Thursday, March 11, 2010

Noted Review: God in America Edition

Gingrich, Newt. Featuring the photography of Callista Gingrich. Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in our Nation's History and Future. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 118 Pages. Cloth. $16.99.  (N)

Newcombe, Jerry. The Book that Made America: How the Bible Formed Our Nation. Ventura, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2009. 277 Pages. Paper. $18.95. (N)

I serve as Headmaster (Principal) of a classical Christian Grammar School. After Chapel, each day our scholars recite the Pledge of Allegiance. About a year ago, they amazed the community by reciting, from memory, the Preamble to the Declaration, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the entire Gettysburg Address, numerous patriotic songs, and two stanzas of The Star Spangled Banner.

We should not merely talk about the texts that govern our nation of laws (and not men), but know and understand the texts themselves. History is supposedly written by the "winners," and academia and our current culture wars have taught me that those who write the history books don't always win in a military battle. What texts present should be carefully scrutinized for the worldview of the author, editor, publisher, and instructor.

Two complementary books recently crossed my desk with similar goals to help Americans like you to rediscover America's religious heritage. Christians and Christianity have made America an unique nation.

Rediscovering God in America reflects "on the Role of Faith in Our Nation's History and Future." In particular, this book serves as a keepsake tourbook of famous political sites and memorials in our nation's capitol.

This book, previously released in 2006, is now supplemented with  photographs byauthor Newt Gingrich's wife, Callista Gingrich.

The Conclusion (113ff) lays out the book's true purpose and perspective: "This written from an historical perspective. Its purpose is neither theological, nor an effort to proselytize on behalf of any religious worldview. All Americans--both those who believe in God and those who do not share this belief--are equal in the rights and duties under our Consitution and equal in deserving the respect of their fellow citizens.

"Instead, the purpose of this book is to rediscover the historic source of American liberty and to rediscover the founding generation's understanding of what is required to sustain liberty in a free society. And to do this is to truly discover anew the centrality of God in American history and in the ongoing story of American liberty."

Fair enough. Those paragraphs may have served me better as part of the introduction of the book, but these are laudable goals. Other resources exist that take more of a theological or evangelical approach to American history, faith, and our Founders. Until the book's purpose was clarified at the end, I was looking for specific Christian references of "God in Christ."  The title gave this Christian pastor a different first impression.

As an intern for a member of Congress in the summer of 1995, I walked around DC and read for myself the texts on the monuments, memorials, and buildings shown and described inside, ones referencing nature, nature's God, Biblical personages, texts, and symbols, and evidence that we are a religious nation. A painting of the baptism of Pocahontas hangs in the capitol (58).

Gingrich's book reminds me how time marches on: there have been new memorials added in the intervening 15 years.

The challenge for Lutheran Christians, as well as all who call upon the name of Christ, is to add Biblical meaning to the phrases, "In God we trust," "God bless America," "One nation under God," and others, so that the original, largely Christian significance is not lost. Of course, some may deem me a radical for insisting on "original intent" and being a "strict constructionist" when it comes to Scripture and the Consistitution. Justice Scalia visited Concordia, Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri while I was a seminarian. Good rules for textual interpretation cross lines from one discipline to another.

Religious pluralism shows up in 1935 in the construction of a separate building for The Supreme Court (70ff). We must be careful to properly distinguish "American Civil Religion" from Christianity. The two have much overlap, but are not the same thing.

American religious history is complicated by the Lodge, Deism, and fringe movements that had beginnings in orthodox, Biblical Christianity. We have common cause with Speaker Gingrich in reaffirming the true meaning of freedom of religion (as opposed to the "politically correct" freedom FROM religion, cf. 7).

Consider purchasing Rediscovering God in America to remember or prepare for a trip to Washington, D. C., or to simply defend and recover the role of the Christian religion in American history.

A more focused approach to American history with the Bible in mind is The Book that Made America.
About the Author: "Jerry Newcombe, D.Min., of Coral Ridge Ministries is a professional communicator whose research and media productions have been seen by millions. He has helped shape the media output of one of the most influential U.S. Protestant churches in the twentieth century.

"As senior producer for Coral Ridge Ministries television Dr. Newcombe has produced or co-produced more than fifty documentaries. He is the host of two weekly radio shows. He has been a guest on numerous television and radio talk shows, including Fox News and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. He is the author or coauthor of twenty-one books. Dr. Newcombe also holds a Master’s degree in communications from Wheaton College (1983) and a Doctor of Ministry from Knox Theological Seminary (2008). Dr. Newcombe wrote his thesis on the importance of "Preserving Our Christian Heritage" and how pastors and their congregations can pass on that heritage.

"Dr. Newcombe met his wife Kirsti have two children, Annie and Eric. The Newcombes, residing in South Florida, have co-authored two books together: I’ll Do It Tomorrow and A Way of Escape" (publisher's website).

While not all of America's founders were Deists, many of its "active Christian" Founders had a personal confession of faith that conficted with a purely Biblical Christian message. In particular, Washington's Lodge membership is problematic.

It was comforting to share with our schoolchildren that the majority of delegates to the Constitutional Convention were orthodox members of orthodox congregations and church bodies.

One of the best contributions of Dr. Newcombe's book is "America's Christian Heritage Quiz" (42-47, which I passed :) ), a humbling self-exam that serves as an outline for the remainder of the book. Consider sharing this portion with a young American you know.

Our Lutheran readers will be interested to hear that the author married his wife Kirsti at her home church, the Lutheran Free Church of Kristiansand, Norway (xii).

On a more historical note, a Union Church was the site of a special service for the entire Constitutional Convention, the Reformed Calvinistic Lutheran Church (225). Please note who got top billing over Dr. Luther! That has been the same criticism our Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod has been raising for over 150 years. 2 + 2 cannot have two acceptable, yet different correct answers in one church body, one congregation, or one mind.

Are you aware of the very active role Presbyterians had in the Revolution (95)? At a time when textbook controversies rage in Texas or loom on the horizon in your home state, we must understand our own past (cf. 2-3) so that truth and context are communicated to future generations. 

A particular challenge in much of the writing about God and America is the notion and interpretation of the "city on a hill" (83). We must be careful to confess all that Christ gives us in His Sermon on the Mount in Mattew 5ff, yet we must not say more than what we are given to say. America is and has been "A Christian Nation" as opposed to a Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist, or Hindu nation, but not all of our Founders, Presidents, or citizens, past or present, have been baptized, confessing, church-attending people with faith in Christ alone.

Christian history in America is complicated. Therefore, this reviewer is thankful for both books reviewed here. Further, I believe that they complement one another in perspective, content, and encouragement. If we do not understand who we are as the American people and how and why we are as we are, how could we possibly remain as salt and light, a faithful, faith-filled, generous people who are beacon of hope in Christ, a lighthouse of an example as a democratic republic, and a welcoming land of liberty to those who seek freedom in this lifetime.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.