Ted Widmer: When Democrats court evangelicals, they have history on their side

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ted Widmer is the author of “Ark of the Liberties: America and the World,” which was published last month.]

We all know that politics makes strange bedfellows, but how odd it must have been to have sat in on the recent meeting between Barack Obama and evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, the conservative minister who once called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Yet there they were, Obama and the evangelicals in Chicago on June 10, searching for — and apparently finding — considerable common ground. In the last few weeks, Obama has announced several outreach projects (including one named after Joshua, who, unlike Moses, was able to lead his people to the promised land). For their part, evangelical leaders, unpersuaded by John McCain’s episodic proclamations of faith, are wise, or perhaps even prophetic, to consider all the options.

Maybe the distance between liberals and evangelicals, each eternal optimists in their way, is much smaller than we realized. In our week of national reflection, it’s worth recognizing that religious enthusiasm in America has as often as not had a reformist or even revolutionary cast to it. Consider the Declaration of Independence. It is not normally seen as an evangelical statement, despite the heroic attempts of the Christian right to claim it as such. God is mentioned four times, but obliquely, and never by name. Even so, the argument against kings derived much of its power from the vigor of Christian thought. The historian Pauline Maier was right to label this bit of parchment our American Scripture.

More than we realize, we descend from a founding moment that was evangelical. In 1776, one minister spoke for many when he likened the struggle against England to the never-ending struggle against “the beast and his image — over every species of tyranny.” John Adams, who helped edit the declaration, attributed the text to God as well as to Thomas Jefferson and expressed his wish that future Americans would celebrate the great day “by solemn acts of devotion” (along with bonfires, gunfire, the clanging of bells and other raffish pursuits of happiness).

We often forget how close the revolutionaries were to the Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s, when revival meetings were held across the colonies and apocalyptic expectation hung heavy in the air. For every Jefferson, cutting out sections of the Bible he deemed superstitious, there were others like Samuel Osgood, the first postmaster general, who wrote a book in 1794 predicting that the Second Coming was imminent, after elaborate calculations linking bits of prophecy in the Bible with recent events. Specifically, he asserted that the period of the “feet and toes” was beginning. (Prophecy and allegory were often linked to the feet — a podiatrist’s dream. An enemy of John Adams once compared him to “Nebuchadnezzar’s toe,” an insult that probably would not pass the sound-bite test today.)...
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