THOUGHTS ON “THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY”

A reader of this blog recently contacted me (offline) to ask my opinion of the book The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Although I answered her privately, her question is so important that I think it merits a more extended answer here.  The Light and the Glory is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.  It makes sense to share a few thoughts about it, given that this blog is devoted to the question of what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.

Light and the Glory I

Many of you will already know of this work, but for those you who aren’t, here’s a bit of background.

First the authors: A graduate of Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, the late Peter Marshall Jr. was a prominent Presbyterian minister and the founder of “Peter Marshall Ministries,” an organization created to remind Americans of their Christian heritage and “restore America to its Biblical foundations.”  Marshall’s co-author, David Manuel, was an editor at Doubleday Publishing Company before turning to full-time writing.

Next, their published works: In addition to numerous lesser writings, Marshall and Manuel authored three major works, The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.  The first, published in 1977, offers an overview of American history from the voyages of Columbus through the establishment of independence from Britain and the creation of the Constitution.  The second and third, written over the course of the next two decades, sketch the history of the nation from the creation of the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War.

Although the authors went on to produce simplified versions of these works for younger readers, all three books in their original versions feature engaging, accessible prose suitable for juvenile readers on up.  This versatility has assured for them a wide readership among adults and a popular and enduring place in the curriculum of private Christian schools and home schools.  Their combined sales now supposedly approach one million copies and, if correct, this would make the authors far more widely read than any currently living academic Christian historian.

Before offering my own critique, let me stress that there is much that I admire in these works.  Professional historians could learn a thing or two from Marshall and Manuel.  They took the craft of writing seriously.  They understood that historical knowledge, to make a difference in the world, needs to end up between the ears of general readers.  (We academic historians too often think of history as a conversation among ourselves.)  Marshall and Manuel also appreciated that history is, above all, a story, and they intuitively understood the power of narrative to convey important truths.  This is something historians in the Academy used to realize but have long since forgotten.

Finally, I have no doubt that Marshall and Manuel had good intentions.  Although I have known neither personally, I can imagine that it took courage to take the stand that they did.  I suspect that they were on the receiving end of more than their share of criticism and condescension from the surrounding culture.  I have certainly never been as bold as they.

That said, I would not recommend these books.  They are marred by numerous errors of fact and interpretation, far too many to catalog here.  These do not constitute their fatal flaw, however.  The fatal flaw in these works is the authors’ well-meant but misguided decision to ground their religious critique of the contemporary United States in an historical argument about the American past.

Let me elaborate briefly.  As they explain in the introduction to The Light and the Glory, when Marshall and Manuel began writing in the 1970s, they were looking for an explanation for the moral crisis that they believe gripped the nation.  Surveying the national landscape, they saw a once unified nation now bitterly divided over Vietnam, bitterly disillusioned by Watergate, and succumbing to a variety of moral ills such as mounting divorce and sexual permissiveness.  As Christians heartbroken over the trajectory of their country, they sought an explanation.  More specifically, as Christians interested in history (Marshall had been a history major at Yale), they sought an explanation in the past.

The Light and the Glory introduces that explanation.  Marshall and Manuel summarized their thesis in the form of a rhetorical question in the book’s opening pages: “Could it be that we Americans, as a people,” they asked, “were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

The thrust of these two works is to answer that foundational question with a resounding “Yes!”  Condensing dramatically, their argument is that the U. S. had originated as a Christian nation, had had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

Note that most, though not all, of their argument was historical.  Marshall and Manuel’s insistence that God had a special plan for the United States was not a historical conclusion at all.  It was a prophetic declaration, a fact that the authors should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging.  This important exception aside, their interpretation rests squarely on a series of historical claims having to do with the values of the country’s founders and the degree to which succeeding generations did or did not conform to them.

There were other possible approaches.  As a pastor, Marshall simply could have opened his Bible.  Employing scriptural principles as a plumb line, he could have instructed his congregation (and any other audience that would hear him) in the ways that current American values fell short of the scriptural standard, in effect calling them (and the nation) to repentance.  What he and Manuel did, however, was to intertwine that call to repentance with a historical narrative—not a narrative based on divinely revealed biblical history, but a narrative based on the authors’ interpretation of American history.

Why did they do that?  I don’t know what their motives were, but there are two reasons why I think well-meaning Christians in general so frequently do something similar.  First, it may seem to strengthen our argument to other Christians.  When we buttress a religious argument with an interpretation of American history, we simultaneously appeal to two aspects of American Christians’ identity, namely their Christian faith and their American heritage.  Whether they consciously intended this, this is what Marshall and Manuel were doing.  They were calling their audience back in not one, but two respects: back to Biblical principles, and back to the supposed ideals of the American founding.

 Second, well-meaning Christians may also inject historical arguments in their efforts to reach non-Christian audiences in the public square.  For example, in evaluating the moral state of the nation in the 1970s, Marshall and Manuel might have observed that the United States was rejecting God’s standard and simply left it at that.  Their assertion might have pierced the hearts of some believers, but what weight, humanly speaking, would we expect it to have with the broader, unbelieving culture outside the church?

Eventually, Christians who want to have a political impact in the public square always have to confront a momentous question:  Do we ground our arguments solely in explicitly religious principles, or do we seek some sort of “common ground” on which to build arguments that non-Christians might be more open to?  I am not claiming that this is what motivated Marshall and Manuel, but this much is clear: appeals to the American past are one frequent way that American Christians try to influence the contemporary culture without making explicitly religious arguments.

So why was it such a bad idea for Marshall and Manuel to support a religious critique of contemporary America with a historical argument about America’s past?

I can think of three reasons.  First, their approach exacerbates an identity crisis that has long plagued American Christians, American evangelicals especially.  It is always dangerous to link our commitment to Christ too closely with one or more of our other group attachments.  And there is always a temptation to do so.  It is so easy to intertwine our faith with adherence to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example.

When the boundaries between these loyalties become blurred, we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters called “Christianity And.”  By “Christianity And,” Lewis had in mind a state of confusion in which our ultimate identity in Christ becomes inseparable from other kinds of loyalties that can actually take preeminence in our hearts.  When it comes to thinking about the past, I think that “Christianity And” is most often a concern when we grapple with what it means to be both a Christian and an American.  The Marshall and Manuel approach merely feeds this temptation.

Second, there is a way in which the linking of religious argument with historical interpretation can unintentionally promote idolatry.  That’s a strong statement, I know, and I want to stress that this was never Marshall and Manuel’s conscious intent.  In fact, here I have Marshall and Manuel less in mind than more recent writers who regularly appeal to the founders in making arguments about contemporary public policy.  Living as we do in a pluralistic society suspicious of anything that looks like “theocracy,” I understand why it is so tempting to make such arguments.

Advocating that the nation return to the supposed principles of our founding seems like an acceptable way to promote Christian values in public life without making explicitly religious arguments.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it gives moral authority to the founders of our country, and that is simple idolatry.  The founders deserve our respect, unequivocally, but when “What would the Founders do?” becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” we are imputing moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry.  There’s no other word for it.

Third, when Marshall and Manuel linked their religious critique of contemporary America to an interpretation of American history, they effectively backed themselves into a corner that made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their historical interpretation of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretation of the American present.  I cannot emphasize this too strongly: This is a predicament no Christian historian should ever be in.  The truth of Christianity and the authority of Christian principles are not on trial when we debate American history.

21 responses to “THOUGHTS ON “THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY”

  1. I am writing a piece for my own blog about bias in history and googled my way here after looking for The Light and the Glory. The essay is excellent, and kinder to Marshall than I have been myself. Connecting the argument back to Lewis is a quick way to my heart as well. I notice in the critical comments that curious attachment to narrative that will not endure the least pushback, which I have frequently discussed as well. I have become very interested in the social scientists such as Jonathan Haidt researching why it is that we all cling so tenaciously to ideas once they are held. I admit that more reasonable-sounding people like myself may be doing it just as mindlessly, only in better-disguised language.

    The post should be up tonight. I will be linking to this piece. Stop over if you get a chance. I’ve been posting for a decade, so you can pop whatever topic you like in the search box there to see if you’d like to stay.

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  4. Very well done…as usual! I just shared this with many of my evangelical friends who are involved in politics.

  5. I am trying to find biographical information on these two authors. Can anyone direct me?

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  8. I have read and reread “The light & the Glory” and “From Sea to Shining Sea” and find considerable in both books that is applicable to our Nation’s history and our present state of degeneration. The authors may be inaccurate in places as you say, but do you just toss the concept that God was instrumental in the founding of out nation out? In your context, God has nothing to do with us as a nation, just as individual Christians. I firmly believe we started out as a God blessed Christian nation, and that we as a nation have rejected wisdom, moved out of His guidance and protection, and consequently are living with the results of these decisions.

    • Hi, Pete: Thanks for your comment. I think you are reading way too much into my critique of the books. I have never said that “God has nothing to do with us as a nation.” What I have said is that Marshall and Manuel cannot learn from history what God’s special plan for America is. Their declaration about what God’s purposes for America are is not something that history can teach. It is a prophetic declaration. They are engaging not as historians, but as prophets. It is crucial that we remember this distinction. If you want a positive model of the sort of caution I have in mind, you can not improve on the example of William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth colony. When you read Bradford’s famous History of Plymouth Plantation, you will read him observing over and over and over that the events and circumstances that the Pilgrims face are the direct result of God’s action in their lives. What you will NOT find Bradford do is to declare dogmatically what God’s plan for the Pilgrims is or why God is dealing with them as He is. Bradford will speculate, but he will not declare anything to be true that God has not clearly revealed. Frankly, Bradford would have viewed the kind of pronouncements that Marshall and Manuel made as presumption, which the Pilgrims viewed as a sin.

  9. Very much appreciate your writings and ideas, look forward to catching up on all your essays,

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  11. I really don’t read Professor McKenzie suggesting anywhere that Marshall or Manuel asserted a “perfect” understanding of history. Though undoubtedly well meaning, I think he rightly contends that Marshall and Manuel simply “backed themselves in a corner” with their narrative. Just as many modern day Christian American apologists have as well.

    As Professor McKenzie rightly points out, the authority of Christianity is never under attack when we debate American history and as an evangelical myself, I’m deeply troubled when too often I read this type of insinuation. The fact is, there is simply no objective proof of a “inspired” American history. There is just American history. My statement is not intended to deny Providence, rather, it’s just that as someone who has been in and now out of the Christian America camp, as with many areas in my thirty seven years of walking with my Savior, I simply cannot always discern His providential Hand at work. I used to “believe” it was clear in American history, I no longer take that view nor do I need to in order to be effective in political activism.

    Finally, after spending years reading source material about the personalities and events from the founding period – absent a sometimes biased narrative about the events and personalities – God’s Providential Hand in history is no longer as clear as I had wanted it to be. Thankfully, because my understanding of justification, sanctification Et al., were not tied up in any form of patriotic zeal, finding out truths about American history did not challenge anything I believed about Christian truth. I’m afraid that would not be the same for many well-meaning evangelicals in the Christian America camp. Their faith very well could be shaken should they come to learn that neither the Declaration or the Constitution were divinely inspired documents.

    • Your synopsis is typical intellectual narcissism. Do you really think a rag tag militia had a chance of defeating the most powerful army of the day without God’s divine intervention and providence? God had His hand on the founding of this nation from the beginning because of the ideas and dreams and visions that only He could have instilled in the minds of 18th century men. He saw in these men an opportunity to establish a new Jerusalem in a world completely unknown to all mankind. And look to the depths of where we have descended. “and my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land”. 2 Chronicles 7:14. As a people humans haven’t learned a lot through the centuries. From where we came in 1776 (noble and humble and in fear of God) to where we are in 2015 (arrogant, defiant, and self-relient) there is a denial of influence of Deity in the course of human events which is completely in contradiction to words in the Declaration of Independence. And by the way do you really think the feeble minds of men could ever have dreamed up the words and structure of the greatest document ‘man’ ever created?

      Today we murder millions of helpless lives in the womb and ‘marry’ men to men and women to women according to the ordinance of man not according to the ordinance of God and this nation has already been judged and will pay a terrible price because of its mockery of God’s will.

      We have surely disappointed God immensely with our arrogance and know-all, be-all attitude. This book hit the nail right on the head. It is fair game and fodder for your condemnation because you miss the foundational point of faith completely as any intellectual who is full of himself would. God created this country because of His desire to have a safe haven where his believers could fall down and worship him unlike in the cesspools in other parts of the world where worship of idols and false religions prevail because of enforcement by the sword.

      • Dear Mr. Harmon: I would know how to respond more effectively if you had responded specifically to any part of my post. If you re-read my essay, you might notice that, while I questioned the reasoning of Marshall and Manuel, I never attacked their character and even praised them for their courage and honorable intentions. In contrast, you attacked my character in your very first sentence. I’m not sure that that advances the conversation very effectively. TM

  12. I think you are mistaken, I have read there books and in no way have they said they are perfect, in fact the opposite. I think they point out a lot of the problems our fore fathers had, but we did have the best start of any country in history as the founders did try to start our country on many biblical principals.

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  14. God continues to work in history. Explaining how He has done that, as Marshall and Manuel did, does not ,necessarily lead to any of the problems that you mention.

  15. William Redwell

    I read this book with great interest as a teen. Along with similarly accessible and ostensibly thoughtful texts, it left me thirsty for more of the “Christianity and … politics, America, scholarship” mode of thought. The irony is that my faith passed through far greater trials as I got more serious intellectually and found Marshall and Manuel’s, along with others’, arguments falling to pieces. I wish someone had handed me a Reinhold Niebuhr or Mark Noll book, instead.

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  17. I love the last line the most! R

  18. Your last statement is spot on. This is the problem many modern Christian authors end up having in history AND science.

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