Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Search For Christian America

I finally got the book. I'm well aware of the arguments as many of the scholars whose works I read and value -- Gregg Frazer, John Fea, Jon Meacham, Steven Waldman, among others -- reference that book and its arguments. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis especially.

I haven't finished the book yet; but from what I've read, I strongly recommend it. But not without qualification. The book's claims deserve to be scrutinized just as the authors scrutinize "Christian America" claims.

The book's thesis as the authors write on page 17:

We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word "Christian" a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return. ...

Their understanding of "Christian" is tightly wound in a theological sense. But the book's chief target is evangelicals who define "Christianity" as something more meaningful than "weak generic" Christendom. As the authors note, "[a]lmost everything in Western culture from the late Roman Empire until about 1800 was 'Christian' in this sense." (p. 30.)

Years ago when I was discussing on my blogs whether the political theology of the American Founding -- although it often presented itself as "rational Christianity" -- deserved the label "Christian," a clever commenter asked whether America was founded on a "Christian heresy."

Although the authors of the book do not believe America's Founding political theology merits the label "Christian," their thesis fits with the "Christian heresy" understanding.

Their thoughts on Winthrop's Massachusetts remind me of the The Simpsons' Founding of the town of Springfield episode that joked the town was founded when "a fiercely determined band of pioneers leaves Maryland after misinterpreting a passage in the bible. Their destination, New Sodom." The Puritians thought Massachusetts was an exalted "New Israel." But the authors claim this a clear case of "mistaken identity" as they put it. (p. 36.) The authors assert Roger Williams' Rhode Island represented the more authentically Christian understanding of government.

But here is where the authors use their authoritative discretion to choose what counts as authentic ideal Christianity, what counts as error. Though, many of the things the authors count as "un-Christian" and consequently put in the "bad" box were arguably part of historic normative Christianity. Religious persecution, chattel slavery, and the deplorable treatment of American Indians are used to solidify the case for an "un-Christian" America. Yet these things were done by Christians in the name of Christianity. Roger Williams who comes out of history smelling better than John Winthrop arguably held more novel and eccentric positions than Winthrop. I'm trying not to "judge," but it seems to me that Winthrop's illiberality was more normatively Christian for the time and context than Williams' liberality that ultimately prevailed in liberal democratic America (and in Western Christendom as a whole).

The authors have been tarred as "liberals" intent on "revising" the record. While I can't say for sure, I don't believe they are either political OR theological liberals. And, in the book, they promote, in addition to Williams, Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins as model biblical thinkers. They were hardly liberals. And even though Williams' politics were radically liberal for his time, his theology that informed his politics was, ironically, fanatically fundamentalist. Indeed it was America's Founders -- from Washington to Jefferson to Hamilton -- who tended to be theological liberals and consequently not authentically Christian enough. Rather they were the humanists of their day. Albeit theistic/religious humanists.

John Witherspoon was an evangelical Christian. But in his personal theology. When it came to politics -- his Lectures on Moral Philosophy -- he was a naturalist and a (Scottish) Enlightenment rationalist, hardly a "model for Christian political thought." (p. 93.)

On the American Revolution, it violated Romans 13 and otherwise "was not a 'just war' as traditionally defined by the Church, and hence ... was not worthy of unqualified Christian support. ... [Further], the patriots were so hypocritical that they forfeited whatever Christian approval their theoretical justifications might otherwise merit." (p. 95.)

The charged "hypocrisy," you could guess, relates to the patriots' practice of slavery and treatment of the Indians.

I know this is contentious stuff! But it's well worth serious consideration.


Phil Johnson said...

What's contentious about it?
It's high time we begin the process of questioning religion no matter what presentation is made of it.
Persons at this site seem to uphold the taboo against questioning religion and, speciafically, Christianity as though there is something against the Constitution in doing so. I have been scolded for just that point. Too bad. We should be able to expect more from professional academicians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I can't wrap my mind around the idea of a "Christian historian." If I follow you here, Noll, Marsden & Hatch are speaking as theologians and maybe even pastors. I don't know if even David Barton goes that far.

The book is 1989. Barton didn't start his act until 1989, yes? Was the Noll/Marsden book a hasty response?

I don't get this whole thing, frankly.

if we mean by the word "Christian" a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.

That means ignoring "Christian thought": natural law, Aquinas and the Scholastics, and all of Calvinist resistance theory, including the English Civil Wars [esp the Puritan revolution].

Is this any better a method than Barton's?

jimmiraybob said...

Would appreciate any commentary on this book which I should have read by now but keep getting distracted by all the other books that I should have read by now.

OT - What would be the best book/source to get me started and up to speed on Calvinist resistance theory? I may have jotted down the answer before but can't find it.

jimmiraybob said...

RE: Calvinist resistance theory query

I think the source that I had in mind is Brian Tierney's The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 1625, which KOI did posts on. Are there others?

Jonathan Rowe said...


The book was more a response to the pre-Barton Christian America sources.

Best I can tell, "serious" orthodox theologians didn't take Marshall and Manuel's "The Light and the Glory" very seriously. But it seemed as though Francis Schaeffer (whom the authors considered a serious theoligan) did. It was more an attempt to win over the Francis Schaeffer types. (I still haven't read the whole correspondence between Schaeffer and the authors that Barry Hankins has documented; if/when it comes online I will).

Jonathan Rowe said...


Google Mark David Hall. The work we've reproduced here and his SSRN page.

jimmiraybob said...

JR - Thanks

JMS said...

I thought the Search for Christian America was a great book. As Dr. Rowe noted and as the book's authors explain in the Afterword, "this book was originally prepared early in the Reagan era when for many evangelicals, hopes were high for restoring America's Christian heritage." (p. 156)

But those hopes (or delusions)were not realized, and the author's noted that, "starting with Christian principles is no guarantee of achieving Christian political results. Or, to put it in terms that theistic founders of this nation understood well, 'power corrupts'."

Historians like Mark Noll or John Fea are such faithful historians in the sense that, as stated by Noll et. al. in reference to the "Christian nation" thesis they were rebutting, "we hope to correct the mistaken assumption that the American past offers an adequate Christian blueprint for our lives today. We must agree with Roger Williams that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God's chosen people" (pp. 24-25)

Jonathan Rowe said...

JMS: Many thanks. Yes those are helpful lines.