Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn 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 “evangelicalRevised 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.


7 thoughts on “Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

  1. Christian nationalism…What does the government say about that? It is easy to find out, first, get a coin and notice the inscriptions stamped on it and to the other billions made likewise, all there by Federal law.

    1. Liberty. Perhaps this is well defined by an old 1752 Government action, the purchase of the Liberty Bell. Notice the inscription “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.” Lev. XXV v X.
    Liberty, in this context, is not a freedom to do anything, it is tied to general Biblical moral teachings.

    2. In God We Trust. Has been stamped on every coin for over a century, and each coin as it is made represents another government sanction of this high theological doctrine. Might be best to read the Declaration’s “Supreme Judge”, and “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” clauses within their 1776 meaning for context.

    3. Coin Dating. What does the number mean? Year 2017 of what era? In the ancient M.E. world, the numbering of years is tied to the start and reign of a King. Further, this helps define the word ‘God’. To what God on U.S. coinage does the motto refer ? The U.S. Constitution has the answer:
    “…done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven”. Note the adjective ‘our’ tied to ‘Lord’, same personal application as ‘our President’.
    It used to be commonly noted as ‘Anno Domini.’ only in reference to Jesus Christ.

    The ‘Year of our Lord’ dating is still used in Federal Election Documents, as seen in Connecticut’s 2016 Presidential Elector’s Certificate:
    “In Witness Whereof, we have hereunto set our hands.
    Done at the Capitol, in the City of Hartford, and the State of Connecticut on the
    first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, being the nineteenth day of
    December in the year of our Lord two thousand and sixteen.”

    Pennsylvania still notes A.D.: “on the twentieth day of January, A.D. 2017,”

    So there we have it, Federal sanction of the connection between Christ and Government, every time a coin is stamped, or a document signed.


  2. Well put, Tom. I can definitely relate to the sense of isolation and I have written about it here. I really appreciate your comments about correcting the records “as a deep point of professional” honor and Christian integrity.


  3. “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.”

    What’s the “dubious claim,” that America was founded as a Christian nation or that America will be great if it upholds Christian beliefs and morals?

    As a fellow evangelical, I tend to think (along with William Wilberforce), that a nation that follows biblical morality tends to be favored by God. Several Scripture passages indicate that nations who, as a collective group of people, obey God’s commands are far better off (see Proverbs 14:34).

    Also, I’m reading a book by Daniel Driesbach called Reading teh Bible with the Founding Fathers. He interacts with your ideas a little, and I’d be interested in a post containing your take on the book.


  4. As a 30 year veteran of “public history” may I too chime in? I have also been told by former board members and others to not get so “bent out of shape” over a museum’s historical inaccuracies. “Nobody but you will know the difference.” My answer is “yes, I know the difference.” Others I connect with, know that I know the difference and therefore some actually trust me to tell the truth as best I can. This is a deep point of professional honor. As a Christian it is integral to the desire for truth. For many years I got used to battling an anti-Christian rhetoric about American history; now, thanks to the likes of David Barton, I need to confront my family and members of my church too. I do not relish the position of being caught in the middle, swatting away false and mythical heritage stories from both angles. I am proud to side along with talented, Christian historians and other liberal arts scholars in the middle, to thwack away the sloppy talk going on now in public.
    This is not the task we picked but the one we were assigned, and we must make the best of our circumstances.

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