining-religion-america.
Also a video at https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2020/10/30/video-religion-and-2020-election-conversation-james-kloppenberg-and-ej-dionne. Oct. 30, 2020. Blurb:
View a conversation on religion and the 2020 election with James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, and E.J. Dionne, Visiting Professor in Religion and Political Culture at HDS. This event was moderated by Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at HDS, and was sponsored by the Council on the Study of Religion, the Committee on the Study of Religion, and Harvard Divinity School.