Monday, January 11, 2010

Texas Controversy Persists and Proper Ways to Understand "Christian Nation"

Evangelical historian John Fea reports that he was called to give expert commentary in the following article. Here is a taste:

"I'm an evangelical Christian, and I think David Barton and Peter Marshall are completely out to lunch," said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, a Christian institution. "They are not experts on social studies and history. Neither of them are trained in history. They are preachers who use the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda in the present."

Barton, a Texas-based GOP activist and nationally known speaker, and Marshall, a traveling evangelist whose father was a U.S. Senate chaplain in the 1940s, are aligned with American University law and history professor Daniel Dreisbach — one of four academics on the review panel — in the belief that America was intended to be a "Christian nation" with no separation between church and state.

Barton did not return calls seeking comment, and Marshall declined to be interviewed, writing by e-mail, "I don't have anything further to say other than what was said last Fall." The board heard from reviewers during a meeting in September.

Last summer, Marshall told The Wall Street Journal, "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it."

Yet, Fea regrets the "out to lunch" remark. Read his account here. I know the temptation to make ad hominem attacks on Barton and Marshall. While I will continue to criticize them, I'll try to watch the ad homs.

But Marshall's quote illustrates a problem with the "Christian America" movement. The movement is spiritual, not historical. And, ironically, nothing in evangelical Christianity requires one to believe God founded America using inspired Christians to His bidding.

And, to the contrary, it's just as valid an evangelical understanding of Romans 13 to view all rebellion, including and especially what occurred in America in 1776 as a sin, a sin on par with witchcraft.

Now, Mormonism, because of when and where it was founded, in its authentic tenets holds Mormon God founded America using divinely inspired men. And that's fine for one's personal religious convictions. Likewise it's fine if Barton and Marshall want to intermix a-biblical Americanist theology with biblical fundamentalism and hold it up as a personal creed. (Though it ironically pollutes the purity of their biblical fundamentalism.)

But when they bring this very personal, spiritual, cultural conviction to the public square under the auspices of "objective history," they should expect to be put under the microscope. Barton and Marshall's "Christian America" theory is about as objectively historically grounded as Joseph Smith's Prophesies about Mormon God Founding America. Imagine the reaction if THAT were foisted on non-Mormons in the public schools. And yes, Marshall's "The Light and the Glory" and Barton's "The Bullet Proof George Washington" are that "imaginative."

Another irony is, if America is a "Christian Nation" in a political theological sense, it's only by adhering to an ecumenical-historical understanding of political Christianity that is inclusive of all sorts of heresies that evangelicals deem "not Christian."

John Adams himself testifies to this in one of the Christian Americanists' favorite "proof quotes":

“The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”

Adams then goes on and notes all the heretics (from the perspective of the "orthodox") this lowest common denominator of political Christianity includes:

There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” [Protestants who believe in nothing.] Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Not just orthodox Christians, but Arians, Socinians, followers of Socinian Joseph Priestley (which included Adams himself), Universalists and even "Deists and Atheists, and Protestants 'qui ne croyent rien.' [Protestants who believe in nothing.]"

The only way to square Adams' political understanding of Christianity with atheism is to conclude by "Christian," Adams means "a good person." Even an atheist could be a Christian if he were a good person. Indeed, as Adams elsewhere noted,

I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.

How astonishing is it that the largely evangelical Christian Americanists embrace John Adams and his "general principles of Christianity" quotation.


jimmiraybob said...

...Marshall told The Wall Street Journal, "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it."

I believe that it was Robert Sproul that I heard on the radio this morning as I was driving, and he was talking about the culture wars and how essentially the government was out of control. He alluded to the fact that no one was taking up arms yet (sounding rather ominous), as they had in the earlier American revolution (which he referred to as a rebellion against the parent government). The centerpiece of his presentation was that all persons of good faith should band together in an ecumenical jihad against today's secular corrupted society and government. I believe that it was in reference to the work of a Peter Kreeft.

I've heard other God-fearing people talking of the coming revolution or armed rebellion and there are/have been many a call to stockpile guns and ammunition for the coming strife.

Given all this, the seeming revolutionary mindset that's developing, is Romans 13 a part of the modern discussion in Christian America either from the pulpit, the Christian media or from the pews?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Interesting, JRB. I have no first-hand knowledge of what's coming from the pulpits these days, but I would recommend rereading this Founding-era sermons, when the government offers itself in place of God.

No Christian owes his loyalty to such a beast. That much became a staple of Christian thought. Word up.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Jon stated:

"And, to the contrary, it's just as valid an evangelical understanding of Romans 13 to view all rebellion, including and especially what occurred in America in 1776 as a sin, a sin on par with witchcraft."

Most balanced statement you have made on this Jon. I think all this back and forth has been worth it.

Joe Winpisinger said...


Romans 13 comes up usually when control freak pastors want to make sure no one challenges them. Not so much on the political front that I have heard either from the pulpit or in laymen conversation circles.

Daniel said...

BTW, we read that excerpt from "Sinners" from a widely used textbook in a public school in Indianapolis. Religion was definitely a forbidden subject, so I have often wondered how that crept in there.