Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Christian Nation Thesis -- an Attempt to Reconstruct a Deconstructed Myth:

Brad Hart, my co-blogger at American Creation shares with us part of his Master's thesis that he's working on. The idea is to portray the "Christian America" movement as an "imagined community" (after Professor Benedict Anderson's book "Imagined Communities"). Another co-blogger Tom Van Dyke, in the comments, voices his dislike of Hart's thesis. Van Dyke asserts Hart's thesis "rests on the assertion that the Christian nation argument is a discontinuity from American history, a new phenomenon, and as you clearly assert, built on a lie ['rewriting history']."

Van Dyke accurately points out similar arguments have been made for a long time. See for instance Jaspar Adams'. Van Dyke could have added to that the Holy Trinity case (1892), BF Morris' "The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States," and George Washington the Christian. Hell, TVD could have invoked Parson Weems' revisionist account of George Washington.

The problem is the Christian Nation idea is a myth. It was debunked by modern scholars and, since the 1970s, figures like Peter Marshall and David Barton are trying to "reconstruct" what has been "deconstructed." But ultimately the "imagined community" of "Christian America" has very old roots. What might make for an interesting BOOK (certainly too much for a paper) is to trace the origins of the Christian America idea, show when and how it was deconstructed, examine the attempt to "reconstruct" the myth and compare the difference between what was "deconstructed" and what Barton et al. are trying to "reconstruct."

If you listen to Barton et al. speak, modern scholars (PhDs in the academy) are the chief enemy. They are the "revisionists"! Well, no. For the most part (as I see it) they are right and he is wrong. Though they tend to have their own mythical pitfalls as well (i.e., the Founders were a bunch of Deists). The hard truth for those who believe in sacred cows is sometimes/often the debunkers or deconstructors are in the right. There was a brilliant episode of The Simpson's with Donald Sutherland that played this angle up.

As Allan Bloom taught, philosophy itself is about debunking sacred cows. Socrates was guilty as charged.

To illustrate this dynamic, there is a figure named James Renwick Willson, whom scholars mistakenly believe to be Bird Wilson (son of Founder James Wilson) who, in 1831 gave a sermon terming all of the Presidents elected thus far [Washington to Jackson] "infidels" and not more than "unitarians." While I can't speak for the accuracy of Jackson, Rev. Willson was probably right about Washington through JQ Adams. They were not more than "unitarians" and the "orthodox" considered that theology to be a softer form of "infidelity." But it was not the respected Bird Wilson who gave this sermon without controversy (as many scholars mistakenly report). Rather it was the unrespected Calvinist covenanter (folks who disagreed with the US Constitution because it contained no covenant to the Triune God) James Renwick Willson who was burned in effigy for that sermon! But like Socrates and his disbelief in what we now know to be false gods of the Greek City, Willson was right. The people just couldn't handle the truth.

I need not touch upon the controversy whether it's a good thing to debunk mythical sacred cows. The Simpson's episode with Donald Sutherland came down on the Straussian side that it was better for the people of Springfield to believe in the noble lie that Jebidiah Springfield was a true hero and a good man. But the Christian Nation idea has already been buried by scholars. The question, from my end, is whether we support the efforts of Peter Marshall, David Barton et al. to resurrect the myth and to that I say Hell no.

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