3 April 2005 - Sunday

Can I make this work?

Off and on, I'm working on an idea for a paper on US evangelical historiography -- that is, the historiographic attitudes visible in contemporary evangelical culture.

The paper began with my hunch that a lot of current evangelical political beliefs, especially in foreign policy, can be explained as the result of evangelical attempts to detect the hand of God in modern history. (Bear in mind that I am an American evangelical; and that while I am generalizing out of necessity, my words should be taken only as generalizations, and as yet unsubstantiated by research.)

American evangelicals, I think, tend to view the US role in World War II and the Cold War, along with the rebirth of the state of Israel, as evidence of divine intervention in an otherwise fiendish and bloody century. If so, I reason, these powers can be seen as agents of divine mercy in the world. That could help explain why some evangelicals can issue dire warnings about the likelihood of divine judgment for the sins of America, even while dismissing any attempt to limit the power of the United States internationally. The USA, if I am right, is seen mainly as a divine defense against evil. (God, after all, can use flawed instruments for his own purposes.)

I have often seen secular media try to explain evangelical political beliefs in eschatological terms. They sometimes portray US evangelicals as trying to build a literal political kingdom of God. I see several problems with this, not the least of which is the fact that very few of the evangelicals I know actually see themselves doing that. Most favor a limited democratic government with a certain amount of civil religion thrown in for the sake of stability. Their political activity, it seems to me, is based not on the desire to see a temporal "city of God" built but on a desire to defend a tolerable society from attack by some pretty fearsome forces.

I think a historiographic approach, unlike the usual eschatological approach, would explain this defensive character.

Now, the difficulty is supporting it in any sort of scholarly way, making it relevant to a conference on "Global Christianity: Challenging Modernity and the West," and submitting a proposal for a paper on it by 15 May.

Additional thoughts I might develop:

If mainstream American evangelical historiography is flawed, are there biblical alternatives?

(For example, Georges Florovsky, as quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan: "Even in the history of the Church 'the hand of Providence' is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy–a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin.")
Do evangelicals focus too much on the goodness of the world as evidence of divine benevolence, when they should be focusing on the obvious brokennes of the world as evidence of the human need for guidance? (Modern pessimism can make evangelicals very uncomfortable; I wonder if we should welcome it instead. Then again, the postmodern era may have different needs -- emphasizing Christian community in history may be more valuable in evangelism than emphasis on brokenness, which postmodern man tries to take for granted.)

I really have no idea what I'm doing.

| Posted by Wilson at 23:22 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk

I suppose this would be a whole lot more relevant to the conference if I could identify alternative (and similarly influential) Christian historiographies outside the West.

The thoughts of Wilson on 4 April 2005 - 0:13 Central
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I think you're on to something, Wilson. I'd like to see you write that paper, and to read it when you're done.

The thoughts of Daniel on 4 April 2005 - 0:24 Central
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Wow. Yeah, I think you've definitely got the seed (probably several, actually) of something there. I hope you can develop it, because I suspect that much of what you hypothesize here is correct.

I'm afraid I can't help much with Christian perspectives outside the West . . . although I'd say that the most interesting aspect of Christian historiography in Latin America (what I can piece together in my limited experience) is the lack of anything like a "Manifest Destiny." But I can't figure out how to coherently go into more detail on that here, so maybe I'll just turn around and tell you.

It's not like you aren't sitting three feet away, after all.

The thoughts of Blame Jared on 4 April 2005 - 1:34 Central
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I really like the questions you are asking in thinking about the paper.

Regarding a portion of your post, Jonathan, --There is a little book called STRENGTH FOR THE STORM -- SPIRITUAL LESSONS FROM WANG MINGDAO, JOHN SUNG, AND OTHER CHINESE PREACHERS... translated by Arthur Reynolds -- It is a compilation of sermons given shortly before and after the Mao takeover (Overseas Missionary Fellowship 1988), which might give a non-Western evangelical viewpoint, but probably only obliquely regarding politics.

Another called CANDLES BEHIND THE WALL has information about religious suffering in the former Soviet system and the role of the church in the demise of the iron curtain--they were a force for peaceful change.

My impression is that the historic suffering of the evangelical church, both among state church societies in Europe from long ago, and among the atheistic regimes of the communist world and fascist world, sparked American evangelicals' methods--attempting to influence government to carve out a safe place for freedom of witness. I believe it is a "checks and balances" approach -- recognizing that God is above the state, and that freedom of speech and freedom of religion within the state and also under God's overarching principles provide the best in checks and balances. The raw power of the state has to be checked by an awareness of God's sovereignty. Freedom of conscience then becomes a valid consideration in law, as opposed to religion's being pushed around by arbitrary rule of law.

Religious freedom and free speech provide the balance for freedom, and the state's recognition of God's sovereignty provides the check on arbitrary power. For instance, the state has no authority to starve people to death, because that is a violation of God's sovereignty.

I think the words "under God" added to the pledge after WWII reflected an understanding-- by the population as a whole-- of this perspective. We never expected to see an Auschwich here, because this is "one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all."

Perhaps articles about that addition to the pledge would yield some useful data from the mid 20th century?

I wonder if the FEDERALIST PAPERS have any insights where they might deal with the first amendment/bill of rights? The consensus at the time regarding religious liberty was similar to evangelical views today. Thomas Jefferson may have expressed a more secular view of it.

I don't see a "kingdom of God on earth" or "theocracy" as any part of this issue, either, because American evangelicals' study of eschatology is mostly in expectation of tribulation on earth. If anything, eschatology makes us want to avoid a humanly constructed merger of religion and state power.

Hope this does not obscure rather than clarify!!

The thoughts of Mom on 5 April 2005 - 15:07 Central
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Go for it. I liked reading what was developing to be a good abstract.

The thoughts of banana on 6 April 2005 - 21:00 Central
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