Monday, July 4, 2011

The American Revolution for Ideologues

Since this week is the annual celebration of America's independence from Britain on July 4th, I'm seeing the usual assortment of essays from the left and the right, from the religious and the irreligious, all with their particular axes to grind to "prove" their view of America's history is the "right" view. And since we now live in the era of twenty four hour "news" or to put it more accurately "infotainment" we're seeing these competing narratives getting airtime because they're attention grabbers. And attention grabbers get ratings. And ratings bring in advertising revenue. And advertising revenue helps companies sell more goods and services to consumers. And these companies sell us these goods to satisfy our felt needs. And we know what these needs are by watching twenty four hour news and entertainment.

Ah yes, the circle of life.

I have friends across the spectrum both ideologically and religiously, from the hardcore right to the far left; from fundamentalist Christians to dyed in the wool atheists. Black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-ethnic, straight, gay, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and friends from every continent except Antarctica. But in this special time of year, when patriotism flourishes and the reaction against it also flourishes, passions flourish no matter what or why. It's very similar to the various other contentious debates we so love to argue and divide over: Creationism/evolution, climate change, gender roles, sexuality, Yankees/Red Sox, etc...

So at this time of the year, the two biggest controversies are over the founding of the United States and how much religion played a role, in particular evangelical Christianity, and in a related issue, whether it's appropriate for modern evangelical Christians to be "patriotic" and celebrate America's Independence Day. Let me say from the outset that I'm not going to give my own ex cathedra declaration as to what is the eternal and always correct answer to these contentious issues. Read what I've written elsewhere to figure that out. I've certainly touched on both topics more than a few times. Instead, here I'm more interested in how each side has played the game of what the founders had to say about religion either privately or publicly and as it related to its role in governance, and how evangelical Christians should relate to their country as Christians.

I've noticed four views that seem to have predominated when it comes to this issue:

1) The "Christian America" view, which sees the founding era as being guided by orthodox/evangelical Christian views and which also believes that the US was specifically founded upon these beliefs and therefore should return to them in order to be blessed by God once again. The late Rev. D. James Kennedy, most Reconstructionist/theonomist Presbyterians, and most well known now, David Barton of Wallbuilders, all represent this perspective.

2) The alternative Christian view that the founders were a bunch of deists at best, and atheists in some cases, and therefore the US was not founded on Christian principles, but instead on Enlightenment ideals. This view is most often espoused by Anabaptists as well as some of the more conservative liturgical churches, such as Missouri Synod Lutherans, some fundamentalist separatist Christians, and many quite liberal Christian denominations. This view certainly has its strange bedfellow thing going on to say the least.

3) The strong secularist perspective that says, similar to the Christians above, that the founders were anything but Christian, and were deeply driven by Enlightenment concepts in their political thinking, and most importantly, in their drafting of our founding documents. But for these secularists this is of course a good thing. Some of the Christians above would agree, such as the Danbury Baptists, because of the freedom of conscience the Bill of Rights gives. Whereas some other Christians see Enlightenment thinking as being antithetical to basic Christian orthodoxy.

4) A less common viewpoint in this spectrum are the secularists who do acknowledge the role of religion in the founding period, and in the subsequent years following the revolution (not to mention the preceding Puritan era), but who see this presence as something to be expunged from American life, since "religion poisons everything" as some are wont to say. The New Atheists (TM) seem to be split between these two camps on this point, since some prefer having religion around to have as an appropriate boogey man to posit every national sin upon.

What makes all four of these competing narratives appealing is that they can each claim historical facts for their perspective. However, precisely because all four can do that, all four are also deeply mythological in their understanding of American history. Views one and three both share an American-Exceptionalism viewpoint, but obviously from very different philosophical/metaphysical bases.

Views two and four both lean towards an anti American-Exceptionalism view, since they both emphasize the historic wrongs done by the US from the Puritan era to today (though liberal Christianity in the late 1800's to WWI held deeply to American-Exceptionalism during the progressive era, and some still do).

In any case though, the reality of the role of religion in America's founding as a Republic is complex enough that each of these views have been able to rise up. So in each of them we see a little bit of truth (some more than others to be sure), but a good deal more myth in their narrative telling of America's origins ideologically and theologically. I'm sure I've oversimplified some of these issues in putting this together. If so, please call me out and explain where I've gone wrong. For further info on this topic, I highly recommend you visit some of the links on my right sidebar under the heading "Religion and Culture" where they deal with this topic in depth and quite well if I do say so myself.

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