06 July 2012

Kirk Cameron's Monumental Part 2: The Theology of Nationalism and Historical Narrative

Cameron brings along Marshall Foster to help him interpret the monument's symbolism. Foster is a popular 'historian' in these circles. I've listened to him lecture on numerous occasions and find myself rarely agreeing with much of anything he says. Even when gets something correct, it is framed in a misleading or manipulative manner. History has a narrative to it, and it's amazing how it seems to perfectly match the Theonomic Reconstructionist and Christo-American cultural and political agenda.
Providence guides history, but history isn't complete and unless God has specifically laid out a historical narrative, which he hasn't for any nation in the New Testament but the Church...it is a dangerous thing to impose one upon the annals of history. History is messy and complicated and imposing these narratives (like God's hand was on America) on history is a dangerous business, can be self-deceptive, have a tendency to whitewash and mythologize, promote unbiblical pride and bigotry, and can blind people to the evils their nation commits. Assyria was used by God in Isaiah 10, but then Assyria was crushed and punished by God for her wickedness. America and the Americanists would do well to take heed. They think of themselves as a North American Israel...but how do they know they're not an Egypt?

Suffice it to say, even if I were a Dominionist I would feel very uncomfortable with how Foster speaks about and interprets history.  He makes wild assumptions, forces narratives onto past historical events, gets many facts just plain wrong, and engages in an endless stream of non sequiturs.***
They go through the monument and explain all its meanings, what each statue represents, the surrounding words and objects they hold. It's all well and good except that the monument itself is an interpretation. Built by Freemasons in the late 19th century , the monument combines many subsequent ideologies and anachronistically attaches them to the Mayflower Pilgrims. Cameron seems to make the common mistake of confusing the Pilgrims with the Puritans.
The Puritans had no problem with a state or Established Church. They simply wanted it to reflect their theology rather than the 'middle of the road'/partially reformed position the Church of England had taken with the Elizabethan Settlement. This and other factors eventually led to the English Civil War in the 1640's, the beheading of Charles I, and the controversial Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.
Many Puritans actually returned to Britain to engage in this war against the Stewarts...and in a subsequent chapter of the conflict participated in the mass slaughter of the Irish who like the American colonials a century or so later didn't appreciate tyranny and tried to shed the yoke of British rule.
Apparently if we're to try and read back 'freedom and democracy' into the Puritan narrative that didn't extend to any people beyond themselves. They did not believe in freedom or democracy when it came to the Irish, the Scots, Quakers, Baptists, or really anyone but themselves. It's quite a stretch to suggest they believed these to be some kind of universal values or truths they wished to uphold.
These same people came by the thousands to America in the 1630's and overwhelmed the Pilgrim settlers which arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.  Theologically there were great similarities. Both groups were Calvinistic and held to many of the same ideas.****
But there was a key difference. The Pilgrims did not believe in a Church of England. They were Separatists. They did not define the Church as being coextensive with a society, culture, or nation. In fact the system which believed in this concept had persecuted them and driven them out of England. Once in America they faced difficulties and were not always consistent. Since they had unbelievers with them, their dream of purity in a new land was immediately unrealistic.
Christian isolationism is not only unbiblical, it is fictitious, Trappist monks being perhaps the only exception, but of course being Roman Catholic monks they're not actually Christian are they? I'm using Christian in the Biblical sense, not in the grander loosely defined extra-Biblical sense Dominionists like Cameron are forced to use in order to make their case.
Nevertheless, they wanted a place where they could go and worship God, order their affairs the way they wanted and to be left alone and free of persecution. The ideas of the City on the Hill, the Redeemer Nation came with the Sacralistic Puritans who were determined to make both England and the New Word extensions of God's Kingdom.
In American mythology, the Puritan ideals of the City on a Hill, as well as other concepts (many from the Enlightenment) regarding law and society were brought together and wrongly melded to the symbolism of the persecuted and adventurous Pilgrims. The monument in Plymouth is but one of many representing this powerful but frankly incorrect and romanticised view of American history.
The Pilgrims are a powerful symbol in American social iconography. Yet they represented the antithesis of what America came to represent and certainly does today....power. Power is about violence and force, bringing your will to bear on others. The state on a simple level is the entity that is viewed as the legitimate wielder of this violence. To retain legitimacy it must monopolize the legitimate use of violence. When someone contends this or tries to break the monopoly...you have rebellion, revolution, or civil war.
The American Colonial Rebellion of 1776 was an attempt to take away the power of the king of England and place it into the hands of colonists...colonists who had come from the Sacral context of the 'Christian' West but had also combined the values of Scripture with many worldly ideas concerning 'rights' the 'state', 'law' and 'society'.
Often these ideas are anachronistically read back into the past and the monument represents this, confusing later Americanisms with 17th Calvinistic Separatism. This comes in a host of forms, the most extreme and frankly ridiculous suggesting Old Testament Israel was also a representative republic...just like America!
Watchwords like freedom are often applied to the earlier generations, but often they did not mean the same thing by it. Historically Fischer's work 'Albion's Seed' demonstrates how the various segments of colonial society all had very different concepts of law and liberty. These terms didn't mean the same thing to each group. Puritans, Quakers, Ulster-Scots, and the folk of the Tidewater all had very different notions of freedom. Nor does the term mean the same today, where it is often interpreted as license. So historically to just take a word like 'freedom' and place it on the past is a path to certain error.
This happens all the more when these modern political and politicized words and definitions are then read back into Scripture.
A poignant example of this is when the terms liberty and freedom are read in the Bible. For Americans these words have strong connotations and we bring this baggage with us when we read the same words in the Scripture. Sadly, the United States is riddled with many such monuments which actually twist the words of Scripture. The Liberty Bell employs Leviticus 25 in this way by using liberty in a sense more familiar to John Locke than to Moses. Leviticus 25 was not applicable to 18th century Pennsylvania, nor 21st century America. The 'land' and the jubilee are pictures of Redemption and the work of Christ...it's blasphemous for a modern nation state to appropriate these concepts and degrade them by treating them as 'common' and ordinary and somehow applicable to their man-made constructs and experiments.
To use Scripture in this way as many plaques and politicians do is actually quite dangerous and misleading. It ought not to be celebrated. Christians bemoan its practice when someone like Bill Clinton does it, but they praised George Bush's attempts.
This is so important I wish to re-emphasize this....
Bible verses which are really referencing the history of salvation and thus Jesus Christ should not be applied to a society or nation. It should gravely concern Christians when this is done, because it is a wrong use and interpretation of Scripture, it confuses the meaning of the text, and I hope it is easily seen there is a real danger of idolatry hidden in this method. Redemptive/Salvation categories are now tied to a nationalist narrative. When this happens...watch out! A nation's sin and shame will suddenly become its glory and adoration.
Rather than Biblical Christianity which certainly would be Cameron's stated goal, we end up with a hybrid religion, one I often call Christo-Americanism. Like medieval Catholicism, or even modern Theological Liberalism, it looks Christian, uses the same lexicon, many of the same symbols but it is really an idol, a false religion with another gospel.
*** A non sequitur is a conclusion that 'does not follow'...that is the argument made does not lead to the conclusion put forward. This happens all the time in historical interpretation, theology and especially in modern debate on the news etc...
People make the case, develop the argument and then come up with a conclusion...but it doesn't add up. The argument either didn't lead to the conclusion, or their conclusion goes way beyond the facts they provided.
**** Full disclosure on my part. Lest anyone thinks I just engage in arbitrary American criticism. My own ancestors were both on the Mayflower and in Massachusetts Bay. Samuel Stone was one of my ancestors and I'm also a descendant of a survivor of the Deerfield Massacre and veterans of the Pequot War. I'm not boasting as it should be plain I take no pride in these events. All I'm saying is that my own family story is tied in with all of this.


Cal said...

Thanks for this, I always like your posts on early America. I started on Fischers book (it's massive! Sometimes I lament being in university because I can't read the books I want) and only got part way through New England. Wow, were the Puritans more deep and complex than the pejorative lets on.

Anyway, I do lament that the Pilgrims were so absorbed and rewritten by many into the legacy of New England Puritanism. It is hard to maintain the 'Pilgrim' identity and the 'War of the Lamb' attitude when you deal with kin. Especially, when they seem to be brothers before the Lord but leading off to selling the birthright for Babylonian porridge (multiple themes in that one).

I do also dislike when Scriptural phrases are duplicated idolatrously. A popular one is "Where the Spirit of the Lord is: there is liberty" as if the Holy Spirit is marching before the American Legions on their path to "make the world safe for democracy". Yikes, it's scary.

I'm always going to get on this, but even for an entity like Roman Catholicism I hate just saying that they're not even Christians. It's a broadbrush and its done rhetorically, but I just try and think of legitimate catholic followers of our Lord Jesus.

There are some who are such faithful brothers, many who pledge faith to the Pope in Rome and the Magisterium, and others who are heirs to some odd cultural syncretic blend (Irish, Latino, Italian, Polish etc.). If they're saying "Jesus is Lord", though they are in a toxic system, I can't not call them "Brother". I suppose it's something we disagree on. I don't even know if you'd call me brother! I hope so :).

Pax et Amor,

Protoprotestant said...

The biggest problem with Fischer's book is that it's too small! He did write a follow up....Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement. If you like Albion's Seed, give that one a try when you're done. It's much more condensed but equally interesting.
Your comment on the Puritans is correct. I'm not a big fan of them, but they're not deserving of the caricature laid upon them. They were (like most people) a bit more complex than what is rooted in the cultural consciousness. I must say I still greatly appreciate some of their writings but I don't sit at their feet anymore.
When I started down this road about 15 years ago, I was spending a lot of time in Washington DC. I had been there before, but now...walking around the National Mall, reading monuments etc... It made me queasy. And then to listen to Bush's rhetoric...and then to go back and look Reagan...it was eye opening. I used to have a picture of Reagan hanging on my wall! What a buffoon, and I see now why people were afraid of him wielding power. Scary. I consider Gorbachev to be the real hero of the last chapter of the Cold War...not Reagan, John Paul II, nor Maggie Thatcher.
My blanket denunciation of Roman Catholicism is usually applied to the theological system which I do not believe to be Christian. That said, I don't believe most of Evangelicalism (hard to define) is either. As far as individuals within Romanism or Evangelicalism...that's not for me to say. Now if I were an elder at a Church, would I welcome them in terms of communion? I would welcome some Evangelicals, while I would not any Roman Catholics. So in that sense, I don't recognize their profession of faith.
Are there some Christian's in the Roman fold. Sure. Actually there's a probably a good number in Africa and Asia. In the United States, Evangelicalism has probably done more to keep Catholics Catholic than anything else. If I were an RC, watching the Sunday morning circus/ dog and pony show....it would make me run to historical tradition as well. There's a comfort there, something solid...just not Biblical.

Protoprotestant said...

I don't think it helps RC's to encourage them to think that everything is okay...they're brethren. Each case is different of course, but generally they need to be stirred. They'll run into someone like you or me...and say, wow, this guy is really serious about the Bible, history etc.... but....he totally rejects Rome. That gives them some hard pills to swallow versus....we just have some differences. We do, and they're titanic in scope.
Historically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church has to be included within the discussion of Western Christianity. Culturally and in terms of history, they are in that limited sense....Christian.
The problem is the Bible doesn't deal with the term that way and theologically they're Galatians and under condemnation. Paul was being gracious (maybe I should be a bit more)...but he also told the Galatians he stood in doubt of them and that the telos of their doctrine meant they had fallen from grace.
In your last paragraph you mention the whole ethnic angle which does indeed play a big part. Even in 2012, where I live in Pennsylvania, this plays a big part. We have large Polish and Italian communities and in some locales they still are separated. Both are Roman, but in one town there's still a Polish Catholic Church with a Polish liturgy. In many cases, ethnicity and minority status in a predominately Protestant country have led these people to rally around a cultural identity which happens to include the RCC. You see the same thing in the Uniate Churches, or the Greek Orthodox. Wonderful glue to bind a community together, but it just has little to do with Christianity.
And finally, yes we disagree significantly about many things. I don't know you, nor would I presume to judge your heart. While I can't agree with you all the time, you haven't said anything that overthrows the gospel. I don't know if it would work for two people like you and me to sit together as Elders in a Church, but worship together, be part of the same community, commune together... I don't see why not??? You did say you spit on the sidewalk though....that's kind of rough. (wink)

Cal said...

I agree with your thoughts on RCC as a toxic ideological system and you're right the absurdities of evangelicalism drives some back into the arms of 'Tradition'. However it also has seeped in some.

The attitude of someone like Robert Baron would not arise in anything else besides evanglical-influenced RCC.

Why are your opinions different for the Roman fold in Africa and Asia? Is it the lack of a foundation makes them less out of the grasp of Roman control and they're just loosely affiliated? I'm curious here.

The reason I got on this in particular is not because of any love for Roman Catholicism but because some people just don't know where to turn. I'd rather someone be in some modest catholic parish than go to a fundamentalist legalistic baptist church or a liberalized congregation that has thrown out the gospel for self-help and cultural programs. It's degrees of poison.

However I'm talking in a microcosm of individuals. Looking at the world, most catholics are probably not disciples of the Lord.

This coming from someone who does not believe his Roman Catholic christening was a valid baptism and not because I'm not exclusively credo-baptist. On this, you've certainly got me rethinking this in terms of the Waldenses. Thanks for that!