Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

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.

Is the Old Frank(y) Schaeffer Back?

17ca2-frank_schaefferFrank Schaeffer, the son of mid-century evangelical public theologian Francis Schaeffer, worked very closely with his father, Jerry Falwell Sr, Pat Robertson, and others in the creation of the Christian Right. About thirty years ago, he turned his back on his father’s legacy and became a prominent voice on the religious left. Back in 2007, before I started The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I reviewed his memoir Crazy for God at the now dormant Religion in American History blog.

In Micah Danney‘s recent Newsweek profile, Schaeffer talks about abortion in a more nuanced way than he did in the 1970s and 1980s. But I still hear some echoes from the old days when he was producing films based on his father’s book Whatever Happened to the Human Race.

Here is a taste:

Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Boston in November, Schaeffer skewered the religious conservative movement he once served. His politics are much more progressive across the board, he said. Yet on abortion, the issue so central to his father’s legacy and his own path through fame, fortune and influence, he is critical of the left.

His fellow progressives are overly simplistic about it, he said, and dangerously so. They underestimate the impact that Roe v. Wade had on those who disagree with it. That miscalculation has turned the impact into a shock wave that continues to drive seismic shifts in American politics, powering Republican politicians into positions they then use to legislate against just about every other cause important to Democrats.

“Essentially, [liberals] have not honestly dealt with the fact that they had upset an apple cart that has changed American history. They just want it to all go away,” Schaeffer said. “‘We’re not talking about it because it’s settled.’ Well, it was never settled, and the poll numbers show that it is still not settled because it’s not just a bunch of old farts who are on the pro-life side. You have a whole younger generation of people coming up who aren’t even supporters of the Republicans.”

Twenty-five years ago, 56 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice and 33 percent as pro-life, according to Gallup. As of May 2019, pro-choicers have declined to 46 percent and the pro-life movement claims 49 percent of the population.

Schaeffer calls himself pro-choice but anti-Roe v. Wade. Life does begin at conception, he said, at least biologically. He sees the Democratic Party’s stance as “slavish and dogmatic,” and painfully neglectful of sincere moral outrage that smolders unabated on the other side of the issue. He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 followed the legalization of abortion in a number of European countries, but argues it went further than all of them. That amounted to an “in your face” insult, he said, and added to a deep moral injury felt by a huge number of Americans whose religious convictions are central to their lives.

“We’re going up to 23 weeks. We’re going to divide it into trimesters and say it’s all fine and this is just a blob of tissue,” Schaeffer said. Extending that logic so close to the moment of birth and putting it all under a mantra of choice was an invitation to righteous backlash, Schaeffer argued.

By discounting such a large segment of the population’s concerns about the morality of the act, liberal dogma around abortion violates the central Christian principle of integration, Schaeffer said.

“We pretend that half our population doesn’t exist, and we tell them to just deal with it,” he said.

Pro-choicers will never get pro-lifers to cross the bridge to their side, Schaeffer said. A healthier relationship overall could start with a more honest national conversation about abortion procedures, according to Schaeffer, as well as issues like the future of genomics. All of it, he said, has implications for how we regard life and how lives will be affected.

Read the entire piece here.

"Deranged Left-Wing Fundamentalist Syndrome"

At Front Page Mag, Mark Tooley has written a pretty scathing critique of the work of Franky Schaeffer (he now goes by “Frank Schaeffer”), the son of the late theologian/Christian cultural critic Francis Schaeffer.  The piece is tough on Franky, but it does remind us that left-wingers can be just as “fundamentalist” as right-wingers.  Here is a taste:

Schaeffer’s knowledge of American history seems mostly confined to the worst analysis of Harold Zinn.  America was always rotten, based on a “Calvinistic theology of retribution and hate” in the north and slavery in the south.  “We never had this country,” Schaeffer concludes, without defining “we,” which presumably includes himself and a few other isolated, noble souls.

Schaeffer’s father, a Presbyterian theologian and commentator, strongly critiqued America’s failures.  But he did so with hope of renewal, based on God’s love, and knowing that not all dead white men in American history were necessarily evil.  The younger Schaeffer, who’s largely lost his faith, of course offers no hope because he doesn’t really believe in it.  He offers only fury, smugness, and despair.  The father believed all of humanity is sinful but God offers redemption.  The son, so obsessed in rejecting his father’s faith, seems to locate evil only in people identifiable with his father: virtually all Americans, but especially Christians, conservatives, gun owners, and “white trash.”

The older Schaeffer, who loved rather than hated, is still revered by millions even decades after his death.  The son, although on MSNBC and in The Huffington Post, will be mercifully forgotten, unless, we can pray, he too seeks redemption.  In the spirit of this season, let’s hope he does.

The Enlightenment, Religion, American Exceptionalism, David Hollinger, and Francis Schaeffer

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Andrew Hartman has written a very thorough and deeply satisfying piece on David Hollinger’s recent assertion that the history of Enlightenment thought in America resides within religious circles rather than outside of them.  As Hartman summarizes Hollinger: “The debates about the Enlightenment, the adjustment Christians underwent in response to the earth-shattering epistemological implications of modernity, were played out in Christian communities of discourse.”

Hollinger’s work seems to focus largely on post-Civil War American religion and as a result he ignores the fact that early American historians have been making this argument for a long time.  For example, the link between religion and the American Enlightenment was the central theme of Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America (1976).  These themes have also dominated the work of historians Mark Noll (America’s God and a host of other books and essays) and Ned Landsman (From Colonials to Provincials and a host of essays).

 I also made a strong argument for this position in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America.

Here is what I wrote on page 6 of that book:

The Enlightenment always existed in compromise with the deeply held Christian faith of the American people.  The American Enlightenment was appropriated most often by the proponents of traditional Christianity.  Philip [Vickers Fithian]’s pursuit of self-improvement was impossible without his Presbyterian faith.  His enlightened social world and the rural religious culture in which he was raised were often one and the same.  During the eighteenth century some Christians began to believe that they could embrace relatively optimistic views of human nature, particularly in the realm of the human capacity for self-improvement, without abandoning their faith commitments.  The Presbyterian Calvinism that Philip inherited provided the theological and moral resources for people to achieve the betterment of self and society.  The formal and informal institutions that supported Philip’s Enlightenment were all affiliated in one way or another with Cohansey [New Jersey] Presbyterian life.

Frankly, I don’t see how the idea that the American Enlightenment “played out within Christian communities of discourse” is in any way a new one.

Hartman also raises the very interesting question of whether or not the American religious accommodation with Enlightenment thought makes the United States exceptional.  I will have to give this issue some more thought, but off the top of my head I think a very good case can be made that the British Enlightenment (particularly in Scotland) was also forged in the context of Protestantism.  (See, for example, the work of Richard Sher and Landsman)

Finally, I think Hartman is right to suggest that it was not just liberal Protestants who accommodated to Enlightenment values.  Francis Schaeffer was clearly one evangelical who embraced such values, but so did a lot of 18th, 19th, and 20th century evangelicals.  As George Marsden showed so masterfully in Fundamentalism and American Culture, the entire Fundamentalist movement was informed by a combination of Protestantism, Baconianism, and Common Sense Philosophy.

Whatever the case, it has been fun thinking about Hartman’s excellent post.

You May Not Get the Call, But You Still Inherit the Mailing List

At today’s New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer writes about Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late evangelical thinker and writer Francis Schaeffer. Francis has been in the news lately after Ryan Lizza argued in a New Yorker essay that his books were a formative influence on the politics and faith of Republic presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann.  (See our reporting on this here and here).

Ever since Frank published a memoir of life with his Dad, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (Or Almost All) of it Back, he has been a fixture on liberal talk shows where he decries the dangers of the Christian Right and repents for his role in getting the movement off the ground. (See my short review of Crazy for God over at Religion in American History).

Here is a taste of Oppenheimer’s profile of Frank:

His break with conservatism, and with evangelicalism, came in the late 1980s. But he had long been skeptical of many of his bedfellows. He found the television pastor Pat Robertson and some of his colleagues to be “idiots,” he told me last week, when we met for coffee in western Massachusetts. Looking back, Mr. Schaeffer says he “faked it the whole way.”

He faked it because it was easy, it was lucrative, and — rather poignant to say — he felt he had no other options.

“I had been home-schooled,” Mr. Schaeffer told me. “I had no education, no qualifications, and I was groomed to do this stuff. What was I going to do? If two lines are forming, and one has a $10,000 honorarium to go to a Christian Booksellers Association conference and keynote, and the other is to consider your doubts and get out with nothing else to do, what are you going to do?”

Mr. Schaeffer is still married to his teenage bride, and he now writes novels. He opted out of evangelicalism….

“Any preacher with enough charisma, media savvy and fund-raising appeal can build his own empire,” says Molly Worthen, who teaches religious history at the University of Toronto and has written about L’Abri. “But they are like war lords in tribal Afghanistan, where leadership depends on relationships and force of personality rather than building institutions that can survive after the strongman passes the mantle to his son. Only those evangelical sons who have turned their effort to institution building, rather than trying to recreate their fathers’ charisma, have managed to make the dynasty prosper.”

Then there is Mr. Schaeffer’s more biting take, born of hard experience:

“North Korea and evangelical empires have the same principal of leadership: nepotism to the nth degree. You may not get the call, but you inherit the mailing list.”

Setting the Record Straight on Francis Schaeffer and Dominionism

While I was away on vacation there was a lot of commentary in the evangelical blogosphere about Ryan Lizza’s article on Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann.  Lizza claimed that Michelle Bachmann was influenced by the late evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer, who was influenced by Rousas Rushdoony, a “dominionist” who believed that Old Testament law should be installed into American law.  According to this logic, Bachmann, if elected president, will bring Old Testament law to bear on the United States government and work toward the creation of a theocracy.

I never thought I would defend Michelle Bachmann, but Lizza’s did not do his homework on the history of American evangelicalism.  I could go on, but I will let Barry Hankins, a historian at Baylor who has written the definitive scholarly biography of Schaeffer, set the record straight.  Here is a taste:

The larger point here is the degree to which a reporter for a reputable and influential national magazine can be so out-of-touch with evangelicalism — one of the two most influential religious movements in America, the other being Roman Catholicism. Calling Schaeffer exotic, and interpreting him through the lens of a figure he fawned over for about ten minutes, is akin to forgetting who Billy Graham is. I am not the only one who has argued that Schaeffer was second only to Graham when it comes to influence on evangelicalism during the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, Lizza’s interpretation of Schaeffer ignores that the “guru of fundamentalism” also influenced a whole generation of young people who became Christian scholars, artists, musicians, teachers, lawyers, business people, moderate evangelical pastors, and even a few activists on the evangelical Left. Citing his influence on Dominionism, then running that influence backward to imply Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey were Dominionists is akin to arguing that since Ho Chi Minh cited the Declaration of Independence when proclaiming Vietnam’s independence in 1945, Thomas Jefferson must have been a communist.