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

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.

But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

Politicians and “Christian America”

Christian_Flag_etc_Covenant_Presbyterian_Long_Beach_20050213

Check out Sam Haselby‘s 4th of July post at The Washington Post: “What politicians means when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation?

Here is a taste:

…today’s debate is rather stark, with Christian nationalists such as Pence and Sessions, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), committed to an evangelical Protestant vision that comes down to little more than pro-life politics, home schooling and rote patriotism. Anti-religious liberals, such as comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, don’t know much about religion at all.

Why has such a vibrant debate dimmed to a litany of talking points? Partially, the answer is that American Christianity has changed. But more important, rather than a historical disagreement or a philosophical one, today’s argument about whether America was founded as a Christian nation is a political one. Arguing whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation is usually just a coded way of asserting about what kind of nation we want America to be. That’s a discussion worth havingand having it directly, without bad historical justifications — an endeavor America’s Founders could have respected.

It’s a nice piece.  I encourage you to read Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.

Haselby’s piece reflects a position I have been arguing here and elsewhere for close to a Reviseddecade and it drives home some of the fundamental questions and issues I have raised in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (And our current #ChristianAmerica tweetstorm!)

On Sasse:  I have never heard him speak about Christian nationalism, but I have a hard time believing he accepts that view.  It is possible to be conservative and reject the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  In fact, some of the best stuff written on the subject has come from folks in this camp.

Defending Religious Liberty is Good for Business. Just Ask Jay Sekulow.

Jay_Sekulow_Speaking_at_CPAC_2012,_UNEDITED._(6854519337)

If what I am reading about Jay Sekulow is true, it tells us a lot about the Christian Right’s crusade for religious liberty.  Sekulow is a lawyer, talk show host, and chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).

ACLJ was founded by Pat Roberson in 1990 at Regent University School of Law for the purpose of defending a conservative view of the United States Constitution.  Today the ACLJ is associated with Sekulow, a graduate of Regent Law School.

Back in 2005, the Legal Times described Sekulow as “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian Right.”  This role apparently makes him a lot of money.  According to the Legal Times he used over $2.3 million from a nonprofit he controlled to buy two homes and lease a private jet.  Here is a taste of that article:

Sekulow’s financial dealings deeply trouble some of the people who have worked for him, leading several to speak with Legal Times during the past six months about their concerns — before Sekulow assumed his high-profile role promoting President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. 

“Some of us truly believed God told us to serve Jay,” says one former employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “But not to help him live like Louis XIV. We are coming forward because we need to believe there is fairness in this world.” 

Another says: “Jay sends so many discordant signals. He talks about doing God’s work for his donors, and then he flies off in his plane to play golf.” 

Still another told Legal Times, “The cause was so good and so valid, but at some point you can’t sacrifice what is right for the sake of the cause.” 

Sekulow shrugs off the criticism and makes no apologies. “I wouldn’t pretend to tell you we don’t pay our lawyers well,” including himself, says Sekulow. “As a private lawyer, I could bill $750 an hour, but I don’t.” He does lease a jet, he says, and he does sometimes use it to reach the golf course — but with donors or vendors, he insists. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a blip” of financial irregularity. 

Nothing in the relatively loose regulations that govern nonprofits prohibits family members from serving on boards, drawing salaries, or spending money. But critics say the extravagant spending burns up money that Sekulow solicits from donors for legal causes. Citing the high cost of litigating Supreme Court cases, Sekulow wrote in a 2003 fund-raising letter, “We are asking God to prompt every member of the ACLJ to get involved personally in this effort.” He added later, “Please send a generous gift right away.” 

Read the rest here.

Fast-forward to 2017 and it appears that little has changed with Jay Sekulow.  He continues to use appeals to God to fund his efforts and, apparently, his lavish lifestyle. The only major difference between 2005 and 2017 is that he now serves as counsel to the President of the United States.

Want to know what Sekulow has been up to since the Legal Times piece?  Click here.  And here.

I don’t know if what Jay Sekulow is doing is legal or not.  What I am interested in is the way that the crusade for religious liberty in America is lining his pockets.  (I do not know if Sekulow embraces the views of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, but it would not surprise me if he did). Sekulow is a regular commentator on Fox News and has become a prominent and bombastic legal voice for the Christian Right.  He has done a great deal to convince conservative evangelicals that their religious freedom is being threatened. He appeals to the fears of his followers.  When Sekulow shows up, conservative evangelicals are comforted.  He has their back. He will fight for them. He will take their case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Sekulow’s star will continue to rise among the Court Evangelicals as long as there are more and more threats–real and imagined– to religious liberty.  And as long as there are threats to religious liberty, Sekulow can keep asking for money.  Hmm….

Below is a video of Sekulow in action.  Notice how he and Megyn Kelly root their understanding of religious liberty in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

On the Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas

Arkansas

Here we go again.

A Ten Commandments monument now sits outside the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock.

As some monuments are taken down in the United States, others go up.  If we have learned one thing through the recent and ongoing Confederate monument debates, monuments actually tell us more about the era in which they were erected than they do the event that they celebrate.

With this in mind, the Arkansas monument will be interpreted by future historians as a symbol of the culture wars.  More specifically, it will be interpreted in the context of the Christian Right’s attempt to defend the idea that America is a Christian nation.

Historically, these kinds of monuments–whether they are religious or patriotic in nature–tend to appear in times of great social change.  They are one of our best windows into the fear that members of a majority group feel when newcomers arrive or when they must deal with cultural shifts.  It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution (and the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy) began erecting monuments all over America around the turn of the 20th-century. This, after all, was a time when the demographic make-up of the United States was changing with the arrival of millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.   Politicians exploit these fears in order to win elections.  They then fulfill their campaign promises by building monuments that reflect their anxieties. I guess it makes people feel better.  Apparently a monument now somehow makes Arkansas a Christian state.

Several historians who oppose the removal of certain Confederate monuments have suggested putting the monuments into context so that people can understand the world of white supremacy in which these monuments were erected.  With this in mind, perhaps Arkansas might consider erecting another monument at the Capitol engraved with a verse from the New Testament:

There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  –1 John 4:18.

Secondarily, we might ask if this new Arkansas monument represents good history.  You can find answers to that question here.

I also recommend Jenna Weissman Joselit’s book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

ADDENDUM: I just learned, thanks to reader A.J. McDonald Jr. in the comments section, that the monument was destroyed yesterday.

More on the Civil Rights Movement and America as a “Christian Nation”

Christian NAtionLast night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.

During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.”  If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”

It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.

Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation.  White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term.  I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013.   Here is what I wrote following that conference:

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Read the entire post here.

The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

John Kasich Invokes the "City on a Hill"

John F. Kennedy invoked the phrase in a speech to Massachusetts General Court in January 1961 before he headed off to Washington D.C. to be inaugurated President of the United States.

Ronald Reagan invoked the phrase in the 1980s.

I am sure George W. Bush used the phrase at some point.
Rick Santorum used it a lot during his 2012 presidential campaign.
And now Ohio Governor John Kasich has adopted the phrase.  He described the United States as a “city on a hill” when he announced his candidacy in July.  Last night, at the CNN GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library, he introduced himself by saying that he wanted to “lift Americans, unify, give hope, grow America, and restore it to that great, shining city on a hill.”
Of course the phrase “city upon a hill” comes from John Winthrop’s 1630 “A Model of Christian Charity.” (It came from Matthew 5:14 before that).  It was delivered aboard the Arbella as it sailed to America with English men and women of Calvinist faith who were often referred to as “Puritans.” Winthrop would eventually help to found the colony of Massachusetts Bay and serve as its first governor.  
Winthrop and his fellow Puritans wanted to build a society in North America that was based upon the teachings of the Bible, as they interpreted it.  He realized that the Anglicans of England would be watching such an attempt to build a Bible-based society.  Massachusetts would thus be like a “city upon a hill” because the eyes of English Protestants would see both its successes and its failures.
Kennedy, Reagan, Bush, Santorum, and now Kasich, have applied this term in a way that is usually described as American exceptionalism–the idea that American democracy and ideals should be spread throughout the world and the United States should serve as an example in this regard for other nations to follow.
Santorum and Kasich (and to a much lesser extent Reagan and Bush) have argued in one form or another that the United States was founded as, or somehow needs to be, a Christian nation.  It is thus hard not to interpret their use of this phrase without connecting it in some way to their Christian nationalism.
I will be watching Kasich to see how he uses this phrase over the course of the next weeks and months, assuming he stays in the race for that long.  But it is worth noting that while Reagan described America in its current state (in the 1980s) as a “city upon a hill,” Kasich said that we need to restore America to that “great, shining city on a hill.”

Of course this raises even more questions.  Does he want to “restore” America to the way it was in the 17th century, at the time Winthrop first used the phrase?  Or does he want to “restore” America back to the way it was in the Reagan era?  Of perhaps he wants to “restore” America to the age of the Founding Fathers or the 19th century or the 1950s? Inquiring minds want to know.

CNN Report: "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?"

In case you haven’t seen it yet, Mark Edwards of Spring Arbor University has put together a roundtable of historians over at CNN.com to discuss this question 

I am happy to join Amanda Porterfield (Florida State), Steven Green (Willamette University), Kevin Kruse (Princeton University), and Ray Haberski (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) in trying to make sense of this question.  It is quite a fitting discussion for Independence Day.

Here is my piece:

Such a question is inevitably asking a historian to take a debate which did not reach any degree of intensity until the 1980s and superimpose it on the 18th-century world of the men who built the American republic.
The Founding Fathers lived in a world that was fundamentally different from our own. It was a world in which there was largely only one religious game in town — Christianity.
Yes, there were some tiny Jewish communities located in seaport towns, and it is likely that a form of Islam was practiced among African slaves, but much of the culture was defined by the powerful influence of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity.
The founders also had very divergent views about the relationship between Christianity and the nation they were forging. As I tell my students, we need to stop treating them as a monolithic whole.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were strong advocates for the complete separation of church and state. John Adams and George Washington believed that religion was essential to the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry, an essential trait of any successful republic.
It is true that the founders, by virtue of the fact that they signed the Declaration of Independence, probably believed in a God who presided over nature, was the author of human rights, would one day judge the dead and governed the world by his providence.
Those who signed the United States Constitution endorsed the idea that there should be no religious test — Christian or otherwise — required to hold federal office.
Those responsible for the First Amendment also championed the free exercise of religion and rejected a government-sponsored church.
Yet anyone who wants to use the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to argue against the importance of religion in the American founding must reckon with all those state constitutions — such as those of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and South Carolina — that require officeholders to affirm the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, obey the Christian Sabbath or contribute tax money to support a state church.
It is clear that some of the founders wanted only Christians to be running their state governments. Other founders rejected the idea of the separation of church and state. Virginia rejected all test oaths and religious establishments.
History is complex. It does not conform easily to the kinds of “yes” or “no” answers that most Americans want when they ask whether America was founded a Christian nation.
Here’s a better question: Is America a Christian nation now?
On this question there is a lot more evidence to sustain a “no” answer.

Why Huckabee May Have A Shot At The GOP Nomination

This kind of rhetoric worked well for Huckabee in 2008.  It could work again in 2016.

If Huckabee keeps pushing this Christian America stuff he will be competitive in Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and maybe even Texas.

Some analysis:
“We must once again become a God-centered nation.”  Here Huckabee is appealing to a golden age of Christian America that probably never existed.  Was the Christian God more central to American culture in the 19th century?  Yes.  This was largely because non-Christian religions were few and far between.  But do we really want to return to the nineteenth-century or even the age of the founders? How, for example, might my African-American friends answer this question?  (I think I have a pretty good idea how they might respond).

Morevoer, Huckabee’s rhetoric basically ignores the religious pluralism that came to define our country in the wake of the 1965 Immigrant Act.  How do we bring the Christian God into the center of a republic that is growing more religiously diverse by the day and still respect the founders commitment to religious freedom?  Huckabee’s thoughts about the founding are more rooted in nostalgia than good history.  He does not understand the concept of “change over time.” We cannot simply freeze the era and ideas of the founding apply them to 21st century America.

Did the founders believe that laws came from God?  Yes, most of them did  Even the few founders who might be called “deists” believed this.  They were a product of an eighteenth-century world in which most people believed this.  But they also believed that law came from other sources–Enlightenment sources, ancient/classical sources, and the moral sense (which most of them believed was placed in human beings by God). They thought that Christianity, and religion generally, was good for the republic, but only if it taught people to sacrifice their own interests for the common good.
For me the issue is not what the founders believed on this front. Anyone who reads the founders will find God-language.  They will also find strong statements about religious liberty.  They will find states that required leaders to be Christians and other states that rejected Christian test oaths or Christian establishments.  They will find founders with beliefs that were orthodox and others who rejected core Christian doctrines about the deity of Christ and the resurrection.  The founding era is really a mixed bag when it comes to religion and public life.  As a result, any call for a return to the age of the founders is problematic.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (the two main documents in which the so-called “founders” spoke in a unified voice), do not come anywhere close to promoting a Christian nation.

I believe Huckabee when he says he rejects a theocracy.  But he does not make clear what a country with “God at the center” might look like?

Most Americans are not willing to think in a historically-nuanced way about the relationship between Christian faith and public life.   This is why Huckabee, as long as he keeps preaching these ideas, has a decent shot at the GOP nomination.

Gregg Frazer on David Barton’s Video, "America’s Godly Heritage"

Gregg Frazer teaches history and politics at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California.  He is the author of The Religious Beliefs of the American Founders: Reason, Religion, and Revolution.  I think it is fair to call him a conservative evangelical Christian.

Frazer’s book argues that the major founding fathers of the United States were neither deists nor Christians. Instead, they were something in-between.  Frazer calls them “theistic rationalists.”

Frazer has also been very critical of fellow conservative evangelicals who claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  He has especially targeted David Barton, a Christian nationalist who has received a great deal of attention here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  

Barton has written several books, but he is perhaps best known for his video, America’s Godly Heritage.  Several historians and bloggers have attempted to debunk some of the historical claims in this video (and there are many), but no one has made a systematic critique of the video until now.  Frazer recently posted a devastating, point by point, critique of the video in the form of a thirteen-page paper.

Read it here.

Also check out commentary on Frazer’s takedown at Warren Throckmorton’s blog.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #82

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I work up this morning and realized that I forgot to do my update post yesterday, so this post summarizes the last two days of work on the ABS project.

I am now getting my feet wet on a yet-to-be-titled Chapter Five.  As I mentioned in my previous post, this chapter deals with the American Bible Society in the larger context of early nineteenth-century evangelical reform.  I have spent the last couple of days making sense of the notes I took in the archives this summer and trying to marshal them into some kind of coherent outline.  I am just about finished with this task.  At the moment, here is the very bare-bones outline I will be working with:

I.  Benevolence in the Early Republic: An Outline
II. The American Bible Society and Revivalism
III. The American Bible Society and Sunday Schools
IV.  The American Bible Society and the Temperance Movement
V.  The American Bible Society and Sabbath Reform
VI.  The Role of Women in the American Bible Society
VII. The American Bible Society and Evangelical Print Culture
VIII. Resistance to the ABS and the “Benevolent Empire”

This chapter is also going to require some additional secondary reading on my part as I attempt to situate the ABS in these various reform movements.  Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #66

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I did not get much accomplished on the ABS project last weekend.  A Messiah College History Department picnic, a sabbatical proposal, grant-writing, the start of the NFL season, and family responsibilities kept me away from my desk.  But I am now back in the saddle.  In fact, this morning I put the finishing touches on Chapter Three and sent it off to Katie for proofreading and editing.  (She is very good at this). Tomorrow I will begin organizing my notes for Chapter Four.  Stay tuned

As I worked on the conclusion to Chapter Three this morning I revisited some of the vast literature on the construction of American nationalism in the early republic.  I continue to be impressed with the depth and scope of this literature.  I am a big fan of Waldstreicher on parades and festive culture, Larson and Howe on internal improvements, and Loughran and others on print. But it also strikes me that this literature (with the exception of Howe) is very weak on religion. Anyone who reads the records of the American Bible Society must be struck by the fact that the Society is also in the business of nation-building and it is using print, internal improvements, and an appeal to the public imagination to do it.  Yet the ABS and its officers–folks like Elias Boudinot, Francis Scott Key, John Quincy Adams, Lyman Beecher, Arthur Tappan, etc…—clearly see the construction of the nation in Christian and providential terms.  I realize that not everyone involved in the nation-building process wanted to construct a nation that was Christian in character, but it is hard to argue with the fact that the vision of the ABS (and other benevolent societies) was pretty mainstream in the early 19th century.

Since I am writing a a popular institutional history in which I must paint with broad brush strokes, I will not be taking a sidetrack into the historiography of American nationalism in the early republic. Such a sidetrack would be inappropriate in a volume of this nature.  But perhaps an article is needed on this subject.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #58

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Yesterday was a productive writing day.  I managed to churn out 1392 words of what is now Chapter Three. I started the chapter with a story of a local agent from the Young Men’s Western Auxiliary Bible Society of Pittsburgh making a Bible distribution trip through the rural outskirts of Morgantown, Virginia in 1821. 


I  also began writing a section on the way the American Bible Society tried to instill a sense of national purpose in the leaders of its local auxiliary societies. Though working at the grass-roots level, these auxiliaries understood their work to be contributing to the creation of a Christian civilization.


I realize I have not written too much lately about what is happening on the publishing front.  We are in limbo at the moment, but I am optimistic that good things are on the horizon.  Stay tuned.



Is Great Britain a Christian Nation?

Some of you have been following this debate occurring across the proverbial pond. Callum Brown concluded that “Christian Britain” is dead.  Prime Minister David Cameron disagreed. Rowan Williams landed somewhere in the middle.

If you want to get caught up on this debate I encourage you to read Brantley Gasaway’s recent post at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

For those of us who study American religion, this recent British debate can remind us once again of the ambiguity of identifying a country as a “Christian nation.”  What qualifies a country as “Christian”?  Is it the official establishment of a Christian church (but if so, then is Great Britain “Christian” while the United States is not)?  Is it a matter of the historical influence of Christianity upon a nation’s laws, politics, and culture (but if so, when does this historical influence matter less than the contemporary relevance of Christianity in the public sphere)?  Is it a matter of demographics (but if so, does a simple majority of self-identified Christians qualify a nation as “Christian”)?   Is it the close alignment of a country’s policies with the Christian ethics of peace and justice?  Or it is the number of references to God in a country’s passport?

As some of you know I took a shot at this whole issue in the context of the United States.

Columbia University Religion in America Seminar

Last night I was in New York City where I was speaking at Columbia University’s Religion in America Seminar.  If you read my earlier post, you know that I gave a paper on David Barton and Christian nationalism.  I thought we had some stimulating discussion about Christian nationalism and, as always, I learned a lot from the questions and conversation.

We talked a lot about what David Barton gets right when he talks and writes about the role of religion in the United States.  He may not get the founders right when he says that they were trying to establish a Christian nation, but he does get most of the early 19th century correct.  As I argued in the early chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, Americans have always seen themselves as living in a “Christian nation.”  This sense of Christian nationalism was especially strong between 1790 and 1860.

My beef with Barton is less about the accuracy of his historical books and presentations (although he does peddle some significant errors that cannot be ignored) and more with how he uses the past to promote his culture-war agenda.  I hope this point came across clearly to the group last night.

We ended the night with dinner at Pisticci’s, located somewhere in the Morningside Heights/Harlem area.  Good Italian food and some very enjoyable conversation.

Thanks to Evan Haefeli and Joseph Blankholm for all their work in bringing me to Columbia and to the assorted array of professors, teachers, and graduate students, including Stephen Koeth and Melissa Borja, who came out on a cold New York City night for the seminar.  Thanks as well to Stephen Koeth for covering my subway fare back to my hotel in Columbus Circle.  I really appreciate it.

American Religion Seminar at Columbia University

Next Tuesday I will be in New York presenting a paper at Columbia University’s Religion in American Seminar.  I just finished the paper last night and sent it off for distribution.  The title is “God’s Historian: David Barton and American Christian Nationalism.”  A lot of it draws from my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, but there is also some new stuff in the paper.  Perhaps one day I will publish it, but right now it is an initial attempt at trying to get some thoughts together for a possible memoir/”on the road” book on Christian nationalism in twenty-first century America.

Here is a taste of my conclusion.  Those of you have read Why Study History? will find it very familiar:


David Barton is engaged in what historian David Lowenthal has called a “heritage crusade.”  When he sings the praises of America’s Christian heritage he is really talking and writing more about the present than the past.  The purpose of heritage, writes Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted for “present causes”…Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective or national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity.  As Lowenthal notes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling—it answers needs for ritual devotion. 
            Heritage crusades, of course, are grounded in the events of the past.  This is what makes them so powerful.  Barton is correct when he claims that Christianity was important to the founding generation.  When he carefully shows how many of the original state constitutions written after independence included references to Christian test oaths for office he is on the mark.  And he may even be right about the subtle attempts made by textbook publishers in the 1960s and 1970s to remove Christian themes from American history textbooks.  But one is hard pressed to find much in Barton’s work about slavery, the negative effects of industrialization on urban workers, the European exploitation of Native Americans, or a host of other matters that do not fit his rosy picture of the United States as an exceptional nation guided by the hand of God. 
            Barton gives his followers what they want—a patriotic and Christian version of American history that can be used to do battle against the forces of evil found in the Democratic Party and the halls of academia.  It is a past that is easily consumable and immensely useful, especially when it comes time to bludgeon one’s political enemies.   As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have argued, we Americans love the past as long it helps us to improve our lives, enables us to promote our political agendas, provides us with a sense of selfhood, inspires us, or provides us with an escape from modern life.  This is a past that serves our pursuits of happiness and propensity to consume.  Barton’s approach to the past is thus so appealing, and attracts such a large audience, because it is quintessentially American.  It seldom forces us to look back upon our own failures and come to grips with them.  
            But there is another way of thinking about the past.  History teaches us that we are part of something larger than ourselves—a community made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs.  If forces us to see the world through the eyes of others and empathize with their joys and struggles.  History can decenter us by demanding that we understand life from another person’s perspective.  This is the kind of history that has the power to strengthen our democracy, bring restoration to the brokenness of everyday life, and strengthen the civic bonds that hold our republic together.  Unfortunately, it is an approach to the past that David Barton has no interest in promoting.

32% of Americans Want a Christian Amendment to the Constitution. I am Not Surprised

NRA Pamphlet

According to this Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 32% of Americans would favor a Constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States.  42% oppose such an amendment, with 32% “strongly” opposing the idea.

It may appear shocking to some that so many people are in favor of such an amendment to the Constitution, but from a historical perspective this is not shocking at all.  As I argued in the first four chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Americans have always understood themselves to be living in a Christian nation.  Though not everyone who believed that America was a Christian nation would have argued on behalf of a Christian amendment, there were many who did.

In 1863 ministers gathered in Xenia, Ohio and proposed the following amendment to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all] in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This group of ministers eventually became known as the National Reform Association (NRA).  In 1864 its leaders brought their proposal for a Christian amendment to the White House and, according to an annual report of the NRA, Abraham Lincoln gave his approval to their mission. By 1874 the organization was holding national gatherings attended by several thousand people, mostly clergy.

The NRA leadership made several arguments on behalf of a Christian amendment.  They believed that the original decision to leave references to Christianity out of the Constitution dishonored God.  Some of them believed that God used the Civil War to punish the Union for its godless Constitution.  Others argued that the Constitution did not reflect the religious sentiments of the majority of the American people.

The NRA also put forth a historical argument for why the Constitution should include a Christian amendment.  Its members believed that the government of the United States was founded on Christian principles.  The primary evidence for such a believe was the Declaration of Independence (with four references to God), the

state constitutions (which were loaded with Christian language), and the colonial and state criminal codes.  By invoking the Puritans and Pilgrims, the membership of the NRA was making an argument that the United States had always been a Christian nation.

It should also be noted that the NRA maintained a commitment to the separation of church and state.  They rejected the idea of an established church.  In this sense, they distinguished the “separation of church and state” from the “separation of religion and state.”  Its members were very careful to affirm that they were not opposing religious liberty and were not interested in creating a theocracy.  But they did want to give Christianity a privileged place in America.  This meant the promotion of Bible reading in schools, the preservation of the Christian sabbath, and the public recognition of the teaching of Christianity as the nation’s moral guide.

Like the current attempt in North Carolina to create a state church  (I should add here that the bill was just killed in the NC House of Representatives), the NRA never specified how the government would strike a balance between the separation of church and state on the one hand and the privileging of the Christian religion on the other.

The movement to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution failed, but this did not derail continued attempts to get such an amendment passed.  The NRA renewed its platform again in 1894 and 1910 and continued to meet through World War I.  In 1947 and 1954 the National Association of Evangelicals promoted an effort to add the following words to the Constitution: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”

Attempts to make the U.S. Constitution more Christian or to make Christianity the official state religion have been around for a long time.  In most cases, the advocates of such amendments have failed to make a clear distinction between their respect for the first amendment (especially the disestablishment clause) and their wish to create a religious establishment.  It should thus not surprise us that the North Carolina bill was killed for its failure to articulate its wishes in a clear and coherent way.

Montana Governor: If David Barton’s In, I’m Out

Steve Bullock

Warren Throckmorton is calling our attention to the latest David Barton controversy.  Montana governor Steve Bullock will not attend the Montana Governor’s Prayer Breakfast on Saturday because David Barton will be the keynote speaker.

Here is a taste from an article in the Missoula Independent:

For decades, the Prayer Breakfast, which operates independently from the governor’s office, has drawn lawmakers, ministers and the state’s top officials together in what Mendenhall calls a “show of unity” and an opportunity to “reach out to God and ask him to bless our state.”

Mendenhall says he was under the impression Bullock would speak at the March 2 event at Carroll College. Programs for the breakfast already listed him as attending. But one day after social media boards and some inside the Capitol questioned Bullock’s apparent involvement, Mendenhall says he was notified by the governor’s office that Bullock would not be there.

At issue is the breakfast’s keynote speaker, David Barton. Barton has garnered national headlines for his revisionist teachings, pro-life advocacy and calls to criminalize homosexuality, all of which would seem to run contrary to Bullock’s politics. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The scary thing about David Barton is that he has the ear of so many.”

Barton’s Texas-based advocacy group, WallBuilders, supports “the Godly foundation of our country” and provides “information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values,” according to its website.