Sacred Scripture, Sacred War

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American RevolutionSacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James P. Byrd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Byrd tries to broaden and deepen the scholarly work on clergy in support of the American Revolution. He looks at the major Biblical passages that informed their sermons relating to the war, and argues that “civil millennialism” (the belief in the close relationship between the patriots’ cause and the millennial reign of Christ) has been given undue attention by previous historians. Byrd argues that sermons were more often intended to inspire men to fight with courage and without shame. His concluding sentences are provocative: “In the American Revolution, when it came to making the case for war and ushering citizens to the battlefield, the Bible was a persuasive ally. The ramifications of this relationship would cascade throughout American history as the United States came to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars” (168).

Byrd offers a lot of insight into revolutionary preaching, but it seemed to me that he understated the continuity of Revolution-era sermons with colonial-era sermons. He offers many examples of pre-Revolutionary sermons that strike the same themes, though of course they supported fighting for Britain. It seems to me that the sermons studied show that the patriotic preachers used an inherited approach that assumed a close relationship between church, society, and the subject/citizen that all ought to be committed to righteousness and unalterably opposed to the forces of Antichrist (the Roman Catholic Church, in their view). They applied this inherited approach to the American Revolution, with Britain sometimes portrayed as being aligned with Antichrist. If you’ve read the book and I am missing something here, please set me straight!

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Expressive individualism to the left of us, expressive individualism to the right of us

Alan Jacobs writes:

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

Along these lines, it’s interesting that Marx and Engels’ eloquent description of the massive transformation of traditional European society by the bourgeoisie in the first section of The Communist Manifesto does not mean that they want to undo the capitalist phase of history. Instead, capitalism provides the “creative destruction” necessary to get to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the subsequent classless paradise.

I realize that Jacobs’ reference to “international capitalism” and “the Market” lumps a vast collection of actors and decisions into one artificial being, but if we think about the culture of global capitalism it can ring true to a certain extent. Think of the ways that we are encouraged to express our individuality through our purchases. As Yuval Levin points out in The Fractured Republic, both left and right traffic in expressive individualism, where we are encouraged to be ourselves (supposedly) rather than conform to external standards. Levin also points briefly to Francis Fukuyama’s discussion of the post-1960s “renorming” in which some argued successfully that the norms of competition could provide the incentive for disciplined behavior after the moral upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Economic freedom is a very good thing in my book, but when international capitalism becomes a totalizing ideology, that’s very bad.

Jacobs writes, “I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.” You can see how he applies this to education in the post.

American saints and relics, revisited

Several years ago, I passed on a post from Peter Leithart about the American use of relics from the Revolutionary era.

I was reminded of it when thinking about this passage from James Byrd’s analysis of patriotic sermons during the American Revolution, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War:

Whitefield’s patriotic reputation did not rest completely on political preaching. His sermons certainly had political ramifications, but he rarely addressed politics directly. Typically, he preached on the spiritual “New Birth” of salvation. Still, Whitefield became a source of patriotic authority. In September of 1775, five months into the Revolutionary War and five years after Whitefield’s death, a group of Continental Army officers visited Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts. They were looking for inspiration for battle, but in an unusual way. They asked that Whitefield’s coffin be opened. When the sexton complied, the officers removed the famous evangelist’s collar and his wristbands and took the relics with them. The army officers may not have known much about Whitefield’s political preaching, or the relative lack thereof, but they knew Whitefield as an evangelist who appealed to the people and resisted traditional authority. (17)

Abortion and autonomy

In a post from a couple of years ago, Steven Wedgeworth offered this interpretation based on his experiences in talking to people outside of abortion clinics:

Abortion, at least today, in the Southern states, is not some sort of last ditch effort to preserve one life, which would be legitimately threatened, at the tragic but necessary expense of another. Instead it is a projection of strength on the part of the would-be mother.

What do I mean? Abortion is today a way, not to get help in a difficult situation, but to avoid needing help. It is a way to “take control” of one’s life and prove self-sufficiency. This is why it is pitched as a form of “women’s equality.” Abortion is what it takes to see to it that a woman is not inferior or weak. It prevents her from being at someone else’s mercy. This is also why it is quickly becoming a sort of “human right,” something which must be provided by all just governments. To not provide it for women is basically framed as an injustice, a lack of fairness and equality. In short, it is a legal device to prevent the need for charity or other concessions to a weak situation.

Reflections on reading

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quite an enjoyable book. Jacobs is a gifted writer, and he explores a variety of topics related to reading with clarity and surprising depth for a short book. The sections on the kind of attention that serious reading requires were especially good, as were his discussions of the different types of reading. While those are serious topics, the joy that Jacobs takes in reading courses throughout the book, and he’s keen to remind the reader that reading for enjoyment is far more important than to “have read” to impress others.

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Advice for adoptive parents

The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive FamilyThe Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Karyn B. Purvis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The authors give an enlightening overview of the issues that children face when coming into a new home and some good ideas for parents. The information and ideas are most applicable to children 10 and under. My wife, a nurse, thought that the chapter on nutrition and brain chemistry made some ill-supported claims.

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American colonial history with a twist

American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and FaithsAmerican Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths by Thomas S. Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kidd gives a concise but rich narrative of colonial history, focusing, as the subtitle suggests, on religious and cultural tensions. The attention paid to the interaction between various colonial and Native American groups was a real strength that gave the book a different feel than other overviews of the colonial period. Kidd also included the Spanish and French colonial efforts in areas that would become part of the United States.

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