Friday, January 14, 2005

The Continuing Saga of America: a ________ Nation

Some time back, I explored the proposition put to me by a friend and maintained tenaciously by many others that America is a Christian nation. More recently, I have been analyzing Baptist theology as directly influencing and reflecting American habits of mind and life.

Now here comes Caleb McDaniel, writing with his usual verve and insight on a related topic, the shape of Thomas Jefferson's faith. I recommend you read his entire entry, but I found the following excerpts particularly telling:

Whatever one thinks about the "Christian nation" question, it is undeniable that Americans of all stripes have been obsessed throughout our history with Jesus. What [this author] proposes to show, in fact, is that Americans have frequently used their various interpretations of Jesus, whether historical or theological, as critical tools against "Christianity."

...and further...
But what is clear even from this start is that Jefferson's ideas about Jesus were "Christian" only in a highly qualified sense. What is even clearer is that Jefferson intended his Jesus to stand in judgment against Christianity. It is important that he underlined his status as a "real" Christian. He was not claiming Christian faith in such statements, but was (as many Americans subsequently have) attempting to evacuate the term and fill it with new meaning. And, again like many subsequent Americans, he wanted to claim that this new meaning of Christian was the original, unadulterated one.

I find these observations fascinating not in what they reveal about Jefferson himself, as what they reveal (by analogy) about Americans in general. The practice of using Jesus as a critical tool against Christianity -- not to say the church -- seems to me to be a sort of characteristic move of Americans (and perhaps the Enlightenment in general). To do this, one needs to prise Jesus away from any sort of embodied tradition and assert that he is actually free-floating and abstract, universally and immediately available (how else would one "have" the "real" Jesus with which to judge the Christian faith?). One would need not only skepticism towards tradition(s), but also a conviction that oneself (or one's conscience) is the final authority on such issues as reading and interpreting the Scriptures (editing them, in Jefferson's case). Finally, one would need to maintain the tried-and-true (and dubious) distinction of "wheat" and "chaff". Harnack was a prominent later proponent of this notion of getting rid of the chaff of Christianity to maintain the pure wheat, not unlike what Jefferson was up to. I raise these issues not to offer thorough critique here, but to observe some of the signs of what I elsewhere call the "Baptist nature" of much American tradition.

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Blogger Caleb said...

Thanks for the link and the kind words.

I think Prothero's probably right that separating Jesus from Christian tradition is a quintessentially American thing to do. But I'm not sure whether it is peculiarly American. There's a lot loaded into the idea that only Americans do something, and I'll be interested to see whether Prothero keeps his eye on similar developments going on among non-American thinkers at various points in his story. As you note, Jefferson's move may have a lot to do with his reading of Enlightenment rationalists, and if that is the case, then what do we mean when we say his reading of Jesus was especially "American"?

A tangent: I've worshipped all my life in churches that stress the same kind of primitivism that Jefferson, in some ways, espoused: the desire to get back to Jesus, to the New Testament, to strip away tradition. (In some ways that is a standard Protestant move, but also it may actually qualify as an especially American move in religious history.) Yet what I've discovered along the way is that the only way primitivists can stop themselves from going as far as Jefferson is to accept teachings on the inspiration of Scripture which are formed by the very creedal traditions that they set out to reject.

I do think, in some respect, that we need to hear the earliest Christians and Jesus himself speak to us as clearly as they can. But tradition, far from being a hindrance to our hearing what they said, is like the piece of twine stretched between the tin can that we are holding up to our ear and the one that they are speaking in to. There's a lot of static on the line, but that doesn't mean we should throw the cans away in disgust. Tradition all we have to hear them with, so we'll have to make do.

Friday, January 14, 2005 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I think that also speaks to the latent anti-Catholicism that is found in the U.S. Even U.S. Catholics aren't quite like other Catholics around the globe. They've been touched by something American that seems to trump the claim Catholicism lays upon them (see Fr. John Courtney Murray). This isn't all bad, Dignitatis Humanae comes out of this American Catholic tradition, but it does lend itself to the seperation of spheres (public and private) and the idea of the public square as a neutral square that is so damnable.

Friday, January 14, 2005 2:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for your responses. You're right that I see Jefferson's move as a function of his formation by Enlightenment sources, although I do not know whether he was more influenced by French, English, or Scottish sources here. Part of my larger point is just this connection, though, that since our nation in its nascence was so heavily influenced by (certain segments of) the Enlightenment, it has entered our national character in ways that I'm not sure it did in other nations. At least that is part of the hypothesis that I am trying to support.

I do find it quite interesting that, as you intimate, America seems especially fitted for primitivist groups and denominations. The Campbellite-restorationist groups (Disciples of Christ, etc.) are a paradigmatic example. I wonder why that is? And a related issue is the character of American native religions (a better term would be welcomed), by which I mean schismatic or marginal groups such as the Millerites/ Adventists, the Mormons, The Jehovah's Witnesses, Shakers, and groups such as that. All of these (I'm pretty sure about the JWs) arose in America and had similar primitivist impulses, only sometimes with added "primitive" revelation (Millerites, Mormons). That they hold a fair bit in common and all arose in America has interested me for some time; I am curious why that is and what it might suggest.

Friday, January 14, 2005 3:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Have you read William Cavanaugh's _Torture and Eucharist_? It addresses this issue directly, from a Roman Catholic perspective, and is definitely worth a read. A friend of mine said it was the best work of theology put out in the 1990's, and I would be hard pressed to disagree. -JF

Friday, January 14, 2005 3:06:00 PM  
Blogger Howlin' Hobbit said...

Coming from a more pagan perspective here... I can tell you that I (and others like me) will read Jesus' words and think how terrific they are and how they should be paid attention to -- even if you completely reject the "only begotten son of God" part, or the crucifixion/resurrection, etc. -- because they are wise and gentle.

Then we see what is being done in his name by some of the "organized" religions and think, "Waitesec, did I miss something here?"

The idea of trying to live a "Christlike" life instead of a "Christian" life had never occured to me as being "primitivism". I'm not college educated nor am I well (or even widely) read on theology. But I can relate to you a story that seems to point out what I consider the difference between the two.

In his book, "Rites of Passage -- A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle", Walt Crowley talks about his efforts to provide shelters for the homeless "hippies" in the University District. He'd had minimal luck convincing folk to open their basements or other spaces to this effort and someone put him in touch with a church that had quite a reputation for being "conservative"... not the type you'd expect to be "hippie-friendly" in those days. He didn't expect much but since they had agreed to meet with him he went.

He met with the pastor and board of elders and presented his idea, without much hope.

When he finished one of them spoke up and said, "What would Jesus do?". Another answered, "Jesus would let them sleep in his house." And that was that.

No discussion of the theology of it, no worries about whether it held with the "official church doctine", no concerns about how it might "impact" their membership drive or whatever. Just doing what was right.

Sorry for rambling on (and hopefully I didn't in my ignorance completely miss the point), but it seems to me that if this is an example of the "primitivism" thing, I can only be all for it.


Friday, January 14, 2005 6:43:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Young said...

For an interesting discussion with Prothero, he was on NPR's Odyssey in September. The audio can be found at http://www.chicagopublicradio.org/audio_library/od_rasep04.asp

Friday, January 14, 2005 8:38:00 PM  
Blogger Caleb said...

Jason: I don't mean to flatly deny that the "primitivist" move has taken on an importance and prevalence in America that it hasn't elsewhere. I was really just trying to play the devil's advocate and keep that question provisionally open. There have been primitivist movements in religion, after all, throughout history and across space -- think of first-century Samaritans, who believed that only the Pentateuch was authoritative and rejected the tradition of rabbinic midrash.

(BTW, HH, I don't mean "primitivism" in a bad way. I'm just using it to mean the desire to return to the primary principles, people, or periods in a religion.)

But to slip out of devil's-advocate mode, Jason, I do agree that the democratization of politics and society in nineteenth-century America was directly responsible for creating denominations like the Campbellites and Millerites. I recommend heartily Nathan Hatch's book on this subject: The Democratization of American Christianity.

One reason, too, why these kinds of sects took off in America is because already by the nineteenth-century there was a popular ideology of American nationalism which imagined it as Nature's Nation, the New World. Even before Puritans arrived to "start over," European intellectuals saw America as a "primitive" place too -- almost like the state of nature. So America itself was imagined as a tabula rasa, free of tradition and its attendant evils, and that may be why primitivist Christianity can be identified so closely with American patriotism.

Friday, January 14, 2005 10:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for the link.

Great story! And I am grateful that you hang around, you bring another interesting voice to the mix, one we might not have otherwise. You raise some interesting points, (esp. in terms of doctrine vs. practice) and I would like to respond more, but I don't have time right now. Soon -- and maybe in a post instead of a comment?

Actually, I didn't pick up that you were playing "devil's advocate" (disagreeing to be disagreeable) so much as just filling in some related detail, with some helpful questions. And it prompted me to (try to) make clear that, on a larger canvas, my hammering on "America" (liberals, Baptists, whatever) is a way of expressing my deep dis-ease with the syntheses of the Enlightenment and modernity, which seem particularly influential in our national ethos.

Great conversation! Cheers, all!

Saturday, January 15, 2005 2:53:00 AM  

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