Right-Wing revisionist history is nothing new in American politics. Whether we find it in psuedo-historians like David Barton, or in recent movies by Kirk Cameron, the desire towards establishing an American Christian Exceptionalism in our nation’s past seems almost too lucrative for those with an agenda. But as Ben Howard recently put it, such an agenda presupposes a desire to remain distant and out of community with those deemed as “other.” Ben writes,

“The gap between the disparate worlds of warring minds can only be bridged through the authenticity and vulnerability of legitimate relationship. We must encounter the other, and though we find she is not the same as us, we must deign to see her as similar. We must humanize those we so often demonize.”

Jerry Falwell portraitRequired reading for students of American Christian Exceptionalism (revisionist) history is Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. If a reaction to the New Deal was the awakening of American Christian ideologues such as Rushdoony and Hall, and the height of the Cold War was the catalyst for Rosalie J. Slater, then the American bicentennial would be the turning point for Marshall and Manuel. By 1976, Jerry Falwell was well on his way to establishing the “Moral Majority” to “take back America for Christ.” The tension for the emerging Christian rightseemed palpable, as Falwell hosted several “I Love America” rallies across the country that played on prominent social issues close to the heart of its speaker. [1]  Peter Marshall, a preacher and son of a one time chaplain to the U.S. Senate, first met his co-author David Manuel during one of his sermons near Cape Cod.

“On this particular evening, Marshall was delivering an old-fashioned Puritan jeremiad. America had sinned. Abortion on demand, pornography, divorce, and unethical business practices offered indisputable evidence of moral decay…As America celebrated its bicentennial, conservative Christians seized on the nation’s newfound historical consciousness. These social problems, he argued, were the inevitable product of a faulty view of America’s historical identity. Citizens had failed to remember that the United States was one nation under God. If only Christians could recover God’s special destiny for this country, America could be saved from divine punishment.” [2]

David Manuel, an editor at Doubleday Books, partnered with Marshall for this project in American Chrisitan Exceptionalism, and what resulted was a re-telling of America’s History with God at the center. The ideology behind the book had been influenced by Rushdoony and Hall–that America was founded as a Christian Nation–but this time, Manuel and Marshall presented a notion that God had also made a covenant with America in order to establish a New Israel in the New World (p. 17).

Their book starts with Christopher Columbus (they call him “the Christ bearer”) who, instead of coming to the New World at the height of the Spanish Inquisition,  had funded his expedition with the expressed purpose of founding a Christian Nation. [3] They acknowledge that because of Columbus’ personal greed, lust for gold, and enslavement of Native Americans, God (similar to passing over David to choose Solomon for his Temple) decided to look elsewhere for those who would found His Nation. Still, their presentation of Columbus as a model of Christian missionary work is dizzying.

 

Puritans Vs. the Prince of Darkness

 

It was to be the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation who would be chosen by Divine right, and the powers of darkness knew it. [4] Marshall and Manuel write that the Pilgrims were “locked in a life-or-death struggle with Satan himself. For this was the first time that the Light of Christ had landed in force on his continent, and if he did not throw them back into the sea at the beginning, there would be reinforcements.” Agreeing with the earlier teachings of Rushdoony and Hall, The Light and the Glory held that these Puritans, (with church buildings at that center of their communities) were the embodiment of this new Christian Nation. It was only a question of time until New England became the United States. The Puritans, more than any other, are responsible for making America an Exceptional Christian nation, they contend. Reflecting on the “spiritual” insights they received while writing this book, Marshall and Manuel explain,

“The Spirit also reminded us that the legacy of Puritan New England to this nation, which can still be found at the core of our American way of life, can be summed up in one word: covenant. We were reminded that on the night of the Last Supper, to those who were closest to him, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt.26:28 KJV)

Marshall and Manuel continue, explaining that while Puritanical covenant is at the core of American identity, most Christians are of little use in establishing God’s Kingdom on earth, since (as the Puritans demonstrated) this “requires total commitment.” (p.183) If only God’s people would remain committed to reestablishing His Kingdom in the New World, they write–if “they kept the covenant with Him” then they would “people and fructify this new Canaan in the western wilderness.” (p. 197)

 

Some Light Cherry-picking

 

But because these authors were only looking for historical evidence that fit their thesis, they ignored other important elements of the American identity before the Constitutional Convention. According to Evangelical Christian Historian John Fea, “[The Light and the Glory’s] narrative is dominated by the story of early New England. Jamestown is covered and dismissed in one chapter, and other colonies (such as William Penn’s experiment in Pennsylvania) and religious movements (such as the Baptists and Anglicans) that shaped early American life are ignored.” [5]

Much more perplexing, is their total lack of awareness of white privilege in this matter. While they maintain that American Independence (eg the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth) increased as equality among God’s people increased, they do so with a lens that purely emphasizes the free while neglecting the slave. So the American Revolution seems inevitable, since white Christians continued to preach sermons that emphasized the “equality” of Christian peoples in America–but this can only be understood without taking slavery into context, or the fact that they equated fighting against Christian tyrants as synonymous with doing God’s will.

Colonial view America new Israel crop display

Original seal of the USA, proposed by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Franklin described it: ‘Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.’

The Central theme to their ideas of American Freedom come from a perversion of the “freedom” the New Testament describes, where they reinterpret Biblical freedom as political freedom. (For instance, they use Galatians 5:1: “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”) Completely ignoring other passages of Scripture that have nothing to do with political tyranny, Marshall and Manuel assert that the American Revolution was in fact a holy war, because American Christians were only doing God’s will. To Marshall, the American Revolution was not only a just cause, but the culmination of the covenant God made with America, and therefore the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the instruments used by which Americans re-entered their covenant with God. (p. 24, 251, 392, 439, 447)

The problem then, with providential historians, is that instead of telling the facts and researching the honest truth of the matter (good, bad or ugly) they cherry pick events themselves and interpret those only as a prophet in hindsight. John Fea puts it this way, “If God’s rule extends over all of history, and his providence subsumes all events, then how can we say that some events—such as those that led to the development of the United States—are more providential than others? For example, many eighteenth-century Protestants (as well as many contemporary Protestants) believed that God intervened in human history on the side of Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers. Is this true? Perhaps. But to suggest that the Reformation was an example of God’s providential intervention in the affairs of mankind is to also suggest that God was not overseeing human history before he had to “intervene” at Wittenberg in October 1517. Similarly, does it really help our understanding of the Revolutionary War to claim, as Marshall and Manuel do, that during the American invasion of Canada, “Divine Providence, it seemed, was dispensed—or withheld—in direct relationship to how close an individual or body of men was to the center of God’s perfect will?” Can God’s providence be “withheld”? What is God’s “perfect will” in matters such as this?” Such providential interpretation seems more to do with using the past as a means to push a present political agenda than it does with truly understanding the truth.

Speaking to this reality, Augustine says: “What God is accomplishing in that period stretching from the time of Christ to the final judgment is largely hidden from us. Our task, then, is less to look for signs of the times than to be patient, to wait for God—and, along the way, to carry out our duties faithfully.”

 

The Series Continues

 

In part 3, I’ll continue exploring the mind boggling mental gymnastics one must do before revising a history of the Pilgrims as Christlike founders of a Christian Republic.

[1] see Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, (p. 58)

[2] see John Fea, “Thirty Years of Light and Glory”, Touchstone Magazine, 2010

[3] see Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, where they write “What if Columbus’s discovery had not been accidental at all?” Indeed, what if he had “been called by God to found a Christian nation?”

[4] For instance, they write, “If God was trying to build a “New Israel,” Satan was doing everything he possibly could to thwart it. And the people who represented the greatest threat to him were those most dedicated to living the covenant…” (p. 282)

[5] Fea, “Thirty Years”