Today marks the second anniversary of Faith and American History. I began this blog as an expression of an evolving sense of vocation. In my very first post (“Why I am Writing”), I explained the decision to try my hand at a blog in this way:
God calls us, the late Frederick Buechner observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need. “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I am starting this blog out of a sense of God’s calling. I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.
Nearly a hundred essays later, I can’t say that I have generated as much genuine conversation as I would have hoped for. Comments have been pretty scarce, and I’m often left wondering whether my reflections are as useful to others as I wish them to be. At the same time, you have helped me immensely by providing me with an audience to write for, and I am grateful. My sense of calling has not weakened, and I look forward to continuing.
To mark the anniversary, I thought I would go back and identify the most popular essays that I have posted these past two years. In doing so, I discovered that four of the top five share a common theme. Each is a critique of an influential work by a popular Christian writer (or writers) about America’s religious heritage. Three of these came out more than a year ago, at a time when many of you who now follow Faith and American History were not yet subscribers.
So here are links to the fours essays:
In the first essay–by far the most widely-read post I have ever shared–I reviewed the most popular Christian interpretation of U.S. history ever written. (See Thoughts on The Light and the Glory.) Together with the subsequent volumes From Sea to Shining Sea and Sounding Forth the Trumpet, the “God’s Plan for America” Trilogy by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel has sold nearly a million copies and has influenced two generations of American evangelicals. It still figures prominently in Christian home school and private school curricula.
In the second essay I focused on the historically oriented writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, particularly How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, arguably no single individual did more than Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously. This was an invaluable contribution. And yet, as I do my best to explain in “How Should We Then Think About American History?”, Schaeffer fell into the trap that has consistently ensnared well-meaning Christian writing about America’s past.
The third essay turns to two living authors, Steven Wilkins and Doug Wilson. Although not as well known as either Marshall and Manuel or Schaeffer, Wilkins and Wilson have been extremely influential in the home-school and classical Christian school movements. Wilson, furthermore, has achieved a degree of national prominence, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with atheist Christopher Hitchens and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012. Both Wilkins and Wilson lecture and write extensively on history. Perhaps the most controversial work of these unabashedly controversial authors has been their 1996 booklet Southern Slavery As It Was. I offer my two cents worth in “How Not to Argue Historically.”
The final essay takes up the work of popular Christian author David Barton, focusing in particular on his 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. The book’s numerous serious problems have been well documented, but in “What’s Really at Stake in the ‘Christian America’ Debate,” I add to a careful critique of the book’s argument my thoughts on how it reflects on the Gospel.
As you read (or re-read) these four pieces you should notice two recurring patterns:
First, although all of these authors meant well, they erred by linking their defense of Christianity with a particular historical argument about the American past. In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims about America’s past. This was not malevolent. It was, however, tragically misguided.
Second, you’ll notice that none of the authors in question is a trained historian, and most of them were (or are) either full-time or part-time ministers. It would be an exaggeration to say that we evangelicals learn American history primarily from our preachers, but there’s no doubt that the pulpit greatly informs our understanding of the past.
Why this is so is the sixty-four dollar question. The pattern says something about the culture of American evangelicalism, surely. We tend to be skeptical of authority and suspicious of intellectuals, and at times we can value charisma a lot more than credentials. But I think it’s also an indictment on Christian academics like myself, for with a few exceptions, we have thought it was far more important to speak to the Academy than to the Church. I’m sorry about that.