One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Since I almost never read the Times, I was not familiar with Douthat, but I was intrigued by the title and I was encouraged to read it when I spotted endorsements on the back cover by pastor Tim Keller and fellow Wheaton faculty member Alan Jacobs, among others. The thrust of Douthat’s argument is neatly captured in the book’s title: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion,” he contends, “or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” I don’t agree with all of the particulars of the argument, but Bad Religion is engagingly written and thought provoking, and I think there is much in it that American evangelicals need to hear. There are far worse ways to spend your time at Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee, which happens to be my personal “third place”).
If you are interested in the relationship between religious faith and American history—as you probably are if you are reading this blog—I think you would find the book especially intriguing. Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century. Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past. This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history. As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes. More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity.
So which Christian precepts are particularly relevant to the study of the past? Christian historians surely wouldn’t all agree on an answer, and I haven’t arrived at a definitive list myself. Indeed, one of the reasons that I started this blog was to create a context for my own working through the question. (As I stress to my classes, the questions that bring life into the classroom—and with it the potential for life-changing insight—are the questions that we grapple with together.)
For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us. My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification. These twin drives are related, of course. We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves. What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways. Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone. This need not be conscious. It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter. (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”) When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans.
Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant. Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.” Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government. He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.” You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past. One simple example, which Douthat highlights, is the way that we frequently misremember Puritan John Winthrop’s famous allusion to a “city on a hill.” The Massachusetts Bay governor’s allusion is simultaneously one of the most quoted and least understood statements in all of American history. We’ll turn to it next.
Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed 2013!