Tag Archives: American founding

FAITH, HISTORY, AND A “FREE PEOPLE’S SUICIDE”

[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.

RECONSIDERING “THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY”

[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.

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

[I’m going to be taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is less than two weeks away, I thought I would re-post some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  Most are extended book reviews, and I have consciously tried to balance works from a range of perspectives, including those that exaggerate the place of Christian faith in the founding of the United States as well as those that understate it.  I thought I would start off, however, with a reflection that engages with the British writer G. K. Chesterton, who offers a pertinent reminder about the nature of true patriotism.]

It is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.  Even more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the days ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.