Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Marshall, Lillback, and Washington:

Peter Marshall is a notable promoter of the "Christian America" myth. He, along with co-author David Manuel, wrote a classic in that idiom entitled The Light and the Glory. Here is how evangelical scholar Dr. Gregg Frazer of The Master's College describes it in his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University:

It became the classic text of that camp. Its historiography is abominable; it is a collection of speculations, suppositions, personal musings, and "insights" with little or no proof or documentation for extraordinary claims. p. 38.

And in this post Marshall informs us:

I have been spending the entire winter working on a major revision and updated version of our first book, The Light and the Glory. The publisher has wanted a second edition of the book for some time, and it now looks as if that will become a reality by the spring of 2009.

How nice.

Marshall must have taken some of the scholarly criticism to heart. He admits he's revising the book and removing past errors, seemingly similar to the way David Barton revised his The Myth of Separation removed the bogus "unconfirmed quotations," and renamed the book Original Intent.

The Christian America camp seems to be of two minds regarding the secular academy. On the one hand they recognized academia is biased against them and they tend to write off (that is not take seriously) anything an academician with a PhD has to say and talk only to one another in their "closed off" world. Yet, that strategy, which has been their dominant one, ultimately resulted in egg on their faces. The facts are the facts and the historical record is the historical record. And reasonable inquiring religiously conservative minds don't want to be sold a bill of goods or told tall tales.

The second strategy is to engage secular academicians on their own terms, using their own high standards of evidence. This is what religious conservatives must do if they want to speak "truth to power," truly feel as though they are doing so, and not just sheltering themselves in their own little (it's actually not so little) world.

There is also a third strategy and that's for religious conservatives (or scholars sympathetic to their views) to be part of the prestigious secular academy and engage secular scholars on their own turf, in their own journals and using their own prestigious academic publishers. This is easier said than done given that religious conservatives do not abound in the secular academy which tends to be very suspicious of their ideas. Yet, figures like Philip Hamburger, Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, and Gary Scott Smith occupy or have occupied prestigious positions in academia and have published notable works of scholarship sympathetic to religious conservatism at Harvard, NYU, Princeton, and Oxford University Presses respectively. Much of this work has been quite good in my opinion.

The "Christian America" idea really doesn't get much play in the scholarly world of academia. And even of the sources I just named, though they have written conservative polemics, none seems to embrace the Christian America view outright, like Peter Marshall, David Barton or William Federer have. (Although Hamburger et al. have made serious impacting arguments against the concept of "separation of church and state" as put forth by the Supreme Court and secular scholars; Hamburger for instance has been cited by the Supreme Court numerous times).

Peter Lillback's 1200 book on George Washington's faith, arguing he was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, is in category #2. It's published, not by a prestigious academic publisher, but by his own company Providence Forum Press. But it seeks to engage secular academicians according to their own strict, skeptical standards.

Lillback does, in my opinion, a great job digging into the primary sources and is well informed on what leading scholars have to say on George Washington's religion. And he clearly shows Washington wasn't a "Deist" in the strict, Thomas Paine sense of the term, as some have gone so far to argue. However, he didn't need to write a 1200 page book to demonstrate this. Michael and Jana Novak did so in less than 300. And as with the Novaks' book, he fails to convincingly show that Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian and offers some weak, hair-brained answers against to the scholarly doubts of Washington's orthodoxy.

Some notable scholars like Robert P. George, John Dilulio and Rodney Stark originally promoted Lillback's book. But the more secular or moderate minded scholars of religion and the Founding really haven't engaged Lillback as Gordon Wood engaged Michael Novak. One notable exception is Peter Henriques of George Mason University who wrote an outstanding biography of George Washington debated Lillback and Jana Novak at the at the Constitutional Center in Philadelphia with John Dilulio moderating. I've never publicly blogged about this before. The Constitution Center had Dilulio, Lillback and Novak lined up and needed someone in a pinch for the other side, and it was almost me! I got an email from them with an invite shortly after Crooks and Liars linked to one of my posts on Lillback and Washington's religion. (This shows that blogging, if you are good, leads to real world opportunities. After reading one of my posts, Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, asked me to write a Briefly Noted book review on James H. Hutson's book of quotations. Now the back of the paperback edition published by Princeton University Press features my name in a blurb.) Needless to say, they ended up getting Henriques who was far more qualified to argue that position. I would have felt extremely out of place at this point in my career. I was in email correspondence with Dr. Henriques shortly before the event, and I'm pretty sure he didn't know much about Lillback's work. I warned him that Lillback's book was 1200 pages and his arguments at times seemed Johnny Cochran-like.

In the about two years since Lillback's book has been out I really haven't seen many scholarly journals or secular publications review the book. Outside of "Christian America" circles, the book seems to be mostly ignored. But the Christian Heritage sites like WorldNetDaily, Coral Ridge, American Vision, and many other places have been making the most out of Lillback's book, as though they finally have a work that "settles" the matter, one that truly speaks "truth to power."

For instance, as Peter Marshall informs us about his updated version of The Light and the Glory:

In the course of adding sizeable chunks of material I have been doing quite a bit of new research into the life of George Washington, and particularly the issue that furnishes the title for this commentary – was he a Christian?


In our 1977 work, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and I quoted some prayers supposedly written by Washington in his own handwriting which were titled “Daily Sacrifice.” They had turned up in Philadelphia in 1891 among some items offered for auction by descendants of Washington. These prayers were couched in orthodox Christian language – for example, “Wash away my sins in the immaculate blood of the Lamb” – and were made up of whole sentences from the original Anglican prayer book. We had used these as proof of Washington’s Christianity, since Deists didn’t believe in the blood atonement of Christ. However, these prayers will not be in the new edition of The Light and the Glory, because Peter A. Lillback, in his recent magnificent study of Washington’s spirituality, entitled Sacred Fire, quotes historian Rupert Hughes’s point that the tone of these prayers is quite contrary to Washington’s writing style, “as foreign as if they were written in Greek. There is not a misspelled word, not a touch of incorrect grammar, not a capitalized noun or other emphatic word except the titles of the deity.” (This is unlike Washington in every respect). Of greatest importance is the fact that the handwriting doesn’t match Washington’s. Rupert gives the details, saying “The impossibility of the work being in Washington’s hand should be apparent to the most casual comparison.”

So Marshall (and his co-author Manuel) are following Peter Lillback's lead and finally letting go of the spurious George Washington Prayer Book, "The Daily Sacrifice." Instead it seems Marshall, after Lillback, will try to argue his case from the actual historical record. The record does, in my opinion, show Washington not to be a "deist" in the Thomas Paine sense of the term and to be very "religion friendly." However it fails to demonstrate Washington was an orthodox Christian.

Consider, Marshall (again after Lillback) can find only one place in Washington's words that seem to speak in overtly orthodox Christian language.

During the five years of the War for Independence the Continental Congress issued at least sixteen separate calls for days of prayer and humiliation or thanksgiving, depending on how the war was going. (There were more of the former than the latter!) And they were explicit in their Christian doctrine. The one dated November 27, 1779 includes “our gracious redeemer,” the “light of the gospel,” “the light of Christian knowledge,” and the “Holy Spirit.” None of these phrases would have been used by Deists, yet this language was employed by the supposedly Deist Founding Fathers of the Continental Congress! As a matter of fact, Deists never saw any value in prayer, since they believed that God was impersonal and uninvolved with His creation anyway. Washington happily signed these and passed them on to the army’s chaplains to be put into practice.

The problem is the one dated November 27, 1779 was not Washington's words but Congress's. In the thousands of pages of Washington's public speeches and private writings where he speaks of God and Providence hundreds of times, over and over again, you never see Washington using words like "Father," "Son" and "Holy Spirit" or refer to Jesus as "Redeemer." That Lillback, Marshall et al. could not find such overt expressions of Christian orthodoxy in Washington's own private writings and speeches but had to quote from a Congressional Proclamation that Washington reproduced for his troops is quite telling. When it comes to serious proof of Washington's Trinitarian orthodoxy there is no there there.

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