December 4, 2008

America's Godly Heritage

For the umpteenth time. Or so it seems.

I saw this exchange at Bruce's blog about Dr. Robert Jeffress' misconceptions about American and Baptist history. This seemed an odd coincidence since I had just discovered Pastor Jeffress after a friend of mine told me about a sermon on evolution that made some good points. I found that to not be true, but in the meantime, I found that the good Pastor has a lot of opinions. He told his people that they had to vote for a Christian, and that meant a real Christian, not some fake Christian. Hmm. Since both candidates in the last election said they were Christian, I wonder which one he thought was fake? His other insightful points about voting were all about gays and abortion, so I am pretty sure he has decided, in his infinite knowledge, that Obama is the fake.

Nice. But that seems par for the course. I listened to half of the evolution sermon (it's a two parter)--just enough to hear the good Pastor bash liberals, scientists, and pretty any one who doesn't see the Bible as he does. Reminds me of this great Sojo post about Christians who seem to take pride in their ability and willingness to insult and alienate people who disagree with them. Pastor Jeffress is certainly proud of that, or seems that way. His sermon on evolution was filled with half-truths, rhetorical cheats, and rather juvenile shots at people, well, like me.

But back to this seemingly endless argument about our Christian heritage. Over the years, I have had numerous arguments with people about this idea. My own historical specialty is not Colonial or Revolutionary America, though I studied those eras and have taught on that period. I even read extensively on religion during this time and can tell you that it is a complicated and contested mess. A mess, in which Christianity plays a pretty big role.

But here is the kicker. That role is both good and bad. For some of the good, they are also involved in some of the worst that early America had to give us. Slavery, oppression of women, mistreatment and wars against Indians--and the list goes on. Those who want to claim America as a Christian nation should rethink what they want to take credit for.

And that is where the entire discussion avoids history. Most of this David Bartonesque argument can be summarized as a quote war. They quote John Winthrop, John Jay, and Patrick Henry. Liberals quote Jefferson and John Adams. Big deal. In our own political context, we have annual announcements by politicians about our Christian nation status. What the hell does that tell us? Either way?

As my friend Anglican is fond of saying, how about asking if we actually lived like a Christian nation? Were we Christian when we imported millions of African slaves, and our economy relied on either slave trade, or slave produced goods?

  • Were we Christian when we "civilized" Indian tribes and then dispossessed them of their lands? Or when we placed them on reservations?

  • Were we Christian during the Industrial revolution when we treated immigrant workers like slaves? Or when we placed children in mines and factories?

  • Were we when we abolished Slavery only to institute a vicious two-tiered social system that kept African Americans on the bottom, kept there by social rules and night terror? Or when African Americans went off to war in WWI only to come back to repeated lynchings? Or WWII where they had less freedom in parts of America than German POWs?

    There are a lot of good too. Some Christians played a strong role in the early feminist movement, and led the way in the effort to abolish slavery. Some Christians objected to child-labor and led on the "settlement house" movement to provide assistance for immigrant women and children. Some Christians worked very hard, and laid their lives on the line for Civil Rights.

    But in each of those situation, Christians were also on the other side. People like Dr. Jeffress tend to forget that or minimize them as "a product of sin." Just as they, today, minimize the role that their most recent Christian president played in authorizing dehumanizing, immoral, and illegal torture of untold hundreds of suspected terrorists. Were we Christian when we did that?

    I don't think so. But I am sure we can find a whole list of quotes from the torturers about their deep devotion to their Christian faith. Does that tell us anything about torture?

    I don't think so.

    steves said...

    I even read extensively on religion during this time and can tell you that it is a complicated and contested mess.

    I agree. I have argued both sides of this debate. I was not trying to be contrary, but this issue is far from settled. I think it is possible to dig up quotes that support both positions, though I would have to say that most of the founders were Christians or deists to some degree.

    I think there is also a case to be made that the entanglement of Church and State was stronger in the past. This it necessarily a good thing, but it was true from what I have seen.

    leighton said...

    My issue with the "Christian nation" claim is that it's a red herring, in the sense that it pretends to argue something descriptive about the past when the real issue for its supporters seems to be prescriptive claims about the present and future. It's a very clever bait-and-switch to get people who care about facts bogged down in discussions of primary sources and interpretation and shades of nuance and all this talk of complexity, thereby making us look like fools in front of people who haven't had the time to learn the difference between a federalist and a filibuster.

    From a tactical perspective, I suspect there are times to actually debunk the "misconceptions," as you so kindly put it, and times to call professional liars like Dr. Jeffress what they are.