September 2007 to June 2008
Convenor: Joe R. Jones
The agenda for 2007/08 is Christian Discourses and Practices Amidst American Politics and Religion: A Drama of Mutual Influence for Good and Ill. It will involve readings from Mark Noll, Harry Stout, Craig Carter, and Robert Brimlow. See Agenda for further information. See Schedule for times and places.
Persons interested in becoming members of the group should contact Joe R. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Study Group Agenda
Virtually every Christian church tradition in America today is in confusion and disarray about its identity, authority, and purpose. It is our hope that the agenda proposed for this upcoming year [i.e., 9/07-6/08] will illuminate for us the historical and theological roots of this disarray in which we find ourselves. The peculiar and extraordinary intermixing of Christian discourses and practices and the politics of establishing and maintaining a democratic republic, produced advantages and disadvantages to both church and state. The fluid yet highly emotive uses of such terms as ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘virtue’, ‘law’, ‘gospel’, ‘the Bible says’, and ‘God’s will’—in both church and nation—have bred and inflamed confusions and conflicts that remain with us today.
Mark A. Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002, pb) is a sustained historical and theological analysis of the interface between Christian discourses about God and humanity and the discourses of the burgeoning American politics from 1730s to the 1860s. Noll is one of the most distinguished church historians today and is the winner of the Best Book in American History Prize for 2004 given by the Historical Society. See also Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006, pb) is an exceptionally lucid study of the moral discourses in the church and nation leading up to and developing during the Civil War. How do Christians in both North and South construe their going to war and construe their justifications for conducting the war in the ways they did? How did ‘just war’ devolve into ‘total war’ against all? Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University.
In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr published Christ and Culture, which became the standard diagnostic typology of the various ways in which Christ [church] and culture interact. That typology itself has come under serious critique by such theologians as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas in recent years. Craig A. Carter’s Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Brazos Press, 2006, pb) is a sustained attempt to critique Niebuhr’s typology and a systematic proposal for rethinking theologically how church and culture/world should be related.
The most revealing conundrum of church and world/state/culture issues comes to expression in the obvious fact that Christians go to war so often. Why is that? Jesus and the New Testament do not seem to urge disciples of Jesus either to kill or to go to war in the name of Jesus. But can the church in theology and practice sustain a pacifist discipline and self-understanding today? Robert W. Brimlow’s What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Brazos Press, 2006, pb) soberly and passionately explores these issues.
It is the intent of the study group to read and discuss these books and the profound issues they raise for Christian self-understanding and for the ecclesiological discourses and practices of the church today.
An indicator of how deeply engrained in the American church in all its various traditions, from the Calvinists, to Baptists, to Methodists, and to the Stone-Campbell Movement, is the association of faith and piety with patriotism and the necessity of sacrificial suffering in order to protect and defend the nation against its enemies.
The United States was first and foremost an idea built on a foundation of ideology and theology. So, when America was put to the ultimate internal test, it would require not only a war of troops and armaments—the stuff of geopolitics—but also a war of ideas. This war would require each side, especially the South, to establish a legitimate identity as a moral “nation.” It would also demand a moral campaign to establish the justness of a resort to arms. Abstract political arguments would not suffice. They would have to be augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another. Above all, it is crucial to understand how both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and guarantor of their deliverance. Here the voices of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South would become especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct. Tragically…the clergy were virtually cheerleaders all. [xvi-xvii]
While few judged or questioned the recourse to total war, many saw in the unprecedented destruction of lives and property something mystical taking place, what we today might call the birthing of a fully functioning, truly national, American civil religion. It was a meaning difficult for anyone to articulate at the time; yet some—including soldiers, clergy, and, most notably, Abraham Lincoln—began to posit a moral ground in the creation of a powerful national or “civil” religion. As the Civil War progressed onto increasingly eroded moral ground, something transformative simultaneously took place that would render the war the defining phenomenon in American history. Patriotism itself became sacralized to the point that it enjoyed coequal or even superior status to conventional denominational faiths. [xvii-xviii]
As the war progressed, there appeared increasing contemporary references to Union and Confederate casualties as “martyrs.” The language of martyrs stands out as religious language. In the case of the Civil War, it is religious language dedicated to political religion rather than to Christianity. By the war’s most devastating years in 1863 and 1864, no Americans were said to be dying for their Christian faith, but plenty of “martyrs” were dying for their country. … The language of martyrdom reveals how, at least subconsciously, this war was generating through sheer quantity of blood sacrifice a living and vibrant civil religion. By linking patriotism to Christianity and paying lip service to the superiority of the eternal over the temporal, ministers and people could embrace the new faith without fully acknowledging exactly what they were doing.[xxi-xxii]
[On alternating months, the seminar will meet at the First Christian Church in Okemah, OK and at the First Christian Church in Okmulgee, OK]
Sept 11 [Okemah]
Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002, pb.).
Ch. 1: Introductory, pp. 3-50
Ch. 2: Synthesis, pp. 51-157
Oct 9 [Okmulgee]
Noll: Ch. 3: Evangelization, pp. 159-224
Nov 6 [Okemah]
Noll: Ch. 4: Americanization, pp. 225-364
Dec 4 [Okmulgee]
Noll: Ch. 5: Crisis, pp. 365-445
Jan 8 [Okemah]
Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006 pb).
Introduction, pp. xi-xxii
Prologue, pp. 1-5
Part I: Preparation: Patriots All, pp. 9-58
Part II: Romanticization: The Making of Heroes, pp. 61-124
Part III: Descent: Hard War Spilled Blood, pp. 125-164
Feb 5 [Okmulgee]
Stout: Part IV: Justification: The Emancipation War, pp. 165-219
Part V: Transformation: Hearts Invested, pp. 221-292
Part VI: Proportion: The Soldiers’ Total War, 293-349
Mar 4 [Okemah]
Stout: Part VII: Discrimination: A Civilian War, pp. 351-422
Part VIII: Reconciliation: Making an End to Build a Future, pp. 423-456
Afterward, pp. 457-461
April 1 [Okmulgee]
Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Brazos Okmulgee Press, 2006, pb).
Preface, pp. 7-11
Introduction: Reading Niebuhr in a Post-Christendom Situation, pp. 13-31
Part 2: Rethinking Christ and Culture after Christendom, pp. 35-108
May 6 [Okemah]
Carter: Part 2: A Post-Christendom Typology of Christ and Culture, pp. 111-198
Conclusion, pp. 199-212
June 3 [Okmulgee]
Robert W. Brimlow, What about Hitler?Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Brazos Press, 2006, pb).