Evangelical Piety Trumps History

Evangelical Piety Trumps History July 28, 2016

Readers beware: more about evangelical historians and what they talk about (though Trump is coming).

Tracey McKenzie wonders as he gears up for another round of posts why I speculated on his first series on Eric Metaxas’ new book, If You Can Keep It, which sounds like it is another example of American exceptionalism. McKenzie goes on to explain what he does as an evangelical historian (who blogs):

I am an evangelical Christian, born and raised in the Bible Belt, and my heart’s desire, as a Jesus-follower who is also an academic historian, is to be in conversation with other Christians who are interested in what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past. Eric Metaxas may be the most prominent openly Christian public intellectual in the United States today, and without a doubt his books and other writings will reach far more readers than those of any Christian academic historian. If I am going to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy, I need to read what they are reading and engage them about it. It’s that simple.

That is a fine and responsible way of framing what someone might do as an evangelical historian.

But here’s the thing. Eric Metaxas is a popularizer and a bit of a populist. He is also a radio-talk show host (full disclosure: I was on recently).

Metaxas is also a graduate not of Oral Roberts University, where David Barton, another popularist historian at whom professional evangelical historians like to take intellectual shots — Metaxas is a graduate of Yale University. Now, an interesting conversation might be to ask why a Yale graduate looks at America in ways similar to an ORU graduate. Might it be a certain understanding of Christianity, or a certain kind of piety, that resists the subtleties that most people confront in studying the past or the present if they acknowledge that human beings are a welter of ambitions, desires, and ideals? If you want to keep it simple, you can write history that leaves out mystery, dilemma, and irony. That’s also simplistic and unbiblical.

So McKenzie might have a point in trying to correct Metaxas or even in trying to protect professional turf. I think the more important point here is not about thinking historically and how we get Christians to do so, but what it is about evangelical piety that makes born-again Protestants resistant to history’s dark side. (A good, maybe the best Hollywood treatment of this evangelical defect is the movie The Big Kahuna — ears offended by ehff bombs beware.) History is not going to fix this. Some kind of Christian ministry might — MIGHT — one that helps Christians to see that the Bible itself is riddled with saints who sin quite gravely — David, Peter, Abraham, Judah — and are still saints.

I am also not convinced that evangelical academics need to use their scholarly bona fides to reveal the inadequacies of Donald Trump. I made this point Tuesday and I’ll make again today with another post by Kristin Du Mez about candidates Trump, Hillary Clinton and the words they use, a post that seems to resonate at Jesus Creed. Did I really need to see the numbers to know that Donald Trump is egotistical?

When it comes to Trump’s rhetoric, what is perhaps most striking is the frequency with which he references himself. He says I, me, or my 850 times in these seven speeches. (He says I 700 times, me 94 times, my 56 times, mine 5 times, and myself 2 times out of the total 25,722 words in the corpus.) What this means is that 3.3% of his words are self-references, which is a remarkably high figure by the standards of any typical corpus.

By way of comparison, Clinton says I 360 times, me 36 times, and my 52 times out of the total 23,089 words, bringing the total percentage of explicit self-references to 1.9%.

Is this the kind of understanding that historical knowledge yields?

And when it comes to faith, crank up the calculator again:

Finally, in three of her seven addresses Clinton concluded her remarks with some form of “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.”
So what does Trump have to say about religion?

Very little.

Trump only mentions God twice in all seven speeches.

In his campaign launch, he says: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. I tell you that.”

The second instance comes in his speech critiquing Clinton’s foreign policy. After setting up the hypothetical scenario of a Clinton presidency, Trump utters: “God help us.” (A video of the speech reveals an eye roll accompanying this exhortation, suggesting that we can safely assume this is not to be taken as a genuine request for divine assistance.)

By way of recap, then, Trump references himself 850 times in seven speeches, and God twice. (And the latter in dubious fashion).

How many evangelicals will this convince to abandon Trump? Sure, minds can change. But a lot of politics, like tv preachers, is about gut-level instincts or resonance. In which case, using historical or any academic training to take down a popularizer or a populist seems disproportionate. If you have training in a certain profession, why not use it appropriately? Have academics ever defeated populists? Should academics have an awareness of whether they can?

For that reason, I would far prefer to see evangelical academics use the minds that disprove Mark Noll’s scandal to make much more substantive points. Rather than supplying the data that shows Trump a narcissist or that an author makes up quotes, why not use the good brains God gave us to make arguments less about atmospherics and more about the candidates’ proposals for the nation. Here’s an example (and he’s not even a historian):

If Donald and Hillary really want to make us safe and actually intend to take steps to do so, what can or should be done to address each category of mass killer and each type of weapon? The convenient response by Hillary Clinton, which she is already offering, is gun control. But any analysis of the recent incidents suggests that it will always be easy to obtain weapons, even in the tightly-controlled Western European environment. In Europe, suppliers are frequently able to connect with those interested in acquiring handguns or rifles. Many of the weapons originate in the Balkans (particularly Kosovo, where they are relatively available) and make their way to the west. Likewise in the United States new laws would not eliminate the hundreds of millions of weapons already in private hands. So gun control, which seems to some to be a simple and affordable solution, would most likely accomplish little or nothing.

Another promising approach, favored by Donald Trump, connects terror to Islam. He has proposed banning the entry of all Muslims or at least those residents from a handful of countries where metastasizing violence promoted by Islamic radicals is prevalent. He has also suggested that there might be “extreme vetting” of citizens from European countries subject to repeated terrorist attacks. The president has considerable authority to initiate such limitations on visa exemption or issuance, though any filtering based purely on religion rather than nationality would no doubt run into legal problems….

So no matter what the candidates pledge to do, the options available to our next president to deal with ISIS and other terrorism are not very promising. Getting rid of guns is a non-starter and deporting birthright citizens would be both illegal and present practical difficulties. Keeping dangerous visitors out would be highly desirable but it is probably beyond the ability of government bureaucrats to develop and manage such a program successfully. Meanwhile the FBI and NSA read emails, listen in on phones, and react. I would imagine that a post-election review of national security will have all parties throwing up their hands in frustration over the paucity of reasonable options. The new president will likely pretty much come down in support of the status quo.

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