Civil Religion, part six
Let History Speak
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
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Today we begin looking at the second book I’ll be reading and writing about for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Dan McElhinny, a public historian who works for the state of Oregon, wrote the following in a review of Fea’s book, which he sent personally to the author:
John Fea produces a historical primer with spine for “anyone who wants to make sense of America’s early history and its relationship to Christianity”. By selecting a subject of profound civic importance and examining it with passion, Fea demonstrates the value of professional historical practice. Using care in topic selection and applying key concepts called the Five C’s of historical scholarship, Fea expresses a genuine faith in human’s use of history. By example, he helps the reader understand and use skills to identify bad from good history.
This is John Fea’s concern: that we get the history right. He approaches the question “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” as a historian, using accepted guidelines of good historical study. Noting that the question has become a contentious issue in our time, and that people are regularly throwing out claims and counterclaims about the subject, he writes:
We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues. 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 have written this book for the historically minded and thoughtful reader who is looking for help in sorting it all out. I have tried to avoid polemics as much as possible, although I am sure that my treatment of these controversial issues will not please everyone. This book should be viewed as a historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone who wants to make sense of the American past and its relationship to Christianity. I hope it might be read and discussed in schools and congregations where people are serious about considering how the history of the American founding era might help them to become more informed citizens in the present.
Fea’s first chapters, then, are about history, studying history, what historians do, and what makes “good” or “bad” historical study. He recognizes that, in some ways, this does not come naturally to Americans, who have tended to look forward rather than backward, attaching themselves “to the train of progress.”
On the other hand, history has also been a subject of great interest, because “it is our natural impulse to find something useful in the past.” We look to it for inspiration, for a sense of continuity and familiarity with those who went before us, and to help us understand our present identity as citizens of the United States.
As soon as the United States was founded, historians began writing about the meaning of the American Revolution in an attempt to remind us of the values and ideals for which it was waged. History is a tool for strengthening the nation. It reminds us of where we came from and helps us chart where we are going. American history has always been a way of teaching children lessons in patriotism. History helps produce good citizens. We need the stories of our past to sustain us as a people. In America we study it to understand the values and beliefs that we as a people are willing to fight for and die for. We wish that our children and their children would learn the stories of the past and in the process embrace the beliefs that have defined the American experiment since its birth over two hundred years ago. This is why historical debates, such as the one currently being waged over whether the United States of America is a Christian nation, are so intense. The identity of the country is at stake.
But at this point, John Fea asks us to stop and remember something absolutely essential: “Historians do not approach the past with the primary goal of finding something relevant.”
Instead, historians take up the task of historical study and interpretation using methods formed by the “Five C’s of Historical Thinking.”
- Change over time. The historian’s task is to chronicle the changes that have occurred over the course of generations and to uncover the processes which have created a gulf between the present and the past as well as to note the ways in which our human experience has remained relatively stable.
- Context. Historians study the past in the context of the times and places in which past events occurred. Documents must be interpreted from the perspective of the world in which they were produced.
- Causality. Historians form arguments, using such tools as change over time and context, about why things happened in the past the way they did. This is not a simple task, for it is likely that there are multiple explanations for why any particular past event occurred. Therefore, the study, interpretation, and teaching of history usually involves lively, ongoing debates about the relative contributions of any number of factors in causing past changes. There may be no simple explanations or answers.
- Contingency. “To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place” (Andrews and Burke). From a Christian perspective, this suggests that, although God may be working out providential purposes in history, we cannot necessarily know or define those purposes, nor is it the historian’s task to try and explain them. Instead, the historian looks at the ways specific humans in specific times and places shaped the course of events and how various historical moments are connected to other historical moments.
- Complexity. Once more, from Andrews and Burke: “Chronicles distill intricate historical processes into a mere catalogue, while nostalgia conjures an uncomplicated golden age that saves us the trouble of having to think about the past. Our own need for order can obscure our understanding of how past worlds functioned and blind us to the ways in which myths of rosy pasts do political and cultural work in the present. Reveling in complexity rather than shying away from it, historians seek to dispel the power of chronicle, nostalgia, and other traps that obscure our ability to understand the past on its own terms.”
John Fea is critical of many Christian spokespersons who “use” history rather than “study” history:
Most human beings tend to be present-minded when it comes to confronting the past. The discipline of history was never meant to function as a means of getting one’s political point across or convincing people to join a cause. Yet Americans use the past for these purposes all the time. Such an approach to the past can easily degenerate into a form of propaganda or, as the historian Bernard Bailyn described it, “indoctrination by historical example.”
This sort of present-mindedness is very common among those Christian writers and preachers who defend the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. They enter the past with the preconceived purpose of trying to find the religious roots of the United States. If they are indeed able to gather evidence suggesting that the founders were Christians or believed that the promotion of religion was important to the success of the Republic, then they have gotten all that they need from the past. It has served them adequately as a tool for promoting a particular twenty-first-century political agenda. It has provided ammunition to win the cultural war in which they are engaged. Gordon Wood has said that if someone wants to use the study of the past to change the world he should forgo a career as a historian and run for office!
Instead, he urges us to let history humble us. Let it remind us that we are not autonomous but part of a human story larger than ourselves. Let it teach us the limitations of our knowledge and understanding. Let it teach us “intellectual hospitality” — the ability to truly listen to the past and to people and events that in many ways are strange and foreign to us, no matter how familiar we seek to make them.
There is plenty of room for debate. Only let us debate on the basis of genuine historical study, not using the past to bolster our present agenda.
Earlier posts in the series:
- God’s Chosen Nation?
- The Nations as “Babylon”
- The Second Great Awakening and Manifest Destiny
- The Fundamentalists, Then and Now