[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.