(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.)
Independence Day is only a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding. The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important. I certainly share that view.
As I observed in a previous post, however, we should ask ourselves why it is important to us before we begin to explore the question. Academic historians will tell you that one key to thinking historically about the past is to learn to practice metacognition–a fancy term for thinking about how we are thinking as we are thinking, i.e., learning to become self-aware of the thought processes that we employ in arriving at conclusions. This is necessary because, as a marvelous book by Sam Wineburg demonstrates, historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”
As finite human beings, we live in time and space. We encounter the world, necessarily, from our own limited perspectives. This means, as Wineburg explains, that we naturally make sense of new things by analogy. Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new to us (like an unfamiliar behavior or belief from an earlier time or a different place) we reflexively search for an analogue that we are already familiar with, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it. When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.
The construction of this analogy is natural, and potentially it’s a valuable first step toward understanding, but it comes with risk. Once we recognize something ostensibly familiar in people from the past, we will be tempted simply to label them and move on, to let that first step toward comprehension serve as our final judgment. When we do that, however, we exaggerate the familiar at the expense of the strange, and we misrepresent the people we are trying to understand.
But when we study the past, our hearts are always involved as well as our brains. And so I am convinced that one of the keys to thinking Christianly about the past is to practice greater self-awareness of our hearts as we study and explore. This means, above all, examining our motives: Why are we interested in the topic in the first place? What do we hope to gain by our efforts? Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds? Are we seeking to learn from the historical figures we encounter, or is our real intention (whether we’re aware of it or not) to use them to accomplish our own purposes?
As a Christian, I believe that our sin nature leaves its mark on everything we do, even our study of history. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to view the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways. This means that thinking Christianly about the past–guided by love and humility–is every bit as unnatural as thinking historically. The latter reflects our finiteness; the former results from our fallenness.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that academic historians are immune from this tendency. Nothing could be further from the truth. But my primary burden is not for academic historians. As I shared when I started this blog, my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with the church about the relationship between loving God and learning from history. And so I have a warning to share: be careful of what you read. When it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and the American founding, the work by Christian amateurs caught up in the culture wars has been just as biased and, in my opinion, just as damaging as anything that the secular academy has produced.
Why would I say such a thing? I have previously written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr., David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins erred by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past. These writers inadvertently backed themselves into a corner that it made it impossible for them to admit historical errors. Any mistakes in their interpretations of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretations of the American present. What is worse, in varying degrees these writers conflated the authority of scripture with the force of their own fallible interpretations of American history.
They also modeled what I have labeled the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past. Whether their goal was primarily to motivate the faithful or to do battle with unbelievers, they implicitly thought of history primarily as a source of examples to buttress arguments they were already determined to make. For all his genuine zeal and good intentions, this is precisely true of David Barton as well. The problem with the history-as-ammunition approach is that its goal is not really understanding. It typically emerges from a context of cultural debate, and the goal of debate, as we all know, is to win.
When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, then, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it? And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!” They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place. In the process, however, they actually discourage the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.
What would a different approach look like? The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example. As I mentioned in my last post, an encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church. Younger scholars who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).
The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame. Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman. In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.” The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.
Undertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex. In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories. Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue. Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position. Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.
Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence. The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution? Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit. They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.
Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there. Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms. And yet Noll didn’t stop there. Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?
Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling. To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture. In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round. Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone. Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:
In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling. From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause. Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches. Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.