Asbury University historian David Swartz not only covered the progressive evangelical Red Letter Revival event, but he also took a tour of Liberty University. Check out his photo essay at The Anxious Bench.
Check out Jon Ward‘s recent piece at Yahoo News on court evangelical Eric Metaxas. In addition to Ward’s profile, he also posted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Metaxas. Those e-mails include Metaxas’s responses to several of Ward’s questions.
Here is one of the questions Ward posted to Metaxas:
Have you engaged much with John Fea’s critique of your book? He makes a persuasive argument that you have airbrushed the American founding into an airbrushed version that exaggerates the role of Christianity as the sole source of virtue (not one of several), that exaggerates the extent to which there was religious liberty at the founding (Seamus Hasson’s “Right to Be Wrong” is best I’ve read on this topic), and treats the American experiment as more of a miracle detached from anything before it than it was. Fea writes that America built on the democratic principles at play in British life, which is something of a subtle point, but an interesting one which tempers exuberance over American exceptionalism as some kind of divinely ordered miracle. He also believes you give the Great Awakening too much credit for how it influenced American politics. The greater point is that Fea thinks you make a common mistake of many evangelicals, that of confusing America with the kingdom of God. This is a complex and nuanced point. A firm rootedness in one’s citizenship in heaven should not produce passivity or fatalism about one’s community or nation here on earth. But the critique of culture warriors often is that they cling too tightly to worldly outcomes because the two categories (kingdom of God and America) have become almost unintelligibly mixed or combined. Do you think you have done this in any way?
And here is Metaxas’s response to Ward:
Mr. Fea’s critiques have not only not persuaded me, they have helped me see more clearly why what I said in my book If You Can Keep It is necessary to communicate to as many Americans as possible at this time in history. If I could give a copy of that book to every American — or at least to every young American — I would do so. Mr. Fea’s misunderstanding on this central issue — one that particularly seems to plague academics — is at the heart of our problems as a culture and as a church.
To mix these very separate categories is a great sin indeed, but such sins must be in the eyes of the beholder. I am afraid Mr. Fea has committed the opposite sin in being so enamored of a certain anti-populist and anti-American narrative — which view is so trendy in the Academy that he should be concerned about having accepted it himself — that he falls into the category of those who find any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.
I am glad Metaxas is familiar with my critique of his book If You Can Keep It and he no longer just sees me as “some guy.” You can read my critical posts here and decide for yourself. As you will see from those posts, I don’t think it is a good idea to give a copy of this book to every American. You can also read my 2016 piece on Metaxas at Religion News Service. I still stand by both pieces.
I also wrote this on August 5, 2016. Here is a taste:
…I get fired up about bad history. This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It. I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.
I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands. I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it. Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”
Now back to the Olympics. I am thinking about staying up late tonight to cheer on the U.S men’s curling team. I wonder if this counts as “healthy patriotism.” 🙂
In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted as well.
“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.
However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” he said.
Read the entire piece here.
G.K. Chesterton once said that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.” Trump’s prayer breakfast speech this morning was as good as it could be in a nation with the soul of the church. The speech was infused with the usual themes of civil religion: “In God We Trust,” “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “Praise to be to God” on the Washington Monument,” and plenty of references to the Providence of God. When you combine Christian theology with nationalism it can breed the worst forms of idolatry. At the same time, American presidents have been doing this for a long time. Check out Kevin Kruse’s excellent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.
Some of my anti-Trump friends will trash the speech. Fair enough. But there was nothing about this speech that was unusual or unique to Donald Trump. A version of this speech could have been delivered by FDR, Ike, JFK, Reagan, or Obama. It was a straight-forward appeal to American civil religion.
A few quick observations:
- I am glad that there was no reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger this year.
- I was unsure if the reference to “we are God’s handiwork” was a reference to individuals or the United States
- Irony: Trump said prayer helps families to thrive even as he is tearing families apart with his immigration policies.
- At the end of the speech Trump said we should follow the founders. It implies that they were Christians or at least people who cared about peace and justice. This is not entirely true. The founders were morally complex people. We should probably not invoke them in a prayer breakfast.
Here is a taste of my piece “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”
If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.
The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.
Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.
Read the rest here.
I actually thought the “Make America Great Again” song was pretty catchy. (It starts at about the 34:00 mark in the video below):
I was, however, surprised at the way Robert Jeffress, the pastor First Baptist Church–Dallas, defended the song against critics who thought it was inappropriate for a church choir.
In a recent interview at The Christian Post, Jeffress said:
There is no difference in singing “Make America Great Again” than there is in singing any other patriotic song, like the “Star Spangled Banner.” This song was sung at a patriotic rally at a concert hall on Saturday night, not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.
Fair enough. I was willing to give Jeffress a pass here. But then he says that the song is okay because it was “not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.” Oh boy. By this logic, how does Jeffress explain what happened at First Baptist–Dallas on Sunday, June 25, 2017?
Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner recently wrote about the “Make America Great Song”:
It’s not only their candidate’s campaign slogan, it’s now a part of their gospel…It’s their mantra, their creed, their prayer, and they shout it out with nationalistic fervor. Pledging allegiance to God and to America in the same breath, melding together the Kingdom of God and self, they pray a blasphemous prayer to a red, white, and blue Jesus.”
Frankly, it is hard to see this any other way when the song is interpreted (like any historian would interpret it) in the context of the June 25, 2017 “Freedom Sunday” service and Jeffress’s remarks of introduction for Trump after the song was performed last Saturday night.
The Jeffress interview does not stop there. He describes his evangelical critics as “gnats”:
They are absolutely nothing but evangelical gnats who are looking for any excuse to nibble at the president. What we do have in President Trump is the president who has done the most to protect religious liberty of any president in America…If you take these critics’ argument to their logical end, then Christians need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
Actually, some Christians do think that they need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not one of them, but I fully understand why some of my fellow Christians might find this problematic.
And then Jeffress continues:
These evangelical Never Trumpers are incensed because President Trump’s election demonstrated how irrelevant they are to Christians. Christians did not listen to these Never Trumpers, in spite of all their blogs and all of their tweets about President Trump,” Jeffress said. “If anybody listened objectively to what President Trump said Saturday night, it was the most god-honoring, faith-affirming speech I have ever heard any president give at any time in history.
“At any time in history?” I can think of at least five (and probably more) Obama speeches that were more “faith-affirming” than what Trump said last Saturday night. But let’s go back even further. How about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for starters?
Jeffress is probably correct when he says that Trump’s election demonstrated the irrelevance of the evangelical “Never Trumpers.” What scares me here Jeffress’s attempt to equate the “relevance” or popularity of a particular political view with whether or not such a view is correct or moral. Do we really want to go there? Anyone who knows anything about American history will understand what I mean when I ask this question.
Apparently Jeffress’s new moral standard is 81%.
I remain a faithful #19percenter.
Here is a taste of his blog post at The American Conservative:
I find it impossible to watch that ceremony (I’ve been sitting here in the Miami airport watching much of it) and judge it as anything but grotesque idolatry. Not patriotism, idolatry. It’s idolatry of Donald Trump, and idolatry of the United States of America. It is shocking and repulsive, and there will be heavy consequences for conflating the Gospel of Jesus Christ with burning a double handful of incense to President Trump and the USA.
It is good to love one’s country, and to be grateful to God for it. I do, and I am. But this is something different.
What, exactly, does it mean to call on the church to “lift the torch of freedom all across the land”? It’s cant. It’s kitsch. “Freedom” is not the same thing as righteousness. As St. Augustine taught, sin is disordered love. You can love good things in a disordered way, and fall into sin. Christians whose moral imaginations are formed in this way, what is going to happen to them when the US government — under Donald Trump, or some future president — does something wicked, something that followers of Jesus Christ ought to stand against?
Read the rest here.
Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?
I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend. I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience. Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry. Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.
If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.
On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.
I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State. Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:
We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however. Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag). Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July. My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation. To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message. Second, idolatry becomes a real problem. Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst.
Don’t believe me? Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately. Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.” I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ. Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.” While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal. In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God. Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.
Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it? The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach. It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots). This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over. In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity. Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion. Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths. Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.
Read the entire post here.
It’s catchy. 🙂
Performed Saturday night at The Kennedy Center event. It starts at the 34:00 mark.
Have at it.
In just under 6 minutes:
- Jeffress claimed that “our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for His word.” Is this correct? I am wrestling with this question all weekend @johnfea1 and at #ChristianAmerica?. We are posting every 30 minutes during Fourth of July weekend. Or you can just go get a copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. This Christian nation stuff never goes away. Christians (the followers of David Barton and his ilk will not listen to non-Christians) need to offer an alternative narrative to this way of thinking about American history. We are here, but we don’t have the resources or the funding.
- Jeffress dabbles here in American exceptionalism. He sounds like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots. Jeffress asks “Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?” Earlier today someone on Twitter reminded me of a 2012 statement from Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He was writing about the idea that the United States is a Christian or chosen nation. Anderson said “The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries.”
- Jeffress suggests that Donald Trump is a messianic figure who God raised up to save Christian America from despair. He says, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016 (wild applause) and that day represented the greatest political upset in American history. Because it was on that day, November the 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next President of the United States. And they chose Donald Trump” (more wild applause). I think November 8, 2016 just became part of the Christian calendar at First Baptist Church–Dallas.
- Jeffress reminds us that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. He says they “understood that [Trump] alone had the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in” (wild applause). Jeffress claims that people are more excited now about Trump than they were on election day because Trump “has exceeded our every expectation.” OK. Those expectations must be pretty low. (By the way, I am still waiting for Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals to condemn the Morning Joe tweets).
- Jeffress claims that Trump has done more to protect religious liberty than any POTUS in U.S. history. Really? More than Jefferson? More than Madison?
- Jeffress says that “millions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance, to truly make America Great Again.” Apparently God wants to give us another chance to return to the 1950s or the 1980s.
Trump’s speeches to evangelicals are always the same. They are getting old. I am pretty sure his speech writers have exhausted everything they know about evangelicals. But why should they think more deeply about faith and public life when they can just have Trump throw out catchphrases and talking points about religious liberty or “the wall” or ISIS and have the crowd go wild.
Trump railed against the fake media and gets rousing cheers from an audience that I assume was made up of parishioners of First Baptist Church in Dallas. I am inclined to give this cheering a pass because it is not occurring on a Sunday morning in a church sanctuary, but it is still disturbing to watch my fellow evangelical Christians put their hope in a strongman and do so with such zeal. For example, when Trump says that “in America we do not worship government, we worship God,” the audience starts chanting “USA, USA, USA.” Something is wrong when a reference to the worship of God triggers nationalist chants.
A few final points:
Someone needs to tell Trump’s speechwriter that there was no public prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin suggested it, but it did not happen.
And let’s also remember that his Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment accomplished nothing. The Johnson Amendment is still in the tax code. It can only be changed by Congress.
I remain part of the #19percent!
Kyle Roberts is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He explains, from the perspective of Christian teaching, some of the problems with what happened last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas. I am glad that a theologian has commented on this story. As a historian, my level of analysis is limited.
According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.
- It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
- It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
- It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
- It undermines the separation of church and state
- It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
- It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
- It undermines the cross
- It replaces transcendence with immanence
- It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
- It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.
Click here to see how Roberts develops each of these points at his blog Unsystematic Theology. Great stuff.
DALLAS—President Donald Trump will join Pastor Robert Jeffress to honor our veterans at the “Celebrate Freedom” Concert at 8 p.m. July 1 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The event, which is being co-sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Dallas and Salem Media, will be a night of hope, celebration and commemoration. President Trump will deliver a powerful address honoring our veterans, hundreds of whom will be coming from D.C. area to attend the event, including patients from the Walter Reed Medical Center.
“The Kennedy Center, known for presenting the greatest performers and performances from across America and around the world, is the perfect location for an unforgettable patriotic evening that honors our veterans, celebrates our country, and proclaims a message of hope,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress. “We are honored the president of the United States will be joining us, but we are not surprised. We have in President Donald J. Trump one of the great patriots of our modern era and a president who cherishes the sacrifice and service of those in our armed forces.”
Stirring patriotic music will come from the renowned choir and orchestra of First Baptist Dallas, under the direction of Dr. Doran Bugg. The First Baptist Dallas Choir & Orchestra is no stranger to our nation’s most prestigious concert halls, having been the first church music ministry invited to perform at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas and host of the radio and television program “Pathway to Victory,” seen in 195 countries, will also bring a message of hope and encouragement.
The “Celebrate Freedom” Concert is free and open to the public, but tickets must be reserved in advance by going to http://www.ptv.org/washington.
The “Celebrate Freedom” Concert rally will be the capstone of a weeklong series of events Pastor Robert Jeffress will host through the nation’s capital including speaking at a Bible study for Congressional staffers in the Capitol, a tour of Washington highlighting our country’s Judeo-Christian foundation, and personal visits with various others numbered among our nation’s leadership.
“I’m grateful that President Trump has created an atmosphere in which Evangelical Christians feel at home once again in our nation’s capital,” said Pastor Jeffress.
— Dr. Robert Jeffress (@robertjeffress) June 25, 2017
Yesterday was “Freedom Sunday” at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. The pastor of First Baptist is Robert Jeffress. He is a Trump supporter, Christian nationalist, and prominent court evangelical. As the pictures attached to this tweet indicate, it was a day of patriotic celebration in the church sanctuary.
People waved American flags during the service.
The last time I checked, the waving of the American flag was a sign of support or loyalty to the nation. Jeffress had no problem allowing such an act to take place in a church sanctuary–the place where Christians worship God as a form of expressing their ultimate loyalty. Patriotism is fine. Flag-waving is fine. But I wonder if any of the congregation felt uncomfortable that all of this took place in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
There were fireworks. Yes, fireworks. Somehow the pyrotech crew at First Baptist figured out a way to pull this off without burning the place down. I assume that these fireworks did not represent the pillars of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness in the Old Testament. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone during the service connected these patriotic fireworks to God’s leading of his new “chosen people”–the United States–through the desert of extreme religious persecution). I also don’t think the fireworks were meant to represent the “tongues of fire” present on the day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2. (Also, from what I am able to tell from the church website, First Baptist did not celebrate Pentecost Sunday on June 4, 2017).
It also looks like the congregation of First Baptist sung the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.” I am guessing they did not sing all of the original verses.
How can this not be a form of idolatry?
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Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:
(RNS) There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the decline of the Christian right in American politics.
In a recent article at The Atlantic, political commentator David Frum suggests Trump has all but captured the GOP nomination by driving social conservatives from power in the party.
In this line of thinking, Ted Cruz is the candidate of the Christian right. Indeed, he has the support of culture warriors such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Glenn Beck. Trump is the candidate of “New York values” who has just happened to attract a few evangelical leaders (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, for example).
But what Frum and others miss in this analysis is the fact that many evangelical conservative voters who affiliate with the agenda of the Christian right believe they can support Trump without sacrificing any of their moral convictions about abortion, marriage and religious liberty — the primary Christian right talking points in 2016.
The beliefs of the conservative evangelicals who support Cruz, and the conservative evangelicals who support Trump, are really two sides of the same coin — two ways of understanding evangelical politics that differ only in minor points of emphasis. The Christian right is far from dead; it is just having a bit of an intramural squabble.
Read the rest here.
Here we go.
This piece just appeared at Christianity Today.
On the Sunday morning before this year’s South Carolina primary, Dr. Carl Broggi, the pastor of Community Bible Church in Beaufort, turned over his pulpit—emblazoned with the Protestant watchword “sola scriptura,” to GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz. I am not sure if it is fair to call Cruz’s speech that morning a “sermon.” The candidate did not open up a biblical text and carefully explain its meaning in the way that I am sure Dr. Broggi had been trained to do at Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Cruz did mention a few verses from the Bible during his message, but they were applied less to the spiritual lives of the souls in attendance that morning and more to the character of the United States of America as Cruz understands it. Let’s face it—this was a stump speech.
The Texas senator’s message was lifted from an old playbook. For nearly 400 years Americans have been conflating the message of the Bible with the fate of the country. Ever since the Puritan John Winthrop said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a “city on a hill” Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people—a new Israel with a special destiny.
Glenn Beck says:
- Ted Cruz is God’s anointed candidate
- The Constitution is divinely-inspired
After my Religion News Service piece was published last week in The Washington Post, a few people criticized me for getting Cruz wrong. Cruz is not a dominionist, they said. No, he is simply trying to defend the constitution.
I don’t know if Beck speaks for Cruz when the radio host says that God inspired the Constitution. Beck does appear at his rallies. I assume Beck is there because Cruz invited him.
The video below was taken at a Cruz rally.
People are criticizing Cruz for being a liar. They are criticizing Cruz for not consistently applying his originalism to the current Supreme Court controversy. But very few are taking a deeper look at the theology behind his politics. Someone needs to ask Cruz if he endorses the things Beck says in this video.
Perhaps someone will ask him this week on CNN or later this month in Texas. I drew up a few questions here.
As we enter the final weekend before the Iowa caucuses and with the February 9th New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Bernie Sanders has given himself a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the Hawkeye state and enjoys a comfortable lead in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, over on the GOP side, two strong evangelical candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—are doing battle with a New York businessman who has won the endorsement of several leading evangelicals and claims that he will keep Christianity in this country “safe” from the intrusion of Muslims and secularists.
If Sanders wins the nomination, the general election could become a political war pitting belief against unbelief.
Bernie Sanders has never been hostile to Christianity. When he spoke last year at Liberty University he tried to find common ground with the conservative evangelical student body. But he has also been open about the fact that he is not “actively involved with organized religion.”
When asked by the Washington Post if he believes in God, Sanders answered: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of organized religion.
If Sanders faces Cruz, Rubio, or Donald Trump in the general election, it is likely that Sanders’s faith, or lack thereof, will become a major issue in the campaign. Of course the GOP candidate will try to exploit the Vermont Senator’s progressive “big-government” views, but this critique will become even more powerful when the Republican nominee starts calling Sanders a godless socialist.
If the religious culture wars spill into presidential politics in this way, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened in American history. In the election of 1800 the nation saw similar attacks made against a skeptical presidential candidate. His name was Thomas Jefferson.
In 1800 the incumbent president, John Adams, represented the Federalists, a political faction with particular strength in New England. Federalist strongholds such as Connecticut and Massachusetts had a long tradition of government-sponsored Christianity. The Federalists in New England worked closely with the Congregationalist clergy in order to ensure that the region would remain Christian in character and be governed by Christian political leaders.
Jefferson was the Vice-President of the United States. Adams defeated him in the presidential election of 1796, but the margin of victory was slim. As the population of the United States began to spread out beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the religious sentiments of the country turned against state-sponsored churches, Jefferson would attract more and more Americans.
But Jefferson’s religious beliefs would present a problem for him in the Federalist-dominated northeast. Jefferson was not a Christian. He was skeptical about doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible. He was not the kind of godly president that many New England Federalists thought should be leading a Christian nation.
The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, was representative of these attacks. He wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Vice-President’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.”
Linn feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.” He made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.” He went so far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.”
Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.”
Jefferson, of course, won the presidential election of 1800 and the republic survived. But if Sanders squares off against today’s defenders of a Christian America it is quite likely that history may just repeat itself.
John D. Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).
JF: What led you to write American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
JW: This project arose out of my dissertation on the Christian America thesis from 1977-2007 that I finished back in 2010. When I encountered the idea of American exceptionalism in the context of the Christian America thesis, I knew I wanted to explore it further. I was intrigued because the Christian America thesis at the turn of the 21stcentury clearly entailed American exceptionalism. Furthermore, after reading Anthony Smith’s incomparable Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, it became obvious that most Western civilizations since the fourth century believed themselves to be, in some way, God’s chosen nation.
I could only mention exceptionalism briefly in the dissertation. But once the dissertation was finished, I revisited the idea, presenting a paper on it at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in 2012. The presentation went awful (I thought). I remember taking a moment to myself after my panel was concluded and wanting to have a good cry. But it forced me back to the drawing board—I read an article by James W. Ceaser on the origins of American exceptionalism, and the light turned on for me. It was a key moment in my thinking about exceptionalism, and I think Ceaser’s article made the difference when I wrote the book proposal.
On a more personal level, I grew up surrounded by a strong military tradition on both sides of my family. But I was intrigued by the whole idea of God and country. What happens when we use God-talk to self-identify as a nation? And what are the theological entailments in American exceptionalism? These remain fascinating questions to me, and the intersection between nationalism and religion in history is a busy one indeed!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism has historically entailed several theological assertions, and can thus be an idea that is exclusionary, imperialistic, and contrary to Christianity from which it is indebted. But exceptionalism can also be construed in political/social terms, and when it is, the idea forms the groundwork for sound patriotism and healthy civic engagement.
JF: Why do we need to read American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism is a very old idea. It can be traced back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and it evolved around the contours of all the major crises America faced from the colonial period to the present. And everyone is talking about it. A casual Google search of “American exceptionalism” yields 775,000 results. President Obama—a president whose patriotism is often questioned—frequently refers to it in his rhetoric, most notably perhaps in his response to the Syrian crisis in 2013, his commencement address at West Point in 2014, and in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march earlier this year.
But hardly anybody defines their meaning when they use the term. Most people think that the term is concrete, and universally agreed upon and understood. But it is an ambiguous term that demands precision.
Exceptionalism is also an article of faith. Interestingly, when people consider exceptionalism, they often speak about it in terms of either “believing in” American exceptionalism or not. This way of thinking about exceptionalism seems to suggest that the idea is often more than a political idea—it is a tenet of a civil religion.
Because Americans employ the term so frequently, so ambiguously, and so often as an article of faith, I think it is important that we explore the history and theology of the idea. What are we talking about when we invoke American exceptionalism? What have Americans in the past meant when they have expressed nationalistic feeling in ways consistent with what we call exceptionalism?
And most importantly, what damage does American exceptionalism do to the Christian religion? What harm has the idea wrought within our own national community, and in the world? And is there any way the idea can be put to positive use in the ways we Americans self-identify and engage one another and other peoples of the world? I think America is an exceptional nation, and I also think that exceptionalism can serve as a model for healthy civic engagement—provided that we define it in open, political/social terms and reject its strong theological assertions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JW: I was inspired to study history by my grandfather, Jasper N. Dorsey, my high school history teacher, Doug Frutiger, and my professors at Furman University, particularly Marian Strobel and Lloyd Benson. And David Puckett, my church history professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was another important person in my development as a student and as a scholar. American history is terribly fascinating to me, and since our history is so comparatively short, it is amazing how close we are to the events that shaped our nation. I’m not sure when I decided I wanted to make the study of history my life’s work, but I’m sure glad I did!
JF: What is your next project?
JW: Presently, I’m editing, abridging, and writing an introduction for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press. I’ll finish that project by the end of the year, and then I’d like to pursue a study of W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on American identity as his views evolved from his early to middle to late career.
JF: Thanks, John! Sounds like some great stuff.
This post is for my Christian readers or people who are interested in Christianity. Over at his Patheos blog “Formerly Fundie,” Benjamin Corey, a writer and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, offers “10 Ways To Determine If Your Christianity Has Been Americanized.”
Corey’s ten telltale signs are listed below. (I post them here because I find them interesting, not because I endorse or do not endorse them). Read the entire post for his commentary on each point: