Robert T. McKenzie is chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College; I’ve been pondering the piece he wrote below since I read it on June 18. His Chesterton quotations and his own observations should give professing Christians something to carefully consider. McKenzie’s post is part of a series leading up to July 4 – all of which challenge many of our assumptions about American history and about the church’s role in the American Revolution. What I’ve quoted is an excerpt from McKenzie, you can read the entire post here
“What is … troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.
One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset. In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism. Here it is:
"Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history."
If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction. True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell. We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,
"Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind."
But Chesterton's observation doesn't only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism. Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith. In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history. Ours is a historical faith. Christianity's core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection. Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.
But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history. Let's take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:
Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.
Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history? Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined. As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn't be a bad thing to keep Chesterton's observation in mind.”