Evangelical histories and the development of Christian nationalism
When I reached into a box of books that had been stored, I pulled out a paperback from graduate school. A bit dusty, its pages yellowed with age, with the distinctive smell of old ink and paper, my copy of The Search for Christian America made me wince a little. The edition was dated 1989 — with an inscription “gift from George Marsden, July, 29, 1991” on the title page. This book, the “expanded edition,” was the updated version of the 1983 original. Marsden co-wrote Search with Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, a trinity of distinguished evangelical historians, as a corrective to the idea that America was a Christian nation.
The wince wasn’t from nostalgia — or the fact that it has been more than thirty years since Professor Marsden took that book from a shelf in his office at Duke and handed it to me. Instead, it came from the memory of the conversation that prompted the gift. On that summer day, we’d been talking about how evangelicals were promoting a misguided narrative of American history, one that would have political and social consequences we could barely imagine three decades ago.
“What a long time,” I said, as I fingered the brittle pages, even though I was now talking only to myself. “What a long time we’ve been pushing back on Christian nationalism.”
* * * * *
Of course, we didn’t call it Christian nationalism then. There certainly had been a few reactionaries in American religious life that had actually considered themselves “Christian nationalists,” mostly during the Great Depression. But Marsden, Noll, and Hatch were pressing back against a slightly different phenomenon, something perhaps better called “Christian nation-ism.”
The Search for Christian America was first published in 1983 in response to a trend then emerging in evangelical churches. Since the early 1970s, conservative evangelicals had been growing nervous about America’s future. They were angry about court cases challenging racial discrimination in their institutions; they feared feminism and the threat of the Equal Rights amendment and abortion; they worried that the end of school prayer meant increasing hostility against religion in public education; they disliked criticism of the military and the Vietnam War; and they wondered if Richard Nixon’s downfall had been engineered by an activist liberal media.
Evangelicals felt some relief when pious Baptist Jimmy Carter became president, but his positions on feminism, human rights, international relations, and environmentalism disappointed and discouraged the most conservative of their co-religionists — and all this eventually led to the creation of the Moral Majority and rise of the religious right.
* * * * *
This political story is well known, even in secular circles. But what is far less well-known is the fight over evangelical history that occurred in tandem with the development of the religious right. In the same years that conservative evangelicals were organizing around particular issues, they were rewriting American history to match their political aspirations.
Marsden, Noll, and Hatch pointed out that during the Bicentennial year of 1976 evangelical publishers turned out patriotic histories, releasing books like America: God Shed His Grace on Thee; One Nation Under God; and Faith, Stars and Stripes. These books served audiences eager for visions of a godly and goodly past in the middle of the cynical and hedonistic 1970s. In 1977, a year after these Bicentennial-inspired volumes, however, a book appeared that would wind up being one of the most influential histories of the late twentieth century: The Light and the Glory (God’s Plan for America), 1492-1793 by Peter Marshall and David Manuel.
The Light and the Glory was the first in a three-volume set that told American history “from God’s point of view,” and revealed the nation to be divine in conception, guidance, and mission — telling the story in dramatic and compelling fashion without complexity and with moral certainty. The series also came in a children’s version, and was used in churches and Christian schools (often as the required textbook for high school students) across the nation.
Although sales figures are hard to come by (evangelical books are distributed through channels not tracked by traditional publishing tools), it is estimated that more than million copies were sold (there are good reasons to believe the number is much higher). Sales of the continuously in-print volumes remain strong. And, to ensure its influence, an oddball former youth pastor from Texas with a quirky interest in American history named David Barton picked up The Light and repackaged it for evangelical pastors to use in congregations with video, distributing its ideas through an organization called WallBuilders that has influenced the entirety of contemporary evangelicalism (I’m not kidding) and many right-wing fellow travelers. That’s the power of bad history with a brilliant marketer.
Compare that with Howard Zinn’s influential volume, A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, which has sold two million copies to date. While The Light and the Glory is basically an optimistic and providential account of America as a Christian nation, A People’s History tracks the failures, tyrannies, and oppressions of American history and those who resisted through protest and revolutionary impulses. Indeed, one only need open the first pages to see the differences. Light opens by describing Christopher Columbus as the handsome, blue-eyed “Christ-bearer” to the New World; People’s History portrays him as a genocidal maniac.
I often wonder if these two histories, published almost simultaneously, serve as the backdrop to what would become the America we’ve inherited today. Millions of people reading and believing The Light and the Glory, while millions of others embraced the progressive and critical accounts of Zinn — it is hard to imagine those two groups of readers sharing any kind of vision of a good society, much less to agree upon the basic facts of the past.
That speculation may be hard to prove, but there’s no doubt that the providential history project of the evangelicals was wildly successful. Despite my fondness for The Search for Christian America (a book I used in most courses I taught at the evangelical college where I spent the first four years of my career), its sales probably never topped a couple-ten thousands. Nuanced critiques like Marsden’s — and there have been many other such books in the last thirty years — have been dwarfed by The Light and the Glory, whose basic ideas of faith and history have been embraced by two generations of conservative evangelicals as gospel truth. I’ve been in evangelical homes where The Light and the Glory sits on a shelf next to the Bible.
* * * * *
In the 1990s, providential histories like Light seemed vaguely quaint, a kind of intellectual relic of 1950s nostalgia, and something no one outside of the limited world of conservative evangelicals took seriously. I read most of these histories twenty or more years ago, and I remember thinking them shallow and uninformed, occasionally corny and funny, and not really dangerous. My main concern was how intellectually gullible evangelicals were believing that God specifically chose America and directed its ways with a divine hand — and that you could pass this idea off as real history. Mostly, it was disingenuous. And that lack of honesty inhibited the ability of evangelicals to deal with the systemic failures and injustices of American history, especially regarding race.
Indeed, American shortcomings — usually of the personal morality sort — were mentioned in these evangelical histories. But failures were always blamed on a lack of faith. Like Puritan preachers launching jeremiads at lax congregations, providential historians decried social sinfulness as the result of spiritual rebellion on the part of a stiff-necked people. That demanded repentance.
These historians didn’t like the 1960s — the decade that embodied America’s decline into sin — and they believed that God was punishing the nation for embracing anything seeming to originate in these unholy years. Even with such a bleak view of recent American history, democracy wasn’t the problem. Democracy was seen as a gift of grace to be maintained by a citizenry shaped by godly education and widespread evangelism, in effect, democracy was an outgrowth of the founders’ Christian faith. Thus, the methods to “fix” post-60s America were as old as the Republic itself — revivalism and recommitment to God’s covenant with his chosen people.
That’s the “Christian nation-ism” promoted in these histories — the idea that America was called by God, and by virtue of a sacred covenant, is blessed when it is faithful and suffers decline when it turns away. It is about salvation, sin, and repentance on a communal level. It is an old notion, one found in the Hebrew Bible, and applied to the United States.
But something changed. Because the covenant seemed to fail.
Eventually, evangelical solutions were no longer sufficient for those schooled in this providential version of history. They had trusted that their own faithfulness could restore the nation to its divine destiny; they had believed their witness would convert the whole populace. Through the 1970s and 1980s, their churches had grown and their political power had increased. They seemed to be winning, but America was less faithful than ever. From their perspective, society had gotten worse. Had God deserted them?
It is a big problem. If you believe in providential history, and you are doing the right things yet nothing gets better, how do you make sense of it?
America had became more religiously diverse (which is a threat to their entire view of history), women achieved greater leadership in society, gay and lesbian people pressed for civil rights, sexual mores changed rapidly, and abortion continued on unabated. The evangelical presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did little to stop the tide of secular infidelity; and the election of Barack Obama convinced evangelicals that democracy itself was a problem.
Revivalism was not enough. Repentance was not enough. A holy revolution against a flawed democracy might be necessary to cast off tyranny and restore the authority and order of godly patriarchs — like the founders themselves had done. In a few decades, optimistic providence became jeremiad and turned into divinely-sanctioned rebellion.
The Christian nation-ism of the earlier histories opened the way for the development of a radical Christian nationalism, the full-throated belief that only Christians (of a certain sort) are the true, faithful Americans whose destiny is to exercise biblical rule over the country. Indeed, fidelity to both the Bible and America demands a kind of anti-democratic revolution, a sacred rebellion to restore the covenant that God made with his people in this land.
What started off as bad history wound up with terrible historical consequences, and American democracy is paying the price.
* * * * *
When it comes to actual history, things don’t just emerge full-blown. Donald Trump didn’t create Christian nationalism (even if the secular media didn’t discover it until the last year!). He inherited and exploited it. Few people imagined that a radicalization of providential history might unfold. Marsden, Noll, and Hatch, perceptive thinkers that they are, saw the threat as follows:
We were attempting to introduce a note of realism to tone down a romanticized view of America’s Christian heritage. . . Profession of Christian principles, including conservative political views, is no guarantee of Christian results. . . The real mistake is in overdramatizing the historical process, imputing historical change to some direct agency, and patching all evidence into a neat story that vindicated those priorities which we hold dear, which seem to us self-evident. . . The complexity and irony of history blast all our cherished notions and pet theories.
Marsden, Noll, and Hatch seemed to expect that introducing complexity, irony, and realism would rectify misguided evangelical history and make it a more nuanced, humble enterprise. But those histories proved resistant to correction. That lack of complexity — and the complete absence of irony — in providential histories would mutate into evangelical Trumpism and the construction of a politicized theological history completely devoid of facts and evidence. Marsden, Noll, and Hatch spoke to the academy; Marshall and Manuel to evangelical pastors and megachurch congregations. It wasn’t even a fair fight. Apparently, complexity and irony aren’t much of a match for bad history.
One critic understood these possibilities at the time in starker terms. In the 1970s, theologian Dorothee Soelle warned that Christofascism would be the logical conclusion of American fundamentalism, an argument she based (at least in part) on history. Marsden, Noll, and Hatch didn’t allow for such alarmist possibilities. Their allegiances to evangelicalism may have clouded their ability to identify that threat. Certainly, the providential histories they critiqued contained the seeds of the Christian nationalism that would emerge in evangelicalism and reshape American politics.
Whether bad history shaped the bad politics of white evangelicalism or bad politics contributed to the bad history evangelicals are now trying to inflict on the rest of us — by taking over school boards, instituting tip lines to report teachers, and banning books contrary to their providential view of America — it is hard to tell. But bad history and bad politics go together, and the combination winds up being profoundly dangerous when God is in the mix.
And Dorothee Soelle was right.
1. At this precise moment of history
With Goody-two-shoes running for Congress
We are testing supersonic engines
To keep God safe in the cherry tree.
When I said so in this space last Thursday
I meant what I said: power struggles. . .
11. Voice of little sexy ventriloquist mignonne:
“Well I think all of us are agreed and sincerely I my-
self believe that honest people on both sides have got
it all on tape. Governor Reagan thinks that nuclear
wampums are a last resort that ought not to be re-
sorted.” (But little mignonne went right to the point
with: “We have a commitment to fulfill and we better
do it quick.” No dupe she!)
All historians die of the same events at least twice.
— Thomas Merton, from “At This Precise Moment of History”
It is a time in which no man is extremely wondrous
It is a time in which rock stupidity
outsteps the 5th Column as the sole enemy in America
It is a time in which ignorance is a good Ameri-cun
ignorance is excused only where it is so
it is not so in America
Man is not guilty Christ is not to be feared
I am telling you the American Way is a hideous monster
eating Christ making Him into Oreos and Dr. Pepper
the sacrament of its foul mouth
I am telling you the devil is impersonating Christ in America
— Gregory Corso, from “The American Way”
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BOOKING FOR SPRING 2023 and BEYOND
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