Does History Rhyme?

Kyle T. Bulthuis

All Images Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I’ve spent much time in the classroom disputing the cliché that those who do not study the past are bound to repeat it. I’m much more partial to the quote (probably falsely) attributed to Mark Twain, that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. In that spirit, I’ve been exploring a couple of historical comparisons regarding religion in the early republic and today. The first is an analogy or framework that might seem obvious to many, and the other is an association that might seem outlandish. Think of both parts as a break-room conversation, something that at its best provokes further discussion.

Obvious Association: Trump as Jackson

I’m not the first scholar to suggest that our current political (and religious) climate feels very Jacksonian. Jacksonian era politics divided along ethno-religious as well as class lines. On one side were low-church evangelicals who focused heavily on personal piety and practice, and tended to retreat from the public sphere on moral issues. Jackson, defender of the common man, mattered to them because he reflected a larger cultural commitment to their individual autonomy. The issue of slavery led many of these evangelicals (especially northern ones) to silence, obfuscation, and denial. On the other hand, the anti-Jackson Whigs included among their number a range of high-church and formally inclined Protestants, along with a select few whose religion became transformed in their public engagement. Some religious-minded reformers found that their earlier evangelical or biblical commitments gave way to a radically new conception of the world that went beyond reform toward revolution. Garrison and the Grimké sisters are good examples, but many New School Presbyterians also fit this model. They upped their engagement as prophetic critics of the world, but in so doing changed their traditional assumptions about what true religion and Christianity meant.[1]

Today it seems we are returning to such a moment, at least for white Americans. Evangelicals have if anything moved more strongly to President Trump and the Republican Party, even if it means greater silence, obfuscation, or outright denial on issues of sexual comport, financial greed, or bearing false witness. Their opponents are much less likely to hold traditional religious commitments: A recent Pew study finds a majority of white Democrats, for the first time, do not identify as Christian. Insofar as such progressives remain orthodox or traditionally religious, they are increasingly embracing what most past Christians might have found as anathema, or inconceivable, whether it be regarding gay marriage, late-term abortion rights, transgender definitions of identity, or Jehovah as a god more like Gaea than a creation-subduing master.[2]

All analogies break down somewhere, and here it does in areas that have always mattered: with gender and race. The gender gap concerning Trump, while closer among evangelicals than elsewhere, still reveals Christian women more concerned with the state of modern conservatism than their male co-religionists. And people of color in America have tended to remain affiliated with traditional conceptions of religious identity: the changing composition of our republic means increasing numbers of these are Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, but nonetheless more socially conservative than their political allies. And black and Hispanic Americans remain the outlier for any attempt to create a connection between religion and politics: Members of traditionally black denominations, and Hispanic evangelicals and Pentecostals, remain among the most likely to embrace Biblical literalism, even as their politics often join them with the Nones of the millennial Left or white Buddhists and Wiccans.[3]

Provocative point: Greta Thunberg as Ellen G. White

One of the boldest statements of religious belief among today’s progressives is that of the sacred nature of the environment. Here I am not speaking of levels of carbon in the atmosphere, nor the various uses of climate modeling to predict future temperatures and sea levels, but rather the statement of faith that both the science is settled and that those who dissent are not simply mistaken, nor even skeptics, but deniers. The politicization of environmental issues has created language rather religious in its form, with child prophets taking priority over lab-coated priests.

I was particularly struck to see in political debate the bold pronouncement that the world has twelve years to change course or face destruction. The calls to repent or receive judgment evoke Jonah at Nineveh and the Puritans’ jeremiads. But the specificity of the twelve-year timetable brought to mind the Millerites, whose interpretation of biblical text, like these latter-day prophets’ reading of the environmental text, led to a very specific prediction, as Baptist minister William Miller after multiple calculations determined the year 1844 as the date of Christ’s return to earth.[4]

When Miller was proven wrong, and Christ did not return, many of his followers slipped away. But a faithful remnant believed a new Prophetess, Ellen G. White, who insisted Miller was not wrong, just misunderstood. According to White, in 1844 Christ cleansed the heavenly sanctuary, making the way for a new possibility of his return. These former Millerites, soon to become Seventh-day Adventists, evolved into one of the more interesting creations in the pantheon of American religious movements. Health focused, part kosher/part vegetarian, mission minded, racially inclusive, biblically literalist, young-earth creationist, hippy and fundamentalist at the same time, Adventists represent a fascinating case study of what can happen when a prophecy fails, but is transformed.[5]

If the twelve-year deadline passes and the earth does not enter a parabolic death spiral, what will become of environmentalism? It certainly will not die, but I do think it will change. Embracing a religious mantle will allow it to sidestep empirical queries, and attacks from skeptics, while retaining the fervor that has made it increasingly popular with younger generations.

Just as many northern Christians ultimately defected from Jackson’s Democrats when the issue of slavery grew too great to ignore, so might evangelicals in America reject the reflexive support for the current administration. Alternatively, if the public face of environmentalism continues to invoke mystical and symbolic imagery, and call for authoritarian controls rather than technocratic adjustments, it may become something radically other than what it is today.[6]

As I considered these two analogies, I realized, not for the first time, that moral clarity often feels stronger in the moment, but looks clearer in hindsight. The Jacksonian era’s crusades, and willingness to see the devil in one’s opponents—whether that devil be a bank, alcohol, abolitionists, slaveholders, or immigrants—raged strongly, but from a distance now we see more clearly that the demands of patriarchy and slavery underwrote many of the assumptions of all sides. Right now many feel certain of the rightness of their respective causes, but I am not sure that many of us yet see with any clarity what the ultimate conclusions will be.


Endnotes

[1] On one provocative interpretation of the evangelical–Jackson alliance, see Charles Sellers’s classic, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York, 1991), who pitted Antinomian Land against Arminian Capital in a Manichaean battle. The transformation of reformers out of Christianity is found in Ronald Walters, American Reformers: 1815–1860 (New York, 1997), and Robert Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (Oxford, UK, 1994).

[2] The findings of the recent Pew study can be found at https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/ ; accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

[3] See the Pew study, above, on religious affiliations of people of color and immigrants. It is intriguing to note that there may be a slight uptick of support for Trump among people of color, at least in comparison with their support for previous Republican candidates; see https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/washington-secrets/black-voter-support-for-trump-at-highest-levels-could-seal-2020-win . Such numbers are at this point marginal, and rather speculative; for a cautionary rejoinder, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/17/sorry-conservatives-trump-isnt-going-get-surge-black-voters/ . If this slight shift holds, however, it does continue to advance the idea of Trump filling the shoes of a Jacksonian strongman; Jackson’s party attracted religious minorities fearful of majority domination.

[4] The UN Report was less dramatic in its language; see https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ . Journalists and politicians, however, have added the religious overtones and highlighted the apocalyptic twelve-year hard deadline; see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report . The best single study of White is Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health: a Study of Ellen G. White, rev. ed. (Knoxville, 1992).

[5] Few scholarly studies of Adventism exist outside of insider church histories. Two more recent include Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream 2nd edition (Bloomington, IN, 2006); Samuel G. London, Jr., Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson, MS, 2009).

[6] The former scenario might have happened already in some quarters, as the editor Mark Galli of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of the evangelical movement, supported impeachment proceedings against the president; see https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html . I also believe the latter shift has already happened to some degree, insofar as a sixteen-year-old is the public face of an ostensibly scientific movement.

10 February 2020

About the Author

Kyle T. Bulthuis is Associate Professor of History at Utah State University.

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