Monthly Archives: June 2016


Independence Day is almost here, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about the latest book from Eric Metaxas, just out this month: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  If you’re not familiar with him, Metaxas is a “cultural commentator” or public intellectual, a best-selling author, and the host of a daily radio program, “The Eric Metaxas Show.”  The book’s title comes from a (possibly apocryphal) observation from Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional convention in Philadelphia.  As the story goes, an interested citizen approached the aged Franklin and inquired, “Well, doctor, what have we got?  A republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin is supposed to have answered, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”  Metexas builds on Franklin’s words to underscore the fragility of liberty and to make a case for how Americans might best nurture it today.  The book offers some timely reminders, but its grasp of American history is weak, and the theological implications of its argument are frightening.  Read on, if you want to learn more.


The inside flap of the book jacket of If You Can Keep It describes the work as “an extraordinary book that is part history and part rousing call to arms, steeped in a critical analysis of our founding fathers’ original intentions for America.”   This is partially true.  It certainly makes a semi-historically-informed argument about what America should be in 2016 and how that might be accomplished.  And so yes, it is “part history and part rousing” exhortation to its readers.  (The “call to arms” phrase is misleading, as Metaxas consistently, and appropriately, avoids appeals to “take back America” and similar phrases borrowed from the culture wars.)  But the claim that the book offers “critical analysis” of the values and worldview of the Founders overstates the case, and by more than a little.  The book is sprinkled with valuable food for thought and more than a few important historical truths, but these are offset by egregious flaws, including both serious misunderstandings of colonial and Revolutionary America and a dangerous conflation of the nation and the Church.  In the end, I cannot recommend If You Can Keep It, although it contains elements that are worthy of our attention.

Let’s start with what is good.  Metaxas asks undeniably important questions.  (What did “America” mean at the founding?  What did the Founders believe in and hope for?  How might the promise of America be furthered by our own generation?)  He writes for a broad audience, rather than for other cultural elites.  He dares to bring a faith perspective to bear, not hesitating to acknowledge his own Christian commitments.  He values the insights of history and wants to bring the present into conversation with the past.  None of this is surprising given his previous books, most notably his popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.

Boiled down, Metaxas has two main points to make, and each is worth making.  First, liberty is fragile, and we must perpetually dedicate and rededicate ourselves to nurture and preserve it.  This was essentially Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 message to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, an address that I blogged about extensively at the beginning of the summer.  (See, in particular, here and here.)  The survival of American democracy is not inevitable.  We cannot take it for granted.  And should it ever collapse, we Americans will be far more responsible for that tragedy than any external foe.

Second, the Founding Fathers knew exactly what was necessary for government of the people, by the people, and for the people to survive and flourish.  (For some unknown reason, Metaxas repeatedly refers to the Founders’ “secret formula,” although the Founders were not remotely coy about what their experiment in liberty would require to succeed.)  Here Metaxas basically reiterates what Os Guinness calls the “golden triangle of freedom.”  Like a three-legged stool, it has three equally essential components.  The Founders believed that (1) freedom requires virtue, (2) virtue requires religious faith, and (3) religious faith requires freedom.  We could complicate these generalizations greatly, but the basic pattern is historically sound.  Guinness made the case well in A Free People’s Suicide (which I reviewed here) and although Metaxas does little more than restate it, I suppose you could say that we can’t hear such a crucial reminder too often.

Beyond these two important truths, Metaxas makes several suggestions that 21st-century Americans need to consider.  In one chapter, for example, he argues that societies need heroes in order to promote virtue, and he offers some interesting speculation as to why contemporary Americans tend to sneer not only at heroes but at the very idea of the heroic.  Another entire chapter focuses on the critical importance of moral leaders to any society laboring to preserve the fragile blessings of liberty.  (The relevance for the current presidential campaign goes without saying.)

Metaxas also makes a compelling case for the importance of civic ceremonies, especially at the local community level.  Perhaps reflecting his background as an English major at Yale, Metaxas also offers some intriguing suggestions about the importance of literature for building civic-mindedness, and he remembers fondly the old days when schoolchildren memorized historical odes like Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  (There are echoes here of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues.)  Tying all these suggestions together is Metaxas’ belief that Americans need to fall in love again with America.  As I said, there is much food for thought here, and there would be worse ways to celebrate American independence than pondering Metaxas’ exhortations.

And yet the book’s flaws are huge.  I could go on at some length, but instead I’ll zero in on the two most glaring problems: (1) Metaxas repeatedly misrepresents the values of colonial and Revolutionary Americans which he looks to for wisdom, and (2) he consistently blurs the line between sacred and secular, conflating Christianity and democracy and confusing the role of the Church with the purported “mission” of the United States.

Let’s start with Metaxas’ understanding of colonial and Revolutionary America.  Metaxas repeatedly imputes to key figures of the 17th and 18th centuries values that were foreign to that era.  Here are two key examples:

* Metaxas insists that a commitment to religious liberty was not only nearly universal by the time of the creation of the Constitution, but that it had prevailed since the first arrival of European settlers.  “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620,” he writes, “religious freedom and religious tolerance [not the same thing, by the way] have been the single most important principle of American life.”

This is astoundingly incorrect.  The Pilgrims did not come to America “because they were being persecuted for their faith,” nor were they remotely committed to religious freedom in the colony that they established.  The laws of Plymouth Colony prescribed fines or corporal punishment for neglecting public worship, for swearing or cursing by the name of God, for “vilifying” any church ministry or ordinance, for denying “the Scriptures to be a rule of life,” and for hosting or entertaining Quakers, whose heterodox beliefs would get them banished.

Although the trend over the next century and a half would be toward ever greater religious toleration, as late as 1776 most of the thirteen colonies still had government-recognized, legally established denominations, and long after the creation of the Constitution most states barred atheists (and sometimes Jews) from holding office.  This was not hypocrisy or inconsistency on their part, but rather reflects the reality that they understood religious liberty very differently than we do.

* Second, the author also exaggerates the Founders’ commitment to democracy and faith in popular virtue.  He is right that the Founders believed that “in the wrong hands [freedom] can be positively dangerous,” but it is misleading to claim simply that “the founders knew and trusted that the citizens . . . were prepared for what they had been given.”  As James Madison noted in Federalist no. 55, republican government (i.e., government grounded in the consent of the governed) intrinsically presupposes a greater confidence in the people than monarchy does, but the Founders’ understanding of human nature is best described as skeptical: hoping for the best, but keenly aware of humans’ fallenness and foibles.  The Constitution’s framers went to great lengths to limit the popular influence of the governed, and then they instituted elaborate checks and balances to mitigate the abuse of power by the government itself.

In addition to misrepresenting the world of colonial and Revolutionary America, Metaxas also dangerously conflates the role of the church and the mission of the state, effectively describing the United States in near messianic terms.  The pattern emerges in the book’s earliest pages, when Metaxas badly misreads Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s famous exhortation in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”

I have noted before that Winthrop’s statement to his congregation that “we shall be as a city on a hill” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in American literature, and Metaxas, like so many before him, gets it wrong.  To begin with, he alters the quote, repeatedly suggesting that Winthrop referred to his colony as “a shining city on a hill.” The adjective was added by Ronald Reagan three and a half centuries later, and it wholly changed Winthrop’s meaning.  The Massachusetts Bay governor was not declaring that the colony would be a model to the world, but rather that however it behaved—whether nobly or meanly—its success or failure could not be hidden.  What is worse, Metaxas entirely passes over the reality that Winthrop was not remotely talking about the mission of a future nation-state but about the particular Christian community that he led.

This conflation of the church and the nation characterizes the rest of the book.  In defining (and I would say, exaggerating) the cultural influence of evangelist George Whitefield, Metaxas says that Whitefield’s preaching had the effect of turning colonists into Americans.  To be an American (not a Christian, but an American), was to accept certain religious truths about one’s status in God’s eyes.  As Metaxas concludes in summing up Whitefield’s significance, “the Gospel of Christ . . . created an American people.”  Strange, I somehow thought that Jesus promised to build his Church on that foundation, but I guess he meant the United States.

Although Metaxas focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary eras, he does allow Abraham Lincoln to join the conversation as well.  As it turns out, Lincoln agreed with John Winthrop that the United States has a “holy calling” to be an example to the world.  Minimally encumbered by evidence, Metaxas notes that Lincoln understood that “America had been called by God,” and that “to be chosen by God—as the Jews had been chosen by God, . . . and as the messiah had been chosen by God,” was a “profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”  I’m not sure which is scarier: the analogy of the United States to Israel—God’s new chosen people—or the analogy of the United States to Christ.

The latter reminds me of a trenchant observation in Hugh Heclo’s fine book Christianity and American Democracy:  “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes.  “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”


[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  With politically-minded evangelicals like David Barton and Dan Fisher praising the role of preachers in supporting the cause of American independence in 1776, I thought it a good idea to revisit James Byrd’s systematic study of how patriots appealed to Scripture during the Revolution.  While Barton, Fisher et al contend that the Bible shaped colonial pastors’ politics, Byrd finds evidence to suggest that the opposite was at least equally true.]


James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.

Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There’s a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It’s good for bludgeoning opponents with, but it positively discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.

Sacred ScriptureIn contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that “preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America.” And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how that it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.

Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of “how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them.”

Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in the scripture “a vast assemblage of war stories” relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the “man after God’s own heart.” Ministers read each of these stories analogically and drew lessons from them. The Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites’ subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Cannaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists’ righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)

To the patriotic ministers who declared them from the pulpit, the lessons embedded in these stories were indisputable. God championed the cause of independence. A warrior who liberated his people by means of war, the Lord clearly sanctioned violence in the pursuit of freedom. Furthermore, he would intervene on their behalf, and with God on their side, the ill-trained and poorly equipped patriots would be victorious. This meant that loyalism was rebellion against God, and pacifism was “sinful cowardice.” Had not the angel of the Lord cursed the people of Meroz because they did not come “to the help of the Lord against the mighty” (Judges 5:23)? Had not the prophet Jeremiah thundered, “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood” (Jer. 48:10)?

If the biblical argument in support of the Revolution was to succeed, of course, patriot ministers knew that they must buttress these arguments with support from the New Testament. This was no simple task, inasmuch as the apostles Peter and Paul both seemed to condemn rebellion and teach submission to rulers as a Christian’s duty. Paul enjoined the church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); Peter commanded Christians to “honor the king” (I Peter 2:17b). Neither admonition seemed to leave much room for righteous resistance to civil authority.

Advocates of independence countered, however, that these passages only commanded obedience to rulers who were ministers of God “for good,” and since liberty was self-evidently good, the apostles could not possibly be calling for submission to tyrants. They reassured their flocks, furthermore, by repeatedly citing one of the few unambiguous endorsements of liberty in the New Testament. “Stand fast,” Paul had counseled the churches of Galatia, “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). The liberty Paul had in mind was civil as well as religious, ministers insisted, which meant that the refusal to “stand fast” with the patriot cause was nothing less than “a sin against the express command of God.”

Three overarching patterns emerge from Byrd’s study that should trouble Christian readers. First, the influence of political ideology and historical circumstance in shaping the colonists’ interpretation of scripture is striking. Traced to its roots, the colonists’ conviction that civil liberty is a God-given right owed more to the Enlightenment than to orthodox Christian teaching, and yet the belief strongly informed how colonists understood the Word of God. Reading the scripture through the lens of republican ideology, they discovered “a patriotic Bible” perfect for promoting “patriotic zeal.”

Second, the readiness with which Christian advocates of independence sanctified violence is disturbing. “Colonial preachers did not shy away from biblical violence,” Byrd finds. “They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms.”

Third, and most ominously, the evidence suggests that the way patriotic ministers portrayed the military conflict with Britain morphed rapidly from merely a “just war”—a war originated for a morally defensible cause and fought according to moral criteria—into a “sacred” or “holy war”—a struggle “executed with divine vengeance upon the minions of Satan.” Patriotism and Christianity had become inseparable, almost indistinguishable.

Byrd writes with restraint and offers little commentary on his findings, but the implications for American Christians are sobering and the stakes are high. As Byrd acknowledges in his conclusion, over time the United States has come “to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars.” American Christians have played a major role in that process of national self-definition, all too regularly sanctifying the nation’s military conflicts as sacred struggles.

Historian Mark Noll has lamented that by the time of the American Revolution “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” not the other way around. With painstaking thoroughness, James Byrd reaffirms that conclusion, showing that the pattern even defined how revolutionary-era Christians read their Bibles and thought


[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.]


Independence Day is less than 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.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, however, 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.  There are many that I could cite.  An encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among accomplished Christian scholars to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger historians 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.

Christians in the American RevolutionUndertaking 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.


This weekend I caught a showing of The Free State of Jones, a movie about a comparatively unknown chapter in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, starring Matthew McConaughey.  Since I’ve spent nearly three decades teaching and writing about this period of American history, I thought I should check it out.

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I should say up front that, as a historian, I have a love/hate relationship with historical movies.  On the one hand, I’m generally thankful for any cultural influence that directs our attention to the past.  If a fraction of the viewers who turn out to see Free State are inspired to dig deeper—maybe even to read a serious work of history about the period—then I suppose I should be thankful, and to a degree, I am.

On the other hand, however, the medium is generally bad at conveying complexity—and history is nothing if not complex—while the need to turn a profit reinforces the tendency to emphasize entertainment at the expense of accuracy.  I know I should be thankful when Hollywood encourages us to pay attention to the past, but I am always left wondering whether the movie in question does more harm than good.  In particular, I worry about the implicit lessons that historical movies teach us about what history is and what it means to think historically.

At bottom, I think there are two common audience reactions to movies that claim to be “based on a true story,” and neither one of them is good.  The first is to take the claim at face value and assume that, in watching the movie, we have just learned something reliable about the past.  I’m reminded of a story that Sam Wineburg tells in his wonderful book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg, an educational psychologist at Stanford who has spent most of his professional career studying how we think and learn about the past, tells a story of watching the movie Schindler’s List when it first debuted.  When the heart-wrenching film about the holocaust had ended and the subdued audience began to file silently out of the theater, Wineburg heard one viewer whisper to his wife, “I never understood what happened then until now, right now.  Now, I know.”

This scares me.  I worry that our entertainment-obsessed culture will only take the past seriously when it is packaged in two-hour-length segments of gripping entertainment.  And I worry even more that we will confuse these two-hour-length segments for the past itself.  History is not the past but an argument about the past, ideally grounded in logically compelling historical evidence.  Historians don’t discover the past “as it actually was” in the archives; we do our best painstakingly to recreate it, weaving interpretations that are always imperfect and always debatable.  Any movie “based on a true story” is similarly offering an interpretation, with the difference that there won’t be footnotes and a bibliography; we’ll be invited to accept the interpretation on faith.

So one common response is to take the claim of historical accuracy at face value and assume that we are learning something true; the other is to take the claim at face value and question whether accuracy even matters.  Read the “critical reviews” that have appeared over the past few days and you’ll find that this is the ubiquitous message.  Reviewers praise the movie for director Gary Ross’s “unusual respect for historical truth” and then move directly to the political implications of the movie’s message or the quality of its artistry.  Did the pacing lag?  Was the plot too sprawling?  Was McConaughey really wearing dental prosthetics?  “Of course,” I can hear you replying.  “That’s what movie critics do.”  But when a movie claims to be teaching us about the past, I fear that critics’ calculated indifference to historical accuracy reinforces one of the besetting historical sins of our culture: to evaluate history on the basis of its artistry or political usefulness, rather than its truthfulness.

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Oh well—end of sermonette—let’s talk about The Free State of Jones.  The movie focuses on an area in southeastern Mississippi that became famous for its resistance to Confederate authority.  The soil in this region of Mississippi was not well-suited to the production of cash crops, and most of the white families who settled Jones County were small farmers who concentrated on livestock growing and had little connection to slavery or the cotton economy.  When the state held a referendum on secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the white male voters of the county originally opposed secession by a large majority, but when the state as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed disunion, they quickly fell into line.

The exigencies of war have a way of exposing the faults lines of communities at war, however, and pretty soon the support of Jones County’s yeomen for the Confederacy began to erode.  The imposition of conscription in the spring of 1862 had a lot to do with this, as did the subsequent passage by the Confederate Congress of a ten-percent “tax-in-kind” on all agricultural products.  Soon, the white yeomen of the region believed that they were caught up in a “rich man’s war” in which slaveless farmers would be forced into military service while their families were brought to the brink of starvation by a heartless government interested only in the welfare of large plantation owners.

Over time, more and more of the white Confederate soldiers of Jones County fled the front lines and returned home.  These deserters would provide for their families as best as they could, and “lie out” in nearby woods and swamps whenever Confederate troops were rumored to be nearby.  Increasingly, they also interfered with Confederate tax agents sent to confiscate a portion of their crops and livestock.  Eventually, their resistance to Confederate authority became more organized, thanks in part to the leadership of farmer Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey).  When Confederate authorities sent troops into the region to regain control, Knight’s band participated in a series of bloody skirmishes.  Whether Knight and his “company” ever formally declared their independence from the Confederacy is highly debatable, but their disenchantment with the Confederacy and willingness to resist Confederate authority with force is undeniable.

So what is the historical value of The Free State of Jones?  I have taught a course on the American Civil War a couple of dozen times over the years, and one of the themes that I stress in each one is that we cannot begin to understand the Civil War accurately as long as we see it as a straightforward struggle between a unified South and a unified North.  Both regions experienced extensive internal dissent, and coming to grips with this transforms our understanding of the war’s contemporary and long-term significance.  The Free State of Jones explodes the myth of a solid Civil-War South, and I think that’s valuable.

A second theme that I always stress in Civil War courses is that, while northern victory resulted in the end of slavery, the question of what “freedom” would mean for former slaves was not remotely settled when Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, nor would it be settled for decades to come.  At least a third of The Free State of Jones involves the post-war Reconstruction era—a period Hollywood almost never acknowledges—and the movie effectively hammers home the reality that the official demise of slavery did little to weakens the ubiquitous racism that had been a bulwark of slavery for at least a century and a half.  This also, is valuable.

But the movie is also full of all kinds of historical inaccuracies and outright silliness.  Many of the movie’s errors are trivial:  the real Newton Knight was 24 years old in 1862 when the movie begins, about half as old as Matthew McConaughey.  A villainous Confederate colonel wears three stars on his collar, which was the insignia of a lieutenant general.  At a poignant moment in the movie, Knight’s followers lower a Confederate battle flag that is ubiquitous today but would not have flown over a Mississippi courthouse in 1864. (The flag was primarily employed by the Army of Northern Virginia during the war and did not become synonymous with the Confederacy until the 1920s.)  Not much here to get worked up about.

Other of the movie’s inaccuracies probably help to make the movie more entertaining. The best example here would be the battle scenes.  According to Victoria Bynum, the historian who is by far the leading expert on Jones County’s civil war, there were at least a dozen skirmishes between Knight’s followers and Confederate troops during the latter half of the Civil War, but they were invariably small affairs involving a few dozen individuals at most and never exacting more than a handful of casualties.  One of the first major “battles,” for example, just before Christmas 1863, resulted in Confederate casualties of one dead and two wounded.  I assume that in a culture utterly inured to violence, director Gary Ross thought that the less bloody reality would simply bore the audience.

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If the battles in Jones County were typically small skirmishes, they also mostly pitted white males against white males, with few exceptions.  The film, on the other hand, insists on portraying Knight’s band as a “racially and sexually integrated paramilitary utopia,” in the words of one trenchant review.  This is Hollywood fabrication.  Bynum stresses that both enslaved blacks and white women were important to the success of the Jones County resistance, but in ways that, while still heroic, were more prosaic.  Both slaves and the resisters’ wives supported Knight’s company in invaluable ways, but primarily by smuggling food to the deserters when they were lying out and by alerting them to the approach of Confederate soldiers.  Director Gary Ross has them in the thick of the fighting.

The most ridiculous scene in the movie comes when Knight has planned an ambush of Confederate soldiers monitoring the funeral of a recently-hanged deserter.  The funeral procession consists primarily of middle-aged farm wives who, when the signal is given, pull revolvers from their shawls and, quite literally, begin blowing the heads off of Rebel soldiers at point-blank range.  The later portrayal of a shoot-out at the county seat features rifle-toting wives in their bonnets charging Rebel troops, loading cannon, and otherwise striking fear into the heart of the Confederate army.  This is manufactured out of whole cloth.

THE FREE STATE OF JONESWhat bothers me most about the movie, however, is not the minor inaccuracies or even the inanities but the egregious way that Ross has made the entire story into a simplistic morality play.  Newton Knight is delivered to us as a noble Robin Hood with twenty-first century racial sensibilities who would probably be a Sanders supporter if he were alive today.  The real Newton Knight did father at least five children with a former slave who became his common-law wife, but the movie’s depiction of Knight’s racial views is almost entirely conjecture, and Ross has chosen to skip over well documented episodes in Knight’s life that would complicate his heroic persona.  (There is evidence that he murdered his brother-in-law in cold blood during the war, for example, as well as testimony suggesting that he urged his mixed-race children to “pass” as white rather than challenge southern mores unnecessarily.)  On the other hand, every Confederate character in the movie is either a non-entity (enlisted men with no lines) or smarmy villains devoid of decency.

History can be a wonderful framework for moral reflection, especially when we allow our engagement with the past to expose our own hearts.  The best histories of slavery and the Civil War force us to confront our own propensities for moral compromise and injustice.  We need to see white Confederates—even white defenders of slavery—as three-dimensional humans no more prone to sin and self-justification than we are.  We need to get to know them well enough and gain enough understanding of their circumstances to confess that we might have behaved in the very same way if set down in their shoes.  The Free State of Jones just encourages us to feel superior.


[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. I thought I would follow my rather negative review of The Light and the Glory with a critique of much more reliable and responsible popular work, A Free People’s Suicide, by Oz Guinness.]

As was the case with the authors of The Light and the Glory, Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian.  Unlike Peter Marshall Jr., however, Guinness is not primarily a pastor or theologian.  Born in China where his parents were medical missionaries, he was educated in England and has lived in the United States for nearly three decades.  Although a recipient of a graduate degree in the social sciences from Oxford, he has made his living mostly outside of the academy and would best be described–as he describes himself–as an author and social critic.

As with Marshall and Manuel, Guinness’s foray into the past is prompted by concern for the present.  There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I think that’s how it should be.  Academic historians are rightfully leery of what we call “presentism”: the bad habit of reading our own values and beliefs into the past so that the individuals we encounter have nothing to teach us.  But we have been so determined to avoid this pitfall that we have often gone to the other extreme, so much so that we typically disparage “populizers” who speak to the contemporary relevance of history or identify lessons from the past.  I suspect that this is one reason why the surrounding culture so often views us as irrelevant.  Not Os Guinness.

GuinnessReminiscent of The Light and the Glory, A Free People’s Suicide begins with a critique of contemporary culture.  Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine noted that the best way to define a people is by the “loved thing held in common.”  Americans, Guinness says, are a people defined by their love of freedom.  Surely he is correct.  Americans may disagree whether the United States is truly a “sweet land of liberty,” to quote the song, but we are unanimous that it should be such a place.  In Guinness’s words, “Freedom is today’s highest virtue, its grandest possibility, its last absolute, its most potent myth, and . . . its only self-evident truth.”

The problem, in Guinness’s view, is that contemporary Americans “are heedlessly pursuing a vision of freedom that is short-lived and suicidal.”  We conceive of freedom simplistically as the utter absence of all restraint.  Across the political spectrum, we have no higher goal than to escape the power of others over our lives.  We exalt freedom of choice rather than wisdom in choosing.  We are a nation drowning in debt and obsessed with decadence.  Our situation is dire.

Notice that this aspect of Guinness’s argument is not historical.  Writing as an outsider not raised in this country, he is simply sharing his assessment of what he sees in his adopted home.  Some readers will cry “Amen!”  Some will think he paints too dark a picture.  Others may find him too optimistic.

It is when he is trying to convince us of how much is at stake that Guinness appeals to history.  First, he notes that even the most cursory scan of world history shows that most of the people who have ever drawn breath on this planet have not lived in free societies.  Freedom, evidently, is a rare and fragile thing.  Second, and at much greater length, Guinness introduces his readers to a centuries-long conversation as to why this should be the case.  Americans need this introduction because, as Guinness laments, “the United States demonstrates the distinctively modern obsession with the present and future at the expense of the past.”

One of my favorite expressions of the value of history comes from historian David Harlan’s book The Degradation of American History.  “At its best,” Harlan writes, the study of American history can become “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  The Suicide of a Free People, at its core, is an effort to raise the dead so that they can speak into our lives.

The book’s title comes from a speech from a young Abraham Lincoln, who in the 1830s predicted that if America ever fell, it would collapse from within.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln declared before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Although Guinness accords the Lincoln quote pride of place, his primary historical focus is on the views of the American “founders” of the late-eighteenth century.  As Guinness observes, in promoting the cause of independence, these prominent statesmen were themselves drawing on a “great conversation that runs down through the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome.”

Distilled to its essence, that conversation, as Guinness sketches it, challenges contemporary Americans with at least four major claims.  The first is that it is much more difficult to sustain freedom than it is to establish or order it.  Indeed, sustaining freedom is a never-ending task “of centuries and countless generations.”  We can never proclaim “mission accomplished.”  We can never spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate.  Historically understood, the American project of sustaining freedom is even now, and will always remain, an unproven “experiment.”

The second claim is a “grand paradox”: “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom.”  In order to flourish, humans need both freedom and order, social goods that are in tension with one another.  Because of our “human propensity for self-love,” we naturally resist the restraint that order requires, undermining our freedom in our very efforts to maximize it.  The founders recognized this, Guinness tells us, and thus advocated an ideal of freedom as “liberty within law” and “autonomy under authority.”

Third, according to Guinness, the founders insisted that freedom was unlikely to survive without some sort of religious faith.  If sustainable “freedom requires order and therefore restraint, the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint.”  This unnatural practice of denying oneself for the common good–what the founders called virtue–was unlikely to flourish in a materialist, secular culture.  While he is emphatic that the founders did not advocate a “Christian America” in any formal, established sense, Guinness provides copious evidence of the founders’ belief, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that “morality must fall with religion.”

The founders’ emphasis on morality pointed to a final broad claim: no structure of government exists that, by itself, can guarantee freedom.  The founders’ strategy for sustaining freedom was always two-fold, Guinness stresses.  Although they lavished great care on the new federal and state constitutions, they always believed that the values of the people were at least as crucial to the long-term survival of freedom.  By itself, as James Madison put it, the new federal Constitution was a mere “parchment barrier” against tyranny.  If freedom was to endure, the “structures of liberty” must be reinforced by the “spirit of liberty.”

Guinness leaves no doubt that he views each of these claims as correct.  He does not, however, fall into a trap that ensnares so many popular Christian writers.  While Guinness clearly admires the founders–he says their “vision charted the course of America’s meteoric rise to greatness”–he does not idolize them.  The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

In contrast, Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  In reviewing the founders’ understanding of how to sustain freedom, his goal  is to show twenty-first century Americans–most of whom are blissfully unaware–just how far they have strayed from the founders’ prescription.  Does this mean that we have “sinned” by falling short of the founders’ ideals?  Not necessarily.  They were fallible human beings, as Guinness repeatedly observes, with their own inconsistencies and flaws.

What is wrong, according to Guinness–“foolish” even–is to wall ourselves off from the ancient conversation about freedom in which the founders were immersed.  The founders may have been wrong, but it is the height of arrogance simply to assume so.  Instead, we must allow them to ask us hard questions.  If as a society we no longer subscribe to the founders’ views, what is our strategy for avoiding the dangers that the founders identified?  “If Americans today have no serious interest in the founders’ wisdom and provisions, what are their alternatives?” asks Guinness.  “If they have any, they should say so, and they should set out what they are and how they relate to the issues behind the founders’ original discussion.”  This is a fair challenge.

I don’t agree wholly with A Free People’s Suicide.  I suspect that Guinness has idealized the founders.  He may exaggerate the degree to which their values shaped the country at its inception.  My point is not to claim that it is a definitive work of history–irrefutably accurate in every detail–but rather to suggest that the way that Guinness has gone about fashioning his argument is fundamentally sound.  He has challenged us to combat what C. S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery.”  He has reminded us that those who have gone before us may have had insights that we very much need to hear.  He has appealed to the past without imputing authority to the dead, respecting our forbears rather than worshiping them.   And he has accomplished all of this without questioning the character of those who might disagree with him.  For believers wanting to think Christianly about the past with an eye to the present, there is much in this model to admire.


[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  In our ongoing debates about the larger meaning and significance of the American Revolution, we can all too easily lose sight of the ordinary Americans whose lives were caught up in it.  Below I recommend three of my favorite books on the experience of common Americans during the revolutionary struggle.]

In his wonderful book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber observes that  “history is mostly . . . very ordinary people in very ordinary places.” Garber’s reminder prompts me to share some books with you that offer insight into the way that common Americans responded to and were changed by the American Revolution. The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, and the anniversary of American independence will prompt many of us to reflect on the origins of the United States. We will zero in on the values of the first “Greatest Generation,” and we’ll debate the nature of the beliefs that propelled them and the vision that sustained them. I think that’s a good thing. But we’ll undoubtedly focus our attention primarily on the same small cast of characters, the extraordinary leaders who would eventually get their pictures on our folding money. And they were extraordinary men—brilliant, visionary, and courageous.

Yet understanding what the American Revolution meant in the lives of everyday people is important as well. When we focus exclusively on the leading statesmen—Adams, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.—the Revolution has a way of becoming a debate among philosophers over abstract propositions. I am not denigrating for a moment the power of their ideas or the importance of the questions that drove them. We need to return regularly to both and enter into the conversation of which these remarkable thinkers were a part.

But I am suggesting that we lose something by not broadening our focus. Most obviously, by concentrating so exclusively on the leading Founders, we close our eyes to 99 percent of those who contributed to the cause of American independence. How can we claim to know what the Revolution stood for, if we have no idea what the vast majority of Americans thought it was about? If we don’t know why they supported it (if they did)? If we’re unsure how they contributed to its outcome? If we have no clue how it changed their lives?

I think we miss something else as well. Readers of this blog will know that I think one of the most important reasons to study the past is to gain wisdom. At its best, the study of history can be a marvelous vehicle for moral reflection. For those who have eyes to see, the past has much to reveal to us about the present and much to teach us about how to meet the future. In this regard, focusing on the lives of extraordinary leaders is a two-edged sword. We may marvel at their extraordinary character or accomplishments, but precisely because they are so extraordinary, we may find it hard to relate to them. My suspicion is that we are more likely to admire them than to be challenged or convicted by them. This, then, is another reason why it is so important to recapture the perspective of common folk. Few of us will ever be called to lead armies or frame new governments, but we may be able to relate to—and learn from—the many mundane moral decisions that our anonymous ancestors have faced before us.

So here are three books that I have long appreciated for their ability to take us into the world of everyday Americans during the era of the American Revolution. They’re each fairly short, readily available, and relatively inexpensive. They’re also each very different. They rest on different kinds of sources, offer different understandings, and model different ways that historians try to glean insight into the world of common people in ages past.

The first is The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, by Alfred Young. In the first half of the book, Young painstakingly recreates the life of a poor Boston shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes. (Some name, huh?) Hewes was born in Massachusetts in 1742 and lived his life in obscurity until the 1830s, when through an unusual chain of events it was discovered that he was one of the last living participants in the Boston Tea Party. Young describes Hewes as “a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Two lesser known contemporary writers quickly penned biographies of the aged patriot, who was invited to Boston in 1835 and treated as a celebrity. Young draws from both accounts—supplemented by as much corroborating evidence as he can find from other historical sources—to ask three primary questions: What was Hewes’ role in the Revolution? What did he think about it? How did it affect his life?

shoemaker and the tea partyRobert Hewes was among the poorest of the poor. Born the youngest of nine children, his father died when he was seven and his mother passed away when he was fourteen. That same year he was apprenticed to a shoemaker (an occupation very low in status and income) because no one in his family could come up with the fee necessary to indenture him to a more lucrative trade. He later married the illiterate daughter of a church sexton and fathered fifteen children, none of whom had the means to care for him after his wife of seventy years passed away.

Hewes lacked the necessary property to be eligible to vote as the Revolution approached, but the arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768 made him keenly interested in politics nonetheless. Hewes told neither of his biographers much about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause, but his involvement in the Tea Party in December 1773 hints at the way that the transatlantic struggle with the Mother Country could draw common Americans from the periphery to the center of local politics. For Hewes, the coming of the American Revolution meant, first and foremost, the opportunity to assert his worth as an equal member of the town. As Young concludes, “Between 1768 and 1773, the shoemaker became a citizen.”

Hewes’ large family and minimal means shaped the contours of his service in the Revolutionary cause after the rupture with Britain. Unable to be away from his family for extended periods, he served numerous short stints as both a private in the militia and as a crew member on an American privateer. All told, he was in military service for a little over a year and a half of the eight-year long war. “In all this activity he claimed no moment of glory,” Young summarizes. There was a lot of marching, a lot of drudgery, and very little pay. Hewes was as poor when the war concluded as when it began.

Hewes’ numerous short stints in the militia were fairly typical of military service during the Revolution. Military historians have estimated that as many as four hundred thousand colonists served at one time or other, but the vast majority of these served in the militia for brief periods of a few weeks or months. In contrast, by 1777 the soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army were enlisted for the duration of the war. Washington’s force never exceeded twenty thousand men, however, and was greatly smaller than that for much of the war.

The world of the Continental soldier is the focus of A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. While The Shoemaker and the Tea Party represents the efforts of a modern-day historian to recreate the life of an obscure colonist, the Narrative conveys the life of a common Continental soldier in his own words. In contrast to Hewes’ numerous short stints in military service, Joseph Martin served as a private under General George Washington for nearly eight years. The Connecticut farm boy volunteered at the ripe age of fifteen and was still scarcely an adult when he was discharged at the war’s conclusion. Martin composed his memoir nearly a half century later, right about the time Robert Hewes was being celebrated in Boston.

Joseph Plumb Martin“War is hell,” Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said. Martin would have countered that war is boredom, drudgery, and starvation. He described his experience in battle and alluded briefly to comrades who were killed or wounded, but on the whole his description of combat is brief and vague. He was much more detailed in reviewing when and where and how far he marched and the specific kinds of duty to which he was assigned. But by far his most frequent observations have to do with how hungry he was. He noted repeatedly (literally dozens of times) that he was chronically hungry. His three “constant companions,” as he put it, were “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold.”

Like Robert Hewes, the aged Joseph Martin had little to say about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause. He hints at a teenage boy’s hankering for excitement and the torture of staying on the farm when adventure was within his grasp. A half-century removed from such innocence, he wrote in retrospect with a tinge of resentment, even bitterness. The members of the Continental Army had been shabbily treated, in his opinion. By his reckoning, the government had not honored its promises to the soldiers for pay during the war or for land bounties afterward. “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like worn out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.” In Martin’s mind, his relationship to the new country he had helped to bring into being was “much like that of a loyal and faithful husband, and a light heeled wanton of a wife.” He had been faithful, while those for whom he had sacrificed had been forgetful. “But I forgive her,” Martin concluded, “and hope she will do better in the future.”

My third and final recommendation is of a very different kind of book.  While the first two focus on single individuals, in The Minutemen and Their World, historian Robert Gross tries to resurrect a community.  The place of choice is Concord, Massachusetts, the New England village west of Boston where  “Minutemen” squared off against British regulars in April 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution.  While the Minutemen are a celebrated part of American lore, Gross recognized that they were faceless as well as famous.  His goal was to learn everything he could about the community that they were defending when they fired the “shot heard round the world.”

GrossAt the heart of the book is the truth that key historical events emerge out of a context.  The men who took their stand at Concord bridge were fathers, sons, brothers and friends.  They did not take up their muskets as autonomous individuals, but as members of a community.  Their lives were enmeshed in numerous relationships defined by kinship, geography, economy and religion.  As we read about Concord on the eve of the Revolution, Gross uses the community as a window into the colonial world.  You learn about eighteenth-century agriculture, the status of women, slavery and race relations, attitudes toward the poor, differences over revivalism, and relations between parents and their adult children.  In the process, the town’s Minutemen cease to be cardboard cutouts and take on flesh and blood.

One of the great strengths of the book is how Gross connects the small stories of these “ordinary people in an ordinary place” to the grand narrative of the Revolution that is much better known.  The people of Concord would briefly be agitated in response to offensive British policies like the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, but the furor would die down quickly and their attention would return to local affairs.  Indeed, until the spring of 1774, the most important topics in the town meeting were local: roads, schools, support for the poor.  As Gross puts it, “a large part of local government was devoted to keeping one man’s livestock out of another man’s fields.”

This changed with the arrival of news concerning a new series of acts passed by the British Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party.  Colonists quickly labeled the new laws the “Intolerable Acts.”  While the measures focused primarily on punishing Boston specifically, one of the acts limited all towns in Massachusetts to one town meeting a year.  As Gross explains, the people of Concord saw this as a direct assault on their freedom to manage their own community, and the response was a far greater support for resistance than had existed before then.

For the people of Concord, then, the struggle with Britain truly ignited only when British policies interfered, in a way that they had not previously, with the traditional way of life in their village.  From that point forward, the people of Concord unified in support of resistance, but not so much because they desired formal independence from Britain.   Their primary goal, Gross explains, “was to defend their traditional community life.”  What they really wanted was to keep things the way they were.  And yet one of the clear lessons of history is that the trajectory of great historical developments, once begun, is rarely predictable.  Things don’t turn out the way we plan.  The eight-year-long war unleashed unimagined changes.  The people of Concord were looking backward more than forward in 1775.  In this village, at least, “the greatest rebellion of all was undertaken in the name of tradition.”


More on Tuesday’s gathering of evangelical leaders and activists with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee:

First, Yahoo News has posted a transcript of an audio recording of the gathering.  I encourage you to read through the entire document with care.

Second, I thought that Michael Gerson’s Washington Post editorial regarding the meeting was absolutely first-rate.  Gerson, a Wheaton alum and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the most insightful evangelical commentators on contemporary American politics.  Please read his latest op-ed, which expresses more eloquently than I could the discouragement and disappointment that we are both feeling.  Here is just a sampling:

. . . we are seeing a group focused on the rights and privileges of their own community, rather than the welfare of others — the poor, struggling and vulnerable. Many in that room do wonderful good works. But they have reduced Christian political involvement to a narrow, special interest — and a particularly angry and unattractive one. A powerful source of passion for social justice — a faith that once motivated abolitionism and various movements for civil and human rights — has been tamed and trivialized.

. . . Evangelical Christian leaders, motivated by political self-interest, are cozying up to a leader who has placed bigotry and malice at the center of American politics. They are defending the rights of their faith while dishonoring its essence. Genuine social influence will not come by putting Christ back into Christmas; it will come by putting Christ and his priorities back into more Christians.

One Nation Under GodFinally, for those of you with the time and appetite for a serious work of history that would place what we’re seeing in a larger context, I would recommend One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin Kruse.  I reviewed this book at length when it came out last year.  I don’t agree with all aspects of Kruse’s argument about the origins of popular belief that the United States is a Christian nation, but his book is chock-full of insights that might help us think historically and Christianly about the present moment.

Particularly chilling is Kruse’s recreation of the Nixon White House and that president’s shameless manipulation of gullible evangelicals.  Nixon held worship services once a month or so in the East Room of the White House, and he regularly used them to court influential donors, influence key congressional votes, and promote a partisan agenda generally.  Evangelical leaders who accepted the president’s invitation to take part were uniformly convinced of Nixon’s sincerity dismissed charges that the religious services were political.  The reality was rather different.  Kruse quotes Nixon aide Charles Colson, who later experienced a dramatic conversion to faith in Christ and repented of his role in Nixon’s administration:

Sure, we used the prayer breakfasts and church services and all that for political ends.  One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders.  We would bring them into the White house and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with.

Colson arriving at federal district court in Washington, D.C. to be sentenced for obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate scandal, June 1974

Colson arriving at federal district court in Washington, D.C. to be sentenced for obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate scandal, June 1974

Regarding the East Room worship services specifically, Colson elaborated:

We turned those events into wonderful quasi-social, quasi-spiritual, quasi-political events, and brought in a whole host of religious leaders to [hold] worship services for the president and his family–and three hundred guests carefully selected by me for political purposes.

More broadly, Kevin Kruse’s careful study points out all of the ways during since the mid-twentieth century that arguments for America’s Christian identity have been intertwined with other commitments, whether to capitalism, patriotism, anti-communism, or eventually, to the Republican Party.  The entire book is a huge cautionary tale.  If only we could get some of the evangelicals at Tuesday’s gathering to read it.


[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below is an extended review of the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.  The review remains the most widely-viewed piece I have ever posted to this blog.]


Hands down, the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written is The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Many of you will already know of this work, but for those you who aren’t, here’s a bit of background:

First the authors: A graduate of Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, the late Peter Marshall Jr. was a prominent Presbyterian minister and the founder of “Peter Marshall Ministries,” an organization created to remind Americans of their Christian heritage and “restore America to its Biblical foundations.”  Marshall’s co-author, David Manuel, was an editor at Doubleday Publishing Company before turning to full-time writing.

Next, their published works: In addition to numerous lesser writings, Marshall and Manuel authored three major works, The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.  The first, published in 1977, offers an overview of American history from the voyages of Columbus through the establishment of independence from Britain and the creation of the Constitution.  The second and third, written over the course of the next two decades, sketch the history of the nation from the creation of the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War.

Although the authors went on to produce simplified versions of these works for younger readers, all three books in their original versions feature engaging, accessible prose suitable for juvenile readers on up.  This versatility has assured for them a wide readership among adults and a popular and enduring place in the curriculum of private Christian schools and home schools.  Their combined sales now supposedly approach one million copies and, if correct, this would make the authors far more widely read than any currently living academic Christian historian.

There is much that I admire in these works.  Professional historians could learn a thing or two from Marshall and Manuel.  They took the craft of writing seriously.  They understood that historical knowledge, to make a difference in the world, needs to end up between the ears of general readers.  (We academic historians too often think of history as a conversation among ourselves.)  Marshall and Manuel also appreciated that history is, above all, a story, and they intuitively understood the power of narrative to convey important truths.  This is something historians in the Academy used to realize but have long since forgotten.

Finally, I have no doubt that Marshall and Manuel had good intentions.  Although I have known neither personally, I can imagine that it took courage to take the stand that they did.  I suspect that they were on the receiving end of more than their share of criticism and condescension from the surrounding culture.  I have certainly never been as bold as they.

That said, I cannot recommend these books.  They are marred by numerous errors of fact and interpretation, far too many to catalog here.  These do not constitute their fatal flaw, however.  The fatal flaw in these works is the authors’ well-meant but misguided decision to ground their religious critique of the contemporary United States in an historical argument about the American past.

As they explain in the introduction to The Light and the Glory, when Marshall and Manuel began writing in the 1970s, they were looking for an explanation for the moral crisis that they believe gripped the nation.  Surveying the national landscape, they saw a once unified nation now bitterly divided over Vietnam, bitterly disillusioned by Watergate, and succumbing to a variety of moral ills such as mounting divorce and sexual permissiveness.  As Christians heartbroken over the trajectory of their country, they sought an explanation.  More specifically, as Christians interested in history (Marshall had been a history major at Yale), they sought an explanation in the past.

The Light and the Glory introduces that explanation.  Marshall and Manuel summarized their thesis in the form of a rhetorical question in the book’s opening pages: “Could it be that we Americans, as a people,” they asked, “were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

The thrust of these two works is to answer that foundational question with a resounding “Yes!”  Condensing dramatically, their argument is that the U. S. had originated as a Christian nation, had had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

Note that most, though not all, of their argument was historical.  Marshall and Manuel’s insistence that God had a special plan for the United States was not a historical conclusion at all.  It was a prophetic declaration, a fact that the authors should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging.  This important exception aside, their interpretation rests squarely on a series of historical claims having to do with the values of the country’s founders and the degree to which succeeding generations did or did not conform to them.

There were other possible approaches.  As a pastor, Marshall simply could have opened his Bible.  Employing scriptural principles as a plumb line, he could have instructed his congregation (and any other audience that would hear him) in the ways that current American values fell short of the scriptural standard, in effect calling them (and the nation) to repentance.  What he and Manuel did, however, was to intertwine that call to repentance with a historical narrative—not a narrative based on divinely revealed biblical history, but a narrative based on the authors’ interpretation of American history.

Why did they do that?  I don’t know what their motives were, but there are two reasons why I think well-meaning Christians in general so frequently do something similar.  First, it may seem to strengthen our argument to other Christians.  When we buttress a religious argument with an interpretation of American history, we simultaneously appeal to two aspects of American Christians’ identity, namely their Christian faith and their American heritage.  Whether they consciously intended this, this is what Marshall and Manuel were doing.  They were calling their audience back in not one, but two respects: back to Biblical principles, and back to the supposed ideals of the American founding.

Second, well-meaning Christians may also inject historical arguments in their efforts to reach non-Christian audiences in the public square.  For example, in evaluating the moral state of the nation in the 1970s, Marshall and Manuel might have observed that the United States was rejecting God’s standard and simply left it at that.  Their assertion might have pierced the hearts of some believers, but what weight, humanly speaking, would we expect it to have with the broader, unbelieving culture outside the church?

Eventually, Christians who want to have a political impact in the public square always have to confront a momentous question:  Do we ground our arguments solely in explicitly religious principles, or do we seek some sort of “common ground” on which to build arguments that non-Christians might be more open to?  I am not claiming that this is what motivated Marshall and Manuel, but this much is clear: appeals to the American past are one frequent way that American Christians try to influence the contemporary culture without making explicitly religious arguments.

So why was it such a bad idea for Marshall and Manuel to support a religious critique of contemporary America with a historical argument about America’s past?

I can think of three reasons.  First, their approach exacerbates an identity crisis that has long plagued American Christians, American evangelicals especially.  It is always dangerous to 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.  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 the boundaries between these loyalties become blurred, we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters called “Christianity And.”  By “Christianity And,” Lewis had in mind a state of confusion in which our ultimate identity in Christ becomes inseparable from other kinds of loyalties that can actually take preeminence in our hearts.  When it comes to thinking about the past, 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.  The Marshall and Manuel approach merely feeds this temptation.

Second, there is a way in which the linking of religious argument with historical interpretation can unintentionally promote idolatry.  That’s a strong statement, I know, and I want to stress that this was never Marshall and Manuel’s conscious intent.  In fact, here I have Marshall and Manuel less in mind than more recent writers who regularly appeal to the founders in making arguments about contemporary public policy.  Living as we do in a pluralistic society suspicious of anything that looks like “theocracy,” I understand why it is so tempting to make such arguments.

Advocating that the nation return to the supposed principles of our founding seems like an acceptable way to promote Christian values in public life without making explicitly religious arguments.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it gives moral authority to the founders of our country, and that is simple idolatry.  The founders deserve our respect, unequivocally, but when “What would the Founders do?” becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” we are imputing moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry.  There’s no other word for it.

Third, when Marshall and Manuel linked their religious critique of contemporary America to an interpretation of American history, they effectively backed themselves into a corner that made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their historical interpretation of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretation of the American present.  I cannot emphasize this too strongly: This is a predicament no Christian historian should ever be in.  The truth of Christianity and the authority of Christian principles are not on trial when we debate American history.


I would like to have been a fly on the wall at Tuesday’s gathering of more than a thousand evangelical leaders and activists with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.  The meeting has garnered comparatively little media attention thus far, in large part because the assembly was closed to the press—all news outlets, not just those on Donald Trump’s black list—and second-hand testimony is only slowing beginning to come in.

According to an article in the Atlantic, Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and pollster George Barna were among those addressing the audience.  After Trump spoke,  former presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee moderated a scripted Q&A which Christian author Eric Metaxas described in a tweet as “eye-opening.”  Hmmm.  The most detailed first-hand evidence concerning the substance of Trump’s remarks comes from a tweeted video of a portion of the address from a Christian radio host in the audience.  The video captures Trump discouraging the audience from praying for our nation’s officeholders.  “We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders,” Trump explains, “because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes.”

Three quick reactions come to mind: First, the quote is quintessential Trump—a sweeping declaration unburdened by evidence, appealing to emotion instead of reason, and designed to prey on the fear and anger that it incites.

Second, to the degree that evangelicals buy into such rhetoric, it encourages us to conceive of ourselves as an innocent and aggrieved majority in need of a political savior, rather than as pilgrims and strangers called to be light to a fallen world while recognizing that our citizenship is in heaven.

Finally, given Trump’s self-professed veneration for the Bible (he claims to  like it even better than The Art of the Deal), I am struck by his disregard for the New Testament’s stricture that “prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Timothy 2:1-2).  I guess the apostle Paul was simply too “politically correct.”

The Trump campaign followed up Tuesday’s gathering by announcing the appointment of an “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board.”  According to the official media announcement, the group of twenty-five mostly white male pastors will “provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to evangelicals and other persons of faith in America.”  The press release goes on to explain that the creation of this board represents Trump’s “endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”

The announcement continues, supposedly quoting Trump as saying, “I have such tremendous respect and admiration for this group and I look forward to continuing to talk about the issues important to Evangelicals, and to Americans, and the common sense solutions I will implement when I am president.”

So let’s boil this down and see what we have: A candidate known for his erratic inconsistency and unpredictability has just issued a blanket endorsement of  “issues important to evangelicals” without naming a single one.  A supremely self-confident celebrity famous for going his own way has promised to take seriously the “wise counsel” of evangelical advisers “as needed.”  (Who will get to decide when he “needs” it?)

Should anyone find this reassuring?  More to the point, would anyone who takes the Constitution’s checks and balances seriously fail to shudder at Trump’s confidence that he can unilaterally “implement” solutions to the issues that concern evangelicals (whatever they are)?

You can find the list of Trump’s evangelical advisers here.  I’m not familiar with the majority of those on the list, but a minority I surely recognize: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ronnie Floyd, David Jeremiah, and Ralph Reed, among others.  The Trump campaign’s press release makes clear that the individuals named to the board “were not asked to endorse Mr. Trump as a prerequisite for participating on the board,” and some of those named have been openly critical of Trump in the past.  And yet, can anyone doubt that Trump will use the very existence of the board as a campaign talking point to buttress his appeal among the evangelical rank and file?

HecloAs I write this, I am mindful of a book that I read earlier in the summer: Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo.  Heclo is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a scholar who has spent much of his career exploring the interactions of faith and politics in American life.  In the book, which originated in a major public lecture at Harvard a decade ago, Heclo describes and evaluates the interplay of democratic values and Christian convictions since the American founding.  The general pattern that he describes should give every Christian pause: when tenets of orthodox Christian belief have clashed with prevailing democratic values, it is more often Christian belief that has retreated and conformed to the democratic culture, not the other way around.

Even more to the point is Heclo’s timely warning:

Worldly power, being worldly, is always ready and willing to use religion to win fights with political opponents.

 Whatever the motives of those who have accepted a position on Trump’s advisory board, I fear that they are being used.  And if Heclo is right, the end result is less likely to be a government that is more Christian than a Church that is more worldly.



[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  The essay below was inspired by the whimsical cover of Parade magazine three years ago.]

As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the cover of Parade magazine back in 2013  featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece was altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.  [And in 2016, the presumptive Republican nominee for president tweets constantly.]

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsA book that drives home this point is The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.