What It Was All About

On this, the 150th anniversary of the second day of the War Between the States, let us pause to reflect what it was all about. But this has been done so many time before, you say. Yes, but we still take opportunities like great round number anniversaries to reflect. However, it is also relevant because of the various civil wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is further relevant because of the cadre of newly elected officials in Washington who align themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The War of Northern Aggression, or as it is sometimes called, Mr. Lincoln’s War, was about one thing. Political self-determination. There is no question that the issue of slavery divided the country, but the war wasn’t about what divided the country. It was about what to do with a divided country. And it is all well and good to look back with 20/20 hindsight and make the moral judgement that the lives of 600,000 men and boys was worth the speeding up of the emancipation process, thus laying the groundwork for the hostility of many whites toward blacks for the next hundred years. However, justifying the war by the result does not explain why it happened in the first place.

Mr Lincoln was only interested in one thing. His single goal was to save the Union. A friend reminded me recently of his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The turn of phrase “save the Union” sounds very noble, but what does it mean? It means that people who freely chose to associate themselves in a particular political arrangement were no longer free to change that arrangement. They bound future generations in perpetuity.  In Mr Lincoln’s view, the Constitution abrogated to words of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Mr Lincoln had no regard whatsoever for the consent of the governed. The men of the Confederacy were not anarchists.  They had lawfully constituted and constitutional state governments. This was not good enough. Thousands upon thousands of young men were marched to their deaths to restore the national authority – to enforce at the point of a bayonet that Washington DC, not Montgomery or Jackson or Little Rock or Nashville or Austin or Richmond, was the source of civil authority.

This was made all the clearer during the so-called Reconstruction, when the Southern States, which according to the Northern States had never (and could have never) left the indivisible Union, were run as military departments. Their constitutional governments were suspended until such a time as it was determined that they had been re-created in the way the victors demanded.

Since this time, the power of the national authority has been steadily increased. The Supreme Court often gets the blame for this, but all the branches of government have played their part. Almost every day I come across provisions in the U.S. Code that should be left to the States. And those who decry the executive acts of the Obama administration overlook decades of incursions and usurpations of state sovereignty but administrations of both parties.

At the height of the hypocrisy is the support for self-determination in other countries by a government that refuses to follow its own Constitution and limit itself to specifically delegated powers. This is the legacy of the War Between the States.

Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution

First it was the Tea Party and now it is the Revolution.  Apparently that is the new thing. I’ve been told by more than one person that they are preparing for the next Revolution and I’ve started to see it all around the conservative blogosphere. I used to be the firebrand around here. Now I’ve turned into the voice of reason.

Apparently Obama has gone too far and Revolution is the answer. It’s all leading to armed uprising. So go ahead and have your revolution.  The biggest problem I see is figuring out what to revolt against and what to put in its place. I’m afraid this is where it’s all gonna fall apart.

Some people are mad at Obama. I’ve heard people say they think he’s on the verge of becoming a military dictator. Some people think it is whole “Ruling Elite” of both parties. Regardless of elections and even changes in party power on Capitol Hill, the same machinery of government rolls along, so apparently they will all have to be throw out by force.

But no one seem to know who’s gonna do the throwing, from whence they will derive the authority to do the throwing, where they’re gonna throw them, and what they are going to put in their place.

There have been two American revolutions. One succeeded and one failed. However, both had something in common. They had recognisable governments already in place.

In 1775, there were established, properly elected colonial governments. A year before the first shots were fired, these colonial governments had already sent delegates to the First Continental Congress.  In 1861, there were properly elected state governments.

In the first American revolution, the colonists had no forum of redress for their grievances against the central government. They were able to change the form of government from monarchy to republic. Have the new revolutionists come up with a new form of government they think works better? That would seem incompatible with extolling the virtues of the US Constitution, which they all seem to do. Nonetheless, the mechanisms within that Constitution to change the government, left virtually unchanged other than the direct election of senators, do not seem to satisfy. And I don’t hear anyone clamoring for revolution over dissatisfaction with the 17th Amendment.

The Second American revolution, that war between the states known to most of my ancestors as the War of Northern Aggression, was fought after a nation was divided by different political views and one side felt helpless as the deck had been stacked against them.  The new President didn’t openly threaten to change the entire structure of the economy and the society, but there was a lot about his background that made them gravely suspicious. This is probably a better model for predicting the outcome of any future conflict.

The citizenry of the South were well-armed and morally outraged. All my friends with AR-15s will tell you that this is why they have their assault rifles and boxes of ammo. To defend themselves against the government.  The thing is, weapons have moved on a bit since 1861.

Now let’s say this Third American revolution is so organized as to have entire states willing to secede. And let’s say that the governors of those states were able to maintain control of all the resources available to them in the National Guard and State Guard units. If so, they would have some proper military weapons, including some aircraft. Now there’s your revolution. The thing is, though, they would be so far outmatched by the regular US military forces that comparisons to the Recent Unpleasantness wouldn’t hold up. There’s not a single red state that has an aircraft carrier.

But let’s say we go ahead have a civil war. At the time of the last one, the population of the United States was about 31 million. Today is it roughly ten times that. The number of deaths is generally estimated at about 620,000. It would be nice if it were just a matter of multiplying by 10 and saying a new civil war would result in 6.2 million deaths. However, modern wars are much better at adding collateral damages. You know, civilian deaths. But let’s say we keep those to a minimum. Let’s keep the total deaths at 10 million.

Surely this is a small price to pay for an insurrection against a President and Congress that refuse to stop all the illegal immigrants from coming in and won’t catch and send back all the ones already here.  If you consider that he’s also put us on the road to European-style health care, you’d be willing to sacrifice a few sons – and considering the collateral damage, wives and daughters – for the cause, wouldn’t you? The constant fear of bombardment and food rationing would only be for a few years at most.

There are, after all, some people who have gotten innoculations at the free clinic when they weren’t entitled to do so, and maybe even some food stamps. And some of them haven’t learned English. If we give up the lives of a substantial part of the 18- to 30-year-old men in combat and a few million non-combatant men, women and children, there won’t be any illegals working on construction sites, cleaning houses or mowing grass. That’ll show ’em.

And one thing’s for sure: during this new American revolution, it will be much more dangerous north of the Mexican border than south of it. It will be safer for these dastardly immigrants to put up with the drug cartels. They won’t want to be sneaking into a country torn apart by war. Not only that, but since the federal government won’t be there to protect them, anybody that doesn’t like them will probably be able to kill them with impunity. There’s the motivation they need to leave Arizona.

Luke 14:28-32

The Heresy of Exceptionalism

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an article/newsletter by David Barton. Normally I am loath to read anything by Barton (the self-proclaimed “renowned historian” without even an undergraduate history degree or any clue about historical methodology), but since this had to do with Texas politics and particularly the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, I thought it might be worthwhile to give it a look. Barton’s contention is that Speaker Joe Straus isn’t really a conservative and not much of a Republican. Fair enough.

But what really caught my eye was an attack Barton made on one of Straus’ allies. After commenting on a piece of pro-life legislation that State Affairs Committee Chariman Burt Solomons prevented from reaching the floor of the House, he says, “Incidentally, as a reflection of Solomons’ philosophy, he had previously even objected to teaching that America is a blessed and unique nation – i.e., American Exceptionalism…” There’s no indication as to whether Solomons currently objects to this teaching, and the comment is a bit of the cheap ad hominem that is sadly found pervasively in conservative circles.

In my youth I imbibed heavily from the trough of American Exceptionalism and have held to it explicitly or implicitly for most of my life.  As a result, I have done the only logical thing: I have repented.

America has been a blessed and unique nation, but recognising this is not adhering to American Exceptionalism. Many nations have been blessed and all nations are unique, but this is not what David Barton believes. American Exceptionalism is the teaching that the United States is special above all other nations – that God has blessed America and likes America more than the others.

American Exceptionalism has been used as an exemption from the law of nations. The attitude is that international law may apply to the rest of you but it doesn’t apply to us, because we’re special and we don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules.  We will tell you what you can and can’t do in your country, but don’t you dare tell us. In fact, international law so doesn’t apply that we can violate the sovereignty of other countries and have done so with impunity. All countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign that others. The sovereignty of other countries is always secondary to American interests.

This doctrine of American Exceptionalism is not something new. One hundred and seventy years ago it was called Manifest Destiny (though the term is often used for the period between 1812-1860, it was coined in 1839 and only came into common use around 1845). It was used to justify the expansion of the United States at whatever cost. The biggest acquisition was 42% of Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, which started as a dispute over the territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in South Texas. This is a bit like taking an area twice the size of France as the result of a dispute about an area the size of, for example, Alsace-Lorraine. This area now contains over 16% of the US population, so it could be argued that we eventually needed the lebensraum.

It was also the justification to gain control of much of the central part of the continent that had been purchased from a European power which claimed it by right of conquest.*  Most of the inhabitants were completely unaware they had been conquered. When they objected to their lands being taken by white folks, the US Army brought this to their attention. They were, after all, savages, so it was okay to kill them. Having no concept of private property, they also had no property rights, so it was only right that it should be taken over and controlled by folks who understood their God-given right to plat and deed every inch land. Now it must be said that out of the goodness of their heart, the American government did reserve some of the Indians’ own land for them, force them to live there, and shoot them if they objected.

The most extraordinary thing about this American Exceptionalism is that it is generally agreed to have its roots in a thesis (it is often called a sermon, but we have no record of it ever being spoken to a gathering of people in church or otherwise) by John Winthrop, written aboard the Arbella on the way to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. The thesis was called “A Model of Christian Charity”. It is best known for the phrase “city upon a hill” which appears near the end.  I reiterate that this is an extraordinary thing, because there is nothing in Winthrop’s thesis that supports the idea of Exceptionalism or Manifest Destiny. If you doubt me, you need to read it. I welcome you to challenge my understanding of it.

“A Model of Christian Charity” is explicitly an exhortation of how the Massachusetts Bay colonists should behave toward one another. This is based upon their religious covenant to each other. Winthrop does say that what they are doing is extraordinary – not in founding a nation that would stretch from sea to shining sea, because they did not see themselves as founding a country nor did they have any concept of the size of North America. They saw what they were doing as extraordinary, so that living by the Golden Rule was going to be essential. The avoidance of usury was going to be essential. Being knitted together as the body of Christ was going to be essential while they struggled to hang on to an existence on the shores of New England.

I have outlined (barely) some of the practical results of Exceptionalism. I have demonstrated, if only enough to encourage you to read the original document (David Barton would be proud), that the connection with the Puritans and the “city on a hill” is non-existent. But none of that relates to the most important aspect of all and the reason I have titled this essay as I have. None of this is the reason I have repented.

Exceptionalism is a heresy. The more one tries to support it with a religious foundation, the more heretical is becomes.

Americans are not God’s chosen people. The Church is God’s chosen people. The Church includes some Americans. Americans do not even make up the largest fraction of national representation in the Church. (That would be the Chinese. Current estimates indicate that there are likely more Christians in China than there are people in the United States.) When St Peter said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” he was referring to the Church.

In that oft-used phrase, John Winthrop refers to Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The “you” to whom Jesus is referring are His disciples – those who are hearing and following His teaching – the Church. Winthrop was referring to his fellow Puritan settlers as Christians living out the Gospel, not to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or a democratic Republic, which would have been the furthest things from his imagination.

With all due respect to Ronald Reagan, who co-opted Winthrop’s phrase in his Farewell Address, as well as by his own admission having use it all his political life, the city on a hill is not prosperity nor is it freedom. No, if we go back to the Original Document and Original Intent (I hope David Barton would be pleased), the city is the light of Christ. Inasmuch as it refers to freedom, we would have to cross-reference to John 8:38, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Has the United States been blessed? Certainly. Has the US as a nation done some good things? Of course. Has this blessing been because we have somehow fulfilled Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts Bay? Absolutely not. It has been by the grace and mercy of God, despite some very terrible shortcomings as individuals and as a nation. How dare we say, “Our fathers expanded and built the United States this way and look at how God has blessed us – surely this is evidence of our righteousness!”

Everyone knows the bit of Winthrop’s thesis that says, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The important bit follows: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.”

As Christians we are the light on a hill. It is we who have a responsibility to live out the Gospel. Not because of what John Winthrop wrote and a connection we feel to the Puritan fathers, however tenuous that may be. Not because we are Americans. Because we are Christians. We have a responsibility to live charitably toward one another. Again, if you want to know the characteristics of the city on a hill as outlined by Winthrop, as true and biblical today for all believers, read the whole thing.

God does not love America more because some of the first white settlers of an area that eventually became a colony and eventually broke away from England were good Christian folk. (And just for the record, we have no covenantal connection to those good Christian folk of Massachusetts Bay, so we are not reaping what they have sown. But that’s an article for another time.) Nor does He love us more because a lot of people that were involved in the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were Christians and even those who weren’t occasionally used Christian shop talk.  Nor does he love us more because we are a democratic Republic that has tried to spread our form of government around the world, whether other people wanted it or not.

I’m blessed to be an American, but that does not make me special to God, nor did it make the generations of my forefathers going back to colonial times any more special to God. Nations rise and nations fall. The United States hasn’t been around all that long and it won’t be here forever. God operates on a completely different time scale.

The exceptional thing is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, whether we were blessed to be born in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere else. As the Church, we are God’s special people and unique nation. That is the Gospel.

*Technically, it was purchased from a country (France) which acquired it in a treaty from another country (Spain) which had acquired it in a treaty from the first country (France), which had laid claim by conquest.

Bad Scholarship, Bad Behaviour and the Call to Something Better

Tonight I was looking for some books as presents. A couple of volumes that had been recently featured or recommended by Glenn Beck were suggested to me as appropriate for the intended recipient. I searched for them on Amazon and decided to read some of the reviews.

In both cases, the overwhelming number of reviews were accompanied by a five-star rating of each book.  Seems like a no-brainer. Everybody likes these books. Must be good. Why even bother with the couple of two-star ratings and reviews?  Maybe it was Proverbs 18:17 niggling in the back of my mind:

The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him.

In both cases, there was a very thoughtful, thorough, critical review. There was detailed analysis and no hint of ad hominem. However, it was only tonight I discovered that Amazon reviews are subject to their own reviews. Each one has its own comment section. That’s where the detailed analysis and lack of ad hominem ended. It’s just an extension of the blogosphere.

In both cases the source of the attacks was patently clear. They confirmed that I’m becoming increasingly disturbed by fortress Christian America. There is one narrow interpretation of history and anyone who questions it or one of its recognised spokesmen (I can’t use the word “scholars”) is a liberal, a secularist, and in all likelihood a homosexual. I’m just telling you what I’ve read from some very angry people.

Does this mean I’m disturbed by the idea of Christians being involved in politics at every level? No. Do I think Christians should exert their influence to bring the law at every level and in every area into conformity with Christian morality? Absolutely.

However, the idea that we can only gain the moral high ground by proving that everything of any importance in early American history was done by Christians operating out of a Christian worldview in the ultimate pursuit of promoting Christianity is wrong. It’s wrong because it isn’t necessary to operate from this presupposition and it’s wrong because it just ain’t true. I’m sorry folks. I’m happy to find Christians wherever  and whenever in history I can. I’m always pleased to see those whose heart and actions were set on building the Kingdom of God, whatever their calling, including statesmanship. But the idea is becoming pervasive in certain circles, mostly emanating concentrically from people like David Barton and Peter Lillback, that if we dig deep enough we’ll find that virtually all of the Founding Fathers were trinitarian Christians with good conservative Protestant theology. If we ferret out enough quotes, partial quotes, or buzz words, that must prove something, right?

All we prove is that there are Christians who are willing to be at best shabby, and at worst dishonest, scholars. And if book sales and the Texas State Board of Education are any indication, there are a lot of people out there who don’t care. They don’t care about the shabbiness and dishonesty, that is. As the Amazon review comments demonstrated, they care very much if anyone dares to call them on it. If Glen Beck endorsed it, that’s good enough.

Christians are called to something better than this. We do not need to engage in historical re-revisionism. We don’t need to prove that Christians formed a perfect country that secularists and liberals went and messed up. We don’t need to prove Original Christian Intent. We don’t need to be afraid of review and criticism.

In reading the Amazon reviews, as well as in reading the engagement in the comboxes of much more popular places in the blogosphere, I read lots of militancy and lots of anger. I see lots of name-calling. I see the exact same behaviour that I have seen from the secularists and liberals. It doesn’t look prettier because the mud is being slung in the other face. I’ll say it again: Christians are called to something better than this.

We are not going to achieve whatever our goal may be by cheating and bullying our way there. We have to strive for what is right and rely upon Divine Providence. As a Christian and as a historian I know two things. First, God wrote the history that has already happened. We don’t have to dig around and find Him in it. It is what it is and He did it how He did it. Second, He wrote the history that has yet to happen. What is true of the Gospel is true in everything: “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” In the history yet to be made, we labor faithfully, but God will determine the outcome of our labors.

Why I am a Reactionary

It is a term that is generally meant as a perjorative.  Reactionaries rebel against all the wonderful progressive ideas that all right-thinking people know make the world a better place. In a word, liberalism. Well, I am a reactionary. I react against all of the ideas that see separation from God as progress. That it because these ideas are not progress at all. Progress is to move toward God’s desire that creation be reconciled to Him.

In being a reactionary, I follow in some pretty big footsteps. When someone called me a reactionary recently, I began to think of other reactionaries among whom I am not worthy to be counted.

I think of that young Jewish boy 3000 years ago, not old enough to be drafted into the army, reacting against the challenge of a giant man who had defied the armies of the living God. He reacted with a stone in a sling.

I think of Elijah in the midst of a government that had rejected the historic worship of God for worship of Baal. He reacted by calling down fire from heaven.

Elijah was but one of the prophets who reacted against the apostasy, injustice, and bad governments of the day. The people still chose captivity, but it was reactionaries who warned them and showed them another option. Being a reactionary has long been a thankless task.

Then I think of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – usually known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.  The government said bow to the statue. It’s not a big deal and you won’t notice any real difference to your everyday life. Just bow and everyone will be happy. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were reactionaries. They just weren’t willing to buy into the spirit of the age.

They had a friend called Daniel. When the government said all petitions must be made to the state and not to any god, Daniel reacted by opening his window the exact same way he always had (conservative that he was) and knelt down and prayed the same way he always had. It cost him a trip to the lions den, because the state doesn’t like to be defied when it has set itself up as the font of all blessing and the focus of worship.

And there was that carpenter from Nazareth. He reacted against “you have heard it said” with “but I say to you”. But wasn’t this progressive? No, quite the opposite. He peeled back all the Talmudic layers of Pharisaism and brought it back to the revealed truth. And when it came to moneychangers in the temple, He was very reactionary. You might even say He was reactionary after they killed Him. He reacted by rising from the dead, trampling down death by death. That was the ultimate reaction.

So while I will never be as significant or successful a reactionary as David, Elijah, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, Daniel, or Jesus, I will be a reactionary nonetheless.

Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.
Also, I set watchmen over you, saying,

‘ Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not listen.’
Therefore hear, you nations,
And know, O congregation, what is among them.
Hear, O earth!
Behold, I will certainly bring calamity on this people—
The fruit of their thoughts,
Because they have not heeded My words
Nor My law, but rejected it.

Show Trial for a Scapegoat

The kangaroo court in Munich is now in session. John Demjanjuk, 89, in a wheelchair, half-conscious, and with no eye-witnesses testifying against him, is on trial in Germany for crimes alleged to have happened in Poland 66 years ago.

The chief question is whether the German state, in an illegal invasion of Poland, captured Demjanjuk and forced him to become a guard at Sobibor concentration camp. It is not the German state that is on trial, or even any Germans. It is not even alleged that Demjanjuk killed anyone. All of the 27,900 counts against him are for accessory to murder. By being a guard at the camp, he kept people from escaping so that Germans could kill them – in Poland, of which he is neither a citizen nor has he ever lived other than under the control of the German army.

The German are really grasping at straws to find non-Germans to prosecute in Germany for crimes perpetrated by a German government.

I made further observations back in April during the extradition proceedings.

Christians Charged for Knowing Too Much Islamic History

Here we go again. Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were sharing their faith with one of the guests in the hotel they run, the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool. The guest was a Muslim woman. Seems they didn’t agree about Jesus or Muhammad. The guest was offended that they insisted Jesus is the Son of God and not a prophet of Islam.

In the course of the conversation, Ben Vogelenzang said that Muhammad was a warload. I teach about Islam for a living – been doing for six years – and I’d have to say that’s a reasonable observation based on the historical facts. It has nothing to do with whether or not he was a prophet. The story of Islam from the time of the Hijra until at least the conquest of Makkah (Mecca) by Muhammad’s army is one of battles fought and tribal groups subdued and the Arabian peninsula Islamified at the point of the sword. It is a legacy that Muhammad bequeathed to his successors as the spent the next 120 years doing the same thing through Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Clearly the Vogelenzangs’ guest was not well versed in Islamic history. Either that or the word “warlord” was not reverential enough for the false Prophet.

It didn’t help that Sharon Vogelenzang said that traditional Muslims dress for women is a form of bondage. This was just too much for their guest. Neither the guest nor the Merseyside Police think Sharon is entitled to express this opinion. It constitutes either harassment, alarm or distress in the wording of the statute. So does Ben’s enlightening the guest regarding her ignorance of history.

The Vogelenzangs were interrogated twice by police before being charged. They have appeared in court and are now awaiting trial.