History As Ammunition

0 comments Posted on October 7, 2021

by Robert Tracy McKenzie

There are good ways and bad ways to pay attention to the past, and the debate over America’s Christian roots brings out the very worst. The wonder is that we learn anything at all from it. Because so much seems to be at stake in the debate, because we’re convinced that we have to win it, we end up turning history into an arsenal, a storehouse not of wisdom but of weapons—quotes and anecdotes that we draw like revolvers in a shootout with secular opponents.

Whenever someone at church asks me about the relationship between Christianity and the Constitution, I’m always tempted to reply, “Why do you want to know?” It’s a lot like those campaign ads that grow so tiresome before Election Day. Too often what we really want is for the Framers to make a cameo at the end and announce, “We’re the Founding Fathers and we approve this message.”

I call this the history-as-ammunition approach to the past, and its effects are insidious. Once we set out to prove that the United States was founded as a Christian country, the temptation to refashion the Founders in our own image becomes irresistible. This doesn’t have to be conscious or premeditated. The historical figures that we encounter always resemble us in some ways and differ from us in others, and we quite naturally pick up on the former better than the latter. The history-as-ammunition approach just magnifies this natural tendency.

The result is that, instead of encountering figures from the past who might challenge and change us, we meet our clones in powdered wigs. Sure, they dressed oddly, but deep down the Founders as we imagine them thought as we think, valued what we value, and—not to put too fine a point on it—would vote as we vote. This makes the past politically useful to us, but at a great cost: we learn nothing from it. How could we? The historical figures we’ve imagined already agree with us in all the ways that matter.

We would be much better served to set aside the question of whether the Framers were Christian and focus instead on thinking Christianly about the framework of government they constructed.

Taken from We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie. Copyright © 2021 by Robert Tracy McKenzie. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

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