Pastors Preaching Politics: It was Bad in 1776, it is Bad Today

Black Robe

400 evangelical pastors are heading to Liberty University this week to participate in an event sponsored by the American Renewal Project.  The goal of the closed meeting is to mobilize pastors for the 2020 election.  Speakers at the event include former Virginia congressman (now Liberty professor) David Brat, Christian nationalist David Barton, and Christian Broadcasting Network political analyst David Brody.  (I am guessing that they are not mobilizing pastors to vote for a Democrat :-))

The American Renewal Project is run by David Lane, a Christian Right politico who wants pastors to preach political sermons, run for political office, and use their ecclesiastical authority to convince parishioners to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. We wrote about him here and here.

Here is a taste of Brody’s article at the Christian Broadcasting Network website:

“The Pastor and Pews events have been extremely valuable in mobilizing church-going voters and illuminating critical issues for elections,” said former presidential candidate and Fox News Contributor Mike Huckabee. 

Huckabee, a former pastor himself, has spoken at these events many times before and understands their value. 

“I am convinced that the pastor and pews model was instrumental in the 2016 election of President Trump and has been instrumental in numerous statewide elections for congressional, US Senate and gubernatorial races.”

President Trump won 81 percent of the white conservative evangelical vote in 2016 and during it all, the American Renewal Project was on the ground and extremely active. In the 60 days before the General Election, ARP spent $9 million in six battleground states, including some big prizes like Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.  Now they’re back at it looking for a repeat. 

“It is the single, largest, most cohesive voter bloc in the last election,” said Doug Wead, a noted historian, and best-selling author and advisor to two U.S. Presidents. “Now its all about voter ID and turnout.”

With all the extra vitriol, animosity and energy aimed at Trump this time around, the president will need a similar showing or even better to win in 2020.  

Read the rest here.

Lane and other Christian nationalists and court evangelicals believe that they are a modern-day “Black Robe Brigade,” a name given to revolutionary-era pastors who supported American independence in 1776.

The appeal to the Black Robe Brigade reveals a fundamental problem with these kind of history-based Christian Right arguments.  Lane, David Barton, and others give a moral authority to the past that is almost idolatrous.  In other words, if pastors used their pulpits to promote a political agenda in 1776, then they must have been right.  If it happened in the eighteenth-century it is somehow immune from any moral or theological reflection today.  Thomas Jefferson said that our rights come from God, so Christian nationalists conclude, with little theological reflection on whether or not Jefferson was correct, that our rights indeed come from God.  This leads them to make all kinds of wackadoodle arguments that the amendments related to quartering soldiers, trial by jury,  excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment are somehow rooted in biblical teaching.

At the heart of all this is the belief that the American Revolution was ordained by God.  If this is true, then any attempt at promoting this significant moment in providential history–whether it be carried out by preachers or patriots–must be good. The Black Robe Brigade mixed religion and politics and so should we.  There is very little deep thinking about how the mixing of religion and nationalism in the church–whether it happened in 1776 or 2019–harms the witness of the Gospel.  Perhaps this explains why church attendance was at an all-time low during the American Revolution.

Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers from Public Office

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at an American Renewal Project event at the Orlando Convention Center in Orlando, Florida

Here is my latest piece syndicated at Religion News Service:

(RNS) There’s an old Baptist saying that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

I thought about this saying when I heard that Donald Trump was speaking in Orlando, Fla., to 700 evangelical pastors associated with the American Renewal Project.

The American Renewal Project is founded and directed by David Lane, a conservative Christian political activist and former Jerry Falwell Sr. operative who is trying to get 1,000 pastors to run for political office between 2016-2018.

Lane believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, but in recent decades it has lost its way. This is why pastors need to hold political office. They should be on the front lines of Lane’s grand project to restore Christian America.

Lane’s vision for renewal is rooted in a deeply flawed version of American history. Despite the fact that nearly every American historian in the country, including evangelical historians like myself, rejects the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Lane continues to peddle this view. He manipulates the past for the purpose of his political agenda.

When Trump says “Make America Great Again,” it is hard to imagine Lane interpreting that phrase in any way other than as a call to reclaim a golden age that never existed.

Read the rest here.

"To Be Faithful to Jesus or Secular Paganism?"

Christian America bookIn case you have not heard, “secular pagans” are rewriting American history and having “difficulty embracing the facts of history.”

I am apparently one of these secular pagans.

In the latest example of the Christian Right’s failure to fully grasp the complexity of the American founding, David Lane of the American Renewal Project has chosen to criticize me at the website of the Christian magazine Charisma.

I have written about Lane before.  I am quoted in a recent Reuters piece about Lane and his attempt to get evangelical ministers to run for political office.  I also wrote a blog post in the wake of that article.  Yet Lane does not want to address those articles.  Instead, he has chosen to focus on a recent interview I did with National Public Radio that appeared over Thanksgiving weekend.

I will try to respond to Lane’s Charisma article point by point:

Lane wrote:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. “There are a lot of arguments that say, ‘This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it’s never mentioned,’ he says. ‘But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'”
Just to be clear, here are the quotes that NPR religion reporter Tom Gjelten used in the article after I talked with him for about one hour at Messiah College:
Historians, however, have disputed the extent to which the Pilgrims can be counted as among America’s founding fathers.
“This is one little pocket of colonial America,” says John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn. He has written widely on America’s early religious history.
“It’s hard to make the same argument if you’re studying Virginia or Pennsylvania or the Carolinas or Georgia,” Fea says. “We’ve taken that New England model and extrapolated from it over the last 200 or 300 years into some kind of view of the nation as a whole.”
Fea notes the absence of any reference to the Bible in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
“There are a lot of arguments that say, ‘This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it’s never mentioned,'” he says. “But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.”
Here is the part of those NPR comments that Lane included in his Charisma piece:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. “There are a lot of arguments that say, ‘This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it’s never mentioned,’ he says. ‘But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'”
As you can see, he does not include everything I said that made it into the interview. Lane continues:
Apparently, even though the Founders wrote Christianity into the State Constitutions and Charters of all 13 original colonies, that does not meet the requirements of evidence. What does Fea do with the following documentary evidence?
Before I address the documentary evidence below, it is clear that Lane did not read the entire NPR transcript.  Or maybe he did read the entire transcript and simply chose to focus on the parts of the transcript that he found useful.  If he read it carefully, he would realize that I made the comments above in response to Gjeltin’s question about whether or not Christianity influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Anyone who reads the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution knows that there are no references to the Bible in these documents.  There is no “smoking gun.”   
But just for fun, let me respond to Lane’s evidence:
  • Virginia Charter (1606) “… propagating of Christian Religion to such People as yet live in Darkness.”  

Yes, the settlers of Virginia did want to propagate the Christian religion in Jamestown.  Thanks to new scholarship in this area, along with archaeological finds, we now know that religion played an important role in the colony.  Yet I would argue that Anglicanism and other forms of Christianity never came to define the culture of 17th-century Virginia in the way that Puritanism defined the culture of 17th-century Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth.

  • Delaware Charter of King Adolphus (1626) “… further propagation of the Holy Gospel.”

This is a reference to the Swedish charter associated with colony of New Sweden on the banks of the Delaware River.  New Sweden functioned as a colony between roughly 1638 and 1655.  It existed before the English settlement of the region.  The Swedish Lutheran Church was an important cultural institution in New Sweden and, as I have argued, these Swedish churches remained on the Delaware Valley landscape after the English settlement. 

  • Massachusetts Constitution (1780) Part 1, Article 3, “Every denomination of Christians … shall be equally under the protection of the law and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall be established.”
Lane is correct.  The Massachusetts Constitution does promote religious freedom. Lane could have strengthened his argument further here by noting that the Congregational Church was the established religion in Massachusetts until the early 1830s.  Either Lane is unaware of this, did not have the space to develop his thoughts, or he realized that the Massachusetts establishment may not be useful for his religious freedom argument.  Lane also fails to note that the religious establishment in Massachusetts was perfectly legal since the Constitution, until the passing of the 14th amendment, did not apply to the states.  No serious student of early New England should be surprised that the Massachusetts Constitution had a religious establishment since John Adams and the other framers were products of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts that also had a religious establishment   As I said in my NPR interview with Gjeltin, New England is just one “pocket” of colonial America.
  • Pennsylvania Constitution (1968) Article 1, Section 3: “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their won consciences.”
  • North Carolina Constitution (1971) Article 11, Section 4: “Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.”
Not sure how the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 or the North Carolina Constitution of 1971 relates to the founding era, but these references to God and Christianity are very interesting.  I am guessing (and only guessing) that these may be left over references from the 19th-century.  I will need to do some more research on this.  
Lane continues to mount evidence:
1. “The Christian History of the U.S. Constitution,” says: “Among the more notable ventures of the Congress was an effort to see about the printing of a Bible, as the supply from England had been cut off by the fighting. In October 1780, Congress adopted a resolution recommending that ‘such of the states that may find it convenient … take proper measures to procure one or more new and correct versions of the Old and New Testaments to be printed.’ Congress also approved, as a matter of course, chaplains and religious services for the soldiers.”
No argument here.  The Founding Fathers did believe that religion, even Christianity, was important to the health of the republic.  This is why they promoted the Bible. If there has been a “wall of separation between church and state” in American history, that wall has had a lot of checkpoints. Chaplains are a great example of this.
2. “Conservatism, Religion, and the First Amendment” says: “In addition to appointing chaplains, resorting to prayer, and seeing about the printing of the Bible, Congress took still other measures to advance the interests of religion [Christianity]. It passed, for instance, the Northwest Ordinance to manage the territories beyond the Ohio River, saying it did so, among other reasons, for purposes of promoting, ‘religion and morality.’ The committee approving the legislation (with Madison as a member) stipulated that, in the sale of lands in the territory, Lot N29 in each parcel, ‘be given perpetually for the uses of religion [Christianity].'”
Yup.  See my comments above.
3. An online exhibit at the Library of Congress, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” says: “Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of ‘humiliation, fasting, and prayer’ were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by ‘covenant theology,’ a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they ‘should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.’ Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.”
Was the Continental Congress influenced by covenant theology?  Maybe.  But good historians are divided over whether this theology influenced the delegates who did not hail from New England.  I would argue that it did not.
And Lane concludes:
It looks as if America has come to her kairos, her moment in time—to be faithful to Jesus or to pagan secularism.
Lane implies that anyone who does not believe that America was founded as a specifically Christian nation is a pagan.  He cannot fathom another, more responsible, Christian approach to this material.
If you want to learn more about my views on religion and the founding and why I think that this history is not usually helpful in our current political debates, read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  I also address the use of history in these debates from an evangelical Christian perspective in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Have You Heard About the American Renewal Project?

David Lane (NY Times photo)

I recently talked to Reuters journalist Michelle Conlin about David Lane and the American Renewal Project.  You can read her finished piece here.

The American Renewal Project is a network of 100,000 ministers and pastors (as far as I can tell they are mostly white, conservative evangelical, middle-aged men) who are trying to get 1000 pastors to run for office in 2016.

One look at the American Renewal Project website reveals that this is yet another wing of the Christian nationalist movement.  There are stories about revolutionary-era clergy who supported the American Revolution,  defenses of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and discussions of pastors running for political office to “save the soul” of America.  Lane is a Christian Right activist who believes that we need to “wage war to restore a Christian America.”  His use of history comes straight out of the David Barton playbook.  In fact, Barton is a supporter of this movement.

Here is a taste of Conlin’s article:

Aiming to motivate conservative Christians, they are focusing on smaller political races, local ballot initiatives and community voter registration drives.
At the center of the effort is the American Renewal Project, an umbrella group that says it has a network of 100,000 pastors. It is headed by evangelical Republican political operative David Lane, who wants to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for elected office in 2016.
So far, roughly 500 have committed to running, Lane told Reuters.  
“This is a fundamental shift in strategy,” said John Fea, a history professor at Christian Messiah College, who is nevertheless skeptical the effort will produce the desired results. “Rather than forcing this from the top down, this is about a grassroots approach to changing the culture by embedding ministers in local politics from the ground up,” he said.
In some instances, pastors are trumpeting their candidacies or those of other evangelicals directly from the pulpit, in violation of Internal Revenue Service rules governing tax-exempt churches. Some are launching church-wide voter registration drives.
The American Renewal Project website dabbles in the American past.  It is obvious that Lane has been inspired by the so-called “Black Robe Regiment,” a name given to the eighteenth-century Protestant ministers who used their pulpits and influence to support the American Revolution.  We have written about this movement, and tried to debunk some of its myths, here and here.  The American Renewal Project website has references to Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg and Rev. Jacob Duche. These are clear indicators that Lane and his supporters are drawing on this “black robe” history.
Of course David Lane has every right to encourage ministers to run for office.  But I would urge him to stop manipulating American history to do it.  Frankly, the American history portrayed on his website is a mess.
For example, much of what we know about Muhlenberg comes from mid-to-late nineteenth-century sources, not from eighteenth-century documents. And while Duche did pray before the Continental Congress, he later turned his back on the American Revolution and George Washington and became a Loyalist.  

One part of the website claims that “America’s Founders” established “Christianity as the official religion of America in the State Constitutions of the 13 original colonies.”  In fact, only a few states had religious establishments after the American Revolution (I am thinking here of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and, in a less official capacity, South Carolina).  Moreover, how could the “official religion of America” (whatever that means) be found in the individual colonies or states?”  I am confused.

It is also worth noting that many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices.  These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution

That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.

Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:

The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.

It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America.  I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics. 

Of course there were other states that did not prohibit clergy from running for office. As I have said many times–especially in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introductionthe founding era does not conform very well to the agenda of contemporary politicians. By manipulating the past in this way David Lane and the American Renewal Project look foolish, fail to tell the entire truth, and thus diminish the church’s witness in the world.