Archive for George Marsden
Many of us have heard the argument that America needs to get back to its biblical (or Christian) roots which our founding fathers established. But it isn’t quite that simple. We have to ask this twofold question: what did our founding fathers think about the Bible and about Christianity? Noll, Hatch, and Marsden answer it in The Search for Christian America. Here are a few excerpts.
“It is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their colleagues. The difficulty arises because these brilliant leaders, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian. Virtually all of these great men had a profound belief in ‘the Supreme Judge of the world’ and in ‘the protection of Divine Providence,’ to use the words of the Declaration of Independence.”
“Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity – that, for example, Christ’s death atoned for sin, that the Bible was a unique revelation from God, or that the miracles recorded in Scripture actually happened. There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenents of orthodox Christianity [i.e. Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay]. …Most of the other great early leaders, however, did not share the Christian convictions of a Henry or Jay. The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth century Unitarians.”
“The conclusion must be that nearly every important person in America’s early political history had extensive experience with Scripture, even if many of them did not hold to traditional beliefs about the Bible, or to the beliefs which Christianity traditionally had derived from Scripture” (pp. 74-76).
“[America’s founding fathers] knew a lot about ‘Christian’ nations. Most of the European wars of the preceding centuries had some ‘Christian’ motivations. The American founders also knew a lot about Protestant Bible commonwealths; these were a major part of their recent British heritage. So, while the founders appropriated secularized versions of some Puritan ideas about the dangers of monarchy, they purposely chose not to set up a Bible-based republic” (p. 137).
It isn’t so easy to simply “go back” to America’s biblical and Christian roots. The roots aren’t biblical in the historic Christian sense of the term, nor are they Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Further, trying to make America a Christian nation would go against the intentions of our founding fathers. You’ll have to get the book if you want to wrestle with this topic: The Search for Christian America (Helmers & Howard: Colorado Springs, 1989).
A few days ago I promised to return to this outstanding book: The Search for Christian America. Here are a few paragraphs from the latter part of the book. These words will be a tough read for those of us schooled with textbooks that exaggerated the “Christian” influence in America’s formative years. I’m still amazed by the words found in America’s treaty with Islamic Tripoli in 1797 (don’t miss that below!).
“It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical world view, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation. In other words it is wrong to call for a return to ‘Christian America’ on two counts: First, for theological reasons – because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God’s chosen nation; second, for historical reasons, as we have seen – because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origins. Yet, this error is one of the most powerful ideas of our day; and on this confusion rest many of the calls to make war on secular humanism and to ‘restore’ the Bible as the sole basis for American law and government.”
“The Declaration of Independence, however, rests on a different view. It is based on an appeal to ‘self-evident’ truths or ‘laws of nature and nature’s god.’ The reference to God is vague and subordinated to natural laws that everyone should know through common sense. The Bible is not mentioned or alluded to. The Constitution of 1787 says even less concerning a deity, let alone Christianity or the Bible. The symbolism of the new government was equally secular. In fact, the United States was the first Western nation to omit explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross, from its flag and other early national symbols.”
“Further incidental evidence of the founders’ own views is the statement from a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli in 1797. This treaty was negotiated under Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams. The telling part is a description of religion in America: ‘As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen [i.e. Muslims]…, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.’”
“Why does this make a difference? Does it really matter if people hold to the mistaken view that America is, or was, or could become a truly Christian nation? Yes, it does matter. It matters because, if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error. This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life. Nor is this to minimize the seriousness of secularism. Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively” (p. 130-131).
I completely agree: Christians would most likely get a better hearing in the public square if we’d drop the “Return to Christian America” rhetoric and more accurately present the history of America’s beginnings. This book, The Search for Christian America, has convinced me of this. Did I mention that I highly recommend it?
Here’s a book that deserves to be brought back into our discussions and onto our reading lists: The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. It was first published in 1983 and then expanded in 1989. But the message is completely relevant for Christians today.
Here are some questions the book tackles: How “Christian” is America’s religious past? Is the “Christian Nation” concept harmful or helpful to effective Christian action in society? Was/is America God’s treasured nation among all nations? Should we try to “go back” to “Christian America?” What relationship does idolatry have with patriotism, if any? How is the First Great Awakening related to the American Revolution?
If those questions didn’t grab your attention, here’s the two-fold argument of the book (in the authors’ own terms):
“1) We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians can return. In addition, a careful study of history will also show that evangelicals themselves were often partly to blame for the spread of secularism in contemporary American life.”
“2) We feel also that careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture shows that the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (p. 17).
I’ll come back to this book later. For now, let me simply say that I highly recommend it. Though it flies in the face of many American evangelical beliefs, I believe it is a must-read for Christians living the U.S. The Search for Christian America will help the today’s church remain distinct from the world and able to engage culture in a wise, biblical, and prophetic way.
FYI, at the time of this post there are quite a few used copies on Amazon for less than $10 shipped. It’s certainly worth that! And my thanks go out to one of our readers for mentioning this book last week. I trust he’ll back up my recommendation!
The title of this book made me get it and read it: The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). It reminded me of a time I was at a Christian thrift shop and a 50+ year old woman was singing along to the CCM music playing in the store (the Christian version of Miley Cyrus or Green Day, though I forget which). What is the juvenilization of American Christianity? “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith” (p. 4).
Bergler makes an important and accurate observation here. His critique of youth ministry (starting way back in the 30′s and 40′s) is that it sometimes “pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers. For good or ill, American Christianity would never be the same” (p. 4). This book is basically a history of American youth ministry, which is less than 100 years old. Bergler discusses youth ministry from the 40′s to the 60′s, and shows how many of the philosophies of youth ministry back then are now part of the DNA of many churches and denominations. For those of you who have read some of Marsden’s work on 20th century American Christianity, you’ll see some parallels. Around 80% of the book is devoted to the history of youth ministry, which, I admit, wasn’t overly interesting to me since it was very detailed.
At the same time, it was fascinating to learn how youth ministry in the past is now embedded in the fabric of many American churches. I also thought it was telling to see how earlier youth ministry was aimed at patriotism and morals rather than doctrine and how it relates to the Christian life. Finally, Bergler made a connection that I should have made before: youth ministry in the past was largely about entertaining youth. Therefore it isn’t an accident that many churches today want to entertain the masses in a similar way to youth ministry of old: by baptizing secular culture to make it Christian.
To be sure, Bergler notes some positive aspects of youth ministry and some of the good youth ministries have done. From my perspective, I’m thankful when I see young people with a strong desire to serve the Lord. It’s refreshing! Yet, as Bergler shows, there are harmful aspects of much youth ministry. The last few pages of the book are probably the best, as Bergler brings his critiques together and then shows a way forward in youth ministry done biblically and toward Christian maturity. Here’s one example from the last pages.
“So juvenilization has made the process of finding, maintaining, and submitting to religious truth more problematic. And the faith that Americans choose is increasingly the faith of ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism.’ To put it simply, they continue to believe what they learned in adolescence. And more and more often, they hear the same messages as adults. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ matters. In other words, large numbers of Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality” (p. 224).
Obviously I recommend this to those of you who work with youth. Please get this book to help you avoid these juvenilization dangers. I’d also recommend it for pastors and elders who have talked in-depth about ministering to youth. Though the church I pastor doesn’t have a youth group, the book was still helpful to me because I do preach to youth and teach them Catechism and Bible lessons. The Juvenilization of American Christianity isn’t a manual for how to lead youth forward to maturity in the Christian faith, but it does show some common pitfalls to avoid. I’m confident it will help youth ministry in many ways.
Many aspects of today’s American hymnody are rooted in the 19th century revivals. This is a huge topic, of course, but to get a little glimpse I like how George Marsden writes about this in Fundamentalism and American Culture.
“The surge of revivalism associated with the rise of Charles Finney in the 1820s which developed in the ‘New School’ tradition certainly did not forsake intellect, but it did create new channels for emphasis on emotion throughout American evangelicalism. Sandra Sizer in her analysis of the rise of the gospel song in nineteenth-century America has suggested that Finney’s revivals marked the beginning of the attempt to build a new Christian community united by intense feeling. The focal point for the emphasis was the ‘social religious meeting,’ small groups gathered for prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and song. Witnessing, or testifying to one another about how God had transformed their lives, was an important way in which these communities built themselves up and provided emotional support.”
“Finney added emphasis on such meetings to his more-or-less conventional mass-preaching services, but by the time of the remarkable businessmen’s revival of 1857-1858 the awakening itself originated in noon hour prayer meetings which were just such ‘social religious meetings.’ Every new evangelical movement of this entire area, through the rise of fundamentalism and including the holiness, pentecostal, and premillennial movements, had a base in some form of ‘social religious’ gathering.”
“The revivals of Moody and Sanky, Sizer argues persuasively, in a sense applied to the principles of the smaller group meetings on a massive scale. The use of a song leader, which Sankey made a lasting part of evangelicalism, was a conspicuous means of building emotional ties. The most common theme was the distress of sin, to be relieved by a passionate surrender to the incredible love of Jesus. Hymns that told stories of prodigals reclaimed and the like made the song itself a kind of witnessing.”
“In contrast to eighteenth-century hymns like those in the influential collection of Isaac Watts, the focus of revivalist songs shifted from praise of the awful majesty of God and the magnitude of his grace revealed in Christ’s atoning work, to the emotions of those who encounter the Gospel. Similarly, Moody’s sermons virtually abandoned all pretense of following conventional forms of explicating a text, and were closer to ‘layman’s exhortation’ filled with touching anecdotes with an emotional impact comparable to that of personal testimony.”
There is more to it, but these are some of the theological, historical, and practical reasons why confessional Reformation churches (i.e. Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian) typically do not sing these songs, use song leaders, or give personal testimonies during worship services. In other words, we avoid these songs and worship techniques for several different reasons and not just to be “traditional” or “conservative.” I recommend Marsden’s book, Fundamentalism and American Culture if you want to dig deeper into hymnody and other aspects of American Christianity.