Tradition Needs Preservation

I am still trying to figure out why the editor of a libertarian website sponsored by a leading libertarian think tank has asked me to write something for it, but here is my effort to say something to the libertarian readers of Cato Unbound on the subject of “Tradition in a Modern World.”

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living — Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”.

All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O Pioneers! — Walt Whitman

It is a great pleasure to participate in this forum and to respond to some of the ideas in Russell Arben Fox’s essay. I have been a fan of his work since the early days of the Front Porch Republic, and I always look forward to reading what he posts both there and at his personal website, In Medias Res.

It seems that before we can think about the role that “tradition” plays in the modern world, we must have some sense of what we mean by the term. Unfortunately, tradition is a rather slippery term to define. Historian David Lowenthal, in his masterful book The Past is a Foreign Country, writes: “The word’s very meaning has changed: ‘tradition’ now refers less to how things have always been done (and therefore should be done) than to allegedly ancient traits that endow a people with corporate identity. And the ‘tradition’ nowadays invoked on behalf of earlier ways is seldom alive; more often it signals a sterile reluctance to change.”

Read the rest here

Obama and Big Government vs. God’s America

Lisa Miller continues her excellent reporting at Newsweek on religion and politics.  In this piece she suggests that the opposition to big government will be what motivates evangelical voters in 2012. 

Here is a snippet:

On Nov. 30, about a dozen moderate Christian leaders gathered for a meeting in Washington, D.C. Their colleagues on the religious right had been delivering a potent new message about God and country, of fear and domination, that was resonating among Christians and conservatives nationwide. Among those assembled last month were Jim Wallis, who has advised President Obama on matters of faith and politics; Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland church in Orlando, who has been an outspoken critic of public incivility; and Tony Campolo, a sociologist, pastor, and confidant of President Bill Clinton. Their purpose was tactical and forward-looking: how to use their broad communications networks to articulate a vision of Christianity that will counter a new—and newly powerful—religious-right rhetoric in advance of the 2012 election...

Glenn Beck and Protestantism

I taught the Protestant Reformation today in my United States survey course. I regularly devote a lecture to the Protestant Reformation and its influence on the settlement of New England. The more I deliver this lecture the more I am struck by the individualist nature of Protestantism as opposed to the more “collective” nature of salvation as understood by Roman Catholics.

Today as I prepared for this lecture I thought about how Glenn Beck seems to equate the individualism of Protestantism with true Christianity. I then ran across Peter Montgomery’s essay on Beck’s view of salvation and it confirmed a lot of what I had been thinking. In many respects, Beck’s entire God and country message assumes that the United States is a Protestant country.

Montgomery describes how Beck and his new friend David Barton are obsessed with individual salvation. Here is a taste:

In the Tea Party era, ‘collective’ is a four-letter word. Beck and Barton don’t even like the terms “human rights” or “social justice” because they see them as collectivist. In a televised conversation in April, Barton dismissed social justice, saying “That’s collective rights. Jesus was not into collective rights. He didn’t die for world in large. He died for every single individual.” Beck is spending so much time on collective salvation because he wants people to believe it is behind all the nefarious things he wants them to fear:

Get into your church and demand, demand that your minister, your priest, your rabbi, your pastor talk about individual rights. If they don’t know them, tell them to pick up George Whitefield. Tell them to pick up the sermons. They are available online. They are available in bookstores everywhere. The sermons that led to the American Revolution, on individual rights.

First off, the idea that Whitefield’s sermons triggered the American Revolution is a point that is still up for debate among historians. But how do Christians who take seriously passages such as Acts 2 fit into Beck’s vision for America? Is there a doctrine of the “Church” in Beck’s belief system? What about Catholicism?

The tension between individualism and community (or the “collective”) has always been at the heart of American history and American religious history. Montogmery writes:

I’m not going to evaluate Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology here. (For a thoughtful response to Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology, see RD’s
interview with scholar Serene Jones by Elijah Prewitt-Davis.) But it is clear that Beck is dismissing the faith of millions when he creates a simplistic label—‘individual’ or ‘collective’—and declares the latter to be un-Christian. For many Christians, says J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, it’s a both/and, an individual decision nurtured by a church community. Max Carter, a Friends minister (and, like Walker, a commenter on a recent Washington Post On Faith question about whether Obama’s faith matters), says this:

I hesitate to criticize Beck’s faith, but his belief that Christianity is about “individual salvation” is actually counter to the faith of millions of Christians who see the church as the “ark of salvation” and that “personal salvation” is itself a perversion of the Christianity of Acts 2 and the earliest years of Christianity. Ask any Amish person.

Glenn Beck’s Black Robe Brigade and the Plight of the Local Pastor

During Glenn Beck’s August 28 rally at the Lincoln Memorial he introduced a group of 240 pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams that he calls the “Black Robe Brigade.” (Despite the promotion of this group as ecumenical, I think most of them were Protestant evangelicals). The group is named after the so-called “Black Regiment,” a term employed by eighteenth-century Tories and Anglicans to describe dissenting clergy who supported the American Revolution and took part in the rebellion against England. Peter Oliver, one of the first Tory historians of the American Revolution, devoted several pages to the Black Regiment in his 1781 work The Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion.

Beck got the idea for the “Black Robe Brigade” from David Barton, a political activist who has become very effective at a practice that might be called “political indoctrination by historical example.” Beck has received help in mobilizing his brigade from an all-star cast of evangelical leaders that includes James Dobson, John Hagee, Richard Land, Jerry Falwell Jr., and James Robison. Beck wants all pastors who care about their country to join him in the fight to reclaim the religious and moral roots of the United States.

When I first heard about Beck’s “Black Robe Brigade” I knew it would only be a matter of time before local pastors would be faced with pressure to join the cause. Recently, Scot McKnight, the author of the popular blog Jesus Creed, informed me of a pastor in need of wisdom on how to handle such pressure. Here is a snippet of that pastor’s letter to Scot:

I pastor a church in a small rural community and this morning I met with a couple from another congregation, at their request, that are organizing a “Christian Heritage Rally” to re-educate local Christians on our civic duties and making sure God is a part of all of our lives. I can support both of those when clarified and defined but much of this movement (at least in my local experience) has swallowed hook, line, and sinker that America is a chosen nation of God and was founded on Christian principles and so the flag and the cross march in lock-step (at least when conservative leaders are calling the shots).

Here’s a brief overview of what they’re planning locally. They’re opening with the “Genesis of America” DVD (trailer here:, then singing “America,” saying the Christian pledge and the American pledge, and then want pastors to lead the group in the Lord’s Prayer. All the speakers are from out of town, they want to take up a collection, share about the American Defense Fund and legislative issues, and then close with “Onward Christian Soldiers.” There is a lot in there that grieves my heart as a follower of Jesus, Anabaptist leanings notwithstanding. I can’t support revisionist (or selective) history and I’m very concerned about civil religion and nationalism.

With everything else related to the Tea Party we’ve been able to sidestep the issue and quietly raise questions that challenge our parishioners. This time they’re actively recruiting pastoral involvement and I’m seeking advice on how to respond to what will be political at least as much as it is “religious.” It seems to me that they’ve already decided this is the right course of action and are now drawing a line in the sand to force local pastors to be for or against it without having any input into the development of this rally.

Our local ministerial association will be discussing our involvement and these folks want pastors at the front of this thing. At this point, I cannot be a part of this in good faith because of what they’ve expressed to me regarding it. How do I respectfully do that without breaking peace with brothers and sisters in Christ while also not neglecting my calling as a shepherd wanting to guard the flock (in our community, not just my congregation) against something that I think is very dangerous to their discipleship as followers of Jesus.

It seems to me that the more traction this Glenn Beck “Black Robe” movement gets, the more concerned Christians–especially historians who care deeply about the Church–need to step up to the plate out of a sense of vocation. This is a time when good historical thinking must come to the aid of the Church. We need to be educated on these matters. I tried to make a small effort at doing this by writing Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction, but I wonder if a book has the potential to change the minds of ordinary evangelicals who do not want to hear anything about American history that they can’t use to advance their political and cultural agenda. A few weeks ago a visiting preacher at my evangelical church said something in passing that criticized Glenn Beck and he got so many negative e-mails that he had to address the issue the following Sunday.

How might we begin educating churchgoers about how to use history responsibly? Let me begin by saying a few words about the kind of history being promoted at the “Christian Heritage Rally” that this local pastor describes.

I just watched the trailer of the “Genesis of America” documentary. I would encourage you to take a few minutes and watch it as well. A lot of things that these talking heads say on the video is true. Did the Founders see religion as important for creating a virtuous republic? Of course they did. I think this is something that Christians today should celebrate. Is the idea of “providence” incompatible with pure eighteenth-century deism? Yes. Indeed, as I argue in my forthcoming book, few of the founders were deists. Is the phrase “separation of church and state” in the Constitution? No.

Did Woodrow Wilson say that America was founded as a Christian nation? Yes, he did. That is a historical question that is easily answerable. Indeed, Wilson believed that God held a special place for the United States. But was he right? That is a completely different question–a theological one.

Did most, if not all, of the founders believe in some form of divine providence? Yes. Again, that is a historical question that is easily answerable. But were the founders right–from a Biblical and theological perspective rooted in Christian orthodoxy– when they said that God had a special, unique, and exceptional purpose for America? Again, this seems to be a theological question. (It also seems to be a question that is impossible to answer if you have a high view of the mystery of God).

The Christians associated with these kinds of documentaries blur the historical and the theological. If Washington mentioned God, they argue, then America must have been founded as a Christian nation. There is no attempt to offer theological reflection or critique on the views of the founders because they have been presented as being above reproach. Many of the defenders of “Christian America” believe that the founders have been specially appointed to do the work of God.

There is a lot of misinformation out there. Not everything Barton or the Genesis of America people say is wrong, but it is twisted and presented in such a way that does not account for the complexity and fullness of the past. Historians concerned with the integrity of the past and the integrity of their work must also note that John Adams rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. They should mention that George Washington deliberately avoided taking communion. They must also tell the whole truth about the so-called “Black Regiment.” Most of these clergymen were blatantly anti-Catholic. Others blurred Biblical teachings on freedom (from sin) with political teachings on freedom (from George III). These Christian America pundits tell just one side of the story because the so-called “rest of the story” does not suit their political needs in the present. This is what I mean by indoctrination by historical example. This is history at its worst!

I realize that all of this will not help Scot McKnight’s pastor friend. It sounds like the people he is dealing with have already made up their minds. I am afraid that we are going to see more and more of this kind of divisiveness in local churches and communities.

As this post makes clear, I am a historian, not a theologian or religious counselor. But I would probably advise this pastor to work toward reconciliation and explain his opposition to this Christian Heritage Rally in clear, biblical language that the pro-Beck evangelicals can understand and respect. Many tea party Christians who I have met would be shocked to learn that their might be an alternative Christian way of thinking about these issues.

Quote of the Day

I’ve been taking a little bit of heat from Glenn Beck supporters who have been writing in the comments section of my New York Daily News op-ed. My favorite line, which a friend has called “what is likely the greatest sentence written today,” comes from the commentator named “123 Anonymous” who writes:

As a WHITE MAN WHO JUST WANTS TO LIVE HIS LIFE, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!!! Make up your bloody mind as to what the cause of all evil is, and be done with it.

Peter Lawler on Glenn Beck

Here is Peter Lawler’s take on Glenn Beck. From Postmodern Conservative:

Someone has asked why I haven’t made GLENN BECK a strange and stupid conservative trend. Well, for one thing, Glenn is strange but not stupid. (Sarah Palin is not even particularly strange and not stupid–although still fairly ignorant and inexperienced [and remarkably savvy].) Do I think Glenn is the great founder of some civic theological, libertarian, Founderistic, anti-Progressive movement to restore America’s honor, trust, treasure, etc.? No. Do I think DIVINE PROVIDENCE guided him to choose the day on which to hold his rally? No. Do I think it’s a great idea to attempt to refocus the inspiration of MLK and the Civil Rights Movement away from the injustices done to African-Americans and toward the oppression we all suffer from a century of Progressive dominance? No. Do I think Glenn exaggerates–sometimes in a creepy way–the conspiratorial evildoing of President Obama, Progressives, liberals, and people who use “social justice” in a sentence. Yes. Do I think the New Deal was basically unconstitutional? No. Can I stand to watch his show? No. Do I think I’m better than him because I’m a refined postmodern conservative who’s completely ineffectual? No. Do I share many of the concerns of many of his followers? Yes. Do I think refined and religious conservatives should stop whining about him and realize he’s filling a vacuum created by the absence of better conservative popular leadership. Yes. Do I know how many people really showed up for his rally? No. Do I care? No. Do I think the mainstream media is lowballing the number? Yes.

I think I agree with all of this. Does this make me a “postmodern conservative?”

Individualism and the Tea Party Movement

While I was riding my exercise bike on Sunday morning I watched Chris Wallace interview Glenn Beck on Fox News.

I thought Wallace did a good job of getting Beck to admit the fundamental differences between Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement and Glenn Beck’s “reclaimed” Civil Rights movement. Despite the fact that the interview was conducted on Fox, I thought Wallace asked the right questions.

What particularly struck me about the interview was Beck’s strong defense of Protestant individualism. At one point in the Wallace interview Beck said:

I would love to have an open conversation (with Barack Obama) about collective salvation…most Christians would look at collective salvation, which is my salvation, my redemption, is incumbent (sic) upon what the collective does, so I can’t be saved unless the collective is saved. Well that is a direct opposite of the what the gospel talks about. Jesus came for personal salvation. It’s why people say ‘you just accept Jesus and your saved.’ That’s not what my church teaches…you need to change your heart as well. OK, that’s what I happen to believe. What does the president believe?…In four different speeches he has told, mainly students, that your salvation is directly tied to the collective salvation. That’s not something that most Christian recognize. I’m not demonizing it–I disagree with it…

Beck is just the latest American public figure to fuse Protestant individualism and the individualism that stems from American libertarianism. The equating of Protestantism and political liberty has been around for a long time in this country, as several historians, from Mark Noll to Nathan Hatch, have shown us.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Alex McNeill reflects a bit more on Beck’s individualism. McNeill spent the day on Saturday talking to people at Beck’s rally. On average he found them to be sensible, friendly, and polite. If there was unifying principle that brought them all together it was this emphasis on individualism.

McNeill writes:

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I don’t think we change the nature of the conversation by berating those with whom we disagree, further sowing the seeds of resentment and faction. We change the nature of the conversation by connecting our own work to the values or faith by which it is motivated. The Christianity I practice requires that I love my neighbor even when it isn’t easy, that I work for “the least of these” even when I want to quit, that I give my two coins even if they are the last two I have, and that Jesus died not only for my sins but also those of the tax collector, the Samaritan woman, and the Pharisee.

I cannot, in good conscience, profess to be a Christian and not see the world as composed of a “we” rather than just “me.” It is also, because I am a Christian that I cannot dismiss the Tea Party outright as I hear their cry of suffering. Many people at the rally spoke to me about losing their jobs, nearly losing their homes, and losing their spirit. That suffering is real, despite whatever else may be said. The Tea Party offered hope, if nothing else, and a direction for anger at individuals rather than towards a system of disempowerment. All I know is, as I surveyed the crowd, I couldn’t help but think about what could happen if all these people suddenly transformed their anger into a movement bent not on equality, but justice.

Some Thoughts on Today’s Glenn Beck Rally

I spent the better portion of my Saturday on a soccer field in Gettysburg watching my daughter’s team go 4-0 and advance into today’s Gettysburg Tournament winner’s bracket.

But I was also aware that Glenn Beck was doing his thing down in Washington. As I strolled the grounds of the soccer tournament I saw reminders everywhere. Several soccer parents were sitting on the sidelines with one eye on their daughters and another on their I-Phones watching Beck’s rally. (Needless to say, they were not doing objective research).

Much has been made about the fact that Beck held today’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Beck claims that he did not realize it was the anniversary of this event when he planned the rally, but when he found out he said it must have been “providential.”

Perhaps the best thing I have read on the King-Beck comparison is by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. In yesterday’s column, Robinson wrote:

The most offensive thing about the rally is Beck’s in-your-face boast that the event will “reclaim the civil rights movement.” But this is just a bunch of nonsense — too incoherent to really offend. Beck makes the false assertion that the struggle for civil rights was about winning “equal justice,” not “social justice” — in other words, that there was no economic component to the movement. He claims that today’s liberals, through such initiatives as health-care reform, are somehow “perverting” King’s dream.

But Beck’s version of history is flat-out wrong. The full name of the event at which King spoke 47 years ago was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Among its organizers was labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO, who gave a speech describing the injustice of “a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.”

But there is more to say. As a historian I can’t help but comment on the irony of it all.

Like Beck, King loved America. And like Beck, King also promoted the idea of a Christian nation. King believed that such a Christian nation was rooted in equality for all. Apparently so does Beck.

Consider King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). Here King understood social justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God. King argued, using the views of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and theologian Paul Tillich, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth. King also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. St. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was “an extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment….”

By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” The Civil Rights Movement, as King understood it, was in essence and attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation–a beloved community of love and equality.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to clergy who believed that segregation was something that needed to be dealt with locally. They did not want “outside agitators” such as King or, presumably the federal government, intruding in their local affairs. They did not want the government taking away their liberties, even if it was the liberty to uphold segregation.

In the end, as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail makes clear and the entire Civil Rights Movement confirms, local action–especially by the clergy–failed to defend the basic human and civil rights afforded to all people, including Blacks. Since the churches and local municipalities were not willing to do anything about this social injustice, it was up to the federal government to step in–with a show of force in some cases–to take away the liberty of some (white segregationalists) so that the liberty of all could be preserved.

This is why a massive rally of libertarian tea partiers commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and claiming his legacy is so ironic. I am not saying here that the tea partiers are racist, but I am pointing out the fact that there have been times in American history–the Civil Rights Movement being one of them–when local initiative has failed and the only way to bring justice has been through “outside agitators” such as the federal government.

Beck also had his “Black Robe Brigade” come out today and take a bow. This “Brigade” consisted of 240 clergy representing many different denominations and ethnic groups. In case you don’t know, the “Black Brigade” was a term used to describe eighteenth-century Protestant ministers who supported the American Revolution.

There is a lot more I could say about the way that Glenn Beck and his new friend David Barton are using the past to promote their political agenda. I have spent a lot of time doing this at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” (Browse around a bit or do a search of “David Barton” to learn more).

If you can be patient, you can read more of my thoughts about religion and the American Founding–including the role of Protestant clergy–in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction which is due out in February with Westminster/John Knox Press. In the meantime, check out some of the advance praise the book has been getting from the likes of Thomas Fleming, Mary V. Thompson, Randall Balmer, Richard Bushman, Scot McKnight, John Wigger, Doug Sweeney, Stanley Hauerwas, and Ira Stoll.

Gushee: Tea Party Libertarianism is Not Christian

In a post that is up today at The Huffington Post’s religion site, David Gushee argues that the Tea Party movement, and the libertarianism that informs it, “stands in sharp contrast with the most recognizable Christian traditions of social thought.

Here is the crux of his argument:

I said in a recent interview that libertarianism is not an intrinsically Christian worldview and that Christian embrace of it makes for an uneasy marriage. My friendly Christian “tea party” correspondents beg to differ, but any review of the great traditions of Christian social and political thought bears out my claim.

The options are so rich. We could begin with the social thought of the pre-liberal “Christendom” era, in which the state was generally understood to be partner to the church in advancing a Christian social order that included care of both bodies and souls. Or if you don’t like Christendom, we could look at the way Protestant social ethics responded to the urban squalor and workplace sufferings of Gilded Age capitalism with insistent demands not just for the factory-owners to soften their hearts but also for the government to pass laws to limit their depredations.

If you don’t like Protestant “Social Christianity,” there is the very rich Catholic social teaching tradition, which began with Pope Leo XIII’s analysis of these same problems in 1891 and has continued unabated to this day. Catholic social teaching has constantly called for a more organic understanding of society and a vision of the well-being of the national (and international) community as a whole rather than merely its atomized individuals. The Catechism today teaches that the proper role of the state is to “defend and promote the common good of civil society.”

Or if you don’t like the Catholic social teaching, there is a great deal of historic and contemporary evangelical social engagement that calls for the state to join with others, each in their proper role, to advance public justice and the common good. Evangelicals were involved in most of the great social reform efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries, most of which called for government intervention — whether in restricting workplace racial segregation or the market’s role in providing abortions.

These kinds of Christian traditions certainly understand that individuals matter, but that if so, it is especially those individuals whose needs go unmet and whose rights are routinely violated that matter most. These traditions also affirm that humans are social beings, and therefore the well-being of the communities we have created also matters. They understand that we were made by our Creator not just to claim rights for ourselves but to serve one another, and that a society governed by raw libertarian individualism cannot be the best we can do. Today’s libertarian resurgence is at best an uneasy fit with Christian principles. I will never back down from that claim.

While I may be a bit more open to having my mind changed, I find myself leaning toward Gushee on this issue. I have not yet found a compelling “Christian” argument for Tea Party libertarianism. See my posts on the issue here and here and here.

Christianity and the Tea Party Movement

Is libertarianism compatible with Christian faith? Jim Wallis does not think so. Check out his article at The Huffington Post. He concludes:

1. “Individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue.”

2. Anti government ideology violates the teachings of the Bible, especially Romans 13.

3. A “supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin.”

4. “The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian.”

5. The Tea Party movement is too white.

What do you think? Does someone want to defend the Tea Party Movement on Christian grounds?