Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 2 (RJS)

Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 2 (RJS) November 8, 2011

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of the new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens, an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and Karl Giberson, formerly a professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene. Giberson has now moved on to concentrate on a number of writing projects. In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different case studies to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence broad ranges of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs.

In chapter 2 moves from The Answer Man to The Amateur Christian Historian. The topic is history – specifically American history. The question is simple:

Was the US founded as a Christian nation? If so what does this mean?

In this chapter Stephens and Giberson sketch a movement that started in the fifties or a bit earlier, perhaps with reaction to the communist scare, but building steam in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, that recasts the foundations of American history with a divinely ordained Christian purpose accompanied by a culture war motif and a clarion call to reclaim America for Christ.

Where you taught as you grew up that we need to reclaim America for Christ?

In keeping with the central theme of their book, Stephens and Giberson discuss the role that several individuals have had in casting a  story of  America with Christian roots, devout Christian roots. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Rousas John Rushdoony, D. James Kennedy, and David Barton were or are significant players in this movement. The story they’ve told has had significant influence within segments of evangelicalism and has impacted the political face of evangelicalism.

Peter Marshall and David Manuel teamed up to write a history of the US where God played a central role.

Their book, The Light and the Glory (1977), chronicled the nation’s lofty past. Like the Israel of the Old Testament, America was in a covenant with God. If Christians could only see that clearly, they could act accordingly. America’s history was a divine drama, as good and evil constantly played off each other. (p. 76)

Marshall considered the contention that most of the founding fathers were deists a secularist lie and many of the calamities falling on the US, including Hurricane Katrina, were reflections of the anger of God against a country turning from its divine purpose.

Francis Schaeffer called on evangelicals to reclaim America for Christ.

The nation was founded on the principles of the Bible and the Reformation, the elder Schaeffer declared in A Christian Manifesto (1981), a battle plan for the Christian Right. (p. 78)

D. James Kennedy looked to the Christian foundations of America. Kennedy saw the hand of God in the founding of America by Pilgrims and Puritans rather than Catholics.

Through General Washington God had orchestrated America’s victory over British tyranny. “America would be a free nation,” wrote Kennedy, “and it would be that Puritan and evangelical form of Christianity that would give birth to our nation.” (p. 82)

In 1996 Kennedy established the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.

David Barton and his Wallbuilder’s organization has played a key role as well … and still does. With intent to rebuild America on the foundation of her Christian roots,  he writes books (Original Intent is a particularly influential example), develops curricula for public, private, and home schools, and speaks widely. Stephens and Giberson report that he averages 250 public lectures a year. He has the ear of politicians and conservative leaders at the local, state, and national level.

What do the historians say? Marshall, Schaefer, Kennedy, and Barton are all amateur historians with a message that plays well for many audiences. Most historians, including Christian historians, have a different take on the evidence. They will agree, and even many secular historians will admit, that textbooks do underplay the role of religion in early American life. Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch are important names here. Especially Mark Noll.

[Intellectual historian Mark] Lilla praises the serious scholarship of Noll and another historian, George Marsden, who “counter the tendency of historiography to rummage through the past for anticipation of our secular, egalitarian, multicultural present.” Their work is a “useful corrective and reminds us that the role of religion in American life was large and the separation of church and state less clear than today.” (p. 90)

John Fea could be added to the list above. Stephens and Giberson mention Fea, but don’t refer to his very recent book Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. This book addresses the title question, laying out evidence for all to evaluate. The question is complex, best answered, perhaps, both yes and no.

The careful work of Noll, Marsden, and Fea stands in stark contrast to the claims of Marshall, Kennedy, and Barton and in equally stark contrast to the popular works promoting a revised humanist founding for the US. Paraphrasing Noll, Stephens and Giberson note that “[t]he image of Revolutionary America as a God-free utopia of enlightened freethinkers is as distorted as the counterview of a theocratic founding.” (p. 93)

Yet Barton sells tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of books. He is, along with Peter Marshall and Francis Schaeffer, an anointed authority in American evangelicalism.

America’s Christian roots. Stephens and Giberson conclude the chapter.

Ideas about America’s sacred roots, its covenant with God, or its providential place in world history seem as much a part of its enduring character as frontier legends and stories of the railroad. … Serious professional historians, both inside and outside evangelicalism, cannot help but be troubled by the uncritical approach of Christian popularizers and their attempt to force the evidence into a predetermined framework. The historical work of Barton, Marshall, Schaeffer, and Kennedy is simplistic and free from the ambiguities and complicated moral questions that make the more serious work of evangelical historians in the academy so dynamic and interesting. Such historians will not have Barton’s appeal. … Few will appear on Fox News and they certainly will not head up media empires.

For millions of America’s evangelicals, a comforting story – a myth – about how “your” country was founded by people like you is too good not to be true. (p.96)

I must admit that, with other concerns occupying most of my time, I have been only vaguely aware of this trend to cast American history in a framework of divine establishment and divine calling. I’ve always more or less accepted that the founders were ordinary people and sinners much like the rest of us and like the Europe they left behind, motivated by power, money, and gain; the problems of day-to-day life; and on occasion higher, more altruistic ideals. But the ideals were only a part of the picture – and not always specifically Christian. The history of our country seems to demonstrate this if nothing else.

Is this movement a real presence?

If so, why is it accepted so readily within American evangelicalism?

I asked on the last post why Ken Ham was believed – I’ll ask the same question here.

Why is David Barton believed?

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  • phil_style

    American fascination with their founding origins is somewhat of a curiosity. The founding of the US as a nation does not appear to me to be nearly as great a “schism” with history as proposed by many. Enlightenment ideals such as liberal nationhood were par for the course in the late 18th century.

    American history needs to be studied in light of 17th-18th century French political theory, and not simply the teleology of modern evangelicalism.

  • I have enjoyed Steven Prothero’s “God in America” produced by PBS. Prothero is a prof at Boston University and a former evangelical who knows the movement well enough to represent it fairly. He makes it clear, along with others, that the religious impulse of the Reformational variety was so critical to the beginnings of the US that it continues as part of our DNA. We do religion in the USA, in other words. Christian country or no (and I think the trajectory is toward the “yes”), religion has been and continues to be a part of our self-reflection. It is an “is”. To try to get us to self-reflect without the prominence of reformational spirituality is impossible. Read Hatch’s Democratization and you will walk away overwhelmed by the strength of our Christian religious impulse. I have very little sympathy with those who would skip over this and seek to root American identity in socio-economics and the European imperialistic impulse. The republicanism of Jefferson and the spread of Christianity onto the frontier was a powerful combination that still dominates the landscape today. In that sense French political theory continues to be relevant.

  • T

    In a nutshell, the trend toward secularization has triggered a reaction. As many now admit (which was referenced above), there was and likely remains an effort to downplay or remove the role of Christian faith in early American history. This effort led to change in textbooks. When that happened, it was game on. Barton et al represent the (angry) reaction to that effort. Further, the secularization of history in textbooks wasn’t the only attempted re-write. As the post alludes to, the historical separation of church and state is a current legal issue with increasingly higher and higher stakes as the state becomes intangled in more and more of everyday life. The history becomes an important factor in constitutional interpretation.

    On a related note, RJS, this post, specifically the praise of Noll by a legitimate intellectual critic, points to a reality that is important. Namely, there is a “tendency of historiography to rummage through the past for anticipation of our secular, egalitarian, multicultural present.” This is why evangelicals don’t trust the university as a whole. If this rewriting agenda is pursued on recent and, therefore, very well documented US history (not even 3 centuries old), can we really expect such a similar agenda won’t be present in research, scientific and social scientific, where the ratio of holes to data is much higher?

    It’s exactly that “tendency” by US historians and similar academics that ruined the credibility of academia generally with evangelicals. If my mechanic lies to me about something I can understand, I’m not gonna trust him when he talks to me about things I don’t understand. US history became one of those things that even lay-people could understand well enough to see the agenda. It created a leadership vaccuum, one primed for an over-reaction, and these guys are filling that vaccuum.

  • This is very real and it infects all sorts of segments of the church in America to one extent or another. Not everyone is a dominionist but many, many Christians of all stripes pray for God to “bless our troops”, presumably while they are called on to kill others and to mix patriotic fervor and civic religion into a unique and dangerous blend. If you want to find out how real it is, ask questions about whether America is really a “Chrisian nation”, in itself an oxymoron, and see the fur fly.

    What is interesting is the way this is veiwed by our brethren “unfortunate” enough to live in other countries. They seem to view our understanding of America as a uniquely “Christian nation” with a mixture of offense and bemusement.

  • Rick in IL

    I am not sure I was taught that we needed to “reclaim” America for Christ. I was certainly raised to have a passion for leading people to Christ. And I was raised to understand that everyone, no matter their stripe, wishes to influence the kinds of principles that direct our common life or governance. People with Christian values and ideals want the law of the land to reflect their values – not oppressively so, but the desire to shape culture according to our values is the same as others of different values wishing to shape culture according to theirs.

    I’ve known of David Barton since he was awarded the AMY Foundation Writing Award back in the late 80s or early 90s – I was on the Writing Awards Committee. At the time, I recall my impressions were that his work was highlighting writings that evidenced some Christian faith and sentiment on the part of many of the founders – writings that had been nearly 100% absent from my exposure to American history in my education. I didn’t think it was the job of public education to teach me this content; I did find it encouraging to learn of the faith of the founders.

    But while I didn’t thereby conclude that the founders wished to establish a theocratic or ecclesiocratic nation, I did reflect that the founders would not have supported efforts to exclude Christian or spiritual values from consideration in public policy, or the pursuit by some to establish a thoroughly secular nation.

    I understand the reactionary attitude of Barton’s supporters, though I would never consider myself his follower, certainly not a “dominionist”.

  • Fish

    “What is interesting is the way this is veiwed by our brethren “unfortunate” enough to live in other countries. They seem to view our understanding of America as a uniquely “Christian nation” with a mixture of offense and bemusement.”

    Exactly. We don’t appear much like Christ to the rest of the world. We’re probably closer to Rome.

  • Rober

    The us has nothing to hold it together but a national myth and hyper-patriotism. There’s nothing new about that; Europena nations reinvented themselves in the 19th Century, and myth and patriotism played important roles in that. The US is going through a crisis of identity as it loses its empire and seeks a role – again, nothing new; Britain hasn’t come out of the end of the tunnel yet, hence the endless posturing about ‘punching above their weight’. It’s a divided nation, and evangelicals are a group trying to find their place at the table. I suspect there’s a political purpose behind it all; if they can convince people that there’s a covenant with God involved, that’ll make them more important, bring people into their churches, and undermine the (purely theoretical as far as I can see) separation of church and state.

  • AHH

    The big efforts at revisionist history by the “Christian right” may be somewhat new, but I think this is largely another manifestation of American civil religion, which has been around for over 200 years. The (idolatrous IMO) idea of “God and country” as roughly equal and mostly inseparable loyalties, of the US as God’s specially favored and chosen nation, is not at all new. As I’m sure scholars like Noll would tell you.

    Oh, and one of the most nausea-indusing things I have ever seen on TV was D. James Kennedy “preaching” with a huge American flag as his backdrop. That pretty much pegged my idolatry-meter.

  • Robert Martin

    I think we need to be cautious in assuming that the only rhetoric casting the US as Christian is the statements from the political right. The left, such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, also claim justification for their political views on the idea that, as a Christian nation, or, at least, a nation with Christians, certain policies must be enacted, legislated, and enforced.

    While I agree with principals on both sides of the “aisle”, I find that it is more faithful to the concept of being “aliens and strangers” or, at least ambassadors, to speak truth but spend most of our effort and energy living as we would in our home “country” so that, by doing so, we can transform the world by subversion rather than throug overt political efforts.

  • phil_style

    Growing up in New Zealand we had the same thing – that NZ was a special “nation apart”, blessed by God… When I was a little older, I found out that Evangelicals in Australia said the same things.

    Evangelicals who attach themselves to national patriotism will, invariably, try to square their love of nation-state with their love of Christ – the national origins mythology is just one of those mecahnisms for achieving that harmonisation. Some folks think allowing science to influence their hermenuetic is bad enough, what about the political philosophies of the enlightenment?

  • DRT

    I am not a very good historian, but wouldn’t it make sense to look at America’s religious stance relative to other countries at the time? Isn’t that the appropriate framework rather than in isolation?

    Can any of you provide a good statement of the relative religiosity of the US?

  • Percival

    My parents were of a different generation. You didn’t tell people who you voted for and you always spoke respectfully of the President. You didn’t put your hopes in political parties, but you hoped that your leaders were men of faith. You assumed that Billy Graham should be a pastoral influence to whoever was in the White House, and we were taught that we should always pray for leaders in Washington and around the world. However, as the years went on, the abortion issue turned them into Republicans and lines were drawn.

    In the 70’s I remember my parents being concerned with the breakdown of sexual moral standards from the 60’s and onwards, the apostasy of our denominational leadership (UMC), the legalization and normalization of abortion, and the rise of situational ethics. Prayer in schools-not so much. Evolution in schools – okay within limits. Politically, they were for any outspoken evangelical. They were Harold Hughes (D), Mark Hatfield(D)admirers. Francis Schaffer and C. Everett Koop were sounding alarms. They were certainly concerned about the spread of communism, but my folks were not militarist or even flag-wavers. It was an evangelical orientation that is rare today, but the seeds for the Moral Majority were planted in this type of soil.

  • I was intrigued recently by a broadcast on public radio about the role of the church in making liquor laws (I’m living in UT, so the LDS church specifically). Opponents to church lobbying and involvement in the production of laws made a distinction between moral (religious) motives and purely secular ones. It struck me as odd that most of our country seems to accept this distinction as self-evident. I’ve heard it said that it is not the government’s job to legislate morality. The problem is, despite the involvment of personal and corporate interests and lobbying that go into forming a law, there is always a significant element of morality involved. It is only when there is a difference of morality that problems arise. Public safety laws are moral issues. Tax laws are moral issues. Budget bills are moral issues.

    The reaction of many evangelical Christians to a secularist worldview is understandable, and it has little to do with the details involved. I really believe it comes down to underlying principles. Those who believe in a moral code that comes from a Creator tend to believe, like the Declaration of Independence, that we have human rights because that Creator gave them to us. If our morality is given to us by a Creator, than the implication is that other functions of morality apply just as strongly as the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    In secular thinking, morality mostly comes from the idea of a social contract. We believe murder is bad, not necessarily because it is inherently wrong, but because it is in our self-interest for it to be bad, because we don’t want to be murdered. Now, this may sound selfish, but it happens to line up pretty well with the basic principles that Christians believe in, that God wants us to love one another and respect others’ lives, property, etc. But there is enough divergence here for Christians to feel threatened in their way of life, and it is understandable, even if this was never a “Christian nation” to feel that the rug is being pulled out from under them, when laws are reinterpreted and decisions get made with a decidedly secular morality at their root.

    The real conversation to be having, I believe, is the source of morality, and the extent to which the laws of our nation are supposed to uphold that morality. Too many people have been equating morality with “religion.” Secularists (probably a bad term, but I don’t know a better one) need to have a clear foundation for their morality, which they inevitably bring to the table, instead of labeling a moral argument as religious merely as a tactic to discredit it.

  • Scott

    I live in a small midwestern town. Each year, there is a “scholar and author” who makes the rounds out here among small churches and especially, Christian school and home-school circuits. My daughter and I went last year to hear her (my daughter was doing a senior project on “church and state”). We listened as she projected document after document giving evidence of founders who invoked God in documents, or referred to “the year of our Lord” and the small audience seemed glued to her “arguments” as though they were receiving some elicit information that had been suppressed out there in broader society.

    I kept wondering exactly what she was proving, and who was arguing against her. For me, founders invoking God’s name in documents sounds no different than politicians invoking God’s name, or Jesus’ name today. You score some political points with many folks when you do that… and you lose points if you don’t. The question isn’t whether or not the US was founded as a “Christian Nation” but (and this is what many of the people who attend these gatherings are misunderstanding) whether God’s Kingdom can ever be conflated with any Nation. It can’t, of course. But because of hyper nationalism among Christians, the thought of a US that isn’t “Christian” is unthinkable.

    On that note, have you seen the “Cross-Spangled Banner” ads?

  • I think the main reason Evangelicals are susceptible to an amateur “sacred history” of America is that we have a weak to non-existent biblical theology of the church. When we don’t have a strong identity as “aliens and strangers”, as grafted into Israel, as a new politics, a new alternative society, then our “immune system” is too weak to fight off such infections. Our U.S. politicians have forever co-opted kingdom and church Biblical language and applied it to our nation, with little to no protest, and sometimes collusion, from church leaders who should know better!

  • Any book by Noll on this I would very much like to read. This position is sacrosanct which of course means untouchable. But it’s good to find a balanced response, which is not simply a tit for tat.

    There indeed was a strong undercurrent of a sense that America was fulfilling a calling from God from the beginning. But like you say, RJS, there were so many other factors involved, which together I think better told the tale of what America was about.

  • Mick Porter

    In Australia we see increasing American influence. Recently this has even extended to some Christians using this rhetoric about our nation; we need to recover our Christian foundation etc. Not true – we were founded as a nation of convicts.

  • Ron Spross

    RJS wrote: “I asked on the last post why Ken Ham was believed – I’ll ask the same question here. Why is David Barton believed?”

    How about this for an answer (a line out of the movie “Get Low”):

    “I also think that people are so scared about what they don’t know that they make things up to feel better about it.” (the Buddy character)