Tag Archives: The Light and the Glory

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.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience.  As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well.  History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that.  Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before.  It alters the way we think.  It challenges our hearts.  It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan.  We shouldn’t settle for less.  Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26).  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher.  Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.”  We must seek them persistently, insistently.  Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past.  This summer I have been re-reading the “God’s Plan for America” series by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel (The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet).  I have lost track of the number of times that they claim God’s supernatural intervention in their historical research: “The Holy Spirit gave us insight after insight . . .”; “The Holy Spirit reminded us that . . .”; “thus did the Lord bring to our attention . . . “; “the Holy Spirit went on to show us why . . .” etc.

I do not question their sincerity.  But note that Marshall and Manuel are not just saying that God blessed their research by sharpening their minds.  In his prayer “Ante Stadium” (“Before Study”), the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas regularly asked God to grant him, among other things, “keenness of mind” and “skill in learning.”  The Christian historians I know would all readily echo that prayer and long for the Lord to grant it.  Marshall and Manuel go much farther, however.

Repeatedly, they identify particular moments when God supernaturally intervened to direct them to just the right source at just the right time , in the process leading them to a more accurate understanding of American history.  I don’t doubt for an instant that God could do this if it pleased Him, but I find no scriptural basis to expect this sort of revelation.  When such insight comes, if it comes, it is a form of special revelation, and those who receive it are really exercising a prophetic role.  This is why books like The Light and the Glory are not really historical at all–they are works of prophesy.

While I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us, the Bible is clear that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).  So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts.  Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom.  As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word.  That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg.  They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind.  You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions.  For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring.  As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago.  I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that).  As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event.  The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference.  For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we?  The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church.  We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more.  It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule.  And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small.  That’s a good thing.  If an integral component  of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them.  I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there.  That’s not a message we care to hear.  We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it.  “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.”  The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg.  Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge.  As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses.  We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective.  We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back.  (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”)  We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge.  (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent.  As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems.  Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward.  Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope.  Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience.  In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews.  To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals.  As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know?  The author of Proverbs  provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth.  From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and  unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance.  Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.”  Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.

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

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

Like the other figures that I have discussed recently (Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson), Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian.  Unlike the others, Guinness is not primarily a pastor or theologian.  Born in China where his parents were medical missionaries, he was educated in England and has lived in the United States for nearly three decades.  Although a recipient of a graduate degree in the social sciences from Oxford, he has made his living mostly outside of the academy and would best be described–as he describes himself–as an author and social critic.

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

Guinness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

HOW SHOULD WE THEN THINK ABOUT AMERICAN HISTORY? THOUGHTS ON FRANCIS SCHAEFFER

In my previous post, I shared my opinion of the fabulously popular Christian interpretation of American history authored by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet–often packaged together as the “God’s Plan for America” Series–have reportedly sold nearly a million copies combined.  If correct, this surely makes the trilogy the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.

As I mentioned, there are aspects of these works that I admire.  They are written in narrative prose accessible to a broad audience.  They speak to larger questions of being and purpose, acknowledging our natural human longing for something more than the detached perspective of the academic technician.  Finally, they take God’s sovereignty over human affairs with admirable seriousness.

And yet their flaws overshadow these strengths.  Although I think they are incorrect in many of their factual assertions, I am more concerned with the basic structure of their argument.  Simply put, Marshall and Manuel grounded their scriptural critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past.  Although I am sure that they meant well, such an approach had three negative consequences.

First, it fed a widespread temptation among American evangelicals to conflate our identity in Christ with our identity as Americans.  Second, it reinforced a tendency among well-meaning believers to impute a degree of moral authority to the Founding Fathers than can border on idolatry.  Finally, by grounding their religious argument so squarely in their own subjective interpretation of American history, Marshall and Manuel placed themselves in a predicament: any challenge to their assertions about the American past would seem to weaken the force of their Scriptural argument about the present.  In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims.  This was not malevolent.  It was, however, appallingly misguided.

I have focused exclusively on Marshall and Manuel thus far, but we evangelicals frequently adopt this historical approach when we try to do battle with the unbelieving culture around us.  David Barton has recently come under a microscope for they way that he has wielded his interpretation of American history as a weapon in the culture wars, but he is only the latest in a long line of Christians (almost always non-historians) who have pursued such a strategy.  In the rest of this post, I want to speak to a contemporary of Marshall and Manuel who fashioned a far more sophisticated historical argument but without escaping the same unfortunate consequences.

Schaeffer IThe person I have in mind is the late evangelical writer and thinker, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984).  If you are not familiar with Schaeffer and want to learn more, the best place to begin is with Baylor Professor Barry Hankins’ wonderful biography, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmanns, 2008).  You can make a compelling case that, from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, no single individual did more than Francis Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.

In books like The God Who is There (1968), Escape from Reason (1968), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972), Schaeffer challenged Christian readers to develop an explicit, internally coherent, scripturally grounded world view as a platform from which to critique and engage the culture.  I read these books myself in the early 1990s.  A young assistant professor at a secular research university, I was just beginning the long (still far from finished) process of trying to figure out what it means to love God with all my mind, as well as with all my heart, soul, and strength.  Schaeffer’s trilogy encouraged and convicted me, less for any of its particular claims than for its implicit message that the life of the mind was important work, and that Christians were called to it.  As he did for thousands of others, Schaeffer made me want to continue the arduous work of trying to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer II

And yet Schaeffer ultimately fell into the same trap that ensnared Marshall and Manuel.  His early works contained  an historical dimension, but they touched lightly on the American past and did not culminate in a clear call to action.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, Schaeffer penned a series of books that developed his historical arguments further and sounded a clarion call for Christian activism.  What concerned him most was Americans’ growing devaluation of human life, revealed in their acceptance of abortion and openness to euthanasia.  Collectively, How Should We Then Live? (1976), Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), and A Christian Manifesto (1981) constituted “a call to culture war,” as Hankins puts it.

Writing at approximately the same time, Marshall and Manuel had explained the sad moral state of the nation in terms of a falling away, a forgetting of God in times of prosperity reminiscent of ancient Israel.  Schaeffer’s take was different, if not incompatible.  With sweeping generalizations that drove professional historians crazy, Schaeffer explained two thousand years of western intellectual and cultural history in terms of a struggle between world views.

On the one hand is theism.  This world view begins with “the God who is there” and understands mankind’s existence and purpose in the light of His revelation.  Its irreconcilable antithesis is secular humanism–materialistic, relativistic, nihilistic–a world view that exalts autonomous Man as the center of the universe and the definer of meaning.

Focusing on the last five hundred years, Schaeffer condemned the intellectual currents of the Renaissance and Enlightenment for embracing secular humanism.  Thankfully, their disastrous potential had been held in check, at least partially, by the beneficent influence of the Protestant Reformation and its re-invigoration of Christian theism.  But the threat posed by secular humanism persisted, and it was growing.

Schaeffer’s primary goal was to pierce the hearts of his readers by engaging their minds, warning them that a culture that embraced relativistic humanism had forfeited any coherent basis for defending the preciousness of the individual.  Once transcendent principle had been abandoned, power alone remained, and the society that took such an ominous step had laid itself bare to the inroads of authoritarianism and tyranny.  I agree.

Unfortunately, just like Marshall and Manuel, Schaeffer insisted on grounding his religious critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past.  Like Marshall and Manuel, albeit with different emphasis, Schaeffer told Americans that the United States had begun as a Christian country.

Placing the greatest stress on intellectual currents, as was his habit, Schaeffer argued that the influence of the Enlightenment on the Founding Fathers had been negligible.  Rather, they had been primarily shaped by Reformation thinkers.  In calling on Americans to renounce secular humanism, Schaeffer said they need merely return to the foundation on which the nation had been built.

It was at this point that leading evangelical historians began to register their concern.  For Christian scholars like Mark Noll (then at Wheaton) and George Marsden (then of Calvin College), the claim that the Founders had been untouched by the Enlightenment ignored extensive evidence to the contrary, whereas evidence that they had been formed by Reformation thinkers was almost non-existent.

Now is not the time to address the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country.  (If you would like to dive into that huge question, a good place to start would be John Fea’s Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?)  For now, what we need to see is the corner that Schaeffer had backed himself into.  Out of a deep religious conviction, he had gone forth to confront the culture about the implications of its secular world view, but in his approach he had so intertwined scriptural and historical arguments that any disagreement with the latter seemed to undermine the former.

Schaeffer IIIAs Barry Hankins’ biography relates, for more than a year, Schaeffer, Noll, and Marsden engaged in an extensive correspondence over the  accuracy of Schaeffer’s historical claims.  Much of the interaction revolved around specific historical points, but another recurring thread in the correspondence centered on Schaeffer’s contention that in publicly challenging his historical interpretation, Marsden and Noll were effectively, if unintentionally, giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

In the end, Schaeffer found it hard to believe that anyone who disputed his view of the American founding could be theologically sound.  In a letter to Mark Noll, he bluntly questioned the Wheaton historian’s view of Scripture.  In correspondence with an ally, Schaeffer castigated Noll and Marsden as “weak Christians” and lumped them with “those who devaluate the Scripture” and “those who confuse the socialistic program with the kingdom of God.”  Such Christian historians had to be challenged, Schaeffer averred, so as not to undermine the ongoing battle “against the collapse of our generation.”

American evangelicals who read such words should shudder.  Despite the best of intentions and the most genuine of convictions, Schaeffer had so confused his own subjective interpretation of history with the authority of Christian principles that the two had become inseparable.  After nearly two generations of culture war, we are inured to a perpetual bombardment from talk show hosts and pseudo-celebrities who implore us to equate fidelity to Scripture and faithfulness to Christ with a particular interpretation of American history.  The result has been to add a man-made layer to the “good news” and to make it harder, not easier for us as Christians to think deeply about the culture we inhabit.

Let us be very careful in how we appeal to the past.