In the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.” One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.
I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church. (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe). I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.
My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past. It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.” In this sermon he says. among other things:
We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship. But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally. This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity. That is what the United States Supreme Court said.
Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world. Jeffress is an influential figure. He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals. His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.
It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history. And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.
In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas. He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels. First, only 39 people signed the Constitution. Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelical believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history. In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here. Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees. Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂 But that doesn’t matter. People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.
Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.” Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it. Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim. The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded. Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….
My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian. Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books. But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.
So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.” Maybe I am obsessed. Somebody has to be. We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.