Book Review: Unchristian America

I’ve regularly lamented on this blog the failure of the “Religious Right” to “bring America back to God.”  It seems that not only has our President proclaimed to the world that we are not a Christian nation, but also the likes of James Dobson has admitted that the whole effort has ended in failure.  How did this happen?  We “named it” but didn’t claim it; we “blabbed it” but didn’t grab it.  We worked campaign after campaign, election after election, to say nothing of the ballot initiatives.  But Roe vs. Wade is still law of the land, and the Ivy League (rather than Wheaton, Liberty or Regent) produces the elitist snobs that rule over us, and will probably do so until the end of the Republic.  How could this happen?

One explanation—one that, incidentally, predates the campaign of 2008—comes from Michael Babcock, professor of humanities at Liberty University.  His book Unchristian America: Living with faith in a nation that was never under God, lays out in fast-moving detail the history of the Religious Right, its significance in view of American history, its denouement in this decade and what he thinks it will take to get back to where we should be as Christians.

He sets forth his idea in two parts, appropriately titled “Losing the Battle” and “Winning the War.”  That idea is fairly simple.

First, he says that the U.S. was never a Christian nation to start with.  Such a thesis would have been more straightforward had he defined what he thinks a “Christian nation” is.  (Except for the core theonomists, the Religious Right is likewise reticent to put a definition to this.)  He replicates the ideas of others such as former Yale University President Theodore Woolsey, and offers a reasonable explanation why his definition no longer applies to the U.S., if it ever did.  But ultimately one gets the impression that Babcock thinks that the phrase “Christian nation” is an oxymoron.  (I feel the same way about “Protestant theology,” but I digress…)

That leads to the second part of the book and the second pillar of his thesis: that the only way that Christians in this country are going to be the people that God intended them to be by adopting a New Testament model of behaviour and attitude towards the state.  One key element of such a model is a passionate commitment to life, and Babcock spends an entire chapter on the subject.

Babcock takes a tricky path by combining the history of the Religious Right movement with his own live and involvement in it.  But he makes it work with a good handle on the facts and a better sense of history than most Evangelicals (or Americans in general, for that matter.)  He sets in front of the reader two events that galvanised the whole movement: the proposal by the IRS to tax Christian schools which did not meet a racial quota in the student body (an event I alluded to in Public Education: A Christian Perspective) and Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the analogy is mine, but I think it’s apt) of the pro-life movement amongst Evangelicals.  He avoids the temptation to bend the facts to settle personal scores.  Being at Jerry Falwell’s own institution, he has ringside seats to a great deal of the story he tells.  And he uses his experience as the son of missionaries to Africa to illustrate that we don’t need an explicitly “Christian nation” to be Christians.  (We don’t need liberalism to be Christians either, another lesson that’s coming from Africa via the Anglican Communion.)

On the whole, Babcock’s thesis is reasonable as far as it goes, and that’s further than most American Evangelicals are prepared to.  But there are some items that I would have liked to seen dealt with differently.

The first is that Babcock’s perplexity over the ambiguities of the Founding Fathers would have been resolved if he had spent some time on the fact that our Fathers (almost to a man) were Freemasons.  Syncretistic Freemasonry, which sets its own deistic view of God above that of other religions, was either the basis or manifestation (take your pick) of mentalities such as Thomas Jefferson, who one minute acknowledged the inalienability of rights endowed by a Creator and the next excised portions of the New Testament which showed Jesus performing miracles.  If this country ever had an official religion, it was Freemasonry (and of course the Masons kept it a secret!)  Evangelicals would do well to deal with this issue, but Babcock obviously isn’t the one to tackle it.

I found amusing his replication of John McArthur’s idea that the U.S. was flawed because it was born in rebellion.  It would be interesting whether Babcock is prepared (as I do here) to extend that line of reasoning to Evangelical churches in general.  His idea that Christians didn’t have anything to rebel against from a religious standpoint if nothing else ignores the situation in the Southern colonies, where the Church of England was the only legal religion of the realm, as was the case in England.

His idea that the U.S. was destined to pass into post-modernity from its start smacks of historical determinism, that concept which Marx and Engels made fashionable with the left.  If nothing else, it doesn’t make sense vis à vis Europe, whose nations had a clearer vision of what a “Christian nation” was all about yet got to post-Christianity more rapidly that we did.

His chapter on life only underscores what a bunch of “Johnny come latelies” the Evangelicals were on this subject.  It makes me glad that I spent most of the 1970’s as a Roman Catholic, as we were treated to a connection between abortion, euthanasia and other “culture of death” issues from the pulpit from the Sunday after Roe vs. Wade onward.  It’s not a very happy thought that dour Calvinist Schaeffer, who only a few years earlier had trashed Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas in Escape From Reason, should turn around and lecture Evangelicals on the importance of the sanctity of life.  (I dealt with Frankie Schaeffer, his son, during the campaign last year.)

Babcock’s exposition of the importance of the Sermon on the Mount was another one of those “where were you?” moments for me.  Growing up Episcopalian, one command that I followed slavishly was to give to those who asked, which make me a mark in boarding school.  Years later I dated a high church Episcopalian (from the Diocese of South Carolina, for you Titusonenine visitors) who also went to boarding school and did the same thing!

But these observations should not detract from what is a good book.  Today we’re back to the same question that Schaeffer posed in the 1970’s: how should we then live?  Babcock’s answer is challenging, succinct and keeps your interest, which is reason enough to delve into Unchristian America.

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