Tag Archives: faith and history

CHECKING IN

Yes, I’m still alive.

When New Year’s rolled around, I knew that I needed a break, but I never expected to go silent for more than two months.  Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to make sure I was OK.

I’m on sabbatical this semester at Wheaton, which means I am working as hard as ever but with a narrower focus.  As I have shared several times on this blog, my sense of vocation–my heart’s greatest desire–is to be in conversation with folks outside of the Academy about the intersection of the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Toward that end, I am finishing up a long-overdue manuscript for Intervarsity Press (“A Little Book for New Historians”) and laying the groundwork for at least two other book projects as well. I now spend almost all of my time in a tiny cubicle in the college library, writing a bit every day and devoting the rest of the time to reading, reading, and more reading.  As soon as the weather allows, I’ll relocate to a camp chair in a local forest preserve, but other than that my routine will stay the same.

But I’m not going to ignore you entirely.  I’ll try to share some of what I am reading with you occasionally, and I plan to re-post a selection of essays from previous years (maybe once a week or so).

I look forward to resuming the conversation.

Take care.

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TOCQUEVILLE ON THE AMERICAN CHARACTER: PART FOUR OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

Did Alexis de Tocqueville think that “America is great because Americas is good,” as scores of politicians and pundits over the years have insisted?  Did he conclude that “the secret to American freedom is American virtue,” as Eric Metaxas has recently claimed to be the Frenchmen’s “inescapable” conclusion?  What did Tocqueville really believe about the American character, and why should we care if he has been misrepresented?

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

In my last post I reviewed the three main categories that Tocqueville identified to explain why liberty had endured in the United States in the presence of unprecedented equality.  He began by pointing to the crucial importance of “providential” circumstances “independent of man’s will,” most notably the propitious geographic situation of the United States and its vast store of natural resources.   More important still were the system of laws inherited from the Founders, especially the overarching structure of American federalism, the safeguards built into the national Constitution, and the key role played by the American judiciary at both the state and national levels.  Finally, Tocqueville underscored the paramount importance of what he labeled “mores,” the habits of heart and mind that shaped the ways that Americans interacted with each other and with their government.

The first two categories had little to do with Americans’ character, and as I mentioned last time, to the degree that they helped to explain the perpetuation of liberty in the U. S., Tocqueville seems to be saying that American freedom has much more to do with divine grace than human goodness.  The third category is different, however.  In turning to mores—to what Americans believed and how what they believed affected how they behaved—Tocqueville is indisputably arguing that part of the reason that liberty is flourishing in America is because of American values.  But what were those values?

Before answering that question, I have to stop and interject what is my single most favorite quotation from Democracy in America. It’s an observation that speaks volumes about Tocqueville’s reading of human nature and also explains why Americans have found it so hard to hear what Tocqueville had to say.  Here’s the quote, which I feature on the syllabus of just about every course that I teach:

A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.

Tocqueville’s sketch of the American character is nothing if not complex, and to condense it to the simplistic assertion “America is good” makes an effective political slogan but misrepresents his argument badly.

Remember that the central focus of Democracy in America is Tocqueville’s quest to understand the consequences of equality on society and politics.  When it comes to the American character, he is most interested in those traits that either are shaped by American equality or shape equality’s effects on American liberty.  He has much to say on the topic—almost the entirety of volume II is relevant—but here are the character traits that I would say Tocqueville finds paramount:  Generalizing broadly, Americans as Tocqueville describes them are materialistic and acquisitive, independent-minded, individualistic (up to a point), rationally self-interested, and religious.  Let’s take each in turn, and as we consider each, ask yourself how each might be viewed in the light of orthodox Christian teaching.

Within days of setting foot in America, Tocqueville had concluded that the United States was far more materialistic than any of the nations of Europe.  “Here we are truly in another world,” he marveled in a letter to his brother Edouard.   “Political passions are only superficial.  The one passion that runs deep, the only one that stirs the human heart day in and day out, is the acquisition of wealth.”  Some of his initial impressions had changed by the time he sat down to write Democracy in America, but this one only hardened.  “I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts,” he informed his readers.  A “breathless cupidity” drove Americans “to nothing but the pursuit of wealth.”  Related to this was a persistent discontentment that propelled the typical American to a relentless striving for things.  “Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit.”

Tocqueville also observed among Americans an “extreme love of independence.”  A love of independence could be an admirable trait in Tocqueville’s mind.  By his own admission, Tocqueville’s greatest “passion” was the “love of liberty,” and Americans’ love of independence could certainly foster that.  But Tocqueville subscribed to the classical view that moral virtues and vices come not in pairs but in threes.  Someone with too little love of independence was “servile,” with a mindset befitting a slave, but someone with an exaggerated love of independence could resent even legitimate authority.  Such a person was “recalcitrant,” and recalcitrance was one of the character traits that St. Augustine positioned at the very heart of human nature after the Fall.  In Tocqueville’s view, Americans’ passion for equality predisposed them to scorn any authority other than the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  This caused them to be resentful of any intellectual, political, or religious authority not actually awarded by the people themselves.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.  The word "individualism first appeared in the English language in this book.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838. The word “individualism” first appeared in the English language in this book.

Americans were also prone to individualism, according to Tocqueville.  Modern-day Americans often view individualism positively, as an expression of admirable self-reliance and initiative, but Tocqueville saw it in a very different light.  Aristocracy “linked all citizens together in a long chain from peasant to king,” Tocqueville explained, whereas democracy “breaks the chain and severs the links.”  Equality placed citizens side by side but “without a common bond to hold them together.”  Owing nothing to anyone, expecting nothing from anyone, men and women gradually withdraw from society into the cocoon of the family.  In Tocqueville’s view, individualism eats away at community and undermines civic life.  Happily, Americans in the 1830s largely offset this tendency with a penchant for joining forces with others to accomplish specific tasks.  Americans were “constantly joining together in groups” to work toward common goals, whether it was the erection of a hospital, the improvement of a school, or the promotion of some moral or political goal.

That they could join forces with their neighbors to accomplish tasks that they couldn’t accomplish alone reflected another of the character traits Tocqueville emphasized: the degree to which Americans were motivated by the rational calculation of self-interest.  The pursuit of self-interest can be impulsive, reckless, and actually detrimental to wellbeing in the long run, or it can be rational, dispassionate, and prudent in a way that brings long-term benefits.  The latter is what Tocqueville meant by “self-interest, properly understood,” and he argued in vol. II of Democracy in America that it was a doctrine that prevailed almost universally among the people of the United States.

While Eric Metaxas insists that Tocqueville believed that “the secret to American freedom was American virtue,” Tocqueville begins his chapter on the “doctrine of self-interest, properly understood” with the contention that the idealization of virtue (defined as the denial of self for the good of the whole) was a hallmark of aristocratic societies, not democratic ones.  In democratic ages, he contends, the ideal of self-sacrifice for the good of others gradually gives way to the belief that the denial of self in the near term can actually further self-interest in the long run.  Americans no longer spoke of the beauty of virtuous sacrifice, Tocqueville found.  Instead, they praised the usefulness of prudent self-denial. If they had a true guiding star among the heroes of the Revolution, it was Benjamin Franklin, whose “Poor Richard’s Almanack” had shown Americans the path to health and wealth through hard work and thrift.

Self-interest properly understood did not lead Americans to classical virtue, Tocqueville acknowledged, “but it does create a multitude of citizens who are disciplined, temperate, moderate, prudent, and self-controlled.”  In many ways such character traits were a blessing to the larger society, but they originated in self-interest, not in virtuous self-denial as a noble act in and of itself.  Americans were no less selfish than the French, Tocqueville reckoned, but American selfishness was “enlightened” in a way that French selfishness was not.  “Instead of blindly yielding to his first desires,” the typical American “has learned the art of combating them and has become accustomed to easily sacrificing the pleasure of the moment to the permanent interests of his entire life.”

Finally, Tocqueville described Americans as surprisingly religious.  “When I arrived in the United States, it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention,” he informed his readers.  To his surprise, the country that was “the freest and most enlightened” in the world, was also the country where religion’s “influence is greatest.”  What Tocqueville had to say about religion in America is so important, and at the same time so complicated, that it will take an entire post to distill his observations.

I’ll turn to that in my next post and (finally) wrap up this series on the oft-repeated claim “America is great because America is good.”  In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.  In characterizing Americans as acquisitive and materialistic, independent-minded and individualistic, rationally self-interested and religious, was Alexis de Tocqueville making the case in the 1830s that “America is good”?

A WARNING FROM THE PAST TO REPUBLICAN CONVENTION DELEGATES

Some more timely food for thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  As I meditated on the passages below, I couldn’t help but think about next week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and its likely outcome.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

To remind you, Tocqueville was a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and the two-volume work that he penned after his visit to the United States in 1831-1832 is widely hailed as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society.”  Among other things, he called attention to the dangers of excessive individualism and materialism in a democratic culture, identified the ever-present potential of the “tyranny of the majority,” and underscored the crucial importance of religious belief to the success of America’s democratic system.

The quotes below come from a section in volume I on the topic of “The People’s Choices and the Instinctive Preferences of American Democracy” (vol. I, part II, chapter 5).  Writing primarily for a French audience, Tocqueville began by noting that many Europeans assumed that one of the advantages of democracy is that free elections based on universal suffrage reliably selects individuals “worthy of public trust” into important public offices.  “For my part,” Tocqueville confessed, “I must say that what I saw in America gave me no reason to believe that this is the case.”

In the rest of this brief section the Frenchman theorized as to why this was true.  On the one hand, he reasoned, making wise decisions between alternative candidates required “enlightenment,” i.e., informed voters.  “Enlightenment” was not simply a euphemism for intelligence or education.  Tocqueville thought it depended primarily on the amount of time that voters were either able or willing to devote to educating themselves on the issues of a campaign and the strength and weaknesses of the rival candidates.  Regarding the latter, he noted, “What a lengthy period of study and variety of ideas are necessary to form an exact idea of the character of a single man!  The greatest geniuses fail at this, yet the multitude is supposed to succeed!”

Maybe even more important than this, according to Tocqueville, was a vice that democratic society seems to nurture: envy.  So strong was the passion for equality in America’s democratic society, Tocqueville believed, that democratic Americans detested all appearances of superiority among other Americans, up to an including those they elected to office.  “No form of superiority is so legitimate that the sight of it is not wearisome to their eyes,” Tocqueville observed.  “They do not fear great talents but have little taste for them.”

And the consequences of this mindset for American government?  “There is no escaping the fact that in the United States today the most outstanding men are seldom called to public office.”  This was partly due to the votes that the electorate cast on election day, but it also reflected a pattern by which the most qualified individuals refused to become candidates.  And why was this, Tocqueville asked?

While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.

The bottom line for Tocqueville: “I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion.  Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

ERIC METAXAS ON OUR NEED FOR HEROES

Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

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.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.

METAXAS ON AMERICA AS A “CITY ON A HILL”

In my last post I offered a summary review of Eric Metaxas’ new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas believes unabashedly in American exceptionalism, although he is quick to disavow all forms of jingoism or triumphant nationalism.  The United States is exceptional, he contends, because we have a unique mission—a divinely ordained, unique mission—to be a blessing to the other nations of the world.

Although I’m sure he means well, the theological implications of this belief are enormous and appalling.  One of my favorite historians of the American Civil War, Steven Woodworth, calls this blurring of the roles of the church and the nation “patriotic heresy.”  In his book Bad Religion (which I reviewed here), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat echoes this critique, referring to such views as “the heresy of American nationalism.”  Hugh Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, writes in his 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.”  This is not a minor concern.

Metaxas

I am not a theologian, but I have spent the past three decades as a professional historian, and what jumps out at me is the way that Metaxas offers historical evidence to support his essentially theological claim.  I could give numerous examples, but I’ll limit myself to one: his misreading of the message of John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboard sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and its oft-quoted words, “We shall be as a city on a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”  In fairness to Metaxas, he is hardly alone.  Heclo aptly describes the memorable metaphor as “rhetoric so beloved and so thoroughly misrepresented by later American politicians.”

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

In context, Winthrop was not remotely claiming that God had decreed a special mission for the political community that the Puritans were about to establish.  For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough.  Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations (as the group that we remember as “the Pilgrims” had done).  Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture.  Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625.  The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s.  In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions.

In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked.  They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation.  If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.”  (Oddly, that’s a portion of Winthrop’s exhortation that almost never gets quoted.)  If the Puritans failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall endeavor.

This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–FINAL REFLECTIONS

[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the concluding below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

Gettysburg

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it. I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear. “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us. The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort. It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes. And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change. When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics. But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know. What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.” I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape. As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind. That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered. In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane. Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.” The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective. It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties. But not all are so reticent. “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say. “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War. The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil. In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives. Some voiced ideological motives. Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it). Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble. The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge. Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice. A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.” Michigan troops were champions of “liberty and union.” Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific. Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.” Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were. Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic. (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”) More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here. I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals. I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it. C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard. The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.” In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.” In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to. What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here. It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none. But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.” As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, such rhetoric confuses the sacred and the secular. It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing. No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes. Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.” We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?” The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.” This is not our home. “You made us for Yourself,” Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago. “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception, convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone. As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty. All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state. Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.” Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself. Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity. One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd. After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left. After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting. As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg. To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning? The answers etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal. Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART TWO

[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

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Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there. These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past. So far I’ve shared two examples. The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds. The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago. Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation. This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me. The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us. It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come. We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7). “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9). Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it. But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy. It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone. The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one. It’s not that our lives are without effect. Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched. Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so. I’m not discounting that. But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion. How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this. In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.” The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes. Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.” It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting. From retrospect they seem so insignificant. We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth. “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a). This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd. “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.” Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life. Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective. As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction. Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story. The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too. I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality. Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me. Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863. They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered. The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world. There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments. I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield. One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is. The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle. A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result. An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are in fact extremely rare. They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism. None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning. Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument, but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it? I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed. Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes. It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated. We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement. In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it. And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid. It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s). As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular. Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption. The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States. The author of redemption is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares. In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims. Their values now bind us. Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us. Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel. What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative. As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience. The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.” Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.” When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground. Lincoln told his audience the same thing. In what possible sense could that be true? It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively. In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause. He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here. We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense. But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11. And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers. If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light. When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us. Instead, we are called to identify with them. Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party. This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way. Others have unknowingly succumbed. Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .