Why Fake News Is a Good Thing

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Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.

Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.

There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.

Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”

So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.

One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”

But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.

I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.

A Heart for Muslims: Temple Gairdner’s Legacy

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Last week we took a respite from our series on the history of missions to discuss Donald Trump and his perceived manipulation of Christianity. This week, we return to our series once again, but this time we find ourselves in Cairo. In the wake of the horrific attacks in Brussels, and the resultant xenophobic rants regarding Muslims coming into this country, today’s blog seeks to focus on a missionary who served Muslim communities. William Henry Temple, or simply Temple, Gairdner (1873-1928) served for almost three decades in Cairo, Egypt (Tucker, 244).

Gairdner’s role as a missionary to Muslims was aided by his ability to learn very quickly, including learning Arabic “well enough to become involved in teaching in less than a year” (Tucker, 243). He also, along with his wife (they were married in 1902), used their musical talents to put on concerts to draw Christians and Muslims together (Tucker, 243). Importantly, Gairdner changed his tactics in ministering to Muslims in Cairo. He shifted from the typical missionary strategy of arguing the differences between Christianity and Islam to more calmly discussing the problems that Muslims had with Christian beliefs (Tucker, 244). He even sought to engage Muslims where they were.

Gairdner spent time trying to work with Coptic Christians in the area, but found few of them were very interested in helping out with the missionary work among Muslims (Tucker, 245). Gairdner’s publishing and his teaching left resources to his mission after his death in 1928 (Tucker, 245). Tucker also notes that Gairdner’s real legacy was the resulting increased desire for people to pick up his mantle of missionary work among Muslims, particularly in the Anglican Church (Tucker, 245).

Although Gairdner could be seen as successful in many ways, there were problems in the mission, notably a lack of helpers. This greatly hindered Gairdner’s publishing work, and even though he spent a year studying Islam with world-renowned experts, he was unable to really make an impact in the scholastic realm (Tucker, 244-45). Gairdner himself even lamented it, noting that he could have made a real contribution to the field. He also saw some of his fellow-Christians renounce their faith and convert to Islam (Tucker 243). So, while he did have some modest successes, one might say that he had just as many setbacks.

I want to point out that in today’s religio-political climate in the United States, we have a variety of opinions, especially with regard to Muslims. I think that Gairdner might assist us by his passion for working and engaging with the Muslim communities around us. As mentioned above, there have been a number of xenophobic responses to ISIS-claimed attacks around the world, most notably by Donald Trump. Trump has said several times that the United States should start banning all Muslims from coming to this country. Ted Cruz likewise has recently stated that Muslim communities around this country need to be monitored. I think such positions on Muslims would appall Muslim missionaries like Temple Gairdner. His methodology was to engage Muslims, not fear them. He even lamented the Coptic Christian Church near him for not doing more to minister to Muslims that were a part of their own communities.

Last night, while watching election coverage of “Western Tuesday” (yet another moniker assigned to a day when more than one state holds a primary), I heard several analysts talking about how each time there has been a ISIS-led terrorist attack around the world, Donald Trump gets a bump in the polls. I find such reactions by the American people alarming to say the least. Without getting too political (although I fear I may have already), I would say that we should be worried when we hear things like, “We have no choice but to ban all Muslims from entering this country,” from our presidential front-runners. I would also say that we should be shocked and appalled when such statements are met with exuberant applause by the masses.

Temple Gairdner took issue with the standard Christian missionary practice of his time, which was to fiercely debate Islam and Christianity. His approach sought to meet Muslims where they were and engage their beliefs. While I recognize that Gairdner’s methods were rooted in mission work and politicians like Trump and Cruz are focused on political strategy, I think Gairdner’s legacy still fits. His time in Cairo was not always happy and not always met with successes, but he nevertheless remained there until his death because he believed in the work he was doing. He believed in God’s call on his life. I would even contend that he had a heart for Muslims. I wish that our political climate, particularly political establishments that are aligned with a Christian majority, would share Gairdner’s sympathy and love for Muslims and eschew Trump’s xenophobia. After all, this country was founded on religious freedom, and I hate to break it to many people out there, but Islam is a religion.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues? Is today’s geopolitical climate too different from from Gairdner’s to make these assertions? Has ISIS changed the game permanently?

Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?

Midweek Blog: Catholic Bishops on Pointing Nukes at Our Enemies

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This week, in continuing our series on American Church History, we are jumping forward a bit into the twentieth century. Today’s blog focuses on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1983 which published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace.” The conference’s focus was on the ramping up of nuclear arms between the USA and the USSR in the early 1980s, as well as the rhetoric surrounding a strategy of nuclear deterrence. The idea, for President Ronald Reagan, was that the USA should stockpile advanced nuclear weaponry in order to keep the peace. Such an increase in production of catastrophic weaponry led many people to decry the policy, including the aforementioned Catholic conference (Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, eds. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, 60-61). “The Challenge of Peace” was what the conference penned in response to such political actions, and this letter will be the focus of today’s blog.

The letter states, “In the nuclear arsenals of the United States or the Soviet Union alone, there exists a capacity to do something no other age could imagine: we can threaten the entire planet. For people of faith this means we read the Book of Genesis with a new awareness” (“Challenge of Peace,” 123). The notion that the destructive power of human-produced weapons should make us look differently at Genesis carries with it a sense of foreboding. If people can annihilate vast numbers of humans and other lifeforms in a huge area with one single bomb, think at what that has to say about humanity’s relationship with God in the creation narrative. These bishops continued, “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself” (123).

The destruction seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II showed everyone the power of nuclear bombs and their catastrophic impact. Many Catholic voices dissented soon after, such as Dorothy Day. Many of them saw civilized humanity as taking a huge step backwards with the killing of so many men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the War. The Conference we are discussing responds to Reagan’s new nuclear arms race with much of this anti-nuke tradition in the background, as the letter mentions (127). The letter, however, notes that simply advocating for disarmament is complex. It states, “It much less clear how we translate a ‘no’ to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the Kingdom of God” (134).

While imposing a foreign policy that “reflects the values and vision of the kingdom of God” would not really be acceptable today, the Bishops do note how simply having the biggest muscles (or the most bombs) isn’t necessarily the best way to operate. The policy of nuclear deterrence is that one has to basically point the bombs at one’s enemies; in the historical case to which we are referring, the USA has to point the bombs at the USSR with the finger on the button. The goal is of course to never use the weapons themselves but to scare the enemy into thinking that you are about to. The problem arises when one’s enemies calls one’s bluff. What happens if they say, “Go ahead. We know you won’t do it.” At that point, you either have to fire the weapons, or you have to come up with an entirely new strategy. All the while, your enemies might be preparing to attack you or to fire similar weapons at you.

One final passage from “The Challenge of Peace” describes this very issue. “The need to rethink the deterrence policy of our nation… also will require, we believe, the willingness to open ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God, which call us to recognize our common humanity and the bonds of mutual responsibility which exist in the international community in spite of political differences and nuclear arsenals” (196).

If you ask me, this is the most groundbreaking, novel concept within the letter. Again, utilizing one’s understanding of the Kingdom of God or “opening ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God” would simply not work in today’s United States. You can’t mix government and religion like that. However, the aspect which I think has the strongest impact on the letter’s historical context, as well as our own today, is that there is a “common humanity and bonds of mutual responsibility in the international community.” I think one of the problems today is that we look at other countries, and the people who inhabit them, as somehow less than ourselves. The USA has plenty of enemies, but what could possibly set it apart from many other countries is a new attitude that looks at the humanity of even our enemies and the employment of a “mutual responsibility” toward them.

I don’t want to venture to far into the realm of politics or political theory here (I would be way out of my depth), but crafting a foreign policy that looks at other countries, including our enemies as fellow human citizens could go a long way to subverting other conflicts. What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to say to the USA in the early 1980s is powerful. They went completely against the government’s position of nuclear deterrence with a very public stance. They showed strong faith commitments and a willingness to speak up for God’s kingdom. Although this happened over thirty years ago, their views on peace and focusing on the humanity of others might still ring true today.

What are you thoughts on nuclear deterrence? What about the Bishops’ response? Is today’s geopolitical stage too advanced for such a document? Has ISIS changed the game, or can we still look for humanity in our enemies?

Midweek Blog: Is the USA a Christian Nation? The Epistle to Diognetus and Life as a Foreigner

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In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s post examines a small text known as the Epistle to Diognetus. This text is more of a tract than an epistle, with a general tone of defending and promoting Christianity that was written sometime between 150-225 AD (Holmes, 686-689). The section of the text that I wanted to focus on today comes from chapter five of Diognetus:

“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom… But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.” (5.1-5.5)

This text should not surprise Christians who read it, especially based on its date and tone. Much of the rest of chapter five talks about Christians facing persecution, not exposing their children (unlike the rest of Roman society), and “not sharing their wives” (5.7). The period between 150-225 AD was marked by persecutions and also characterized as the period of the Christian apologists. Justin Martyr was one of the more famous apologists, who wrote in defense of Christianity. Like Justin, Diognetus seeks to show how Christians’ true citizenship and allegiance is not of this world, but a part of the heavenly kingdom. Such a theme will be later picked up and popularized by Augustine in his City of God, which draws a separation between the earthly city and the heavenly city. Suffice it to say, the idea that Christians’ “do not belong to this world” (John 15.19) is a theme that runs throughout Christian history. In fact such a phrase is repeated often today in Churches in the USA.

If that is true, then why do people also try to claim that the USA is a “Christian nation” and that it was “founded on Christian principles?” I would contend that people who argue such things should check their American history, since this country was founded on religious freedom and freedom from harsh taxation. Religious freedom means exactly that, not simply “freedom to be whichever type of Christian you choose.”

As we get closer and closer to the next presidential election in 2016, we will be having debates and primaries and other political speeches being made. The upcoming general election has so many republican candidates that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Without getting into political discussions about which candidate you do or do not support, there is usually a candidate or two that claims that they want to get this country back in line with it’s founding Christian principles (usually to gain the support of very conservative groups and a majority of the Religious Right). This is not to say that all who identify as the Religious Right want the USA to get back to being a Christian nation, but there are many within it who do.

I would contend that such groups fail to understand texts like Diognetus which are a part of Christian history. Christian thinkers throughout history have underscored the truth that Christians have to navigate life on earth as foreigners whose true citizenship is in heaven. Jesus himself in John 15 (noted above) emphasizes that the disciples are not of this world. Why do people want to continually view the USA as a special exception to this idea? Why do people think that the USA is God’s new promised land?

There are many different types of people who make up the USA, including many different religious groups. To “get this country back to being a Christian nation” would ostracize a great many of those who call this country home. In my opinion, Christians should worry less about lining up the political machine with their specific Church’s policies and doctrines (since even if this were a “Christian nation,” whose Christianity would rule it?), and more about how to help the people in the USA. Making this country a safer, better, and more enjoyable place for all is a great political goal. Just don’t try to make it the Christian capital of the world. After all, Diognetus tells us that there are many nations around the world that have Christians in them. We can’t forget about their place in this world either.