Michael Sean Winters

This is a dangerous book. More important, and more frightening, it is an illustrative book, neatly combining a host of ideas about the nature of American exceptionalism that are far from uncommon in Tea Party circles. The book is a window into the mind of the evangelical wing of today’s Republican Party, and it is scary to look through that window.

The central historical premise of The Coming Revolution is that the Great Awakening was the key to the American Revolution, that the religious fervor of the Black Robe Regiment is the hermeneutical key for understanding the founders, that the United States was from its inception nothing but a Christian nation. The historiography of the American Revolution is extensive, and the scholars who have best tilled the historical soil of late colonial and revolutionary America are well known: Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Edmund Morgan. None of them and none of their ideas figure into Richard Lee’s opus.

It is true that some historians have underestimated the influence of religion and religious ideas during the Revolutionary period, and Lee takes them to task. Fair enough. But his simplistic account of the role of religion lacks seriousness. He correctly notes that the stated desire to introduce an Anglican bishop caused great consternation in colonial America, but he does not explain how that consternation fits with his characterization of Americans as profoundly committed to religious liberty. He calls the 1774 Quebec Act “a direct assault on the Protestant churches” without explaining how the British Parliament’s decision to grant limited civil rights to Catholics in Canada was an affront to Protestants in Britain’s more southerly colonies. (The First Continental Congress did not do a very good job explaining that either.) Lee’s attempts to baptize Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin are laughable. Those interested in reading a serious accounting of the role of religion, and specifically of anti-Catholic prejudice, in shaping the worldview of the Revolutionary generation should consult Patricia Bonomi’s magisterial Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America. This is a book with which Lee seems unfamiliar.

Lee’s tome is vicious because he cannot bring himself to assume anything but the darkest motives about those whose politics he deplores. In a concluding section, he heaps opprobrium upon President Obama who, he charges, “disguised his true ideology with a vague promise of hope and change during the campaign; then immediately became the most ideological and divisive president in history after the election.” A few pages later, he urges his readers to action: “If we have the courage of our convictions, we are able to take this country back from those who are doing their best to destroy it from within.”

One expects this kind of rubbish from those trained in the art of the politics of personal destruction, the acolytes of Karl Rove and, before him, Lee Atwater. But should we not expect from a minister of the Gospel the presumption that President Obama is trying to further the nation’s interest, albeit in ways with which one is free to disagree, and not trying to “destroy it from within.”

Throughout the book, Lee cites Glenn Beck as one of his heroes. He writes approvingly of Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 2010, which happened to be the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered from the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Beck used as a backdrop. The comparison is an unflattering one for Beck; but it says all one needs to know about the crimped vision of the Rev. Dr. Lee that he fails even to mention King’s rather different vision of American greatness.

Books like this are dangerous not only because the vision of America presented is so narrow as to be exclusionary of many fellow Americans. Nor is the principal danger in the book’s distorted reading of history, although that is very dangerous. No, the principal danger here is that by investing politics with evangelical zeal, Lee risks simultaneously inflaming politics with doctrinaire notions for which our political institutions are ill-suited and demeaning Christianity by reducing it to a prop for Americanism. Jesus the Christ did not die to make America great, but you could be forgiven for thinking as much if you adopted Lee’s arguments and perspectives. Lee’s God does not transcend history; he votes Republican. Eschatology and election results are the same thing.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been going on inside certain evangelical churches for decades. Before the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who was a friend of Lee, formed the Moral Majority in 1979, he held a series of “I Love America” rallies at all 50 state capitols, preaching the gospel of a Christian America. The effects of Falwell’s Moral Majority on the nation’s political life have long been obvious, but here in Dr. Lee’s book we see the effects that gospel has had on the church. The reduction of religion to ethics, and political ethics at that, is now complete. The conflation of Christian Church with the Christian nation rivals anything known in Byzantium.

The United States is not Byzantium, and Pastor Lee’s views are in the minority. But it is a noisy minority, and most Americans know it today as the Tea Party. It has taken mainstream commentators a long time to recognize that the Tea Party is not a “new” emerging faction on the American right. It is the evangelical church discussing the federal budget. The tropes and the worldview are the same today as they were when Lee and Falwell were galvanizing evangelical support for Ronald Reagan. What they have now in Lee’s tome, but did not have before, is a well-articulated narrative of American history almost exclusively rooted in evangelical religion, which leads, through various demonstrations of American exceptionalism and Manifest, albeit Protestant, Destiny, in our own day to Glenn Beck’s television show. It is frightening.

Michael Sean Winters, author of a book on Jerry Falwell, entitled God’s Right Hand (HarperOne, 2012), writes the blog Distinctly Catholic for The National Catholic Reporter.

Comments

Vincent Gaitley | 7/18/2012 - 11:48pm
Poor Mr. Winters, be not afraid! Where you see a dangerous book from a dangerous Tea Party, others see diversity in politics.  Whether one is right wing or left wing the revolt from the Tea Party springs from the fiscal mess-the math is neutral politically-but it says we are doomed; and that is what energizes the the continuing controversy.  Conservatives have always been more tolerant of the left than Liberals have been of the right.  I don't remember President Reagan having a pitchfork or a pot of tar and feathers.  So relax.
Andrew Russell | 7/6/2012 - 12:02pm
So... Am I to understand that Mr. Winters did not like the book?