GBR Will Save the World (And the Ironies of American [Religious] History)

Here is a version of the letter that I read to my students yesterday, the last day of our term. Needless to say, I admire these students and I will cherish the memory of the time we spent together.

To end our semester together, this is an open letter to the students of RELG 134: Religious Diversity in America.

Dear Honored Students:

In the spirit of the “epistles” that we’ve studied this term, I write you this letter on the day of our final class. Irony is the central theme of this letter. That is because, to borrow from Reinhold Niebuhr, American [religious] history was and continues to be fully of ironies.

In this letter, I want to do three things:

I. To Recap the voyage we’ve taken through the history of religious diversity in America and to leave you with four takeways about this history (most of them, I think, are ironic).

II. To highlight four issues to watch as America’s present becomes history itself, or perhaps America’s present repeats America’s history.

III. To list four lessons that I learned from you–lessons in which I find more earnest hope about the future than irony (hence the two titles of this letter).

I. Where have we been and what have we done in this course?

Stretching back before the French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese explorers (some call them conquerors and exploiters), came to America, we visited with the Pawnees who once dominated this place we call Nebraska. Through George Grinnell’s record of their “hero stories and folk-tales,” we also imagined back to when the Pawnees’ own ancestors were also explorers and newcomers, coming out of the American Southwest and adopting their culture to a horse and plains lifestyle.



We sat aboard the Arabella as it rocked with uncertainty on the Atlantic Ocean. There, we listened to John Winthrop fret more than dream about a “city upon a hill”–a covenantal community that he and his fellow Puritans hoped to build in the “wilderness” of what would become New England. The irony is, for much of the Anglo-American history that his sermon inaugurated, Winthrop’s analogy has been flipped on its head. It’s been turned from a warning of (proto) American arrogance, to a statement of the ineffable fact of American exceptionalism, whether or not Americans hold up their end of the covenantal bargain between each other and their god(s). Of course, other boats–namely the slave ships Phillis and Brookes, which carried freights of humans to the Americas–made this ironic point too clear for us.

Speaking of Phillis, we visited Phillis Wheatley in colonial Boston as she championed (or did she actually condemn?) her “being brought from Africa to America.” A few years later, we studied Thomas Jefferson’s grand pronouncements that “all men are created equal”–perhaps the founding idea of “equality by creation” upon which the American experiment rested. This ideal recognizes in–not bestows upon–all people dignity and “inalienable rights” that are theirs by birth. There is, of course, the irony of Jefferson’s life, and his treatment of his paramour/rape victim–Sally Hemings–to whom he denied the very ideals he championed.

Still in Virginia, we listened to the debates between James Madison and Patrick Henry over the morality and practicality of establishing  official religion in the new nation. And we observed as religious disestablishment birthed a vibrant, robust, religious marketplace. New diverse takes on older traditions (the Methodists and Baptists in particular)–and new traditions all together (Mormonism, for example)–generated a nation “awash in a sea of faith.” And we read how those excluded from full and equal membership in these communities–namely African Americans–created their own denominations. And even within these traditions, we watched as women like Jarena Lee, who felt themselves called to preach, insisted their right, even responsibility, to do so.

Race and gender, we came to understand were key factors uniting and dividing these diverse traditions we studied. We looked to the case of Jane Manning James, the early black Mormon pioneer, as a profound example of this reality.

Likewise, we pitted Frederick Douglass against George D. Armstrong as the two debated the very possibility or (according to Armstrong) the necessity of “Christian slavery.” (Douglass won the debate, but alas we have to ask, do some of Armstrong and other “Christian” defenders of slavery’s views on innate black inferiority/criminality still infect the American criminal justice system, its politics, its very psyche?).


We visited Lincoln on the dais set before the Capitol in the last days of the Civil War, and then visited him on the balcony of the White House in the last days of his life.

We also visited the camps of Union army soldiers who were freed slaves. They sang ironic and hopeful spirituals about, at once, the impossibility and the ever-arriving promise of freedom:


“Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
For dis world most done.
So keep your lamp, &c.
Dis world most done.”

We headed west again, to hear Black Elk tell of the calamities that had befallen his people. We also took in the visions that he experienced about the coming days of renewal and restoration (we also wondered, as we did with Jane Manning James and her scribe, where Black Elk’s words end and those of the University of Nebraska’s own John Neihardt’s begin). We took in the horrors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the reverberations of both the genocide and resistance of Native peoples that continue to be felt, seen, and heard right up to the edges of the waters at Standing Rock.

Image result for Black Elk

We took in the sights of the waves of Catholic and Asian immigrants and we watched as how these new Americans changed the landscape of America and rebuilt their own scared spaces and time in this new place that was home and not. We also took in the waves of anti-Catholic and anti-Asian nativist backlash championed by the likes of Josiah Strong and  Mabel Potter Daggett that followed. We sat in at that famous Jewish banquet in Cincinnati in July 1883 and in that schoolhouse in Boston, where a young Mashke becomes Mary Antin.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, we wrestled with the grandiose (and naive) proposition that war–even a great one–could bring about ultimate peace and democracy. We studied a “progressive” president, Woodrow Wilson, who championed peace and democracy internationally while visiting violence and tyranny upon his fellow black Americans. Just a few decades later, we wrestled with the (ironic) proposition of “a good war” as fascism threatened the very idea of dignity of all people and the experiment of building democratic nations upon this idea. Faced with this threat, Americans expanded notions of who could belong and what counted as “good religion.” They celebrated four chaplains, two Protestants, one Catholic, and one Jewish who went down with a ship crippled by a U-boar strike, while praying together.


After the war, we studied the philosophy/theology upon which this letter is based, offered up Reinhold Niebuhr: that “man” can be moral, but societies, institutions, and governments, cannot; that American history is ironic because of its unrivaled ideals and its unrivaled power, the irony located in the failure of Americans to distinguish their ideals from their power. After the war, we studied one sociologist, Will Herberg’s notion of the “American way of life,” which centered on belief, but it mattered less and less what kind (as long as it was “Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish”). We studied another sociologist, Robert Bellah’s notion that this belief was a belief in America itself, creating a civil religion with its own set of rituals, rites, creeds, saints and martyrs.

We then took on debates about whether black Americans can ever fully participate in this American civil religion, and in the American experiment writ large. As Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, among others, advocated, should black Americans separate, socially, spiritually, economically, from America because white America can never recognize black Americans’ full dignity? Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. advocated, should black Americans bring to a head through non-violent direct action against “legal” laws that are not just the chasm between America’s ideals and its treatment of its fellow citizens?


We then we surveyed the changes to the American religious landscape wrought by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened up America to Africa and Asia. And we watched as newly-arrived African and Asian Americans made their spiritual homes in America (Thanks to the Pluralism Project for helping us do so). We watched as America and America’s communities have at once welcomed and struggled with this new diversity. We also watched as American Christian congregations have contended with diverse ways of understanding gender roles, gender identities, and sexuality.

We ended this journey with a study of the American presidency. We analyzed how the occupant of that office has the power to unite and divide. And we asked whether the president is and/or should be considered the nation’s “pastor-in-chief.”

What a journey! Head spinning in its complexity and diversity, at least for me. And I’ve taught this course many times!

With that in mind, here are four ironic (and interrelated) takeaways about American religious history that I hope you’ll remember as you go forward as scholars and as citizens–and as fellow Huskers, too (more on that in a minute).

First, we have observed the ironic history in America that freedom and opportunity for some has often depended upon denial of freedom and opportunity for others. We can look to the history of African chattel slavery, Indian removal, and exclusion of women and racial minorities from the voting booth, from elected office, from commerce, from the pulpit, to name just a few.

And yet, is America a zero sum game? Do the gains of some mean the loss for others?

Martin Luther King Jr. thought not. In fact, he thought just the opposite is true. As he wrote sitting in his jail cell in Birmingham: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Second, American history does not move linearly toward progress, if progress means moving toward a further realization of the dignity of all Americans citizens equally in law and in culture. (I’d ask us, for example, as Islamophobic attitudes and actions increase in America, do Muslim Americans feel safer and more included today than they do even after 9/11?)

Borrowing from the nineteenth century theologian Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But he also believed that this arc does not bend on its own. In his letter from Birmingham, King quoted from a “white brother in Texas,” who objected to what many “white moderates” viewed as King’s impatience. “‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry.'”

Remember that King studied Niebuhr in graduate school, including his idea that societies are fundamentally concerned with perpetuating their own conditions, powers, and divisions. As such, King rejected the views of his “white brother” from Texas as ahistorical and a-Christian. “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”  This is King’s notion of the “fierce urgency of now”–not to wait for the arc to bend, but the necessity to reach up and bend it right now.

Third, the ideal that all (diverse) persons and all (diverse) peoples have innate dignity is one of America’s greatest contributions to the modern world. America’s failure to hold itself to this ideal is one of its greatest ironies. As Frederick Douglass said when called upon to deliver the Fourth of July speech in 1852:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Fourth, to understand this irony best, look not to the center of American culture, but to the margins. There, listen as historically marginalized Americans point to America’s ideals and point to the chasm between them and America’s reality. Among the infinite examples, look to the patriotic actions of the Navajo (Diné) “code talkers” of World War II. Despite enduring centuries of cultural and existential genocide–including attempts to eradicate their language so that they could become “American”–because they kept their language alive, this diverse language was used to keep Americans alive (Watch again the code talkers at the White House this past month. Take in the irony of celebrating their contributions to the U.S.’ war effort with a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who believed that the “Indian” could never be an “American,” hanging in the background).

II. America’s Present Becomes (Repeats?) Its History

As we are all aware, we are living through history. But I want to point to four specific issues that are worth your attention as we end our course.

First, pay attention to the “Masterpiece cake shop” case now before the Supreme Court. Whatever the Court decides will have significant ramifications for issues around religious liberty and equal protection for LGBTQ Americans. I strongly suggest you listen to both the couple who brought the initial complaint that they were denied service and the baker who refused to bake the cake for their wedding. Listen to how both sides frame this case in which, it seems, one part of the Constitution (equal protection under the law) is pitted against another (freedom of religion).


Second, pay attention to U.S.’s attitude towards Muslims, at home and abroad. Pay attention to the “travel ban” against citizens from Muslim-majority countries as it moves it way to the Supreme Court. Pay attention to what happens after, alas, the next inevitable terrorist attack. Pay attention to how the U.S. and the rest of the global community deal with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Pay attention to the ramifications of the President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 

Third, pay attention as diverse Christian communities debate the role of Christianity in politics. We are not only witnessing a realignment of the nation’s political parties. We are also witnessing a realignment of the nation’s religious communities, which have very quickly and drastically changed what they value–especially in terms of politicians’ personal behavior.

Fourth, these changes intersect with the revolution–and I think that’s the right term–of “MeToo ” movement. “MeToo” is bringing to light that which has long remained hidden from public view, the systematic and pervasive sexual harassment and abuse that (most often) powerful men perpetrate against women.

In all of these issues, perhaps the unifying question we are asking is: who belongs? Whose stories and experiences count? Who matters? What’s more, as historians we also must ask: are these new issues? Or are these American histories repeating themselves?

Whatever the outcome, in fifty years, these four issues will be some of what is remembered about this era.

III. Lessons that you’ve taught me

As I’ve mentioned to you all–perhaps too many times (!)–I’m a worrier. I worry about a hot day in October means climate change is upon us. I worry about budget cuts. I worry about the President’s tweets.

But because of you, here are four things that I’ve learned from you about you and your peers here at UNL that make me worry less and hope more.

First, you’ve taught me that you’re engaged. Despite the pressures put upon you–because of work, studies, and family life–you are paying attention to this historical moment. Many of you are working to change things that you believe need changing by participating in the political process. Whatever your political persuasion, by your actions–not the actions of my generation, not the actions of Congress or the White House–you are creating the most engaged generation of young people perhaps in the nation’s history. You will make America’s political discourse great again. By great, I mean robust, nuanced, and fact-based. I heard this clearly in our discussions about the nation’s gun laws, the nation’s attitudes towards refugees, and the nation’s criminal justice system.

I hope each and every one of you do more. Vote more (from dog catcher to the presidency). Volunteer more. Debate more. Call your representatives more. Write more letters to the editor. Run for office.

Second you’ve taught me that we need to tweet less and talk more. You are aware that social media is not the panacea for our civic ills; it’s likely one of the chief causes. Put down our phones, you’ve said, and face each other more, especially those with whom we disagree.

Third, you’ve taught me that you want to reject political labels as stand-ins for personal identity. People should not reduce each other’s total being and worth to their  membership in one political party or another. Likewise, you’ve taught me that you want to be able to critique members of your own party without being labeled as traitors to your political causes. This, I think, is so important. To move past this current state of polarization, we need to hold our “own”–politically speaking–to the same standards as we would our political rivals.

Finally, you’ve taught me that you value the need to be better educated–and educated outside our silos or echo chambers where are own beliefs are reinforced.

I believe that our field of religious studies is uniquely suited to help train citizens toward these ends. What we do, fundamentally, is to practice understanding people who are different from us on their own terms and as complex and often contradictory people. This allows us to see others and ourselves in a more holistic, empathetic manner.

It has been my pleasure and honor to teach you and learn from you these past few months. I leave our time together smarter and more hopeful about our collective future. I hope you do, too.

Huskers (Nebraskans) are particularly good at caring for our neighbors, new and old. This goes back to this place’s own origin stories (of the Native and Euro-American kind, and today, the Asian and African-American kind, too. Lincoln, after all, is home to new Americans seeking refuge, building lives, and building up Nebraska, from all around the world).

Throughout Nebraska’s history on these great plains–too hot or too cold to be exposed alone for too long–mutual dependence wasn’t a good. It was a necessity.

Let it be so forever.


Max Perry Mueller


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s