Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Atonement: Part II

History's Angels

Having taken the initial steps towards further involvement in the political process, America’s Evangelical leaders, now fully entrenched in the battle for America’s moral future, moved to secure the support of the masses. To do this, Christian Nationalists needed to establish a new national creed on which many faiths could unite. This new creed would seek to redefine and rewrite the national historical record in a manner that would reflect its respective political and theological agenda, thus adding a measure of credence to the movement as a whole. This endeavor had a tremendous impact on shaping the Christian Nation movement into an imagined community. As Benedict Anderson states, “nation-building policies” of new imagined communities are forced to adopt a “systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of national ideology through the mass media, educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth.” [1] In other words, the imagined community must seek to reshape the way in which its followers understand their origins, purpose and future.

The rewriting of history is arguably the most fundamental component to the Christian Nation’s development into an imagined community. As Benedict Anderson notes, the imagined community’s capacity to rewrite history through “print capitalism” afforded them the luxury of inundating its followers with their unique brand of “political history.” [2] In many respects, it is through this process of mass reeducation that rests the ability of the imagined community to succeed. To simply immerse itself in politics is not enough. However, being able to “piggy-back” a political agenda with the perceived historical legitimacy of the imagined community’s claims would put the infant nation (in this case the Christian Nation) on solid ground.

It is for this very reason that the Christian Nation turned its emphasis to the rewriting of American history. And though the overwhelming majority of professional historians within the ranks of academia had written against the Christian Nation interpretation of history, American Christian history revisionists were well-positioned to portray their version of history as the victim of “secular” or “liberal” attacks: “[The] bias against America's Christian roots is evident in current histories and textbooks…They either ignore Christianity and Christian leaders or cast truly Christian leaders as Enlightenment thinkers. Attempts to correct this bias are met with the sharpest censure.” [3] By placing their emphasis on the “Christian” nature of American history, with a particular emphasis on the era of the Founding Fathers, Christian Nationalists hoped to portray the nation’s greatest figures as stalwart men of God, who shared the same goals, values and hopes for America’s future. The Christian Nation’s particular emphasis on early American history was particularly poignant to their argument, since it is the Founding Fathers who are often exalted to demigod status in American society. As historian Gordon Wood points out:

America's Founding Fathers…have a special significance for Americans...No other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the same manner...The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts the way we seem to check in with Jefferson or Washington. We Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now.

[...]

Some suggest that our continual concern with constitutional jurisprudence and original intent accounts for our fascination with the founding and the making of the Constitution. Still others think that we use these eighteenth-century figures in order to recover what was wise and valuable in America's past. They believe that the founders have become standards against which we measure our current political leaders. Why don't we have such leaders today? seems to be the implicit question many Americans ask. [4]

As it would turn out, this particular emphasis on the legacy of America’s founders would present Christian Nationalists with a golden opportunity on which to capitalize their historical claims. In 1976 the United States prepared to celebrate its bicentennial by commemorating the memory and legacy of the Founding Fathers and American independence. For early Christian nationalists, this was like finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Christian Nation writers immediately struck out to extol “America’s Christian heritage, the biblical origins of our American government, and the spiritual insights of the Founding Fathers.” [5] In addition, artists like Arnold Frieberg created spectacular images of art depicting George Washington kneeling in humble prayer at Valley Forge and Benjamin Franklin engulfed in tears as he signed the Constitution. These images had a powerful impact on early Christian nationalists, who were beginning the process of associating patriotic zeal with Christian piety. As one enthusiastic Christian Nation supporter stated in an address to her followers:

America is a land infused with sacred fire; America is born of God’s desire. I ask you then to secure the famous painting…of George Washington kneeling in prayer. I ask that this shall be a sign of those who love America in Christ, in God, in freedom. I ask that you give this painting to your friends who are Christians, who are religious, who are devotees, that you ask them to have it in their homes, and that you ask them to pray with you for the light and victory of America. [6]

Perhaps the best example of the Christian Nation’s desire to “rediscover” America’s Christian history comes from the work of evangelists Peter Marshall and David Manuel. In their 1977 book, The Light and the Glory, Marshall and Manuel set out to expose the “myths” of America’s founding, as perpetuated by American historians, and to declare America’s Christian roots:

This nation was founded by God with a special calling. The people who first came here knew that they were being led here by the Lord Jesus Christ, to found a nation where men, women and children were to live in obedience to him…The reason, I believe, that we Americans are in such trouble today is that we have forgotten this. We’ve rejected it. In fact, we’ve become quite cynical about it. We, as a people, have thrown away our Christian heritage. [7]

The book’s impact was almost immediate. With millions of copies sold and distributed to Christian conservatives across the nation, Marshall’s brand of ultra-Christian American history was quickly injected into the collective consciousness of Christian Nation devotees. With its audacious claims like, “America has no king but King Jesus,” and Christopher Columbus was God’s chosen “Christ-bearer” to the New World, The Light and the Glory boldly and unapologetically asserted that America was indeed God’s chosen land. [8] As a result, The Light and the Glory became a must-have for home-schooled students, whose parents had grown to fear the “secular” education of mainstream public education.

By associating Christian zeal with national patriotism, Christian Nationalists like Marshall and Manuel were essentially able to set the table for further revision of the national historical record. [9] Their historical revision afforded Christian Nationalists the opportunity to challenge many of the widely accepted beliefs regarding the founding of America. For example, Marshall makes the bold statement that the Constitution was a “safeguard” for God’s covenant and that in due time, the American people would again be able to renew its “contract” with the Lord Jesus Christ:

The Constitution [is] as safeguard. For the surprising truth about it is that it is nothing less than an institutional guardian of the Covenant Way of life for then nation as a whole. Two centuries later, it still guarantees the possibility of our one day reentering as a nation our covenant with God, whenever we might choose to do so…But as precious as the Constitution is, it is nonetheless a secularizing of the spiritual reality of the covenant. [10]

In addition to Marshall and Manuel’s attempts to redefine the church/state argument and the ultimate aspirations of our Founding Fathers, other Christian Nation historical revisionists came forward in an attempt to defend America’s “godly heritage.” The Reverend D. James Kennedy, lead pastor and founder of Coral Ridge Ministries, became an ardent defender of the Christian Nation, insisting that God’s hand had indelibly guided the providential destiny of the United States: “God is sovereign over the universe, over history, over the nations, over all His creations…we can see the hand of God at work. But we have not remembered the invisible hand of that One who brought us to Plymouth Rock and established our nation of religious freedom.” [11] In addition, Kennedy (like Marshall before him) insisted that the widely accepted belief in a separation of church and state was a myth, perpetuated by secularists and “liberal courts,” and that the founders never intended to create such a division. [12] Kennedy’s bold proclamations earned him substantial notoriety within the Christian Nation crowd, which made his writings on American history even more popular and “credible” in the eyes of those who shared his affinity for Christian-based American history.

And while the impact of Marshall and Kennedy’s work is undeniable to the development of the Christian Nation thesis, other Christian America history revisionist have taken the argument even further. At the beginning of the 1980s, historical revisionists like David Barton, an extremely prominent and influential Evangelical activist, sought to promote a pro-conservative/Christian agenda with the final goal of making their historical interpretation the mainstream interpretation. In his book, America’s Godly Heritage, Barton makes the bold assertion that not only were America’s founders in favor of establishing a Christian Nation, but that in fact fifty-two of the fifty-five signers were in fact evangelical Christians themselves. [13] In addition, other Christian revisionists representing a plethora of faiths followed suit in their supercharged Christian portrayal of early America. Jerome Horowitz, a devout Mormon and passionate advocate for the Christian right followed suit in his promotion of an exclusively Christian interpretation of the historical record when he wrote:

As Latter-day Saints and their families study the American constitutional system, one problem they encounter is that the most popular and widely respected sources present constitutional philosophy very differently from the intent of the founders. Fortunately, the Lord has anticipated this problem and has provided the correct standard to know in which direction to strive regardless of how popular or plausible a contrary direction may be made to appear. This He has done by declaring that He established the Constitution through wise men He raised up for that very purpose. [14]

By weaving the Constitution into the divine will of God, Christian Nationalists had converted their interpretation of history into scripture. The will of God was invariably intertwined with a pro-Christian Nation stance. As a result, dissent from such a view was dissent from God himself.

This collective tie between a distant God and the devout followers of a common creed lies at the very heart of Anderson’s imagined community. Whether in the form of a joint chorus of a national anthem, the shared acceptance of a poignant national memorial or the mutual embrace of a common historical past, the imagined community unites the believer with his/her fellow disciples in a tapestry woven by fantasy and illusion. As Anderson himself states, “How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound.” [15] For the believer the imagined becomes the irrefutable.


Notes:
[1] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 163.
[2] Ibid, 182.
[3] Roger Schultz, A Celebration of Infidels: The American Enlightenment in the Revolutionary Era “Contra Mundum, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 19
[4] Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 3-4.
[5] Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America (New York: Good News Publishers, 1983), 14.
[6] Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Greater Way of Freedom: Teaching of the Ascended Masters on the Destiny of America (Gardiner, MT: Summit University Press, 1976), 91.
[7] David Manuel and Peter Marshall, The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1977), 16.
[8] Ibid, 30-31 & 254.
[9] Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 10.
[10] Manuel and Marshall, The Light and the Glory, 348.
[11] D. James Kennedy, America, Christian Nation, 6-7.
[12] Ibid, 202-203.
[13] David Barton, America’s Godly Heritage (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Publishing, 1993), 36.
[14] Jerome Horowitz, Elders of Israel and the Constitution, 192.
[15] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 145.

24 comments:

Lindsey Shuman said...

I like it, Brad. Sure to piss off the supporters of this type of history, but oh well. You've got to be willing to ruffle some feathers and be controvercial once in a while.

Well done.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Lindsey!

By what standard is this well done?

By the standards applicable to argumentative essays? Or the standards applicable to survey papers? Or some other category of academic paper?

I would submit that this is in the style of an op-ed (in which category it might very well be good), but I don't think an op-ed is what Brad intends.

Raven said...

Well, since this Kristo guy has taken it upon himself to make fun of Mr. Hart's paper, i think it's time to return the favor.

Who are you to say that this is more of an op-ed? You wouldn't know a history grad paper if it hit you between the eyes. Aren't you an electrical engineer?

Just because you don't like the angle doesn't give you the right to say stupid stuff. Just because his paper comes from a very biased perspective doesn't make it bad history. It's ok to come at history from a biased angle. Nothing wrong with it. You can hate the material, but don't mock the research. When was the last time you posted a graduate paper on here?

Brad, I would say that you should inject more examples of how the revision of history makes them an imagined community. You need more.

Congrats Kristo on becoming the new Tom Van Dyke.

Raven said...

I was surprised to see that you threw your own religion to the dogs, Brad. Very nice example of your discipleship. Are you sure you aren't just a hypocritte?

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Raven!

Pleased to meet you. Yes, I'm an engineer. It's a humble profession, but mostly honest.

But how am I making fun of Mr. Hart's paper? I'm asking a series of sincere questions, the answers to which would, I hope, strengthen Brad's paper if addressed in the text. If I'm not being successful at that, then that's my bad, a lack of skill at finding the most helpful questions to ask, and all that; but that's not making fun of anything.

Or am I wrong?

You seem to be convicting me of making up objections because I really secretly (or overtly) disagree with Brad's angle.

But even if that were true, the questions I ask still stand on their own. A biased critic can ask a genuinely penetrating question even if motivated by bias.

Brad Hart said...

Kristo:

Don't mind Raven and his nonsense. Normally I find myself deleting his comments for the foul language, etc. I guess I'll let these comments stand, though I trust that most of our readers are able to see through his garbage.

I actually appreciate all the comments regarding this paper, and I hope to see more. Constructive criticizm was never a bad thing. To be honest, this had been the hardest paper I have ever written for a variety of reasons. Hearing what you and others have to say (even if you're just a lowly engineer...God forbid, Raven) has not angered me in the least. I find it quite helpful.

Raven, you're just a Howard Stern. Nothing more. As for my "betraying my religion," well, I don't have to explain myself to you.

Raven said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I would say that even if Brad's paper does read like a NYT Op ed that's not necessarily a bad thing. Books written for more general audience than historical footnote chasing sell better. I must admit the latter is more my thing. But it should come as no surprise that two of the best and fairest books on religion & the Founding put out in the last 5 years have been written by journalists -- Jon Meacham and Steve Waldman.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Brad!

How much time do you have for restructuring? Are you up against a deadline this term?

I'd recommend a much, much shorter thesis statement, with fewer claims rolled into one, and fewer internal dependencies within the thesis.

Everything else in the paper can still find a place, but it would be through developing the argument in stages into its larger set of supporting propositions.

How about this as a thesis: "The current wave of attention given to the Christian Nation hypothesis in America was born of conservative Christian reaction to the counterculture movements of the 196s/70s".

Note everything that this cuts out of your thesis:
(1) That the CN hypothesis was original to the 1960s/70s;
(2) That the CN hypothesis is actively considered by the majority of modern evangelicals;
(3) Any claim about the motivation of CN asserters;
(4) That there is anything new in the CN hypothesis ("a new nationalism");
(5) Any mention of Benedict Anderson.

All five of those points can still be woven into the argument, if you feel the need to make them, though I would suggest thinking hard about each of the first four before committing to them. Anderson I'm unfamiliar with, but he seems fine as your chosen source of a definition for what a nation is, a matter that would become necessary as you develop your argument.

Brad Hart said...

First off, as a matter of blog business, I think it's officially time for us to say goodbye to Raven. A few of his recent comments have me convinced that any future remarks of his should by deleted without question.

So, goodbye Raven. If you're even in the Colorado Springs area give me a hollar. I'd love to meet you in person if you catch my drift!

Kristo:

Yes, I think my thesis could use some revision. Perhaps it should be smaller and more concise. However, I am not willing to throw out Benedict Anderson as you suggest. It was he who coined the idea of an imagined community and his work is fundamental to my thesis.

Again, thanks for the comments.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"I must be the only one writing about nationalism who doesn’t think it ugly. If you think about researchers such as Gellner and Hobsbawm, they have quite a hostile attitude to nationalism. I actually think that nationalism can be an attractive ideology. I like its Utopian elements."---Benedict Anderson

Brad Hart said...

Yep, the imagined community can be a good or bad thing...all in the eyes of the beholder I guess...like most of the stuff we discuss.

Pinky said...

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Today is a dark day In world history!.to say nothing of our American history.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Brad,

Footnote 6 is interesting and I think represents one problem with the Christian Nation movement -- how terms like "Christian" (as for instance used by the "key Founders") are not specifically defined enough and can lead to confusion about what the speaker really means by that term.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet is even further removed from "orthodox Christianity" (how the CN crowd defines "Christianity") than the key Founders, the Mormons, the JWs. She's a cult leader who believes in practically EVERY SINGLE world religion. But she's no liberal fuzzy Unitarian Universalist, but as right wing as it gets. She believes Jesus Christ was an "Ascended Master," and that EVERY human being has the potential to become one (as her late husband Mark Prophet now is).

And that means humans eventually become God. Not "Gods"; but like some Hindus (by the way she believes in Hinduism as well) and almost a parody of Trinitarian logic, many different "personalities" of one God. Instead of just three distinct personalities of "one God," there are limitless potential distinct personalities of "one God." Her husband, Mark Prophet is now God, just as Jesus Christ is God. MP's "Ascended Master" name is "Lanello." And I think, she claims when she dies she'll be God as well.

Her son is now an atheist and a friend of Positive Liberty. (She claimed two of her children were the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy and Ghandi).

So she obviously has a different understanding of the "Christian Nation" than David Barton.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Onto footnote 14.

As Latter-day Saints and their families study the American constitutional system, one problem they encounter is that the most popular and widely respected sources present constitutional philosophy very differently from the intent of the founders. Fortunately, the Lord has anticipated this problem and has provided the correct standard to know in which direction to strive regardless of how popular or plausible a contrary direction may be made to appear. This He has done by declaring that He established the Constitution through wise men He raised up for that very purpose. [14]Now, correct me if I am wrong. Mormon theology, since it is post-American Founding, legitimately incorporates some of this "our God established America," notion. The problem with orthodox Christians in believing this is that orthodox Christianity is very old and holds, "don't add further revelation." For an orthodox Christian to say, with religious belief, "God founded America" is almost like "adding" to scripture (the OT and NT) just what the Mormons did.

The last thing an orthodox Christian like David Barton needs is a Mormon saying yes "our God founded America" because orthodox Christians don't believe their "God" is the same one Mormons worship.

This is not unlike Elizabeth Clare Prophet saying to her fellow "Christians" (David Barton, D. James Kennedy) yes, "our" Jesus Christ founded America.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Here is an amusing link from Elizabeth Clare Prophet on her husband Mark Prophet.

http://www.tsl.org/masters/lanello/lanello_set.htm

"Looking at Mark Prophet's past lives, we see that they span the many cultures and religions of the world. Think about it. He was Noah, Lot, Ikhnaton, Aesop, the disciple Mark, Origen, Lancelot, Bodhidharma, Clovis, Saladin, Bonaventure, Louis XIV, Longfellow and the Russian czarevitch Alexis Nikolayevich."

She calls herself a "Christian" and follows a very "Christ" centered teaching. I wonder if she qualifies as a "Christian" for "historical" purposes.

Pinky said...

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Please excuse my interruption above about April 14th. It was worthy of mention.
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Right on, Brad. Your paper needs writing and it is an excellent approach to a mostly ignored issue.
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Of course, you can always improve it in one way or another; but, there's a time to cut bait and a time to fish.
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You certainly seem to be laying a strong foundation.
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Back in the seventies, I engaged a printer that was also doing work for traveling evangelists by the names of Jack and Rexella VanImpe. Their operation was as costly as a traveling circus. I learned something of importance about how they got the money to set up in each town visited. Local businesses were approached with information showing that crime dropped significantly in connection with the VanImpe crusades. Donations were gathered, and, that's how all costs were covered--not to mention the profits. VanImpe's program has now hit national television. Maybe the connection can be seen between such groups as Coral Ridge Ministries and Corporate America on a much larger scale?
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I think you are on a roll, Brad. Your paper sounds like the bones of an important book.
.

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Tom Van Dyke said...

"a mostly ignored issue..." You're kidding, right? Slagging on the Religious Right is as big an industry as the Religious Right itself.

Pinky said...

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There you go again, Tom.
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Assuming I meant something other than what I wrote.
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How does what I wrote get to be slagging on the religious right?

Tom Van Dyke said...

There you go again, Phil, playing victim.

What Brad wrote is slagging on the Religious Right, unless you consider "indoctrinated" and "propaganda" to be properly scholarly terms in this context.

And to return to my actual point, I'll bet you'll find a lot more books and sales by RR-bashers like Kevin Phillips, Michele Goldberg, and Chris Hedges than by David Barton and his ilk.

A "mostly ignored" issue? Non, non, mon ami, a mostly demagogued and exaggerated issue. If these people tended to vote for the other party, there wouldn't be a peep.

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

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Get a life, Tom.
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And, show a little decent respect. It might help heal your over inflated ego condition.
.

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Tom Van Dyke said...

Phil, you predictably pull a tantrum like this when I deflate your groundless assertions. Like clockwork, man.

Actually, I show you a lot more respect than you give those who don't agree with you. Mon ami.

Brad Hart said...

Jon:

Thanks for the comments on Ms. Prophet. Yeah, she's one crazy bitch!

As for the Mormon issue, I think you have a point. The Christian Nation can be defined even more specifically that I already have. Each religion does have its unique "twist." However,I think there are a number of general attributes that tie all Christian Nation believers together, which is what I am striving to prove in the paper.

Once this semester is finished I'd like to take a look at the Mormon Christian Nation specifically.