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March 20th, 2019

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  • Steve Hochstadt teaches at Illinois College and blogs for HNN.



    Antisemitism is alive and well these days. In Europe and America, the number of antisemitic incidents areincreasing every year, according to those who try to keep track.


    News about antisemitism has recently wandered from the streets and the internet into the halls of Congress. The presence of two newly elected young Muslim women in the House, who openly advocate for Palestinians against Israel, has upset the strongly pro-Israel consensus that has dominated American politics for decades. Accusations of antisemitism are especially directed at Ilhan Omar from Minneapolis, who has used language that is reminiscent of traditional antisemitic themes in her criticism of Israeli policies. Her case demonstrates that it can be difficult to distinguish between unacceptable antisemitism and political criticism of the Jewish government of Israel and its supporters.


    Some incidents seem to be easy to label as antisemitic. For example, when a large group of young people physically attacked Jewish women while they were praying. Many women were injured, including the female rabbi leading the prayers. The attackers carried signs assailing the women’s religious beliefs, and the press reported that the women “were shoved, scratched, spit on and verbally abused”.


    An obvious case of antisemitism? No, because the attackers were ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls and boys, bussed to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in order to attack the non-Orthodox Women of the Wall, who were violating misogynist Orthodox traditions about who can pray at the Wall. This incident fulfills every possible definition of antisemitism. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance offers the following description of public acts that are antisemitic: “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” The ultra-Orthodox leaders who encouraged the assault would argue that they were protecting, not attacking Judaism, and that the Women of the Wall were not really Jewish anyway.


    Acts of antisemitism are political acts. Accusations of antisemitism are likewise political acts, deployed in the service of the political interests of the accusers. Many, perhaps most accusations of antisemitism are made in good faith for the purpose of calling attention to real religious prejudice. But such accusations are often made for less honest political purposes.


    The Republicans in Congress who demand that Democrats denounce Ilhan Omar are cynically using the accusation of antisemitism for political gain. Many Republicans have themselvesmade statements or employed political advertisements that are clearly antisemitic. The rest have stood by in silence while their colleagues and their President made antisemitic statements. But they saw political advantage in attacking a Democrat as antisemitic.


    Supporters of the Israeli government’s policies against Palestinians routinely accuse their critics of antisemitism as a means of drawing attention away from Israeli policies and diverting it to the accusers’ motives. Sometimes critics of Israel are at least partially motivated by antisemitism. But the use of this rhetorical tactic also often leads to absurdity: Jews who do not approve of the continued occupation of land in the West Bank or the discrimination against Palestinians in Israel are accused of being “self-hating Jews”.


    This linking of antisemitism and criticism of Israeli policy has worked well to shield the Israeli government from reasonable scrutiny of its policies. In fact, there is no necessary connection between the two. Criticism of current Israeli policy is voiced by many Jews and Jewish organizations, both religious and secular.


    Supporters of the idea of boycotting Israeli businesses as protest against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, the so-called BDS movement, are sometimes assumed to be antisemitic and thus worthy of attack by extremists. But the pro-Israel but also pro-peace Washington Jewish organization J-Street argues that “Efforts to exclude BDS Movement supporters from public forums and to ban them from conversations are misguided and doomed to fail.” I don’t remember that any of the supporters of boycotting and divesting from South Africa because of its racial policies were called anti-white.


    Those who advocate a “one-state solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are sometimes accused by conservatives of being antisemitic, with the argument that this one state will inevitably eventually have a majority of Muslims. The Washington Examiner calls this equivalent to the “gradual genocide of the Jewish people”.


    The absurdity of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism is personified by the denunciations of Zionism and the existence of Israel by the Orthodox Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world.


    On the other side, the most vociferous American supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government have been evangelical Christians. Although they claim to be the best friends of Israel, the religious basis of right-wing evangelical Christianity is the antisemitic assertion that Jews will burn in hell forever, if we do not give up our religion. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who spoke at President Trump’s private inaugural prayer service, has frequently said that Jews, and all other non-Christians, will go to hell. The San Antonio televangelist John C. Hagee, who was invited by Trump to give the closing benediction at the opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, has preached that the Holocaust was divine providence, because God sent Hitler to help Jews get to the promised land. Eastern European nationalists, who often employ antisemitic tropes to appeal to voters, are also among the most vociferous supporters of Netanyahu and Israel.


    Political calculations have muddied our understanding of antisemitism. Supporters of the most right-wing Israeli policies include many people who don’t like Jews. Hatreds which belonged together in the days of the KKK may now be separated among right-wing white supremacists.


    But no matter what they say, purveyors of racial prejudice and defenders of white privilege are in fact enemies of the long-term interests of Jews all over the world, who can only find a safe haven in democratic equality.

  • The Political Uses of the Past Project collects and checks statements by elected and appointed officials. This is the first installment of what will hopefully become a regular feature of the project. Read more about the project here. Contact the editor of the project here.

    Vice President Pence: “For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East”

    For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East. Previous administrations in my country too often underestimated the danger that radical Islamic terrorism posed to the American people, our homeland, our allies, and our partners. Their inaction saw the terrorist attacks from the U.S.S. Cole; to September 11th; to the expansion of ISIS across Syria and Iraq — reaching all the way to the suburbs of Baghdad. But as the world has witnessed over the past two years, under President Trump, those days are over. —Vice President Michael Pence, Remarks, Warsaw Ministerial Working Luncheon, February 14, 2019

    Historians say…

    Eight historians responded to our request for comment; their full statements and recommended sources are on the Political Uses of the Past page).

    The vice president starts with the 1833 treaty with Oman, and so shall we, even though it’s an odd place to start. As Will Hanley of Florida State University noted in his reaction to Pence’s claim, the treaty itself is a piece of routine boilerplate, not so different “from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states.” But there was at least one innovation, as Hanley explains: “The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement [by Pence] on this evidence would be ‘For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven’t paid for.’”

    Vice President Pence made this broad statement at a ministerial meeting on terrorism, but his mind was primarily on Iran. His intent was to draw a contrast between the United States and Iran, with the former being a “force for good” in the region and the latter being a perpetrator of continual violence. But by going back to 1833 to reference a routine and fairly boring trade agreement with a minor kingdom, he appears to be grasping at straws.

    If Pence was looking for good done by the United States in the Middle East, he could have asked some of the historians who reacted to his statement. He may have learned from Joel Beinin how “American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region.” He may have been interested to hear from Indira Falk Gesink that “after World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any).” He may have learned from Lior Sternfeld how the United States has sponsored “schools, universities, and orphanages” and took a stand against its European allies and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

    But if he had asked and had learned about these efforts, he would also have learned from Professor Beinin that many of the missionaries who established these schools went to work for the CIA in the postwar period, “so even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.” And Pence would have also had to hear Professor Sternfeld tell about the 1953 coup in Iran that cemented a brutal regime in place for the next quarter-century and how, as described by Professor Gesink, “from that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment.” Finally, he would have had to hear about how much that 1953 coup has to do with our relations with Iran now.

    Historians who replied to our request for comment could not find much “force for good” in the historical record. Instead, they find “death, displacement, and destruction” (Ziad Abu-Rish), support for “the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn” and the “most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn” (Mark Le Vine), “intense and destructive interventions … characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives” (Michael Provence), “a moral compromise with authoritarianism”  (Indira Falk Gesink), and actions that have “contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster” (Dale Stahl).

    Homage to the Shah after coup d’état, 5 September 1953, The Guardian - Unseen images of the 1953 Iran coup.

    Three historians below recommend The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, and this book is incredibly pertinent today. Previous historical accounts and justifications by 1950s policymakers made the coup all about Mosaddegh’s unwieldiness to compromise or said it was all about winning the Cold War. Abrahamian instead shows that it was about oil, or, more specifically, “the repercussions that oil nationalization could have on such faraway places as Indonesia and South America, not to mention the rest of the Persian Gulf.” And for this, Iran and the Middle East got, courtesy of the United States, the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah. The shah crushed the democratic opposition, filling his jails with thousands of political prisoners, and left “a gaping political vacuum—one filled eventually by the Islamic movement.” And so here we are.

    Mike Pence’s incredibly blinkered statement can be viewed as an extreme counterpoint to the right-wing view of Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the president mildly acknowledged that the US had not always been on the side of right in the Middle East, and that its history of actions have come back to haunt us all. Such things, it seems, must not be spoken in the muscular Trump administration, even if it means abandoning an understanding that might actually be useful. “For me as an historian,” Mark Le Vine notes below, “perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail.” Indeed, Mike Pence here appears intent on utterly blocking out history and historical thinking, even as he dreams of a long and glorious past.

    Browse and download sources recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.


    Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University

    I’m only going to tackle the “force for good” claim, without getting into the claims about Trump compared to his predecessors or the notion of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Let’s give Vice President Pence a chance at being correct… Read more

    Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University

    American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region… Read more

    Indira Falk Gesink, Baldwin Wallace University

    I think this is a much more complicated question than is generally acknowledged. On the one hand, some American private citizens have had long-lasting positive impact—for example the founding of educational institutions such as Roberts College, the American University in Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College), and the American University in Cairo. At that time, the US generally was viewed positively in the region. … Read more

    Will Hanley, Florida State University

    It’s not possible to use historical evidence to support a black-and-white statement like “The United States has been a force for good in the Middle East.” Even if it were possible, the slim 1833 treaty between the US and the Sultan of Muscat is meager evidence. … Read more

    Mark Andrew Le Vine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, UC Irvine

    This statement is ridiculous even by the standards of the Trump administration. The US has been among the most damaging forces in the Middle East for the last three quarters of a century. … Read more

    Michael Provence, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, San Diego

    The United States had no role in the Middle East before 1945, apart from private business and educational initiatives. Within a couple years of 1945, the US tilted toward Israel in its first war, began overthrowing democratic Middle Eastern governments, and propping up pliant dictators. … Read more

    Dale Stahl, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado Denver

    I see this statement as “more or less false” because there are clear examples where the United States has not had a positive influence in the Middle East. One needn’t reflect very far back into that “nearly 200 years” of history to know that this is so. … Read more

    Lior Sternfeld, Penn State University

    While the US had some moments where it was a force for good, with projects like schools, universities, and orphanages, it was also a source for instability in cases like the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh that overturned the course not just of Iran but of the region in its entirety. Read more


  • A month ago, I watched a television program that covered, briefly, the art of pop icon Andy Warhol, he of all the Campbell’s Soup cans. The narrator said that Warhol had passed into history and that young people today probably had no idea who he was.

    I was startled. Young people did not know who the thin man with the white hair was, the man who hung out with Liz Taylor, Liza Minelli, dress designer Halston and the Jaggers? The man who painted the famous Mao portrait? Truman Capote’s buddy?

    I’m a professor, so the next day I asked my classes, 25 students in each, if they knew who Andy Warhol was. I didn’t say artist or painter Andy Warhol, just Andy Warhol.

    The hands shot into the air. About 95% of them knew who he was.

    Andy Warhol will never pass from the scene. That is proven, conclusively, in the largest exhibit of his work in generations at the Whitney Museum, in New York, Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again. It is a marvelous and exciting tribute to his work and is attracting huge crowds.

    The crowds are not art aficionados from the 1960s, either, but young women with baby carriages, high school student groups, young couples and foreign tourists. Warhol was an international celebrity and a celebrity superstar in addition to being a memorable artist, and, these crowds indicate, always will be remembered.

    “Modern art history is full of trailblazers whose impact dims over time,” said Curator Scott Rothkopf. “But Warhol is that extremely rare case of an artist whose legacy grows only more potent and lasting. His inescapable example continues to inspire, awe and even vex new generations of artists and audiences with each passing year.”

    Another curator, Donna De Salvo, said the originally Avant Garde Warhol has become part of mainstream art. “Warhol produced images that are now so familiar that it’s easy to forget how just how unsettling and even shocking they were when they debuted,” she said.

    Warhol really became famous not so much because of his new age art, but because of his celebrity. He was friends with many of the biggest entertainment stars in the world, was a fixture at legendary New York nightclub Studio 54 in the 1980s, paled around with fashion designer Halston, drank wine with Liza Minelli and lunched with Liz Taylor. He was almost murdered in 1968 when an irate actress from his film studio, the Factory, shot him several times. The shooting made front page news all over the world. He was a central character in the movie Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, one of his Factory actresses.

    Everybody recognized him instantly since he wore those thick glasses and had that mop top of dyed white hair. That fame was why people paid so much attention to his often-bizarre work. Some said that the quiet boy from Pittsburgh, who fell in love with Shirley Temple as a kid created a unique persona of himself that worked well.

    The Warhol exhibit, a real achievement in cultural history, occupies all of the fifth floor at the Whitney plus additional galleries on the first and third floors. The best way to start is on the first floor and the gallery of his oversized portraits. They are mounted in log rows across the walls of the room and they introduce you to Andy the celebrity and Andy the artist at the same time. The portraits also tell you a lot about show business and art history in the 1960s and ’70s. There are lots of famous people on the walls here, like Liza Minelli, Dennis Hopper, soccer star Pele, socialite Jane Holzer and Halston, but lots of people you never heard of, too. 

    The third-floor houses wall after wall of his famous “Cow Wallpaper,” adorned with hundreds of similar heads of a brown cow. It is eye-opening and hilarious. 

    Another room has a stack of his popular blue and white Brillo pad boxes and a wall full of S & H Green Stamps (remember them?)

    There are his paintings of magazine covers and lots of newspaper front pagers (an eerie one about a 1962 Air France plane crash).

    You learn a lot about his personal life. As an example, as a young man he became a fan of Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and called him every single day. 

    There are drawings of celebrity’s shoes to show how they represented their personalities. Christine Jorgensen was one of the first modern openly transgender women, so she has shoes that don’t match each other.

    Unknown to most, he loved to do paintings of paintings of comic strip characters. Two in the exhibit, of Superman and Dick Tracy, in blazing bright colors, were displayed in a New York City department store window. 

    What makes the exhibit so enjoyable at the Whitney Museum, recently opened on Gansevoort Street near the Hudson River, is the way the curators use its space. Unlike most museum exhibits, where everything is scrunched together, the curators used the large, high ceilinged rooms wisely, putting the 350 Warhol pieces, especially the very large ones (some are thirty feet wide) alone on the pristine white walls so they jump off the wall at you. You go around one corner and there is Elvis Presley as a gunslinger in four separate portraits firing one of his six-guns. Next to him is Marlon Brando in a leather jacket and on his motorcycle.

    There are weird walls of photos such as most wanted criminals he drew from photos in a New York State Booklet, “13 Most Wanted Men.’ There is a series of his copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and then his copy of his copy.

    He did inspirational photos and silkscreens. A woman named Ethel Sculls CHEC arrived at his studio one day for what she thought would be a traditional portrait. Instead, Warhol took her to Times Square and had her sit for dozens of photos in the cheapie photo booths there, where all the going-steady high school kids went. The result – a sensational wall of photos of her in different giddy and seductive poses. Brilliant.

    There are photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. One set is of her smiling on the morning before her husband’s murder and then, in the next strip, is her, somber, at the President’s funeral.  There is a wall full of his famous photo of Marilyn Monroe. There is a world famous, mammoth, and I mean mammoth, portrait of China’s Chairman Mao. One wall is filled with his fabled Campbell’s soup can paintings and another with his Coca Cola works.

    Sprinkled among all of these paintings are real life photos and videos of Warhol at work.

    There is a large television set on the third floor in which you see a truly bizarre video of Warhol simply eating a cheeseburger for lunch (he’s doing to get sick eating so fast!)

    Warhol was also a well-known Avant Garde filmmaker and the museum is presenting dozens of his 16mm movies in a film festival in its third-floor theater. Some of these star the famous Ed Sedgwick, who appeared in many of his films and died tragically of a drug overdose.

    Andy Warhol, who died at the age of 58 during a minor operation, led a simple middle-class existence until he arrived in New York. He was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, was graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University there and then went to New York where he became well-known. He began his career as a commercial artist, earning money for drawings for magazine ads (dozens of them are in the show).

    He became famous for his portraits of Campbell’s Soup cans. He painted them because as a kid his family was so poor that he and his brothers had Campbells Soup for lunch every day. Warhol said he had Campbell’s soup for lunch every day for 20 years. He also saw the soup can as a window into America. He was right.

    The exhibit is a large open window on American history and culture in the 1960s and ’70s and how the outlandish Warhol starred in it and, with his genius, changed it.

    Andy Warhol not remembered? Hardly.

    The exhibit runs through March 31.


  • The University of Southern California, one of the schools mixed up in the college admissions scandal. 


    The front-page news about the college admissions bribery arrests has people talking about social class, fairness, status anxiety, helicopter parenting, and whether an expensive education can translate into a lifetime of wealth and happiness.  None of this is new.  In writing about the history of babies in the 20th century United States, I discovered early 20th century baby books distributed by banks and insurance companies prompting parents to save for college. At a time when less than 20 percent of Americans completed high school and far fewer went on to higher education, financial institutions told parents to start saving for college.  


    Insurance companies, banks, and savings and loan firms enticed customers by encouraging parental hopes and dreams.  Just as manufacturers of disinfectants, patent remedies, and infant foods turned to baby books to advertise the products parents could buy to keep babies healthy, financial firms sold their services as ways for making babies wealthy and wise–in the future. For all kinds of companies, playing to parental anxieties and aspirations became the means of expanding their clientele. 


    Consider this example. In 1915 an Equitable Life Assurance baby book advertisement in the Book of Baby Mine began, “Say, Dad, what about my college education?” At the time, high school graduation rates hovered below 13 percent and college attendance and graduation was much lower. Nevertheless, parents looked to the future with great hopes for their offspring. In 1919 the United States Children’s Bureau conducted an investigation of infant mortality in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts. An immigrant Italian mother interviewed for the study reported she was saving to send all four of her young children to college. Clearly, in reaching out with a save-for-college message, financial firms were capitalizing on a common but mostly unrealized dream and helping to reinforce the message that college was a pathway to success. 


    Banks promoted thrift by reaching out to customers via motion pictures, newspaper advertisements, and programs in schools collecting small deposits from children. Competition for savers grew as the number of banks doubled between 1910 and 1913. Accounts for babies soon became part of banks’ advertising strategy. Savings and loans and banks gave away baby books with perforated deposit slips, slots for coins, or simply included pages for listing deposits into the baby’s bank account. The 1926 Baby’s Bank and Record Book even included a section on college savings estimating a future scholar would need $1000–a figure it derived, the advertisement explained, from the University of Pennsylvania catalog. In addition to citing this source, the ad included a helpful chart showing that saving $1 a week would, with compounding interest, yield $1065.72 in fifteen years.  




    The Great Depression wiped out many of the banks and small insurance companies holding the savings of infants, children, and adults, thus erasing the hopes of many who had dreamed their child would obtain a college education.  However, as children withdrew from the workforce because of the lack of job opportunities and New Deal laws limited their employment, high school completion rates grew to 40 percent by 1935.  As scholars have pointed out, G.I. benefits after World War II (the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act) and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 both led to big increases in college attendance thanks to the financial support they provided. 


    What changed in the wake of enhanced federal financial support was not the desire for one’s children to acquire more education, but the numbers of young people able to go to college. A quick look through baby books from the first half of the twentieth century shows the “go to college” message being sent and received well before government dollars came in to the picture. Banks and insurance companies knew what customers dreamed of for their offspring and they made it the centerpiece of some of their advertising. Today, the vast majority of students and families still save up and borrow to afford higher education. And, of course, financial firms still promote themselves as critical resources for fulfilling this dream. What just might surprise us is how, for over a century, banks and insurance companies have been delivering this message, aware of what parents thought about when they gazed at their new babies and thought about their futures.


    Recently in St. Louis, the United Methodist General Conference strengthened its ban on same-sex marriage, doubled-down on its prohibition against ordaining gay clergy, and sent an unmistakable message to its LGBTQ brethren. Advocates of this so-called “Traditional Plan” believe that Biblical teachings against homosexuality are unambiguous, the teachings of the Bible are eternal and unchanging, and that the church should not bow to political pressure when evaluating their stance on major issues. Advocates of LGBTQ inclusion look to other Biblical precedents, insisting that the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself are the only moral guideposts they need when considering same-sex marriage, gay ordinations, and the place of LGBTQ members within the life of the church. Both sides are equally sure that God is on their side. 


    Although conservatives in the church claim to be protecting the Bible from what they see as a dangerous faction hellbent on watering down Christian teachings, the Traditional Plan was not about defending the entire breadth of what the scriptures have to say regarding marriage and relationships, which would have included commentary on a range of practices. Proponents of the measure rejected proposals to add language condemning adultery, divorce, and polygamy into the resolution and focused entirely on homosexuality. 


    At this moment, the future of the United Methodist Church is unclear, but feelings are raw and schism is likely. The St. Louis Conference was not routine, but it is not without historical precedent. It is ironic that that the church’s antigay coalition described their plan as “traditional,” because public schisms over social and political issues are deeply woven in the fabric of Methodist history. Whether it was pressure from Prohibitionists which ultimately convinced Methodists to ban fermented wine during communion or democratic rhetoric in the Jacksonian era which coincided with a schismatic wave of anticlericalism, Methodists have never shied away from pressing issues throughout their long history. 


    But until this month, slavery was the only other issue that seriously threatened the unity of American Methodism. Just as Methodists today look to the Bible for guidance on LGBTQ inclusion, their nineteenth century forebearers turned to scripture when considering the morality of slavery. For instance, southern Methodists pointed to Romans 13:1-2, in which Paul instructs, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” This convinced them that their slave-based hierarchy was divinely ordained and that it was sin to resist the clearly-evident will of God. Furthermore, proslavery theologians argued that if slavery was as grave a sin as their adversaries in the North claimed, there would be some kind explicit Biblical injunction against the practice. But there are no such teachings in the Bible and slavery was omnipresent in both the Old and New Testaments. For them, the truth of the Bible never changed, the institution of slavery had always existed, and would continue in perpetuity. 


    Opponents of slavery looked to the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule when arguing that it was a sin for Christians to degrade fellow humans as chattel. Like today, bothsides were equally sure that God was on their side. 


    Tension reached a boiling point at the General Conference of 1844 in New York City. According to church law, bishops could not own slaves, but Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia had inherited slaves through his wife. Antislavery forces wanted to suspend him from the ministry for violating church law. Southern delegates passionately defended Andrew and the institution of slavery while northerners argued that it was dangerous to vest religious authority in somebody who willingly participated in such a corrupt system. 


    When neither side showed a willingness to back down, the church split into separate denominations. The new southern branch of Methodism rested on a cornerstone of slavery and white supremacy. The schism opened the door to legal wrangling over church property that embittered both sides for generations and which ultimately had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with wealth and power. The churches reunited in 1939, after a ninety-five-year estrangement.


    Today, it might seem shocking that Christians would look to the Bible to defend slavery, but advocates were defending more than the institution; they genuinely felt that they were protecting the integrity of the Bible against an attempt by radicals in their own church to dilute the scriptures. This month, proponents of the Traditional Plan tapped into a Methodist tradition that should give them serious pause. Meanwhile, legal challenges over property might again become the ultimate arena for power plays masquerading as morality. 


    The historical lessons of 1844 are abundantly clear. Methodists have always been committed to faith, prayer, charity, and walking with God, but still turn their backs on the brethren and struggle to live up the highest ideals of Christianity and their even their own motto, “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket