One in a series
by Tom Van Dyke
[Previous in this series was a strong objection to a politically-tinged Washington Post op-ed by respected, acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis.
I rely here on Paul Harvey's essay "Jesus and Jefferson: Mark Noll Reviews Dochuk and Williams in The New Republic," since the full essay is behind TNR's subscriber-only firewall.]
Over at his excellent groupblog Religion and American History, Paul Harvey writes
Here's a discussion of interest to many: Mark Noll reviews Daniel Williams' God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the most recent The New Republic.
"...neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation, that, especially, in tandem, their volumes make possible..."
But is it the historian's job to make such moral evaluations? And by what standard?
"Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right..."
Who decides "what is Christian?" The historian? The theologian? Which theologian? Ratzinger, Barth? Pat Robertson? Jim Wallis?
I realize Mark Noll is becoming the go-to gold standard for religion and history, but where is his theological authority in such matters?
"It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment."
Oh? Well, this is theology or contemporary partisan politics or both, but are such judgments the province of the historian? May a historian likewise criticize "social gospel" politics as un-Christian? By what authority?
As to the history of the thing, it seems to me Jesus and "Jefferson" had made peace long before Jefferson was born, in the pre-American Calvinist "resistance theory" that executed one British king and exiled another in the 1600s. [More on that here].
Is Calvinist resistance theory Christian? A theologian might dare say no [and some do, per Romans 13]; however, the historian must say yes, since the British Christians embraced it, as later did the Americans.
If "Jesus and 'Jefferson'" is a theological miscegenation, it was not a uniquely American phenomenon, nor only the province of the 20th century American "right." Further, the historian's job is to report what happened in the past and assess its prevailing norms, not substitute his own.
Much has been made of a certain "pseudo-historian" and the propriety of his mixing of history and partisan politics.
Mark Noll is no "pseudo-"historian, but an accomplished historian, an award-winning historian, and on the faculty at Notre Dame. Neither is he directly involved in partisan politics, as that other fellow is. And neither are Noll's words here strictly an attack, although they certainly are a critique of the modern evangelical "Religious Right."
[It should be noted Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind vaulted him into prominence as a public intellectual, its thesis basically that "there is not much of an evangelical mind." Coming from an evangelical himself, from a faculty member of an evangelical-minded college [Wheaton] at that, Noll certainly made his splash in the greater public sphere.]
Which is fine, for a public intellectual, even a theologian. But when one reads an acclaimed historian such as Dr. Mark Noll of Notre Dame reviewing history books in a respected intellectual journal such as TNR, it's surely proper for the reader to assume he has his historian hat on, not his theologian hat, not his political pundit hat.
I think Dr. Noll has mixed his hats here, and improperly: this review is neither fish nor fowl, but a miscegenation not unlike mixing Jesus and Jefferson, which he explicitly questions.
Perhaps Calvinist "resistance theory" was bad theologically; perhaps the American revolutionaries were theologically wrong in embracing it. Perhaps the Religious Right of the 20th century was wrong in picking up that tradition.
But there's a difference between those who make history and those who study it. The historian owes his readers the facts about the people of bygone days, not his opinion of them.
As for Mark Noll's personal "moral evaluations"; theological evaluations about "what exactly is Christian about the Christian right" or whether "[i]t would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named"; or his political evaluation of whether it "manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment," frankly, my dear, these things are above his pay grade as an historian: We shall make up our own minds, thank you, sir, and we all wear our own hats on religion and politics with equal authority. That's the American way.
Wiki tells us Mark Noll's scholarly credentials are these:
Noll is a graduate of Wheaton College, Illinois (B.A, English), the University of Iowa (M.A., English), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A., Church History and Theology), and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D, History of Christianity)
If Dr. Mark Noll wants to put on the theologian's hat, OK, or the political pundit's hat. But---and this goes for anyone else in his acclaimed and exalted position as an historian---he must make clear what hat he's wearing. Just let us know.
In reviewing two scholarly historical works here, albeit in TNR, the gentle reader could not be blamed for assuming Dr. Noll has his professional historian hat on, and not the political pundit's or theologian's.
The last thing the historian should do is mix in his own religion and politics! When Mark Noll is writing as a theologian---or personally as a Christian, or as an evangelical Christian---or as a partisan and/or pundit, all I ask is that he let us know which hat he's wearing. I hope I'm not being unfair here, asking that certain lines be drawn.