Last week for Leadership Journal, I interviewed one of my favorite historians, Thomas Kidd. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. He is currently writing a biography of George Whitefield for Yale University Press. It was a fascinating discussion. Below is one of the questions I asked him.
There is a temptation for evangelicals to either sanitize American history, or ignore it. But you call for a third way of knowing, understanding, and learning from our history.
Yes. George Whitefield (the preeminent evangelist of the First Great Awakening and subject of my current book project) spoke of how Christians sometimes make a “pious fraud” out of the heroes of the past. We might be tempted to act as if the people we admire in the past were entirely sanctified saints who never made any mistakes. It is interesting that the Bible never adopts this approach: the great heroes of the faith, from David to Paul, were often also some of the worst sinners.
Some Christians who are also great admirers of the American founding generation are also tempted to fashion the Founding Fathers as exemplary saints, too. This is even more problematic, not only because the Founders weren’t all perfect Christians (and, in some cases, weren’t Christians at all), but it can turn them into heroes of a quasi-Christian patriotic faith. American civil religion is dangerous and something Christians should avoid, no matter how much they admire the founding generation’s accomplishments. Admitting that someone like George Washington was imperfect (he owned slaves and refused to take communion at church, for example) is not only honest, but it helps us remember that all humans, no matter how noble, are flawed by sin and the limits of our culture.
You can read the rest of our discussion here: