Monthly Archives: July 2012

American Exceptionalism and Lessons from History

     Presidential election seasons invariably provide fertile ground for the flourishing of the idea of American exceptionalism. We will continue to hear candidates affirm their belief that no other nation in history has been so strong, so influential, such a force for good, so consistently blessed and a blessing to the world as America has in its storied history. Any candidate who questions the validity of American exceptionalism does so at his or her peril. Belief in American exceptionalism is likely a prerequisite for getting elected these days.
     Is America special, uniquely powerful, democratic, generous, wealthy, resourceful—even morally upright? Yes. America is a nation which has demonstrated a pattern of political, economic, social, and moral strength and innovation. It has served as an example to the world in hosts of beautiful and beneficial ways. Indeed, America has helped save the world from brutal tyrannies time and again in the past century.
     But to make the claim that America is exceptional means that one must commit to the idea that there has never been a nation as strong, good, influential, generous, democratic, or stable as the United States in human history. To accept this belief, one would also have to claim that the United States is and has been indispensable to the progress and freedom of human beings. Many people have no problem making such claims. But to do so is to ignore history and to invite a check to profound hubris.
     Western nations have a long history of claiming that they are the chosen of God, that they are blessed far beyond other nations, and that their destiny lies in achieving some singular role in the course of human history. This tradition goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire. The French considered themselves and their king to be the “Most Christian.” The Russians under the Czars thought they were blessed by God as the “Third Rome.” The Germans, twice in the previous century, believed their destiny was to rule over all (Deutschland, Deutschland über alles/Über alles in der Welt). The British Union Jack rode the breezes over a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s land surface in the early 20th century—“The nations, not so blest as thee/Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall/While thou shalt flourish great and free/The dread and envy of them all/‘Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves/Britons never will be slaves.’”
     We Americans have a habit of attributing modern republican ideals strictly to ourselves. But our political value system is not native to these shores. Notions of self government, freedom of speech and religion, divided government, etc. developed in England before they took shape here. Also, the British ended slavery in the empire decades before the Americans did, and that somehow without nearly committing national suicide. London was the financial center of the world in the 19th century. The English language became the world’s lingua franca through the efforts of both the British and Americans in the 20thcentury. America could never have defeated Imperial Germany in 1918 without the help of the British and French; Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945 without the Russians; or the Soviets in the Cold War without a host of like-minded allies. We have also learned that the War on Terror is not a war which we can win alone.
     There have been many nations which have occupied unique—even exceptional—positions of power and influence at certain times and places. Some nations rose to preeminence at just the right time to make all the difference for the good of humanity. America is one of those nations. America is, for now, the strongest, freest, and most generous nation in the world. But there have been other nations which have enjoyed this dizzying height. To overstate our significance is not only to write off the history of great powers. It is to delude ourselves into a false sense of security, to think that our position of strength was somehow predestined, inevitable, and immutable. Such a pompous attitude invites the reality check known very well to the great powers of the past. We do well to learn from their mistakes through the open-eyed study of history. The “exceptional” nations of the past had a way of being eclipsed by the dawning glories of once-obscure nations in unexpected ways.
     Just ask the British about their thirteen American colonies.
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President Carter is Right–And We’re On It!

     At EthicsDaily.com this past Tuesday, Robert Parham posted an interview he conducted with former President Jimmy Carter. The issue–what are Christians doing to fulfill Christ’s command to care for the prisoners who are in our midst? Carter’s conclusion was, not much.
“I don’t think there is any doubt but that Luke 4:18-19 describes Jesus’ moral agenda,” said Carter. “That part of Luke best encapsulates in a very brief way the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry.”
Carter continued, 
“Unfortunately, led by some Christian leaders, our country has gone from a basic philosophy of rehabilitation of a prisoner to a punishment only – and the more severe and extended the punishment,” the better it is, he said.
     According to Parham, Carter wants the New Baptist Covenant (NBC) to seriously take up this issue. EthicsDaily.com proposed the production of a documentary at the NBC planning meeting for their 2014 conference. The documentary would focus on “what goodwill Baptists were doing on the prison ministry and prison reform fronts.”
     Former President Carter is right to point out that Christians have much work to do in terms of reaching prisoners. I wonder if he is aware of the efforts Southern Baptists are making at the Angola prison in Louisiana and at the Darrington Unit at Rosharon, Texas.
     New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has been offering a SACS accredited Bachelor of Science degree in Biblical Studies to prisoners at Angola since 1994. Hundreds of prisoners have graduated from the program since then, and have formed numerous churches there. The culture has been transformed from one of the most brutal prisons in the nation to one largely at peace with itself. Warden Burl Cain gives the credit for that change to the prison seminary.
     Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary started its SACS accredited B.S. program in Biblical Studies at the Darrington Unit in the fall of 2011. Over 600 prisoners across the state of Texas applied for admission to the class of 2015, and 40 were accepted. Hundreds more applied for admission to the class of 2016, and another 40 were accepted. The program will continue to accept applicants from the prison system each year, expanding the program and widening its influence.
     At Darrington, all of the prisoners are serving long term sentences. To be considered for admission, a prisoner must have at least 10 years before being eligible for parole. The goal is not to graduate prisoners who will be released from prison, but to graduate prisoners who will go back to other units across Texas and serve their fellow prisoners as pastors and chaplains. They will be seminary trained, and will have the “street cred” that no “free world” chaplain or pastor would ever have with the prisoners in the system.
 
     Classes for the 2012-2013 year at Darrington start in a few weeks. I am teaching Western Civ I to the incoming class of 2016, and Principles and Structure of American Politics to the class of 2015. There are a total of 78 students in our program this year, and next year, we will accept another 40 into the class of 2017. 
 
     Governor Rick Perry visited our “campus” at Darrington in early July. He was deeply impressed and pledged to do all he could to support the school. Mr. Carter, in the off chance you might be reading this, we would love to have you come and visit Darrington and see what God is doing in the lives of those men. It is truly a sight to see!

Something seems wrong about this…

David Barton has produced a new study Bible entitled The Founder’s Bible. It has not yet been released but it is available for pre-order.

Barton bills himself as an historian, and on the front cover of the book, he is labeled as a “signature historian.” I’m not sure what that is exactly. I do know that Barton reads his political agenda into the past. This has the inevitable result of distorting the past and misinforming his audience. His recent book, The Jefferson Lies, is a good example of his presentist interpretation of the past. Go to John Fea’s blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” to read his detailed critiques of this work. You can also get Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right, which is a good answer to Barton’s work and historical method.

What I find more distressing, apart from Barton’s presentism, is his use of the Scriptures to forward his politico-historical ideology. With all due respect to Barton, the world simply does not need yet another study “Bible” that is aimed at a particular audience and topic that really have nothing to do with the central message of the Scriptures.

The subject of the Scriptures is Jesus Christ, and His work making atonement for human sin. The message of the Scriptures is the gospel of God revealed progressively through His people Israel, and thence through His Son, who Himself is the Word.

The relationship of the Bible to the founding of the United States is an interesting, edifying, and relevant issue. But to cast that issue as the focus of the message of the Bible is unconscionable. I have not seen Barton’s Bible, but what he is doing may even be fairly called prostituting the Bible out for his own ideological hobby-horse agenda.

The production of Barton’s Bible points to another deep problem for evangelical Christians. That is, their view of Scriptures as reflected in the number of “study Bibles” that have become available in the past several years. One list of study Bibles contains 183 titles, such as the American Patriots Bible, the Men of Color study Bible, the College study Bible, the Holy Spirit Encounter study Bible–and the list goes on.

I realize that the purpose of producing study Bibles that are geared to specifics topics, audiences, and agendas can make the Bible seem more relevant and attractive to folks who may not otherwise read the Bible. But something definitely does not seem right here. Why is the message of the Bible itself not a sufficient witness to the truth claims that are made within its pages?

Barton is next up in a long line of writers and publishers who feel the need to spruce up the Bible by framing it consistent with a particular agenda. I’m sure it will fly off the shelves. Still, I wonder if this is not an example of being a false prophet, of speaking a word that God has not spoken.

“‘I did not send these prophets,
But they ran.
I did not speak to them,
But they prophesied.
‘But if they had stood in My council,
Then they would have announced My words to My people,
And would have turned them back from their evil way
And from the evil of their deeds.'”
Jeremiah 23.21-22

Isn’t this the purpose of God’s word after all?