In my previous post, I shared my opinion of the fabulously popular Christian interpretation of American history authored by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel. The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet–often packaged together as the “God’s Plan for America” Series–have reportedly sold nearly a million copies combined. If correct, this surely makes the trilogy the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.
As I mentioned, there are aspects of these works that I admire. They are written in narrative prose accessible to a broad audience. They speak to larger questions of being and purpose, acknowledging our natural human longing for something more than the detached perspective of the academic technician. Finally, they take God’s sovereignty over human affairs with admirable seriousness.
And yet their flaws overshadow these strengths. Although I think they are incorrect in many of their factual assertions, I am more concerned with the basic structure of their argument. Simply put, Marshall and Manuel grounded their scriptural critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past. Although I am sure that they meant well, such an approach had three negative consequences.
First, it fed a widespread temptation among American evangelicals to conflate our identity in Christ with our identity as Americans. Second, it reinforced a tendency among well-meaning believers to impute a degree of moral authority to the Founding Fathers than can border on idolatry. Finally, by grounding their religious argument so squarely in their own subjective interpretation of American history, Marshall and Manuel placed themselves in a predicament: any challenge to their assertions about the American past would seem to weaken the force of their Scriptural argument about the present. In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims. This was not malevolent. It was, however, appallingly misguided.
I have focused exclusively on Marshall and Manuel thus far, but we evangelicals frequently adopt this historical approach when we try to do battle with the unbelieving culture around us. David Barton has recently come under a microscope for they way that he has wielded his interpretation of American history as a weapon in the culture wars, but he is only the latest in a long line of Christians (almost always non-historians) who have pursued such a strategy. In the rest of this post, I want to speak to a contemporary of Marshall and Manuel who fashioned a far more sophisticated historical argument but without escaping the same unfortunate consequences.
The person I have in mind is the late evangelical writer and thinker, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). If you are not familiar with Schaeffer and want to learn more, the best place to begin is with Baylor Professor Barry Hankins’ wonderful biography, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmanns, 2008). You can make a compelling case that, from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, no single individual did more than Francis Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.
In books like The God Who is There (1968), Escape from Reason (1968), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972), Schaeffer challenged Christian readers to develop an explicit, internally coherent, scripturally grounded world view as a platform from which to critique and engage the culture. I read these books myself in the early 1990s. A young assistant professor at a secular research university, I was just beginning the long (still far from finished) process of trying to figure out what it means to love God with all my mind, as well as with all my heart, soul, and strength. Schaeffer’s trilogy encouraged and convicted me, less for any of its particular claims than for its implicit message that the life of the mind was important work, and that Christians were called to it. As he did for thousands of others, Schaeffer made me want to continue the arduous work of trying to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.”
And yet Schaeffer ultimately fell into the same trap that ensnared Marshall and Manuel. His early works contained an historical dimension, but they touched lightly on the American past and did not culminate in a clear call to action. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Schaeffer penned a series of books that developed his historical arguments further and sounded a clarion call for Christian activism. What concerned him most was Americans’ growing devaluation of human life, revealed in their acceptance of abortion and openness to euthanasia. Collectively, How Should We Then Live? (1976), Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), and A Christian Manifesto (1981) constituted “a call to culture war,” as Hankins puts it.
Writing at approximately the same time, Marshall and Manuel had explained the sad moral state of the nation in terms of a falling away, a forgetting of God in times of prosperity reminiscent of ancient Israel. Schaeffer’s take was different, if not incompatible. With sweeping generalizations that drove professional historians crazy, Schaeffer explained two thousand years of western intellectual and cultural history in terms of a struggle between world views.
On the one hand is theism. This world view begins with “the God who is there” and understands mankind’s existence and purpose in the light of His revelation. Its irreconcilable antithesis is secular humanism–materialistic, relativistic, nihilistic–a world view that exalts autonomous Man as the center of the universe and the definer of meaning.
Focusing on the last five hundred years, Schaeffer condemned the intellectual currents of the Renaissance and Enlightenment for embracing secular humanism. Thankfully, their disastrous potential had been held in check, at least partially, by the beneficent influence of the Protestant Reformation and its re-invigoration of Christian theism. But the threat posed by secular humanism persisted, and it was growing.
Schaeffer’s primary goal was to pierce the hearts of his readers by engaging their minds, warning them that a culture that embraced relativistic humanism had forfeited any coherent basis for defending the preciousness of the individual. Once transcendent principle had been abandoned, power alone remained, and the society that took such an ominous step had laid itself bare to the inroads of authoritarianism and tyranny. I agree.
Unfortunately, just like Marshall and Manuel, Schaeffer insisted on grounding his religious critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past. Like Marshall and Manuel, albeit with different emphasis, Schaeffer told Americans that the United States had begun as a Christian country.
Placing the greatest stress on intellectual currents, as was his habit, Schaeffer argued that the influence of the Enlightenment on the Founding Fathers had been negligible. Rather, they had been primarily shaped by Reformation thinkers. In calling on Americans to renounce secular humanism, Schaeffer said they need merely return to the foundation on which the nation had been built.
It was at this point that leading evangelical historians began to register their concern. For Christian scholars like Mark Noll (then at Wheaton) and George Marsden (then of Calvin College), the claim that the Founders had been untouched by the Enlightenment ignored extensive evidence to the contrary, whereas evidence that they had been formed by Reformation thinkers was almost non-existent.
Now is not the time to address the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country. (If you would like to dive into that huge question, a good place to start would be John Fea’s Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?) For now, what we need to see is the corner that Schaeffer had backed himself into. Out of a deep religious conviction, he had gone forth to confront the culture about the implications of its secular world view, but in his approach he had so intertwined scriptural and historical arguments that any disagreement with the latter seemed to undermine the former.
As Barry Hankins’ biography relates, for more than a year, Schaeffer, Noll, and Marsden engaged in an extensive correspondence over the accuracy of Schaeffer’s historical claims. Much of the interaction revolved around specific historical points, but another recurring thread in the correspondence centered on Schaeffer’s contention that in publicly challenging his historical interpretation, Marsden and Noll were effectively, if unintentionally, giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
In the end, Schaeffer found it hard to believe that anyone who disputed his view of the American founding could be theologically sound. In a letter to Mark Noll, he bluntly questioned the Wheaton historian’s view of Scripture. In correspondence with an ally, Schaeffer castigated Noll and Marsden as “weak Christians” and lumped them with “those who devaluate the Scripture” and “those who confuse the socialistic program with the kingdom of God.” Such Christian historians had to be challenged, Schaeffer averred, so as not to undermine the ongoing battle “against the collapse of our generation.”
American evangelicals who read such words should shudder. Despite the best of intentions and the most genuine of convictions, Schaeffer had so confused his own subjective interpretation of history with the authority of Christian principles that the two had become inseparable. After nearly two generations of culture war, we are inured to a perpetual bombardment from talk show hosts and pseudo-celebrities who implore us to equate fidelity to Scripture and faithfulness to Christ with a particular interpretation of American history. The result has been to add a man-made layer to the “good news” and to make it harder, not easier for us as Christians to think deeply about the culture we inhabit.
Let us be very careful in how we appeal to the past.