Monthly Archives: March 2014

70s Rock and American Exceptionalism

styxI’m not old enough to remember rock from the mid-70s (OK, late 70s, yes). But I did love the Styx when I was a teenager in the 80s. “Suite Madame Blue” was one of my favorites. When I was a student at Furman University, I took a course on the US in the 1960s and 70s with Dr. Marian Strobel, a specialist on the period. While studying Watergate and the Vietnam War, “Suite Madame Blue” suddenly became meaningful. I understood what the song was about.

“Suite Madame Blue” is a metaphor for the United States. If you listen to the lyrics, especially at the end, you can hear the poignancy in the song, the nostalgia for an innocence that has been lost. The song reflects a particular introspection, a self-examination, that can be traced back to the Puritan colonists. The song seems to be attempting to say, “Something’s not right here. We’ve betrayed our identity. We need to recover ourselves as a nation.”

National self-examination and self-critique are unique traits of Americans. Americans have long been unsatisfied with their experiment in self government, justice, and faithfulness to the ideals upon which they established their nation. Because America’s founding is on ideas, it has a national conscience, and the voice of that conscience has been heard through spokesmen like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham. I dare say, it can also be heard in the voice of a righteous band from the 70s.

The Tradition of Place and Civil Religion

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Just got Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister in the mail today. I’m excited to read it–and also excited to have the opportunity to be hosted by the political science department at my alma mater, Furman University, to hear Dr. McClay lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville next week.

The fifth chapter on my exceptionalism book will be dealing with this topic of the tradition of place in American civil religion. Americans have historically considered their land as divinely favored, given its great size, bounty, and beauty. But over the past several decades, this sense of place has been lost. I’ll be writing on some various views of place in American civil religion, and I hope to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation in the book.

I also hope to present a paper on the topic. I’ve proposed a paper for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting next November entitled “God Shed His Grace on Thee”: The Tradition of Place in American History, Civil Religion, and Local Evangelical Churches. I hope it gets accepted. Here is my abstract, and I’d love any constructive feedback you may have:

One of the more ironic turns in the history of American culture is a general shift in attitude concerning “place.” The Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s saw tremendous theological significance in the physical space they occupied west of the Hudson River. The tradition of assigning theological significance to places in America continued well into the twentieth century. One has only to consider the patriotic songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to see how Americans viewed their land in Edenic terms, particularly favored by God. But since the end of World War II, Americans have largely abandoned this traditional aspect of civil religion, this powerful sense of place. Technology, transience, convenience, urban sprawl, globalization, and many other factors have contributed to this loss of the civil religious tradition of place.

The church has, in large measure, taken part in this abandonment. Historically, evangelical churches in America have sponsored and supported civil religion. This unique aspect of American churches was underscored in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville in the first part of his definitive book, Democracy in America. But in an effort to pursue and preserve relevance, many evangelical churches have largely abandoned the tradition of place. Many churches have no architectural or aesthetic distinctives linking them to their respective places. Cemeteries are no longer laid out when new church buildings are constructed, having the effect of severing a believing community’s memorial and generational ties. And many churches seek mission opportunities that are distantly located from their own communities. These and other examples demonstrate how many American churches have lost their own sense of place, to the detriment of their Christian identity and engagement with their localities.

This paper will argue that the tradition of place has profound theological significance in worship, aesthetics, missions, and American culture. The loss of a sense of place is an emerging theme in American culture (see for example Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, eds. Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, New Atlantis, 2014; Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology, Baker, 2010), and evangelical churches have a unique opportunity to direct the dialogue. In doing so, churches in America can make meaningful contributions to the coherence of community and quality of life for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Ever Wonder What Theodore Roosevelt Sounded Like?

like-a-boss-e1350189178780_6He sounded like an “Eastern dandy” according to ranch-hands in Dakota Territory upon meeting him for the first time. Go to the Angry History Show to listen to recordings of Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, W. H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. You’ll see what I mean about the old Bull Moose!

Thanks to Josh Bush for the tip!

Twenty Six Days of African American History

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My good friend Arthur Croswell (he’d tell you to call him “Cros”) writes weekly posts at his blog entitled “Wednesday’s Word.” Cros is a software engineer in Charlottesville, VA and a 20-year Air Force veteran. I’ve known Cros for nearly a decade now, and I am a better man because of his influence in my life.

This past February, Cros posted a short article on African American history on his Facebook page just about every day. Cros is an African American with a keen interest in his own heritage, but also wanted to do his part to give a little historical perspective to everyone in his circle of friends and family no matter their racial identity. I found his daily posts to be informative, helpful, and thought provoking. Certain of his posts stuck with me all day long.

Some of the topics of Cros’ posts were the beginnings of the slave trade, slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, German Quaker resistance to slavery, African American music, the Stono Rebellion, the American Colonization Society, Henry Box Brown, the African Grove Theatre, and slaves’ self worth. Each post is concise and focused, opening the door to the reader for deeper exploration. Teachers may find Cros’ posts valuable for whetting their students’ appetites for further reading.

You can find Cros’ posts at his blog, Wednesday’s Word.

At the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies Meeting, Dallas, TX

indexI’m excited to be attending the SWCRS conference in Dallas this weekend. I’m especially excited to be on a panel for the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion tomorrow entitled “Anti-Evolution, the Protestant Ethic, Exceptionalism, and Vitalism.” My paper is “Separating Wheat from Chaff in the Concept of American Exceptionalism.”

Here is a taste of what I’ll be saying in the paper:

American exceptionalism is not a monolithic concept. It is not a signpost with only one side. As an aspect of civil religion, exceptionalism is a coin with two sides. Closed exceptionalism, as one side of the coin, must be faced down to avoid idolatry; open exceptionalism must be faced up to encourage human flourishing. Closed exceptionalism is exclusive; open exceptionalism is inclusive. Closed exceptionalism limits freedom to some; open exceptionalism expands it to all. Closed exceptionalism is self-satisfied, because it is based on determinism. Open exceptionalism is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory. Closed exceptionalism denies America can do wrong; open exceptionalism acknowledges America’s flaws and endeavors toward improvement. The Christian gospel chastens closed exceptionalism, to keep the nation from becoming an object of worship. Open exceptionalism chastens sectarianism, encouraging the growth of the church while simultaneously supporting religious liberty for adherents of all faith systems.

Both closed and open forms of exceptionalism are aspects of American civil religion. Civil religion is a set of theological beliefs and symbols distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite. The notion of a civil religion was introduced to the Western mind by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century,[1] but Robert Bellah’s 1967 seminal essay, “Civil Religion in America,” provides the paradigmatic understanding of civil religion for my purposes. Bellah looked at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, noting that the President made several references to America’s special relationship and responsibility to God. Bellah also noted that Kennedy’s references were not in conflict with his Catholic Christianity—he made no references to Jesus Christ, the Bible, or to church tradition. Kennedy was appealing to his religiously diverse audience to unify around certain religious affirmations as members of the same political community. Bellah said that when Kennedy spoke, “his only reference was to the concept of God, a word that almost all Americans can accept” and “there are . . . certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.”[2] In other words, there are definite religious themes that have existed in the American mind that have continuously formed American culture, identity, and engagement with the world since the inception of the nation at its founding in the eighteenth century, and also of the proto-nation at the planting of the colonies in the seventeenth century. Bellah said of these themes, that they “still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life”[3] and although he wrote over forty years ago, Bellah’s thesis still holds today. Furthermore, Bellah continues to be correct in his assertion that civil religion is so elemental in America that its sources, beliefs, symbols, and practices must be understood as much as those of any traditional religion.


[1] See Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, no. 38 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

[2] Robert N. Bellah “Civil Religion in America,” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 170–71.

[3] Ibid.