Tag Archives: Peter Marshall Jr.

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

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. I thought I would follow my rather negative review of The Light and the Glory with a critique of much more reliable and responsible popular work, A Free People’s Suicide, by Oz Guinness.]

As was the case with the authors of The Light and the Glory, Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian.  Unlike Peter Marshall Jr., however, Guinness is not primarily a pastor or theologian.  Born in China where his parents were medical missionaries, he was educated in England and has lived in the United States for nearly three decades.  Although a recipient of a graduate degree in the social sciences from Oxford, he has made his living mostly outside of the academy and would best be described–as he describes himself–as an author and social critic.

As with Marshall and Manuel, Guinness’s foray into the past is prompted by concern for the present.  There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I think that’s how it should be.  Academic historians are rightfully leery of what we call “presentism”: the bad habit of reading our own values and beliefs into the past so that the individuals we encounter have nothing to teach us.  But we have been so determined to avoid this pitfall that we have often gone to the other extreme, so much so that we typically disparage “populizers” who speak to the contemporary relevance of history or identify lessons from the past.  I suspect that this is one reason why the surrounding culture so often views us as irrelevant.  Not Os Guinness.

GuinnessReminiscent of The Light and the Glory, A Free People’s Suicide begins with a critique of contemporary culture.  Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine noted that the best way to define a people is by the “loved thing held in common.”  Americans, Guinness says, are a people defined by their love of freedom.  Surely he is correct.  Americans may disagree whether the United States is truly a “sweet land of liberty,” to quote the song, but we are unanimous that it should be such a place.  In Guinness’s words, “Freedom is today’s highest virtue, its grandest possibility, its last absolute, its most potent myth, and . . . its only self-evident truth.”

The problem, in Guinness’s view, is that contemporary Americans “are heedlessly pursuing a vision of freedom that is short-lived and suicidal.”  We conceive of freedom simplistically as the utter absence of all restraint.  Across the political spectrum, we have no higher goal than to escape the power of others over our lives.  We exalt freedom of choice rather than wisdom in choosing.  We are a nation drowning in debt and obsessed with decadence.  Our situation is dire.

Notice that this aspect of Guinness’s argument is not historical.  Writing as an outsider not raised in this country, he is simply sharing his assessment of what he sees in his adopted home.  Some readers will cry “Amen!”  Some will think he paints too dark a picture.  Others may find him too optimistic.

It is when he is trying to convince us of how much is at stake that Guinness appeals to history.  First, he notes that even the most cursory scan of world history shows that most of the people who have ever drawn breath on this planet have not lived in free societies.  Freedom, evidently, is a rare and fragile thing.  Second, and at much greater length, Guinness introduces his readers to a centuries-long conversation as to why this should be the case.  Americans need this introduction because, as Guinness laments, “the United States demonstrates the distinctively modern obsession with the present and future at the expense of the past.”

One of my favorite expressions of the value of history comes from historian David Harlan’s book The Degradation of American History.  “At its best,” Harlan writes, the study of American history can become “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  The Suicide of a Free People, at its core, is an effort to raise the dead so that they can speak into our lives.

The book’s title comes from a speech from a young Abraham Lincoln, who in the 1830s predicted that if America ever fell, it would collapse from within.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln declared before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Although Guinness accords the Lincoln quote pride of place, his primary historical focus is on the views of the American “founders” of the late-eighteenth century.  As Guinness observes, in promoting the cause of independence, these prominent statesmen were themselves drawing on a “great conversation that runs down through the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome.”

Distilled to its essence, that conversation, as Guinness sketches it, challenges contemporary Americans with at least four major claims.  The first is that it is much more difficult to sustain freedom than it is to establish or order it.  Indeed, sustaining freedom is a never-ending task “of centuries and countless generations.”  We can never proclaim “mission accomplished.”  We can never spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate.  Historically understood, the American project of sustaining freedom is even now, and will always remain, an unproven “experiment.”

The second claim is a “grand paradox”: “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom.”  In order to flourish, humans need both freedom and order, social goods that are in tension with one another.  Because of our “human propensity for self-love,” we naturally resist the restraint that order requires, undermining our freedom in our very efforts to maximize it.  The founders recognized this, Guinness tells us, and thus advocated an ideal of freedom as “liberty within law” and “autonomy under authority.”

Third, according to Guinness, the founders insisted that freedom was unlikely to survive without some sort of religious faith.  If sustainable “freedom requires order and therefore restraint, the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint.”  This unnatural practice of denying oneself for the common good–what the founders called virtue–was unlikely to flourish in a materialist, secular culture.  While he is emphatic that the founders did not advocate a “Christian America” in any formal, established sense, Guinness provides copious evidence of the founders’ belief, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that “morality must fall with religion.”

The founders’ emphasis on morality pointed to a final broad claim: no structure of government exists that, by itself, can guarantee freedom.  The founders’ strategy for sustaining freedom was always two-fold, Guinness stresses.  Although they lavished great care on the new federal and state constitutions, they always believed that the values of the people were at least as crucial to the long-term survival of freedom.  By itself, as James Madison put it, the new federal Constitution was a mere “parchment barrier” against tyranny.  If freedom was to endure, the “structures of liberty” must be reinforced by the “spirit of liberty.”

Guinness leaves no doubt that he views each of these claims as correct.  He does not, however, fall into a trap that ensnares so many popular Christian writers.  While Guinness clearly admires the founders–he says their “vision charted the course of America’s meteoric rise to greatness”–he does not idolize them.  The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

In contrast, Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  In reviewing the founders’ understanding of how to sustain freedom, his goal  is to show twenty-first century Americans–most of whom are blissfully unaware–just how far they have strayed from the founders’ prescription.  Does this mean that we have “sinned” by falling short of the founders’ ideals?  Not necessarily.  They were fallible human beings, as Guinness repeatedly observes, with their own inconsistencies and flaws.

What is wrong, according to Guinness–“foolish” even–is to wall ourselves off from the ancient conversation about freedom in which the founders were immersed.  The founders may have been wrong, but it is the height of arrogance simply to assume so.  Instead, we must allow them to ask us hard questions.  If as a society we no longer subscribe to the founders’ views, what is our strategy for avoiding the dangers that the founders identified?  “If Americans today have no serious interest in the founders’ wisdom and provisions, what are their alternatives?” asks Guinness.  “If they have any, they should say so, and they should set out what they are and how they relate to the issues behind the founders’ original discussion.”  This is a fair challenge.

I don’t agree wholly with A Free People’s Suicide.  I suspect that Guinness has idealized the founders.  He may exaggerate the degree to which their values shaped the country at its inception.  My point is not to claim that it is a definitive work of history–irrefutably accurate in every detail–but rather to suggest that the way that Guinness has gone about fashioning his argument is fundamentally sound.  He has challenged us to combat what C. S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery.”  He has reminded us that those who have gone before us may have had insights that we very much need to hear.  He has appealed to the past without imputing authority to the dead, respecting our forbears rather than worshiping them.   And he has accomplished all of this without questioning the character of those who might disagree with him.  For believers wanting to think Christianly about the past with an eye to the present, there is much in this model to admire.

RECONSIDERING “THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY”

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below is an extended review of the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.  The review remains the most widely-viewed piece I have ever posted to this blog.]

 

Hands down, the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written is The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Many of you will already know of this work, but for those you who aren’t, here’s a bit of background:

First the authors: A graduate of Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, the late Peter Marshall Jr. was a prominent Presbyterian minister and the founder of “Peter Marshall Ministries,” an organization created to remind Americans of their Christian heritage and “restore America to its Biblical foundations.”  Marshall’s co-author, David Manuel, was an editor at Doubleday Publishing Company before turning to full-time writing.

Next, their published works: In addition to numerous lesser writings, Marshall and Manuel authored three major works, The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.  The first, published in 1977, offers an overview of American history from the voyages of Columbus through the establishment of independence from Britain and the creation of the Constitution.  The second and third, written over the course of the next two decades, sketch the history of the nation from the creation of the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War.

Although the authors went on to produce simplified versions of these works for younger readers, all three books in their original versions feature engaging, accessible prose suitable for juvenile readers on up.  This versatility has assured for them a wide readership among adults and a popular and enduring place in the curriculum of private Christian schools and home schools.  Their combined sales now supposedly approach one million copies and, if correct, this would make the authors far more widely read than any currently living academic Christian historian.

There is much that I admire in these works.  Professional historians could learn a thing or two from Marshall and Manuel.  They took the craft of writing seriously.  They understood that historical knowledge, to make a difference in the world, needs to end up between the ears of general readers.  (We academic historians too often think of history as a conversation among ourselves.)  Marshall and Manuel also appreciated that history is, above all, a story, and they intuitively understood the power of narrative to convey important truths.  This is something historians in the Academy used to realize but have long since forgotten.

Finally, I have no doubt that Marshall and Manuel had good intentions.  Although I have known neither personally, I can imagine that it took courage to take the stand that they did.  I suspect that they were on the receiving end of more than their share of criticism and condescension from the surrounding culture.  I have certainly never been as bold as they.

That said, I cannot recommend these books.  They are marred by numerous errors of fact and interpretation, far too many to catalog here.  These do not constitute their fatal flaw, however.  The fatal flaw in these works is the authors’ well-meant but misguided decision to ground their religious critique of the contemporary United States in an historical argument about the American past.

As they explain in the introduction to The Light and the Glory, when Marshall and Manuel began writing in the 1970s, they were looking for an explanation for the moral crisis that they believe gripped the nation.  Surveying the national landscape, they saw a once unified nation now bitterly divided over Vietnam, bitterly disillusioned by Watergate, and succumbing to a variety of moral ills such as mounting divorce and sexual permissiveness.  As Christians heartbroken over the trajectory of their country, they sought an explanation.  More specifically, as Christians interested in history (Marshall had been a history major at Yale), they sought an explanation in the past.

The Light and the Glory introduces that explanation.  Marshall and Manuel summarized their thesis in the form of a rhetorical question in the book’s opening pages: “Could it be that we Americans, as a people,” they asked, “were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

The thrust of these two works is to answer that foundational question with a resounding “Yes!”  Condensing dramatically, their argument is that the U. S. had originated as a Christian nation, had had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

Note that most, though not all, of their argument was historical.  Marshall and Manuel’s insistence that God had a special plan for the United States was not a historical conclusion at all.  It was a prophetic declaration, a fact that the authors should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging.  This important exception aside, their interpretation rests squarely on a series of historical claims having to do with the values of the country’s founders and the degree to which succeeding generations did or did not conform to them.

There were other possible approaches.  As a pastor, Marshall simply could have opened his Bible.  Employing scriptural principles as a plumb line, he could have instructed his congregation (and any other audience that would hear him) in the ways that current American values fell short of the scriptural standard, in effect calling them (and the nation) to repentance.  What he and Manuel did, however, was to intertwine that call to repentance with a historical narrative—not a narrative based on divinely revealed biblical history, but a narrative based on the authors’ interpretation of American history.

Why did they do that?  I don’t know what their motives were, but there are two reasons why I think well-meaning Christians in general so frequently do something similar.  First, it may seem to strengthen our argument to other Christians.  When we buttress a religious argument with an interpretation of American history, we simultaneously appeal to two aspects of American Christians’ identity, namely their Christian faith and their American heritage.  Whether they consciously intended this, this is what Marshall and Manuel were doing.  They were calling their audience back in not one, but two respects: back to Biblical principles, and back to the supposed ideals of the American founding.

Second, well-meaning Christians may also inject historical arguments in their efforts to reach non-Christian audiences in the public square.  For example, in evaluating the moral state of the nation in the 1970s, Marshall and Manuel might have observed that the United States was rejecting God’s standard and simply left it at that.  Their assertion might have pierced the hearts of some believers, but what weight, humanly speaking, would we expect it to have with the broader, unbelieving culture outside the church?

Eventually, Christians who want to have a political impact in the public square always have to confront a momentous question:  Do we ground our arguments solely in explicitly religious principles, or do we seek some sort of “common ground” on which to build arguments that non-Christians might be more open to?  I am not claiming that this is what motivated Marshall and Manuel, but this much is clear: appeals to the American past are one frequent way that American Christians try to influence the contemporary culture without making explicitly religious arguments.

So why was it such a bad idea for Marshall and Manuel to support a religious critique of contemporary America with a historical argument about America’s past?

I can think of three reasons.  First, their approach exacerbates an identity crisis that has long plagued American Christians, American evangelicals especially.  It is always dangerous to link our commitment to Christ too closely with one or more of our other group attachments.  And there is always a temptation to do so.  It is so easy to intertwine our faith with adherence to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example.

When the boundaries between these loyalties become blurred, we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters called “Christianity And.”  By “Christianity And,” Lewis had in mind a state of confusion in which our ultimate identity in Christ becomes inseparable from other kinds of loyalties that can actually take preeminence in our hearts.  When it comes to thinking about the past, I think that “Christianity And” is most often a concern when we grapple with what it means to be both a Christian and an American.  The Marshall and Manuel approach merely feeds this temptation.

Second, there is a way in which the linking of religious argument with historical interpretation can unintentionally promote idolatry.  That’s a strong statement, I know, and I want to stress that this was never Marshall and Manuel’s conscious intent.  In fact, here I have Marshall and Manuel less in mind than more recent writers who regularly appeal to the founders in making arguments about contemporary public policy.  Living as we do in a pluralistic society suspicious of anything that looks like “theocracy,” I understand why it is so tempting to make such arguments.

Advocating that the nation return to the supposed principles of our founding seems like an acceptable way to promote Christian values in public life without making explicitly religious arguments.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it gives moral authority to the founders of our country, and that is simple idolatry.  The founders deserve our respect, unequivocally, but when “What would the Founders do?” becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” we are imputing moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry.  There’s no other word for it.

Third, when Marshall and Manuel linked their religious critique of contemporary America to an interpretation of American history, they effectively backed themselves into a corner that made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their historical interpretation of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretation of the American present.  I cannot emphasize this too strongly: This is a predicament no Christian historian should ever be in.  The truth of Christianity and the authority of Christian principles are not on trial when we debate American history.

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

(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.

HISTORY, HERITAGE, AND THE SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS

A week ago today I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion on “Reconstruction Tennessee” down in Knoxville. The panel was part of a two-day commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, one of five “signature events” that the state of Tennessee has sponsored over the past five years in various cities. The event drew more than a thousand attendees who enjoyed a range of historical exhibits, living-history demonstrations, and academic presentations.

Tennessee Civil War Logo

I was joined on the panel by three other professional historians and we had a free-flowing discussion about the goals and realities of Reconstruction and, in particular, the factors that have shaped American memory of this crucial period. The attendance at our panel was disappointing, to be honest. The conversation was captured by C-SPAN, however, so eventually you should be able to catch it on cable, most probably at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

Although there were several academic presentations on the program, this “signature event,” as the brochures labeled it, was not strictly an academic gathering. It was sponsored in part by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and the goal was clearly to encourage a broad participation of Tennesseans interested in their history. This will help to explain why, as I sat down to sign copies of my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the Civil War, I was positioned squarely across from a booth manned by none other than the Tennessee chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is more than a little ironic, as scarcely a month ago I had written about the SVC and shared my opinion that their reading of southern history is more fairy tale than fact. (See “License Plates and the Lost Cause.”)

SCVlogoThe SVC would not be allowed space at any of the professional conferences I normally attend, such as the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The reason for this is simple: in the eyes of most academic historians, the SCV is not a legitimate historical organization. The fabulous tale they wish to tell about the southern past is not “history,” but “heritage.”

LowenthalI’m not 100% sure about the origins of the terminology, but it likely comes from a 1996 book by English scholar David Lowenthal titled The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Lowenthal is better at describing “heritage” and “history” than he is at defining either category, and the book is as frustratingly inexact as it is condescending. Boiled down, the two categories are distinguished by their practice and purpose. History relies on “rational proof.” Heritage depends on “revealed faith.” History seeks to “explain through critical inquiry.” Heritage aims to “celebrate and congratulate.” By Lowenthal’s criteria, the Sons of Confederate Veterans may be doing many things, but they are NOT honoring history. They are promoting heritage, and they are doing so at the expense of both reason and truth.

Part of me accepts this verdict wholeheartedly. Certainly, as I wrote earlier, the SCV’s reading of the Civil War is worse than awful, and the literature that they were distributing at the conference was nothing short of appalling. The most innocuous was a SCV merchandise catalog crammed with items that I would only give as gag gifts. There were “Confederate Claus” Christmas cards, Stonewall Jackson tree ornaments, Confederate cufflinks and coloring books, and just about anything you can imagine with the Confederate battle flag slapped across it: playing cards, beer mugs, shot glasses, drink coasters, earrings, tote bags, and (my favorite) a “Battle Flag Faberge Egg Pendant” (just $69.95, chain not included).

BattleFlagPendant

More troubling was the SCV essay “Defending the Constitution since 1861,” which SCV members were passing out in front of an enormous wall banner carrying the same slogan. This brief essay makes two main points: first, that Abraham Lincoln did not originally define emancipation as a goal of the northern war effort (definitely true), and second, that the Confederate decision to secede in 1861 had nothing to do with slavery (egregiously false).

Sprinkled along the way are a succession of untruths and half-truths. For example, the author proclaims that southern cotton exports before the Civil War were “heavily taxed.” (The taxing of exports was explicitly prohibited under Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, a prohibition inserted at the insistence of southern delegates to the Constitutional convention.) He insists matter-of-factly that “secession by States was Constitutional and anticipated when the U.S. Constitution was adopted by the states.” (The Constitution is actually silent on the matter of secession and the perpetuity of the Union; some of the delegates at Philadelphia clearly feared that the Union would not last, but none openly affirmed a Constitutional right to secession.) Finally, the document insists that “the C.S.A. was formed in 1861 to defend the Constitutional rights of liberty and the rule of law.” (This is true, as long as we remember that the “liberty” they sought to defend included the liberty to hold other human beings in bondage.)

What is missing from all this is any mention whatsoever of the antebellum debate over slavery or the near hysterical determination of southern statesmen to destroy the Union rather than submit to a Republican administration whose leader opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories and who had expressed the desire to place slavery on a “course of ultimate extinction.” In the SCV rendering of southern history, the enslavement of four million African Americans doesn’t deserve mentioning. America’s bloodiest war erupted when liberty-loving (white) Southerners stood up to the power-mad Federal Government’s “unfair taxing policies.”

If this is so, then someone forgot to tell the rebel soldiers who filled the Confederate ranks from 1861 to 1865. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Southern historian Colin Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward concluded that the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.” The irony in all this is that the Confederate veterans whom the SCV claims to honor wouldn’t recognize themselves in the organization’s cartoonlike rendition of the causes of the war.

And speaking of cartoons, the most grotesque thing I picked up at the SCV booth was a “graphic novel” titled Sam Davis: Hero of the Confederacy. Obviously intended for young readers, this Confederate comic book tells the highly embellished story of Sam Davis, a young Confederate scout from Tennessee who was captured by Union troops late in 1863 with maps of the Union fortifications of Nashville on his person. Charged with spying, Davis refused to divulge how he got the documents but went willingly to his death. Just before the noose was placed around his neck, he is supposed to have declared, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to duty.” In the late-19th century, southern whites would remember Davis as a hero and martyr.

In 1909, the state of Tennessee erected this monument to Sam Davis on the grounds of the state capitol.

In 1909, the state of Tennessee erected this monument to Sam Davis on the grounds of the state capitol.

Like the SCV’s essay for grown-ups, the comic book doesn’t acknowledge slavery as a factor leading to war. (There is one reference to a slave, though. In one of many invented details, the comic explains that the Union maps were originally taken by a loyal young slave eager to serve the cause of the Confederacy.) On his way to the gallows, Sam meditates on “Mother” and “the old home place” and tells his executioners, “That’s why we’re fighting you, Yanks . . . for home and family!”

In the SCV’s retelling, the young Davis died so nobly that the Union soldiers at the foot of the gallows realized that they were in the presence of someone greater than themselves. “I didn’t know the South had men like this,” one marvels. “Bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” observes a second. What the Yanks had done “weren’t right,” laments a third. A final soldier prophesies, “God is gonna punish us for this.” Young readers may not consciously think of the centurion at Golgotha, but the author has unquestionably made Sam Davis into a Christ figure—the messiah of the Lost Cause.

So is this “heritage,” or just really, really bad history? I’d be interested to hear what you think. For my part, I’m torn on the matter, which might surprise you. It is surely tempting to follow Lowenthal’s criteria and dismiss the SCV’s claims as “not history” at all, as belonging to another universe that we can safely ignore. I’m hesitant to do that, though not for reasons that have anything to do with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I’m hesitant to do it because of the sense of calling that I have as a Christian historian to speak to Christians outside the Academy about how they engage the past.

By Lowenthal’s criteria, much of the ink spilt trying to prove that America was founded as a Christian country would fall into the heritage category. Certainly the work of David Barton would fall into this class, and you could probably place the late Peter Marshall Jr. (of The Light and the Glory fame) in that camp as well. I’m not sure that simply dismissing them as purveyors of “heritage” accomplishes much, however, especially if the goal is to reach Christians outside the Academy who do not automatically defer to anyone with a Ph.D.

Here is how I see it: Ever since the professionalization of history toward the end of the nineteenth century, academic historians have thought of “history” in one of two basic ways. The large and consistently growing majority have adopted a highly restrictive definition centered on method. History, from this standpoint, is in its essence an intellectual discipline that trains the mind to approach the past with logical rigor and epistemological sophistication. A small and dwindling minority has countered with a more expansive definition centered on focus. History, according to this view, encompasses any effort to remember and make sense of the past. From this perspective, the construction of historical knowledge is something that most humans engage in naturally, even unavoidably. The classic expression of this view came in the 1930s from Cornell University historian Carl Becker, who provocatively titled his presidential address to the American Historical Association “Everyman His Own Historian.”

I can see pros and cons in both views. Obviously, the more restrictive definition of history holds up a higher standard of accuracy and underscores the critical importance of reason and evidence to historical understanding. In contrast, the more expansive definition may seem to lower the bar distressingly, in the worst case legitimizing as “history” every crackpot commemoration of an imagined past. That’s a prospect not to be taken lightly.

But on the other hand, the more restrictive definition comes with its own cost, or so I’m beginning to believe. In conceiving of history as determined by method and training, academic historians came to think of history as something that only academic historians do. From there it was only a short step to our present state in which academic history is a self-contained conversation that we academic historians have among ourselves. In sum, I can’t shake the conviction that the more restrictive definition exacerbates the isolation and alienation that distances most professional historians from the larger society we seek to serve.

At any rate, I’m not yet ready to embrace the history/heritage distinction. I would rather call the claims of the Christian America camp “bad history” than relegate them to “heritage.” The former, at least, recognizes that we are engaged in the same fundamental pursuit, broadly defined. The latter simply encourages us to dismiss them, and perhaps to feel self-righteous in doing so.

Your thoughts?

REVIEWING THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” ARGUMENT

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.

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.

 

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

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.