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What We Believe About History

Beliefs have a history. As a historian of religion, I take this for granted. I’d forgotten how foreign this notion is to many evangelicals in the United States.

Evangelicals identify as “Bible-believing” Christians: Evangelical pastors preach “biblical values,” and evangelical leaders promote “traditional” values in the secular, public sphere, weighing in on issues ranging from tax policy to gun control. All of these beliefs are packaged and sold as biblical, timeless and eternal.

Evangelicals are not alone in considering that their beliefs are eternal and unchanging. For believers of all stripes, the very notion of truth assumes an aura of timelessness, but historical knowledge has a way of complicating such certainty. By revealing not only continuity but also considerable change over time, history demonstrates that much of what passes for traditional is, in fact, of relatively recent origin. By situating historical subjects within broader contexts, history also reveals how economic, political and cultural factors influence what people believe to be true at any given time.

However, to an unusual degree, evangelicals have remained oblivious to how their own stories map onto larger histories. It’s not that evangelicals disregard history entirely, but they tend to prefer their own versions of events. At a popular level, pseudo-historians have played fast and loose with historical evidence to spin fanciful tales of America’s Christian origins. Within academic circles, some evangelical historians have produced narratives that tend to downplay the darker sides of their religious tradition.

For those who have only ever encountered whitewashed portrayals of their own past, a more complex account of evangelical history is enormously disruptive. Evangelicals are shocked, for example, to learn that the Rev. Billy Graham had a decidedly mixed record when it came to civil rights, was politically ambitiouspromoted American militarism and tacitly condoned atrocities in Vietnam. This was not the Graham they knew and loved.

History also disrupts simply by showing that things have not always been as they are now. For example, there was a time when many conservative Protestants rejected the very idea of “Christian America.” Those taught that patriarchy is essential to Christian orthodoxy would be surprised to learn of the long history of evangelical feminism.

Evangelicals have also created a vast consumer culture that reinforces an uncomplicated and uncritical self-perception. Christian radio, Christian publishing and Christian school textbooks and home-school curriculums reinforce narratives depicting evangelicals as the good guys, bravely doing God’s work in the world. The nation’s sins — racism, sexism, xenophobia, white nationalism — are depicted not as problems endemic to the tradition, but rather as departures from “true evangelicalism.” Critical outsider accounts are either ignored or discounted as attacks, reinforcing an evangelical persecution complex. Because enormous profits are at stake in this evangelical consumer culture, both financial and ideological motivations play into efforts to keep evangelical consumers within the fold.

Read entire article at New York Times