The Problem With Providence

c7789-trump

Over the last year I have received a lot of critical e-mails questioning my faith because I am not willing to assert that Donald Trump is God’s anointed servant to save America from the liberals (mostly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama).

In the last couple months, I have also received e-mails from Christian anti-Trumpers who write to tell me that COVID-19 is God’s punishment on the United States for electing Donald Trump.

Even if you believe in the Christian doctrine of providence,  as I do, both of these positions are theologically problematic.

Does it make theological sense to invoke providence in political debates? Should we build our approach to politics and government on this doctrine? How do we reconcile providential claims–and the sense of certainty that comes with them–with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  The Christian scriptures teach that God is the “blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Tim. 6:15-15). And let’s not forget Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,/ neither are your ways my ways,’ / declares the LORD.’ / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

St. Augustine is helpful here. In book 20 of The City of God against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world. History will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God. But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history. We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible, because our understanding is so limited. As Augustine writes,

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one. Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who had a strong view of God’s providential ordering of the world, warned us about trying to get too specific in explaining the ways in which God’s work manifests itself in the world. In his book, American Providence, the late theologian Stephen Webb notes, Barth went so far in “advising restraint, modesty, and caution in the use of this doctrine that he nearly undermines his own insistence on its importance.”

The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was also clear about what Christians can and cannot know about the will of God in human history. Luther always erred on the side  of mystery: God is transcendent and sovereign; humans are sinful and finite. During the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther was quite candid about the human quest to understand God’s purposes in the world. “That person, Luther wrote, “does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

When it comes to politics, Christians would do better to embrace an approach to citizenship with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and  a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations. We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment,…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.” The will of God in matters such as these often remain a mystery. As theologian Charles Mathewes notes, “The lesson of providence is not that history can be finally solved, like a cryptogram but that it must be endured, inhabited as a mystery which we cannot fully understand from the inside, but which we cannot escape of our own powers.

I like to season any providential invocations with words like “perhaps” or “maybe” or “might.” Or as theologian N.T. Wright has argued, “When Christians try to read off what God is doing even in their own situations, such claims always have to carry the word perhaps about with them as a mark of humility and of the necessary reticence of faith. That doesn’t mean that such claims can’t be made, but that they need to be made with a “perhaps” which is always inviting God to come in and say, ‘Well, actually, no.'”

Randall Stephens Reviews Michael Medved’s New Book on America and Divine Providence

Medved

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know the name Randall Stephens for his historian’s baseball cards and Christian Right photo-shops of Library of America covers.  Check out the Randall Stephens Collection here.

Randall is also an excellent historian of American evangelicalism. Some of you may recall our interview with him in Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We talked about his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Stephens currently teaches American and British Studies at the University of Oslo.

Over at The Washington Post, Stephens reviews God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era, the latest book by conservative pundit, film critic, and radio host Michael Medved.  Here is a taste:

It’s one thing to appreciate how religion or ideas about providence inspired Americans in the 1860s or the 1890s. It’s quite something else to say that modern Americans should read the distant past as confirmation of the nation’s divine appointment. Medved wonders why Americans are not more thankful “for winning life’s lottery through your American birth or upbringing.” America being blessed by God, he writes, may defy “the ordinary odds but conforms to our lived experience.” That perspective, while full of hope and optimism, amounts to a selective reading of the past. It ignores a large swath of the U.S. population such as African Americans and Native Americans whose lived experience often has not felt like winning a lottery.

Medved’s style of popular conservative history is in large measure defined by what he leaves out. The shameful, racist, violent aspects of the American narrative are swept away or excused. He gives little attention to the treatment of Native Americans, the crucial role slavery played in the country’s development, wars of imperial expansion and colonial acquisition, and the horrors and follies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

In his celebration of the glories of the Transcontinental Railroad, Medved makes little or no room for discussion of the exploitation of workers, unfair and criminal business practices, the destruction of wildlife and natural habitats, or discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Those, too, are essential parts of the story. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers, is not even mentioned. How should modern Americans read these episodes, which earlier Americans explained and justified in explicitly religious terms?

Read the entire review here.

*Washington Post* Reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey Joins a Christian Nationalist Tour of D.C.

Providential HistoryHere is a taste of her report:

The girls in red, white and blue plaid skirts and boys in khaki pants climbed aboard the bus with their parents before it pulled away from the Red Lion Inn in Arlington, Va.

The 46 Mississippi sixth-graders from Tupelo Christian Preparatory School were headed to the Mall for a conservative “Christian history” tour — a theme that stands out in largely liberal, diverse Washington, even given the city’s role as host to tours for practically every interest.

“We are a nation founded by people who put their trust in God,” said Stephen McDowell, co-founder of the Providence Foundation, the right-leaning Christian educational nonprofit group in Charlottesville that sponsors the tours.

“What’s our motto?” McDowell called out to the students.

“In God We Trust!” they yelled back in unison.

“America is exceptional,” McDowell continued. “This nation was unlike any in history.”

The tours attempt to explain the buildings, monuments and symbols in the nation’s capital through a Christian lens, as visible proof of religious foundations upon which the country was built.

And here is my small contribution to the article:

Many historians takes issue with the idea of a tour that focuses at looking at national history solely through a conservative Christian perspective.

“People like McDowell get some facts wrong, but my real issue with them is the way they try to spin the past to promote their present-day political agenda,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College, a Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “They cherry-pick. … This is not how historians work.”

The political leanings of the Christian history tour group were apparent.

For example, the students and parents watched Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) give an address in the Senate chambers about labor rights for Native Americans and his opposition to Trump’s stance toward Russia and the recent tax reform law.

“He sounded like he was from somewhere in the North,” Julia Jane Averette, 12, said over lunch. “I wish a Republican had been talking when we went through.”

Averette said she is inspired to become president some day. “I would lower taxes and spend money on things that are useful, like protecting the country, not what Obama did,” she said.

Read the entire article here.

Court Evangelical James Dobson Calls for a Day of Prayer for Trump

Listen to court evangelical James Dobson speaking to a group called Intercessors for America:

Bill Clinton also had “many opponents.”  James Dobson was one of the most vocal of those opponents.  Where was Dobson when Clinton needed fasting and prayer?  Dobson says “that the Lord played a role in the election of Donald Trump.”  Did the Lord play a role in the election of Bill Clinton?

Click here to learn what James Dobson said in 1998 about the essential role of presidential character.

Let’s play Dobson’s game of providential history for a moment.  Perhaps Bill Clinton’s impeachment was ordained by God because God knew people like James Dobson and other leaders of the Christian Right would say things about Clinton that would later be raised during the Trump era to show the Christian Right’s hypocrisy.  In other words, Clinton was part of God’s divine plan to reveal the hypocrisy of the Christian Right and call His evangelical followers to stop trying to advance His Kingdom through electoral and partisan politics. 🙂

I should also add that many evangelicals are starting to see the hypocrisy inherent in the church on matters related to politics.  I talked to several of them yesterday at church.  One member of my evangelical congregation, who I met for the first time yesterday, described it this way: “We elected Satan in order to get a Supreme Court justice.”

Stay tuned.  I discuss much of this, including Dobson and the rest of the court evangelicals, in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  The good folks at Eerdmans Publishing tell me that pre-orders are very important for getting the message of this book to a wide Christian audience.

 

Barton: God Brings Bad Weather Because of Abortion

purembb

In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them.  They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God.  When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities.  Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.

David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England.  He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion.  (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).

Here is what he said:

So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.

And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.

Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”

I believe in God.  I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem.  This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.

But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God.  To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology.  And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology.  And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.

What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness.  He says:

And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.

But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong. 

He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.

And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.

And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive.  They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.

So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…

I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature.  But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers.  Last time I checked they were also human beings.  And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.

The Vision Forum and the "Lost Cause"

As some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may know, an organization called Vision Forum Ministries recently closed shop after the president, Texas pastor Doug Phillips, resigned following an inappropriate extramarital relationship.  (By the way, the reporter on this story is Morgan Lee, a Messiah College graduate and former student of mine).


Some of you may recall Vision Forum Ministries from the first few pages of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  In those pages I discuss Vision Forum’s “Jamestown Quadricentennial: A Celebration of America’s Providential History,” an event that occurred in 2007.  

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson has an excellent post on Vision Forum Ministries and how it has contributed to the South’s continuing fascination with the Lost Cause.  Here is a taste:

So here we have a contemporary case study in the Lost Cause. What can we learn from it? What can this tell us about the reasons so many Americans imbibe a toxic nostalgia for the prewar South, its culture, and its (supposed) views about government?

To me, it seems fairly clear that racism isn’t the place to start. Don’t get me wrong—I’m perfectly happy to question a slavery apologist’s claim that he isn’t a racist slavery apologist. And it’s obvious that Lost-Cause, Neo-Confederate, and other ideologies of attachment to the antebellum South often do result from either conscious or unconscious racism. Even so, in this case, I don’t think it’s helpful to identify racism as the main source of the trouble. There’s little direct evidence of conscious racism, and quite a bit of evidence that the people involved don’t want to be racists. If nothing else, blaming racism is the least interesting thing we could say about what’s going on.

What does seem useful to say, however, is that Vision Forum’s evident nostalgia for a slaveowning society is directly related to a general desire to rebuild an authoritarian social structure. The right to own slaves may not be the point, but the unquestioned authority of the male householder (exercised in a clear chain of command involving all other members of the family as subordinates) certainly is. No amount of talk about “complementary” roles for men and women can conceal what Vision Forum is actually eager to announce: that its key concern is patriarchy—a system of governance, not just a distribution of social responsibilities. From that perspective, the Old South represents a convenient image of white manhood and womanhood, and its fate serves as perhaps a hint of why authoritarian manhood seems endangered today.

In addition, from that perspective, the failure of the South may be a convenient explanation for the supposed decline of Christian civilization in a providentially founded Christian nation. The Civil War can serve as the moment when God chastised his people in America, just as he did the ancient Hebrews, for straying from their appointed course. It also seems to represent what can happen when a society fails to cohere—when its authority structures, and thus its values, fail.

It’s easy to dismiss this as simple anxiety about modern life. But the impulse to give the war meaning this way may not be so very different from our tendency to see it as the moment when the nation suddenly started to cohere, when America finally started to realize values that were somehow embedded in the Founding. One is a narrative of decline and the other a narrative of progress, but both stories are based in a desire to see the Founding as an eternal moment with a cosmic purpose that we can make manifest today.
Whether any of this is really helpful for countering the Lost Cause in debate, I’m not sure. But surely it can’t hurt for us to be aware of the range of motives, in addition to simple racism, sectional resentment, or misdirected aesthetics, that may encourage nostalgia for the plantation. The Lost Cause myth, like all good myths, speaks to deep personal anxieties and desires. It’s up to good and sympathetic historians to do the same.



This Week’s Patheos Column: Seeing the Hand of God in Natural Disasters

In case you missed it, Pat Robertson believes last week’s East Coast earthquake is a sign from God. According to the Virginia televangelist, the 4-foot crack in the Washington Monument has a spiritual meaning. “It seems to me,” he told his 700 Club audience, that “the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power . . . We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it . . . Is that a sign from the Lord? . . . You judge. It seems to me symbolic.”

Robertson is not the only one who has recently connected natural disasters to God’s judgment. In a campaign stop in Florida this week, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said that God used the earthquake and hurricane Irene to send a message to politicians in Washington. As far as I have been able to decipher it, the message had something to do with stopping deficit spending and listening to the collective voice of the American people who apparently oppose such spending. (The Bachmann campaign claims that she was, oddly, making these comments about the catastrophes in a light-hearted vein.)

A recent survey found that 40 percent of Americans believe that natural disasters are signs from God. If you believe this, you have much of American history on your side. Let me explain.

Read the rest here.

1719 Comments and Counting…

A war is going on over at AOLNews concerning my op-ed about the religious beliefs of George Washington.  I never knew so many people could be so deeply invested in the question of whether or not Washington was a Christian.  Frankly, I think Washington would be absolutely shocked to learn that so many commentators and pundits are interested in his religious beliefs.

The powers-that-be at AOLNews have asked me to write an addendum to the piece responding to some of the commentators.  I wrote something up last night, but I have not heard if they are going to run it. 

My inbox is full with e-mails–most of them by self-identified members of the Christian Right who are critical of the piece.

Here is my favorite e-mail:

Dear Brother Fea;
 
This book has already been written.  Thoroughly researched and documented, Peter Marshall (Jr) and David Manuel convincingly proved the settling and founding of America to be the Divine hand of God to create a nation where Jesus Christ could be worshipped and preached to all the world, in their book “The Light and the Glory”. 
 

For those unfamiliar, The Light and the Glory is an extremely popular book of providential history that has done more in recent years to promote the idea that America was a Christian nation than other book. I discuss this book in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (now available at all booksellers and available here at 60% off!).  You can also get a quick glimpse of what I think about it here.  I also pick up some of these themes about providential history in today’s Patheos column.