Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Elections of 1868 and 2016

It is, thankfully, just nine days until Election Day. Earlier in the year this was touted as one of the most important elections in U.S. history. Much of the tension in the presidential election, though, has been erased by HRC’s huge lead in the polls.
However, which Party controls the Senate, and even the House, rides upon the outcome of the Nov. 8 election, so it remains an extremely important election.
As the first presidential election after the Civil War, though, the election of 1868 was perhaps even more important than the one this year. 
Background: Pres. Andrew Johnson
As you know, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, was the Vice-President who was sworn into office on April 15, 1865, three hours after President Lincoln died from the assassin’s bullets. 
Johnson (1808-75) was born in North Carolina but lived in Tennessee from his teenager years. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857 and became the Vice-President on March 4, 1865.
Even though he was not opposed to slavery, Johnson did not support secession and thus opposed Tennessee joining the Confederate States of America in June 1861. He was the only senator from a Confederate state not to resign his senate seat.
Johnson, however, was a southerner, and after the war he wanted to protect the interests of the whites in the South and to welcome them back into the Union quickly and easily. 
In 1866 Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill to protect the rights of the slaves who had been freed, but Johnson vetoed that bill.
Even though Congress overrode Johnson’s veto, he still did much to benefit the white southerners and to repress the equality of the freed slaves. As Hans L. Trefousse writes in Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989), Johnson “preserved the South as ‘a white man’s country’” (p. 334).
1868: racist Democrats
Johnson’s main political opponents were not just the Republicans but those who were generally called Radical Republicans—men such as Rep. Thaddeus Stephens and Sen. Charles Sumner. They were the leaders in the impeachment of Pres. Johnson in February 1868.
Johnson was so unpopular that he was not chosen to be the Democratic candidate for President in the 1868 election. Horatio Seymour, a former New York governor, was nominated for the office, and Francis P. Blair, Jr., a former U.S. Representative from Missouri, became the nominee for Vice-President.
In his campaign Seymour advocated a policy of conservative, limited government. He also opposed the Reconstruction policies of the Republicans in Congress. His campaign was marked by pronounced appeals to racism with repeated attempts to brand General Ulysses S. Grant as the “Nigger” candidate and Seymour as the “White Man’s” candidate.
Likewise, V-P candidate Blair used “blatantly racist language” in his campaign speeches, setting the tone for what Eric Foner called (in 1990) “the last Presidential contest to center on white supremacy” (A Short History of Reconstruction, p. 145). 
Thankfully, Grant was elected President.

2016: racist Republicans
It is quite obvious that the position of the two Parties have completely reversed since 1868. This year Donald Trump’s main support, by far, is by white voters—and he has the overwhelming support of white supremacists. (See my June 5 article “Can Trump Make America White Again?”.)
While candidate Trump is not as blatantly racist as Seymour and Blair were in 1868, it seems clear that he and many of his supporters are racists. 

Like 1868, the election this year is partly about the equality of all Americans, and I am glad the result will most likely turn out the same way, against racism, as it did then.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Significance of the Pony Express

As a boy growing up in rural northwest Missouri, St. Joseph was the nearest big city and a place of fascination to me. As a schoolboy I no doubt learned that the Pony Express started in St. Joseph, which we usually called St. Joe. For some reason, however, I grew up not knowing much about the Pony Express.
Learning about the Pony Express
Not long after moving to Liberty in 2005, June and I visited the Pony Express Museum in St. Joe and learned a lot about it then. That is a certainly a place worth visiting, and you can check it out online here.
Ms. Kathy Ridge (May 2016)
I learned the most about the Pony Express, though, from hearing Ms. Kathy Ridge give a talk about it on May 29 this year at the Memorial Day gathering at my father’s (long-closed) home church in rural Worth County, Mo. 
Ms. Ridge, a retired elementary school teacher who works as a volunteer at the Pony Express Museum, told not only interesting details about those who rode for the Pony Express but also shared something of its historical significance.
The Pony Express began operation on April 3, 1860, and was a response to the need for faster communication with people who lived in California. After the discovery of gold there in 1848, the population of Calif. grew rapidly and it became a state in 1850.
The Pony Express was made obsolete, though, with the completion of the transcontinental telegraph on October 24, 1861, and it ceased operation two days after. (The transcontinental railroad was then completed in May 1869, only 7½ years later.)
The Pony Express and the Civil War
Because of the Pony Express, people in California received news of the beginning of the Civil War just 12 days after it began, rather than weeks later as would have been the case earlier. The Pony Express helped keep California aligned with the North in spite of many Confederate sympathizers living in the state.
In addition, partly because of the Pony Express, California’s gold was secured for funding the Union forces rather than the soldiers of the South.
The Civil War threatened the operation of the Pony Express in several ways.
For example, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, the first railroad to cross Missouri, was completed in February 1859, making St. Joe the westernmost point in the U.S. accessible by rail. It is said to have carried the first letter to the Pony Express on April 3, 1860. During the Civil War, the first assignment of Col. Ulysses S. Grant was protecting that railroad and Pony Express mail.
Grant was re-assigned in August 1861, and the Platte Bridge Railroad Tragedy occurred shortly thereafter, on Sept. 3. The bushwhackers caused the bridge over the Platte River a few miles east of St. Joe to collapse, and the train from Hannibal, which included a mail car, plunged into the river, killing about 20 people and injuring 100.
The St. Joseph newspaper
The St. Joseph News-Press, the main newspaper of northwest Missouri, traces its roots to the St. Joseph Gazette, which was first published in 1845 shortly after St. Joe was founded just two years earlier. The Gazette was the only newspaper to be sent west on the first ride of the Pony Express.
Earlier this month the News-Press became only the second newspaper in the country to endorse Donald Trump for President.
That is not too surprising, though, as most of its readers across rural northwest Missouri are strong Republicans and will most likely vote for Trump anyway—even though for a great many of them that would be against their own best self-interest.
Selected Resources
“The Story of the Pony Express” (1992) by Nancy Pope, accessible online here.
The Story of the Pony Express (1960), edited by Waddell F. Smith, grandson of William B. Waddell, one of the founders of the Pony Express

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Four Score and Seven Years Ago: The Great Crash

As almost everyone knows, President Abraham Lincoln began his famous Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago.” Eighty-seven years before that 1863 speech, of course, was 1776, the (literal) birth of the nation.
What about four score and seven years ago from now? That was 1929—and, as is widely known, “the great crash” of the stock market in the U.S. began that year on October 24, Black Thursday, and more or less ended with Black Tuesday, October 29. 

The Great Crash
John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent economist, authored a book titled The Great Crash: 1929. Originally published in 1955, his book became an instant bestseller. That rather brief (about 200 pages) book by Galbraith (1908-2006) is invaluable for seeking to understand American financial history.
In what is no doubt an exaggeration, Galbraith states that “1928 was the last year in which Americans were buoyant, uninhabited, and utterly happy” (p. 22). There was, admittedly, great satisfaction with the way things were going in the country—and that had implications for the election of 1928.
Roger W. Babson, a leading entrepreneur of the day, proclaimed that “if Smith should be elected with a Democratic Congress we are almost certain to have a resulting business depression in 1929” (cited on p. 15). Partly because of ideas like that, Hoover was elected in a landslide.
It is sometimes said that Al Smith was defeated because he was a Catholic, but that may have been less of a factor than the voters not wanting to jeopardize the economic boom of 1928.
So, Hoover was elected—and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Are things bad now?
It is not surprising that now one of the most common campaign themes of candidate Trump is how bad things are in this country. His appeal to “make America great again” is based on the claim that it is necessary to elect a Republican President to reverse that damage done by President Obama during the last 7½ years.
Republican politicians and their talk radio surrogates exclaim about how small the growth in the GDP is—and it has not been good in the last year or so. They also say that the country has seen the weakest financial recovery since the Great Depression.
Of course, the 2008 crash was the greatest since 1929. Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve, even said the 2008 financial crisis was the worst in global history, surpassing even the Great Depression.
On September 1929 the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at just over 380. It did not reach that level again until November 1954, more than 25 years later. The peak before the collapse in 2008 was about 14,165, in October 2007. It was back up above that record by the first week of March 2013, less than 5 ½ years later—and the highest of all time was reached in August of this year.
Maybe things are not so bad now, financially.
What about the gap?
It has rightfully been pointed out, though, that the economic growth in this recovery period after the Great Recession has primarily benefited the wealthy. It is true that the gap between the rich and the poor is greater now than at any time since 1928.

In 1928 the top 1% in the U.S. had 23.9% of all pretax income. Last year that percentage was 22%. After this election we certainly don’t want a repeat of the great crash in the year following the 1928 election. Thus, reducing the income gap between the 1% and the 90% is one of the great challenges facing the new President.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Is Utopia Possible?

Not many books on my “To Read” list are 500 years old, but Utopia was on that list until I read it recently. “Utopia” was a term coined by the author, Thomas More, for his book with that title published (in Latin) in 1516.
Introducing More
Many of you probably remember that More was a staunch Catholic who opposed King Henry VIII breaking away from Rome and declaring himself the head of the Church in England. Accordingly, in 1535 More (b. 1478) was convicted of treason and beheaded.
A few of you also may remember that “A Man for All Seasons” was the movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1966. That is a fine film about Thomas More, a fine man.
During the seventeen semesters I taught one of the required theology classes at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Thomas More was always a part of my lecture about the beginnings of the Church of England. I would always tell my students how I admire More because he was a man of great integrity.
It is hard to know what to make of his Utopia, though
More’s Utopia
“Utopia,” from the Greek words meaning no place (ou topos), is said to be a pun on the Greek words meaning good place (eu topos). The first definition of utopia in the online Miriam-Webster dictionary is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place.” But when capitalized, it means “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.”
The island of Utopia in More’s rather complex book was inhabited by people who lived quite differently than people in England—or in other parts of the world, for that matter. It was a socialistic society where people lived with little interest in gold (and all that that represents) and with a high level of equality—and satisfaction. 

Attempts to create Utopia
Since the time of More’s intriguing novel, there have been several actual attempts to create a utopian community. One such example was New Harmony, which I mentioned in my Aug. 20 blog article. Started by one idealistic group in 1814, the whole town was sold to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman.
The Wikipedia article about Owen (1771–1858) says, “In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River. . . . New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society.”
But guess what? It didn’t work. In spite of all the grand plans and lofty ideals, they were unable to create a utopian society—and so has been the case of similar experiments throughout the last 500 years.
Pride, greed, sloth, and other inherent human weaknesses (sins) seem to have doomed most (all?) attempts to create Utopia.
The best examples I know of utopian societies that have existed for any length of time are those which did not seek to form Utopia but rather simply to follow the example of Christians in the Book of Acts.
For example, the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, and to some extent the Amish all seem to have been successful, at least to some degree, in creating utopian communities. Those groups all have roots in the Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525, just a few years after More wrote Utopia—and a movement he would have opposed.
Does More’s Utopia, or especially the groups I just mentioned, have anything to teach us today? Most likely—if we just had the will to put the needs of all ahead of the privileges of the few.


Monday, October 10, 2016

“The Birth of a Nation”

The 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” was the first movie to be shown in the White House. Based on The Clansman, Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, D. W. Griffith’s ground-breaking movie has been broadly criticized through the years because of its blatant racism and its glorification of the KKK.
This past weekend a movie with the exact same name was widely released. The new film is mostly about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led the first major slave rebellion in the U.S. Nate Parker, the director, splendidly plays the adult Nat Turner in the movie.
Parker (b. 1979), in his directorial debut, made history at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: he sold the film’s distribution rights to Fox Searchlight Pictures for $17.5 million, the most ever paid for such rights. 

In preparation for seeing Parker’s new movie, June and I recently watched “12 Years as a Slave.” That graphic film of the terrible abusive treatment of Solomon Northup, an historic person, and other slaves began in 1841, ten years after Turner’s failed revolt. Perhaps the extremely harsh treatment of the slaves then was partly because of that revolt.
The 2014 Oscar for Best Picture was given to “12 Years as a Slave.” Parker, no doubt, has dreamed of his movie being equally successful. Even though not convicted, his chances greatly dimmed, though, with the report of his being charged with rape when he was a college student.
In Parker’s movie—and surely we need to evaluate it rather than the morality of the director and main actor—Nat Turner is first shown as a precocious boy eight or nine years old. Parker, then, portrays Turner as a winsome adult: gentle, soft-spoken, and very likeable.
While perhaps enhanced for its dramatic effects, true to extant historical information, the mistress of the plantation taught Nat to read, mostly by using the Bible, when he was a boy. Then when he was young man, he became a preacher. Interestingly, Turner’s Bible is the only artifact of his in the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Turner, however, was told what passages of the Bible to use in his sermons as he was taken from one plantation to another by his master—for a fee. In that way he was used as a means to keep the slaves docile and subservient.
Seeing the pitiful condition of slaves on neighboring plantations where he was taken to preach, Nat became more and more dissatisfied—so he began to read the Old Testament where God commanded killing of enemies. He began to feel that was what God was calling him to do also, with the help of the fellow-slaves around him.
Thus, the 48-hour rebellion occurred. It took the lives of around 55 whites but about four times that number of blacks. Nat himself was hanged three months later, in November 1831.
"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." Those words by Thomas Jefferson appear on the opening screen of the movie.
It is certainly obvious that Nat Turner, and other slaves at that time, were treated very unjustly—and most slaves even more unjustly than Nat. Still, it is difficult to see how Nat’s rebellion in any way helped to awaken God’s justice—at least in the 1830s.

Maybe Parker’s splendid movie of Nat Turner will help bring about greater justice for the descendants of slaves of the 1830s, though. I pray that it will. Black Lives Matter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?

Last week as I was having coffee with friends, I mentioned that I was really enjoying Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (2001). One of my friends didn’t know who Yancey is.
Yancey (b. 1949), I explained, is a widely read Christian author who has written often for Christianity Today. My friend then asked this rhetorical question: Isn’t that a rather conservative magazine?
In response I told him how Eric Rust, my esteemed seminary professor, referred to it as “Christianity Yesterday.” (An article in it had criticized Dr. Rust, accusing him of being a liberal.)
CT’s 60th Anniversary
The next day I opened the new issue of CT, as it is often called, and saw that it was the 60th anniversary edition. After awaking from a dream in 1953 and feeling led to found a new Christian magazine, Billy Graham was successful in getting the first issue of CT published in October 1956.
I was impressed with the cover of the new anniversary issue: the picture of a painting by Makoto Fujimura, the Japanese-American artist I recently introduced (see here). The painting’s title is “Grace Remains—Nard,” based on Mark 14:6-9. 
"Grace Remains -- Nard" by Makoto Fujimura
Through the past 60 years I have read CT off and on. For several years now have been getting an email from CT almost daily with links to articles and other information. I have mixed feelings, however. There is some good and helpful stuff, but at other times I agree with Dr. Rust: it seems like Christianity yesterday.


The “Radiant Center”
My positive feelings toward CT are because of people like Yancey, who is still one of the fourteen “editors at large.” It is hard to find fault with people like him. He is the author of the scintillating book What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), and he, among several others, has written many superlative articles for CT.
In Soul Survivor Yancey tells about writing the cover story for a 1983 issue of CT. It was about Gandhi. Yancey remarked that he “was not prepared for the volume of hate mail the article generated” (p. 171). Many of his conservative readers thought he/they should not praise a “heathen” (non-Christian) so profusely.
In my book The Limits of Liberalism (2010), I call for seeking Christianity’s “radiant center,” between the extremes of fundamentalism and liberalism. In many ways Christianity Today, and certainly Philip Yancey, is a good example of a publication, and a person, in that center—although the magazine would definitely be on the right side of the center.
Beautiful Orthodoxy
The cover story of the new issue is “Beautiful Orthodoxy,” which is also the title of editor Mark’s Galli’s short new book, which I’ve just read. The book wasn’t bad, but I was a bit disappointed in it.
To the degree that Galli and others editors at CT thinks that “beautiful orthodoxy” and Christianity today requires blanket condemnation of any abortion by any woman and the denigration of LGBTQ people, I’m afraid it needs to considered “Christianity yesterday.”
The growing percentage of the “nones” in American society is not so much because of their rejection of “orthodox” Christian doctrines but rather because of the condemnatory, intolerant, and judgmental attitudes of purveyors of traditional Christianity.
While I take great exception with much of what Bishop John Shelby Spong writes—he is an example of the liberal extreme—I do think he makes a valid point in his 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

We need a Christianity today that focuses on meeting current challenges rather than just seeking to preserve yesterday’s ideas and practices.