Friday, June 27, 2008

Peter Marshall, Christian Nationalist:

Previously I discussed the Reverend Peter Marshall's work here. Rev. Marshall is a fairly big figure in "Christian America" circles. From what I know of his work, it's pretty shoddy. He wrote a classic in that idiom entitled "The Light and the Glory." Here is how Dr. Gregg Frazer describes that work in his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University:

It became the classic text of that camp. Its historiography is abominable; it is a collection of speculations, suppositions, personal musings, and “insights” with little or no proof or documentation for extraordinary claims. p. 38.

In my earlier post, I noted Marshall, and his coauthor David Manuel are working on a revised version of this book, to be published sometime in 2009. Somewhat to their credit, they are attempting to improve their level of scholarship. Relying on Peter Lillback's work on George Washington, Marshall notes they will no longer endorse George Washington's spurious "Daily Sacrifice" Prayerbook (of which by the way Pat Robertson's CBN apparently endorses the validity).

Good for them, but apparently you can't teach an old dog new tricks. The year is 2008, 8 years after David Barton wrote his article, "Unconfirmed Quotations," cautioning his followers to no longer spread these bogus utterance of America's Founders, and Marshall still features the following on his website:

For example, Patrick Henry, a great Founding Father, and one of the strongest evangelical Christians of his time, said that "It can not be too often repeated, or too strongly emphasized that America was not founded by religionists nor on any religion, but by Christians on the Gospel of Jesus Christ." This is a statement that never shows up in the history books that are read by the vast majority of American schoolchildren.

You don't see it in the schoolbooks because Patrick Henry never uttered it. And it's not as though Marshall is unfamiliar with Barton or Wallbuilders. Indeed, they recently did a series together still showing on TBN entitled "Under God," which from the episodes I have seen repeated all of the Christian Nationalist revisionist talking points.

But, for all I know, given that I've never read "The Light and the Glory," which was originally published in 1977, before Barton made his mark, it could be the source of some of Barton's "unconfirmed quotations."

One reason why these "unconfirmed quotations" don't seem to die is that they sound so on point. When Christian Nationalists look for quotations to support their claim, those are the ones that first stand out. But they represent neither what the Founders said, nor what they stood for. Most of the accurate quotations that Christian Nationalists then offer distort their context or meaning. For instance, Marshall offers what follows from John Adams in misleading or misunderstood context:

John Adams, our second President and a true son of the Puritans, spoke for all the Founding Fathers when he spoke these words to the Massachusetts Militia in 1798: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Marshall fails to note that Adams was a fervent theological unitarian who in his private letters uttered blasphemous sentiments on the Trinity for which his Puritan ancestors would have executed him (literally, they had laws on the books demanding the death penalty for such "high handed blasphemie").

Further, when Adams stated "religion" and "morality" he meant exactly what he said: "religion" in general, not "Christianity" -- certainly not orthodox Trinitarian Christianity in which Adams didn't believe and whose doctrines he often bitterly mocked -- in particular. Marshall and the "Christian Nation" crowd make the error of reading not just "Christianity" but "orthodox" or what they would regard as "true biblical Christianity" into Adams' generic endorsement of "religion" as a source for public "morality." What follows is one of many of Adams' quotations that show when he said "religion" in a generic sense, he meant "religion" not necessarily "Christianity":

It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.

– John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

Even when John Adams praised "Christianity" in particular, it was done through the lens of his heterodox unitarian creed, and resulted in sentiments that evangelicals like Marshall would consider "heresy" and not "real Christianity" at all, if they truly understood or honestly dealt with what Adams and the other key Founders really posited. The following is one of John Adams' quotations the Christian America crowd often spreads, which, again, on the surface sounds like it supports their claim, but whose context belies it:

The general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were...the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28th, 1813

Now, if one didn't understand the context one might think Adams were referring to those principles in the creeds that united the orthodox Churches, what evangelicals and Roman Catholics consider "real Christianity." Things like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible. But you would be wrong. Adams explains just who is included in that "lowest-common-denominator" of "general principles of Christianity," in the rest of his letter that the Christian America crowd doesn't reveal:

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien ["Protestants who believe 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 only Universalists who denied eternal damnation but Arians, Socinians and Priestleyans [the later term referring to Adams', Jefferson's, and Franklin's religious mentor, British Unitarian Whig Joseph Priestley] all of whom were unitarians, denying the Trinity and other fundamental doctrines of orthodoxy. But it gets worse! Deists, Atheists, and Protestants who believe nothing are likewise included in Adams' lowest common denominator of "Christian principles."

And to make matters even worse, Adams appeals to the authority of some radically anti-Christian Enlightenment philosophers:

In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.

Whatever theological system Adams was referring to, it's certainly not what Peter Marshall, David Barton and the rest of the "Christian America" crowd would consider "real Christianity."


Brad Hart said...

The "Under God" series that you mention in your post is one of my favorite examples of how Christian Nationalists distort early American history for their own gain. Priceless!

Brian Tubbs said...

For whatever it's worth, Jon, I actually agree with most of what you've written.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks Brian. I try to put things in balanced perspective and not fall into the trap that many secular leftists do in replacing the "Christian America" myth with "the Founders were all Deists" myth.

John Fea said...

Jon: I just published a brief piece on the 30th anniversary of Marshall and Manuel's book.