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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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
JF: Thanks, Matthew!!
And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.