Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007). In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”
In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity. More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins. People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption. For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.
Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian. When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things. I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just. Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image. The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned. They have failed to live according to New Testament standards. The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love. Yes and yes.
In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery. We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools. All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.
But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past. They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation. The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.
Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus. His historical analysis in this piece is only half right. But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format. As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.
More to come.