Steven Green – Inventing a Christian America [Review]

August 21, 2015 — Leave a comment

 

Page 2: Steven Green – Inventing a Christian America

 
 
But this is not the same thing as saying, as Christian nationalists do, that Christianity was the engine that drove the American Revolution; instead, religion—both popular and organized—played a supporting role.

Green also suggests that the role of the Puritans in forming the intellectual and political life of the United States has been overstated, even by secular historians like Perry Miller. In fact, the Puritans did not come to New England for anything as nebulous and broad as “religious freedom.” They wished to conduct their own religious rituals in peace, but they were strikingly uninterested in providing the same leeway to others. Only William Penn’s Quaker colony demonstrated any interest in genuine religious liberty, and certainly neither the Puritans in New England nor the Anglicans further south had any real influence on the First Amendment.

Nor is it accurate to suggest, as Christian nationalists sometimes do, that Puritanism served as the model for republican government. While it’s true that Calvinists rejected the particular hierarchy of the Anglican church, Green points out that “The Puritan idea of a compact-based government was overwhelmingly anti-democratic” and that “Puritan society was highly structured and hierarchical.” And while parallels between the Great Awakening and the revolution exist, a one-to-one correspondence ignores the importance of other events and ideas of the period, including the French and Indian War and the Stamp Act. The major influences on American democracy, Green argues, were Enlightenment natural-rights philosophers and the emerging Whig view of history, both of which were optimistic about human nature where the orthodox Christianity of the day was pessimistic.

The book is composed of a series of debunkings along these lines. Green examines Christian nationalist claims—the Constitution was modeled on the Mayflower Compact; most of the Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians; the millennialism of the early republic suggests the hand of God—and demonstrates where they’ve gone wrong, building his argument like a legal case until it’s clear that the weight of evidence is on his side, that serious intellectual gymnastics are necessary to believe in Christian nationalism.

So effective is this structure that the book’s final chapter, which traces the roots of Christian nationalism in the early 19th century, feels redundant. This final chapter requires him to go over ground he’s already covered, repeating earlier arguments to demonstrate where they came from. The origins are interesting and part of his point—but if that’s true, why not go through them as he delineates his arguments against Christian nationalism in the earlier chapters of the book? It’s easy to skim the final chapter, whereas its predecessors are consistently compelling.

Additionally, for an author whose main argument is that history is complicated whereas myth is simple, Green is disturbingly willing to simplify American literature. Late in the book, he makes the following baffling claim:

Likely no writer did more to rehabilitate the reputation of the Puritans than Nathaniel Hawthorne, who personalized colonial Puritans in his novels and essays for generations of American readers. While Hawthorne highlighted the grim toil of Puritan life and the recurrent intolerance of that society, the theme of his works was far from being critical. Ultimately, his writings celebrated the virtues of the Puritans and the resilience of his characters.

While it’s true that the “high school” reading of The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne heroically struggles against a society that is nothing but oppressive, is an oversimplification, surely Green goes too far in the other direction. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading “Young Goodman Brown,” for example, or “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” and coming away thinking that Hawthorne “celebrated the virtues of the Puritans.” History, if it’s to be something other than mere myth, has to be constantly vigilant against oversimplification; that Green would cut these corners in the midst of explaining that this is so makes me wonder what corners have been cut elsewhere.