Catherine Brekus is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School and the Program in American Studies at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is currently working on a book about Christianity and American nationalism.
Elizabeth Aeschlimann, MDiv ’17, spoke to Professor Brekus about the lessons of history in moments of political upheaval as well as the concept of "American chosenness" and how it relates to our understanding of American exceptionalism today.
EA: Are there stories or historical moments that you have been thinking about that feel particularly meaningful in this politically-challenging time?
CB: This past academic year I taught a year-long survey of American religion. The first half of the course explored religion in America from 1580 to 1865, and the second part focused on 1865 to the present.
The second part of the course started with Reconstruction, and this was right after the 2017 presidential inauguration. Our political climate right now is divided and toxic, so the course was more challenging to teach than other classes in the past: students seemed to feel a certain sense of despair and anxiety. Talking about Reconstruction with students was difficult in some ways, but I think it was a valuable conversation. At the beginning of Reconstruction, there was a lot of hope for change, and there were remarkable things that happened in terms of African-American voting rights, but then the collapse of Reconstruction led to sharecropping, segregation, and literacy tests that prevented black equality.
Because of students’ unease about the election, it was hard for them to approach the past in an empathetic spirit. Since they are fearful that our current moment is failing them, they are very aware of the failures of the past. So that was something we worked on pretty self-consciously—how we could try to understand people in the past before we judged them. Being critical is really important, and judgment is important, but first we need to sit with people in the past, listen to them, and try to understand why they made the choices that they did. Why were people in the past so afraid of black rights and women’s rights? Why did so many Americans discriminate against Jews and Catholics? How did their judgment get twisted?
Without an ability to have that sort of dialogue, it’s hard to imagine any kind of meaningful change in the present. Part of what I hope happens in my courses is that, when people try to approach people in the past in a spirit of understanding before judging, then they will do the same in the present. And if they can identify the structural forces that have constrained people in the past, then they can start to look around our world and think about the things that we take for granted—the injustices we live with every day that we may object to but don’t actively try to dismantle. If people in the past were blind to the evil of some of their beliefs, so are we today.
EA: If you could teach a course for everyone in this country, or give one lecture, do you have a sense what you might like to teach or convey?
CB: Wow, that’s a hard one. Because I am working on a book project right now and because this speech has been so important in American history, I think I would have everybody read John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” known more popularly as his “City upon a Hill” speech. We would then sit down and talk in-depth about his vision of New England. He did not imagine a future United States—he was speaking about Massachusetts Bay—but one of the reasons I love that document is that it contains so much of the future trajectory of what would become the United States—in both its positive and negative features.
At the beginning of the speech he says that God created different stations in the world, repeating a belief in hierarchy that was common in the seventeenth century. But then he says that we are going on a new journey together. This is an experiment, an extraordinary time, and in this extraordinary time, we are going to have to support one another wholeheartedly. We’re going to have to give each other our surplus, clothe the people who are poor, and make sure everybody has food. We’re going to have to treat each other as if we’re all members of one body of Christ, and we will have to think about the collective whole and the common good for all of us: we’ll rejoice together, we’ll weep together, and we’ll bear one another’s burdens.
What he never really makes clear is: How are we going to treat the people who are already here, the Native Americans? How are we going to treat the outsiders? And he makes one or two brief references to biblical passages from the Hebrew Bible in which the Amalekites are exterminated, where the Israelites are called to take their land. He has a beautiful vision of the common good, but he also implies a future of violence.
The speech ends not with a triumphalist vision of success, but words of warning. He says that if we don’t live up to the covenant that God has made with us—if we don’t love one another, rejoice with one another, and bear one another’s burdens—then God will withdraw his favor: we will be a byword to all people, a disgrace. Even though this speech is remembered today, almost no one remembers that Winthrop thought that America could end up being a failure.
So, the speech points to a future American desire for the common good, but it also anticipates violence and exclusion. It’s a speech that troubles everybody in some ways, and that’s why it would be good to discuss, because I don’t think that it gives us a single vision. His speech points in multiple directions, and in some ways Americans have been arguing about who we want to be ever since the first settlers, even if they didn’t know we would eventually be a nation. The central questions are: Who should be included in our “model of charity”? What are our obligations to one another? What should be the balance between individual wants and the common good?
EA: Do you have a sense of wanting to change the world, or a way in which you want to contribute to those people who want to change the world?
CB: I like to think that I’m giving people the historical resources that they need to think about who we are now and how we got here. History destabilizes our sense that things have to be the way they are now, or that things have always been a certain way.
What drives my scholarship is a desire to see how other people have made sense of their lives, since I’m also trying to make sense of my life. So, this is part of why I’m trying to be empathetic to people with different answers from mine. My ultimate questions have to do with what it means to be human, both in our own time and in different places and times. What are the continuities that we can find, and what is it that we share? I don’t agree with the strain of scholarship today that is radically deconstructionist and that doesn’t like to talk about universals at all.
There are many ways to be human, but I don’t think there are an infinite numbers of ways. So, on the deepest level, I feel like what I’m doing as a historian is thinking about what it means to be human, and, to me, that’s a deeply religious question.
I believe that we take our meaning from our sense of the ultimate. What is it that we value more than anything else? Who do we think that God is, if we believe in God? I think that understandings of God and understandings of the self are always mirror images, so that when people are thinking about themselves, they’re also thinking about how they fit into the larger universe and what that means. The reason that I focus so much on primary sources in my courses—whether a sermon, speech, or a diary—is because I’m really interested in hearing the voices of people in the past and thinking about them as fully human people who faced many of our same questions and struggles.
EA: What have been some of the highlights of your three years at HDS?
CB: It seems unbelievable that it’s the end of my third year at the School. There have been so many highlights, but I really have loved the community here. There’s a very strong sense on this campus that people want to change the world, and being here gives me hope in the future.
EA: You are going sabbatical for the 2017-18 academic year. What are your plans?
CB: I’m going to be working on my book, tentatively called “Chosen Nation: Christianity, Nationalism, and American Destiny.” It starts with early American Puritans describing themselves as having a special covenant, and it will go all the way through to Donald Trump, who has very explicitly rejected American exceptionalism.
I’m interested in the malleability of the language of American chosenness, and I think that it is often the vehicle through which change happens: it helps people to clothe change in familiar garb.
Martin Luther King, Jr., appealed to a lot of people by suggesting that racial equality was part of the original vision for America—that this was actually God’s plan all along—instead of making a radical break with the past. He tried to suggest that his vision was part of a longer continuity. Rather than criticizing the notion of America chosenness for the way it had benefited whites, he argued that the nation was chosen: it was destined to be a beacon of racial justice.
I’m fascinated by how expansive this language ends up being—that it can be used by both the Ku Klux Klan and Martin Luther King, Jr., both Frances Willard, a women’s rights activist in the late nineteenth century, and people arguing against women’s rights. That’s really the story of the book—the way that this language has been one of the crucial drivers for change in American history.
The language of American chosenness refers back to a Christian past, but more recently it has come unmoored from its Christian anchor. So, when you hear people talking about American exceptionalism today, often they’ve taken away the explicitly Christian part of it, and they mean American political exceptionalism or economic exceptionalism. I have many reservations about the belief in American chosenness, which has often been used to justify war and violence, but whatever the limitations of Winthrop’s vision, he assumed that chosenness always entailed humility and sacrifice. If we lose that religious vision, what will American “exceptionalism” mean in the future?