Christianity and American History

This past Tuesday my wife and I went to see “Monumental”, the new documentary from Kirk Cameron.  I will provide a mini-review on that a bit later.  But the experience renewed an internal (and sometimes external) dialogue that has rolled around in my head for quite some time.  What is the role of Christianity in the history of the United States?  Is the United States, in any degree, a Christian nation?  What is the proper way to define the relationship between Christianity and the nation-state called the United States of America?  Yes, I know – a simple, uncomplicated topic.

Let me begin by sketching out what I see as two extreme views of America in terms of Christianity and history.

1.  America is the New Israel, chosen uniquely by God to spread the light of the gospel to the world and to serve as an example to the rest of the world.  This would be the Winthrop’s, “Shining City on a Hill” taken to extreme.  To be sure, the early Puritans who settled in New England did have something like this in mind, but it wasn’t the predominant view of America even in colonial times. – Think of the book, “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel and push even farther than that.

2.  America is basically evil, a force for bad in the world whose history is one long string of slavery, racism, Native American genocide and a false form of Christianity that is a thinly disguised civil religion that is Constantinian in nature with Christian nomenclature thrown in to fool the gullible.  A secular example of this would be “A People’s History of the Unites States” by Howard Zinn and Christian examples of this thinking would be John Howard Yoder (and his successor Stanley Hauerwas), although neither of them would state it this baldly.  A more recent work that was written to a more popular (that is to say, not a scholarly) audience would be Greg Boyd’s, “The Myth of a Christian Nation”.  One thing that is common and most (but not all) of the Christian works that lean this direction is that arise out of a broadly Anabaptist tradition.  This tradition tends to view politics in general with suspicion and to be straightforwardly pacifist in it’s viewpoint regarding war. 

I think the truth falls somewhere between these two extremes.  I know that leaves an incredibly broad space but allow me refine that thought just a bit.  But first let me sketch out a little more finely a couple of important facts about history.

First, no history is exhaustive.  It is literally impossible to record every event that happens within a given period of time.  All historians try to record what is seen to be the most important events and look at the most important persons involved in these events.  This leads to the second fact.

All history is interpretive.  The act of choosing which events to record and which persons to profile is as a matter of definition interpretive.  What is emphasized and what is left out cannot help but to bias the viewpoint to some degree.  Over time the sheer volume of writing about a period of time or set of events while develop some degree of commonality or consensus as to what events and persons had outsized influence in shaping the direction that nations or groups took.  But that doesn’t invalidate the “forgotten” or “silenced” voices or make their lives or experiences any less valuable or important.  But note that even using that kind of nomenclature (“forgotten”, “silenced”) is interpretive and loaded with ideology.  To make an all-encompassing statement about what a time or people were like is a fool’s errand.

One last proviso, one’s view of Christianity and American History depends a great deal upon one’s generation and educational experience.  Older generations were generally presented a positive view of American history and the presence of Christianity was seen fairly often (although it was often a genericized Christianity that didn’t emphasize differences between Christian groups).  Younger generations in public school settings have been increasingly presented with a more negative view of American history with fewer and fewer references to the role of Christianity.  With all that in mind, let me present where I come down in this debate and then share a brief review of “Monumental”.

First, I don’t believe that the U.S. is a Christian nation.  I think that it is a nation that has a lot of Christians in it.  I also believe that Christianity has had a profound role in shaping American history and has provided a great deal of the upon which our political and cultural infrastructure rests.  But it is not a self-consciously, self-identified Christian nation in the same way that say, Great Britain is (with an official state church and all).  But at the same time, it is perhaps the most religious country among advanced Western democracies in the world.  And I don’t think it is even close.  But that includes non-Christian (and sort-of-Christian) groups like Jews and Mormons.

Second, I do believe that Christianity has been increasingly whitewashed out of popular understanding of American history (and particularly our founding generations).  While the U.S. does not have an “official” religious identification,it is not a secular country.  Secularism, as it is currently expressed in our political space, exhibits just as many religious characteristics as Christianity, Judaism or any other group.  Our public space is not “neutral” and doesn’t need to be.  It is instead pluralistic and contains many different and competing religious viewpoints who legitimately belong.  They should be allowed to fight it out in the sphere of ideas without being neutered. 

Thirdly, American history has a profound Christian influence and on the balance, that influence has been for the good.  The tragedies of American history, such as slavery, racism and Native American relations, would have been much, much worse without Christian influence and any progress that has been made in healing those wounds have been predominantly (but not exclusively, of course) effected by Christians.  Ignorance if this in society at large and particularly among the most influential mass media outlets is appalling. 

Finally, history is never about history.  It is about today.  At best, it seeks to understand yesterday to understand today – not to advance a particular agenda.  But it always seeks to influence how people act in the present in some way.  The battle over Christianity in American history is not about the past.  It is about what role Christians will play in today’s public square.  Those who minimize the role of Christianity in the past generally want to minimize the role of Christians (or some kinds of Christians) in today’s public square. 

Now a word about “Monumental”.  This is not a scholarly history.  It is agenda-driven.  But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For one, it doesn’t claim to be a scholarly history, but one person’s investigation into a very specific part of American history (the journey of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims).  And insofar as historical claims are made regarding that part of history are concerned – those claims are pretty accurate.  Also, it is not overtly political.  It wouldn’t be hard to guess most of Kirk Cameron’s political viewpoints, but he wasn’t on the stump advocating for a particular candidate, piece of legislation or political party.  The agenda that is on display in this film is not hidden at all and it is very simple.  It is to encourage Americans to turn their hearts to God and to make Jesus Christ the Lord of their lives and the center of their families.  It is an assertion that political, economic or social problems won’t be solved in our country without this happening on a widespread basis.  I know that this gives some people the vapors who see some sort of hidden agenda to set up an oppressive Christian theocracy along the lines of the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva and the fevered visions of Puritan Massachusetts complete with witch trials and scarlet letters.  But I think that says more about the people who see this agenda than it does Cameron or any of those who worked with him on this project.  I really liked it and I think that it would be a good thing for anyone to see.  The story of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims is incredible and has something important to say to us today. 

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One thought on “Christianity and American History

  1. I can’t speak to the “Monumental” review (I’m still going through my “Growing Pains” Blu-Ray DVD set to get a sense of Cameron’s artistry), but I really enjoyed your thoughts on history. My son and I were discussing this very thing today. Nice read.

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