A Federalist, Christian Historian’s Political Musings

trumoMy political affiliation on Facebook has been listed as “Federalist Party” since junior year of high school, when I had the privilege of arguing for that position (against the demented Jeffersonians) in AP US History. Happily, it is now much more than an extension of a role I once played, it now represents a burgeoning historian’s conviction: It’s time for a retrieval of Hamiltonian Federalism.

The prospect of President Trump is alarming. As for his supporters, pinches of xenophobia, violent tendencies, and an ethic of vengeance combine with a base of rage to perfect a truly diabolical stew of political brouhaha. Oxford English’s notion of “mob” fits well: “a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence.” Mr. Trump’s barrage of insults and dehumanizing language have been inflicted on many groups, including women, muslims, and immigrants (particularly non-Europeans). When asked about foreign policy and who his primary advisors are, Mr. Trump replied: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing, and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people, and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have, you know, a good instinct for this stuff.”(March 8, Morning Joe). Mr. Trump has encouraged violence against protestors at his rallies: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” Mr. Trump has, on several occasions, endorsed war crimes and killing civilians as a proper course of action for combating terrorism: “We’re fighting a very politically correct war, and the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.” Mr. Trump was slow to disavow the support of the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Although that’s Unsurprising, given Trump is an opportunist who will accept the support of any group, regardless of the level of evil they’ve achieved and continue to propagate.

Trump is a morally deplorable figure, but furthermore he is incapable of holding the office of POTUS. Keep in mind that Mr. Trump is a businessman, a company executive. He is used to getting his way and saying “you’re fired” to anyone who opposes him. But the American system of government assumes a certain amount of opposition amongst its members. We all remember the key phrases “checks and balances” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Upon admittance to the White House, Mr. Trump is going to have to learn an entirely foreign language: compromise. Congress will not, and should not, bow to the executive branch of government just because he says “I say so.” When asked whether he would be able to work with Congress and specifically speaker Paul Ryan, Mr. Trump responded: “I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him.. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, okay?” When asked about the potential for him to fail to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination and a brokered convention, Mr. Trump could hardly contain himself and suggested there “would be riots.” Perhaps there are CEOs that would make good governing executives. But the strong arming and bullying which Mr. Trump has exhibited don’t get you very far in Washington, or frankly in many spheres at all besides the company with your name on it.

The genius of the Trump machine is that the more you expose his faults, his immoralities, his lack of qualifications and his unfitness for office, the more his mob of supporters believe in him. Trump’s mob have fallen prey to the illusion that this tough business man is the anecdote needed to cure the disease of the “Washington establishment.” Ironically, Trump is as much to blame for the corruption and corporate big money dominance in DC as anyone else, and his donations to both parties, including likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, are well documented.

If ever there was a time for historians to step out of their studies and classrooms and into the public sphere, it is now! Mr. Trump is a problem, but the head of the snake doesn’t make it to the White House in the American republic without an effective slithering body! Donald Trump is a populist. He is his supporters. It wouldn’t be difficult for you to go and read the many appalling things reporters have learned from interviewing those who attend Trump’s rallies. Jordan Ray Correll’s account of his first hand Trump rally experience is particularly disturbing: “I have never seen more hateful people in my life. Everyone was just filled with so much hatred. If a protester had a sign, even the peaceful ones, they would take the sign from them, rip it up, and throw it back at the protesters. Whenever a protester would get removed, the crowd would yell horrible things. Once, after a protester was removed, Trump said, “Where are these people coming from? Who are they?” A lady, sitting not 5 feet from me, said, “Well hopefully when you’re president, you’ll get rid of em all!” Get rid of them? Get rid of anyone who opposes Trump?” Mr. Trump should be defeated, and I actually think he will in the end. But this election cycle has given America the opportunity to be reminded of the differences between a republic and mob-rule democracy.

Fearing exactly this sort of person would make a run for the presidency, the founders brilliantly provided for checks and balances not just for the settled elected government itself, but the in the very process of electing. The electoral college has historically resulted in four elections where a candidate won the necessary electoral college votes but did not win the popular vote (1824, 76, 88, 2000). 1824 is a particularly good example of a moment when the winner of the largest fraction of popular votes (Jackson) was not elected president (Adams won). All of the scenarios demonstrating how the popular vote is secondary to deciding presidents can get a bit technical, but I am mainly interested in the ideology behind it: Sometimes people shouldn’t be allowed to decide their leaders.

Federalist government in early America was anything but democratic. A very particular class ruled and regulated the young nation. Education, political experience, demonstrated moral standing, and being a white male were the key ingredients. Since then, America has done well to to dissolve the least important and most prejudice of these. There was a moral obligation to do so, and Americans of both genders and all races can continue to be thankful for those changes. I am concerned about the erosion of the other three ingredients, and perhaps the reinstatement of the fourth. A friend recently shared with me some data from CNN’s voter data research. Statistically, the number 1,2, and 3 things to ensure you’ll vote for trump are: 1.) Drop out of college or High School 2.) Be White and 3.) Be Male. American moral decay should be cause enough for a proposal of government by fewer of the people. A well known aspect of federalist politics was limitations on who could vote. As mentioned, franchisement regardless of race and gender have been much needed and long overdue instances of change. But the expansion of the right to vote is partially to blame for our present problem of Mr. Trump. Perhaps America should reconsider who is allowed to cast ballots. I don’t buy that it has to be everyone or else it once again becomes oligarchic. There’s a balance, and it removes those too uninformed from wielding power in the name of idiocy. Though as I mentioned, there is already built into this republic a provision for leading against idiocy: the electoral college.

Consider also what tyranny is: cruel and oppressive government or rule. Note that tyranny does not necessarily imply a one man dictatorship. Every form of government, including a government where 51% controls 49% (and sometimes the margin is even smaller) can constitute tyranny. What matters is not who rules, but how. Monarchy is not inherently tyrannical. Do not be fooled into thinking that tyranny cannot exist where people vote. It will be for you to decide whether Mr. Trump’s dehumanizing insults, prejudice, xenophobia, and sexism are cruel and oppressive.

I make no apologies about being a theocrat, and I don’t think that “Jesus is Lord” is just my opinion: it’s reality. There is a division between the Christian “we” and the American “we,” no doubt. How Christians should interact with American politics is an ongoing question, but I am thankful especially for the influence of Stanley Hauerwas, N.T. Wright, and Carl Trueman. Never forget, Christians, we are a people set apart. At the moment I’m thinking through what the implication of that might be for my field of interest particularly.

For Christian historians, our task is to help America confess its national sins, recognizing the limitations of American society and government to make right those sins, both past and present . Particularly we should be helping Americans to recognize their thirst for justice cannot be satisfied by temporal political or national powers. Native American genocide, slavery, and the atomic bombings are, to quote Hauerwas, “wrongs so wrong, there is nothing you can do to make them right.” No amount of policy, political jockeying, or any candidate, can enact the justice our world needs. Meanwhile the Church as the people of God are tasked with bearing God’s good rule on the earth by overcoming injustice by love with humility, but never coercion. So our task is to help Americans to be truthful about themselves and their history, their shortcomings and their moments of virtue. I often find that telling the truth about myself in prayer and confession makes the truth of Christ all the more remarkable and enjoyable. Were this to be instituted on a national scale, in large part through the diligent work of Christian historians who will tell the truth and write about the past for the sake of improving the collective American memory and moral conscience, then perhaps Americans would see the futility of revenge and violence, recognizing that their political justice is a mere shadow of what’s necessary and what’s possible. Then the Church might have the opportunity to show itself to constitute an alternative politics, or the world as it can and will be.

Medieval Christians

As one who has spent much of the last 12 months reading, researching, and writing about medieval Christians, and growing very fond of them in the process, I feel compelled in this moment to respond to some of the buzz being perpetuated by the President’s remarks concerning the Crusades. On the one hand this is thrilling. It’s not everyday that the topic you’re reading about for a medieval history class at college gets front page press. Secondarily, most of what I am hearing or reading from others about the Crusades and the medieval church is quite alarming and needs to be publicly dismantled.

Two of the not so hot ideas being tossed around:

1. Jihad is Islam’s response to the Crusades

Ehhh, not so much. The idea of “holy war” and militarizing of the Islamic faith existed quite early for Islam. Muhammad claimed to have received revelation from God through the angel Gabriel beginning in 610 CE, and happening sporadically thereafter until his death in 632 CE. These revelations would later be called the Qur’an, and become the primary holy text for Muslims. In the years after Muhammad’s death, the Islamic Caliphate (which was theoretically the theocratic government through which Allah could govern the Islamic community) began its slow spread outward from the Arabian Peninsula and into Persian, Byzantine, and some African territories. Most of the early violence of Islam was commited against the polytheist tribes of Arabia and Persia, not against Jews and Christians. In fact, there is evidence that part of what made the Caliphate’s conquest of Byzantine and Persian territory so quick is that the Muslim invaders received aid from the Christian and Jewish religious minorities who were being persecuted and bearing the blunt of the financial burden for longstanding Roman-Persian wars. And far from forcing conversion, the Caliphate often permitted Christians and Jews to uphold their own laws and have their own legal proceedings. However, while there was relatively little violence towards Jews and Christians, many of the polytheistic peoples of what we today consider the Middle East were killed as part of early Islamic expansion. This sort of religious military cooperation is part of Islamic religious texts that far predate the Crusades. Though it should be noted that in the early days of Islam, Muhammad and his followers were often persecuted by the authorities in Mecca in a manner similar to what Christ and his followers experienced in Jerusalem.

2. The Crusades were a defensive or just war

Just to start, it really says something that no serious historian or anyone respected by the historical scholar community believes that statement. There are plenty of Catholic apologist groups still clinging to pre-Vatican II who have blogs and articles on the internet about how the Crusades were this heroic defensive maneuver to halt the Caliphate’s advance into Christian territories. “They took Jerusalem, and Antioch! Rome must be next!” Responding to all the possible angles of ignorance propelling a statement like this one would require way more time than I have available right now, but I’ll consider a few things.

First get your hands on a copy of Carl Erdmann’s “The Origin of the Idea of Crusade” in which he covers a breathtaking array of things happening theologically, politically, environmentally, and economically in medieval Europe that made the Crusades a possibility. A lot had to happen for the medieval church to get to a place where Crusades were taken on enthusiastically from the days of early Christian pacifism.

I tend to think that a good starting place is Charlemagne’s war on the Saxons in which Christianity first arrived on the British Isle. Though many were slaughtered, Charlemagne was able to justify his aggression to the Christians back home by telling them that gospel missions, not conquest, was his primary motivation. And it’s true, the conquest did initiate the spread of Christianity amongst the Anglo-Saxon people. But it was the first time that the idea of conquest for the sake of evangelism crept into the western Christian mind.

A next important ingredient is that the Christian civilizations of Europe were compelled to become militarized in order to ward off waves of viking invasions. Vikings had a keen love for the treasures within European monasteries and most of the time they didn’t leave any gold or living monks when they passed through. The monks got kind of fed up, and began cooperating more closely with local knights and even trained some of their own in the art of combat leading to the formation of groups like the “Holy Sepulcher.” This was the first real cooperation of “those who prayed” and “those who fought.”

Shortly after, an idea began to circulate that much like giving alms to the poor and consistently confessing all sin, defending the church militarily earned a heavenly reward. Note though, that this is not expansionist ideology. No Pope or Priest was espousing that you should go out and kick some Muslim butt in the name of Christ. If war came to us, then it was permissible, righteous even, to defend God’s people.

Next, it cannot be underestimated how significant the idea of the approaching year 1,000 A.D. was to the medieval Christians. Eschatology was as big a deal then as it is now, and a very popular idea was that Christ would return in the year 1,000, making it a nice clean millennium since he said he’d come back. When he didn’t return in 1,000 it was speculated that perhaps Christians needed to control the holy city of Jerusalem in order for Christ to return and establish his kingdom there. Additionally it was already very common for medieval Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They could keep doing that and now just make sure that they had a sword or two in with the rest of the luggage. Getting to go on a partly sponsored pilgrimage with the added bonus of protection (traveling across a lot of land with an army made common crimes like robbery less likely) made the idea of crusade very appealing to medieval Christians. It should be noted too that the Caliphate welcomed these pilgrimages to Jerusalem (before they became militarized) and often gave the Christians warm welcoming service since it was a great source of revenue.

As I am not a military historian I prefer the “roots and fruits” concept of studying war, so I’m not as good with the details of every battle but here’s a ridiculously short run down. Though its classification is debated, some say that the “Reconquista” of Spain beginning around 1030 CE is a crusade. The Muslims controlled the southern half of the Spanish peninsula since the 8th century and many Muslims had immigrated there and many of the indigenous population had become Muslim. So the idea that this was a liberation effort is pretty inaccurate. It would be like a remnant of an old native American civilization invading the western United States tomorrow and calling it a liberation effort. The Caliphate possessed the state of Cordoba for more than 3 centuries before the Reconquista. Next comes what we call the First Crusade, which was a success from the European perspective. Major cities taken from the Caliphate were Edessa in 1098, Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099. The Christian armies were lead by barons and experienced warriors, but no kings were present. It’s also interesting that despite embarking on a holy endeavor, we have many primary sources that indicate a wildly cumbersome number of prostitutes traveled with the armies for…well you know. Knights in the middle ages always traveled with their servants and wives though. Why would they cook or do their own laundry while traveling to war when they didn’t do it back home? The next 3 crusades were largely failures. Jerusalem was retaken by Salah Al-Din in 1187. And in the ensuing years several kings would lead armies to try and retake it. Popes sometimes preached sermons in Europe to inspire others to join the fight.

In the end, with the exception of Spain being reconquered, neither side ended up with much more or much less territory than they began the 11th century with. The major cities exchanged hands a couple times, but essentially reset to prewar dominion. One of the hardest things historians of the middle ages encounter is numbers. Populations of cities, army size, death tolls, etc. Those recording such data at the time were always estimating. If one wanted to express that the Muslims had a large army waiting in Jerusalem they might say “the Muslims had 100,000 men”. The actually number might have been smaller, more like 20,000 or perhaps it was larger, like 200,000. The figures just aren’t that reliable. Suffice it to say that lots of Christians died going on these “armed pilgrimages” and lots of Muslims died defending their longtime possessions and in the retaking of those same lands. It wasn’t a great moment for any parties involved.

How should we feel about the medieval Christians?

Even though the Crusades were a really horrible thing, perhaps one of the worst things we’ve ever historically tied the name of Christ to, it doesn’t make the medieval Christians the worst or actually even less than ourselves. Like Christians from every era, they had their moments where the genuine Christian faith seems pretty alien. I want to be clear, war is not sanctioned by the God we worship. Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching so radical is that he was asking his followers to end the cycle of violence by not perpetuating it, knowing that many would be tortured and killed for his name. Put away your sword and turn the other cheek because my kingdom is not advanced through the same means as Caesar’s. My kingdom is not of this world. The Crusades were a horrible idea, and to participate in them was sinful. But it would be equally tragic to characterize an entire era of Christians by these battles.

I’m writing a larger paper surveying the medieval Christians, so I’ll save a fuller set of remarks for when that’s more complete. To start, you’d be hard pressed to find a society where the poor were more well taken care of and supported with the resources available. Medieval Christians had a severe case of self-depreciation. There was more emphasis upon human sinfulness in the Middle Ages than in any time prior or since. This explains the intense search for shortcuts through purgatory and ways to deal with sinfulness. In the most extreme cases, this pressure lead some to believe there were things to do in addition to Christ’s sacrifice–an extra-biblical idea. But the Middle Ages do not contain more Christians than any other era who believed in any other foundation than the death and resurrection of Christ as the historical act upon which God would redeem sinners. There are countless places where the dangerous intersection of secular politics and Christianity give us some of the most entertaining and colorful primary sources in all of history. The frequent communications between kings and clerical hierarchy are often downright scathing of the one another. Much more to come, but the medieval Christians absolutely deserve as much a place in the study of church history as the patristics and reformers. To reduce them to being simply the Christians who went on Crusade or had a bunch of stuff wrong that the reformers fixed is a mistake. You’d be missing out on some of the richest theological developments and entertaining church history available.