Friday, February 6, 2015

Was the United States Born as a Result of a Religious Revival?

On June 11, 2012 I appeared on Jerry Newcombe's radio program when it aired on a local Fort Lauderdale station.  David Barton was scheduled to follow me on the show that evening, but at the last minute he backed out.  I don't know why he backed out.  Maybe he had a schedule conflict. Maybe he was sick.

Jerry Newcombe promotes the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and should continue to be a Christian nation.  His website is called "Jerry Newcombe: For God and Country." During our conversation in 2012 we had our disagreements, but I appreciated his civility.  I even chided the powers-that-be at the Right Wing Watch blog for not presenting a full picture of my interaction with Newcombe. 

Newcombe and Mark Beliles of the Providence Foundation have a new book out.  It is called Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  I have not read this book, but if the Amazon description is any indication it sounds like something similar to David Barton's discredited The Jefferson Lies.  Perhaps Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter should look into this.

But I have read Newcombe's latest post at his website.  It is titled, "How Is Participating in a National Call for Revival Service 'Controversial'?" Newcombe starts by defending Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall's recent prayer rally.

Here is a taste:

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did something supposedly “controversial.” He called for a national revival.
As a Washington Post article by Rosalind S. Helderman (1/24/15) noted: “Skipping an Iowa event that drew a number of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls in favor of a controversial Louisiana prayer rally, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) called for a national spiritual revival and urged event attendees to proselytize on behalf of their Christian beliefs.”
According to Helderman, Jindal insisted this was a religious event, not a political one. The rally was founded by American Family Association.
Jindal said: “Let’s all go plant those seeds of the gospel….Share the good news with all whom we encounter.”
He added: “We can’t just elect a candidate to fix what ails our country. We can’t just pass a law and fix what ails our country….We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country.”
I am more than willing to defend Jindal's right to have such a rally.  I think praying for our country and our leaders is a good idea.  As a Christian I have prayed (and will continue to pray) for spiritual revival in this country.  "Hallelujah thine the glory, Hallelujah Amen/Hallelujah thine the glory, revive us again!"

But I would hesitate to say that Jindal's event was not "political" in nature.  The fact that Jindal may be seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2016 hovered over this event.  Any future historian studying this event would be irresponsible if they did not discuss the rally's close connection to politics.

Most of the speakers and prayers at Jindal's rally were politically conservative.  Where were the moderate Christians?  The liberal Christians? I seem to recall Billy Graham, during the heyday of his evangelistic rallies, inviting all kinds of Christians to sit on his platform and pray.

In the end, the entire Jindal's event felt rather unseemly.  I watched some of the rally online and heard a lot of speakers come close to equating the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the United States.   I also heard a lot of talk about the United States being a Christian nation.  Check out this Jindal video for a really strange mix of evangelical revivalism, the American Dream, and the success of the American economy.  In other words, a spiritual revival will make Americans more comfortable and happy.  Joel Osteen couldn't have put it any better.

(I felt the same way about a similar rally staged a few years ago in Texas by then governor Rick Perry. So did my friend Thomas Kidd, the esteemed conservative and evangelical historian at Baylor University).

As I have said many times before, when church and state mix, the church loses its ability to speak truth to power. Or as my Baptist friends like to say, when you mix horse crap with ice cream it doesn't really change the horse crap but it sure ruins the ice cream.

My real gripe with Newcombe's post is his use of history.  He defends Jindal's prayer rally by stating: "So, what makes the rally so “controversial”? Is it the liberal protesters outside the rally? For those aware of America’s history, there should be nothing controversial about Governor Jindal’s appearance at the rally.  America was born as a result of a national revival, known as the First Great Awakening."

Was America "born as the result of...the First Great Awakening?"  The relationship between the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and the American Revolution is a complicated and contested one.  I have gone on record saying that there is very little connection between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution.  But even those historians who do claim that the Great Awakening had some connection to the birth of the United States would never claim that America "was born as the result" of this revival.  

Newcombe makes a fair case about the Great Awakening's impact on American culture during the years in which the revival fires flamed, but the claim he makes about the relationship between the Awakening and the Revolution is not supported by any evidence apart from the fact that the founding fathers wanted people to be "virtuous."

I am assuming that Newcombe is trying to make a connection between the founders' call for a virtuous citizenry and the spiritual interest that stemmed from the Great Awakening.  This is a stretch.  The Awakening was separated from the Revolution by almost two generations.  Nearly all historians agree that Christianity was very weak during the Revolution.  Whatever spiritual vitality the Great Awakening brought to the colonies had largely subsided by 1776.  Moreover, the founders' thought that Christianity was merely one source of the kind of virtue necessary to make a republic work.  I tried to make this argument in both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  

We really need to move beyond these simplistic views of the relationship between religion and the founding era that lead us to manipulate the past to serve our own cultural, religious, and political agendas.

I will stop now.  Thanks for reading.