Tuesday, September 22, 2015

God and History: My Journey Through Christian Patriotism

I know sometimes I can get a bit testy when it comes to Christians and politics. I view politics in general as mostly a spectator sport - I want people to be represented fairly, but I try to call out BS from whoever spouts it. Things get a little different when it comes to attaching faith, especially Christian faith to our politics and patriotism. I wanted to share a personal story about why it matter so much to me.

I've always been a hound for facts. I consume knowledge for its own sake - with all the good and bad that comes with it. I've always been this way. My parents, until they sold it, had a set of encyclopedias with a bookmark in it marking how much I'd read. The book mark was a library pass from 7th grade. Yeah. That's me.

I did the Geography Bee as a kid in school (and did very well), I still love maps far too much. I like dates and timelines and any display of any kind with even remotely interesting facts on it. You do not want to play me in Trivial Pursuit (and you really wouldn't have wanted to play 22 year old me, before the ravages of age took hold on my memory). Needless to say, I became a history major in college. I've got a degree in it. I find the past fascinating, mostly for what it tells us about who we are and what's going on today.

In high school I geeked out over this guy, David Barton (I feel like I've written about this on the blog before, but I can't find it, so we'll go again). He was a Christian historian who traveled around telling people how Christian the founding fathers were and making a really strong case for Christian patriotism. Being the uber-evangelical kid I was, I latched on to this pretty heavily. I read his books and touted his information all over the place. At one point, he even came to our church and spoke. It was really, really cool. I'm guessing he was a big reason I became a history major in the first place.

I was a pretty good history student, I like to think, maybe a bit lazy at times, but good. When I was introduced to real historical research and set loose on primary sources, I ate it up. That part of the gig is a lot of fun.* Being in college in Boston, revolution-era stuff was everywhere. I began reading a lot of writings from the founding fathers. A lot. I've read the collected writings of most everyone who gets more than a mention in your junior high civics book - private papers and published work.

As I began this process, though, I had a rather unsettling discovery. A lot of those quotes David Barton used to prove his points, the ones that he put on the personalized checks you could buy and posters for hanging on your wall, a lot of those quotes were taken way, way out of context. Some of them were even mis-attributed - words that, say, a biographer had written about one of the founders. I had been told, by Barton, that all but two of the singers of Declaration of Independence were Christians, which is mostly true - but the implication was that they were Christians the way an evangelical Christian is a Christian in modern times. It was like a whole room full of Billy Graham's creating this country. I found in actually checking up on this historian, that he was doing pretty much everything wrong.

Then I started checking up on Barton. Turns out he's not even a historian at all. In fact he's got less training in history than I did after my first semester of college. He's written a lot of best-selling books on "history," but in 2012 (long after I'd peeked behind the curtain), his book on Thomas Jefferson had to be removed from publication - a number of Conservative Christian historians examined his claims and found them outright false. He continues to tour and speak and spread what are actual lies about the founding of the country for the purpose of equating US Patriotism with evangelical faith.

That revelation was a little bit shocking.

So I went back to square one. I started reading the primary sources for myself, asking just what does Christian faith and the US government have to do with one another. It turns out, most of the founders were indeed Christians - but sort of in the same way Ted Cruz is Canadian. Outside perhaps the Quakers, there was no equivalent to modern evangelicalism in that time (at least not on any scale in the US). These guys went to services most Sundays because that's what prominent citizens did. George Washington bought the best pew in his local parish (because you bought pews back then, rather than just claiming them like we do now), but refused to receive communion or bow his head in prayer.**

These guys were men of the times - a time when science was explaining so much that was previously chalked up to the supernatural. There was an unprecedented human confidence that we could figure out and master the world. Combined with the cultural acceptance of rich white men doing pretty much whatever they wanted in private, there was very little impetus for faith to impact life - that sort of thing was for monks in cloisters and the odd fringe group, like the Amish.

The history of Christian intersection with government has been one of convenience on both sides. Constantine got unity for the empire and Christians stopped getting killed. Charlemagne got his rule and conquest legitimized and the Popes got some say in government. The United States drove out the French, then the English, enslaved Africans, and took genocidal sweep at Native Americans under this banner of manifest destiny, that God somehow blessed the country and gifted its leaders with unrivaled primacy in the world - and that was backed with faith. You tell someone God wants to do something great for them and they'll generally believe you - it's how prosperity gospel survives.

It's also the stuff of false prophets. Throughout the Old Testament, the false prophets were those voices in the ears of the kings telling them to keep on, conquer, oppress, God wanted them to be strong and powerful. The prophets recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures were those calling for humility and repentance. In the New Testament the false prophets were those calling the people of God to a way of life contrary to the gospel - those calling for entitlement and self gratification.

I don't think I've used the term for anyone else in my life (maybe those prosperity preachers as a group), but David Barton and his ilk are false prophets. I believe that strongly. The words they say and the message they impart aren't even accurate historically, let alone in line with the life of a homeless, wandering rabbi. Our nation's leaders cloak their words and actions in Christian language precisely for same way politicians have done so for 1700 years: it works to motivate the people. You're never going to die so the rich guy can get richer, but you're probably going to sign up if it's a call from God to defend your faith and way of life.

That's not really the story of our history and it's certainly not the story of our faith.

So if I go a little overboard on Facebook or speak too cringe-worthily in my critiques sometimes, just know this is pretty personal for me. Much of my life has been shaped by this false battle raging in my country, and in my faith. The God of scripture is never on the side of the politicians and the power - whether they be Hebrew kings in the Old Testament or Pharisees and Romans in the New... or even Popes and Presidents in the historical age that followed. God is always on the side of the poor, the broken, the outcast, the forgotten. If our political efforts are not on their behalf, then while they may be "American" to the core, they're not of Christ.

Every nation on Earth has, at one time or another, believed God chose their nation... and they've all been wrong. God does not choose nations; God chooses people - we need to live like it.

*I had much less fun in the "writing about what you learn" phase of history, which is also the phase that earns you a living: thus I am not a professional historian today.

**This is awkward news for the cottage industry that exists depicting Washington kneeling next to his horse in full uniform on coffee mugs and paintings and commemorative plates.

***Just sort of an extra credit history lesson for those brave souls who made it all the way down here - Washington was never against oligarchy and rule by the rich and powerful (Adams and some of the New England guys were, but they got overruled in the Constitution, which is why it took 100 years for direct election of Senators). Washington was opposed to that oligarchy being hereditary. He wanted people to be able to earn their way into the elite, which sounds sort of American on the cover, but ultimately is very elitist - the rich prosper and poor melt away. I'm generally a fan of Libertarian ideas, but not the social darwinism aspect of it. Those who "win" have an obligation to those who don't. There's no indication George Washington much believed this.****

****Now the caveat being, there was little evidence in their world, or history at the time, that this was possible. The idea that the poor could be given some semblance of basic human rights was still 150 years away - so there is some excuse built in for these guys - just not any excuse for the rest of us, especially Christians.


Mark Metcalfe said...

Good essay, Ryan. Well done.

AJ said...

I learned much from your article. It was extremely well-written. You know your history. Your points were well made. What lies we have been told about our forefathers. They were elitists. This remark I appreciated as I have thought about this so many times, "Every nation on Earth has, at one time or another, believed God chose their nation... and they've all been wrong. God does not choose nations; God chooses people - we need to live like it." Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts, your beliefs, and to have pointed out the falsehoods many of us have been taught! KEEP WRITING! Many thanks! - Judy -