Archive for September, 2010

Preachers and Politicians

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

It’s that time of year again when the airwaves are bombarded with political advertising.   America’s unique form of democracy is never more clearly on display than when political campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars saturating the media market with their message.  Each message is a carefully refined mixture of democratic sentiments, symbols and language all designed for one purpose, to convince the court of popular opinion that a vote for me is a vote for libery, freedom, justice, equality and the American Way.  Oh, and by the way, “God bless America!” 

If you’ve lived in America long enough you are used to this almost annual ritual of political grandstanding.  What many of us may not know is that this particular event has its roots in an unique American religious ritual, revivalism.  It was not politicians that established the ground rules for achieving and maintaining popular support, it was nineteenth century revivalist  preachers.  Long before America’s political institutions and politicians were secure enough to promote and sustain America’s democratic ideals, these revivalist preachers were traveling the length and breadth of this country communicating their own version of the American Dream. 

The early nineteenth century was a time of popular and democratic versions of the Gospel preached by men like Herman Husband, Samuel Ely, Nathan Barlow, William Scales, William Jones and Lorenzo Dow.  These versions of the Gospel included biblical and theological language like sin, salvation, righteousness and holiness but these indigenous Gospels were also steeped in the language of the Revolution.  These men were preachers but they were also Jeffersonians and Anti-Federalists, and they saw no contradiction between preaching against sin and promoting republican ideas.   Their egalitarian form of Christianity had as much to do with popular sovereignty and the unalienable rights of man as they they did with personal salvation being the result of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ .

Lorenzo Dow argued that both Christianity and democracy were forces for breaking down class distinctions.  Not only were all men created in God’s image and able to choose faith for themselves but all human rights were grounded upon “the great and universal law of nature.”

“But if all men are BORN EQUAL, and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion and private judgement.”  Lorenzo Dow

Revivalism became America’s first effective medium for promoting and sustaining democratic ideas in and among the general population and it was the revivalist preacher who was the country’s first real politicians and campaigners.  When Alex de Tocqueville came to America in the early nineteenth century from France he observed these preacher/politicians first hand.  His conclusion?  “Where I expect to find a priest (preacher), I find a politician.”

So, if you are looking for the ancestors of the twenty-first century political campaigners, don’t waste your time with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams.  Look instead for revivalist preachers like Lorenzo Dow.

For more information on this topic read Nathan O. Hatch’s, The Democratization of American Christianity.

The Fifth Beatle No One Knows

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Some of us were alive when the fourth British Invasion occurred.  The second invasion happened in Boston in 1775, the third invasion assaulted Washington DC in 1812 and the fourth one took place on Friday February 7, 1964 at Kennedy International Airport in New York City when four young men with mushroom haircuts descended the steps of a Pan American flight to the sound of over 9,000 young girls screaming and fainting. 


I am pretty sure we know who those four young men were.  There was John, Paul, Ringo and George but most of us are unaware of the fifth Beatle, another George who preceded Beatlemania by nearly 225 years.   This George launched the first British Invasion that would sweep through the country and directly affect thousands of lives.  Some historians have suggested that the influence of this George helped provide a spiritual and social framework that 30 years later would serve to unite the colonies in their fight for independence. 

I am referring to George Whitefield, the fifth Beatle.  At the age of 25 Whitefield was already a sensation.  In a day when preachers read long, boring sermons from high pulpits to people sitting on hard uncomfortable pews, Whitefield performed his sermons like an actor, speaking extemporaneously, using numerous illustrations and sweeping gestures that kept people’s attention riveted on him.    He was unconventional, a radical and a rebel. 

When churches closed their doors to him because of his lively and spontaneous preaching, he preached in parks, fields, and other common areas located in and around the worst parts London to people that the church had written off .  Some people tried to distract him by blowing bugles, beating drums, shouting obscenities and throwing pieces of dead cat at him but Whitefield was not deterred.   He was not just a different preacher, he preached a different gospel that few had ever heard, a gospel of God’s love, forgiveness, grace and mercy.

Word about Whitefield spread to America and in September of 1740 Whitefield invaded America on a preaching tour that started in Boston and traveled down through the colonies all the way to Georgia.  It would be fair and accurate to say that George Whitefield was America’s first Pop Star.  He  packed churches from Boston to Savannah and when churches were closed to him he preached outside.  Crowds in and around major cities like  Boston and Philadelphia numbered in the thousands.  It was not uncommon for Whitefield to preach to a crowd of 15-20,000 people, without the benefit of a sound system, and be heard clearly by those at the very back of the crowd.  Whitefield’s “Rock America Tour” lasted eighteen weeks.  In a day of horse and buggy he traveled over 1000 miles and preached over 200 times.

It is said that Whitefield’s influence had a democratizing affect on the colonies.  His message was for everyone, not just the religious or socially elite.  The common spiritual experience shared by those who responded to his message transcended the social, religious and political status quo and challenged the authoritarian power structures in his  day.  People found that they were free to respond to God as individuals and if they were free to chose and shape their religious lives, what prevented them from choosing and shaping their political lives?  Thirty years  later they would make that choice as well.

For more on the fifth Beatle, read Harry Stout’s, The Divine Dramatist.

Projecting Our Values on History

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

On my way into work I was listening to an interview on NPR.  The two individuals being interviewed were expressing different views on what the Tea Party platform ought to include.  I won’t go into details about that part of the conversation but I was struck by one of the interviewee’s  references to the Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams etc.).  This gentleman stated that if the Tea Party wanted to truly win over their conservative supporters they would need to “call the country back to the cultural and social values embraced by the Founding Fathers.”

He then went further to say that the Founding Fathers listed the right to life as given by the Creator as the first of the unalineable rights.  I assume that he is referring to the Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  He then went on to interpret this phrase in the Declaration of Independence.  When the the Founding Fathers referred to life they meant:  the sanctity of life (I think by that phrase he was referring to a pro-life position), belief in the Creator, the defense of natural marriage and a rejection of the homosexual agenda.

Later in the interview he stated that if the Tea Party leadership wanted to “claim the mantle of the Founding Fathers” that they would need to “affirm that morality and religion are indispensable supports of political prosperity”.  I gathered that his definition of morality and religion would be consistent with his previous statements about where individuals stood on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.  I would agree that the Founding Fathers would have thought that morality and religion played a vital role in the civic virtue needed to support  and sustain a just political system, but how specific can we be about what twenty-first century issues they would have supported or opposed? 

So what is my point?  I have no problem with people expressing their political and social positions on any issue, but I grow increasingly uncomfortable  when they begin projecting their values and their agendas on history claiming that the Founding Fathers would have been in lock step with their political and social positions.  What actual historical evidence do we have that suggests the Founding Fathers were offering their support or rejection  for the polarizing social and political views of the twenty-first century when they listed ”Life” as an unalienable right?  Was the gentleman saying that he can historically demonstrate that if Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others were here that they would agree with his social and political positions?  How exactly would he know this?

Including “Life” as an unalienable right did not cause the Founding Fathers to change their views on slavery, an increasingly polarizing issue in their time.  I would suggest that when calling the dead to the witness box in support of our case for certain social and political views that we exercise a greater degree of caution and restraint.  There is never a simple one to one relationship between the language and sentiments of one century and those of another.  Part of honoring the country’s past leaders is not projecting our values on them and demanding that they submit to our will.  We must find the courage and the wisdom needed for the issues of our own day and own it.

Religious Freedom and Nutcases

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

In 1854 an immigrant German professor named Philip Schaff published a book entitled America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character.  In one chapter Schaff shared his observations regarding religious freedom in America.  Here briefly are his basic points. America is a Protestant dominated country; however, because Americans have consciously separated church and state, no one religious sub-culture is privileged; rather, all religious sub-cultures are free to compete in an open marketplace of religious ideas.  “Religion is left to the free will of each individual, and the church has none but moral means of influencing the world.”


The very idea that each individual was free to decide for themselves what to believe about God and how to believe it bordered on craziness for Schaff.  He admired the freedom of conscience that this approach to religion provided and he approved of the positive effect it had on the growth of voluntary societies dedicated to improving the general condition of the society, but he was not so sure that everyone could be trusted to use this freedom responsibly.  In other words, there will always be nutcases who will abuse this freedom and misrepresent God.

In one of his other works Schaff referred to such people in this way:  “Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false wares at pleasure.  What is to become of such confusion is not now to be seen.”

Let us travel from 1854 to 2010, enter Pastor Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center where they sell coffee mugs and tee-shirts featuring the phrase “Islam is of the Devil”.  It would seem that Schaff was something of a prophet when he wrote about “theological vagabonds and peddlers driving a bungling trade…selling their wares at pleasure.”

Americans pride themselves on the separation of church and state, religious freedom, and freedom of conscience but we must also remember that this freedom empowers the theological nutcases who choose to abuse the privilege of being a religious leader.  With freedom always comes responsibility and Schaff’s great concern was the ways in which religious freedom would be abused by leaders who were more interested in their own inflated opinions and gaining 30 seconds of fame than they were in practicing their faith with grace, love and genuine concern for others.

Let’s all do each other a big favor and not rise to the bait this nutcase is offering the press and the rest of the world.  This is not God, this is not Christianity, and this is not the responsible use of religious  freedom.  This is a theological vagabond selling his wares for his own pleasure.  I don’t know about you but I’m not buying. 



Christian America? Religious America?

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

There has been much ado about the recent Glen Beck Rally in Washington.  This rally was promoted as an ecumenical gathering with diverse religious traditions represented and participating on the platform.  Though it was characterized as a rally advocating the need to restore America’s honor and the organizers and speakers claimed that it was a ”non-political” gathering, you’ll have to forgive me if I smile a bit at that characterization. 

Since when have Americans been able to successfully separate religion and politics?  Regardless of all our firm and strident language about the so called “separation of church and state” (which by the way is not language found in the Constitution), name me a political campaign in the last fifty years that did not raise religious issues and or invoke God’s providential concern for this nation as a statement of fact?  I am not sure that one could be a serious presidential candidate and fail to address the religious zeitgeist so embedded in our national consciousness

The point is, we have been intentionally mixing together religion and politics from this nation’s earliest years and I can find nothing in our recent history suggesting that we are prepared to stop now.  If anything, the uncritical blending of religious sentiments and symbols with political rhetoric has increased over the past forty years. 

Events like the Glen Beck Rally are causing some commentators to ask this question, is Christianity the religion of the nation or is America’s religion some monotheistic generic blend that when taken with enough cream and sugar can satisfy the vast majority of the population?

Starting next week I will be podcasting my course on The History of Christianity in America.  This course will seek to address the following questions:  What does American religion tell us about American culture? and What does American culture tell us about American religion? 

I would encourage you to visit the website (, join the class via podcasts, and take part in the discussion via the website’s FAQ section.