Historical Heroes and Villains: John Fea's Encounter with the Culture Wars

Paul Harvey

How's this for your week: get named a finalist for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize (in the company of co-finalists Benjamin Irvin's Clothed in Robes and Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles -- some high company to keep) -- and then find yourself the victim of a media-induced cyber mob thanks to an article in Glenn Beck's Blaze attacking you. So, while respected historians are considering John Fea of Messiah College, my friend and first "contributing editor" who signed up for this blog, for a prize that (aside from the $50,000 you win!) recognizes the depth and quality of his scholarship, a nation of Beck trolls has left him vicious emails, phone messages, and frantic calls to the school administration demanding his head on a platter (apparently it's not enough that John says, "I do not agree with many of Obama's policies," and frequently blogs in defense of historic and time-honored conservative positions on the importance of the community over the liberal emphasis on the individual). Yes, I too thought Beck had vanished for good, but no such luck.

The cyber-mob has met its match in John, though, who responds with grace and with important words of the role of history in our democracy:

How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding?  I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities.  It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.

My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian remind me that we are human beings, created in the image of God, and thus worthy of respect.  My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian calls me to listen to those with whom I might disagree and perhaps even learn something from them.  To do otherwise is a failure to love my neighbor (Mt. 22:39--I did not feel much love from my Christian brothers and sisters who wrote to me today).  

My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian teaches me humility and reminds me that sometimes I may need to sacrifice my own deeply held convictions for a better opinion.Democracy does not require us to abandon our most cherished beliefs.  Far from it.  Democracy implies that we bring our cherished beliefs to the public arena (and the Internet) with vigor.  A democracy offers the opportunity to debate others with whom we differ and try to convince them--rationally and civilly--to come over to our point of view.  As Christians, we are required by God to love our enemies, but in the process we might even learn something from them.  The cultivation of this kind of democratic culture is America's best hope.


Edward J. Blum said…
congratulations on being a finalist and best of luck!
Tom Van Dyke said…
Had John written the same thing about Dubya a few years back, I suspect many of his attackers and defenders would be on different sides. So it goes.

It does illustrate that like the medic who picks up a gun, the scholar who reveals his take on current events loses any non-combatant status, and must endure the return fire the same as normal people.

When John writes

"If we analyze his language in the same way that historians examine the religious language of the Founding Fathers or even George W. Bush, we will find that Obama's piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame on this front."

...we see how easily this could be taken as praise for Barack Obama's "piety," and as a partisan sentiment.

Had such a sentence appeared in print referencing George Dubya Bush, surely many or most of us would have suspected it originated with an evangelical supporter, not a dispassionate professional historian.

I feel bad for John. As a gentleperson of the right who often finds himself on ideologically unsympathetic territory, it's doubly frustrating to be attacked for what you didn't say.

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