Speaking of Using History

Peter Leithart comments on the way that American Protestants have immanentized the eschaton:

In the introduction to What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, Daniel Walker Howe quotes an 1850 Methodist women’s magazine’s ecstasies over the telegraph: “This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this might influence. . . .” The magazine continued:

The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian. . . . Wars will cease from the earth. . . . Then shall come to pass the millennium.

Americans never change. A century and a half from now, historians will be able to dredge up quotations very like this from our own day, banging the same drums: The conflation of Christianity with civilization, specifically American republican civilization, and the corresponding hint that the rest of the world is divided into barbarians and semi-barbarians; the enthusiasm for “spreading democracy” (here republicanism); the faith in technology, which could be a plug for the World Wide Web; the religious tenor of the whole statement, reminiscent of Bush’s abortive “Operation Absolute Justice” campaign or the Obamessianism of 2008; the prediction of a technology-driven American globalization.

Problem is, isn’t this what Eusebius — ahem — did with Constantine?

But lest the neo-Puritans take too much glee, just remember what a mixed bag the Puritans can be for making us feel comfortable with ourselves:

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentences was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. . . .

[The Puritans] found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts. . . . Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause. (David Hackett Fischer, Albions Seed, 91, 93)

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3 thoughts on “Speaking of Using History

  1. The Howe book that is discussed by Leithart is an excellent read, maybe the best work in the Oxford series. There is an interesting back story behind the book, discussed at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/10/29/vast-designs

    Suffice it to say that there is more than one way to view the history of America from the conclusion of the war of 1812 to the commencement of the Mexican War. How religion and such things as attitudes towards sexual conduct fit the picture is a subject of lively dispute.

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  2. If Jindal does it, bad; if Eusebius?

    In his closing at one of the second-tier GOP Presidential debate, Governor Bobby Jindal expressed a perspective that is common among conservative Christians: “The reality is the idea of America is slipping away. As Christians, we believe that the tomb is empty. As Americans, we believe that our best days are always ahead of us, and they can be again. We must win this election. We cannot allow Hillary Clinton to take us down this path towards socialism – further down this path. I’ve got the courage to apply our conservative principles. I can’t do it alone. With your help, with God’s grace, we can save the idea of America before it’s too late.”

    To my mind, this expresses the mentality that Christians need to purge. The easy movement from the fear that America is slipping away, to the gospel of resurrection, to the belief that America can be revived and saved is breathtaking. Though Jindal does not say it explicitly, he implies that the resurrection includes some promise for America, some divine pledge that the idea of America will not slip away.

    What’s good for America is also good for Christian Roman Empire.

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