The Narrative Of American History: Truth vs. Ideology

Dec 5th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

How Americans view their history is important, for that narrative is what is taught in our schools and informs how we view current issues in their historical perspective.  Until fairly recently, there was a consensus among most Americans about that narrative.  No longer.  There are at least two competing narratives that dominate America’s educational curriculums and the various media outlets (e.g., cable television, the social media, and political commentary).  Let’s examine these two competing narratives and then zero in on one popular narrative, the 1619 Project.

What are the two competing narratives?

  1. According to Damon Linker of the University of Pennsylvania, “The United States has stood for democracy and freedom since the time of its founding.  In the 20th century, the country began applying these ideals to its relations with the rest of the world, which it saved first from the specter of fascism in World War II and then from the threat of Soviet totalitarianism, which it battled around the globe over the next four decades.  Along the way, the United States built a liberal international order that brought peace and prosperity to countless millions on the American side of the Iron Curtain by championing the human rights of people everywhere.  Eventually, with the Soviets defeated, all the nations of the world were invited [to fulfill] the universal human longing for freedom and benefitting all those who adopt and affirm it.”  The founding documents of America—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787, along with the Bill of Rights—provide the anchor for the Republic that, through its history, has expanded the inclusive circle of citizenship—abolishing slavery, granting women the right to vote, etc.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America has been experiencing through its history “a new birth of freedom” with each generation.
  2. The second narrative “begins not with the ideals of democracy and freedom but with settler colonialism wiping out the America’s Native populations to make land available for white development, chattel slavery fueling capitalist growth through the mid-19th century and then imperialism enabling the economic exploitation of societies abroad.”  This narrative loathes capitalism and views American foreign policy through the grid of imperialism.  For this narrative, everything America has done has been to secure access to abundant natural resources, cheap labor and vast markets for selling its goods.  Its history is one of exploitation and violence.  All of these opportunities are rigged to benefit the wealthy and powerful far more than anyone else in the social hierarchy.

I am a Christian historian, with three graduate degrees in history and historical theology, and have published four books relating to history and the Christian worldview.  I share all this to demonstrate the difficulty I have as a Christian historian responding to either narrative, for the challenge in building a coherent Christian narrative of American history is the reality of human sin.  None of the early settlers from Europe, nor the nation’s founders, nor any of those who followed them were perfect.  As a Christian, I cannot justify or excuse the subjugation of Native Americans or the monstrous evil of racial, chattel slavery that dominated America, especially in the South, through the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Nor can I excuse the horrors of segregation and state-sponsored discrimination along with the denial of basic human rights that followed Reconstruction well into the twentieth century.  But this same nation also articulated high-minded principles in its founding documents that energized nations throughout the world to focus on human rights and freedom.  Furthermore, this nation built a formidable capitalist economy that attracted immigrants from around the world, who sought human freedom and economic opportunity.  Despite all its inconsistencies and sin, America has been a force for human flourishing around the world.  To deny this is an act of intellectual dishonesty.

So, let me respond to these competing narratives with several comments resulting from decades of teaching, writing and thinking about the discipline of history.

  1. What are the elements of a Christian philosophy of history?  Four basic presuppositions define a Christian Philosophy of History:  [1] The Sovereignty of God.  His providence and sovereign rule are explicitly taught in Romans 13:1-7 and Daniel 4, for example; [2] History is linear, not cyclical, progressive or random. [3] History is teleological; it has a clear purpose and a clearly defined end (telos), which are the return of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom on earth.  [4] The human race is in rebellion against God, a rebellion led by Satan and his world system.  The redemptive plan of God is the major theme of history.  That plan will result in the overthrow of this system, the defeat of Satan, and the triumph of God’s kingdom on earth.
  2. An important foundational milestone in America’s history occurred in the summer of 1776:  Five religious ideas connected deists and evangelicals across British North America.  In the desire for independence from Great Britain, there was both a commitment to political liberty and to religious liberty.  As historian Thomas Kidd argues, these ideas informed and influenced the writing of the Declaration of independence in 1776 and the US Constitution in 1787:  [1] The disestablishment of all state churches.  [2] The idea of a Creator God who is the guarantor of fundamental human rights.  [3] The reality of human sin as a threat to the new republic.  [4] The republic would be sustained only by religious virtue.  [5] God, in His Providence, moved in and through nations.  In short, they believed that God was raising up America for some special purpose.  A civic spirituality emerged which believed that God had a special purpose for America.  There was a redemptive aspect to the American Revolution; the cause of America was the cause of Christ, many believed.
  3. The influence of John Withersppon, president of the [Presbyterian] College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), especially on James Madison, the father of the US Constitution, cannot be ignored.  [Madison stayed at Princeton an extra year after he graduated in 1771 to study Hebrew.]  The Presbyterian form of church government had similarities with the American Republic in that the people choose their own representatives to the General Assembly (GA) and the idea of a union of all presbyteries in the GA.  Witherspoon taught his students that a balanced political structure would prevent the abuse of power.  He also taught total depravity and thus the need to check the natural tendency to vice and political corruption.  Madison was convinced that a balance of power and a system of checks and balances would prevent this from occurring in the new republic being established in America.  Witherspoon taught that political and religious liberties would only be preserved through both public and private virtue, which was tied to personal faith.  [In addition to Madison, Witherspoon’s students included a vice president, 12 members of the Continental Congress, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 49 US Representatives, 28 Senators, and 3 Supreme Court justices.]

In conclusion, let’s think carefully about the “1619 Project,” which was launched in August 2020 with a 100-page spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  It intends to “reframe the country’s history” by crossing out 1776 as America’s founding date and substituting 1619, the year 20 or so African slaves were brought to Jamestown.  This Project is a perfect example of the second narrative I discussed above.  As Bret Stephens has correctly observed, the Project’s “ambition” is “to reframe America’s conversation about race . . . to reframe our understanding of history . . . to move from news pages to classrooms . . . to move from scholarly debate to national consciousness.”  Indeed, both the magazine itself and the photo essay that accompanied the Project’s launch in August are stunning, well-done and engaging.  But it’s primary and most controversial ambition is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.  Stephens:  “It seeks to dethrone the Fourth of July by treating American history as a story of Black struggle against white supremacy—of which the Declaration is for all its high-flown rhetoric, supposed to be merely a part.”  But, Stephens also asks, “What about, say, the ideas contained in the First Amendment?  Or the spirit of openness that brought millions of immigrants through places like Ellis Island?  Or the enlightened worldview of the Marshall Plan or the Berlin airlift?  Or the spirit of scientific genius and discovery exemplified by the polio vaccine and the moon landing?  On the opposite side of the moral ledger, to what extent does anti-Black racism figure in American disgraces such as the brutalization of Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II?”  A mono-causal explanation of American history is unsatisfactory and intellectually dishonest.

How have historians responded to the 1619 Project? One of America’s sterling historians, James McPherson, declared: “Almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective.”  Princeton historian Sean Wilentz lamented making arguments “built on partial truths and misstatements of facts.”  The goal of educating Americans on slavery and its consequences is so important that it “cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions and significant omissions.”  Bret Stephens is certainly correct when he argues that “1776 isn’t just our nation’s ‘official’ founding.  It is our symbolic one, too.  The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation.  Its 244 years of effort by Americans—sometimes halting, but often heroic—to live up to our greatest ideal.  That’s a struggle that has been waged by people of every race and creed.  And it’s an ideal that continues to inspire millions of people at home and abroad.”

See Damon Linker’s review of the book Bland Fanatics in the New York Times Book Review (1 November 2020), p. 9; Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution; Eliot Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal (17 December 2019); and Bret Stephens in the New York Times (11 October 2020).


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One Comment to “The Narrative Of American History: Truth vs. Ideology”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    Thanks for a clear and insightful perspective.