July 04, 2008

Mark Noll on the Revolutionary War and the Bible

CT has a great little piece by Mark Noll, the eminent American religious historian, about the Revolutionary War. He begins with the question of whether Christian colonists were justified in participating in the war. His well-reasoned answer is basically that while there were clear abuses by Britain, it was really only African American slaves who were justified in making war on Britain. This in and of itself makes for an interesting (and important) discussion, as the Revolutionary War is part of our national ethos and certainly informs our self-understanding and how we see the world (the myth of American exceptionalism pitted against the evil powers "out there," often turning a blind eye to the ambiguities of the situation in reality). But I think the most interesting part of the article comes at the end, when he notes that probably the most significant aspect of the Revolutionary War for subsequent Christian thinking had to do with the precedents it set for how the Bible was used in public discourses. Instead of careful exegesis of important texts and dialog concerning careful application of these principals, Noll asserts that the Bible was merely used as a means to justify positions arrived at based on other principals and arguments. That's a dangerous precedent, but one that has certainly been often followed in American public discourse. Noll's book on the Civil War (see my review) shows that this was certainly the case in some parts of the discourse surrounding the Civil War, and careful reading of much argumentation today (whether for free markets or lower taxes or universal health care) probably often fits in this category as well. This obviously isn't to say that thoughtful exegesis can't bring great Biblical wisdom to bear on these topics, because it certainly can, but that isn't always the loudest or clearest voice in the conversation.

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