Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Revisionist History

Around the middle of last week, a number of the professors at my seminary (possibly all of them, but this is unconfirmed) received a magazine in their mailboxes. It appears to be a one-time publication, produced specifically to be distributed to American leaders, both secular and religious, free-of-charge, for the purpose of "bringing America back to God." This assumes, naturally, that America is (at least historically) a "Christian nation." The list of introductory ways in which America is said to have fallen away from God is vague at first, but a more detailed reading highlights the usual list: liberalism, sexual sins, the breakdown of the traditional family--all things that conservatives find easy to rally against. Yet the publication seems to forget equally American sins such as our still persistent racism and shameful treatment of people in poverty.

The mantra of "bring our nation back to God" is one I've seen often, especially among conservatives. Now, I certainly have no argument with the notion that the people of the world (not just America!) could stand to follow God more closely. Nor do I dispute the fact that many of the people that first came to America from Europe did so specifically seeking the freedom to follow God in the manner that they believed God wished to be followed.

The first article in the magazine details the Christian backgrounds of a number of U.S. Presidents (13 of them, not including Theodore Roosevelt, who is also favorably cited in this article, but in a different context.). I see no reason to dispute the facts presented, although the interpretation is heavily slanted. Perhaps most telling is the picture of a stained-glass window tagged to the end of the article. The window itself was completed no earlier than 1931 if the dates visible on it are an indication. It purports to depict "The Prayer Meeting in the first U.S. Congress" in 1774 (one assumes that they mean the First Continental Congress, indeed formed in 1774, which is obviously before the American Revolution, and before the body that we call the Congress today was formed). Dozens of the nations "Founding Fathers" are depicted in reverence, many on their knees with their heads bowed and eyes closed....

Now, that first Congress did, in fact, open with prayer, and sessions of Congress still do today. But it's rather telling that this is the intended depiction of the attitudes of the assembled patriots. While many of the nation's leaders acknowledged the existence of a God (usually one resembling the Christian God of the Bible), their own lifestyles often displayed behaviors that would be considered horribly sinful to most Christians (especially conservatives). Tales of mistresses, blood feuds, illegitimate children, and thievery abound within the first generation of our nation's leaders. Not all that different than today, really. And certainly few conservatives would argue that the non-sectarian prayers which open today's congressional sessions have impelled our current leaders to live Christian lives (a few notable Christian exceptions notwithstanding).

The remaining articles continue this trend of well-intentioned revisionism: using chosen facts to paint a picture of the United States of America as an historically Christian nation, which has fallen away from its roots in modern times. This is what I have a problem with. The facts presented are not, in and of themselves, in question (or, at the very least, would require someone far better versed in that period of history than I am). However, the editors of this magazine conveniently ignore examples such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (both well documented philanderers, for all of their positive contributions to American beginnings), whose contributions to this country's beginnings were indispensable, even if they did engage in "less than Christian" behavior. It ignores historical tragedies such as the near genocide of the Native American peoples in the interests of westward expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries.

America is not, nor has it ever been, a "Christian nation." How could a non-personal entity such as a country accept Christ? It is the individuals that comprise the nation that can claim Christ. But let us grant that individuals make up a greater community that the authors are attempting to direct "back to God," and that the authors are seeking a wide-spread "recommitment." One could well argue that the behaviors argued against in this and similar publications are dangerous. I certainly do not dispute their sinfulness. One could argue that people are currently accepting sins that were considered taboo in an earlier age. But this kind of historical white-washing is surely not the way to make such an argument. If people within our national community are truly to repent and turn to God, it must be done with an honest awareness of all of this community's history, both good and bad. If our nation, as a collective, is to come back to God, how are we to do so if we remain ignorant of some of the historical sin that is still a part of our nation's collective identity?

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