Friday, August 16, 2013

The Beginning of My Reflections on the Worst of the Worst

So I have recently come into possession of a stack of books dealing with various aspects of the relationship between Christianity and politics. To be sure, I already possessed such a stack after several years of teaching and learning Christian political thought. The difference is, the books that I've collected so far are by-and-large a mix of classics of the discipline, books I've had assigned for coursework, and books that have been sent to me for review by publishers (this last category is by far the smallest). With certain notable (and terrible) exceptions, I have managed to avoid the worst of the "America is God's Country because We are So Good and Noble and Awesome" books. For that matter, I've managed to avoid many of the best of them. Until now.

On one level, I was tempted just to give this new stack of books away. Or throw them away. Or, I don't know, something. But after some thought I decided that this is probably a good opportunity for me to both try to be faithful to the blog (which has been let slide far too much this summer) and to get in touch with what the bulk of Christians in America seem to be reading. As I've noted on another blog, I really haven't encountered much of this vein of Christian thought. Now that I've taken a job on the edge of the Bible belt, I suspect it will only be helpful to take in a bit more of this reading.

It will also, I suspect, be a bit infuriating. Which is why as I slowly work through this stack of books (before giving them away) I hope to record some of the more throbbing-vein-inducing moments here for my own catharsis and the amusement of others.

The first book on the list? Under God by dc Talk's Toby Mac and Michael Tait with WallBuilders.
Honestly, the list of authors is enough to get a reaction before I've even cracked the cover.

Seriously, when I sit down to read a good book on Christian political thought, my very first thought is always "I wonder if that Christian band I was vaguely familiar with back in the early 90s has written anything about it yet?" Well, that question has been answered. That the book is written "with WallBuilders"--the organization headed by that guy who has even been disowned by a Christian publisher-- is just frosting on the cake.

So, without further ado, here we go!

[2 minute break]

Two paragraphs. That's how far I think I can get in this post, otherwise I truly will start ranting. Why you might ask?
...The American Revolution was truly revolutionary.
"Government of the people, by the people, for the people" was a very radical concept. No one could have dreamed the impact it would have. in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, one of the most profound ideals set forth was that 'all men are created equal.' Today, it is hard to truly understand how radical the introduction of that concept was. It helps to go back to the eighteenth century and gain a greater understanding of what the world was like. Kings and queens were the rulers and conquerors of the day. Justice and wealth was held in their hands. Our forefathers sought to take some of that tightly bound power and distribute it so that many who could never dream of hope and opportunity would find peace and prosperity through a freedom that was built upon the principles of God. (7)
It... would perhaps be too much of an exaggeration to say that every sentence cited here is complete bunk.
But every sentence cited here is complete bunk. (And I should point out that at this point I am speaking with my political scientist hat on, not yet explicitly as a Christian.)

So what's wrong with this opening salvo on the part of the author's of Under God? Leaving aside the fact that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is a quote not from the Declaration (as implied) but from good ol' Abe Lincoln four score and seven years later, first I have to point out that the idea that "all men are created equal" is by no means radical or an invention of Jefferson in the Declaration. There is a very long tradition of holding to the equality of men that comes both from pagan philosophy and from historic Christian theology (think of the Luther's priesthood of all believers as just one articulation of the Christian view of equality).

Second, the idea that prior to 1776 the world was governed by kings and queens who ruled with an iron fist and laughed while the peasants begged for a scrap of bread is simply silly and false. While it's true that George III was portrayed as a tyrant by the American revolutionaries, keep in mind that the bulk of the Declaration of Independence is dedicated to explaining that George is a tyrant because he has stripped the colonists of rights and freedoms that other Englishmen already had. In other words, the American Revolution did not start as an attempt to do something new, it started as an attempt to get back to traditional and established English freedoms. Of course, this isn't to say that there was nothing new about the American experiment--I don't want to go too far the other direction and claim that it was the same ol' thing all over again. But the implication that there was no freedom, justice, hope, peace, opportunity, prosperity, etc in the world prior to the American Revolution is simply absurd, and something which the citizens of the Dutch Republic, the various republics of the Swiss Confederation, and older states like Athens and the Roman Republic would find horribly offensive.

As for the last statement in the cited paragraph, that our forefathers wanted to take power from the kings and distribute it to the people... well, some of them did. Some of them did not. Alexander Hamilton, for example, at the Constitutional Convention proposed establishing a monarchy. (He may have been joking or trying to make an ironic point, historians aren't completely sure what was going on there.) John Adams was a fairly staunch defender of aristocratic ideals, and of course we should note that there is precious little popular involvement in the government actually set up by the Constitution itself. To be sure there were some Founding Fathers who were more or less dedicated to radically democratic ideals (Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to name a couple of the more well-known ones), but they by no means dominated the era. It's better to say that the Founders were a mixed bag of beliefs and ideas, which frankly is one of their greatest strengths. We have a very blended Founding, and we're the better for it.

The point of all of this isn't so much the fact that the history presented here is sketchy (though that is a concern), the point is that this sketchy history is being used to suggest that America and our political institutions hold a special place in the world as a force of good, freedom, prosperity, et al. and that we are somehow exempt from the general condition of all nations in the world. An agenda is being outlined by means of questionable history (and yes, I stole that idea from Thomas Kidd's blog).

And... and... this book is going to take me forever to get through at this rate. I could keep going, but I suspect it's best to save some energy for later entries.

Disclaimer: I am in no way questioning whether or not the authors of this or any other book that I cover are Christian. (Unless I do so explicitly.) I'm merely commenting on their political philosophy and historical interpretation. I won't repeat this disclaimer in the future, but please do know that it holds.

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