When History Meets Religion and Philosophy

I sometimes decide to intentionally read several related books and to study a topic in depth.  Usually, I never get past the first book in the plan.  However, I often find that I am reading several related books over a short period of time that all complement each other on the topics at hand.  This has been the case with three recent readings.

I read and reviewed Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark Hall just a few weeks ago.  While reading the book, I used a Youtube session where he discussed his book for my government class.  We skipped over and examined the chapter on religion and the courts in our textbook.  Dr. Hall took me along familiar paths and showed me new things.  This book is a much needed, compact, direct hit on the myths that permeate our textbooks and society.  While dealing with the Founders, it is as or more relevant than the evening news for understanding American culture.  He is not advocating “turning the clock back” or trying to impose some sort of Puritan theocracy on the current nation.

But ideas have consequences, as we often say.  So do history lessons.  Teach the wrong lessons and you get the wrong consequences.  That underscores the importance of this book. Did America Have a Christian Founding? is published by Thomas Nelson.

I am currently about two-thirds through America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas S. Kidd.  This book is an excellent survey of the religious experiences of the peoples who have lived in this country.  I have no idea how Dr. Kidd, who is pouring out books right and left, manages to cover as many topics over a period of several hundred years as he does.

Of course, if someone wants to know about a group, religious leader, or event in depth, this is not the book.  It is a fast and furious survey, hitting the key events, naming significant leaders, and including the vast spectrum of beliefs both Christian and other.  This would be an excellent book to supplement a college American history course.  By the way, Dr. Kidd has written a new and highly touted history of the United States.  I wish I could have read something like this earlier in my own career.

America’s Religious History by Thomas S. Kidd is published by Zondervan Academic.  There is also a video available where Dr. Kidd lectures over the contents of the book.

In a related, but far more challenging area is The Declaration of Independence and God:  Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson.  This book is an in-depth study of the philosophy that led to the self-evident claims in the Declaration of Independence.  As a student of history, I am continually embarassed and shocked by how little I was exposed to the philosophical debates and concerns through the ages.  Sad to say, historians will tend to fall back on “this happened and then this happened and then this next thing happened.”  True enough, but not enough.

For all of the faults and simplistic contents in Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, it stands out for weaving in–imperfectly–the philosophies, ideas, worldviews, and presuppositions of the ages of history.  This book by Dr. Anderson narrows that topic down to the ideas contained and presupposed in the Declaration of Independence.

I wish Dr. Anderson would write a book that basically surveyed the philosophical ideas that have impacted different eras of American history.  In part, he has done this.  Jefferson relied on certain beliefs found in sources like John Locke or Thomas Reid.  But Ralph Waldo Emerson and others changed the rules of the game. Darwinism brought further changes, as did beliefs coming out of liberal theology and more recent ideas.

So, when the topic of when a fetus becomes a person arose in the Roe v. Wade case, the climate of the court and the times did not lead the justices to examine what Jefferson or the Founders said and accept them as the final authority.  But Jefferson’s formulation itself was lacking.  What is exactly self-evident?

Dr. Anderson’s book raises the bar of the studies of American history as presented in the first two books.  I am still grappling with his teachings and writings.  The fault, alas, is in the reader and not the writer.  Nevertheless, I feel a real gap in my own understanding has been revealed.  Glad to have read this book and look forward to reading it again.

The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson is published by Cambridge University Press.

 

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