Tag Archives: Doug Wilson


(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites.  While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.) 

The 4th of July is rapidly approaching (is that really possible?), and I want to spend most of my energies these next few weeks thinking out loud with you about Christian faith and the American founding.  When I refer to “faith and the founding” I have two interrelationships in mind.  On the one hand, 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.

I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins each erred tragically by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  (See here, here, and here.)  What is 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.

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.”

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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 weeks ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.


Today marks the second anniversary of Faith and American History.  I began this blog as an expression of an evolving sense of vocation.  In my very first post (“Why I am Writing”), I explained the decision to try my hand at a blog in this way:

God calls us, the late Frederick Buechner observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need.  “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I am starting this blog out of a sense of God’s calling.  I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.

Nearly a hundred essays later, I can’t say that I have generated as much genuine conversation as I would have hoped for.  Comments have been pretty scarce, and I’m often left wondering whether my reflections are as useful to others as I wish them to be.  At the same time, you have helped me immensely by providing me with an audience to write for, and I am grateful.  My sense of calling has not weakened, and I look forward to continuing.

To mark the anniversary, I thought I would go back and identify the most popular essays that I have posted these past two years.  In doing so, I discovered that four of the top five share a common theme.  Each is a critique of an influential work by a popular Christian writer (or writers) about America’s religious heritage.  Three of these came out more than a year ago, at a time when many of you who now follow Faith and American History were not yet subscribers.

So here are links to the fours essays:

Light and the GloryIn the first essay–by far the most widely-read post I have ever shared–I reviewed the most popular Christian interpretation of U.S. history ever written.  (See Thoughts on The Light and the Glory.)   Together with the subsequent volumes From Sea to Shining Sea and Sounding Forth the Trumpet, the “God’s Plan for America” Trilogy by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel has sold nearly a million copies and has influenced two generations of American evangelicals.  It still figures prominently in Christian home school and private school curricula.

Christian ManifestoIn the second essay I focused on the historically oriented writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, particularly How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto.  From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, arguably no single individual did more than Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.  This was an invaluable contribution.  And yet, as I do my best to explain in “How Should We Then Think About American History?”, Schaeffer fell into the trap that has consistently ensnared well-meaning Christian writing about America’s past.

Southern Slavery as It WasThe third essay turns to two living authors, Steven Wilkins and Doug Wilson.  Although not as well known as either Marshall and Manuel or Schaeffer, Wilkins and Wilson have been extremely influential in the home-school and classical Christian school movements.  Wilson, furthermore, has achieved a degree of national prominence, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with atheist Christopher Hitchens and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012. Both Wilkins and Wilson lecture and write extensively on history.  Perhaps the most controversial work of these unabashedly controversial authors has been their 1996 booklet Southern Slavery As It Was.  I offer my two cents worth in “How Not to Argue Historically.”

Jefferson Lies IIThe final essay takes up the work of popular Christian author David Barton, focusing in particular on his 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.  The book’s numerous serious problems have been well documented, but in “What’s Really at Stake in the ‘Christian America’ Debate,” I add to a careful critique of the book’s argument my thoughts on how it reflects on the Gospel.

As you read (or re-read) these four pieces you should notice two recurring patterns:

First, although all of these authors meant well, they erred by linking their defense of Christianity with a particular historical argument about the American past.  In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims about America’s past.  This was not malevolent.  It was, however, tragically misguided.

Second, you’ll notice that none of the authors in question is a trained historian, and most of them were (or are) either full-time or part-time ministers.  It would be an exaggeration to say that we evangelicals learn American history primarily from our preachers, but there’s no doubt that the pulpit greatly informs our understanding of the past.

Why this is so is the sixty-four dollar question.  The pattern says something about the culture of American evangelicalism, surely.  We tend to be skeptical of authority and suspicious of intellectuals, and at times we can value charisma a lot more than credentials.  But I think it’s also an indictment on Christian academics like myself, for with a few exceptions, we have thought it was far more important to speak to the Academy than to the Church.  I’m sorry about that.


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.

As I observed in my most recent post, however, we should ask ourselves why it is important to us before we begin to explore the question.  Academic historians will tell you that one key to thinking historically about the past is to learn to practice metacognition–a fancy term for thinking about how we are thinking as we are thinking, i.e., learning to become self-aware of the thought processes that we employ in arriving at conclusions.  This is necessary because, as a marvelous book by Sam Wineburg demonstrates, historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

As finite human beings, we live in time and space.  We encounter the world, necessarily, from our own limited perspectives.  This means, as Wineburg explains, that we naturally make sense of new things by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new to us (like an unfamiliar behavior or belief from an earlier time or a different place) we reflexively search for an analogue that we are already familiar with, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.  The construction of this analogy is natural, and potentially it’s a valuable first step toward understanding, but it comes with risk.  Once we recognize  something ostensibly familiar in people from the past, we will be tempted simply to label them and move on, to let that first step toward comprehension serve as our final judgment.  When we do that, however, we exaggerate the familiar at the expense of the strange, and we misrepresent the people we are trying to understand.

But when we study the past, our hearts are always involved as well as our brains.  And so I am convinced that one of the keys to thinking Christianly about the past is to practice greater self-awareness of our hearts as we study and explore.  This means, above all, examining our motives: Why are we interested in the topic in the first place?  What do we hope to gain by our efforts?  Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds?  Are we seeking to learn from the historical figures we encounter, or is our real intention (whether we’re aware of it or not) to use them to accomplish our own purposes?

As a Christian, I believe that our sin nature leaves its mark on everything we do, even our study of history.  Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to view the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.  This means that thinking Christianly about the past–guided by love and humility–is every bit as unnatural as thinking historically.  The latter reflects our finiteness; the former results from our fallenness.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that academic historians are immune from this tendency.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But my primary burden is not for academic historians.  As I shared when I started this blog, my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with the church about the relationship between loving God and learning from history.  And so I have a warning to share: be careful of what you read.  When it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and the American founding, the work by Christian amateurs caught up in the culture wars has been just as biased and, in my opinion, just as damaging as anything that the secular academy has produced.

Why would I say such a thing? I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr., David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins erred by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  These writers inadvertently backed themselves into a corner that it made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretations of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretations of the American present.  What is worse, in varying degrees these writers conflated the authority of scripture with the force of their own fallible interpretations of American history.

They also modeled what I have labeled the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  Whether their goal was primarily to motivate the faithful or to do battle with unbelievers, they implicitly thought of history primarily as a source of examples to buttress arguments they were already determined to make.  For all his genuine zeal and good intentions, this is precisely true of David Barton as well.  The problem with the history-as-ammunition approach is that its goal is not really understanding.  It typically emerges from a context of cultural debate, and the goal of debate, as we all know, is to win.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, then, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage  the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  As I mentioned in my last post, an encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger scholars who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and a historian whose work I plan to discuss in my next post, James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).  (Oxford University Press will soon be releasing Byrd’s wonderful study of how Christians appealed to Scripture in thinking about the American Revolution. )

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  You may possibly recall that I have mentioned him once before in this blog.  When Noll offered an interpretation of American history that differed from Francis Schaeffer’s, Schaeffer told an ally that Noll was a “weak Christian” whose work needed to be challenged so as not to undermine the battle being fought “against the collapse of our generation.”

In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.  Undertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.


In an article on our culture’s dismissive attitude toward history, the late Christopher Hitchens once wrote that modern Americans live in a “present-tense society.”  The atheist Hitchens was wrong about a great deal, but not about this.  By experience, I can tell you that there is no better way to kill a conversation at a party than by answering the ubiquitous question, “So what do you do?” by confessing that you earn your bread as a historian.  And yet there are exceptions to Hitchens’ generalization–lots of them.  I have frequently encountered Christians outside the academy who care about history.  It’s not just that they find it entertaining, on a par with movies and sports.  They genuinely believe that history matters and that we can learn from it.  Of course I agree.

I have concluded two things from my conversations with these individuals.  First, it would appear that Christians interested in the American past are drawn to one issue above all others: the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.  The evangelicals whom I talk to in church and homeschool settings are interested in whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, by Christian leaders, guided by Christian principles, in pursuit of Christian ends.  Second, to the degree that they have already formed opinions on the matter, they have based their historical views overwhelmingly on the teaching of non-historians with minimal qualifications: popular authors like Peter Marshall, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson, or David Barton.

This frustrates me greatly, but I can’t really say that I blame them.  We academic historians like to explain our miniscule audiences by pointing to the anti-intellectualism of American culture, which is certainly real enough.  But that’s far from the whole story.  On the whole, academic historians stopped writing for the general public long ago.  We are trained to write for each other.  We are rewarded primarily for writing for each other.  And so we write for each other.

But not exclusively.  One of the most encouraging developments of recent years has been the willingness of a growing number of Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  If you are interested in the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, the good news is that there are now a number of outstanding, engaging works written by sincere Christian scholars who explore the topic with sympathy, integrity, and expertise.  If you are looking for some summer reading, the following would be well worth your time: Two wonderful recent titles are Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, by John Fea of Messiah College, and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Baylor University’s Thomas Kidd.  I would also recommend an excellent older work that was re-issued a few years ago: Christians in the American Revolution, by former Wheaton College professor Mark Noll.

If you are thinking of delving into one of these titles, may I offer a few words of challenge before you do so?  As Christians interested in history, our goal should be to practice history Christianly.  A common view that I have encountered in church and homeschool settings is the unstated assumption that “Christian history” is defined by its conclusions.  By this reasoning, an interpretation that asserts that the United States was founded on Christian principles is an example of “Christian” history.  A view of the American past that denies this must be non-Christian or even anti-Christian.  I think this badly misses the mark.

If our goal is to approach the past Christianly, I want to suggest that how we think is a better litmus test of success than what we conclude.  What it means to think Christianly about history is a question I am still working through, but I am convinced that it requires the expression of the Christian virtues of love and humility.  Expressing love when we study the past starts with remembering that the individuals we encounter were image bearers just like us.  They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and loving them requires that we take them seriously, that we respect them enough to listen to them and allow them to ask us hard questions.

Bringing a posture of humility to our study of the past starts with our remembering the declaration of Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite.  If you’re generally familiar with the story of Job, you know that Job’s life came crashing down after God allowed Satan to test him, and you know as well that the friends who came to comfort Job were not much comfort at all.  In perhaps the only useful advice that Job’s friend Bildad gives him, Bildad encourages Job not to limit his quest to understand his circumstances to conversations with the living.  “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counsels Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

If our goal is to practice love and humility when we study history, what does that mean when all you want to do is sit down with a book on Christianity and the American founding?  There is a skill to reading a history book effectively, and much of it involves critical attention to the logic of the historian’s argument and the validity of the evidence that underpins it.  But it also requires that you examine your own heart as you read, especially your motives for exploring the topic.

Many of us turn to history as a form of entertainment, and that’s OK.  (There are far worse ways to fill the time.)  But when our motives are weightier, when we believe that something is at stake, when we believe that history is really important to our lives, we tend to study the past with one of two goals in mind.  Ideally, we are propelled by a yearning for illumination.  Far too commonly, we are driven by a need for ammunition.   The latter goal, often unconscious, is a trap, and we fall into it all the time.

When Christians ask my views on the place of Christianity in the American founding, what I really want to ask in reply is, “Why do you want to know?”  I’ve found that many Christians have a great deal invested in the topic of faith and the founding.  Because of popular writers like Marshall and Schaeffer and Barton and the dogmatic interpretations of American history that they have made popular, too many American Christians believe that their commitment to Christ requires that they believe in a particular interpretation of the American past.  Any challenge to that interpretation becomes literally an assault on their religious convictions.  The result is that such individuals study the past not to be challenged, and possibly changed, but simply to find supporting evidence for interpretations that they already hold.  This approach has become a staple of the so-called “culture wars” of the last generation, as both Christians and secularists have ransacked the past in search of evidence to support their predetermined positions and ammunition to hurl at their adversaries.

There are multiple problems with what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  To begin with, it effectively insures that we learn nothing from the past beyond what we already know.  If our goal is to study history Christianly, moreover, it is crucial to realize how much the history-as-ammunition approach inhibits both love and humility.

It is difficult to love figures from the past when we primarily expect them to help us prove points in debate.  We will be sorely tempted to ignore the complexity of their world in order to further neat and tidy answers in our own.  (Remember Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning: “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”)  To the degree that we insist that historical figures serve our purposes, we are not loving our neighbors from the past but using them.  And because the history-as-ammunition approach will routinely validate our assumptions and confirm our convictions, the chances are great that it will also feed our pride.

So beware of the temptation to “keep score” as you read any of these books, triumphantly underlining the quotes that seem to support your interpretation of choice.  Fea, Kidd, and Noll all provide evidence that Christians played a significant role in the American founding and that Christian principles were one important factor in shaping the path to American independence.  But the story that each tells is far more complex than we might wish it, full of inconvenient truths for Christians and secularists alike.


I promised in my last post to share some thoughts about my first “bench” reading of the summer: A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness.  I’ve devoted quite a bit of time lately to examples of flawed historical thinking, and I’m happy now to switch gears and talk about a non-academic work that is more effective.  It’s important to give so much attention to popular, non-academic history for a simple reason: this is the only kind of history most American adults are ever likely to read.  I am sure this says something about anti-intellectualism in American culture, but I’m equally certain that it’s also an indictment of academic historians.  With a few prominent exceptions, we turned our backs on the general public long ago.

Like the other figures that I have discussed recently (Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson), Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian.  Unlike the others, 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 the others, 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.


Reminiscent 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.

In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, British writer G. K. Chesterton trenchantly observed that “the only thought that ought to be stopped” is a “thought that stops thought.”  We need to remember Chesterton’s warning as we consider what it means to think Christianly about the past.  Chesterton had in mind early versions of what is now called postmodernism, a radical relativism that, pursued to its logical end, calls into question the validity of all thought.  When it comes to history, however, postmodernism is not the only kind of “thought that stops thought.”

One of the things that unifies the popular works that I have reviewed before this is that all of them are guilty of this offense.  Marshall and Manuel “stopped thought” by claiming to know God’s special plan for America and by interpreting the past through the lens of that special revelation.  Francis Schaeffer offered a breathtakingly superficial interpretation of several millennia of world history and then questioned the theological orthodoxy of Christian historians who disagreed with him.  Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins prefaced their tendentious evaluation of American slavery by rebuking those who would persist in “the sin of believing a lie.”

Although well intentioned, all of these figures insisted that their particular interpretation of history was essential to a faithful engagement with contemporary culture.  Whether they intended it or not, all created an environment among their readers in which disagreement constituted disloyalty.  While using history in an attempt to engage the broader culture intellectually, their work tended to “stop thought” among their own followers.

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.



We’ve just wrapped up another school year at Wheaton College, and I couldn’t be more delighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is a privilege to teach here, and I love working with, and learning from, the talented and highly motivated students who fill my classes.  Yet the summer affords the luxury of sustained reading, and the even greater gift of sustained reflection, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I spend hours of most summer days on a bench near a tiny lake near our home, and every morning that I take my customary seat and feel the sun on my face and hear the breeze rustling through the leaves and see the sun sparkling on the water and, on top of it all, I get to open a good book, I praise God for his kindness.

Like the Pilgrims that I have been studying, I think that we should never feel wholly comfortable in this life.  The world is not our home.  The New Testament letter to the Hebrews calls us “pilgrims” and “sojourners”–travelers to a better country.  I believe that with all my heart, but I also believe that God in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life.  C. S. Lewis captured this idea perfectly with one of his memorable metaphors.  Let me quote from his book The Problem of Pain:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

Here Lewis likened moments of delight to “pleasant inns” that our Father has placed at intervals along our journey.  We must not mistake them for home–we are pilgrims, en route to a better country–but we can, and should, enjoy such blessings gratefully.  For me, one of the pleasant inns that refreshes my soul is that lakeside bench on a sunny summer day.

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Most of what I read on that bench has to do in some way with faith and history, and that also makes me happy.  I recently came across a letter that I wrote nine years ago to the elders of my church when we were living in Seattle.  “God has been opening my eyes to a new sense of calling,” I told them.  “I want to spend the rest of my life reading, learning, writing, and teaching on topics at the intersection of Christian faith, the study of history, and the life of the mind.”

When I sit on that bench with a history book in my lap, I genuinely believe I am pursuing the Lord’s calling.  As corny as it sounds, I regularly think of that great line from the movie Chariots of Fire, when Eric Liddell tells his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”  It’s not that I have it all figured out, to paraphrase the apostle Paul in Philippians, chapter 3.  I am still trying to understand what it means to think Christianly about the past.  That’s why I am so grateful for this opportunity to think out loud with you and benefit from your input and feedback.

My first bench reading of the summer was A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness.  In my recent posts I have been focusing on examples of how NOT to think historically, concentrating on works by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson.  In contrast to these, I think that Guinness offers Christians a model worthy of imitation.  I don’t agree with his interpretation in every respect, but we don’t have to agree completely with a historical argument to learn from it.  In my opinion, the way that Guinness has appealed to the past in the structure of his argument is fundamentally sound.  In my next post, I will explain why I think so.

Back soon!