What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

John Fea responds to my post that wondered about his ongoing criticism of David Barton, Donald Trump, and the evangelicals who support the POTUS. As convenient as social media is (are?) for carrying on discussions, this one may be bordering on excess.

The nub of the disagreement seems to be the degree to which Christianity should inform judgments about secular politics (I sure hope John agrees that the U.S. is a secular government — it sure isn’t Throne and Altar Christendom). But even behind this question is one about Christianity itself. What kind of religion is Christianity and what are its political aspects?

John’s own religious convictions seem to veer. In one case, he objects to my raising the question of virtue signaling, that by opposing the “right” kinds of bad things, he shows he is not that “kind” of evangelical.

Hart implies that my convictions are not really convictions, but a clever ploy to show people that I am “not that kind of evangelical.” I will try not to be offended. And yes, Hart is correct. Indeed, some of my evangelical readers do understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton U. I also think that many of my non-evangelical readers and non-Christian readers who may not have understood the difference between these schools have learned from reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home that the world of evangelical higher education is more diverse than they originally assumed. But I also get new readers every day. If my experience is any indication, many folks out there still don’t understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton University. I hope my blog will teach people that evangelicals are not all the same when it comes to their approach to higher education or politics.

If John has to try not to be offended, I must have offended. My bad. But don’t Christians generally worry about posturing, pride, self-righteousness? Not much these days. And that could be a problem with a certain kind of Christianity, no matter how right in its public interventions, that comes across and being more moral than others. Jesus warned about public piety in the Sermon on the Mount. As a self-acknowledged Christian, should not John be thankful for someone who warns him about the dangers of moral preening?

But John retaliates kind of by locating me in the religious backwaters of Reformed Protestantism:

I should also add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a Reformed Christian blog, a paleo-conservative blog, or a denominational (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) blog. In this sense, it is different than Old Life.

He is broad while Old Life is narrow. But then, even though I am narrowly Reformed (agreed), he faults me also for being secular.

I realize that the kind of approach to government I am espousing here is different from the kind of secularism Hart has written about in his book A Secular Faith: Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. According to one synopsis of the book, Hart believes that “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” (This, I might add, is the same kind of thinking put forth by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress).

In the end, I think Hart’s warning about mixing church and state is important. You should read A Secular Faith. I read it, enjoyed it, and learned much from it. I also agreed with much of it. I just don’t go as far as Hart in my secularism. This apparently makes me a Christian nationalist.

John does not try to make sense of being narrowly Reformed in church life and broadly secular in politics. His Christianity simply faults me for either being too narrow on religion or too secular on politics. This makes me wonder if John has thought much about two-kingdom theology, whether from Lutheran, Reformed, or Roman Catholic sources. If he had 2k in his tool kit, he might understand that his own evangelical approach to national politics very much follows the play book of neo-evangelical leaders from the 1940s, who followed the national politics (though with revivals thrown in) of the mainline churches. In both cases, ecumenicity, not being narrow in religion, was a way to build coalitions across denominations that would preserve or build (depending on the timing) a Christian America. Now of course, America is a good thing. But to look at the church or Christianity through the lens of its capacity to help the nation is one more instance of immanentizing the eschaton. In other words, you make Christianity (a global faith) narrow on nationalist grounds.

By the way, John’s quote of the synopsis of A Secular Faith — “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices” — is actually off. The summary of the book from Booklist included this: “That is Augustine’s distinction of the holy city of God from the secular city of man. Christians are perforce citizens of both, but their only specifically Christian obligation concerning secular citizenship is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” John’s quote of the synopsis does allow him to link me to Jeffress. But again, if he knew 2k, he’d be scratching his head over that comparison. Still this tie typifies the way many evangelicals read 2k: if you aren’t with them, you’re on the fringes, either sectarian or secular.

When John moves beyond tit-for-tat, he explains his understanding of government and Christianity’s place in America:

I believe that government has a responsibility to promote the common good. It should, among other things, protect the dignity of human life, encourage families, promote justice, care for the poor, and protect its citizens and their human rights. I also believe in something akin to the Catholic view of subsidiarity. This means that many of these moral responsibilities are best handled locally. This is why I am very sympathetic to “place”-based thinking and find the arguments put forth by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World to be compelling.

But when morality fails at the local level, such moral failures must be dealt with by higher governmental authorities. For example, I believe that the intervention of the federal government in the integration of schools during the era of the Civil Rights Movement was absolutely necessary. Local governments and white churches in the South failed on this front. Moral intervention was necessary. I use the term “sin” to explain understand what was going on in these racist Southern communities. Others may not use such theological language and prefer to call it “unAmerican” or simply “immoral.” But whatever we call it, I think we can still agree on the fact that what was happening in the Jim Crow South was morally problematic and the federal government needed to act. I hope Hart feels the same way. If he does, I wonder what set of ideas informs his views on this.

Here John identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?

Another larger problem goes with looking to Christianity for moral authority or certainty. This is an old theme at Old Life, but how do you follow the second table of the Ten Commandments — many of which encourage the policies that John thinks government should pursue — without also taking into account those about idolatry, blasphemy, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy. I don’t see how you set yourself up as a follower of Christ while disregarding some of your Lord’s directives?

The kicker is that John admits he could support a president quoting Muslim sources to uphold American ideas:

I think much of what Obama celebrates in Pope Francis’s ideas is compatible with American values. If Obama quoted a Muslim thinker who spoke in a way compatible with American values I would say the same thing.

So is America the norm? Is it Christianity? Or is it John Fea’s moral compass?

John concludes by admitting:

I am opposed to Trump for both Christian and non-Christian reasons and sometimes those reasons converge.

I appreciate the candor but I wonder why John doesn’t see that he here identifies with every other evangelical — from Barton to Jeffress — who merge their political and religions convictions to support a specific political candidate or to argue for their favorite era of U.S. history. Because John converges them in a superior way to Barton and Jeffress, is that what makes his views on politics more Christian, more scholarly, more American?

John is willing to live with the label of Christian nationalist if it preserves him from the greater error of secularism. What I think he should consider is that converging religion and politics is how we got Barton and Jeffress. If John wants to stop that kind of Christian nationalism, he should preferably embrace two-kingdom theology. If not that, at least explain why his version of convergence is better than the court evangelicals, or why he is a better Christian.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

John Fea is back (it’s been a while) with an explanation of why he energetically criticizes the David Bartons and Robert Jeffresses of the evangelical world:

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian. Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books. But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.” Maybe I am obsessed. Somebody has to be. We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

My problem with this at one level is that John does not seem to acknowledge the optics or signaling. If he criticizes these evangelicals, then his readers will know that he is not that kind of evangelical — though I think his readers are way smarter than that and that no one confuses Messiah College with David Barton U. (or even Liberty U.).

But the bigger objection is that John only goes after evangelicals when they do this and not the entire enchilada of American Protestantism. To read John’s blog, you might receive the impression that only the Religious Right has engaged in a crass Christian nationalism (as if a refined Christian nationalism exists). But what about when mainline Protestants engage in the kind of civil religion that evangelicals advance?

Consider President Obama’s remarks while welcoming Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption. . . .

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

Maybe you agree with President Obama’s policies and Pope Francis’ teaching. But what is this “we” and “our” of which POTUS speaks? How is that anything but a mixing of Rome’s religion with America’s political norms?

And what about FDR’s “speech” that informed citizens of America’s involvement in the D-Day operations (June 6, 1944) — get this — in the form of a prayer?

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . .

Wow!

No matter how big Jeffress’ congregation is and no matter how many Americans Barton may reach with his materials, neither can hold a candle to the kind of resources POTUS brings to bear on the nation and the world. Can Barton or Jeffress make war? I don’t think so.

So why not go after the nationalism that informs American officials who actually use force legitimately and send American soldiers to battle?

Why not also cease treating President Trump as if he is unworthy of presiding over a righteous nation? If Trump’s critics actually had a different moral standard rather than an expectation that POTUS should conform to Christian morality, they might become less indignant. Plenty of reasons to oppose Trump without Christian ones.

If Christian America is a Problem, Why not Christian Scholarship?

Tracy McKenzie makes sense in his build up to criticism of David Barton:

. . . when the debate that we’re drawn into concerns the nature of the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders, there is something more important at stake than historical accuracy or our personal character. In assessing whether our nation’s founders were Christian, we’re inevitably saying something as well about the Christian faith and Christ himself. Stephen Nichols makes this point marvelously in his book Jesus: Made in America. As Nichols puts it, when we exaggerate the degree to which the founders were Christian, we not only “do injustice to the past and to the true thought of the founders,” but we also do “injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus.”

I have long thought that the same point applies to those who promote Christian scholarship (and this has cost me in certain Christian scholarly circles where neo-Calvinists were once legion). Rightly construed, you can plausibly argue that scholars who study Scripture or dogma are doing something Christian because their very subject is Christ and because to understand the claims of their subjects properly they need the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But why is the study of U.S. history Christian? Because the scholar is Christian? Because the institution that employs her is Christian? Because the U.S. is Christian?

The U.S. and the scholars who study the nation are part of general revelation. They don’t rely upon the Bible, Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit (in a gracious way) or the church to do their work.

So, when scholars who study general revelation try to call their scholarship Christian, are they not guilty of doing precisely what McKenzie sees in David Barton?

What's the Big Deal?

Carl Trueman is rightly confused about the allies of the gospel making such a big deal of complimentarianism. I’ll see him a confusion and raise him a bewilderment — why are professional historians so worked up about David Barton? For weeks, nay, months academics hounded the God-and-country amateur historian, who sees faith writ large everywhere in the American founding (like some seminary presidents we know). For a summary of some of the objections, go here and here. And when word came that Thomas Nelson was recalling Barton’s book on Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, one might have thought that Lyndon Baines Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act. So seemingly controversial had Barton become that Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World magazine, believed he needed to create distance between his own understanding of the United States and Barton’s:

We report in our current issue—and plan to report again in our next—about a controversy between two groups of Christian conservatives (also see “Lost confidence,” by Thomas Kidd, Aug. 9). On one side are David Barton and his many readers. Barton has provided a useful service for many years in fighting the left’s interpretations of history. On the other side are other Christian conservatives who point out what they believe are inaccuracies in Barton’s work. Left-wing historians for years have criticized Barton. We haven’t spotlighted those criticisms because we know the biases behind them. It’s different when Christian conservatives point out inaccuracies. The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron,” and that’s our goal in reporting this controversy. As the great Puritan poet John Milton wrote concerning Truth, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Olasky goes on to observe that historians have not been so obsessed with another popular and flawed account of U.S. history, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Olasky has a point but it is not entirely accurate. This summer the History News Network ran a poll among its readers on the “Least Credible History Book in Print.” For most of the time that people responded, Zinn led the pack. But when editors made the final tally, Barton surpassed Zinn by nine votes (650 to 641). In which case, if this poll is representative, academics can spot a bad book on the left and on the Christian fringe (to call Barton the right is an injustice to conservatism). Do Christians have as good a track record of acknowledging bias among their favorite writers on politics, history, and economics?

And yet, the question remains whether professional historians have sought to have Zinn’s book recalled? I am actually not sure whether historians wanted to see Barton’s book removed from the marketplace. Thomas Nelson likely made its decision to pull The Jefferson Lies for economic as much as scholarly reasons. Even so, considering all the bad books that publishers print, I am still befuddled by the large and concerted critique of Barton. I get it. He’s on Glenn Beck. But how many academics listen to or watch Beck? Thomas Nelson is a big and profitable trade press. But how many academics receive the company’s catalog? Barton’s ideas are silly and irresponsible. So are Zinn’s, right?

So I guess I really don’t get it. It seems to me the free market makes a lot of bad products available including books. What’s one more?

The Noetic Effects of Regeneration and Christian America

us flag and bibleBelow are two clips with distinct views of religion in the American founding. One comes from a decidely Christian perspective, the other from a leading historian of the United States in the era of the Constitution — some might call it secular (I prefer learned).

How Religious Were the American Founders?

America's Christian Heritage

The issue worth raising here is not whether the U.S. is a Christian country. It is instead what role regeneration plays in the interpretation of history, specifically the history of American independence and nation building. Do Christians, by virtue of regeneration, have more insight into history, can they interpret documents and events better, than non-Christians? Or could it be that faith actually makes one predisposed to overlook contrary evidence?

My own view is that the clip by Gordon Wood is far more accurate in weighing all the evidence about the founders than the views of David Barton. What is particularly interesting is that Wood is very kind to Baptists and Methodists, and acknowledges the importance of revivalism and evangelicalism to the new nation. He is not hostile to religion.

But for many Christian culture warriors, such concessions are not good enough, and supposedly Wood has an axe to grind because he won’t go all the way and recognize the orthodoxy of such founders as George Washington.

Meanwhile, some may want to chalk up Wood’s ability as a historian to common grace. I myself prefer to attribute it to his own vast knowledge of the American founding and the amount of time he has spent reading the sources and subjecting his arguments to peers in the field. In other words, I think Wood is smart.

Did he get those smarts from God? I believe he did. But he also used them well. I am not sure that Christian apologists for a Christian nation use either their smarts or their illumination as well.