Category Archives: One Nation Under God

The Barton Effect

A couple of weeks ago, I and a colleague from SWBTS went to hear a presentation from David Barton. John Fea asked me to comment on the event, and he graciously posted my thoughts on his blog over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Here is what I wrote:

Last night, David Barton appeared at the First Baptist Church of Brazoria, TX (south of Houston) to make his presentation on America’s Christian heritage.
My interest in Barton comes from my having critiqued his, and other works on the Christian America thesis, so I was definitely anxious to hear him. I knew the church would be packed out, so I made sure I got there early. Of course, no self-respecting Baptist ever sits on the front row no matter how crammed the place is, so the best seats in the house smoothly beckoned me.
Right at 7 p.m., the MC representing the local Baptist association hosting the event, stood up to the pulpit and led us in the recitation of the pledge to the US flag. (Don’t get me started on pledging the flag in church). Then, he gave the introduction of Barton, “America’s Historian” according to “a major media news outlet” and “one of Time’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals.” Barton ascended the dais, and immediately he was off.
Say what you want about Barton, he is a walking encyclopedia. He can rattle of names, places, dates, and block quotes with the best of them. He also had in his repertoire a host of obscure anecdotes that failed not to delight his audience. He was certainly an engaging speaker. I could not help but hang on to every word. He was witty and could also be in deadly earnest. He had the 300 or so people present in the palm of his hand from the first five minutes of his presentation for two hours. As a teacher and a preacher, I must say he has a gift that I lack.
But being there was less like listening to a historian present on some topic on the early republic and more like being at a magic show. Barton is really more like a Christian illusionist than a historical thinker and teacher. When you go to a magic show, you see the illusionist manipulate the props in order to dazzle you with effects that at face value, look impossible but are undeniable. Barton is like that. His props were a collection of raw historical data that he artfully and eloquently presented to the audience. Then, just like an illusionist does, he manipulated that data, compelling the audience to intuitively come to the conclusion that America was and is specially chosen by God to be a Christian nation.
Barton’s use of the raw data was ironically, but predictably, shoddy. He got a lot right. But there were several annoying, bugaboo errors throughout his presentation. No one of them was fatal to his credibility, but taken together, they undermined him considerably. Black preacher Rev. Richard Allen did not, in fact, serve as the lone pastor of a 2000 member white church in Philadelphia. Woodrow Wilson was not the first writer of history to present American society as divided along racial lines based on fear, hate, and social Darwinism. The first Bible printed in America was not produced by the US Congress. The United States had not consistently stood up for the religiously oppressed of the world until fifty or so years ago. Frederick Douglass was not a promoter of American exceptionalism. The Constitution does not find its source in Scripture. The Second Great Awakening was not an eighty year period of pure Christian awakening resulting in a general state of godliness. America has never, before or after Abington v Schempp (1963), been a paragon of biblical righteousness. But these kinds of errors are common in Barton’s writings, and are to be expected.
The really disturbing aspect of the presentation is that Barton is a manipulator of Christian folks who sincerely love their country. He goes in front of Bible believing people who, for the most part, do not spend all their time thinking about the American founding but who do want to believe that America’s heritage is exclusively Protestant. He goes with data mined from the historical record that will suit his particular cultural agenda. He presents that data with no explanation of context. He gives no credit to any other sources that are not explicitly evangelical.
And he implies that anyone who might arrive at any different conclusion than his falls into one of two categories—either she is one of those who believe that “all the founders were deists” or she is of the group that thinks that “the founders were enemies of Christ.”
Barton has a smugness about him that is strange and off-putting in the church setting. In Barton’s world, there are three types of people: first, there are those who think they know the founders better than they knew themselves. These are the scholars, the PhDs who reject Barton’s thesis. He is sarcastically disdainful of them. Second are those plain people who, by Barton’s lights, have not a clue about the Source of our founding ideas. And he pities these. But for Barton, the common factor that joins these groups together is that, “they just don’t know their history” or “their Bibles.”
Then, there’s Barton. He knows everything. And he just comes to the simple conclusion, from the founders’ own words, that America is a chosen nation of God in Christ.
But Barton is the one who doesn’t know his history, or his Bible. If he were a student presenter in one of my classes, I would dock him severely based on his historical and theological errors alone. He said that “revival cannot happen in a climate hostile to God” but he must not know that the salient periods of Christian growth have always come through persecution. He irrationally denies that his conclusion leads him where he cannot go—to the establishment of Christianity in America. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between special grace and common grace—special grace being limited to things pertaining to salvation, and common grace being bestowed on the “just and the unjust alike.” This leads him to dangerously conflate America with salvation by grace through faith in Christ.
Sure, he has a host of facts from the Bible and from the past at his fingertips. He can sure dazzle an audience with his effortless use of them. But he forces those facts, errors and all, into what becomes a bulging, bulky, gawdy package labeled, “Christian America.” 

And the audience loved it.


Kirk Cameron’s Movie, "Monumental"

The movie comes out in theatres tomorrow for one day only, March 30. I will be interested to see it for myself after reading some things about it.

I watched the trailer here, and I think that caution is appropriate when approaching Cameron’s movie. It is predictably overhyped and somewhat cheesey, what with the (annoying) melodramatic electric guitar and drumbeat accompanied by three second scenes that have lots of emotional content but little in the way of meaning. Someone in the trailer makes a reference to the fall of Rome and connects Rome’s fall with contemporary America. We’re on shaky ground when we try to draw connections between Rome and America. One reason Christians in particular should be careful in doing this seems pretty obvious: Rome was an explicitly “Christian nation” when it fell in 476. America is not now, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation.

What also makes me abundantly cautious is that David Barton is called upon in the movie as an expert on America’s Christian heritage. Barton is a self styled “master teacher” of American history, but his writings do not demonstrate a broad understanding of the ideas of the American founding. Here is a well written critique of Barton’s part in the movie. Barton is either ignorant of many historical facts, or something worse. I prefer the explanation that he just doesn’t know better.

Watch the movie if you can, because I”m certain it has some value to it (at least, I hope so). After you watch it, get this book and see what contrasts you might find.

Don’t Know Much About History? Learn Some.

Samuel Chi, the editor of RealClear History, assesses the ramifications of the widespread ignorance of history that exists in our civilization. He begins the article with this:

While waiting for the boat to take us across the channel to the USS Arizona Memorial, I overheard a group of college students discussing history. Unable to help myself, I lingered to eavesdrop. And this is the gist of what I heard: “The World War II [sic] started with a bunch of countries on one side and a bunch of counties on the other side,” a young man began, his companions listening with rapt attention as if it were a lecture, “and we didn’t know which side we wanted to be on and we had a hard time picking sides. But when the Japanese attacked us, that made it easy to go against their side.”

I didn’t know whether I should be enraged at or take pity on the young man’s ignorance. But what was most troubling was that he was the one dispensing “knowledge”! The others–judging by the fact that no one disputed or challenged his account–knew less than he did, even after apparently 12 years of compulsory education.

I have always been under the impression that our society values science a lot more than it values history. Admittedly, scientific research has yielded more results in terms of healing illnesses as well as prolonging and improving quality of life than has historical research. Science has also given us more LCD televisions and Red Bull than history.

Still, one of the keys to a virtuous and productive society is a liberally educated populace. It has ever been so.

It’s never too late to learn some more history. I know of a great book that was written on our our history and identity. You should buy it and read it.

Is American Exceptionalism a Christian Idea?

Battle of Veracruz. Image from Wikipedia

Oliver Thomas has a column in USA Today on the topic. The title of piece is “A Christian View of American Exceptionalism.”

I am working on a paper and a book proposal on the topic of American exceptionalism. My intent is to write a historical and theological analysis of American exceptionalism, and argue that it is not an idea in alignment with Christianity. This column caught my attention.

Thomas begins his piece by saying,

Even before we could get off the ship, Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, explained it to us. We were to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, the new Israel. Iconic politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have invoked this famous biblical imagery to explain America’s role in the world.

Winthrop was the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, not the same thing as the state of Massachusetts. He could not have envisioned that what he described as a “city on a hill” would move beyond the shady boundaries of what he could see in 1630. We can also question whether or not his metaphor of “city on a hill” is rightly applied to America’s adventures over the centuries. And while Winthrop intended Massachusetts Bay to be a Puritan commonwealth, and thus a “Christian nation,” that is not what the framers of the Constitution produced, but a nation with full religious freedom. Furthermore, the descriptions of “city on a hill” and “light to the nations” are used in Scripture to apply respectively to the followers of Christ (Matt 5) and to Christ Himself (Isa 49, 60).

America’s self-understanding as a shining “city on a hill” helps explain both our westward expansion and our paternalistic foreign policy. From Cuba and Central America to the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, Americans have been willing to impose their will on others. Some will argue it was because we wanted their land or oil. Perhaps. But it was also because we thought we knew what was best.

Thomas is right in his last sentence of this quote. But what nation acts in a particular way thinking they didn’t know what was best? This doesn’t mean they are right all, or even most, of the time. America has been right a great deal in its history as it has acted in its interests. But not all the time.

But probe the biblical metaphor that forms the foundation of the American psyche and you find that exceptionalism is always for service — never for favor. The prophets of Israel emphasized this point. Even the ancient book of Genesis establishes this baseline principle when God speaks to the patriarch Abraham: “By your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

This first sentence is problematic. One need only to look to the Mexican War of 1846-48, which was primarily a war of conquest. Also, does Thomas truly mean to suggest that Gen 12.3 ought to be applied directly to the United States of America? Certainly if America has replaced Israel as God’s chosen nation, it must. But to reach this conclusion, one must ignore everything the Bible says about God’s plan for Israel and the church.

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is for service, not domination. Parse Winthrop’s words, and you’ll find a similar message. The American experiment was to serve as an example of right living and right governance. “A model of Christian charity,” as he put it. It was never intended as American entitlement.

Again, Winthrop did not envision himself starting “an American experiment.” He saw himself establishing a covenant community in a strange and distant wilderness, an “errand in the wilderness.” He saw himself doing God’s work, but did not see this work in the same nationalistic way that we ascribe to him. This is an anachronistic way of interpreting Winthrop’s sermon.

That’s ironic given the extraordinary generosity of individual Americans. We tend to be good neighbors. When the roof caves in, Americans pile in with blankets, hot coffee and all the rest. From the Salvation Army to Boys and Girls Clubs to Habitat for Humanity to the Gates Foundation, the generosity and creative problem-solving ability of Americans is legendary. But a blessing to the world and a light to other nations? Only on occasion.

No argument here.

I’m thinking of America’s stand against Nazism and Japanese imperialism; her willingness to help rebuild post-World War II Europe; and, more recently, her stunning response to the 2004 tsunami. America also boasts the world’s oldest Constitution, an extraordinary system of governmental checks and balances, almost two-thirds of the world’s top universities and the collective talent to do anything we set our minds to. Ironically, we cannot rely upon our politicians to get us there. They can’t even get to a balanced budget! If America is to live up to the dream of her Founders, it will be because of us. We the people.

No urgent argument here, except to ask what exactly is the dream of America’s “Founders”? The “Founders” were not one thing. They all had dreams for the country, and many of them deviated sharply from one another. Read some of the debates over the proposed Constitution in the states before it was ratified, and you’ll see that the “dream” was not as simple and obvious as it is often sentimentally described.

The path forward is surprisingly simple yet exceedingly hard. We will have to begin acting more like our parents and grandparents. They put duty first, not self-actualization or the titillation of their nerve endings. No wonder they were able to accomplish all they did. And they never whined — not about gas rationing or individual tax rates that soared to as high as 90% in the 1950s. They seemed to live by one simple code: We will leave the world a better place than we found it.
The path to greatness is never well-trod. It is, though, well-marked. Discipline, courage and self-sacrifice are what get you there, not fidelity to narrow partisan agendas. Can America live up to her lofty dream as a shining city on a hill? You decide.
I agree with this also, but we must be careful when we consider the generations that have gone before us. They were just as flawed as we are. Our grandparents’ generation, the same one that won World War II, had the same proclivities to complaining, grandstanding, and power-mongering that we have in our day. They were not demigods. Read some of the political speeches of the candidates during the 1930s-1950s.
Thomas is exactly right, however, to draw a contrast between that generation and this. There was a greater willingness to sacrifice, to accept adversity, to look out for others, to deny selfish desires, to strive for common goals. Americans are special, without a doubt, because of its history, its traditions, its sincere desire to bring individual freedom to every nation, and its willingness to “bear any burden” to relieve the suffering and oppression of others.
Still, we must be careful not to import biblical imagery that was directed in one direction and forcefully point it elsewhere for patriotic self-service. America should certainly be marked by self-sacrifice, duty to others, commitment to justice, and rule of law. These commitments should stem from the fact that they are rooted in the truth, even biblical truth. But to advocate for these things on a shaky theological and historical basis that America is God’s New Israel? That’s bad history, bad interpretation, bad theology, and wishful thinking that can only lead us to impossible “dreams” and disillusionment.


One Nation Under God reviewed by John Fea

One Nation Under God was reviewed recently by John Fea. Dr. Fea teaches US History at Messiah College, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I greatly appreciated his review, which you can see here.