Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

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Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Al Mohler’s Former Church History Professor: “I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days.”

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Check out Jonathan Merritt’s Religion News Service  piece on Albert Mohler‘s recent “flip-flop” to Donald Trump. (We broke this story early. See our posts here and here and here.). Some of the scholars and SBC-insiders he quotes are quite revealing.

Here is Merritt on Mohler’s church history professor and Southern Baptist historian Bill Leonard:

As a fresh-faced student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1980s, Mohler hardly cut the figure as a paragon among far-right conservatives. As Dr. Bill Leonard, Mohler’s church history professor at SBTS reflects, “In my experience and the experience of others, he was mostly an academic and not a part of the conservative contingent at the school. There was no sign that he was going toward the hard right.”

But Leonard, founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, says that Mohler’s theology quickly evolved in the ’80s when theological conservatives moved to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. Mohler pivoted to the right just as it became clear that conservative factions were going to win.

“I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days,” says Leonard, author of “Baptist Ways: A History.” “He saw where things were headed in the denomination and turned toward it.”

Wow!

And here is Merritt on Mohler’s early support of women’s ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention:

One of Mohler’s most stunning theological flip-flops came at the denomination’s gathering in Kansas City in 1984, when SBC conservatives introduced a resolution declaring that only men were qualified to serve as church pastors and that women should instead concern themselves with the “building of godly homes.”

His opposition was so strong that he helped purchase an ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal declaring that God is “an equal opportunity employer.”

The resolution passed despite Mohler’s fierce opposition (though he later preferred to say he merely “took umbrage”). Rather than fight on, Mohler simply changed his position on women in ministry.

Ouch!

Here is baptist historian Barry Hankins:

Barry Hankins, chair of Baylor University’s history department, who interviewed Mohler extensively for his book, “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture,” said, “I’ve always believed (Mohler) wanted to be president of Southern Seminary and the SBC’s most influential theologian. The problem is he’s spent way more time on culture wars over the past 20 years than on theology.”

Here is historian Randall Balmer:

Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth University historian of American religion, quoted a Southern Baptist friend who put it more succinctly: “Al Mohler is a soundbite in search of a theology.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am reminded of this:

The Making of a Christian Historian

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Baylor University historian Barry Hankins tells his story:

“I was born to be a point guard; but not a very good one.” I wish I had written that line. It certainly sums up my college basketball career. But as you can see it is in quotation marks. It comes from one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. Before I read any of his novels—Prince of TidesThe Great SantiniLords of Discipline, or Beach Music—I read his memoir, My Losing Season, about Conroy’s role as point guard of the 1967 basketball team at The Citadel. The quote is the first line of the book.

I came to Baylor as a junior transfer in the fall of 1976 precisely because I had grown up in cold, cold Michigan dreaming of playing basketball at a Division 1 university in a warm climate. Recruited by no D-1 schools out of high school, I went to a small denominational college that offered me a scholarship, Spring Arbor College. There I became friends with a classmate from the Detroit area who was Baptist and whose parents wanted him to transfer to Baylor. In February of 1976, he came to Waco for a campus visit and returned to Spring Arbor with eight Baylor t-shirts for his friends and reports of 75-degree weather. That night I walked to the college library, found a copy of Peterson’s Guide to Colleges and Schools, looked up the address of the Baylor Admissions Office, and sent off for an application. My main goal was to make the basketball team, and after sitting out the required transfer year, I did. My claim to athletic fame at Baylor was that I guarded Vinnie Johnson in practice. Vinnie was an All-American who went on to a long and productive NBA career, winning two championships, fittingly with the Detroit Pistons, my childhood team.

So, it was basketball that led me to Professor Bill Pitts’s church history class, where I was a not-very-good point guard masquerading as a religion major. And something happened. I got the academics bug, at least enough to do well in my major courses, even as I floundered in subjects I mistakenly thought irrelevant to my life goals. I planned to go into the ministry, but eventually came to believe that the call I felt on my life was to teach, not preach.

Coming to that realization, however, took time. After undergrad, I returned to my hometown of Flint, Michigan, and for a year took a position as Youth Activities Director at a large, downtown Presbyterian Church. I then attended Fuller Seminary, where once again I had a sterling church history professor, James Bradley. In my first and only year at Fuller, I made the final decision to go the academic route, with the goal of becoming a college teacher. I returned to Baylor for an M.A. in Church-State Studies, then headed to Manhattan, Kansas, to study at K-State with Robert Linder. When I entered the K-State history Ph.D. program in the fall of 1983, I had one goal: teach history on the college level, preferably at a Christian liberal arts college where I would have ample opportunity to teach American religious history and have an impact on the intellectual development of Christian young people. By the time I left K-State three years later as an ABD, I knew I would never be satisfied if I were not a regularly publishing historian as well as a classroom teacher. Through skilled and intense mentoring Linder had instilled in me a love for research and writing in addition to teaching and mentoring

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Barry Hankins

WoodrowBarry Hankins is Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on his new book, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President?

BH: In 2012 I was writing Baptists in America: A History (New York: Oxford, 2015) with my colleague Thomas Kidd. In May, Tim Larsen at Wheaton contacted me to say he was pitching a series called Spiritual Lives to Oxford University Press. The criteria of the series is that the subjects NOT be principally religious figures, but nevertheless have religious or spiritual lives of significance. Tim asked if I might be interested in writing a book on Woodrow Wilson for the series. He caught me at a good time as I had begun to think about what my next project might be but had not committed to anything. The prospect of writing on Wilson intrigued me.

I’ve always presented Wilson in American history courses as probably America’s most Christian president prior to Jimmy Carter. Carter’s candidacy in 1976, then the rise of the Christian Right during Reagan’s run for office in 1980, touched off what I would call the evangelical era in American politics. But before Carter, Wilson stood out in his effort to apply Christian principles to the office of the presidency. It was also appealing to write about someone who was a historian before he was president. Wilson remains the only president in history to have a Ph.D.

I immediately thought of several questions I’ve always had about him. Did he retain as president any of the evangelicalism and Reformed theology of his youth in the southern Presbyterian Church? Or, did he turn more toward the progressive theological liberalism of his era? How did he appropriate Christian principles in leading the war effort in WWI? And, what was his civil religion like? So, I accepted Tim’s kind offer to write the book and over the next couple of weeks drafted a proposal that accompanied Tim’s series proposal that he submitted to OUP.

BTW, writing a book suggested by someone else is not unusual for me. This is the third book I’ve written that began as an idea in someone else’s mind. Darryl Hart, for example, is the one who suggested I write a biography of Francis Schaeffer.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President

BH: The argument is in the title—“Spiritual President.” In what I call a soft thesis running through the book, I argue that having been reared in the theologically rich world of southern Presbyterianism, Wilson spiritualized away all the doctrines of his youth. What remained was the progressive, liberal theology of his era. For public purposes, “Christianity” for Wilson came to mean the forward march of democratic justice, while privately Christianity meant spiritual devotion of a warm and romantic sort.

JF: Why do we need to read Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President?

BH: It’s a good read (at least I think so) about an important person in religious history whose life tells us quite a bit about the era in which he was a major figure. Because Wilson was president of Princeton, the book touches on the history of higher education and the irony of how a personally religious person secularized that university. Of course, with WWI, the Peace of Versailles, and the League of Nations the book deals with some of the 20th century’s most important events and the tragedy, irony, and unintended consequences that accompanied them. It also has a chapter on how a national moral leader engaged in and justified a long-running emotional marital affair he eventually became ashamed of. Finally, the book addresses the question of whether there is a place for explicitly Christian doctrine in public affairs.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BH: I became a historian because I wasn’t tall enough to play in the NBA. Seriously, while in college I was not a great student, largely because basketball came first. Thankfully, I had a really good church history professor named Bill Pitts who I’ve now been colleagues with for over 20 years (although not in the same department). I was fascinated by church history, majored in religion, and thought I was studying for the ministry. After college I began to think I really wanted to be a college professor, in part because I’d get to do more preaching (i.e. lecturing) and less administration than as a pastor. After a year at Fuller Seminary, I went back to Baylor and got an M.A. in church-state studies, then to Kansas State where I studied with Bob Linder, who is still teaching full-time and doing his scholarship. I arrived at KSU wanting a Ph.D. almost exclusively so I could teach at a Christian college. I left with an awareness that I’d never be satisfied if I didn’t write history as well as teach it. I thank Bob for instilling in me that sort of scholar’s ethic.

JF: What is your next project?

BH: I’ve sketched out a book proposal called Religion and the Reagan Revolution (1964-2008). We’ve had some really good scholarship the past 15 years or so on religion and culture since the 1950s, particularly evangelicalism—Turner, Dochuk, Bowler, Coffman, Kruse, Eskridge, and the like. I’d like to synthesize some of that scholarship, supplement it with some of my own original research, and show how central religion was to the rise of Ronald Reagan, the development of Republican conservatism, and the advent of what we might call “evangelical America,” or the “evangelical moment in American history” (1980-2008). This seems particularly pertinent given that we could be past that era and moving into one where evangelicals will again be like they were before 1980—i.e. flying below the radar as a subculture on the margins—which actually might be a good thing for evangelicalism.

Having said all that, I do want to get back to the earlier 20th century at some point. I really enjoyed writing Jesus and Gin about religion and the Roaring Twenties and then the Wilson book. I’m at the point in my life (I turn 60 this year) where I don’t feel I have to rush into anything. I’m primarily interested in writing stuff people will find interesting and that will help them think about American religious history in constructive ways.

JF: Thanks, Barry!

"Letter to the Editor" of the Day

John Schlembach of Victoria, Texas is not happy that David Barton was mentioned by his hometown newspaper, the Victoria Advocate.  I have posted his letter to the editor below.  Frankly, I had no idea that Randall Stephens was a “prodigy historian.”  Congrats, Randall.

Editor, the Advocate,

To my dismay as both a historian in training and a member of the community interested in the truth, two recent letters, “Reader finds same-sex marriage ruling wrong, immoral” by Stan Reinke on July 6 and “Writer says we need to go change our course” by Nic Harrison on May 13 have mentioned David Barton and his organization, Wallbuilders.

For those who are unaware, Barton is known for “teaching” history.  However, his degree is a bachelor of arts in religious education, and by his own admission, does not consider himself to be a historian.  While in some instances, non-academic experts have excelled in fields outside of their learning, Barton is not one of them.  His self-reflective assessment is echoed by professionals.

For example. Christian historian John Fea, writing at Patheos, has said, “He is not [a historian]…Christians should think twice before they rely on David Barton for their understanding of the American founding.”

Likewise, professor and author Paul Harvey, in a piece for Religion Dispatches noted, “Barton’s intent is not to produce ‘scholarship,’ but to influence public policy.”

Similarly, historical prodigy Randall J. Stephens, at Religion in American History declared, “Nearly any trained historian worth his or her salt who takes a close look at Barton and his hyper-politicized work will see glaring gaps in what he writes and talks about.  In history circles this is what we call “bad history.”

For a penultimate example, Baylor University professor Barry Hankins, as quoted by Warren Throckmorton, remarked, “David Barton’s history of the American founding is out of step with even the most conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical historians in the Christian college world.  It is sad that anyone in the evangelical world would continue to promote his work.”

Last, we can’t forget that one of Barton’s recent books was pulled by his publishers because “basic truths just were not there.”

It is not my intent to discourage people from examining Barton’s ouevre.  On the contrary, only by looking at is in a broader academic context can it be understood just how deep are the flaws in his work.

John Schlembach, Victoria