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Telling a more accurate story

Contra the left’s narrative, Christians have fought against evil in American history

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Telling a more accurate story
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Christians in America have grown used to playing defense. Each new year seems to bring a new assault, whether it be on principles of public morality that nearly all Americans used to hold sacred, or a direct attack on Christians for their supposed bigotry, patriarchalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, racism, and myriad other alleged sins.

A great many Christians have responded by internalizing the rhetoric of their accusers, taking a perverse comfort in lacerating themselves and their fellow Christians for the various evils that they have brought upon the world. We are regularly treated to the spectacle of evangelical elites calling upon us to join in “lament” and “repentance” for our “complicity” in any number of national evils, past and present. Such calls are psychologically appealing, for they provide an opportunity to indulge pride (“we are so much more morally enlightened than our forebears”) while pretending to display humility.

Other Christians decide to respond by embracing the discourse of victimhood, but reversing the terms: It is not African-Americans, women, gays, or immigrants who are the oppressed victim class, but we Christians. If they’re going to play the grievance game, we will play the grievance game too, some will say. If they will stoke resentment and present politics as a zero-sum battle between rival identity groups, so will we. More responsible voices will try to argue that Christians should at least be left to be themselves within protected enclaves: “Perhaps we have forfeited any right to shape public discourse, but at least let us keep practicing our faith quietly in our own communities.”

Such responses are understandable given the tide of vitriol that Christians routinely face today in many settings, but they are insufficient. In public debate, as in sports, the best defense is a good offense, and it’s high time that Christians push back against the accusations regularly thrown their way. Instead of meekly apologizing that American Christianity has been the leading force for oppression, bigotry, expropriation of Native Americans, enslavement of blacks—claims repeated so often they’ve become virtual truisms—it’s time to look at the actual historical record.

American history bears little resemblance to the dystopia sketched by activists like those of the 1619 Project.

When we look at this record, as the noted American historian Mark David Hall demonstrates in his new book, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans, a very different picture emerges. Critics seem content to propose the syllogism: (a) America has historically been a Christian nation; (b) Americans have done many terrible things to many people; therefore (c) Christianity bears chief responsibility for these terrible things. But this relies on an equivocation. Even at its best, America has been far from 100 percent Christian, and even the best Christians do not always live up to their own standards. The real question is whether, in a given historical context, self-consciously Christian people, drawing on self-consciously Christian reasons, were more likely to push back against the evils of their day or to promote those evils. Framed this way, American history bears little resemblance to the dystopia sketched by activists like those of the 1619 Project.

Hall begins his story with Puritan New England, that notoriously drab theater of religious oppression and severity. In fact, he notes that by relying on biblical law as a standard for civil law, the Puritans vastly reduced the number of capital crimes, and rejected practices like torture that were still standard in European courts. But that was just toward fellow whites, right? American Christians didn’t recognize that Native Americans had any rights, did they? Actually, in perhaps the most celebrated example of Native American oppression—the removal of the Cherokees in the 1830s—it was the most irreligious segments of American society that supported removal, and evangelical Christians who were loudest in their support for Cherokee rights.

But what about that darkest stain on the American story, slavery? There is no question that Christians were complicit in this evil, and that many church leaders twisted Scripture to justify their oppressions. Christians today must not hide from this admission. But again, we must reframe the question: Were self-conscious Christians, appealing to Christian principles, more or less likely to oppose slavery than the irreligious? Here, Hall marshals a wealth of evidence from the Founding era till the Civil War to show the ways in which Christians in the more devout Northern states first drew on biblical themes to outlaw slavery, and then expanded upon such themes to campaign for the eradication of slavery in the South as well. This story might well have been extended to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which drew extensively on Christian theology to make its case for resistance to racial segregation.

It is high time for Christians to confidently tell this story in the public square, rather than the twisted progressive narrative in which America had to free itself from Christianity in order to free itself from oppression. Christians in America have been far from perfect, but God has used their faith and love to help make this country a rare land of liberty.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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