Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Author's Corner with Matthew McCullough

Matthew McCullough is Pastor at Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee. This interview is based on his book The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Studies in American Thought and Culture) (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Cross of War?

MM: The short answer is frustration!  My first love as a student of American religious history is the pre-Civil War period.  And I’ve always been especially drawn to studying how American Christians have understood the role and significance of civil society from the perspective of their Christian commitments.  The problem is I never could land on something meaningful I wanted to contribute to these conversations on early America.  I just really enjoyed reading and thinking through what so many others have said on the subject.  So after a few dead end attempts to find an angle on early America in grad school, I took the easy road and asked my questions of the late 19th century sources.

More substantially, my primary interest is in studying American Christianity, and within American Christianity the meaning and significance of the American nation has remained a central preoccupation for much of the past 200 years.  I want to understand the power and the development and the implications of this Christian nationalism.  Times of war offer some of the most useful windows into this subject because it’s then that Christian leaders have been most prone to reflect on and celebrate the significance of America.  I found that where the colonial wars, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I had received substantial attention from scholars interested in Christian nationalism, the Spanish-American War wasn’t nearly so worked over.  There were some excellent studies for sure, but all of them remained limited in scope and most were not explicitly focused on Christian nationalism.  It didn’t take much spade work to discover the importance of this war for the development of Christian nationalism.  The religious periodicals so popular during this period were full of detailed reflections on the significance of this war and this nation.  Many saw the war for the foreign policy departure that it was and justified it with a full-orbed articulation of what it means to be a Christian nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Cross of War?

MM: The Spanish-American War marked the emergence of an understanding of America’s responsibility in the world that I call “messianic interventionism”—the belief that America can and should intervene in the affairs of other nations for the good of those nations.  I argue that the distinctive features of this war—the cause, the combatants, the results, etc.—converged perfectly to frame messianic interventionism as not only plausible but nearly inevitable.

JF: Why do we need to read The Cross of War?

MM: I hope that my study confirms what Harry Stout and others have argued—that times of war are more important to the structure of American religious history and the shape of American Christianity than we have recognized to this point.  The Spanish-American War remains largely unknown, but its significance related to what had happened in the Civil War and what would happen in World War I is huge.

From another angle, those interested in American history and/or in American Christianity should be interested in Christian nationalism because it’s occupied such an important place in public discourse.  And those interested in Christian nationalism should be interested the Spanish-American War context because—I’m convinced—it offers a window into Christian nationalism in its most overt and unbridled form.  Expressions of Christian nationalism were at least somewhat chastened after World War I, and were limited by pervasive localism through the Civil War era.  But the rhetoric surrounding the Spanish-American War features a nationalism so confident and hopeful it’s difficult to imagine in our time.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MM: I’ve been fascinated by American history since I was a kid.  My interests were refined in college towards American religious history specifically.  At that time I had a strong desire to continue my development within and to contribute to the academy.  But I also had a strong desire for local church ministry.  I believed studying American religious history in grad school would be really useful whether I decided to pursue an academic career or service to a local church.  Now, as a local church pastor, I’m convinced that calculation was on the mark.  Besides the refinement in critical thinking and communication, my work as a historian has given me helpful insight into the specific time and place in which I pastor and how my context became what it is.

JF: What is your next project?

MM: I’m kicking around a couple small scale ideas related to Christian nationalism, but working full time as a pastor I’m not working on another historical monograph at the moment.  I am however working through the early stages of a project that would bridge my interests as a historian and a churchman.  The project would focus on the memento mori tradition among early American Puritans, why this focus on death has largely disappeared in American Christianity, and why we’d be better off if we brought it back

JF: Thanks, Matthew!!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.