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With the 4th of July on the horizon, I’d like to pick up on Tom Boogaart’s recent post about pledging allegiance.

For most of my adult life I would have responded to Tom’s words with three cheers, but now, in the hour of the United States’ mortal illness, I would change that to two cheers, or two and a half, reserving some space for a “yes, but…”

Yes, we owe prime allegiance to God alone, but we can also show some loyalty—a critically constructive loyalty—to the sites and objects of our secondary loves, including whatever nation it is in which we have been nurtured and protected.

So I’m wondering now whether, as a strategic opportunity, and even—big “perhaps” here!—as a Gospel calling, those of us who are Christian (as opposed to Christianist) in America not only can but must show forth such a loyalty.

Of course, the “protections” I just alluded to have been more robust and consistent for some than for others. But as one for whom they have been ample, don’t I owe something back?

The good in American history

Yes, I think I do, and for most of my career as a professor of American history, I’ve tried to fulfill that obligation by offering my students and readers a two-pronged communication about the American past. On the one hand, and first of all, a duly critical portrayal of the flaws, the rank evils, and the persistent injustices in that past. But on the other hand, and with the psychologically strategic last word, by noting as well the chorus of what Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address called “the better angels of our nature,” and encouraging my students to join it.

For there is much good to work with in American history. Much in its principles and practices and better moments that a Christian can invoke as measures to which we ought to aspire in our own time. No, these do not amount to the full counsel of the Gospel. No, the USA is not God’s chosen people; that title belongs to the church, shamefully as it too has fallen short of its promise and calling over the course of its own history—and in the present moment. Nor are the goods unambiguous, usually being tainted and often enough entwined with their twin defects in a fateful double helix.

Nonetheless, as a civil society the USA has provided a model and hope that has encouraged and inspired many people around the world. If it is not the only such model or inspiration, nor necessarily the noblest, it is one such, and it’s the one closest at hand for most of the readers of this blog.

After all, the scandal going on at the American-Mexican border these days is a shameful response by the authorities to thousands of people driven by fear and danger but toward the American promise of prosperity and the rule of law. (The very same combination is attracting a zillion dollars of sometimes dubious provenance from Chinese and Middle Eastern investors to American banks. The golden droppings, I suppose, of s—hole countries.)

Back to the point. The American past offers some potential good with which American Christians can work. Given the realities of public exchange around us, I think it’s one with which we have to work. Face it, people are going to be driven by some narrative or other, and in the predominant American media environment today, only a few of these are going to gain true salience. Malign forces have commandeered one narrative of American history to the ends of exclusion and oppression. How to respond?

Harping on the grim side?

I wonder—and that’s not a rhetorical ploy; I really am wondering aloud here—whether too many of us in the American historical guild have not given away too much by harping so persistently on the grim side of the past. In taking up good and necessary initiatives—setting the record straight, bringing evil into the open, exposing the gross record of violence and injustice in the past—have we left the public with too little hope, too few objects for inspiration or emulation?

It’s been said that on the American frontier of the early 1800s, the Calvinists made sure everyone knew the depth and detail of sin, while the Methodists held forth on salvation. Is the American historical profession too Calvinistic this way? Maybe so, maybe not. It could well be that even if we sounded forward in a more modulated voice, the violent would still bear it away. And the half has not yet been told about the underside of the story, not by a long shot. The critical task remains.

Thus, to put it mildly, the right way forward looks daunting. It requires a trusting patience amid urgent, even panicky, times. It will require all the cunning that arises from being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Yet, we have some hopeful examples from history itself. One is lying in plain sight in an often-invoked—but too seldom read—piece in the American canon, Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream.”

I used to criticize the speech for its blatant mixture of biblical and American civil religion. But now I wonder whether it’s not exemplary in its craft. Whether King was not posing the first—the biblical—standard as his ultimate criterion of judgment, also over the second, but mixing in the second as a ground of common appeal to people who might be persuaded to some right action even if they did not (yet) share his allegiance to the first.

Honey from the Rock

Here’s another voice, from within the tradition closest to the origins of this blog. Lexham Press will soon publish an English translation of Honey from the Rock, a set of 200 meditations that Abraham Kuyper wrote for his Sunday weekly paper between December 1877 and mid-1882.*

The series began soon after Kuyper returned from an extended convalescence from a crippling breakdown in early 1876, and that breakdown in turn had been triggered in part by his immersion in the tides of Christian perfectionism that would become known as the Keswick movement. Kuyper’s meditations, accordingly, have a lot to say about the self-delusions that can accompany piety. As always, however, his critique is not only of the psychology but also of the sociology of religion—not only of the traps belaying the individual Christian but also those tempting the collective church.

Abraham Kuyper, 1837-1920

In terms of resources for the way forward, then, we can do much worse at the present American moment than to hear the voice of a most orthodox Christian authority. “The Lord’s favor rests on whoever is small, on whoever is despised and discouraged, on whoever is laid low in the dust,” Kuyper began his third meditation in the series, “For He is so Small” (based on Amos 7:2).

Can we hear the word of the Lord to an America that would be Great Again? “The Lord’s anger turns against whatever is exalted. His power is directed against what is haughty and pompous, against all that is lofty. It will all be laid low—every high tower, every solid wall [Kuyper’s words, not mine]—until people’s pride is broken and their arrogance is trampled!

For those on the receiving end of power, however, the prophet’s words hold comfort:

…everyone who suffers and is oppressed, everyone who is miserable and poor, everyone who is naked or blind, everyone who is helpless and wandering around abandoned—you have the assurance that your appeal will be heard.… The entreaties rising from your heavy heart and oppressed soul, as well as your own piercing cries, you may be sure, will register your complaints before the throne of grace…

Lest it be said that Kuyper’s was speaking about the sufferings and prayers of Christians, let us inquire into the religious convictions of those being caught at the border, and those interning them.

Even taking things strictly “spiritually,” the lesson bears in on those who offer up the name of the Lord. “That infant child lying in a crib was made small in order to make you with your dry, cold, and empty heart great in the kingdom that is above,” Kuyper enjoined.

May you choose, by examining and discerning your own condition, to show your love to those who are small here on earth! May you open your own heart to those who are despised and rejected! May you be merciful to those who are oppressed and humble! And may you be inclined to listen when people look to you in their lowly circumstances, crying: ‘Help me, my brother or sister, for I am so small!’

In real Christianity, and in the better strands of the American civil religion, hope and judgment come together. One fails without the other; the two, entwined, become a double helix of their own, promising steps toward redemption.

*I am indebted for an advance copy to James A. De Jong, past president of Calvin Theological Seminary and translator of Kuyper’s text.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

15 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    compelling

  • Anne says:

    Really good thoughts. And then, I wonder sometimes at the, perhaps, hubris, of dead white men and women – and those of us living who become “woke” to the facts of smallness and goodness, recommending smallness and goodness as a way through the vagarie and injustices of history, American civil religion and faith. It’s one thing to be convicted or broken down to a realization of smallness. It’s another move from that conviction of smallness (while usually maintaining our civil and socail comfort and power) to assure those who are small in the civil and social sense, that their cries will be “registered before the throne of grace.” Seems like those of us with the privilege of civility and social stability and power have little room to school those who, these days and in days gone by, issue calls for uncivility and social unrest. Clearly, we can make the offer to sacrifice our bodies and comforts on behalf of others – but we can only offer – while standing close enough and “woke” enough to do so. Unless we are acknowledged and invited, though, I think it’s best to follow the lead of the “small” – who are really not captured by this categorization that civil and social society have imposed upon them.

    • Jim says:

      Kuyper (and KIng) were both speaking from and of and for the ‘small’ people of their day, encouraging those deemed ‘small’ by society that they were ‘great’ where it actually counted–in the eyes of the One who held ultimate power and authority. Thus, a divine criterion that precisely overturned the civil and social criteria that had reduced the ‘small’ to ‘no account.’ And far, very far, from thence drawing the conclusion for the ‘small’ of pie in the sky by and by resignation to their earthly fate, K & K used their invocation of divine power for the purpose of encouraging human action, by the ‘small,’ here and now. Kuyper in particular invoked the Calvinist doctrine of election as a mandate for action, against passive resignation, on the principle that if God be for us, no one can prevail against us. Finally, both K & K knew that the struggle against evil and injustice can be long, very long. As John Lewis says, not for an hour, not for a day, not for a week, not for a month or a year, but for our whole life. In face of that reality, K & K would not dismiss the comfort of having our pleas in fact, this day, registering before the throne of grace. Hope this clarifies my intention and pt of view.

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Wonderful piece of writing. I learned about a few things that I had not known before.

    Thank you and God bless you.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Jim,
    I like you am looking for a way forward in such anxious times, trying to find my footing on the deck of our storm-tossed ship of state. Your remarks about balancing hope and judgment resonate with me. It seems to me that we as Christians have to begin by acknowledging our absolute allegiance to God and God’s purposes in the world (that was the purpose of my short essay). We have to be absolutely clear about the place where we stand, not to separate ourselves from the world in some kind of gated Christian community but to have a place from which to engage that world and sort out what is life-giving there (source for hope) and what is degenerate (call for judgment).
    In sorting things out, I begin to realize anew the good, dare I say blessing, of our national experience: the separation of powers (especially an independent judicial branch of government), the expansion of voting rights, and the free press, among others. Yet it is precisely these blessings that are now at risk. So the patriot in me, the part of me that gives my government secondary allegiance, wants to call our nation back to its beginnings in order to make America great again.
    Tom

    • Jim says:

      My goal too. Glad we’re walking this one together, as we have in the past. Strength for the journey, friend. And welcome to retirement. it’s rather a disorienting thing, I find….

  • James Schaap says:

    I have to admit that hearing your voice through this line–“and in the better strands of the American civil religion”–was not at all easy, but I deeply appreciate the argument–and look forward to the book. Your bio of Kuyper was a great gift, too. More than most of us, you know K’s weaknesses, but also his strengths. Keep telling us.

  • Alina Abbott says:

    As a non-American, I found it really hard to read this.
    When I was a student at Calvin College in the 1990s, the movie Independence Day was released, and I went with a bunch of friends, both American and international students, to see the film. We had a very different response to some of the premises of the movie, and it made me realize how patriotism was very much at the core of the American collective personality, and us non-Americans were not convinced it was a good thing. I felt very much the same way as I read this. It felt as if this is a grasping for something good in the grim history of an idea whose time has come and gone; a clinging to something that needs to be let go; a justifying of a history that cannot be justified. I did not read hope in this article, though I think it may have been your intent to write hope into it.
    It reads like a “the end justifies the means” argument. I know it’s not, exactly, but that’s how it comes across when American patriotism is NOT at the heart of who you are.
    It’s this paragraph here that ruined this whole article for me: “Nonetheless, as a civil society the USA has provided a model and hope that has encouraged and inspired many people around the world. If it is not the only such model or inspiration, nor necessarily the noblest, it is one such, and it’s the one closest at hand for most of the readers of this blog.” The model and hope that has “inspired” now feels like it’s just been a game of smoke and mirrors, like we’ve been sold a vision of America that was like nothing more than the sales pitch from a slippery used-car salesman. Though some aspects of my country may be based on an attempt to emulate America, it has not brought out the best in us. Many countries have moved beyond the lie of the American dream, and are turning their back on what they perceive as a failed system. As we watch current events in the US, this failure feels very apparent.
    I’m not saying that other countries have it all right and America has it all wrong. But America does not look like a beacon of hope anymore. To wrap up false hope in Christian language is not inspiring. I do have hope, but my hope does not rest in America. And this reader of your blog has other better models and more hope-filled inspiration close at hand, so I’m certainly not going to reach across the border for yours.
    I’m tired of Christians in America trying to find something glorious about their country to hold up like a golden calf. It makes Christians in my country want to hold up the wrong things, too, and it is hurting community, country, and the church.

    • Jim says:

      Hi Alina:

      As Paul Newman heard so memorably from the sheriff in Cool Hand Luke, ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate.’ The kind of shrill patriotism you observed among some Calvin College students in the 90s and can read about in the record of other times and places, is precisely the thing I have been pushing back against for 40 years of professional life. I was not aiming to praise or recommend that kind of patriotism in my posting–quite the opposite. I was wondering out loud how to push back best, here and now. Simply criticizing all American history, as some on the Left seem to do (see Marty’s invocation of Howard Zinn–more accurately, I’d say, of Howard Zinn’s readers) does not work. In the present context, it simply seals the people in question in their blind nationalist devotion. My question is how we may use the good strands in American history to complicate or undo or overcome that blind nationalist zeal. My recommendation is to offer a reminder of the better parts, and possibilities, of the American past. Finally, two recent things have reinforced my realization of those better parts. (1) Teaching at a Chinese university for a year, I found high, very high, admiration for the USA. So high that I had to complicate their picture some. Why do Chinese students long to study at an American university? Why do they love American pop culture, its judicial system, its (relatively) free press, its (relatively) reliable banking system ( I know, I know, but compare it to others around the globe. Why is all that Chinese money pouring into North American banks and real estate rather than staying at home? Why do so many immigrants want to come to the US and Canada? For the economic opportunity, yes, but also for more….) The current administration in Washington is tarnishing America’s image in the world as fast and hard as it can, but that reminds us that there is–with all the destruction it has wrought–some luster that can be tarnished. (2) Working on a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, it became clear that in the lead-up to WWII, and during the years that war was waged, the US did indeed stand as a beacon of hope to Nazi-occupied Europe. I know things went down differently in Asia those years, and all along in too many places in Latin America. But my point is that there are indeed some better possibilities for the American future–at home and abroad–because there have been some better moments and themes in the past. Elevating those, I suggest, is one way to fight back against the worst possibilities and realities today.

      Does this help? Jim

      • Alina says:

        Thank-you, Jim, for your reply. I went back and re-read the original article in light of your response, and I still find the language in the original article leaves me feeling very uneasy. I do appreciate that you want to push back against that shrill patriotism, but then you might want to consider how that push back is communicated. The language used implies that there is an assumed, unquestionable greatness about America. When you look at some of the grim parts of American history, and then try to argue, “Well, let’s find the good part of this bad story,” it doesn’t read well to the victims of the story, or those sympathetic to them. I don’t know that you can easily juxtapose the good and the bad this way and come out with a squeaky clean solution.

        I have also traveled abroad and seen the same high admiration for America in some countries. Three things struck me about that admiration: 1) They admired the wrong things, like pop culture fluff, affluence, fame, fashion, and other things that are certainly not those things which are truly valuable. 2) They didn’t know WHY they admired those things. “America” was kind of an amorphic ideal, but they couldn’t really explain why they like America so much. It was almost more of a sub-culture of their own to admire America; to admire America simply because that was what people did. That brings me to the last point, that 3) Much of what they admired about America wasn’t actually real. It was, in part, the American Dream, and a very glossy and highly retouched version of America.

        So, in that light, what is it about America that you want to be “great again”? What do you want people to admire about America that is substantitive? How do you use good strands of history when those threads are fused to darkness, without making it seem like you are simply whitewashing the history? And how do you start new strands without tying them too tightly to dark things in the past? I do appreciate that you are grappling for an answer to all this, and I believe that voices that speak into this are imperative.

        Now, that being said, I’m sure that your primary intended audience for this material is American, and you must use language that resonates with them. But be aware that this patriotic language may leave a bad taste in the mouths of many non-Americans.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    My dear friends,

    I implore you to have hope! I firmly believe the fever is breaking against this “mortal illness” our country is currently battling. Let me give you the optimist’s assessment and prognosis:

    1. No new Administration (including Nixon) has ever faced an onslaught of entrenched establishment and bureaucratic forces like the one currently. And, after this wrath subsides, the nation will be faced with the reality that the previous Administration and its political friends did everything they could to overturn the election results. The voters will take this into account come November.

    2. The judicial branch of our government is transforming at an astonishing rate. The newly appointed Federal judges appear to all use an originalist method in interpreting (not divining) the Constitution. These justices will ensure that no current Administration, left or right, will overstep it’s authority. The Supreme Court, in particular, seems poised to bring federalism back into vogue. Imagine: Roe v. Wade will be overturned and appropriately given back to the States. Praise God!

    3. This new emphasis on federalism, combined with the reining in of the federal bureaucracy, will show people both the limitations and depredations of overwhelming government. (I live on the Illinois and Indiana border, and people here understand firsthand the choice between big and limited government – and they are fleeing to the limited side).

    Please don’t take the above as Panglossian optimism. We have problems. I think most reasonable people, to some extent, think the Trump phenomenon could end badly. We have debt that could cripple our future. The Fed is immoral. Our military commitments are unsustainable and unwise. Most importantly, our culture is debased.

    But, all in all, things seem to be heading in the right direction.

    • Jim says:

      So Marty, with your enthusiasm about a return to ‘originalism’ in the judiciary, does that include overturning A. Scalia’s abjectly ignoring the prevailing usage of the Founders’ day in his dismissing of the first clause in the Second Amendment so as to unleash unfettered gun ownership in our own day? As to the popular results of the 2016 election, they were clear by a 3-million vote margin. If Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion criminalized on a state by state basis, will a similar principle be applied to civil rights in re race and color? The prevailing state by state opinions on that front were overturned by federal court decisions in the 1950s and ’60s exactly as were preferences re abortion in the ’70s, and indeed the attempt to overturn the Second Reconstruction is proceeding under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions quite nicely. You’ll understand, maybe, if that doesn’t give the rest of us much hope. As for a putative ‘deep state’ trying to undo Trump and his works, the ‘previous administration’s’ FBI director took the key action to send momentum Trump’s way in the waning days of the 2016 campaign by raising, once again, the exhausted them of Hillary’s emails, while the current ‘undoing’ amounts to attempts to investigate corruption and uphold the rule of law–the very principles you invoke. To repeat, what we have here is a failure to communicate based on an absence of trust and any real concern for a common good that includes all.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Professor Bratt (I can’t call you Jim, college was only a few years ago for me),

        My responses (humbly submitted):

        1. Re: Second Amendment: I stand with Scalia. The first clause cannot stand alone without the second. Although we should all join militias…

        2. Re: popular vote: who cares? Trump ignored states like Illinois and California. But I predict that 2020 will be a landslide for Trump if the Democrats continue to pursue Socialist policies.

        3. Re: Roe v Wade vis a vis civil rights laws. The two are not comparable. The Civil Rights Act was a widely supported effort by Congress. Nobody needed to find penumbras and emanations to see that all citizen were deserving of inalienable rights. Roe v Wade was a judicial abortion that tore the country apart culturally, in addition to being tragedy for millions.

        4. Re: Jefferson Beauregard Session: if you think he is a racist, please say so. I would be cautious about such accusations. It’s not unlike saying Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. If you’re wrong, you’ve slandered the person.

        5. (Last one – I promise). Re: The Deep State: Comey re-opened the Clinton email case at a time when Hillary, according to conventional wisdom, had a 99% chance of winning. The FBI Director perhaps assumed this wouldn’t materially change the election results, but it would burnish his reputation as a pillar of integrity. In any case, that little flotsam of fact is floating in a wide sea of facts and evidence that would buttress my contention that the Obama Administration and establishment Washington (Deep State) detested Trump and tipped the scales of Justice to maintain their national hegemony.

        One last thing: I think we are capable of communicating quite effectively. I do trust your motives. But I also think, in some things, you are wrong. I think, in your assessment of Trump, you are overreacting. Our system of government can combat his deficiencies. And, as for his strengths, he seems to be benefitting the country as a whole. But, of course, that could all change. It’s never good to put your faith in any individual, as the Founders understood.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor Bratt,

    As an aside, you wondered if perhaps The American historical guild has gone too far in stressing the grim side of our past.

    The comments on this site the last few days would confirm your suspicions. Howard Zinn rules!

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