Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Annual Debunking the Fourth Post: Top 10 Unsightly Facts about the American Revolution

Preface: From the title alone, the content of this note is clearly provocative. The shock value was never my heart's intent in writing this, though. As a student of history, I've heard and read a lot of things that don't gel well with the conservative, pro-America stance so many folks hold to. I love many of these people and count them as my friends, family, and mentors, but I'm genuinely worried about the widespread ignorance to the historical realities--be it willful or not--and the potential damage it causes to their christian witness. If we claim to be people of the truth, I think there are times in which we need to be confronted by unpleasant facts that will make us reconsider our beliefs and opinions. There have been plenty of times I've been in this position, and I can definitively say that I'm a better man and a better Christian for it. I hope that the content below will positively challenge people's perceptions of our country's origins and that we would all worship our God through the cultivation of our minds.

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This being the Fourth of July weekend, a lot of conservative Christians are experiencing a patriotic fervor that is premised upon their belief that God was behind our country's founding. In the pursuit of truth, let's shed light on some of the most unsightly facts that most of these folks haven't heard--or refuse to acknowledge--about our country's independence:

1) American colonists had the world's highest standard of living in 1776. Not much economic suppression there.

2) The rallying call of "no taxation without representation" ignores the fact that the vast majority of the English at the time did not meet the property requirements for voting. Even John Wesley opposed the war on these grounds, pointing out that not even he could vote.

3) The media's reporting of most of the events leading up to the war was sensational at best. Take the "Boston Massacre" as an interesting case study. One of our key Founding Fathers and future presidents, John Adams, agreed that the "massacre" was provoked by drunk Americans and was no massacre but was self-defense, as evidenced in the legal defense and acquittal he provided for those soldiers despite the personal fear he had over the negative impact it'd have upon his political ambitions. I recommend HBO's series John Adams for a historically-sound portrayal of this event.

4) The American Revolution primarily was about the defense of the unique American culture, not the resistance to English tyranny.

Further explanation: By the time of the Revolution there had developed a uniquely American culture of political and economic independence that was a result of England's past policy of salutary neglect. When they were small colonies producing great wealth and few headaches for the motherland, this policy made sense. But historical contexts changed. Specifically, when the English had to defend the colonies in the French and Indian War, it was a logical conclusion that the American colonists, who benefited greatly from the war, should help pay off the debt incurred by the war. Yet to the Americans who had become accustomed to the hands-off political and economic policies, these were more than mere taxes. They represented a challenge to the uniquely autonomous culture that had developed. The new taxes were not tyrannical, but they seemed that way to the colonists because it challenged previously held assumptions. After that followed the back and forth cycle of the crown attempting to enforce its authority and the Americans rebelling, which intensified every time around. Throw in the sensational reporting of the newspapers which magnified the events far beyond their true proportions and you've got a recipe for war. So let us be clear: The American patriots were not acting as oppressed Englishmen, but cultural Americans... It has been said the the American Revolution was the least revolutionary war in history. Ironically, it was a "revolution" to maintain the status quo.

5) There was no clear "christian position" during the war. Christians were divided between four basic positions: patriots, loyalists, qualified patriots, and pacifists. As an aside, it's interesting that Baptists have evolved from a complex, nuanced position of qualified patriotism to quite often being some of the fiercest patriots in the land. Makes ya wonder if that's progression or digression.

6) Tragically, many patriotic Christians were known to link their national, temporal identities with their eternal identities, telling congregations in their same ecclesiastical/denominational bodies that they could not have fellowship if they did not support the war effort.

7) Devout Christians on both sides were killing each other, mutually convinced that they were fighting on behalf of God's will.

8) The vast majority of this country's Founding Fathers were not Christians, but deists.

Further explanation: Despite the fact that conservative Christians today would decry the illegitimacy of deism if they ever engaged in a conversation with a genuine deist, many of these folks have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the beliefs of late 18th century American deists due to their claim that our country started as a “Christian nation.” Their basic argument is that while these deists did not have a complete biblical worldview, they had enough of a christian worldview that they essentially thought as Christians. That is, the Founding Father's beliefs were partial and incomplete, yet full enough that we can honestly say that their biblical/christian worldview was instrumental in our country's founding, e.g. They'll cite Jefferson's appeal that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights as evidence. Throughout my engagements with these individuals, I’ve developed a concise logical argument that I believe quickly and effectively shows that these deists were not Christians and, while they did quote Scripture a lot, did not have a “biblical worldview.” Here it is:

A: Belief in God as the Creator and the Imagio Dei.
B: Belief in the remainder of the essential orthodox doctrines, including the Fall, Trinity, Christ’s literal death and resurrection, virgin birth, etc.
C: A biblical worldview.

A + B = C
A ≠ C

‘A’ and ‘B’ together form orthodox Christianity. ‘A’ alone is not Christianity, but deism.

If you’re one of the folks who sincerely believes that the Founding Fathers had a biblical worldview because they were so influenced by and so regularly quoted Scripture, then I hope you’re consistent and would say that contemporary Mormons have a biblical worldview, too. Heck of a quagmire.

9) Yes, there were many sermons preached at the time linking the plans of God in 1776 with His plans for Israel in the Old Testament. Read some of those sermons, though. Even extraordinarily conservative theologians today would acknowledge that those sermons were based on horrible eisegesis that ripped passages out of their historical and literary contexts, thereby abusing God's holy Word in their effort to biblically justify their political philosophies.

10) According to classic christian articulation of Just War Theory, the America Revolution does not fit the criteria and, therefore, is not a just war. I'll just point y'all in the direction of The Search for Christian America, the joint work of acclaimed evangelical historians Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Check out pages 95-97 regarding this specific issue.

You'll not hear me argue that the British weren't in the wrong in some of their policies. The question is whether these wrongs were grave enough to justify revolution. That is, there is no question that there was some wrongdoing on the part of the British parliament, but were those infractions great enough to warrant schism and bloodshed? At the time of the Revolution, I would argue that they were not, but that sensational reporting of events magnified British errors way out of proportion. This is not to say that they couldn't have eventually gotten that bad. What I'm saying is that in 1776 the US could have stayed within the British system and gotten along just fine and probably even earned their independence later on, as was the case with Canada. The war was simply not justified at the time that the Declaration of Independence was written and signed.

To close I defer to those far more knowledgeable than I. Here's an excerpt from the aforementioned book:

"Almost from the first moments of the War for Independence itself, American Christian leaders have publicly claimed the blessing of God upon the United States. Statements about the country's divine origins... have been common throughout our history. Also, in recent years such assessments have proliferated. Books proclaim that God had a special 'plan for America' which was visible in Columbus' voyages, in the Puritan settlements, and especially in the War for Independence when God providentially intervened on behalf of 'his people.' Other media proclaim the God-given ideals which inspired the founding fathers of this nation. And countless books, pamphlets, sermons, and public speeches of the Revolutionary War as a blessed event which God used to found a nation on Christian principles... These views are widespread in some Christian circles. But they do not reflect an accurate picture of the actual circumstances of the American Revolution. Such opinions are, therefore, dangerous for Christians simply because they are not truth, or because they are only ambiguous half-truths."

3 comments:

  1. Please define (1) Deist and (2) "vast majority."

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  2. I'm still trying to make up my mind about this debate. Carson, what exactly is the position that you oppose? Is it the position of those who simply say that America was founded as a Christian nation? Or is it the position of those who (more modestly) say it was founded as a nation based, broadly, on a Christian worldview? Again, I'm trying to make up my mind about this debate, but I don't think I understand exactly what the position is that is held by both sides.

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  3. simply excellent! I need to mull over these 10 thoughts some more! Thanks Carson...

    - Kurt

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