Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Christians and progress

A few days ago, Anne, over at PalmTree Pundit discovered that she'd been randomly tagged as a fundamentalist Christian, so focused on the Rapture that she had no time for earthly problems. (Read Anne's story here.) This whole episode got me thinking. In America, there is a mainstream view that fundamentalist Christians are wild-eyed, eco-destroying, racist, misogynistic, book-burning crazies. Certainly, we have a long literary and Hollywood tradition about that; viz, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a book we were all forced to read in high school; the multiple movies made about that book (see, e.g., here, here and here); Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry; the movie Elmer Gantry; and even Steve Martin's amusing movie, Leap of Faith. The Jim and Tammy Bakkers of our time haven't helped much either. The fact is, though, that the popular imagine isn't much supported by reality. First of all, it's worth remembering that the Protestantism that provided the first mass immigration to America in the 17th Century arose as a reaction to the profound corruption of the medieval and renaissance Catholic church. The Protestants left because they were being, literally, burned, not because they were doing the burning. (For example, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter, burned more than 300 "heretics" at the stake.) Certainly, the Protestants in early America were a tough group, forcing people in their community to confirm to their rules. The hysteria of the Witch Hunts, and the horrors of King Philip's War didn't help their reputation, although they were certainly in synch with their own times when they engaged in these activities. The fact is, though, that by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most of what we consider progressive was coming out of the fundamentalist movement. It was, after all, the Evangelicals, first in England, and then in America, who looked to Biblical teachings and concluded that slavery was a moral wrong. Outside of slavery, too, the Evangelicals were in the vanguard of social reform movements that we now take for granted (the prohibition on child labor, universal sufferage, improvement in factor conditions, education for women, etc). As Gillian Gill, in her fascinating biograpy of Florence Nightingale (see sidebar or below) says:

It is a savage irony that the Unitarian background of people like Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Josiah Wedgwood has so often been either misunderstood or ignored. Unitarians should not be dismissed as tyrannical bigots straight out of the pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne, or more recently the screenplays of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, in the late eighteenth century, religious convictions led a small group of men and women into the intellectual avant-garde and inspired a dogged commitment to improve social conditions for all. For William Smith [Florence Nightgale's grandfather] and his Unitarian friends on both sides of the Atlantic, faith was a spur, not a hobble.
(It's important to note here that the Unitarianism that drove these 19th Century reformers was a stringent Evangelical faith, not the gentle faith that is modern-day Unitarianism.) And even now, it is the Evangelicals who are in the forefront of some of the important reforms: it is they who are speaking out the worldwide sex trade in women, it is they who were the first and are still the loudest critics of the genocide in the Sudan, and it is they who are incredibly strong supporters of President Bush's belief that freeing Arab's from tyranny of their own governments is necessary both morally and politically. It seems to me that the next time someone wants to engage in a little Evangelical-bashing, they should ignore the pop-culture script, check out the historical and present reality, and back off. UPDATE: In today's National Review Online, Christopher Levenick & Michael Novak have a great article demonstrating that our Founding Fathers were driven by the same enlightened faith I've discussed in my article, above.