Debunking the Fourth

July 3rd, 2011

Top 10 Unsightly Facts about the American Revolution

Preface: This is my third annual “Debunking the Fourth” post. From the title alone it’s clear that the content is provocative. Mere shock value has never been my intention, though. Rather, my aim is the relentless pursuit of truth as a means of worshiping and honoring God. As a student of history, I’ve heard and read a lot of things that don’t comport with the conservative, pro-America stance to which so many of my fellow evangelicals hold. I love these people and count many of them as dear friends, family, and mentors. That, and not a desire to be argumentative, is why I’m worried about the widespread misunderstanding of the historical realities surrounding the American Revolution. Whether willful or ignorant, the propagation of these erroneous claims is not only deceptive, but has real potential to damage our witness. Since we Christians profess to be people of the truth, it follows that there are times in which we need to be confronted by unpleasant facts that will force us to reconsider our beliefs, opinions, perspectives, and ways of thinking. There have been plenty of times I’ve been in this position, and I can definitively say that I’m a better man and Christian for it. My hope is that the content below will positively challenge people’s perceptions of our country’s origins and that we would all worship our God through the cultivation of our minds.

W.R. Inge once wrote, “A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and a common fear of its neighbors.” One need look no further than the American Revolution to see that this claim has merit. This weekend a lot of American Christians are experiencing a patriotic fervor that’s premised upon falsehoods about our country’s origin. Let’s correct some of those delusions, shedding light on the Top 10 most unsightly facts that most of these folks haven’t heard, or refuse to acknowledge, about our country’s war for independence:

10. Devout Christians on both sides were killing each other, mutually convinced that they were fighting on behalf of God’s will. i

9. Patriots often violated clear biblical teaching concerning their relationship as a covenant people. ii

8. The colonists were demanding a degree of democratic representation that didn’t exist anywhere in the world. iii

7. The media’s reporting of events leading up to the war was sensational and inflammatory. iv

6. American colonists had among the world’s highest standard of living in 1776. v

5. The war was primarily about the defense of the unique American culture, not the resistance to English tyranny. vi

4. There was no clear “christian position” during the war. vii

3. According to classic christian articulation of Just War Theory, the America Revolution does not fit the criteria and, therefore, was not a just war. viii

2. The widespread use of biblical language to justify the revolutionary cause belies a blatant misappropriation of the biblical text. ix

1. The majority of the Founding Fathers weren’t Christians, but deists. x

You’ll not hear me argue that the British weren’t in the wrong in some of their policies. The question is whether these wrongs were grave enough to justify revolution. In other words, there’s no question that there was some wrongdoing on the part of the British parliament, but were those infractions great enough to warrant schism and bloodshed? At the time of the Revolution, I would argue that they were not, but that sensational reporting of events magnified British errors way out of proportion. This is not to say that they couldn’t have eventually gotten that bad. What I’m saying is that in 1776 the American colonists could have stayed within the British system and gotten along just fine, and probably even peacefully gained their independence later on as was the case with Canada. By any reasonable measure, war wasn’t justified when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

To close I defer to those far more knowledgeable than I. Below is an excerpt from The Search for Christian America, the joint work of three acclaimed evangelical historians: George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch. I think it worth consideration this time of year:

Almost from the first moments of the War for Independence itself, American Christian leaders have publicly claimed the blessing of God upon the United States. Statements about the country’s divine origins… have been common throughout our history. Also, in recent years such assessments have proliferated. Books proclaim that God had a special ‘plan for America’ which was visible in Columbus’ voyages, in the Puritan settlements, and especially in the War for Independence when God providentially intervened on behalf of ‘his people.’ Other media proclaim the God-given ideals which inspired the founding fathers of this nation. And countless books, pamphlets, sermons, and public speeches of the Revolutionary War as a blessed event which God used to found a nation on Christian principles… These views are widespread in some Christian circles. But they do not reflect an accurate picture of the actual circumstances of the American Revolution. Such opinions are, therefore, dangerous for Christians simply because they are not truth, or because they are only ambiguous half-truths.

i. When I reflect on this problem I cannot help but turn to Abraham Lincoln’s perspective during the American Civil War. In his private journal he wrote, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims that to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, but one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purposes is something different from the purpose of either party- yet the human instrumentalties, working just as they do, are the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true.” If you’d like a watch a movie that powerfully portrays the tragedy of Christians fighting and killing one another in war, I recommend Joyeux Noel.

ii. A biblical theme running from Genesis to Revelation is that of God’s covenant people. There’s great beauty and wonder in the promise made to Abraham finding fulfillment in the Church. For instance, according to 1 Peter 2 Christians are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” There’s a clear sense to which they are to be set apart and unified. During the American Revolution, however, many Christians were known to link their national citizenship with their heavenly heavenly citizenship, telling congregations in their same ecclesiastical bodies that they could not have fellowship if they did not support the war effort. This represents a tragic confusion of eternal and temporal identities, and was a gross violation of God’s will for His covenant people.

iii. For example, the patriotic rallying call of “no taxation without representation” ignores the fact that the vast majority of English citizens didn’t meet the property requirements for voting. Even John Wesley opposed the war on these grounds, pointing out that not even he could vote. If one of the most well-known English preachers in history couldn’t vote, I would suggest that the supposed democratic “injustice” that precipitated the American Revolution was, in fact, no injustice at all. Failure to attain an ideal doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of abuse.

iv. The newspapers were guilty of magnifying events far beyond their true proportions. Take the infamous “Boston Massacre” as an interesting case study. One of our key Founding Fathers and future presidents, John Adams, held that not only wasn’t it a massacre, but it was an act of disciplined self-defense provoked by a drunken and unruly mob. This is evidenced in the legal defense and acquittal he provided for those soldiers despite the personal fear he had over the negative impact it’d have upon his political ambitions. I recommend HBO’s series John Adams for a historically-sound portrayal of this event.

v. Hugles, Jonathan and Louis P. Cain, eds. American Economic History (New York: Addison Wesley, 2003), 49. The textbook authors write, “…Americans two centuries ago achieved a level of affluence at least as great as their British cousins. If we adjust our calculation for the lower tax rates paid in the colonies, the disposable incomes of Americans were surely among the highest in the world of the early 1770s.” In other words, the commonly held belief that British suppression was crushing the colonists’ economic viability is patently false.

vi. By the time of the Revolution there had developed a uniquely American culture of political and economic independence that was a result of England’s past policy of salutary neglect. In previous generations, when the colonies had been small and were producing great wealth and few headaches for the motherland, this policy made sense. But things changed over time, as they tend to do. Specifically, when the English had to defend the colonies in the French and Indian War, it was thought that the American colonists should help pay off the debt incurred during the war from which they’d so greatly benefited. Yet to the Americans who had become accustomed to hands-off political and economic policies, these were more than mere taxes. They represented a fundamental challenge to the uniquely autonomous cultural assumptions that had developed. The new taxes were nothing if not logical, but the colonists interpreted them as pure tyranny. After that followed the back and forth cycle of the crown attempting to enforce its authority and the Americans rebelling, which intensified each time around. Throw in the aforementioned sensational reporting of the newspapers and you’ve got a recipe for war. So let us be clear: The American patriots were not acting as oppressed Englishmen, but cultural Americans. It has been said the American Revolution was the least revolutionary war in history. Ironically, it was a “revolution” to maintain the status quo.

vii. Christians were divided between four basic positions: patriots, loyalists, qualified patriots, and pacifists. Since the Americans won the war we tend to think of the vast majority being patriots, but that simply don’t comport with the historical facts. As an aside, it’s interesting that Baptists have evolved from a complex, nuanced position of qualified patriotism to quite often being some of the fiercest patriots in the land. Makes one wonder if that’s progression or digression.

viii. Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden. The Search for Christian America. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard Publishers, 1989), 95-97.

ix. There’s no question that patriotic Americans of the day saturated their speech with Scripture. One ought not mistake biblical allusions for biblical thinking, though. For example, there were countless sermons preached at the time linking God’s intentions in 1776 with His plans for Israel in the Old Testament. If one actually reads those sermons, however, it becomes clear that they were premised upon an allegorical interpretation, representing a flagrant abuse of the Bible. Exegesis is where the interpreter extracts the meaning from the text in light of its literary and cultural-historical contexts. Eisegesis is where the interpreter imbues the text with a meaning wholly foreign to its original contexts. These Revolutionary-era sermons represent the clear theological sin of eisegesis. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but the fact remains that these preachers desecrated the Word of God in an effort to biblically justify their political philosophies.

x. Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden. The Search for Christian America. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard Publishers, 1989), 72-95. No doubt some of our Founding Fathers were devout, born again Christians. I think of John Witherspoon, Patrick Henry, and John Jay as such persons. The fact remains that these men were a small minority, though. Virtually all the well-known figures, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, were deists. Moreover, despite the fact that conservative Christians today would decry deism’s illegitimacy if they ever engaged in a conversation with such a person, many of these folks have found themselves in the awkward position of having to defend the beliefs of late 18th century American deists due to their claim that our country started as a “Christian nation.” (Trust me, I’m writing from firsthand experience as a former fundamentalist who has a deist uncle.) Their basic argument is that while these deists did not have a complete biblical worldview, they retained enough lingering christian elements that they essentially thought as Christians. That is, the Founding Father’s beliefs were partial and incomplete yet full enough that we can rightly say that their biblical worldview was instrumental in our country’s founding. They’ll often cite Jefferson’s appeal that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights as evidence. Throughout my engagements with these individuals, I’ve developed a concise logical argument that I believe quickly and effectively shows that these deists were not Christians and, while they certainly did quote Scripture a lot, didn’t possess a “biblical worldview.” Here it is:

A: Belief in God as the Creator and the Imagio Dei. B: Belief in the remainder of the essential orthodox doctrines, including the Fall, Trinity, Christ’s literal death and resurrection, virgin birth, etc. C: A biblical worldview.

A + B = C A ≠ C

A and B together form orthodox Christianity. A alone is not Christianity, but deism.

If you’re one of the folks who sincerely believes that most of our Founding Fathers had a genuine biblical worldview because they were so influenced by and so regularly quoted Scripture, then I hope you’re consistent and would say that contemporary Mormons have a biblical worldview, too. That’s a heck of a quagmire, if you ask me.

Carson T. Clark is a husband, sports fan, and aspiring clergy-writer in the Anglican tradition. He blogs at Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate, and you can also find him on Facebook and Twitter

© 2011 Carson T. Clark

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