Thursday, September 6, 2012

Another Evangelical Calls Out David Barton

Warren Throckmorton tells us about it here.  A taste from the original piece:
I am afraid I must put this shortly. It is well nigh impossible to cram four years of reading and discussion into a paragraph. I had been deluded by historical exaggerations about a “Christian nation” and a “Biblically-based” Founding. The truth was much messier: in colonial America, the Enlightenment skepticism met with Dissenter Protestantism (plus magisterial Anglicanism and even some Catholicism thrown in). Various liberalisms embodied in the moderate Whig and radical Jacobin strutted about the world revolutionary stage. From a larger, longer perspective: what is a “Christian nation” anyway and how does it apply to America? Wasn’t the Holy Roman Empire a Christian nation which was blessed by the undivided church and in constant communion with the Pope? What about Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire or Canterbury and England, in which the monarch heads the church? The “Christian principle of religious freedom” can be more accurately described as the “Baptist principle of religious freedom.” It was a more recent development that found wide acceptance in a pluralistic confederation of states. Thinkers like Richard John Neuhaus thought America could be Christian, but only in a certain sense. This is left open for debate.


JMS said...

Jon – another great link. I found Gingerich’s article refreshing because it reiterated what John Fea stressed about “thinking historically” in the introduction to his recent “Christian Nation?” book.

Historical scholarship has become a “harmful process” abused by both sides (but more so on the Barton side) in the “culture wars” as a cherry-picking “tool” leading to “misinterpretations, misportrayals, mistruths” and “lies.” It is tragic that the most “scholastically adept” students are being “deluded” the most, and (especially home-schoolers) should not become indoctrinated into “bullets in the culture war.”

As Gingerich notes (and the best historians like Marty, Noll, Gaustad, Lambert, Holmes, Waldman, Frazer and Fea have portrayed in their books), the “truth” about the history of religion in America is a lot “messier” and “more variegated.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think Gingerich swallowed the kool-aid too much the other way now. Sorry, bro, if you're reading this. The Barton/Wallbuilders essay on "Christian nation" is not bad atall.

Defining a Christian Nation

"Contemporary post-modern critics (including President Obama) who assert that America is not a Christian nation always refrain from offering any definition of what the term “Christian nation” means. So what is an accurate definition of that term as demonstrated by the American experience?

Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement. As Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) explained:

[I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation – in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world.

So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was “of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation” because Christianity “has so largely shaped and molded it.”

JMS said...

Tom - what are you imbibing? You can't seriously rebut Gingerich's argument about historical nuance and "truth" with Wallbuilders propaganda.

You chided me a few weeks ago when I praised Akil Amar's point about a "living" Constitution by saying it was beyond the scope of this blog's concerns.

Now you attempt to refute Gingerich with a late-19th century SCOTUS case that had nothing to do with religion (it was about immigration law, and Brwer did not like the fact that the law did not exempt clergymen), except Justice Brewer wanted to inject his "Christian nation" beliefs into it.

Following Gingerich's prompts, I was agreeing with his move away from "cherry-picking" towards the "messier and more variegated" aspects of historical scholarship.

Supreme Court justices (and their law clerks) are notorious "cherry-pickers" or injectors of their personal opinions into court decisions. Brewer's assertion is as valid as Barton's, and both are unsubstantiated. Saying it does not make it so.

Also, as was the norm in late 19th century white Protestant America, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, racism towards Native, Asian and African Americans was virulent, and Brewer's opinion clearly reflects those norms. As Gingerich warned, be careful what your "culture war bullets" are primed with - it can be "messy."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Gingerich doesn't have an argument, just a polemic.

As for Barton's case for a "Christian nation," I don't necessarily argue that it's correct, but that it's far more modest than the h8ters suspect.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Barton's general thesis is correct. His manner of overstating his case is not. Trouble for those that want to present a balanced case for the thesis is being pegged a Pseudo-Barton by rabid secularists that distort things way more than Barton.