Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

(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.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM AND HISTORY

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

G.K. Chesterton

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.

 

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: CHESTERTON ON THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORY

It’s time to head back to my commonplace book. So far, I’ve shared reflections from two early nineteenth-century writers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Let’s jump forward several generations and listen to a writer whose career was concentrated in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The figure I have in mind is Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton. If you are interested, as I am, in the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind, chances are good that you’re already familiar with this remarkable individual, and if you’re not you might want to get to know him. I’m not the best person to make the introduction, and indeed, I’ve struggled trying to figure out how best to describe him. No single label will suffice. It would be a true statement simply to call him “a Christian writer and apologist,” but that would fail to capture the staggering breadth of his intellectual interests. As one biographer puts it, Chesterton won fame “as a playwright, novelist, poet, literary commentator, pamphleteer, essayist, lecturer, apologist, and editor.” A tabulation of his writings would include eighty or so books, hundreds of poems, several plays, a couple hundred short stories, and somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand essays (most of the latter written as a regular columnist for the London Daily News). To call him “prolific” would be an understatement.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

I’ve read a grand total of three of these works, and I’ll confess that I find Chesterton to be an acquired taste that I haven’t fully acquired. What little I’ve read of his apologetics (Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) strikes me as unnecessarily confusing. Chesterton was a non-linear thinker if there ever was one. Both works are full of digressions and interesting but often puzzling asides that make following his overall argument—for me, at least—hard going. And yet both books are packed with specific, discrete observations that are both insightful and memorable, for example, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.” (I love that one.) In sum, Chesterton is eminently quotable, which is why he takes up a lot of space in my commonplace book.

In this post I’ll focus on a single quote from his 1908 book Orthodoxy that I’ve found useful for thinking through my calling as a Christian and a historian. It is not a quote explicitly about history per se, but I still find it wonderfully applicable.

Orthodoxy

I have in mind an extended passage in which Chesterton is meditating on the relationship between democracy and tradition, and in particular, the idea that “democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.” (Although I don’t have time to develop the point now, this is a view that David Barton’s hero, Thomas Jefferson, certainly flirted with.) In contrast, Chesterton insists that “tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Hear as he explains his reasoning:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

By “tradition,” Chesterton has in mind an appreciation for the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us. The widespread denigration of those values and beliefs is a hallmark of our age and one of the primary reasons why Americans are, overall, so dismissive of history. Boston University professor Robert C. Bartlett spells out the connection in his essay “Souls Without Longing”: “To be convinced of the progressive character of human life,” Bartlett writes, “is to be convinced of the superiority of the present to the past: When the achievements of another era are considered by definition deficient in comparison with what we can do here and now, they shrink accordingly in importance. Thus the belief in progress saps the only serious incentive to study the past—to learn from it how to live in the here and now—and history becomes boring.”

We are bored by history, Bartlett observes, in part because we don’t expect to learn anything truly valuable from it. We don’t expect to learn anything valuable from it, Chesterton suggests, because we are anti-democratic elitists. (C.S. Lewis similarly condemned what he called “chronological snobbery.”) When we dismiss history we cut ourselves off from 94 percent of the human race, merely because they were born in a less “enlightened” age. We may deny the charge, but there’s an element of arrogance at the heart of such present-mindedness.

As a Christian historian, one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament is found in Job 8:9, where Bildad the Shuhite counsels Job not to limit his search for understanding to his own generation. “We were born yesterday, and know nothing,” Bildad reminds his friend, “because our days on earth are a shadow.” At its best, the study of history begins with such a posture of humility, a recognition of the fleetingness of our lives and our need for wisdom.

Paraphrasing Chesterton, I would say that when we take history seriously we purpose to listen “to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” When we take history seriously, we participate in “the democracy of the dead.” And as Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “the brotherhood of man is even nobler when it bridges the abyss of ages.”