As a historical theologian, I always respect the work of Mark Noll and George Marsden. Here’s a interview of the two of them on the issue of America’s Christian Roots at Calvin College.
HT: Justin Taylor
I thought the discussion was important because they affirm the importance of Christianity in America’s history, but they also note the story is not so simple nor uniform in the way that many evangelicals would lead us to believe. Thus, Noll and Marsden argue that our history supports the idea that freedom of religion should not mean freedom from religion. At the same time, this shouldn’t mean that Christianity should somehow have some sort of cultural trump card. We should have a place at the table, but we should come with a willingness to listen to others in the way that we would want them to listen to us.
With regard to Puritan colonial history, they noted that the puritans interpreted the new colonies as functioning like Israel’s role in OT–God would bless and punish them based on their obedience, an idea that should be a commended as a use of the OT. However, the hermeneutical move that is less healthy is the idea that they had a special relationship with God like Israel. Of course, this ignores the fundamental affirmation of the NT that all nations are part of God’s people. The appeal to this perspective in modern Christian rhetoric is interesting to me in light of the prominence of dispensational theology among evangelicals. A sine qua non of dispensationalism is the separation of the church from Israel. Thus, it would be a category mistake to associate the promises to Israel with the church in North America. This doesn’t negate the position, but I find that dispensationalists should be more consistent between their view of American history and their theology. Has God blessed America, as the puritans thought? Yes. But does this make America special over and against all other nations? No. I value the mere Christianity perspective that esteems the diversity practice centered around a common ecumenical faith represented by the Nicene Creed. And the majority of Christians live outside of the US and are just as special to him as this country.
The issues of revolutionary America Constitution are even more fundamental to our modern discourse. Noll and Marsden noted that evangelical Christianity was not the dominant majority as some today might want to argue today. For example, the evangelists of colonial America–Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield–thought there was only a minority of people who were evangelicals among the population. Thus, Noll and Marsden conclude that a similar minority percentage existed in the next generation represented by the founding fathers. Many were serious about religion but many were not evangelicals. That is, there is a lot of talk of religion during the time but not a lot of focus on Nicene (read, Trinitarian) Christianity. Noll and Marsden hold up Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson as representative figures of Nicene and deist-leaning Christians of the time. Earlier this summer, I read through Jefferson’s life of Christ, and it shows many signs of a deist perspective (e.g., no mention of the resurrection). Does this mean that early Americans were non-Christian, or anti-Christian? No, but we should be cautious about including non-trinintarians in an evangelical umbrella. Thus, the story is more nuanced than modern evangelical rhetoric.
An important aspect of their discussion related to the relationship of Christianity to early American documents and life in consistency with the values in these documents. These documents are not anti-religious, but they are very vague on references to God, which could easily refer to a deist or Trinitarian God. Noll, I think, makes a good general affirmation: many principles of early America were founded upon Christianity, but we shouldn’t underestimate the theological diversity that existed. A simplistic, uniform perspective of evangelical Christianity at the root of these documents is partly historical and partly mythological. They argue that we would have a must stronger argument in public discourse if we got the history right by removing the mythology.
One particular issue for modern discussions is some of the lack of critique of early Christian America. Though universal human rights (an idea that squares with the NT, but in practice, in the case of America, is more derived from Enlightenment values) were at the heart of the US project, treatment of minorities–African Americans and Native Americans–shows that these early Christians had much room to improve. Noll and Marsden noted the problem of Christians being able to (self-)critique early America, or they think it would undermine their argument. This complex relationship between Christianity and America still exists today. Christians very much want to affirm the negative state of American culture, but then they want to turn around and argue that the US is the best place on earth because of its Christianity.
After living outside the US I began to see this tension in a different light. Does God love America any more than other countries? We definitely shouldn’t have US flags in churches because that just leads people to confuse allegiances and to ignore the fact that God loves all nations–remember most Christians live outside of the US. In addition, as a baptist in line with early baptists, I heartily affirm a separation between church and state because baptists along with methodists were considered (and are still labeled) “non-conformists” in England and were therefore outsiders. I do agree with Noll and Marsden that the early American connection with Christianity should give support to Christians having a seat at the table of public discourse, but we shouldn’t use this as a tool to presume cultural superiority. If we expect others to treat us with respect, we have to treat others with respect as well.