Anthropologist and public intellectual Wade Davis asks if the era of American exceptionalism is over.
For your consideration:
Read Davis’s Rolling Stone article here.
Needless to say, I was glad to see Abram Van Engen of Washington University in St. Louis critique the way Os Guinness, Eric Metaxas, and David Barton are manipulating the American past. I also appreciate his shoutout to the Conference on Faith and History, an organization in which I currently serve as Vice-President and President-elect.
Here is a taste of Van Engen’s post at The Anxious Bench:
There are plenty of good historians at work today, including many Christians historians, and what they have in common is a desire to know God and God’s world better by trying to understand what has actually occurred and why. The Conference on Faith and History does not have a popular following (like Metaxas), but it nonetheless gathers faithful Christians, many of whom study the nation. None of these scholars feel their faith threatened by facts. All of them feel compelled to follow historical records where they lead.
The dangers of Christian nationalism for both Christianity and the nation mount with each rewriting of the American past. If Christians are to be committed to both truth and love, then we must commit to as true and full a history of the nation as we can tell, loving our fellow citizens, refusing to worship a false image of the nation, and trusting, finally, in a sovereign God.
Read the entire post here.
John Hagee invited Fox News commentator, conspiracy theorist, disgraced Christian college president, and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza to speak at the Sunday evening service at his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Watch:
D’Souza tells the audience that American exceptionalism is ordained by God and it is under attack. He then moves into his usual critique of socialism. This then devolves into a rejection of systemic racism. If the camera shots of the audience members nodding their heads and cheering is any indication, D’Souza seems to be getting through to them. This is what pro-Trump megachurches have become. It’s pure fearmongering.
The Supreme Court made an important religious liberty decision today, but some court evangelicals and other Trump evangelicals are still fighting. They continue to stoke fear about threats to religious liberty.
Why it’s paramount to never allow a Democrat activist in the White House. American liberty and our rights depend on it. Elections have consequences. https://t.co/Opm7oqWnYA
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) July 8, 2020
“Christian” politico Ralph Reed turns a SCOTUS victory into a chance to get revenge against his enemy.
Tremendous victory for religious freedom in #SCOTUS decision in favor of Little Sisters of the Poor. It was Joe Biden & Obama who persecuted these nuns and threatened to fine them millions. Trump stood with them.
— Ralph Reed (@ralphreed) July 8, 2020
Johnnie Moore, the self-professed “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” responds to the SCOTUS decision in a way Bonhoeffer would not have recognized as Christian. Perhaps Johnnie needs to read The Cost of Discipleship.
The lines are so clear…@JoeBiden supported the government REQUIRING NUNS! to provide contraception against their conscience.@realDonaldTrump‘s @WhiteHouse refused to enforce it, & sued to protect #ReligiousFreedom.
Today, the admin & the Nuns, won.https://t.co/LKm8oq5LrT
— Rev. Johnnie Moore ن (@JohnnieM) July 8, 2020
This is what blind court evangelicalism looks like:
President Trump: Always knows more about every issue than anyone else in the room.
Joe Biden: Doesn’t even know he’s in a room.
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) July 8, 2020
And this (notice “ALL” in all caps):
President @realDonaldTrump is the bold leader for FREEDOM and JUSTICE for ALL that AMERICA needs. 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) July 8, 2020
When you think David French is an “irrational woke liberal” and mock someone’s military service it speaks volumes about you and the institution you work for. In Jenna Ellis’s case it is Liberty University. Remember, not all Christian colleges are the same.
David French’s transformation into an irrational woke liberal is complete.
Military service doesn’t mean that every idea one offers is inherently correct simply because of their service. Duckworth’s facts are wrong and political ideas anti-American. https://t.co/Uej2mSAQLZ
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) July 7, 2020
Jenna Ellis was on the Eric Metaxas Show today talking about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech. Metaxas, who is also a spokesperson at the Falkirk Center, says anyone who criticized the speech is “loony.” He mocks the Sioux leaders who pointed out that Mount Rushmore was on Lakota land: “They have benefited from this country.” Ellis thinks that Trump gave the nation an “honest history lesson” during the speech. Again, this should be offensive to any serious classroom teacher who is working to give American young people honest history lessons. In one of the more comical moments of the interview, Ellis praises Trump for his love of the nuclear family and commitment to the institution of marriage.
Wait a minute, I thought Biden was working with Black Lives Matter to undermine America?:
Young Black voters say they’re not excited about Joe Biden https://t.co/kfqTNV2Hzu
— David Brody (@DavidBrodyCBN) July 8, 2020
Richard Land is spewing Christian nationalism:
1/4 At Mount Rushmore, President Trump eloquently articulated American exceptionalism, noting that “our Founders” launched not only “a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity… It was all made possible by… the
— Richard Land (@rdland) July 8, 2020
2/4 Declaration of Independence,” which “enshrined a divine truth… ‘all men are created equal’.” As President Trump observed, these “immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.” President Trump also noted that our rights were given to us “by our Creator in
— Richard Land (@rdland) July 8, 2020
3/4 heaven.” This is the fundamental difference between the enduring success of the American Revolution as opposed to the collapse and savage bloodshed of the French Revolution, which came along only thirteen years later. The French Revolution asserted “liberty, equality, & fra-
— Richard Land (@rdland) July 8, 2020
4/4 -ternity” based on the mere human assertion of these rights, which proved to be a woefully inadequate foundation, compared to their being divinely conferred. When our forefathers declared their independence from Great Britain they did not declare their independence from God. pic.twitter.com/iGSmbgimyN
— Richard Land (@rdland) July 8, 2020
There is a lot that is wrong with this thread. I don’t have time to respond directly right now, but if you want to dig deeper:
Jack Graham issues a warning:
Make no mistake about it, the same anarchism that wants to erase American history and heritage will be coming after Biblical history next. Next up after the founding fathers will be Jesus and the apostles.
— Jack Graham (@jackngraham) July 8, 2020
Graham’s words remind me what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump about the Election of 1800 and the evangelical response to the threat of the
Deep State Illuminati in the early republic.
Until next time.
A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.
I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota. (Applause.)
As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day. Thank you. (Applause.)
Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus. They’re working hard. (Applause.) I want to thank them very, very much.
COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”
We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman. Hi, Dusty. Thank you. (Applause.) And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming. We appreciate it.
There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.
COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.
Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. (Applause.) I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.
THE PRESIDENT: We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776. At those words, every American heart should swell with pride. Every American family should cheer with delight. And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before. (Applause.)
Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity. No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America. And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:
It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence. (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”
COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.
These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom. Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven. And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.
And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.
Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.
COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.
And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.
COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.
Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.
COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.
AUDIENCE: Booo —
THE PRESIDENT: Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them. (Applause.)
COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.
According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag. Watch:
And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!
THE PRESIDENT: One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America. (Applause.) This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly. We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life. (Applause.)
In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.
Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.
COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.
To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Not on my watch! (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: True. That’s very true, actually. (Laughter.) That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
THE PRESIDENT: I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested. (Applause.)
Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison. (Applause.) And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore. (Applause.)
COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.
Our people have a great memory. They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.
COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.
The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.
Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.
COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.
This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore. They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Today, we will set history and history’s record straight. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.
Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known. Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.
COMMENT: Again, complexity.
From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people. From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.
COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.
Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph. When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.
They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton. After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.
COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.
When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President. (Applause.) When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.” He remains first in our hearts to this day. For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington. (Applause.) He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten. (Applause.)
COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.
Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence. He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.
After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency. He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty. Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson. (Applause.) And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us. (Applause.)
COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.
Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.
The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions. Very, very strong convictions.
He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth. (Applause.)
He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery. Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam. At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.
Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life. For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.
Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity. He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.
As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill. He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States. (Applause.)
He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power. He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full. The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt. (Applause.)
COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.
No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart. Can’t have it. No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.
COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”
The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice. But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society. It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.
They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced. (Applause.)
COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you!
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much.
We will state the truth in full, without apology: We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.
COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.
We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.
COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.
We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life. (Applause.)
COMMENT: I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.
We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders. (Applause.) And we are building the wall. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Are we building the wall?
We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people. A nation must care for its own citizens first. We must take care of America first. It’s time. (Applause.)
We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed. Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God. (Applause.)
COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”
We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.
We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.
We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement. (Applause.) We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms. (Applause.)
We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag. (Applause.)
We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.
This is who we are. This is what we believe. And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.
COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?
Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny. In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other. Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.
COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.
AUDIENCE: Booo —
THE PRESIDENT: In its place, they want power for themselves. But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity. (Applause.)
COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.
We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts. By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.” (Applause.)
They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years. Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights. They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.
COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”
My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
THE PRESIDENT: It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors. It is time. (Applause.) It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land. For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes. (Applause.)
Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people. It will not happen. (Applause).
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
THE PRESIDENT: We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.
Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering. In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.
We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation. Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals. Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals. He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage. (Applause.)
COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.
Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.
Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.
COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.
We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. (Applause.) We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali. (Applause.) And only America could have produced them all. (Applause.) No other place.
We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan. We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore. (Applause.)
Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet. We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.
We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.
COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.
Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story. You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it. So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past. I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live. (Applause.)
COMMENT: My thoughts on this.
From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve. We will raise the next generation of American patriots. We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure. And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down. (Applause.) They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything. (Applause.)
Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible. This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness. And that’s what we have: American greatness. (Applause.)
Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.
My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights. America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts. America’s future is in our hands. And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
THE PRESIDENT: This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you. I love your state. I love this country. I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July. To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Johann Neem is an important voice in our defense of American institutions, civil society, and an educated citizenry. Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post: “The Next Victim of the Coronavirus: American Exceptionalism.”
The rise of Donald Trump, and the embarrassing failure of the American state to respond effectively to the coronavirus, has proved to the world that the United States is no longer exceptional nor, in President Barack Obama’s word, indispensable. The inability of the American government to protect its citizens from a pandemic and provide global leadership vividly illustrates that American exceptionalism is dead.
This might be a good thing. American exceptionalism has allowed Americans on the left and right alike to pretend that we could evade the problems facing other societies. Now is the time to accept the reality that we are part of the world and its history, not exceptions to it.
This requires dismantling aspects of American mythology that have made it harder for us to address deep problems in our society. All nations rely on myths, and perhaps none can survive without them. But today, some of the ideas we hold dear about ourselves — that America is a country of rugged individuals, destined to be the world’s first multicultural democracy and too strong and important to falter — are impeding our ability to overcome our most pressing challenges.
Read the rest here.
Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City. Enjoy his latest post. –JF
The interplay between race, religion and American exceptionalisms was the theme of a panel in the second round of papers at day one of the ASCH in New York city. The panel sits squarely in the center of the conference’s overall theme: Whose América: New Perspectives Contours and Connections in Church Histories.
The plural exceptionalisms was a key note sounded, particularly in the papers by Malcolm Foley (Baylor University) and Nichole Renèe Phillips (Emory University) which discussed how African American conceptualizations of American exceptionalism could critique America’s oppressive and violent racial attitudes while simultaneously affirming that the American experiment was indeed built on unique ideals. In fact, such endorsement of American exceptionalism was often used to call white Americans to reform. This suggests that American exceptionalism is not always a cipher of bellicose ethno-nationalism, but can also act as a sternly prophetic voice. Indeed, I was left pondering how severe critique of the nation’s sins can still be a form of implicit nationalism, since the very act of chastisement for sin tacitly accepts the normative status of national claims to uniqueness and special importance.
I was particularly intrigued by Foley’s presentation of Black Presbyterian Pastor Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Foley showed how Grimké was troubled by an apparent contradiction between African American experiences of inequality and violence in America and the foundational commitment and loyalty to the country that he witnessed among many African Americans. Yet, according to Foley, Grimké himself displayed some of this same ambiguity, castigating and critiquing, yet never able to quite give up on the America of the mind.
Meanwhile Paul Gutacker explored the way in which church history could be used by Americans of both European and African descent in the nineteenth century. European Americans drew on the broader myth of Protestant freedom and Anglo-Saxon liberty to envision America as the arena wherein the story of the English people would find its climax, the result of America’s victorious disaggregation of church and state. Gutacker focused part African American Christian leaders, by contrast, stretched further back to emphasize that the early church Bible belt was in North Africa, and that the most revered of all theologians, even among Protestants, Saint Augustine, was, of course, African. Interestingly, both African and European Americans could plug into the dominant anti-Catholicism of the era. Black theologians perpetuated a narrative that held the Catholic church as responsible for slavery, while European leaders saw anti-Catholicism as the great unifying creed of freeborn American Christians.
Anti-Catholicism, which was to some extent a proxy for nationalism in the nineteenth century in both Britain and the United States, will recur as a theme at ASCH in a panel on Sunday with papers from John Wolffe, Geraldine Vaughan and John Maiden. Prof. Wolffe told me in conversation after today’s panel that he sees anti-Catholicism scholarship making a resurgence. This is an intriguing fact given current hostility to immigrants and outsiders at work in American (and British) society at the moment. I am reminded of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s comment that prejudice against Catholics is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
One of the most enduring phrases at the heart of American exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s famous proclamation that the Puritan colonists were establishing a “city upon a hill.” But the story of this lay sermon is much more complicated, and, according to Bancroft-winning historian Daniel Rodgers, Winthrop was not being triumphalist, but instead a statement of anxiety. Dr. Rodgers joins us to discuss his new book on the sermon and its endurance, As a City on a Hill.
Daniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?
DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.
I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?
DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.
JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?
DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.
At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!
Donald Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University. This interview is based on his new book Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Exporting the Rapture?
DA: This is the second volume in my three-volume set on where and how radical apocalyptic millennialism was built into its central position in American conservative evangelicalism. The first volume, Discovering the End of Time was published in 2016 by McGill-Queens University Press.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Exporting the Rapture?
DA: The big argument is that the ideological core of American evangelicalism was formed overseas and in the period 1860ff began to be energetically imported into North America. Surprisingly, the germinal ground was southern Ireland in the 1820s and thereafter. The entry point was the Great Lakes Basin and the subsequent process was equally a matter of Canadian and US assimilation of imported concepts. That is simple to state, but the process was anything but linear.
JF: Why do we need to read Exporting the Rapture?
DA: Mostly to help us escape the mortmain of American Exceptionalism, which, despite the heroic efforts of some fine historians, too frequently comes forth as American Parochialism.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DA: I am an historian of Ireland, and of the Second British Empire and of the diasporas that had their origin in the British Isles. For a long time now, I have been arguing that in diaspora studies religion not only counts, it counts a great deal—despite its being marginalized by most historians of physical migration and by their counterparts in the field of cultural studies.
JF: What is your next project?
DA: To complete the third volume of the study and to bring the story up to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the new apocalyptic evangelicalism won.
JF: Thanks, Donald!
Today I will be teaching John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity to the teachers in the Princeton Seminar. You may know this as the famous “city upon a hill” sermon. Winthrop’s words have been used by several U.S presidents (John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan come immediately to mind) to promote the idea of American exceptionalism. John Wilsey does a nice job of unpacking this history in his book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.
Over at the website of Foreign Affairs, Cal-Berkeley historian Daniel Sargent argues that we may have seen the end of the era of American exceptionalism. Here is a taste of his piece “RIP American Exceptionalism, 1776-2018“:
When Benjamin Franklin went to France on a mission to win support for America’s fledging revolution, his fur hat intrigued Parisians, spurring emulation. But the fashion choice was also a considered statement of the distinct values of his country. From the very beginning, the affirmation of republican probity has remained a touchstone for U.S. diplomacy, just as a sense of the United States as a nation “conceived in liberty” has informed Americans’ understanding of their place in the world. As citizens of the “freest of all nations,” as Ulysses S. Grant put it, Americans favored “people struggling for liberty and self-government.”
It’s true that United States became in the 20th century an imperial republic, but even then, it disavowed conquest and subjugation. Liberation and emancipation became the refrain for America’s many wars, animated by President Woodrow Wilson’s refrain that the United States battles tyrants but emancipates ordinary people. The United States would even strive to elevate and redeem the citizens of the Axis powers it defeated in 1945. After 9/11, the trope became entrenched, as President George W. Bush aimed to sever al Qaeda from Islam and Iraqis from their president. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush promised Iraqis. “The day of your liberation is near.” What other conquering power has code-named a major military operation for the liberation of the invaded, as Bush did with Iraq? (Doubtless it did not occur to Hitler’s high command to dub Operation Barbarossa “Operation Soviet Freedom.”)
Read the rest here.
American exceptionalism asserts a unique history and destiny for this nation. It is usually based on a story with divine overtones, a narrative which arcs toward freedom and justice. In this story, God in his providence founded the United States to lead the world into civil and religious liberty. American exceptionalism, in other words, is first and foremost collective history.
America First, in contrast, has little interest in history. Instead, it offers a national philosophy. It claims that all countries are essentially alike, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win.
Both forms of rhetoric have their own particular hazards. The idea that our country has a distinct history and unique purpose has always implied both a higher morality to guide us and a sense of God’s election. And a belief in special election, for nations at least, can be quite dangerous. John O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” declared that the United States would “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world … has America been chosen.”
That mission, expressed in Manifest Destiny, involved a brutal confiscation of land, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples, and an extension of American interests frequently dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world. If we call or consider our nation the special messenger of God, we are not likely to be found listening to, or learning from, others.
The hazards of America First, in contrast, come not from a sense of divine election, but from a worldview based in the utter absence of any higher moral good. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest, where winners make losers and losers have no claim to sympathy. The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind.
Read the rest here.
Philip Gorski is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write American Covenant?
I began writing the book nine years ago, during the 2008 Obama campaign. My initial aim was to place Obama’s campaign rhetoric within the civil religious tradition originally identified by Robert Bellah a half century ago, in his 1967 Daedalus article. It then evolved into an attempt to recover that tradition and to distinguish it from its historic rivals: radical secularism and religious nationalism.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Covenant?
America’s civil religious tradition is a synthesis of prophetic religion and civic republicanism or “prophetic republicanism.” Although it has evolved and expanded as America has become diverse and powerful, prophetic republicanism has always been the vital center of our public life.
JF: Why do we need to read American Covenant?
The Trump Presidency represents a mortal threat to the vital center. Only a broad alliance of committed democrats that cuts across the usual cultural and political divides will be strong enough to withstand his efforts to abolish the American Republic and replace it with an un-American regime of authoritarian populism. This book identifies the core values that are at stake in the present conflict and places the current struggle within a deeper context. The analysis of religious nationalism also helps uncover the deeper roots of Trumpism and illuminates the puzzling appeal to a certain sort of Christian conservative. Likewise, the critique or radical secularism should remind secular progressives of the religious roots of many of their most deeply held values and commitments — and of the dangers of denying them.
Though the book was always intended as a public intervention aimed at a broader audience of educated Americans, it is also a work of serious scholarship that will, I hope, outlast the Trump regime, and appeal to academic specialists as well. As such it will appeal to American religious historians as a deep history of the modern culture wars; to political philosophers interested in the proper role of religion in public life, and to theological ethicists concerned with the role of civic engagement in religious communities.
JF: When and why did you decide to study American history/social history?
I was originally trained as an early modern Europeanist. I began studying the US in preparation for a comparative project on the divergent religious trajectories of the US and Western Europe since the late 19th Century. I then got “sidetracked” by this project on civil religion.
JF: What is your next project?
I am currently working on the connection between religion and populism. Populism is usually thought of as a “secular” phenomenon, rooted in class conflict, cultural pluralism and party competition. While economic inequality, mass immigration and political gridlock are surely part of the explanation for the current populist resurgence, religious factors are also crucial. This is true not only in notoriously religious countries such as India and the United States, but also in Eastern and Western Europe.
JF: Thanks, Philip!
This is Walter Brueggemann:
They both believe that America is a “shining city on a hill.”
Some of you may remember that I questioned the way Eric Metaxas used this phrase in his book If You Can Keep It. You can read the criticism here.
Now it is Hillary Clinton who is playing the “city on a hill” and American exceptionalism card. Granted, Clinton’s “city on a hill” is not as overly providential at Metaxas’s use of the term, but the rhetoric of American exceptionalism is similar.
Here is Ryan Teague Beckwith’s piece at Time on Clinton’s use of this language:
In her address, she also heartily endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, going even further to call America “indispensable” and citing two Republican presidents in her speech to the American Legion.
“The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. … In fact, we are the indispensable nation.”
It was an argument aimed squarely at the veterans of an organization that lists “Americanism” as one of its central pillars. But it was also a way of turning one of the Republican lines against Obama back against the party’s own nominee.
Read the entire piece here.
This may be the first time a Democratic candidate has the phrase “city on a hill” since John Kennedy in 1961.
On why the use of this phrase is problematic as a way to describe American exceptionalism, click here.
Thanks to longtime reader and commentator Tom Van Dyke for bringing this article to my attention.
Six posts are enough. I could say a lot more about Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, but I decided, for a variety of reasons, to bring the series to an end yesterday.
Today Religion News Service is running a piece that I envisioned, when asked to write it, as a summary and wrap-up post.
Here is a taste:
(RNS) In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” The Wheaton College professor called out evangelicals for their anti-intellectual approaches to public engagement and urged his fellow believers to be more thoughtful in their political reflections.
I don’t know if Eric Metaxas has ever read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but since the release of his wildly popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been touted as one of conservative evangelicalism’s leading spokespersons and public intellectuals.
Metaxas’ latest book, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” is soaring up the New York Times best-sellers list. The title comes from a popular story about Benjamin Franklin and the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. When Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the convention he was met by Elizabeth Powell, a prominent woman in Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged. Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”
Read the rest here.
We are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. You can get caught up here.
This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.
Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony. The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…”
It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large. Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later). Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776. Metaxas is in good company here. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).
At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today. It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.
Here are some pertinent passages from the book:
p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic. We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”
p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America. To miss that is to miss everything. This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning. It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes. We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”
p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us. So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?
p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history. Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”
p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred. Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world. It was not something to be giddy about. Far from it. He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”
p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another. The rich would lift up the poor. This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful. What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”
So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?
Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world. It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship. It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world. It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe. And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation. (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one. In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).
With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase. Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something. And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.
As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630. I will let Tracy take it from here:
So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”? The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission. The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world. God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate. Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.
Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies. In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it. Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting. Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….
Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed. Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind. They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope. The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.
So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision. What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.” Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.
If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart. McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.
But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper. I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people. By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism. Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church. The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor. In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America. I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.
For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.
Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:
(RNS) There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the decline of the Christian right in American politics.
In a recent article at The Atlantic, political commentator David Frum suggests Trump has all but captured the GOP nomination by driving social conservatives from power in the party.
In this line of thinking, Ted Cruz is the candidate of the Christian right. Indeed, he has the support of culture warriors such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Glenn Beck. Trump is the candidate of “New York values” who has just happened to attract a few evangelical leaders (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, for example).
But what Frum and others miss in this analysis is the fact that many evangelical conservative voters who affiliate with the agenda of the Christian right believe they can support Trump without sacrificing any of their moral convictions about abortion, marriage and religious liberty — the primary Christian right talking points in 2016.
The beliefs of the conservative evangelicals who support Cruz, and the conservative evangelicals who support Trump, are really two sides of the same coin — two ways of understanding evangelical politics that differ only in minor points of emphasis. The Christian right is far from dead; it is just having a bit of an intramural squabble.
Read the rest here.
In 1620, the Puritan John Winthrop said that Massachusetts Bay Colony was a “City on a Hill.” The Puritans who came to New England believed that they were a new Israel–God’s chosen people. This sense of Christian exceptionalism, as my friend John Wilsey has recently shown, has been around for a long time. The so-called “greatness” of America has been inextricably linked in the minds of many Christians to the blessing of God.
In 1776, John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, preached a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. In this sermon the Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton argued that the American Revolution was a just cause because God is always on the side of liberty. The British colonies were fighting for liberty. The King and Parliament were acting in a tyrannical fashion. Based on this logic, Witherspoon believed God was on the side of the American Revolution.
In the early nineteenth century evangelical Christians, the products of the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” formed dozens of reform movements to Christianize the nation. These evangelical reformers believed that God had a special destiny for the United States. If they could Christianize the culture they might even usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ. The fate of the gospel and the fate of the nation were tightly bound.
During the Civil War both the North and South connected their visions for America with divine Providence. At the turn of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson tried to make the world safe for democracy and did so with a sense of Christian zeal. During the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower baptized American prosperity and the free-market with a dose of Christian nationalism. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was placed on paper money during this decade because Americans wanted to distinguish the “greatness” of their country from the so-called “godless Communists.” And in the 1970s and 1980s these historic efforts to link God and country were enhanced by the evangelicals and fundamentalists who founded the Christian Right.
This quick and dirty sketch reveals that “God and country” idealism has been around, in one form or another, since the 17th century. When Christianity is not protected, celebrated, and even privileged America ceases to be great. When people believe that the American economy is not strong, or when newcomers do not seem to assimilate as quickly as natives would like to see them assimilate, then it is a sign that God is disciplining the nation. When this happens, a revival of Christianity and patriotism (which have often been code words for nativism) is necessary to “make America great again.”
Over the last several months I have spent a lot of time talking with evangelicals who support Donald Trump or are leaning toward Trump. I do not question their religious faith. They are people who read their Bibles and pray. Some go to church and some do not, but they do take their relationship with God seriously.
They also take their identity as patriots seriously. If we understand American religious history and the longstanding connection between Christianity and nationalism, the fact that so many evangelicals are supporting Trump should not surprise us.
Trump may be crude and offer very little in terms of policy, but by trying to “make America great again” he has embarked, in the minds of many evangelicals, on a divine mission.
John Wilsey teaches history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary–Houston campus and is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. This is a must-read if you are a Christian who is trying to make sense of the relationship between your faith and American identity. But Wilsey’s book will also be useful for anyone–Christian or not–who is interested in the history of the idea of American exceptionalism. See our Author’s Corner interview with Wilsey here.
John has been thinking about writing a religious biography of Cold War intellectual John Foster Dulles. I hope he decides to do it.
In the meantime, John has written a piece at History News Network that bridges his current book with his possible future project and applies his findings to the 2016 Election. Here is a taste of “The Legacy of John Foster Dulles That Remains With Us to this Day.”
How do we see the continuation of Dulles’s legacy in contemporary times? Certainly we can see it in manifold ways, but let us consider that legacy through the lens of the presidential candidacy of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio has made American exceptionalism the centerpiece of his personal narrative, and by extension, his entire campaign.
This past July, Rubio sat for a question and answer session hosted by Americans for Peace, Prosperity, and Security at Furman University in Greenville, SC. What he said about American exceptionalism in general, and America’s role in the world in particular, was strikingly similar to Dulles’s vision of America’s global responsibility. “For reasons we don’t fully understand, “ he said, “America has been charged with this task of being the most influential nation on the earth.” One may wonder, who gave this charge to America? Rubio implied that the charge is God-given.
In contrast to America, which is committed to righteousness, China threatens the world with moral darkness for Rubio. He said that China “does not respect human rights,” “does not respect religious liberties,” “does not allow its people unfettered access to the internet and information.” And what happens if America were to step aside from its divine charge to lead the world? Rubio’s answer is “chaos, violence, war, radical jihadism.” Without American leadership, Rubio said that “the world will return to an age of darkness, of violence, of lack of freedoms.”
Rubio clearly believes in the moral imperative of American power and leadership, just as Dulles did in the 1950s. He divides the world into the forces of good and the forces of evil, just as Dulles did. The vision of an exceptional, indispensable America on a God-given mission is not new to Americans. But Dulles’s vision of a global mission in a Manichaean universe has become an article of faith to many Americans. It does not seem to be going away anytime soon.
Read the entire piece here.