The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History | Book Review


After Charlottesville, I have spent a fair bit of time on Facebook arguing about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. My position is that the Confederacy was incorrigibly racist, that it started the war to defend slavery, and that its “heroes” should not be given statues because they were traitors. I am a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, so my opposition to Confederate statues comes from the Right, not the Left, which always seems to catch people off guard.

I mention this because I have been surpised by the defense of Confederate statues by my fellow conservatives and Christians. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to disappoint me. Most of them defend these statues on slippery-slope grounds—e.g., if Lee today, then why not Washington and Jefferson tomorrow? They worry that taking down statues equates to erasing history. But as the conversation continues, someone else will join in with a rosy view of the Confederacy as a redoubt of state’s rights and small government in which slavery was an unfortunate but historically ancillary problem. (Talk about the erasure of history!)

Historians term this point of view the myth of Lost Cause. It is an interpretation of the war that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat in order to explain away that defeat away while simultaneously justifying the antebellum South’s way of life. It is a tendentious way of reading history, one that downplays the central role of slavery in both secession and the Confederacy, and romanticizes the valor of the Southern warfighter, who fell victim to the superior manpower and materiel—though not martial skill—of Northern forces.

Unfortunately, writes Alan T. Nolan in his sketch of the Lost Cause interpretation, “The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.” The goal of this volume, as the editors put it, is “to build on previous literature by engaging various aspects of the white South’s response to defeat, efforts to create a suitable memory of the war, and uses of the Confederate past.”

Nine authors examine various topics. Alan T. Nolan describes the contours of the Lost Cause interpretation (Chapter One). Gary W. Gallagher highlights the crucial role of Jubal A. Early in promulgating the myth (Chapter Two), while Lesley J. Gordon does the same for LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the wife of Major General George Pickett of “Pickett’s Charge” fame (Chapter Eight).

Three authors examine how Lost Cause mythology was put to use in as many states: Charles J. Holden on South Carolina (Chapter Three), Keith S. Bohannon on Georgia (Chapter Four), and Peter S. Carmichael on Virginia (Chapter Five). Chapters Six by Jeffry D. Wert and Chapter Seven by Brooks D. Simpson examine how the Lost Cause interpreted the martial skill of James Longstreet and Ulysses S. Grant, leading Confederate and Union generals, respectively. Longstreet became the “Judas Iscariot” of the Confederacy, blamed for losing Gettysburg by Jubal A. Early, and reviled for working with Republicans during Reconstruction. Lost Cause historians gave (and give) Grant little credit as a leader for defeating Lee, attributing his success to his willingness to hammer Confederate forces into attrition by means of sheer numbers and mechanized weaponry. This allows Lost Cause historians to valorize—if not apotheosize—Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Finally, Chapter Nine by Lloyd A. Hunger looks at “Lost Cause Religion,” namely, the entanglement of Protestant religion with the Confederate cause, so that the symbols of one became symbols of the other. As an evangelical Christian and a minister of the gospel, I read this chapter in particular as a warning to the present of the way that the gospel can be used and abused in support of self-interested ideology.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History is an excellent book, but it is probably not the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Civil War history generally or Lost Cause mythology specifically. It assumes a lot of background knowledge, and its assortment of essays do not make for a unified look at the topic. Historian John Fea has put together a list of essential readings on the Lost Cause, and this book makes the list, however. For that reason, and because it was so informative, I nonetheless recommend it highly to anyone with a decent background knowledge of the issues.

 

Book Reviewed:
Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

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Review of ‘Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?’ (revised edition) by John Fea


John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Few questions in American politics generate as much controversy as the relationship between church and state. On one side are Christian nationalists who contend that the nation was founded on religious principles. On the other side are secularists who argue it was founded on Enlightenment principles. The controversy between them is evident, most obviously, in the seemingly endless First Amendment cases brought before our nation’s courts to determine whether that amendment’s “establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses have been violated. But behind the evident legal controversy lies the latent historical controversy, in which the same contending parties dispute the facts and significance of the Founding Era.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.

In the Introduction to the book, Fea—an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania—explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a “usable past” to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.

Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts:

Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.

Part Two answers a question: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration (“nature’s God”) is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment theists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between these two groups during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists—such as Patrick Henry, again—were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation’s Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did and did not mean at the time.

Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered “orthodox” in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion’s social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a “devout Unitarian,” Jefferson a “follower of Jesus” who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Franklin as an “ambitious moralist.” They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: “religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic” (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).

I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation’s history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will—or should!—complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification, I hope, will tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.

The revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? features a new cover, corrects mistakes in the previous edition, updates the bibliographies at the end of each section, and includes an Epilogue that discusses new developments since the 2011 publication of the first edition. Otherwise, the text is the same as the first edition.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with John Fea on the book.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Why Study History?’ by John Fea


images John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

Why study history?

John Fea sets out to answer this question in his eponymous new book, which is subtitled, “reflecting on the importance of the past.” Fea is associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. An evangelical Christian teaching at an evangelical college, he has written or edited several books, including Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction[1], The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. He blogs regularly at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Fea pitches his book primarily to college students interested in the study of history as a major, but also to history teachers and history buffs. I fall into the last category. And as a history buff, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend this book, for several reasons.

First, it helped me understand what good historians do. In chapter 1, Fea outlines the task of a historian with five Cs: (1) “chronicle change over time,” (2) “study the past in context,” (3) pay attention to “causality” and (4) “contingency,” and remember that “the past is complex.” If this is what historians do, then history is an inherently “revisionist” project, though not a relativist one. We can know the past, but we must admit that our current understandings may be inadequate to it.

Second, Fea helped me navigate the various reasons why people study history. Chapter 2 outlines and critiques some of those reasons: for inspiration, to escape the pressures of modernity, to form a personal or social identity, for role models, to advance certain political positions. Chapter 3 identifies a basic problem with all these reasons in the words of L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” When we forget the strangeness of the past, we distort it for present purposes. For Christians, especially in America, one of those distortions is a providential reading of American history that all too often exaggerates our nation’s goodness and downplays its sins. Chapter 4 provides a sympathetic critique of such readings.

The critique of providential readings of history does not mean that Christian historians have no theological resources to bring to bear on their vocation. Chapter 5 shows how the imago dei, the reality of sin, the Incarnation, and moral reflection all should influence how Christian historians do their craft. “The human experience is a drama with many ethical twists and turns,” Fea writes, “but the historian is not always in the business of using his or her voice to preach.”

Fourth, Chapters 6 and 7 showed me how historians—and history-minded citizens—can positively influence civil society. There is an inherent tension between the desire to present the past without ideological blinkers and the desire for history to influence civil society. The way Fea resolves this tension is not by proposing this or that account of history but by emphasizing the virtues of historical consciousness. Studying the past in all its foreignness, seeking to understand it on its own terms and in its own context, draws students of history outside of themselves and their ideological commitments. It is, in other words, a powerful tonic for narcissism.

Finally, in chapter 8, Fea shows history students what they can do with their major. I was not a history major in college, and this chapter had the least relevance to me. Nonetheless, in an era when the financial bottom line plays an often decisive role on what college students choose to major in, and when the humanities especially are taking a lot of hits, it’s nice to see someone present anecdotal evidence for the fact that you can study history and still get a good job.

In an appendix, Fea outlines a proposal for the creation of a “Center for American History and a Civil Society.” If I had some money, I’d definitely invest it in this project. Fea’s vision of how Christians (and others) should study the past and work for a more civil society is one that resonates with me.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.


[1] I reviewed Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? here and interviewed Prof. Fea here.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, June 9, 2011


“On Neuroscience, Morality, and Free Will” … in which Peter Wehner takes on Sam Harris. Wehner’s colleague, Omri Ceren, adds “Language” as one more element that needs to be considered. If you’re interested in this topic, check out William Lane Craig and Sam Harris’s debate on the question, “Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural?”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris – Is the Found…, posted with vodpod

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“Oregon couple convicted in faith-healing trial.” Opposing faith to the use of medicine is bad theology. Evidently, it’s criminal too.

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“I’m convinced that bad art, like bad literary theory, derives from bad theology.” I’m convinced that bad theology leads to bad living, period.

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“The Dying Right to Die?” Let’s hope so.

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“The Facebook Fallacy.” There’s only one?

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A Mennonite theologian explains why he’s glad Goshen College decided not to play the national anthem at sporting events: “these anthems and rituals have no place in Christian formation.” To be consistent, does he need also to reject federal tax dollars and tax breaks? Just thinking outside the box, here…

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“For the vast majority of American university students, there simply is no conflict between science and religion.” Interestingly, the minority is split evenly between religious types and atheists.

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John Fea on Sarah Palin’s misstatement of the purpose of Paul Revere’s ride:

It is easy to manipulate history to serve our own political agendas. People do it all the time. But as I have argued before in this column, such an approach to the past only feeds our own narcissism and self-interest. It is diametrically opposed to one of the main reasons we study history in the first place.

By looking to the past for something that meets our needs, and by superimposing our present-day agendas on the past, we fail to understand the complexity of human behavior as it manifested itself through time. History has the potential to educate us (literally in the Latin, “to lead outward”). Good historical thinking requires us to understand lost worlds and to empathize with people who are different from us. Palin knew what she was looking for the moment she entered the Old North Church. As a result, she failed to be educated by the experience.

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American Idol-winner Scotty McCreery wants to date a Christian girl. Hey, Scott, runner-up Lauren Alaina wants to date a Christian girl. You’re going to tour together, so you might as well give the relationship a whirl.

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“10 things the Belief Blog learned in its first year”:

  1. Every big news story has a faith angle.
  2. Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.
  3. People are still intensely curious about the Bible, its meaning and its origins.
  4. Most Americans are religiously illiterate.
  5. It’s impossible to understand much of the news without knowing something about religion.
  6. Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe.
  7. Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam.
  8. God may not prevent natural disasters, but religion is always a big part of the response.
  9. Apocalyptic movements come and go.
  10. Most Americans don’t know that President Barack Obama is a Christian.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, May 9, 2011


This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Over at ChristianityToday.com, Mark A. Noll asks, “What would it have been like if the KJV had always been only one among several competing English-language versions of the Bible?”His answer:

When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, it was easier to focus on the literary excellence of the translation without stopping to face the divine imperatives and promises that are any Bible’s primary reason for existence. The pervasive cultural presence of this Bible also made it easy to exploit scriptural words, phrases, images, and allusions for their evocative power, even when those uses contradicted the Bible’s basic spiritual meaning.

Yet even soberly considered, the immense good accomplished in and through the KJV is a marvel. When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, the spiritual impact of the Bible was certainly enhanced because the scriptural message was carried far and wide via an all-pervasive cultural standard. The substance of divine revelation that lay immediately beneath the words of the KJV could also exert a dramatic public impact for good, precisely because this translation so dominated the English-speaking world.

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Over at Patheos.com, John Fea concludes an excellent four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.”

  • Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible”
  • Part 2: “God’s Judgment Upon the South”
  • Part 3: “The Confederacy’s “Christian Nation”
  • Part 4: “A Slaveholding Nation is a Christian Nation”

Fea’s conclusion is worth keeping in mind when you hear talk about America as a “Christian nation”:

As we’ve seen over the past four columns, by 1860 there were two visions of Christian America. Many Northerners believed that the national Union was sacred because it was created and blessed by God. Many Southerners argued that the Confederate States of America was a Christian nation because the Bible’s teachings were compatible with a southern way of life.

Throughout American history there was seldom a common understanding of what it meant to be a Christian nation. The Civil War is merely one example. This is certainly something to remember whenever we get the urge to talk about America’s so-called Christian roots.

If you like what you read, check out Fea’s America as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design.

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The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films does not include The Mission but it does include The Story of the Weeping Camel. Something’s seriously wrong with this list.

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Who is the devil like? David Bentley Hart offers these thoughts:

  • “the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party”
  • “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
  • “Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer”

Ouch. And, heh.

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“Faith unshaken by tornado.” Well, yeah. Psalm 46:1–3.

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“Bin Laden’s theology a radical break with traditional Islam.” That’s both true and good to know, although Mollie Hemingway has some questions.

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“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” There Be Dragons, a new film about Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, gets a good review from Cathleen Falsani Possley.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 3, 2011


“Welcome to hell, bin Laden.” So said Gov. Mike Huckabee in the opening statement of his Huckabee Report. It’s a common sentiment, but is it a Christian one? James Martin SJ, asks, “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?”  Jennifer Fulwiler writes about “The Shocking Truth That God Loves [loved?] Bin Laden Too.” Jim Wallis argues that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil.” Joe Carter reminds us that “our relief at his death must be tempered by a Christian view of humanity. We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of “subhuman vermin” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.” Me? I think justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking of the scene in Unforgiven where the young man says, “I guess he had it coming.” And Clint Eastwood responds, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the internet: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The first sentence of that quote is fake. The rest is authentic, however, taken from a 1963 book of King’s sermons called Strength to Love.

In re Rob Bell, James K. A. Smith asks, “Can hope be wrong?” Sample: “The “I-can’t-imagine” strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects “upwards,” as it were, to a conception of God. While this “imagining” might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the “I-can’t-imagine” argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities–including how I “imagine” the nature of love, etc. The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”

“Do Your Political Views Affect Your Religious Beliefs?” Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Make sure to read David Weiss’s article, “God of the Schizophrenic.” I liked this passage: “My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.” Yep.

Anthony Bradley raises some interesting questions in his article, “Evangelicalism’s Narcissism Epidemic.” Here’s the penultimate sentence: “I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden.”

J.E. Dyer argues, “Don’t Be Satisfied with Tolerance.” Personally, I never was.

Over at Patheos.com, John Fea is writing a four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.” Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2: “God’s Judgment upon the South.” Part 3: “The Confederacy’s Christian Nation.” If this series doesn’t sharpen your sense of the irony of history, then your irony-o-meter is broken.

I’ve been thinking about the Bishop of London’s homily at the royal wedding. I particularly liked this passage: “As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.” I wonder if he’d mind me borrowing that line every now and then.

Did you see the footage of the church verger cartwheeling down the aisle of Westminster Abbey after the royal wedding? Evidently, cartwheeling in a church after a wedding is a no-no in England, but I thought it rather appropriate. Shouldn’t we celebrate wedding with a little whimsy?

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Here are ten religious posts that caught my eye today:

Lee Strobel discusses how Easter killed his faith in atheism. If you’re interested in the topic, check out N. T. Wright’s exhaustive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which—at 740 pages is not merely exhaustive but exhausting…to hold, anyway. Or read Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which is 22 pages shorter.

President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House, and a reporter can’t help but note a political angle (in the penultimate paragraph). Personally, I cheer the president’s statement of faith. Raspberries on his politics, though.

Did the Last Supper occur on Thursday or Wednesday? I wouldn’t mind a few New Testament scholars weighing in with their evaluations…

Walter Russell Mead on how Christian faith matters in a world where the pace and intensity of change is so unsettling.

If capital punishment is a sin, is God a sinner (Genesis 9:6)?

Edward O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists are having a fight about the origin of altruism, specifically, whether group selection or kin selection best explains its origin. Interestingly, forty years ago, Wilson promoted kin selection as the best explanation. For me, this argument demonstrates how difficult it is to overturn scholarly consensus.

The Barna Group reports on what Americans believe about universalism and pluralism.

Historian John Fea is halfway through a four part series on “the Civil War as a battle between two ‘Christian’ nations”: Part 1 is “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2 is “God’s Judgment Upon the South.” Fea is author of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? Mark Noll has an excellent book on the Civil War you might want to read if you like Fea’s series: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Ben Witherington posting a chapter-by-chapter critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writings in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter2 , Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and Chapters 7 and 8.  I’m reading the book too and hope to have a (much shorter) review up in the next few weeks.

James Hannam argues that science and Christianity can get on better than you think. I always thought they can get along just fine, but evidently there are some atheists who think otherwise. Hannam is author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, which I’m also reading and hoping to review in the near future.

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