In a recent post (see “Summer Reading on Faith and the Founding“), I shared my impression that Christians who are interested in American history seem to be especially interested in the relationship between Christianity and the American founding. “Was the United States founded as a Christian nation?” they want to know. “Was it founded by Christians and based on Christian principles?”
These are great questions, and it is good for us to ask them. Among its many functions, history is a story about who we are and where we come from, and it is right and proper for American Christians to want to know the role that Christian faith has played in the American past. This natural curiosity drives much of the interest in the nature of the American Revolution, which I have touched on previously. It also under girds the persistent interest in the influence of Christian principles in the creation of the U. S. Constitution–a question to which I would now like to turn.
I would like to explore this question with you over the next several posts, but before diving into it fully I want to share a word of caution: the question is a minefield. I have written before that we always face two primary obstacles in our quest for historical understanding: our finiteness and our fallenness. The former means that we will necessarily write from a less than omniscient perspective. Thanks to the unbridgeable chasm of time, the fading of memory, and our dependence on evidence that is flawed and invariably incomplete, our understanding will necessarily be limited and imperfect. The realistic historian always echoes Paul’s realization in I Corinthians 13–for now, we see as through a glass, darkly.
If the first obstacle centers around problems with historical evidence, the second concerns problems with the historian. In our fallenness, we will always be tempted to interpret the past in ways that further our own agendas. Our agendas don’t have to be evil–they may, in fact, be quite noble–but the temptation (conscious or unconscious) to find what we are looking for in the past–whether it is really there or not–affects us all.
I stress this point because popular Christian writers often seem to forget it. My latest summer reading has been David Barton’s recent controversial book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. I will probably share my thoughts on this work more systematically before the summer is over. In this context I’ll just call attention to the title, which neatly captures the book’s tone. As Barton explains it, there are only two reasons why anyone would disagree with his portrayal of Jefferson: they are either ignorant or dishonest. The book’s title underscores the latter. The subtext of the book is the not so subtle message that anyone equally zealous for the truth and committed to intellectual honesty will arrive at the same conclusions as the author. To persist in disagreeing is to come under judgment.
As I have noted before (see “The American Revolution and the Church“), part of learning to study the past Christianly is developing the habit of monitoring our motives for study in the first place. Why are we interested in the topic? What do we hope to gain by our efforts? Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds? I have already written of the temptation to study the past in search of ammunition for contemporary political or cultural debates. Let me conclude this first post in the series by calling attention to another common pitfall that might ensnare us unless we are careful. I will do so by quoting from my forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What The Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (Intervarsity Press):
This pitfall “is the tendency to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. Although we may not realize it, a sense of the past is integral to our sense of personal identity. As human beings, we answer the question “who am I?” at least in part with reference to the past, to our origins as well as to those experiences we perceive to have shaped us. We also routinely recast the question to ask “who are we?”–defining ourselves in part by the groups to which we belong. In some instances, though not all, the meaning that we impute to these groups will be related to our sense of their collective history. The list of possible affiliations is extensive. To begin with, if we are serious about following Christ, we will surely define ourselves as Christians. Depending on our circumstances, however, we can also define ourselves, in addition, as members of a particular family, denomination, class, sex, race, or ethnic group; as products of a certain neighborhood, school, region, or country; as practitioners of a specific craft or profession or trade.
“This much is all natural and potentially quite innocent. The problem as C. S. Lewis’s fictional devil Screwtape understood, is when we 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, especially with those attachments we hold most dear. Life is much simpler when the various facets of our identity are reinforcing rather than competing. Yet when the boundaries between them become blurred, we fall prey to what Lewis called “Christianity And,” a state of confusion in which it becomes easy to mix up means and ends and increasingly difficult to think clearly about the world around us. We can all probably think of examples of what this might look like: 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 it comes to thinking about the past, however, 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. I share this caution, let me hasten to add, as someone who is profoundly thankful to have been born in the United States, as the proud son and grandson of ancestors who fought in two world wars in defense of this country. This family history makes me sympathetic with the desire to see our national and religious identities as perfectly reconcilable. Yet as a Christian, I agree with Lewis that the temptation to equate them–to think of patriotism and piety as two sides of the same coin–can lead us down the path of idolatry. As a historian, I further understand that whether we hold these aspects of our identity in tension or view them as interchangeable will depend, in large measure, on our understanding of the American past.”