The Bakkers proved adept at growing their audience. It was hard not to watch just to see what crazy stunt they might pull next, like when a live camel visited the set (and promptly peed all over the stage) or the time that Tammy Faye hosted the show from a merry-go-round (53). But their fundraising method of choice was the telethon, hours of increasingly desperate appeals for donations. “We need $10,000 a month or we’ll be off the air. Listen people, it’s all over. Everything’s gone. Christian television will be no more” (28). In contrast to the hyperbole, PTL grew by leaps and bounds, airing on hundreds of affiliate stations and in as many as 13 million homes by the mid-1980s.
On September 4th, in anticipation of President Trump’s decision to sunset legislation protecting illegal immigrant minors from deportation, a group of evangelical leaders issued a public letter under the auspices of “Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration.” The letter supports Trump’s repeal of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an executive order issued by Barack Obama.
The letter begins with shallow declarations of compassion for immigrants as well as a shout out to #alllivesmatter. Those are reason enough to be disturbed by the letter, but it was something else that really jumped out at me as a professional historian who is also an evangelical Christian. The letter’s reasoning mirrors that of evangelical proponents of segregation in the mid-20th century.
Here are the two key paragraphs from the letter in full:
While some faith groups use selective Bible words for open borders and amnesty, we consider the whole [emphasis in original] counsel of Scripture. We find that the Bible does not teach open borders, but wise welcome. We are to welcome the lawful foreigner, who, like a convert, comes as a blessing (eg.s Ruth and Rahab). We also find Nehemiah building walls to protect citizens from harm. In Isaiah 1, we see God condemning the destruction of borders and indigenous culture.
All lives matter. The lives of North, Central and South Americans matter. The lives of Africans, Asians, Europeans and people from the Middle East matter. In Scripture, we learn that God placed us each in a family, a land, an epic story of creation, the fall and redemption. The Bible envisions a world of beautiful and unique nations, not a stateless ‘open society’ run by global oligarchs. Each of us is called to be a blessing where God has placed us in the world.
There is much to pick apart in these statements. For example, the authors assume that the word “nations” in Bible is synonymous with our contemporary system of “nation-states” and, thus, that God would be opposed to globalization. Yet the ethno-cultural nation-state is a modern invention created to more fully harness the capacity of a country to wage mass warfare via centralized taxation, registration, and border control. “Nation” in the Bible means “people group,” closer in meaning–though not synonymous with–tribe than to “nation-state.” There was no capital-‘s’ State in antiquity. So saying that God has a clear opinion on nation-states vis a vis “stateless”-ness just betrays the authors’ ignorance of political theory and history.
But the most striking thing about these paragraphs is that the authors have rooted their argument in the idea of fixed ethno-national boundaries. Thus they misquote Isaiah 1 as condemning the destruction of borders and the violation of indigenous culture. Doing so requires some serious reading into the passage, given that the context for the book of Isaiah is the conquest of Israel by the Assyrian Empire. This isn’t a passage about immigration at all but about the consequences of losing a war. Of course, anti-immigration activists often use military language in referring to immigration as an invasion, so I suppose it’s easy for them to buy into their own hyperbole and see illegal immigrant children as some kind of vanguard force.
Such is negative reasoning, that God says not to allow such and such. But the authors also make a positive argument, that God says to do such and such. In this case, they believe that God intended for the various peoples of the earth–North, Central, South Americans, Africans, etc…–to stay in their respective homelands, thus the emphasis on “unique nations” and on God’s placement in a particular land. Note also the final sentence; where has God called people to be a blessing? In another country? No, of course not. It’s strongly implied that we ought to remain “where God has placed us in the world.” What God has put asunder, let no man mix together.
That is the same basic logic of segregation theology that was widespread among mid-twentieth century white evangelicals. Let’s compare the rhetoric and logic of this letter to that of a prominent pro-segregation preacher of a generation ago. I’ve picked Bob Jones Sr. both because his 1960 sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?”, is available online (do read the excellent introduction by Justin Taylor) and because I attended the eponymous Bob Jones University as an undergrad. I know firsthand how damaging segregation theology can be not just to its targets but to its adherents and their descendants.
Jones preached the sermon in response to a surge in civil rights activism. In the weeks prior to the sermon, Congress was considering passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, sit-in protests were popping up around the South, and evangelist Billy Graham–whom Jones opposed–issued a statement condemning racial segregation. So when Bob Jones spoke into the radio microphone on Easter Sunday, 1960, he wanted to explain why he believed God actually supported segregation.
The sermon is lengthy and meandering. Jones repeatedly attests to his love for blacks and his desire for their well-being. I do not doubt that his claims to compassion felt as hollow to most African-Americans at the time as do the protestations of the Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration group sound to DACA recipients today.
But at the core of Jones’s sermon is a Biblical text, Acts 17:26. “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” Evangelicals call themselves “Bible believers” because we try to find specific textual justification for everything we hold to be true. Thus, this is the essential grounding of Jones’s argument. Here’s Jones (excerpted for length):
Now, what does that say? That says that God Almighty fixed the bounds of their habitation. That is as clear as anything that was ever said. …
It is no accident that most Chinese are in China. There has been an overflow in the world, but most Chinese live in China. There are millions and millions of them there, and there are no greater people in the world. I have never known lovelier and more wonderful people than the Chinese. We were over in Formosa a few years ago and conferred an honorary degree on Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and I never met a greater man. I never met a man of more intelligence or a more wonderful Christian; and Madame Chiang Kai-shek is a wonderful woman. There they are. Now, what happened? They married each other. … All right, he is a Chinese. He married a Chinese woman. That is the way God meant it to be.
Paul said that God “. . . hath made of one blood all nations of men . . . .” But He also fixed the bounds of their habitation. When nations break out of their boundaries and begin to do things contrary to the purpose of God and the directive will of God, they have trouble. The world is in turmoil today because men and nations go contrary to the clear teaching of the Word of God. Let’s understand that. The Chinese people are wonderful people. They have internal troubles, of course, because Communism has gone into China and disturbed a great deal of the population. But the Chinese people are wonderful people. The Japanese people are ingenious-they are wonderful people. The Koreans are wonderful people. The Africans are wonderful people. In many ways, there are no people in the world finer than the colored people who were brought over here in slavery in days gone by.
You talk about a superior race and an inferior race and all that kind of situation. Wait a minute. No race is inferior in the will of God. Get that clear. If a race is in the will of God, it is not inferior. It is a superior race. You cannot be superior to another race if your race is in the will of God and the other race is in the will of God. But the purposes of these races were established by Almighty God; and when man attempts to run contrary to the directive will of God for this world, there is always trouble. Now, that is the trouble. What happened? Well, away back yonder our forefathers went over to Africa and brought the colored people back and sold them into slavery. That was wrong. But God overruled. When they came over here, many of them did not know the Bible and did not know about Jesus Christ; but they got converted.
It should be noted what Jones does not say. He is not a biological racist who believes in the genetic inferiority of African-Americans. But his belief that both blacks and whites are equal in the eyes of God doesn’t prevent Jones from also supporting racial segregation. Why not?
Because Jones believes that God fixed the boundaries of the nations and that mixing across those boundaries is wrong. That’s why he affirms that “it is no accident that most Chinese are in China,” why he implies that inter-cultural marriage is outside God’s plan, and why he roots the sin of slavery in the mixing of nations that should have remained separate (as opposed to, I don’t know, inflicting tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual pain on millions, not counting those who died in the transatlantic passage). This is why elsewhere in the sermon Jones can assert that “God is the author of segregation.” What God has put asunder, let no man mix together.
Now, let me do a little mash up of Jones’s words and those of the Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration letter to make the comparison more obvious.
God loves us all and all lives matter. The lives of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans matter. The lives of North Americans and Central Americans and South Americans matter. The lives of Europeans and Africans matter. In Scripture, we learn that God placed us each in a family, a land, an epic story of creation, the fall and redemption. God is the author of a world of beautiful and unique nations, not a mixed-up, stateless society. Each of us is called to be a blessing where God has placed us in the world.
But the purposes of these boundaries were established by Almighty God; and when man attempts to run contrary to the directive will of God for this world, there is always trouble. What happened? Well, away back yonder Democrats opened the borders through bad laws and illegal executive actions. But now, God has overruled.
That little thought experiment took just a few seconds because the underlying logic in Jones’s pro-segregation sermon and in the public letter is fundamentally the same. Our boundaries–whether they be boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, or national border–are fixed by God. As such, any attempt to alter those boundaries is highhanded rebellion against their true Author.
If you are a Christian who sees nothing wrong with the Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration letter, then you aren’t likely to appreciate being compared to a segregationist. But let me show you why both views are not just misguided but ultimately heretical.
Ethno-nationalism of this sort is rooted in a basic distortion of traditional Christian theology. Its supporters rip Bible passages out of context. They take verses meant for the particular context of ancient Israel, an ethnic people group governed theocratically, and apply those passages directly to modern America, a multi-ethnic country governed democratically. In other words, they mentally replace every mention of “Israel” with “America.” Americans are now the chosen people, a holy nation, God’s special possession.
This is why the authors of the letter exclusively rely on references to the Christian Old Testament rather than to the New Testament. Contrary to their assertion, the letter authors do not consider the whole counsel of Scripture. They are only attentive to those sections that enable their heretical application of God’s promises and commands to Israel to be applied instead to the United States of America.
It’s all the more perverse because it requires an intentional misreading of a passage it references, Isaiah 1. Why does God condemn Sodom and Gomorrah in that chapter? Is it because they failed to keep immigrants out, as the letter authors imply? No, they couldn’t be more wrong. Isaiah tells us the reason for the condemnation: ancient Israelites had failed “to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
Okay, you might say, what does that have to do with immigrants? I only see widows, orphans, and a generic reference to oppression. Here we turn to Luke 10 in the New Testament. Christ is sending seventy-two of his earliest disciples out to minister, assuring them that towns and families they visit will provide for their basic needs. They can count on local hospitality, which is the selfless extension of one’s resources to those in need for the sake of the Kingdom of God. So when Christ condemns, in advance, those townspeople who will not welcome his disciples and care for them, Christ says they will receive a judgement worse even than Sodom’s judgement. Their inhospitality to strangers from outside their community made them even more worthy of judgement than a place that was legendary for its wickedness.
It’s interesting that when he says these words, Christ tells the disciples to inform both hospitable and inhospitable towns of the same truth. They are to say to each that “The kingdom of God has come near,” but for one town that’s a blessing while for the other it is a divine curse.
Think of the significance of that charge. These disciples were spreading out all over the Mediterranean world. They would reach not just ethnic Jews, but all peoples. Soon, Cornelius the Roman centurion would be made a disciple, along with Apollos the Greek and Simeon the Niger. The ethno-cultural nation of Israel was being subsumed as the kingdom of God drew near, replaced by a multi-ethnic, polyglot, marvelously mixed Kingdom composed of every tongue, tribe, and nation.
This is why the apostle Paul could write that in Christ “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” That is the promise of the New Testament gospel, a radical faith completely free from any remaining shred of ethno-nationalism. Indeed, that’s why the NT authors spend so much time condemning Jewish converts who attempted to exclude non-Jewish converts from their churches. These “bewitched” Jewish believers were reverting to the old ethno-nationalism. That’s why Paul criticizes Peter for trying to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (Galatians 2:14). The New Testament expressly rejects the ethno-nationalist understanding of the Christian faith in the strongest possible terms.
Yet now we have self-proclaimed Christians falling back on ethno-nationalist lies. These lies feel safe; they do not ask believers to extend something so radical as Biblical hospitality. They do not threaten the identity politics that blinded most white evangelicals in the last election. It’s easier to blame foreigners for our nation’s ills than to consider our own culpability. And so we craft a heretical theology that justifies our beliefs and our votes.
The Ted Strikes Back
In my last post I dug into the South Carolina Republican primary results to suss out the implications of evangelical support for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Since then, Rubio has dropped out, leaving only Trump and Cruz with a shot at reaching the delegate threshold needed to avoid a contested convention. Trump remains the frontrunner, but Cruz’s campaign received a significant boost by winning an outright majority of the vote in Utah, giving him all the state’s delegates.
Why did Cruz win? Certainly, a flurry of campaign pitter-patter in the days leading up to the caucuses hurt Trump’s chances–including Mitt Romney’s endorsement of Cruz and the unseemly back and forth over the relative physical attractiveness of the candidate’s wives–but given that Cruz pulled 69.2% of the vote versus Trump’s 14%, the outcome wasn’t dictated by late-deciding swing voters.
No, Cruz won because he was the overwhelming favorite of the largest voting bloc in Utah: Mormons. As you can see, there was a strong, positive correlation between Mormon adherence rates by county and the percentage of voters who pulled the lever for Ted Cruz. The side-by-side map comparison isn’t as distinct as the one I made for South Carolina (in part, I suspect, because of the visual distortion caused by the large, sparsely populated rural counties), but the line of best fit is actually even more compelling.
I’d like to note that the relationship would be even stronger if we took into account the population density of the counties. Let’s compare two counties with similar adherence rates, Daggett and Salt Lake. Since I gave all counties equal weight, Daggett County (total population: 1,059) and its 94 caucus goers counted just as heavily as Salt Lake County (total population: 1,029,655) and its 46,723 voters. Indeed, the outlying data points tend to be thinly-populated counties like Daggett.
That’s not surprising. Bear in mind that these are caucuses, which tend to feature more variability than primaries. Also, smaller sample sizes lead to noisier data. When you’re dealing with a sample size of just 94 caucus goers in a single precinct, one particularly persuasive speaker can easily swing a dozen votes and help their candidate outperform the state average in that one county. If we accounted for population density, the line of best fit would be even steeper.
It doesn’t take more than a glance at the Utah data to see that Ted Cruz did best in places with the most practicing Mormons. Indeed, Cruz earned a significantly higher share of Mormon voters than he did evangelical voters in any other state. At first blush that might seem surprising. After all, Cruz is a member of a Southern Baptist church and his father is a Pentecostal pastor. Indeed, when I hear Cruz give his stump speech I’m reminded of all the fundamentalist summer camps I attended as a kid; he’s got the southern evangelist’s cadence and pitch down pat. He walks like an evangelical, quacks like an evangelical…yet he swims like a Mormon. What gives?
The Return of the Mormon Moment
Religious scholars who study Mormonism were suddenly in demand in the spring of 2012. Former Massachusetts Governor and dedicated Mormon Mitt Romney was the frontrunner in the Republican race. And journalists love it when odd religious groups burst onto the national political scene. Less than forty years earlier Newsweek had declared that 1976 was the “Year of the Evangelical,” as Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher (and sometime Georgia Governor) Jimmy Carter rode a wave of evangelical support into the White House. And in 2012 Newsweek jumped on a new trend, with Mitt Romney heralding a “Mormon Moment” as conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons formed a new faith-based coalition.
Although I couldn’t track it down, I remember a 2012 interview with a South Carolina Republican Party doyen who was also a Southern Baptist. The reporter asked her, “Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Do his theological differences bother you given that you’re an evangelical?” She stoutly replied, “Well, he says he loves Jesus and that’s good enough for me!” In the end, Newt Gingrich, a twice-divorced Catholic, actually won South Carolina and outperformed his average among evangelicals. But Romney won a larger percentage of the evangelical vote than Ron Paul, the only evangelical candidate in the race at that point. And in the general election that year, white evangelicals preferred Mormon Mitt Romney over Protestant Barack Obama by 69% to 30%, a higher ratio than either John McCain or George W. Bush received from them in 2000-2008.
Mormons are returning the favor in 2016. That’s not to say that all Mormons are lockstep with Cruz on all issues. For example, the Church is less nativist on immigration than Ted Cruz’s other supporters. The Mormon Church President supported 2014’s failed bi-partisan immigration bill, the same measure which Ted Cruz now brags about defeating. In part, that’s because there are more than twice as many Latter Day Saints living abroad as there are in the United States; they are more truly a global church than any individual American Protestant denomination (with the exception of the Assemblies of God, which not coincidentally also supports comprehensive immigration reform). American Mormon’s internationalism is further boosted by the two years of missionary service that most undertake, often overseas.
Attack of the (Second Great Awakening) Clones
There’s a nice parallel between evangelical support for a Mormon in 2012 and Mormon support for an evangelical in 2016. While this strategic alliance may appear to be a recent phenomenon, it draws on a shared history and theology that goes back to the 19th century. What’s surprising about the rapprochement between Mormons and evangelicals isn’t that it has occurred, but that it’s taken this long.
Cruz’s evangelicalism and Romney’s Mormonism are both children of the Second Great Awakening(s). Now, I’m not suggesting that we collapse the theological tensions between Mormons and evangelicals. Mormon views on Christology, revelation, and soteriology are so divergent from Christian beliefs that I am comfortable defining them as unique religions, not just different denominations within a shared faith. But while they differ on matters of doctrine, they share an elevated view of America’s role in the history of redemption. That affects how both groups engage in politics. In other words, their systematic theology might differ, but their political theology is really quite similar at key points.
In part that’s because the Book of Mormon made explicit what early 19th century evangelicals believed was implicit in the Bible. For example, both Mormons and 19th century evangelicals encoded racism in their respective sacred scriptures. By the 1820s pro-slavery evangelical theologians had inserted race into Bible stories, like that of Ham or Cain, which made no mention of skin color. And when Joseph Smith wielded his seer stone, he found that Moroni had quite a good grasp on the racial views of antebellum Americans considering that he was a resurrected, angelic being from the 5th century AD. Mormons didn’t have to read race into the stories of Cain or Ham; the Book of Mormon baldly stated it.
Today, evangelicals and Mormons both tend to sweep these old views on race under the carpet, but their views on America’s exceptional role in God’s plan for humankind also reflect 19th century cultural values. Second Great Awakening evangelicals believed that God would bless the nations of the world through the Christian example of America. After all, hadn’t John Winthrop declared in 1630 that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a “city upon a hill,” a reference to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount? And hadn’t the Founding Fathers enshrined Christian values in the US Constitution and through early legislation?
Evangelicals were warming up to the notion that America was, at least temporarily, fulfilling Israel’s former role as God’s chosen nation. While this impulse would come to full flower in the 20th century with Christian Zionism, 19th century preachers like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher had argued much earlier that America would usher in the postmillennial reign of Christ on earth. A little bit of revival here, some social reform there, a dab of the American missionary movement everywhere, and the world would be ready for Christ’s return. In Beecher’s words, America was “destined to lead the way in the moral and political emancipation of the world.”
And the actual religious history of America could always be rewritten to order. As the Founding Fathers died off, veneration of the revolutionary generation reached a fevered pitch. The major political parties of the time battled over who best upheld the values of the Founders. Evangelicals and other religious groups followed suit. I’ve written before about “Parson” Mason Locke Weems, but there was a cottage industry of authors who embellished the lives of the Founders to make them more pious and more orthodox. It was a retroactive “evangelicalization,” a literary baptism for the dead.
But whereas evangelicals only inferred a sacred role for America from the Bible, the Book of Mormon explicitly codified American exceptionalism. Moroni took matters a step farther, revealing to Joseph Smith that America was not just a rough corollary for Israel. No, America was populated by actual Israelites. As the story goes, several of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which had been taken captive by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BC, escaped to the Americas. These Nephites colonists built an ancient civilization complete with cities, kings, and currency; but they were opposed by the wicked Lamanites, also immigrants but whose rejection of God was marked by their dark skin (again, with the race obsession). The groups warred for a while, but eventually the Nephites also rejected God and intermarried with the Lamanites, producing a degraded remnant that the early Mormons identified as the ancestors of the Native Americans. Furthermore, Joseph Smith believed that 19th century Mormons were themselves blood descendants of the lost tribe of Ephraim.
Modern archeologists have found no trace of this pre-modern, Israelite civilization in the Americas, but at the time it was transcribed the Book of Mormon narrative adhered closely to widespread Christian speculation about a connection between Native Americans and the ten lost tribes of Israel. As ahistorical and fantastical as it sounds today, the Mormon account of the ten lost tribes seemed quite believable to the many evangelicals who converted to Mormonism. America was quite literally a replacement for ethnic Israel, a new land populated by the remnants of several tribes. And Mormons had divine warrant to go out and gather the other lost tribes so they could return to their new homeland in
New York Illinois Utah.
Later Mormon Presidents–who can speak ex cathedra—specified that the US Constitution was inspired. President Ezra Taft Benson called America God’s “base of operations” from which He would prepare a “new gospel dispensation” for the salvation of the nations. It’s no accident that Benson played a major role in bringing Mormons into the New Right during the mid-20th century. (Imagine the political ramifications if a Catholic Pope had joined the John Birch Society. That’s Benson for you.)
Space Jesus: The Mormons Awaken
Given the significant overlap between 19th century Mormon and evangelical views on America’s divine calling, it’s not surprising that their 21st century descendants are getting along so readily, especially now that some of the rough edges (*cough,* polygamy, *cough*) have been worn off, thus reducing the cultural and religious tension between Mormonism and broader American Christianity. There’s a potent symbol of that rapprochement in the main Salt Lake City Temple. If you take a tour, you’ll end by staring up into the face of Space Jesus.
That’s one of the few concrete moments I remember from my visit to Salt Lake City as a 12 year old kid, which also happened to be about when I first watched a movie series set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” It’s a fitting image. After all, Mormons are rightfully known for their love and authorship of amazing fantasy and science fiction. And some other…stuff. Hey, no religious tradition gets EVERYTHING right.
It’s not hard to see why Ted Cruz’s Christian Nationalist rhetoric appeals to conservative Mormon voters. As he told Breitbart News, America is “a unique nation, the indispensable nation, a clarion voice for freedom that we will speak for liberty, for truth. That we will be as Reagan put it, a shining city on a hill.” (The estate of Jesus Christ has since notified the FTC that it trademarked the phrase “city on a hill” some 2,000 years ago. The pending lawsuit may be settled out of court, depending on when the next Judgement Seat session is convened.)
But these word choices–America as “unique” and “indispensable”–are coded for Mormon and evangelical ears alike. Potential Cruz supporters who aren’t religious won’t necessarily pick up on the Christian Nationalist overtones. Those who are Christian Nationalists understand that Cruz is signaling that he’s one of them without coming right out and saying so. His current slogan is “Reignite the Promise of America.” Several of his Super PACs are named “Keeping the Promise.” That kind of language appeals on an almost subconscious level to evangelicals and Mormons who believe that God and the Founding Fathers entered into a special, covenantal relationship. If America is to prosper, it needs to keep up its end of the bargain with God, just like Israel before it.
And while Cruz never explicitly says that he believes the Constitution is divinely inspired, he gets as close to the curb as he can without scraping his rims. In his announcement speech at Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world, Cruz said, “God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. It is a time for truth. It is a time for liberty. It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.” Inspiring words that he followed by asking the audience to “text the word Constitution to the number 33733” and join his campaign.
The message is certainly getting through to Cruz’s biggest Mormon fan, talk radio host Glenn Beck. In a joint appearance with Cruz at a pentecostal church in South Carolina, Beck begged the attendees to “Ask our dear Lord to show you who the man is that has the integrity, who has the connection, who will fall to his knees at the Resolute Desk, who, before he acts doesn’t think of a poll but looks to the Constitution and the holy scriptures; our Bible and the Constitution both come from God, they are both sacred scriptures!” While elevating the US Constitution to the level of divine inspiration is perfectly in keeping with Mormon doctrine and practice, you would expect evangelical listeners to at least shift uncomfortably in their seats when faced with a heterodox statement about extra-Biblical revelation. What Beck got instead was applause.
One of the most surreal moments in an election cycle that even the Dadaists would have found far-fetched was the spectacle of Mormon Glenn Beck and Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress sparring over whether God preferred Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. While speaking to a Mormon audience in Utah, Beck implicitly appealed to the Book of Mormon’s ancient American history of struggle between the people of God and the Lamanites. “The Book of Mormon is a book that was given to us for this time in this land. And it explains exactly what it’s going to look like when trouble comes. And I don’t know about you, but I can put new names against old names, and it all works.” Beck’s hope was that if Mormons stood up and delivered a win for Cruz in Utah, then evangelicals would start “listening to their God” and back Cruz in larger numbers.
Jeffress took umbrage at Beck’s criticism of southern evangelicals, although not Beck’s assertion of American exceptionalism. Just a month or so before, Jeffress had introduced Donald Trump at a rally in Texas, right in Cruz’s backyard. In a tweet–since deleted–Jeffress explained his support for Trump with an appeal to Matthew 5:13, the Sermon on the Mount again: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again.” Christians were called to influence the broader culture and Jeffress thought Trump was the man for the hour. Thus Beck’s comments struck Jeffress as “wacko” and he found himself “somewhat puzzled that Beck claims to know how the God Christians worship would vote in the Republican primaries” given that he is a Mormon.
Indeed, if you weren’t familiar with the long history of Mormon/evangelical belief in America’s sacred calling, I suppose it might have seemed “wacko” to witness Mormons battling for the evangelical candidate and Southern Baptists backing a twice-divorced, Easter-and-Christmas, mainline Protestant. All it takes is mentally inserting the adjective “American” in front of the phrase “city on a hill,” ignoring the Sermon on the Mount’s context, and waiting for applause.
Journalists have spilled a great deal of ink trying to suss out which candidate conservative evangelicals would choose in the Republican primary. After all, two thirds of self-described evangelicals identify as Republicans, which makes them roughly half of the party’s base. Since 1976, Republican candidates have actively wooed evangelicals because they are the largest single voting bloc within the party.
Yet the question of which candidate evangelicals prefer is problematic because it assumes a certain homogeneity among evangelicals, as if they have one mind when it comes to politics and faith. That is a false assumption and this primary season has already highlighted major fault lines between Republican evangelicals. Those divisions presage significant changes within American evangelicalism that will affect how evangelicals in the coming generation vote, worship, and think.
It’s certainly true, as others have noted, that although Trump has won a plurality of evangelical voters in multiple states, a majority have opted for other candidates. And there’s a slight but significant negative correlation between religiosity and support for Trump. In short, Trump wins among evangelicals because he’s winning, period, but he under-performs with evangelicals compared to how well he does with non-evangelical voters. That said, I’m not sure we can just dismiss the fact that a third of evangelicals in, for example, South Carolina have voted for Trump. They certainly aren’t doing so because of their admiration for Trump’s business practices or the depth of his religious commitment.
However, when you dig a little deeper into the data a telling pattern emerges. Trump does well among self-described evangelicals, but not nearly so well with evangelicals who actually attend church. I’m not the first to notice that pattern–J.D. Vance’s article sparked the thought for me–but since no one has yet visually illustrated the point, I thought I’d do so with these side-by-side maps. On the left is a map showing the adherence rate in South Carolina, how many people per 1000 are members of churches. [I used the ARDA website, which should be a go to source for anybody looking for good data on religion in America.] On the right, is a map I made of county-by-county Republican primary results; the darker the color, the higher percentage of the vote Donald Trump received.
The correlation between church membership and a decreased likelihood of voting for Trump is especially apparent in the Upstate, where people are two or three times more likely to go to church regularly…and were half as likely to vote for Trump. There are individual county results that don’t fit the pattern, but there’s a clear line of best fit when you scatter plot the data. Counties with lower church adherence tend to have a higher percentage of Trump supporters.
Evangelicals who support Trump are more likely to be evangelicals in name only. They join evangelical churches at lower rates, attend church less regularly, and, I suspect, are less likely to adhere to key evangelical doctrines. They are cultural evangelicals. Think of them as you would Catholicism in France, where a majority of people profess to be Catholic (75%) but only a handful attend mass weekly (4.5%), give confession, or even ascribe to key church teachings. I grew up in South Carolina and can testify to the simultaneous pervasiveness and thinness of evangelicalism in the South. It’s the universal patois of the Bible Belt–a “Bless his heart” here and a “I’m born again” there–rather than a truly shared faith.
I don’t think we can consider these cultural evangelicals to be either the heart of the tradition or its future. If anything I’d expect that as the “sacred canopy” of Christendom cracks ever wider, these cultural evangelicals will slough off, dropping self-identification and formally (rather than simply practically) joining the ranks of the “nones.” For committed evangelicals, like popular pastor Tim Keller, that prospect isn’t all that alarming, because they see in that trend a healthy winnowing process that sorts true evangelical wheat from cultural evangelical chaff. Viewed in this light, Trump’s support among evangelicals signals the declining hold of evangelical social values on Southern culture and politics, but that might not be a bad thing for evangelicalism as an authentic religious movement.
What Concord Hath Cruz with Rubio?
Even discounting those cultural evangelicals backing Trump, the rump of evangelical voters in the Republican Party have split fairly evenly between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It’s been proposed that the divide is generational, that older voters prefer Cruz while younger ones skew towards Rubio. And there may be something to that idea. For example in Texas, Rubio outperformed among voters 18-29, barely losing that bracket to Cruz, who wiped up among older voters age 30-65. However, if you look at the SC exit polls then you’ll find Cruz outperforming his average with the youngest voters while Rubio has a slight edge among the oldest. (The Carolina polls are particularly useful because the state has a high percentage of evangelical voters at 72% and because Rubio and Cruz ran neck and neck in the final results.)
A much stronger variable that explains the divide is voters’ level of education. In SC Rubio took 32% of voters with postgraduate degrees to Cruz’s 18%. But the script flipped for those with no more than a high school education, giving Cruz 27% to Rubio’s 16%. I suspect that this educational divide explains the income gap as well, with wealthier voters in better-compensated occupations that require college or professional degrees favoring Rubio.
It’s possible that the evangelical divide between Rubio and Cruz is primarily a function of class. Cruz appeals to a similar demographic as Trump, the white working class (albeit those who take their evangelicalism a good bit more seriously). That’s because Cruz has, at least since 2013, adopted the hardest line on immigration among Republican candidates; or he would have were it not for Trump. The difference between the two on the issue is more about rhetorical style than policy substance. Educated professionals feel less threatened by wage competition from illegal immigrants than the working class does. So evangelical workers favor Cruz’s hard line on immigration while evangelical white-collar professionals prefer Rubio’s relatively moderate stance. Class is the primary variable on this issue, not religiosity.
Four Evangelicals (Two Politicians, A Historian, and a Pseudo-Historian) Walk into a Presidential Primary
While class distinctions affect several of the major issues in this election cycle, I do still believe there are substantial theological differences between the evangelicals backing Ted Cruz and those backing Marco Rubio. And the easiest place to examine that divide is also one of the most surprising. Both campaigns have sought endorsements from prominent evangelical historians (although they are prominent in very different ways).
Ted Cruz gained the backing of David Barton, a self-taught historian who now runs one of Ted Cruz’s multi-million dollar Super PACs. Barton’s books and dvds are widely used by evangelical homeschoolers, who are attracted to his message that America was founded as a Christian nation. Barton portrays the bulk of the founding fathers as essentially fellow evangelicals. [Disclosure: As a high schooler, I took a tour of the Capitol in DC led by David Barton himself. No Bible verse etched in marble was left without comment.]
His work, however, has attracted scorn from trained historians, even those who are themselves evangelical. Barton uncritically cites secondhand sources, repeats fake quotations from the founders, and shows little understanding of the broader religious and political context of the late 18th century. Controversy over the scholarly demerits of Barton’s work erupted in 2012, resulting in one of his books being pulled by Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson.
One of the major, critical voices in that controversy was Thomas Kidd, a well-respected professor of history at Baylor University and a conservative Southern Baptist. Kidd’s research focus is 18th century evangelicalism; he’s written books on George Whitefield, Patrick Henry, the First Great Awakening, and the role played by religion in the Revolutionary War. [Disclosure: During my first year in the history PhD program at Penn State, I worked remotely as a research assistant for Kidd.]
A few months after Barton signed on to Cruz’s Super PAC, Kidd joined a pro-Rubio religious liberty advisory board along with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, and a bevy of other evangelical heavyweights. In his explanation for signing on, Kidd referred to Barton’s support for Ted Cruz. Kidd had helped discredit Barton’s historical work and now he sought to minimize his influence with evangelical Republican voters. While the position seems mostly honorary, Kidd has since published several blog posts criticizing the Cruz campaign for its faulty use of history in the service of Christian nationalism.
It’s a remarkable moment. In the past evangelical intellectuals mostly stayed on the sidelines of intramural Republican politics. I can’t imagine Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, or the previous generation of evangelical academics getting involved in partisan politics quite like this. They certainly took a few shots at a prior generation of Christian nationalists, but not in the formal, political arena. And their ideas did not penetrate very deeply into most church pews. Stop by an evangelical church book store today and you’re much more likely to find The Light and the Glory than you are The Search for Christian America. Up until now, the amateur evangelical historians have roundly beaten the professionals at their own game, but Kidd and other evangelical academics have been getting more play among evangelical clergy and laity than has previously been true. While it’s much too early to declare an end to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” these are positive developments.
Which Great Awakening?
Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said of the three leading candidates, “I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing, and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.” I don’t think this is a particularly useful taxonomy because 1) you’d think that Cruz, with his Pentecostal background and the backing of several prominent Pentecostal preachers, would be best qualified for the Swaggart nod and 2) Graham’s legacy is so widely embraced by evangelicals that the comparison with Rubio is mostly meaningless. Moore likes Rubio the best so he compared him to the historical doppelganger he admires the most. That said, I think Moore is right to try and put a finger on some substantive differences between the candidates and their supporters.
There’s a better historical comparison to be made between Cruz/Barton and Rubio/Kidd, but you have to go back several centuries. In short, Thomas Kidd’s view of evangelicalism hearkens back to the First Great Awakening, while David Barton is the heir of the Second Great Awakening. These two historians are promoting authentic but contradictory evangelical visions for engagement in the public square. And the tension between them says something about present day disagreements over the future of American evangelicalism.
Let’s deal first with my comparison of Ted Cruz / David Barton and the Second Great Awakening. There is a direct, lineal connection. Both Barton and Cruz were raised Pentecostals, an early twentieth century offshoot of the Holiness movement, which was itself tied to the rise of Arminian soteriology. 19th century revivalists emphasized humankind’s free will to choose or reject God. This perspective also encouraged social activism as evangelicals felt newly obliged to take an active hand in reshaping America even as they remade themselves. America would be purer, holier, and less given to sinful pursuits like drinking, gambling, and pornography. And by the second half of the 19th century, evangelicals had the cultural and political influence necessary to transform even Constitutional law. At the same time, dispensational theology grew in popularity by promising ordinary evangelicals that they could understand the pattern of world history and current events if they just read the Bible plainly, using their common sense. You didn’t need a fancy seminary degree or knowledge of Hebrew or Greek to understand the Scriptures.
You may already have grasped the similarities between this 19th century evangelical vision and that of Ted Cruz / David Barton. The issues have changed somewhat–Prohibition is no longer the dominant issue that it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries–but the basic logic is the same. They see an active role for evangelicals in making America more pleasing to God. They are culture warriors, children of the New Christian Right who seek to use political power to stem the social changes that they believe threaten an essentially Christian America. Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, who has actively campaigned for his son, is a “Seven Mountains Dominionist,” which combines a heaping of Christian Reconstructionism with a dose of the Prosperity Gospel and a pinch of a messianic complex.
Barton and Cruz, looking back to the 19th century, seek to maintain evangelicalism’s grasp over the American religious and cultural consensus even as that hold slips. As Rafael Cruz put it, “God has raised him [Ted Cruz] up for such a time as this….to beat back secularism and take control of this nation.” To which another pastor added while laying hands on Ted, “There’s a new birth, right now, for America, and it’s taking place right before our eyes….We see this nation being completely restored, completely delivered.” Even so, come, Ted Cruz!
Furthermore, there is a strain of anti-intellectualism in the Cruz / Barton community. Whenever Barton is criticized for his historical inaccuracies, he grumbles about historians belonging to “the most hostile to God…of any profession in the nation.” You don’t need that fancy book learning and formal training to recover America’s Christian past; all it takes is a common sense reading of historical documents. For the sake of time I’ll just briefly note that Barton’s lack of training shows in his credulous reading of secondary sources produced during the Second Great Awakening. He has taken up the two-century-old mantle of “Parson” Mason Weems, who fabricated stories in order to sell books to 19th century evangelicals who wanted to see themselves reflected in the image of the Founding Fathers. And now 21st century evangelicals are looking into the same, distorted mirror and falling in love with themselves all over again, Narcissus reborn.
Cruz and Barton share a majoritarian vision of evangelical public engagement. If most Americans are evangelicals, or so the logic goes, then holding back the tide of depravity simply requires waking Christian people up to the social changes happening before their eyes. Cruz’s presidential campaign is predicated on this very assumption, that winning the White House only requires boosting evangelical turnout on election day. We’ll see, but I want to highlight the way in which this majoritarian vision of evangelicalism clashes with the post-Christian turn in American society.
Simply put, Americans today may be as spiritual as ever, but their adherence to traditional Christian denominations is in decline. Now, it’s become something of an annual tradition for secularization theorists to predict the utter collapse of religion in the West and then be proved wrong. Still, in the last decade the numbers of religiously non-affiliated have risen sharply, membership in mainline and Catholic churches have dropped significantly, and even evangelical groups have seen a modest fall. If you look at the figure to the left, that’s a decline in the combined Mainline / Evangelical / Catholic adherence rate from 68.3% of Americans in 2007 to 60.9% in 2014. That’s a huge drop in just seven years! For sake of comparison, those groups had a combined share of of 87.7% of American churchgoers in 1850 (see Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, page 56). To find adherence rates as low as today’s, you have to go back to the 18th century. In other words, you have to look at the time of the First Great Awakening.
In the 18th century evangelicals were religious upstarts, tiny new denominations dwarfed by the much larger, established Congregationalist and Anglican churches. Evangelical ideas–especially their emphasis on individual soul liberty and congregationalism–challenged the existing social order, including paternal authority, slave-holding, and the entanglement of Church and State. Frequent jailings, beatings, and civil fines profoundly shaped how 18th century evangelicals like John Leland, Isaac Backus, and Samuel Davies thought about the role of their faith in the public square. They were a persecuted religious minority yearning for the liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson and successfully fought for religious disestablishment in the brand new United States of America. They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy, or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone, to “live peaceably with all men,” a Biblical injunction which Leland said “must come with greater force upon the conscience than the mere institutions of human legislators.” Political power could at best enforce the appearance of true religion, but it could not transform hearts. They opposed religious test clauses in the US and state constitutions and argued that true religious toleration required that even “Mahometans” be given the right to freely practice their religion.
I think it no accident that Thomas Kidd shares that more limited view of what evangelicals should seek from politics. At heart, he’s an 18th century evangelical. He’s not searching for “a political messiah,” a chosen one to turn America back to God. And his preferred presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, doesn’t dabble as much in Christian nationalist rhetoric; after all, Rubio is a religious polyglot, currently a member of the Catholic church but previously a Southern Baptist and even, for a brief period as a youngster, a Mormon. All three traditions know something of what it means to be a persecuted religious minority in America.
Kidd joined Rubio’s religious liberty advisory board, not a super PAC with the suspiciously covenantal name “Keep the Promise.” While Cruz and Barton cling to a majoritarian vision of a nation run by and for evangelicals, Rubio and Kidd promote a principled pluralism that ostensibly defends religious liberty for all. (Although it would be nice if in his advisory capacity Kidd would tell Rubio to lay off with the anti-Islamic hyperbole. Kidd did quite literally write the book on Islam and evangelicalism in colonial America.)
American evangelicals are two centuries out of practice when it comes to living as “strangers in a strange land,” but the pluralistic vision of evangelicalism promoted by Thomas Kidd and Marco Rubio is a better fit for our increasingly post-Christian society than the majoritarian fantasies of Ted Cruz and David Barton.
This summer I continued my work for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). ARDA’s director is Roger Finke, a sociologist specializing in religion. Long before the current interest in digital humanities or the resurrection of quantitative history from the ash heap of econometrics, Roger was challenging religious historians to grapple with hard data. The ARDA website is the repository of a vast amount of information about religion in America, from denominational statistics to survey responses. You can find out which state has the most churches (Texas, of course), look up your denominational family tree, or, and this is my personal favorite, discover that a belief in bigfoot is positively correlated with not regularly attending church.
The latest additions to the ARDA website are several interactive timelines of American religious history that have been made possible by generous funding from the Lilly Endowment. For the past several summers I have been working on these timelines along with the rest of the ARDA timeline development team. Three summers ago we compiled lists of ~500 events and people from a range of religious traditions. My contribution to the timeline has been to write up descriptions for those events and people. Some articles are merely a few dozen words while others run much longer. Thus far I have written approximately 120 separate entries for the timeline. It’s been an invaluable learning experience, both from witnessing Roger’s ability to harness the creative energies of a small team while running a grant project and in firming up my grasp of American religious history.
I’m proud of the work our team has done and now that the first few timelines have gone public I can show it off. If you have a few moments, try navigating around the Baptist or Catholic timelines. More timelines will be going up over the coming year. Our hope is that these timelines will be a valuable classroom resource for high school and college teachers. It could easily be used as the centerpiece of a homework assignment, something like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, er, Roger Williams.” Through a web of internal links between people and events, we are also aiming for the kind of serendipitous discoveries you have while clicking your way through wikipedia. Sure, you’ve heard of the First Great Awakening, but did you know about Samson Occom, a Native American Presbyterian who was a leader in the Mohegan tribe, met English hymn-writer John Newton, and founded a new, pan-tribal Indian community that still exists today? Fascinating, right? I hope you have as least as much fun with this timeline as we did!
I’ve been working on an interactive timeline of American religious history for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). I’ll post soon about ARDA and all the cool data-related stuff you can find out with it, but for now I’ll share with you a post I drafted about Samson Occom, or, as I think of him, the coolest Presbyterian ever.
Samson Occom was born in 1723 as part of the Mohegan Indian tribe. He claimed descent from the line of the great Mohegan sachem Uncas, who fought against the expansion of English settlement in New England during the Pequot and King Philip’s Wars in the seventeenth century.
Given the Mohegan proximity to the Connecticut colony, they were an early target for missionary efforts during the First Great Awakening. Occom later described the Awakening as hearing a “Strange Rumor among the English, that there were Extraordinary Ministers Preaching from place to Place and a Strange Concern among the White People.” David Brainerd spent a year living with the tribe before leaving for New Jersey, but it was an evangelist named James Davenport whose preaching led to Occom’s conversion as a teenager.
Occom, hungry for education, went to live with Congregationalist minister Eleazar Wheelock for four years and learned to read and write in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Occom’s aptitude for learning encouraged Wheelock to open a charity school for Indians in 1754. In 1766 Occom traveled to England to raise funds with which to expand Wheelock’s school. While there he preached on more than 300 occasions and raised the extraordinary amount of a least 11,000 pounds.
When Occom returned to Connecticutt, however, he found that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife Mary and their children. Furthermore, Wheelock decided to use the funds to start a school for the education of white settlers. Adding insult to injury, the school, Dartmouth College, was named after a wealthy, noble donor. Occom subsequently left Wheelock’s association and sent him a blistering letter with a Latin play on words: “I am very Jealous that instead of your Semenary Becoming alma Mater, she will be too alba mater to Suckle the Tawnees.” (“Alba mater” means “white mother.”)
Occom’s mistreatment by Wheelock was standard for Indian converts to Christianity. Although evangelical proponents of the First Great Awakening prized Indian missions, after their conversion they often continued to treat them as second-class brethren. For instance, Occom was paid barely a fifth of the salary given to a white fellow missionary, “because,” as he put it, “I am an Indian.” Occom’s concern for the rights of marginalized Indians spilled over into opposition to slavery. The young poet and slave Phillis Wheatley, impressed by Occom’s publication of a sermon condemning slavery, wrote to him saying, “In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”
After parting with Wheelock, Occom continued to minister to multiple Indian tribes. He wrote prolifically during this period and, inspired by a several day-long sojourn with English hymn-writer John Newton, published a hymnbook in 1774 designed for distribution among Indian Christians.
Throughout his ministry, Occom served as a leader among the Mohegan, for example handling land disputes between the tribe and the Connecticutt colony. After the American Revolution, he lead a coalition of seven Indian tribes to form a new community called “Brothertown” for Indian Christians in upstate New York. In 1792 Occom founded a Presbyterian Church in Brothertown but died shortly afterwards. During the War of 1812 white New Yorkers, worried about the Iroquois allies of the British and thus suspicious of Indians in general, forced the Brothertown community to move to Wisconsin in keeping with Congressional wishes that all tribes be relocated out of the East. The Brothertown Indian Nation still exists today although it is entangled in a long-running legal battle for recognition from the federal government.
What’s striking to me is that I can’t find any recent, scholarly biography of Occom. (Much of the information above I culled from Margaret Szasz, Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783.) It’s unfortunate because in a sense it repeats the harms committed against Occom by Wheelock. His contemporaries treated him as an inferior, overlooking his contributions to the First Great Awakening. Now we are doing likewise. Occom has all but disappeared from histories of Presbyterianism. Given the relatively poor track record of Presbyterians on issues of race during the 19th century, we should recover the overlooked history of Occom and other marginalized voices from the century prior. He represents a path not taken by the mainstream of American Presbyterianism. I’d love to see P&R Publishing or one of the other church history publishing houses commission a biography of Occom.
Samuel Davies played a significant role promoting the First Great Awakening among American Presbyterians in the 18th century. He fought for religious toleration in Virginia, preached a series of sermons in support of the British during the French and Indian War, and served as the fourth president of Princeton University. For extra details, here’s a link to my ARDA entry for Davies.
His reputation as a powerful preacher continued after his death into the 19th century and reprints of his sermons circulated widely. He was the “prince of preachers” long before Charles Spurgeon was born. Davies gave one of his final sermons to the students at Princeton on New Years Day 1761. The text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” While exhorting the students to not waste what time in this life remained to them, Davies stated, “Perhaps I may die this year.” A month later, Davies was dead. They don’t make sermon illustrations quite like they used to!
Yet Davies’s most famous sermon was delivered while he was on a fundraising tour of Britain. As the story goes, Davies was called to preach in the royal chapel for King George II. When the king started whispering to others in attendance, Davies stopped talking, fixed his gaze on the King, and said, “When the lion roars the beasts of the forest all tremble; when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.” The chastened monarch later held a private audience with the bold minister, apologized, and donated some money which helped Princeton erect its first major building, Nassau Hall.
It’s a grand story and it’s easy to see why it was so often retold. What ardent republican in the early 19th century could resist a story about a native-born American bearding King George II in his own palace? It certainly would have gone down smoother after the American Revolution than, say, Davies’s eulogy to King George II–“George, the mighty, the just, the gentle, and the wise!”–upon the monarch’s death in 1761. After all, they had just fought a war with his ostensibly tyrannical, unjust, and foolish grandson, King George III.
However, the story of Davies and the King–coming to an Off Broadway show near you!–is a complete fabrication by an infamous 19th century booster of the Second Great Awakening, “Parson” Mason Locke Weems. He was an ordained Episcopalian minister until financial difficulties forced him out of the ministry. As an author and traveling book seller, Weems had a practical interest in compelling stories and didn’t let little things like evidence keep him from spinning tall tales. He specialized in well-selling biographies of prominent men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Francis Marion. The heroes of the founding and the Revolution were starting to die off, first Benjamin Franklin (1790), then Francis Marion (1795), George Washington (1799), and many others.
Americans wanted to memorialize their departed national heroes, but they also wanted to see themselves in them. Weems’s tailored biographies were a particularly smart sales tactic in the 1800s and 1810s as the revivals associated with the Second Great Awakening broke out. America was rather suddenly more evangelical than ever before. Weems was happy to supply that demand by “evangelicalizing” the Founding Fathers. His versions of the historical figures prayed more often, acted piously at all times, and were conspicuously loyal to the idea of America as a nation specially chosen by God.
Weems is famously responsible for the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Here’s a delightful painting by Grant Wood winking at the story by featuring Weems in the foreground pulling back the curtain on a surprisingly adult looking George Washington.) He also invented the story of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Those are both famous examples, but Weems is likely also the author of the Samuel Davies sermon anecdote. Editions of Sermons on Important Subjects, by the late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. were routinely ordered by quite a multitude of booksellers in the 1790s and 1800s. In 1816 an edition was printed in Baltimore for “Mason L. Weems.” Prior editions did not include the anecdote, but Weems did and later editors imitated him. Despite attempts at debunking the story, the fiction was better than the truth.
Weems’s anecdote has declined along with the memory of Samuel Davies. Myths about the Founding Fathers continue to circulate despite the efforts of historians to stamp them out–that’s a constant!– but few evangelicals today have ever heard of Davies and the political and religious milieu is no longer served by fanciful stories about his showdown with the King of England. Still, the episode is a reminder of the natural human inclination to invent and believe histories that are convenient to those causes which we hold dear.