Friday, October 17, 2008

Good History v. Bad History

As an armchair historian, I am of two minds on history and ideology. On the one hand I recognize history isn't quite like science or economics (where there clearly are right and wrong answers in black and white); yet on the other, facts are facts. And therefore there is good history and bad history. The biggest problem with the Christian Nation idea is that it is bad history. Therefore, even though the narrative is meant to appeal to conservative evangelicals and Catholics, many of them reject it simply because it's bad history. Indeed, some of the most effective debunking of the Christian Nation idea has come from such conservative evangelicals and Catholics like Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Mardsen, and Robert Kraynak.

I was pleasantly surprised to find another thoughtful site featuring a conservative Christian who rejects the Christian America idea. And one that understands the central role theological unitarianism played in forming the American creed and how such creed is in tension with traditional Christianity:

Even as Puritanism was waning and several reactions were forming against its rather austere authoritarianism, yet there was a hunger for authentic, heartfelt biblical spirituality early in the 17th century that found its expression in the First Great Awakening. Many have heard of Jonathan Edwards and, possibly, the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Fewer are familiar with the large Christian rallies (drawing tens of thousands) led by Englishman, George Whitefield (pronounced Whit-field), in the northern colonies.

What is for sure is that, for the first time in America, public preaching was appealing not just to the mind, but to the emotions as well. Benjamin Franklin was quite intrigued by the ministry of Whitefield and became his publisher and friend, though Franklin never converted to Christianity himself.

The backlash against such open religious emotionalism began with a pastor in Boston named Charles Chauncy. Grandson and namesake of the second president of Puritan-established Harvard College, Chauncy was outspoken in his opposition to the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards defended his views (as well as his wife’s physiological, Quaker-like reactions to the moving of the Spirit) in Religious Affections, but Chauncy’s opposition took hold in the Boston area and throughout New England. Edwards would later lose his pastorate (becoming the president of Princeton College); Chauncy would retain his for 60 years until his death.

The cerebral and rationalistic elements of Puritanism had survived the First Great Awakening, but those were about to morph into something else altogether—Unitarianism.

Unitarianism was not born in America. It has deep historic roots, going all the way back to the Arian controversy in the 4th century of Christianity. Suffice it to say that modern books, like The DaVinci Code, are little more than popular revivalism (along with some historical revisionism) of the teaching of Bishop Arius (of Alexandria, Egypt) that Jesus was a great human teacher, but not divine.

Unitarianism also has a rich historical heritage in various parts of post-enlightenment Europe. But it is in America that the most famous martyr of John Calvin’s Geneva, Michael Servetus, gets his ultimate ironic revenge as his theological descendents eventually take over Harvard, the crown jewel of the Calvin-aspiring Puritans.

While wars seem to have a way of killing religious revivals (the First Great Awakening with the Revolution; the Second Great Awakening [I see the urban "businessmen's prayer revival" of 1857-1860 as late Second Awakening rather than 'Third Great Awakening'] with the Civil War), usually such revivals are on their last legs when finally killed. And so it was with the Revolutionary War. While the supporters of the Revolution came from various religious and civic factions, one notes that Unitarians such as Chauncy retained the Puritan animosity toward the British throne, much more so than the American Episcopalians.

Even as anti-Puritanical, American Unitarianism is forming, yet it partners with the more direct descendants of Puritanism (Congregationalists and Presbyterians) in united opposition against England.

Eric Hoffer was right. Common enemies unite people more tightly than positive common commitments. Maybe that’s why so many of our presidents take us to war.

After the Revolution, Chauncy began to preach universalism (the teaching that all paths lead to heaven), presaging the eventual merger of Unitarianism and Universalism.

So, why is this so important?

Well, it seems to me that one can make a strong case that Unitarianism largely defines the American ethos. In fact, Forrest Church, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, has made exactly that argument in The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe there is an abundance of evidence to support his rather compelling theory, from the universalism of Oprah Winfrey to the ubiquitous op-ed cartoons that put virtually all famous entertainers in heaven (regardless of their personal faith or how they treated real people in their lives). Check out this recent universalistic cartoon from Opus.

Also, it seems to me that while one might be able to briefly mention “God,” in polite company, but when one uses the name of “Jesus,” suddenly everyone gets nervous. When a politician utters the word “God,” it is often heard by evangelicals to mean the Christian God, but that is just our naivete showing. It is a much more fungible word than evangelicals would like to admit.

What should that mean to an informed evangelical? It means that expressions like “…under God,” and “In God We Trust,” have almost no real meaning, and the current attacks on such expressions in the courts by atheists mean almost nothing. Some want to remove the fig leaf; some want to fight to their dying breath to keep the fig leaf in place.

To those of us who reject the half-true/half-false history of evangelical influencers, such as David Barton (to whom we shall return before this gets as long as War and Peace:)), an informed reaction might be, “Oh well.”

The author is Paul Grabill Lead Pastor, State College Assembly of God, State College, PA, USA. I didn't reproduce any of his hyperlinks in the passage. So check out the original post for them. Here is their statement of faith. In reading it you see it is orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. The problem with understanding America's key founding fathers and the ministers they followed to be "Christian" (even though they more likely called themselves "Christians," not "Deists") is that they rejected most if not all of what orthodox churches like the State Assemblies of God list in their statement of beliefs.

Grabill's post mentions Charles Chauncy as one of the Congregational ministers who preached founding era unitarian-universalism (notice the small case) under the auspices of "Christianity." Others included Samuel West, Simeon Howard, Jonathan Mayhew, folks who happened to be most notable pro-Revolutionary preachers. They were explicit theological enemies of Jonathan Edwards and his "Great Awakening." Thus the notion, posited by the Christian America crowd, that the Great Awakening was the driving force behind America's Revolution is an historical canard.

Check out David Barton's speech endorsing Sam Brownback. Out of the first half dozen names he mentions as figures most responsible for America's Revolution -- all "Christians" according to Barton -- they include John Adams, Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy. Those three were theological unitarians, universalists and rationalists who took a cafeteria approach to the Bible and rejected almost everything orthodox Christianity of the founding era and of today stood for. So Barton is either a) misleading folks into believing that "Christians" like John Adams et al. were evangelical orthodox Christians like himself or b) expanding the meaning of "Christianity" to include anyone who calls himself a "Christian," the theological unitarians, universalists and rationalists of the founding era, or the Oprah Winfreys and Phil Donahues of the present era. In that case Barton would be whoring the purity of the orthodox Christian religion for political purposes.


Phil Johnson said...

I want to recommend Professor Allen Guzelo's The American Mind lecture series that is available in various formats from The Teaching Company.
He covers nearly every (if not all) important segments of the development of the American mind which covers the subject of your post in detail. You can get it in DVD, VHS, CD, or Cassette Tape depending on your budget. It comes complete with notes, references, and bibliographies. It is an excellent source of learned history.
And, no, I don't work for The Teaching Company. Even so, it is a great source of knowledge.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't think Grabill is being intentionally sophistic, but his thesis rises [and in my view falls] on the multiple meanings of "unitarian" depending on the context.

Substitute "ecumenical", and we achieve far greater accuracy, as we retain the Christian character of the "latitudinarian" nature of "unitarianism" at the time of the Founding. "Unitarianism" cannot mean both a disbelief in the divinity of Jesus and "all religions are equally true or valid" at the same time, which is why modern Unitarian Universalism is a distant relative---if one at all---to the "Faith of the Founders."

"Ecumenical" works fine for the genuine nature of America's "civil religion," because despite top-down deviations in the upper branches like whether Christ died for our sins, there remains a common foundational worldview with the Bible [imago Dei, "endowed by his Creator," etc.] from the bottom up.

Despite certain Founders' amateur excursions into comparative theology [read: John Adams], non-Biblical religions simply don't share that view of man and God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, David Barton. I was contemplating writing a qualified endorsement of him because he's cleaned up his act tremendously since his clumsy and error-filled started c. 1987.

I'll hold off for now. [Barton was a high school teacher, not a trained historian. His errors were mostly taking books from the 1800s as truth, but many of those books and "quotations" from the Founders turned out to be fabrications by the Christian hagiographers of that century.

Barton's was an honest mistake. Just shows you can't believe everything you read, even if it's 100 years old. Geez, we can't even agree on what Obama or McCain said yesterday or the day before.]

However, although Barton mentions Mayhew and Chauncy, Jon, it's only as part of a larger point, that we emphasize the "marquee" Founders and don't even know the literally 100s of other influential people back then who were also Founders.

As for Charles Chauncy, I see that he published his two treatises on "universalism" anonymously, which should tell you something probative about the theologico-political landscape at the time of the Founding.

Barton says his group now owns 70,000 original documents from the time of the Founding. I do think he's on the right track now and is doing penance for his early gullibility. "Source documents" are where it's at, and for our "noobs," it's our policy to use them as often as possible on this blog. Nothing like the horse's mouth.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Chauncy's secretive theology is indeed telling. It hits upon a nuance that few appreciate: The heterodoxy of the key Founders and the theologians they followed was in many ways elite and secretive. The masses, and their more traditional beliefs, of course deserve noting and credit. However, I see how the secret heterodoxy planted seeds that eventually bore greater fruition. Or as Richard Weaver put it: Ideas have consequences.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The masses, and their more traditional beliefs, of course deserve noting and credit.

Ah, but were "the masses" as dumb as some would like them to be? They and their forefathers fled England [and Europe] to escape sectarian violence. The "key" Founders understood politics well enough--were "statesmanlike" enough---to keep their distance from minor theological disagreements being turned into death and destruction. Surely the "honest brokers" with no dog in the fight[s] were the right compromise choices for the "unitarian" New England, the orthodox New York, the Quaker Pennsylvania, the Catholic Maryland, and the slaveholding South.

Who used whom? At this very moment, Barack Obama is riding the endorsement of the Ivy League elite along with a populism of the "have-nots" against McCain's coalition of whatever's left of the country-club Republicans, the "Reagan Democrats" [national defense, American "greatness"] and the religious Right. [And Joe the Plumber, hehe.]

I'm not entirely skeptical of the American public's ability to figger out who's zoomin' who, or its ability to know who is whom.

[Look for "ecumenical" again, Jon, and dear and gentle readers. Perhaps many times, as a mantra, like "theistic rationalist." It begs for a road-test. Our long-running colloquy continues and never fails to inspire me, JR.]

Kristo Miettinen said...

Tom, you hit upon a point that Jon also has hit upon before, regarding Barton and his secondary sources, that "many of those books and 'quotations' from the Founders turned out to be fabrications by the Christian hagiographers". Them's fightin' words. Can you back them up?

I'll concede right off the bat that Barton has been able to confirm one or two (among myriad) of his quotes to be false. But most of the ones that folks bring up (e.g. Jon with his pet quote from Patrick Henry) are not known to be false, they are only secondary.

Secondary is not phony or fabricated. Consider, for instance, that every word we have from Christ is transmitted to us in secondary sources.


Jonathan Rowe said...

The problem is proving a negative. If it doesn't exist within the primary source record, it's "unconfirmed."

With a number of Barton's "unconfirmed quotations" we can show where they relate to actual ones and where someone paraphrased their interpretation of it and then another party passed on the paraphrase (often a loaded interpretation) as the actual words of the FF. Something similar was done with the Thomas Jefferson quotation I feature in the above post that the secularists like to pass on.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey, Kristo, I defend Barton at least in the abstract. But I've seen copious errors in his early work for myself and am content to try to rehabilitate him.

Barton's early errors are harped on by his ideological opponents to try to discredit him completely. [Please see the archives of this very blog!] I'd rather stipulate the errors and move on.

Brian Tubbs said...

I agree with what Tom says re: David Barton.

As for the definitions point raised by Jon in his post, I think all sides tend to shift and change the meaning of their terms, based on context and objective.