Os Guinness, Eric Metaxas, and Their Dangerous Myths of American HistoryRoundup
tags: conservatism, historiography, religion, myth, evangelicalism
Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English and holds a courtesy appointment in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. You can read more about the author here.
On June 1, President Trump cleared peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to pose with a bible by a church. This act spoke directly to his base, which includes a large number of white evangelical Christians, and it validated false Christian histories of America that many of them accept. For too many people today, America can be great only if it is Christian, and it can be Christian only if it was founded by evangelical figures on the basis of biblical principles.
This view of a biblical nation is widespread and seems to be rising, partly in reaction to protests and undertakings like The 1619 Project. Not long before Donald Trump’s awkward pose, for example, the prominent evangelical Os Guinness gave a lecture stereotyping the American Revolution as “biblical” and the French Revolution as secular. Such an account cannot make sense of the actual actors and factors that went into each, as John Fea—a Christian historian—explains. But Os Guinness is only a part-time partaker in these mythic histories. David Barton is the most full-time falsifier of the American founding, but Eric Metaxas remains the most popular. According to Metaxas, for example, John Adams was “a committed and theologically orthodox Christian,” though in reality Adams denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
The histories of America posited by Metaxas and others like him contain a multitude of errors, as plenty of historians have pointed out. But where the historical problems are obvious, the theological dangers in their methods can often be harder to spot. So let me identify three.
First, these histories of America represent a failure of love. For far too long, accounts of the American founding touted by too many white evangelicals have tended to erase, ignore, or downplay slavery, injustice, and oppression. As a result, the story of racial minorities in America—including faithful non-white Christians, many of whom are keeping Christianity alive in America—get written out of our nation’s past. It is hard to love others while refusing to listen to them, and Christian nationalist histories are, in large measure, a refusal to listen—an unwillingness to reckon with the hard truths that haunt the past and present of so many in America today. When Os Guinness calls the American Constitution “biblical,” for example, he fails to acknowledge that the Constitution officially recognized the legality of slavery and ensured its survival for another seven decades.
American history is not a tale only of failure and oppression and abuse; but it is also not a tale only of freedom, achievement, and success. Only when we begin to see the multiplicity and complexity of history can we begin to understand how God moves in it and through it, and how we, in the present, can and should respond—righting wrongs and attempting to shine a light in dark places. The gospel depends not on the power of the government or our ability to claim political influence at any cost. It depends on the grace of God, which calls on the church to act as the Body of Christ. And a church divided by false histories of our country cannot be the force of healing this world needs.
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