Last week we wrote about the billboard in Dallas advertising Robert Jeffress’s upcoming sermon at First Baptist-Dallas: “America is a Christian Nation.” Read our post here.
The billboard company pulled the signs down.
Here is a taste of Tre Goins-Phillips’s piece at Independent Journal-Review:
Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor and one of the Trump administration’s evangelical advisers, is facing criticism over billboards his church erected declaring America a “Christian nation.”
In fact, after a bit of online outrage, including an editorial from The Dallas Morning News, the billboard company contracting with the church, Outfront Media, decided to pull the signs down, describing the declaration — “America Is a Christian Nation” — as “anger provoking,” according to a statement from the church that was obtained by IJR.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, seemed to take issue with the billboards, too. In a statement to the newspaper, Rawlings said he doesn’t mind people “being proud of the Christian tradition in America” but added it’s important for the faith-based community to promote “a city of love versus a city of hate.”
And Metroplex Atheists, a branch of the national group American Atheists, is staging a protest at First Baptist Church to confront Jeffress’ patriotic message.
Read the rest here.
If a baker is allowed to deny services to same-sex couples, then I guess a billboard company can reject a message that they find offensive.
In my opinion, this billboard should come down because it makes a claim based on bad history. It is fake news. I wrote a book about this a few years ago and some of these themes will also appear in my latest book:
Check out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history. He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.
Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:
The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority. They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it. The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church. Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England. He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason. His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War. Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.
Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy. But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced. Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified. According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason. Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.” Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.” Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission. Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.” It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.” It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.” Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government. Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.” As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”
For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical. How could God require his people to live under oppression? God has promised his people freedom. But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts. In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified. Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property. His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.
Let’s be clear. Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government, but it does not seem to require unconditional submission. It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.
Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13? I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree. (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).
Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13? I would say yes. Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.
At about the 3:40 mark, one of the hosts on The View asks Tapper if he has a liberal bias. Tapper says: “I am absolutely biased against lies. When there are people lying, I am absolutely 100% against it.”
In some small way I can relate to what Tapper said here. In case you haven’t noticed, I occasionally take some heat for criticizing my fellow evangelicals who ardently support Donald Trump. So am I biased? Yes. To paraphrase Tapper, I am biased against politicians who use bad or misleading history to win political points.
The entire Trump evangelical coalition is built on the dubious claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.
Several of you have mentioned that it was hard to find the revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction on Amazon. We have fixed the problem and the book is now easily accessible through an Amazon search.
Here is a description of the book:
John Fea offers a thoroughly researched, evenhanded primer on whether America was founded to be a Christian nation, as many evangelicals assert, or a secular state, as others contend. He approaches the title’s question from a historical perspective, helping readers see past the emotional rhetoric of today to the recorded facts of our past. This updated edition reports on the many issues that have arisen in recent years concerning religion’s place in American society—including the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, contraception and the Affordable Care Act, and state-level restrictions on abortion—and demonstrates how they lead us to the question of whether the United States was or is a Christian nation. Fea relates the history of these and other developments, pointing to the underlying questions of national religious identity inherent in each.
“We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues,” Fea writes in his preface. “It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the nation’s founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, which can often be contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and America’s founding.”
I wish I would have seen this study when I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. It provides statistical evidence for an argument I have been making ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy.
Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have found that evangelical support for Donald Trump is directly related to the belief, common among conservative evangelicals, that the United States is a Christian nation.
This supports my argument that evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on some pretty bad history. As many of you know, I have been writing about this bad history for a long time. A good place to start is my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.
Here is a taste of Whitehead’s, Baker’s, and Perry’s piece in The Washington Post:
The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump
First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations…
No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump
Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.
Read the entire piece here.
These sociologists used the following questions to decipher the ways that evangelicals think America is a Christian nation:
Now here is how people like David Barton and other Christian nationalists try to historicize these questions:
There are, of course, serious historical problems with all of these statements, but my point here is that all of these points must be addressed from the perspective of American history. They must be pulled-up from the roots. In many ways the evangelical support for Donald Trump is a historical problem and the failure of evangelicals to study it. This is something akin to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Bob recently invited me on the podcast to talk about Christian nationalism, historical thinking, the founding fathers, and Donald Trump. Listen here.
Learn more about the Crawfords and their beautiful daughter Hallie here.
I recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical Introduction. It is written by someone who goes by the name “Otter.” He or she titled the review “Equal Opportunity Disorientation.” I have no idea who this is, but I think “Otter” captures well what I was trying to do in this book:
If you’re anxious to score debating points in the debate about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, avoid this masterful book.
If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.
With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.
Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its “Christian roots” or to minimize America’s religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America’s relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion’s relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? What’s the best understanding between religious rhetoric and institutional commitments? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.
Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.
For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.
The Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey. Take it here.
Here is how I answered the questions:
Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?
Yes. I have assigned articles and books. The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR. I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College. Why? Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”). I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Confessing History, or The Bible Cause. But I have assigned Why Study History? I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind. I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.
Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?
Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.
Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?
Students pay full price for Why Study History?
Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?
No, not that I am aware of.
Robert Weir of the University of Massachusetts reviews the revised edition at the website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association. Here is a taste:
In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.
Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.
But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not theUnited States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.
Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.
Read the entire review here.
Thanks Mary Bracy!
I have done and continue to do a lot of talks on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. One of my favorite parts of every lecture is the question and answer period. At nearly every presentation someone will ask me a version of these two questions:
I write about the Treaty of Tripoli at the beginning of the book, but I say nothing about the Masons. If there is a third edition of the book, I think I will need to add something about the founding fathers and their relationship to Freemasonry.
Over at JSTOR, Peter Feurerherd has a short piece on Masons in America. It is a nice starting point on this topic.
Here is a taste:
The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers as a Creator who largely left humanity alone.
Those theological views created friction with established Christian churches, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. While the Masons captured the allegiance of much of the early Republic’s elite, the group did fall under widespread suspicion. The William Morgan affair of 1826—when a former Mason broke ranks and promised to expose the group’s secrets—threatened its demise. Morgan was abducted and presumed killed by Masons, and the scandal proved a low point in the public image of the fraternal order.
The anti-Mason backlash grew. Abolitionists like John Brown railed against the often pro-slavery Masons. Prominent figures including John Quincy Adams, a former president and former Mason, and publisher Horace Greeley joined in the widespread castigation. Future president Millard Fillmore called Masonic orders nothing better than “organized treason.” In 1832, an anti-Masonic party ran a one-issue candidate for president. He captured Vermont’s electoral votes.
Feuerherd’s post draws heavily from two scholarly articles:
I talk with Erik Moshe about American history, Christianity, historical thinking and, of course, the POTUS.
Here is a small taste:
If you could give court evangelicals an extensive history lesson, what would you teach them?
I would teach them about change over time. No matter what the founding fathers believed about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, we no longer live in a Christian nation. This means that evangelicals need to work harder at thinking about pluralism. It all comes down to how we live together with our deepest differences. The longstanding “culture wars” remind us that evangelicals and nonevangelicals are really bad at this. I have argued elsewhere that the study of history might help us on this front.
Read the entire interview here.
I just learned that historian and writer Thomas Fleming passed away this week. He was 90-years-old.
At Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reflects on his life and work. Here is a taste:
Inspired by advice he received early on to write four pages a day, six days a week, Tom completed more than fifty books in all. The best-selling title was probably Liberty!: The American Revolution, based on the P.B.S. television series. But his own studies of the Revolutionary War covered everything from a single battle in New Jersey (The Forgotten Victory) to Yorktown (Beat the Last Drum) and beyond (The Perils of Peace).
Tom also wrote on other periods of American history, he wrote historical fiction, and he wrote books for younger readers. In 2010 I got to attend a staged reading of a play he had composed decades earlier about Dr. Joseph Warren and Dr. Benjamin Church.
I never met Tom Fleming, but I will always appreciate him and his work. He wrote a very kind blurb for my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. I checked my e-mail archives today and found an e-mail that Fleming wrote to Jana Riess, the book’s editor at Westminster/John Knox Press.
Dear Jana Riess:
John Fea was good enough to send me a copy of his forthcoming book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I’ve read it and am deeply impressed. Here is a comment you may want to use.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation explores this controversial question with remarkable objectivity — and admirable scholarship. This is a book that every intelligent reader should have in his library.
Author of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers
RIP. You can read another obituary here.
During last weekend’s #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm I wrote:
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) July 3, 2017
Of course it is difficult to capture the nuance of Wesley’s view in 140 characters. I wrote about his opposition to the American Revolution briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
See how Swartz develops these points here.
This is the title of Ishaan Tharoor‘s Washington Post interview with historian Larrie Ferrerio, author of the recent Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. (Check out my review of this book at Education and Culture).
The idea of the Declaration of Independence as a “plea for help” will not sit well with many Americans today, especially on the Fourth of July, but this does not make it any less true. I explored this issue a bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?. Here is an excerpt:
Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious documents, but neither was it designed predominantly to teach Americans and the world about human rights. Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson. In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be–a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.
Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations. In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home. This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary. It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.” To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world. These were ideals that all members of the British Empire values regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.” This was a foreign policy document.
The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way. In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:
“when forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration “that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nation.” Adams’s son, John Quincy, though not a participant in the Continental Congress, described the Declaration as “merely an occasional state paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to resolve their social connection with the British people.” There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserved a place in the international order of nations.”
Here is Ferreiro:
We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That’s what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.
But when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans’ side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.
The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain.
Read the rest of the interview here.
What does a historian do on a holiday weekend when the archives are closed, he can’t get around well due to an injured leg, and his family is out of town? He hangs out with his dog Jersey and does this:
Check out #ChristianAmerica? Twitter (don’t forget the question mark) or follow along @johnfea1. We will be tweeting every 30 minutes during the weekend. Tell your friends to join us for a 4th of July weekend history lesson on religion and the American founding!
Here is the latest logic from David Barton‘s “Wallbuilders Live” radio program:
There is absolutely no evidence for anything Barton says here. He is making this up. The idea that the founders believed the Constitution was a natural extension of the Declaration of the Independence in the way Barton describes it ignores everything that happened between 1776 and 1787.
I challenge Barton to show me any member of the Constitutional Convention who made the connection between the God-language of the Declaration of Independence and the lack of God language in the Constitution in the way Barton suggests.
I suggest Barton read the following books:
Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Michael Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.
These books all do a nice job of explaining the complicated relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
So I guess I am one of these “brainless” professors Barton talks about. Actually, he has called me worse .
I am also still waiting for Barton to apologize for this.
For a different approach to the religious dimensions of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution check out Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
I have always been a very nostalgic person. If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait. I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey. My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….” But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons. The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice. This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation . Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.
Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.
Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia. Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way. In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home. For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together. In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.
I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.” I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?) In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:
My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
Read the entire piece here.
A lot of Christian nation stuff has been coming across my screen in the last few days. I have some time today to address it, so stay tuned.
First, we have the Virginia General Assembly’s House Resolution 297. Here it is:
WHEREAS, on April 26, 1607, a chartered expedition, subsidized by the Virginia Company to establish colonies on the coast of North America, disembarked upon the banks of Cape Henry, now Virginia Beach; and
WHEREAS, the Reverend Robert Hunt, the expedition’s official cleric, and the members of the expedition erected a wooden cross in symbolic reference to the Christian faith, invoked a public prayer of dedication, and pledged that the Gospel message would be spread throughout the region and, from that region, abroad; and
WHEREAS, the ensuing Jamestown settlement was the site of the first public communion ceremony in Virginia, in the tradition of the Lord’s Supper of the New Testament; and
WHEREAS, the Jamestown settlement was the first permanent English colony in North America and included a recognized church wherein Christian worship, teachings, and baptisms were conducted in accordance with the Gospel message, as exemplified by the baptism of Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans in the region; and
WHEREAS, the Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history, of equality, human dignity, and equal protection under the law have provided an incalculable influence on law and thought throughout history, and in particular to our shared English common law tradition and Western civilization; and
WHEREAS, these same principles of equality, human dignity, and equal protection rooted in Mosaic law influenced America’s foremost Civil Rights leaders, including the esteemed Virginia Civil Rights attorney and leader Oliver White Hill, Sr., whose own paternal grandfather founded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, which the Hill family attended and where Oliver Hill attended Sunday School; he worked diligently, influenced by his Christian faith, to end racial discrimination and helped end the doctrine of separate but equal; and
WHEREAS, according to the Pew Research Center, millions of Virginians, representing various denominations, identify as Christians, carrying on the faith traditions brought to North America by its first settlers; and
WHEREAS, thousands of churches in the Commonwealth continue to provide spiritual leadership and education; care for the poor, indigent, and homeless as commanded by the Gospel message; and conduct generous outreach in their communities; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, That the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history be recognized; and, be it
RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates transmit copies of this resolution to Rodney Walker and First-Landing Festivals, requesting that they further disseminate copies of this resolution to their respective constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the Virginia House of Delegates in this matter.
As Brooke Newman points out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the real problem with this Resolution is not that its sponsors got their facts wrong. (Although some do appear to be wrong). It is how the facts are interpreted and explained. This is an important point. Christian nationalists like David Barton and others often have their facts straight. Most of us can read from historical documents and quote them. But this is not history. History requires that we put those facts in context and avoid manipulating them for the purpose of making political points in the present. As I have said a hundred times, both the left and the right are guilty here. I have written a short primer on how think historically titled Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. It is a quick read. Some of you may find it helpful.
The authors of this resolution are not interested in providing a full picture of the Jamestown experience. They are politicians. And although the resolution does not make any direct demands in terms of public policy, the very fact that these Virginia politicians feel the need to pass such a resolution implies that they are trying to lay a foundation for their view that America was somehow founded as a Christian nation and should somehow return to being one.
Anyone who has studied colonial Virginia and Jamestown cannot deny that religion played a role in its founding. But to suggest, as this resolution does, that religious motivations were more important than economic self-interest is not fair to the historical record. (I just spent the last week with my U.S. History Survey students discussing these very points).
In addition to Newman’s op-ed, I would encourage you to read my fuller take on these matters in chapter 5 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. The chapter titled “Were the British-American Colonies Christian Societies.”