Saturday, November 23, 2013

Setting the Record Straight...

Alternet has put up a useful article on "5 Christian Right Delusions and Lies about History" that's worth a response. This piece is interesting for a couple of reasons, first because it shows how the other side sees (and often stereotypes) us; second because it shows the kind of image we have admittedly helped to create for ourselves; and third it gives us (well, me at least) a chance to set the record straight.

Of course, even before doing that, we have to acknowledge that there certainly are Christians who believe these things. That is not an admission that Christians are always lying and delusional about history. There are atheists who believe that all Christians are immoral and awful people, but the fact that some atheists believe something so blatantly untrue does not discredit all atheists. There are a lot of Christians, and between us we hold a whole host of diverse historical views. And while I certainly don't claim to represent all of them, I at least hope to show that Christians can be reasonable and honest when it comes to understanding the past.

Below are my responses as a Christian to the claims about how we see history:

Claim 1: "Joe McCarthy was a good guy. A new and extremely toxic myth is beginning to percolate in on the Christian right: Insisting that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a paranoid alcoholic who saw communist subversives in every corner, was actually an upstanding guy fighting for God and country. In 2003, Ann Coulter published a book she claims vindicates McCarthy..."

Response: Leaving aside the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, Ann Coulter speaks for no Christian group or denomination, I am quite happy to admit that Joe McCarthy did some awful things (sorry, I'm too ignorant of that aspect of history to speak to his personal life-he may or may not have been a "paranoid alcoholic", but that's more than I can say).
I am, however, equally happy to admit that the goal of fighting communism was (and is) an admirable one.
Does that mean Joe McCarthy was a good person? Of course not. Good general ends do not justify evil specific means.
I'd like to think that whether Christian or atheist, we can simultaneously reject McCarthyism AND communism without even necessarily bringing religion into it.

Claim 2: "What the Founding Fathers believed. For people who downright deify our Founding Fathers, the religious right is really hostile to accepting them as they actually were, which is not particularly religious, especially by the standards of their time. But David Barton, a revisionist "historian" whose name comes up again and again in these kinds of discussions, has spread the belief far and wide in the Christian right that the Founders were, in fact, fundamentalist Christians who are quite like the ones we have today."

Response: Really, I should direct you to my recent series rejecting much of the terrible history put forward by Barton-like writers, but even without turning to specific historical points we can hopefully all admit that there are good and bad historians on each side of this argument. Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all Christian are just as wrong as those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all secular Enlightenment thinkers (and hence precursors to modern atheist humanists).
Moreover, there are reputable and talented historians who are Christian and reputable and talented historians who are atheist. When it comes to the American Founding, we should search out those who are reputable and talented historians on each side of the issue rather than the ones who sacrifice accuracy to ideology. As I've noted elsewhere, Christians above all others have a vested interested in historical honesty and accuracy--our faith depends upon it!

Claim 3: "God’s protection. If you believe the lie that the Founders intended this to be a religious nation and that secularism is only a recent development, it’s not much of a leap to decide next that God, in his anger, has turned his back on the United States. And therefore that bad things are happening to us because he doesn’t protect us anymore."

Response: Again, there are certainly Christians who believe this, but there are also any number of Christians who don't. If you want to read a good book by three solidly Evangelical scholars (well-known and academically solid ones) who lead the Christian charge against this position, I'm happy to endorse The Search for a Christian America by Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch.

And I suppose in passing that I should point out that there's a bigger problem here. At the end of the day, Claim 3 is not really a historical question at all. Claiming that the reasons God does or does not do something in history are not ultimately historical questions. We are told what God is doing (that, in some sense, is the full definition of history), but we are certainly not told why. When Christians say "God has done X in history because of Y;" and when atheists reply by saying "no he hasn't!" (Or even "there's not God at all, so the Christian statement is meaningless.) Both have stepped outside of the realm of history and into theology and metaphysics. And while there is certainly a connection between those fields, I would suggest that on some level both sides are making categorical errors.

Claim 4: "Roman civilization. The Christian right doesn’t just like to lie about our own history; they lie about other nations, too. A popular theory on the right is that the Roman Empire “collapsed” because growing decadence and liberalism caused people to, I don’t know, be too busy screwing to govern. It’s always a little hazy, but the formula is standard: Romans started having a bunch of sex, stuff fell apart, warning for America."

Response: The great historian Edward Gibbon--certainly no Christian!--wrote in his masterpiece The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the cause of the fall of Rome was... moral decline. Specifically, he argued that the immoral Christians distracted the virtuous pagans from the business of government with their obscure theological debates, and so the Empire fell. I find this argument endlessly fascinating, if ultimately uncompelling. Does this, however, mean that all secular humanists believe that Christianity caused the fall of Rome? Of course not.
That's a fairly superficial response, but on even a closer analysis we can see that to believe that this is how Christians view the fall of Rome is to be fundamentally ignorant of Christian history and theology. The definitive text on the subject was written by someone who was there: Augustine's City of God. In this book Augustine--the greatest theologian since the writing of the New Testament--says explicitly that Rome did not fall because of immorality. Or at least, it did not fall because it got less moral--it rose to power and then fell for exactly the same reasons that every other nation does: because of God's mysterious providence. When I said above that we can't know why God does things the way He does in history, I was really just cribbing from Augustine's book. God's actions are not dominated or driven by human morality or immorality--heaven help us if that ever becomes the case!
Again, I'm not saying that there aren't Christians who make this argument. I am saying that it's not the traditional or even the dominant modern one.

Claim 5: "French revolution. One problem with characterizing the American revolution as Christian instead of secular is that there was another one shortly thereafter, built on the same basic ideals, that was undeniably secular due to the aggressive attacks on Catholic power. If the French were so secular, how could the Americans not be? The answer to the conundrum is to lie and claim there was some kind of gulf between the ideals of the French Revolution and the American Revolution."

Response: While I confess I don't follow the modern Christian political right as much as I should, I don't know that I've seen a groundswell of hatred for the French Revolution coming from Evangelical popular writers. (That's more of a paleoconservative concern anyway--a demographic which is sadly lacking in Christian thinkers.)

If there is, well then this might be a case of "a pox on both your houses." To say that the difference between the Revolutions comes down to a question of being Christian vs. being atheist (as the article claims Christians believe) is wrong; but so is claiming that the French and American revolutions are really driven by the same spirit. After all, whatever it might eventually become, the American Revolution kicks off when American colonists believe that their rights as British subjects are being violated. And to the best of my knowledge, no one (Christian or otherwise) has made the patently silly claim that such was the origin of the French Revolution.
This isn't to say the revolutions were unrelated (Thomas Paine being a key connection), but it is to say that there's more complexity here than either side tends to realize. For more discussion on this, traditionalist conservative writers are where you want to go, not modern Evangelicals.

I suspect that one reply to these comments will be "yes Coyle, you may not believe these things, but all those stupid Christians out there do. And really, the fact that you hold these opinions suggests that you might not be a very good Christian in the first place."
I suppose the first statement might be true, and the second one certainly is true (if we're talking holiness). After all, as I noted above there are a lot of Christians out there who believe a whole host of things. But, I think it's a bit problematic to point at the extremes of, say, the Tea Party and then try to tie that to all right-leaning Christians. There are those sorts, to be sure. But there's also a hefty number of agrarians (like some of the folks at Front Porch Republic); thoughtful postmoderns (like the folks at Postmodern Conservative); and throughout academia who are doing the hard work of trudging through history for the benefit of the church and the world alike. And, well, I'm just not convinced that all of these small movements taken in the aggregate are the minority. They're not necessarily organized, and they're not all concerned with the same issues, but they're also not small in number.

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