REVIEWING THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” ARGUMENT

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:

Light and the GloryIn 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.

Christian ManifestoIn 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.

Southern Slavery as It WasThe 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.”

Jefferson Lies IIThe 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.

26 responses to “REVIEWING THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” ARGUMENT

  1. I am a high school history teacher at an international Christian school in Germany and have been greatly impacted by your blog. Clearly I am a few months behind as I am just commenting on this post now but I have read much of what you have written and have been encouraged and stimulated by it. When I read of your disappointment that the blog had not created as many conversations as you had hoped I decided to write in and share that you have certainly impacted my teaching. I even used one of your posts about Christian views of history as a part of my final exam in which the students had to apply one of your ideas, such as loving your neighbor, to a specific historical situation. So while you may not be aware of the conversations you have started be assured that they are happening where you may not expect them. May God bless you as you model Christian service through the life of the mind. On a side note, we may have had some of the same students as many who graduate from here go on Wheaton.

    • Dear Isaac: Thanks so much for contacting me. This is incredibly encouraging. Feel free to e-mail me if you want to share info on specific students who have headed this way. God bless your work, TM

      • Tim Elsenpeter

        In the third paragraph you seem to be discouraged by the lack of response……don’t be.
        You now have 230 signed up (I was 229). Also by looking at the reply dates to this blog post, it is having a continuing impact.
        My pastor shares my passion for our true history, and I just forwarded a link to him.
        This is obviously God’s calling on your life, so let those ‘..who had understanding of the times, and knew what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32. The sons of Issachar), be led to your site. Remember, it was a very small group of men, responding to the scriptures that were found in the temple renovation under Josiah’s reign, that resulted in one of Israel’s revivals. It brought Israel face to face with it’s history and current troubles. God didn’t white wash it with revisionist history, nor did Josiah, Jeremiah or any of the other prophets contemporary to their times.
        In your latest post, you pointed out the popularity of Rush’s books. One of the reasons for that, is that people are tired of being lied to about our history. However you correctly point out, that Rush is engaging in revisionist history as well, however noble may be his motives. As one reads through the scriptures, God doesn’t engage in this type of stuff.
        The testimony of our founding is important for two reasons. 1st so that we can see what they did correctly, and 2nd where they made mistakes. They obviously intended for us to improve upon what they gave us. We can only do that with an accurate picture of them.
        Think of it like testimonies. They all share at least two common factors; Testimonies then and now. Our founders did the best they could in their time. It is now up to us to follow God’s leading in our times. With the exception of understanding how to apply our state and Federal Constitutions, the degree of biblical understanding of our founders is of secondary importance to us today. Your work however, gives us a glimpse of how gracious God has been to America, in spite of our faults.
        It also keeps us from making demigods of them like Rush does, and Barton as well.
        Stay the course, run your race; let God worry about who He uses you to influence.

      • Thanks for these encouraging words and a good reminder, Tim. TM

  2. I’m “just” a homeschool mom and I found your blog a few weeks ago when I was researching Peter Marshall (I just had a nagging little question and had no clue what I was in for!). My nine (yes, nine) children range in ages from 17 down to 1. This year we embarked on a study of American History. I will be honest and say right up front that math is my subject. Second to that is science. History is (or used to be) at the bottom of my list. I stunk at history so badly that in my confusion to understand World War II in high school, I considered that Germany must be on an island. Seriously. I wanted so much better for my children! I wanted to find a curriculum worthy of high school credit for my oldest children. I wanted to find something that integrated multi-media types. I wanted something that was alive, colorful, accurate, and had many voices, especially primary sources. I wanted a curriculum that would teach my children to think critically. Lastly, I wanted something that would view history from a Christian perspective. Alas! I never did find that “perfect” packaged curriculum. I settled on a set of guides by Michelle Miller which lead us through history and my ability to search the internet for more resources. As I prepared for our school year (we are relying on the library for most of our study materials), I found myself heavily researching books recommended by Miller. That led me here. At first I was confused, then I was blown away by what I began to read. I printed off several of my favorite posts so that I could highlight and mark them. In addition to the articles listed here, another of my favorites is “Revisionist History.” I’m guilty of using that phrase. I just want to encourage you and say that you have blown my mind. You have challenged me to view history with a new set of eyes. It IS coming alive for me and my children. I still don’t think I have enough understanding to avoid authors who commit fatal errors such as those above, but I’m aware at least. I now think history is a pretty amazing subject. Keep writing! And if you ever have any recommendations for us homeschooling moms (some of whom may be slightly less academic like me), I will be waiting. Thank you!

    • Thanks for these encouraging words. My wife and I homeschooled our three children, and it is greatly encouraging to hear that you are finding my posts to be practically helpful. God bless you in your labors! TM

  3. Congratulations on your two year anniversary! I relish the fearless, searching brainwork present in these essays. Above all, I appreciate your intellectual honesty. Well done, sir.

  4. I’m also a relative newcomer to your blog and have enjoyed it tremendously. Don’t despair that there’s not a lot of conversation about your posts (if that is what you mean by not generating as much conversation as you would like or had wanted). I don’t find comment threads on web sites to be very practical for carrying on discussions, so unless there’s something that I really, really can’t let go by, I don’t comment much.

    I read “The First Thanksgiving” around the later part of last year and found it be to very enjoyable and very readable. I recommended/linked to it on Facebook because I thought it was so important….the opening pages about the importance of Christians handling history accurately was great stuff. As you have pointed out, history discussions in the conservative evangelical world are often more concerned with the culture wars than a true analysis of history and desiring to learn from or be challenged by people who have gone on before us.

    Keep up the tremendous work!

  5. I’m not sure I’ll communicate this question well…but I’ll try. Given that Christianity exists within history and is based on historical events, and that non-Christians often use historical events as a primary challenge to the validity of Christianity, how does a Christian converse intelligently, persuasively and charitably with outsiders without resorting to “history as ammunition”? My apologies if you’ve already addressed this and I managed to miss it.

  6. This comment is just to inform you that you have readers(at least one!) even from India. I am a christian from south India who enjoys your posts. Thankyou!!

  7. I’m a relative newcomer to your blog, but have enjoyed your posts immensely. Looking forward to what’s next!

  8. Be assured you do have an audience. I knew of your academic work in graduate school and inferred from it at times that you might be a Christian, so reading your posts have been all the more refreshing to me. The academic enterprise by nature can be a bit solitary, and sometimes Christian academics feel as if we are walking in two worlds: the academic world in which we do not quite feel at ease and the faith-based world, in which our friends and co-worshipers equate us with some of the authors you have cited in your posts. Many of us who came of age decades ago had to find our way on our own, unable to articulate our positions effectively in either world. Maybe we felt a vague sense at that we were having to choose between academic integrity and our faith, or at the very least that we did not really have a compass for what you call “thinking Christianly.” As the nation becomes increasingly polarized, this tension may be increasing among rising Christian academics. Quite recently more strident voices have leant themselves to the upholding of an American myth (in the literary sense of the term) with arguments so logically bent that I suspect their proponents think they HAVE to be right at all costs. It is as if their entire existential and epistemological foundation is based on a premise that they have to support regardless of evidence to the contrary. For younger Christians, this line-drawing can create crises that are unnecessary, particularly if they proceed to graduate school. It is very difficult to pursue a Ph.D. without having one’s worldview challenged. You provide a platform that allows Christian academics a thoughtful springboard for our conversations with each other, and that spills over into our pedagogy. I for one have swiped your “history as ammunition” phrase more than once when I explain my approach to history to students at the beginning of each semester. You may not see a lot of online responses, but your thoughts are being passed around my department (ht Paul Thompson), and I strongly suspect that is the case in other departments. Thanks to the Internet, rising Christian academics have the opportunity to operate within a conversation that did not really exist as recently as 15 years ago. Hopefully they can avoid feeling trapped into crises that shouldn’t exist. You are much more charitable than I about these matters. Keep writing! — Paul

  9. I would love to have a real conversation, one that acknowledges the presence of ALL American culture and impact of Christian “Historians”. David Barton is widely known outside of Christian circles as a psuedohistorian. They don’t even use the word Christian to describe him any more. He has not only damaged his reputation, but yours also and you don’t even see it. And it’s not about history – it’s about entangling the church deeply, irrevocalby with politics. History is only one tool, and unfortunatleyYou don’t mention that at all, because you think you can separate yourself and be just a historian. This is all about politics, and either you won’t admit that or your or so hopeless out of touch with the American culture you fail to see it. History is being used as a cudgel to gain political power and you will either be complicit in that, and train christian students to be complicit in that, or you will stand by and watch it happen. If you knew anything at all about modern christian history you would know about dominionism. You would know about the role it is playing in the modern church and politics. If you don’t you are talking about current events involving the church and its history blindly. I grew up in the evangelical church. I accepted christ when I was 5. I never missed a Sunday for 30 years. The ravages of politics on the church, on the its members pains me deeply. This effort of rewriting history, of twisting yourself into knots for the likes of David Barton and others about a “Christian Nation” makes me ill. I have sat through Schaeffer’s Video series more than once. For a counter take on that go to Youtube and listen to his son’s testimony about growing up with his father and what it did to his soul after they sold out to the Republican party. Yes I said sold out, because that is exactly what happen. You either fail to understand the influence of politics on the church, or you are so saturated in that culture that you cannot see it. I have seen first hand the homeschool method of classical connections. It is a politically driven method that doesn’t use any researched based tools or methods. Their motto is, “If I can’t teach it using a stick to draw it in the sand on the ground then I shouldn’t be teaching it” Seriously – they eschew teaching with technology. No technology. No computers. No overheads. No calculators. So much for any advanced math or science. Really. Their main teaching point on Ronald Reagan? He advanced conservatism! Yeah! I love the church, I know it doesn’t seem like, I get that. I know I seem hostile. That’s why I don’t go to church, because I would be a stone in the shoe of any church I went to. The church is, I’m going to say it, you won’t agree with, you’ll say my church isn’t like that, but I’ll say it anyway -The Church Is Morally Sick- and you have been forced into indefensible positions because of it. I’m sorry. I fled the church because the only answers to my pleas for help were, “read the bible and pray” I fled the church when I heard sermons justifying slavery based on the story of abraham and hagar. I fled the church when a pastor stopped a sermon and took a man who was suspected of being gay, marched him to edge of the church property and told him never to come back. I fled the church because I was abused as a young child and when my parents asked the church elders what to do they said nothing. I spent my childhood in torment and silence because I had been deeply hurt and it was if it had never happened. When I asked why nothing was done I was told that God’s Justice was the best, better than man’s justice. Do you think I am the only one? There are hundred’s of support groups for people like me. There are academic studies on people like me. There are psychologists who only treat people like me – people who have left the evangelical church.
    All of this, All of this comes from the same theologies, philosophies, and politics that are twisting the interpretation of history. It is all connected. Listen to Schaeffer’s son to understand the deliberate stalking of the evangelical church by immoral politicians for their own gain.
    When you are ready for a real conversation you must be willing to talk about politics. When you are ready for a real conversation you must education yourself about dominionism. It is real, Read about IHOP in Kansas (Not the Pancake house). This is not all some bs conspiracy theory. This is the history of your church, your profession even. You can talk about the lame stream media, but before you do listen to Schaeffer’s son. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Xy9gwn18qM I want you to know how much I value what you do. I go my degree at the University of Washington, probably while you were teaching there. The things I learned there, I value so much. My world was opened up, reading those original documents, seeing art painted hundreds of years ago, making the connections between thinkers, seeing our own culture and then like a flash there’s a image from 1500 years ago. These ideas are strung together. I learned that from people like you. Our ability to process our modern world is built on all of the thinking and creating and doing of the past. I want to have conversations with you, but if you think that conversation is only about a christian world view of history and you can ignore the rest of the world and world events then there is no conversation. Lisa

    • Dear Lisa:

      I apologize for not responding sooner. The last week has been very busy and I have not wanted to reply in haste. I am not sure that this medium is the best for responding to your comment, but I will try my best to do so.

      First, Thank you for your candor. I am profoundly sorry for the awful things you have experienced and for the ongoing pain and disillusionment that those experiences have caused. I am tempted to stop right there, as proceeding to engage logically with the totality of your comment may come across as insensitive to the emotional pain that you have suffered. At the same time, to stop at this point might seem to be dismissive of your larger argument, and I don’t want to do that either. So here goes.

      Actually, I am well aware of much that you claim I am blind to. I certainly am conscious of the opinion of David Barton outside of conservative evangelical circles. I am likewise fully aware that there is a political dimension to his thinking–as there is in varying degrees across the range of voices that have weighed in on the “Christian America” debate. I am also pretty conversant with dominionism. I even know quite a bit about the homeschooling movement, having homeschooled my own kids, taught regularly in a home-school co-op, and spoken occasionally at homeschooling conferences.

      I started this blog largely because of the perspective that those experiences gave me. For years, I have been grieved that so many conservative evangelicals have been deeply influenced in their thinking about American history by writers like Barton, Francis Schaeffer, and Peter Marshall Jr. As a Christian historian, I had two main options: 1) I could lament this sad state of affairs but resign myself to it, or 2) I could try to do something about it. I have chosen the latter course.

      Where you and I disagree most clearly, it seems to me, is what ought to be done. You suggest that the debate over America’s religious roots is not about history at all but about politics. I disagree, in part. Are political motives often at play? Of course. That is why time after time I have warned readers of the danger of simply using historical arguments as ammunition in support of political or personal agendas. But I reject the view that our differences about the past are WHOLLY contemporary political differences in disguise. Such a view is fatal to the life of the mind. Ironically, your view that Barton’s interpretation of American history is simply a cover for a political agenda perfectly mirrors the view of many of Barton’s followers who believe that historians who deny America’s Christian past are simply “lying” in order to promote a secular agenda. When every intellectual claim is dismissed as a screen for some more fundamental ideological commitment, we have more or less given up on the power of ideas and rational argument to make a difference in the world.

      I don’t think much good would be served by my attacking the character of Barton, Schaeffer and company. There are plenty of others in the blogosphere more than happy to do that. Whether they make it explicit or not, every person who writes a blog inevitably envisions a target audience. Mine is the Christian reader who cares about American history and is willing to be open-minded. I’m a teacher in every fiber of my being, and I’ve always believed that you teach by example as much as by instruction. We live in a culture that is short on civility. Attacking someone as an idiot or a scoundrel is easy. Real intellectual engagement is hard. I am trying, imperfectly I know, to model the latter.

  10. This made me realise my lack of consideration in never posting a comment before on this blog. I found it about a year ago, and have read with pleasure each post ever since. I have even begun my own commonplace book to begin my journey of Christian and academic historian. As a researcher in history at Sydney University it – and John Fea’s ‘What is History’ – has been cool water for my thirst to live out my love of God and my love of history. I run a ‘Christian Minds in History’ group that has members from the evangelical group of students, and often encourage them with these posts. I have also felt deep disappointment at the lack of conversation generated from this group, or interest in a community of undergraduate scholars, as many Christians are too busy serving in their church, and subconsciously take for granted that we must prioritise group bible studies, and church-related activities over working out our salvation in the life of the mind. So this blog is a great encouragement and has taught me so much about why God might have given me a deep gladness in studying the past, and an urgency about the need to investigate it: thank you for going before me in this and sharing your gifts of wisdom and discernment here.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Esther. I can’t tell you how encouraging this is. May God bless your work in Australia! TM

  11. Thank you for your two years of blogging. As a fellow Christian historian at another Christian college, I really appreciate your measured, Christian, and academic approach to many relevant issues. I am beginning to refer students and colleagues to your blog. On one or two occasions I have printed out and Xeroxed a post for my students to read. I believe your blogging is serving the end to which it was originally intended.

  12. The value of these blogs to me is to reinforce the need to read carefully and think historically when considering how history is represented by Christian authors. It seems clear to me that when we set out to use history to prove or support some theory (such as that American was founded as a Christian nation), we place ourselves on a slippery slope that can easily take us into the error you describe in this blog. The fact that this may not matter to many suggests a sense that propaganda is more important than truth. Perhaps many Christians have bought into the notion that all truth is relative.

  13. I for one am thrilled that I recently found your website. Evangelicals have a great deal of work to do to recover the actual history of the founding era vs. the hyper-spiritualized, pseudo-nostalgic history that they have embraced heretofore. I sincerely look forward to more of your writings.

  14. Richard Lindberg

    I have not read all your posts, but I have thought that the ones I have read have been rooted in sound historical judgment and sound theological reasoning. I’m glad you respond to the sloppy historical writing of some Christians.

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