TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS WITH DR. MICHAEL BREIDENBACH
October 3, 2014
Michael Breidenbach (that’s BRIDE-enbach) began teaching at Ave Maria University in Fall 2014. He is a Visiting Assistant professor of History. He agreed to an interview in his office, which he shares with his wife and fellow colleague, Janice, on the second floor of the Academic Building. Janice Breidenbach came in and out of the office over the course of the interview.
Photo Credit: Tom Catchesides
1. I went to Northwestern University for my undergraduate degree, majored in History and American Studies, and did my undergraduate honors thesis on American flags made in China. Researching the thesis was a really interesting experience. I attempted to understand, using the tools of anthropology, history, and cultural studies, the macro processes that make these products possible, and the ways in which we assimilate or question them in our lives. I invoked Adam Smith and some of the Scottish Enlightenment figures in order to understand the politics of global trade: Nationalism, defined as love of country in opposition to others; or healthy patriotism, defined as a love for the things that are lovely about the country, irrespective of others. The modern-day Olympics should be our model for international trade: we can vigorously compete with one other so long as competition doesn’t reduce to hatred.
2. Then I moved on to the University of Cambridge, England, where I took an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History. I wrote my thesis on Edmund Burke and Richard Price. Price was a Protestant minister who gave a sermon, “On the Love of our Country,” to which Burke responded with his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. Again, I was interested in patriotism. I basically wrote on what it means to love one’s country. The sermon Price gave argued that loving our country means creating a country that accepts all other countries—a kind of Christian cosmopolitism. Burke responded that this was wishful thinking, and he proposed we love our country because it is lovely, because there are things worth preserving in it.
3. At the very end of my master’s thesis, I became interested in religious liberty. The research on patriotism led me to it. What was behind all of these debates was: Who gets toleration rights? Who gets to practice their religion freely? Price was a dissenting Protestant, so he was not given full civil rights under the British regime. Burke was a staunch proponent of religious tolerance, including toleration for Catholics. I investigated how these two understood religious liberty in the context of patriotism. Again, these ideas were not fully formed even after my MPhil thesis.
4. I got into Cambridge for my PhD, but then a Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, invited me to be a visiting scholar there. During that year, six other scholars and I read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—the whole thing. The seminar in metaphysics was an intellectual detour from my studies in political thought, but it was formational for me, because it was the first time I really got inside of a great thinker. Thomas’ thought was really the architecture for my intellectual formation.
5. And then I started my PhD at Kings College, Cambridge. At that time, I think I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to investigate: I wanted to do my work on religious liberty. I had been in Europe for a while, and I wanted to see how European thought had influenced America. I then asked myself: Were there any Catholics in the American Founding? It turned out there were two that I found: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Daniel Carroll, his second cousin. And then I found out that Daniel’s brother John was the first Roman Catholic Bishop in America. That discovery was the launching point for my doctoral dissertation, and I dived headfirst into the Carroll family archives. I wanted to take the Carrolls as centerpieces for an intellectual history of Catholic republicanism, a history of how these ideas were transmitted, amended, and repurposed from Europe to America. The question was simply this: How could Catholics receive full civil and religious rights—how could George Washington tell the Carrolls that they were entitled to the full rights of American citizenship after the passage of the First Amendment—given the long and deep history of anti-Catholicism in the Anglo-American world? My PhD dissertation gave an argument for how American Catholics got there. And in between there are, I think, arguments and pieces of evidence that would be relevant for a lot of scholars in different disciplines, including political science, constitutional law, and religion.
6. I finished my PhD at Cambridge, and then I was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the James Madison Program at Princeton University. I also taught in the Departments of History and Politics as a Lecturer. I helped to teach an undergraduate history course, ‘The United States Since 1974’, and developed and taught a graduate Politics course, ‘Religion in the American Founding.’
7. One piece of advice I received, one that sticks out, is: “Get out of your own way.” A White House Fellow, who is also a Navy Seal, gave this advice to me when I was interning at the White House. We often think outside forces, circumstances we didn’t choose, and other people get in the way of our success, but it seems just as likely that we are holding ourselves back. It takes humility to recognize that God has a way planned for us—and that our own plans could be getting in the way.
8. I’ve only been to one restaurant in Naples so far, and that was Meredey’s, near 5th Ave. It’s Caribbean-influenced American fine dining with an emphasis on seafood. My wife and I really like “Master Chef”—the BBC version—so we enjoy eating and watching shows about fine food.
9. The most memorable meal I’ve had was probably our wedding rehearsal dinner. We got married in Cambridge and the rehearsal was at my college, King’s College. It was an incredible meal. The setting was a very intimate—in an old academic suite with chandeliers, overlooking the famous Chapel—and, best of all, we were surrounded by those we love. Cambridge is known for its formal halls; it’s often analogized to Hogwarts. One dresses up in a black gown, enjoys a three-course meal under candlelight. Animals eat; humans dine. Fine dining—it is a mark of civilization.
10. My favorite era for ideas is the 18th century.I think that goes without saying, considering my research interests. I think the 18th century is the point at which people started to think about what it means to live within a nation state in an increasingly globalized world. People are much more aware of interactions (economically, politically, socially) with other countries. It’s the age in which nation states are forming in their modern incarnation. But, as a historian, I’m always going back to the medieval era to find the contexts in which ideas in the 18th century were formed. We’re still trying to grapple with church-state relations, and, despite increasing secularization, we are still very much in the shadow of the Middle Ages.
11. I like collecting items from my travels. One of them is a collection of old postcards of the places in Europe that I’ve been to—not like the contemporary ones that are often kitschy, but ones taken in previous eras. These historical postcards reveal what’s enduring about a city—and what was proven to be ephemeral. On the American side, I collect political campaign buttons. I think my oldest one is probably of Kennedy.
12. So what does my backpack contain? [He rolls backwards in his chair over to the backpack, which is sitting on the floor behind the desk. As he rifles through it, he goes on.] I have a bunch of pens and pencils because I don’t like going anywhere without them. I was never a Boy Scout, but I pack like one. I’m prepared with Band-Aids, wax earplugs (in case I need to study in a crowded place), a tire pressure gauge (I bike everywhere), a poncho. Books, lots of books. And my laptop, I never leave home without it.
Oh, I have tea! (That’s essential.) I brought two British lords to speak at Princeton, and I hosted them for a talk on Christian heritage in Britain. I was very ashamed that the caterers only brought Lipton tea, and of course that is unacceptable for the British. So I went over to Lord Windsor and said: “I’m deeply sorry for the paltry tea selection.” And he replied: “Don’t worry, I’ve got my own.” He pulled proper English tea out of his suit jacket. I took Lord Windsor’s cue and now always bring proper tea with me. I’m sure the British lords would have joined me in throwing the Lipton into the harbor.
13. As far as directors go, I like Éric Rohmer and Whit Stillman. To juxtapose these two directors’ films is to begin to understand the differences between America and Europe. Each director is essentially doing the same thing, critiquing their contemporary societies through a portrayal of male-female relationships. How they do it is very interesting, and it speaks to their different cultures.
14. Intellectuals who inspire me? Oh that’s my wife, obviously. [She walks in the door. To her: “Do you inspire me?” Her reply: “No.”] Well then, Thomas Aquinas. [To her: “Sorry, he’s got you beat.”]
15. Cambridge was a lot of fun because there’s sort of a medieval feel to it, and a lot of the who’s who of Britain come to Oxford and Cambridge. We poach a lot of people who are passing through London to Cambridge—musicians, speakers of various sorts, and of course the royalty. Prince Charles would visit every year (he’s a graduate). Because I was a Cambridge Overseas Scholar, we’d meet at a museum and shake hands and so forth. I got to meet him twice. I asked him for a seat at his son’s wedding at Westminster, which he thought was amusing. He doesn’t have to vie for votes in the way that our politicians do, so he can be incredibly unassuming.
16. I like listening to classical music to relax. I fell in love with classical music in Cambridge. The amount of music on offer was incredible. Because I was at King’s college, the famous choir provided Evensong, which is their evening sung prayer. And after meeting Janice, who is an accomplished musician, I got more involved in classical music.
17. My favorite article of clothing is cufflinks. They come in and out of fashion, but men have a very limited selection of things that we can actually wear, and cufflinks are a way to express aspects of our personality. I have a rule about cufflinks—they can’t just be any cufflink, they have to say something about me. A lot of my cufflinks are from academic institution, others are gifts from my wife and parents, but all of them have to have some kind of symbolism to them. Cufflinks are in for a comeback.
18. Favorite food? My wife’s cooking. [Turning around in his chair he calls out, “I have to say that, you’re here.”] But really, it’s very good.
19. What do I look for in a student? Firstly, an active interest in the life of the mind. At the undergraduate level, it shouldn’t matter what the topic is. Of course, you’re going to be more disposed to one topic over the other, but a really stellar student can try to understand what the important questions are in any discipline, and really think about those questions. If I could just get students to try to understand what history is, that would be an accomplishment. And I would be very grateful for the student that tries to understand that. Most students that come to a university believe that history is an assemblage of facts, but what is interesting about history is the interpretation of those facts.
I also look for courtesy, manners, being civilized, being respectful—not just of me but also their fellow students and the actual subject matter. Taking it seriously, and realizing that you’re not the center of the universe. People have probably thought your ideas thousands of years ago.
20. What thing do I most treasure in my office? We have this debate whether a person is a thing; [To Janice: “You think a person is a thing.”] I would say her, but I don’t know whether she is a thing.
21. The world’s greatest invention is wine. Wine is dependent on a particular place. It was religiously inspired. It can be as humble as an Italian family’s table wine, or it can be as elevated to Transubstantiation. It is unceasingly interesting; every year it’s different, even from the same vineyard. What I really like about wine is the history of it, because you can have a vine that’s hundreds of years old from the same family, passed down through the generations. I take it as a great metaphor, but also as a great invention. It accelerated life expectancy—it was often the only drinkable substance, since water wasn’t considered safe until we knew about microbes. And to learn how to drink wine properly, not abuse it, is another mark of civilization. It encapsulates a lot of the virtues: perseverance, because you might have to wait decades until the vines bear good fruit; patience, because the wine improves with age; and temperance, because wine can teach us that good things can be enjoyed, in moderation. Benjamin Franklin observed that, while Christ converted water into wine in Cana, the conversion from rain to wine ‘is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes…a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy’. The little miracles are worth celebrating as well.