The Staying Power of Christian America: What is a Historian to Do?
A week or two ago I commented on the recent poll by Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center that found over half of Americans believe that the United States Constitution is a Christian document. Indeed, as John Turner has noted in his most recent post, the Christian Right, and particularly their view of American history, is alive and well.
What should historians think about such a survey? Some of them, like a prominent early American historian I spoke with recently about this matter, simply ignore such data. They write-off the Christian Right’s view of history from their elite perches in the ivory tower and return to their offices to continue writing their important new monograph on some subject that few average people care about. “There are no reputable historians who believe this stuff,” this scholar told me, as if such an authoritative assertion alone is all that is needed to dismiss the Christian Right’s historical errors.
While I agree that “no reputable historians” believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, I do not think this prominent historian’s blanket dismissal really gets us anywhere. It fails to take seriously, or even consider, the millions of Americans who actually do believe that America is a Christian nation and reveals just how detached some of us are from everyday life. At a time when public history is on the rise and historians are becoming more confident in their ability to educate mass audiences, why do these faulty views of the American founding still hold sway? In the 1980s, evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Peter Marshall, Francis Schaeffer, and John Whitehead, among others, began to use American history as a tool to promote their political and moral agendas. Shortly thereafter evangelical scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden published The Search for Christian America (1983) to challenge the Moral Majority’s view of the past. And according to most evangelical academics and historians, they dismantled it.
But while these three prominent evangelicals convinced a whole bunch of thoughtful believers that they had been duped by Falwell, Marshall, Schaeffer, and company, I wonder just how much of an impact this excellent book has had among ordinary evangelicals. When I say “ordinary evangelicals” I am referring to the history buffs in the pew who know just enough about the past to be dangerous.
While The Search for Christian America continues to be a valuable book (I use portions of it in my Age of the American Revolution course), it seem to have done very little to curb the Christian nation crowd. By the 1990s the Moral Majority had given way to the Religious Right and with it a whole new cast of so-called historians who were ready to carry the Christian nation torch. Enter David Barton, William Federer, and Newt Gingrich. Enter Tim LaHaye (who was known more in evangelical circles as the author of a book about sex than his now famous Left Behind novels) and D. James Kennedy (who was known for his books on personal evangelism), both established evangelical leaders who jumped on the Christian history bandwagon. All of these men wrote as if Noll, Hatch, and Marsden’s argument did not exist. A few years ago when Time named the most influential evangelicals in America, both Noll and Barton were on the list.
Thoughtful evangelicals, and especially evangelical historians, should be discouraged by the staying power of the Christian heritage movement, but how do they stem this revisionist tide? First they must admit that the Christian Right does a better job of promoting their view of the past. Second, they must do more to reach evangelical audiences. Let’s face it—the leaders of the Christian Right are better public historians than we are.
Granted, there have been a score of books trying to debunk this faulty view of history and a few of them do a pretty good job. Works by Randall Balmer, Michelle Goldberg, Laurence Moore and Issac Kramnick, Susan Jacoby, Brooke Allen, and Chris Hedges may be informative, but they all preach to the choir. They are screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history (among other things) written for people who get great pleasure from reading screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history. Most evangelicals who find these books and read them already agree with their anti-Christian nation arguments. In other words, they are not being read by the evangelicals who need to have their minds changed about how to interpret the Revolutionary-era. They are written instead to offer ammunition for the opponents of the Christian Right.
This then leads to the discussion I hope we can have on this blog. What is a historian to do? Should we care? How do we educate Christians who uphold this faulty view of the past? Is it possible? If so, then how?