For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Thomas S. Kidd.
Thomas S. 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.
Today we chat with Thomas about American history, the misguided temptation to make the Founding Fathers saints, and religious liberties.
You are an evangelical historian, with a particular focus on American history. Why should followers of Christ care about history and particularly American history?
Scripture constantly tells us to remember the past, and especially to remember God's faithfulness to his people. We get unique insight into God's work in history from the Bible, but Christians should also value the history of their own people and nation, seeking to understand how the world they inhabit—in our case, early twenty-first century America—came to be. The past holds deep reservoirs of wisdom which we would be foolish to ignore.
Christians will naturally want to know about the broad history of the church, but American Christians will also be drawn to their specific religious heritage, including the faith of many of the early colonists, the great revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the role of faith in the American Revolution. My own faith certainly accounts for my professional interest in the religious history of the eighteenth century.
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.
How can a faithful Christian embrace and love their country and yet still have a Great Commission-oriented heart for all nations?
As someone who writes and teaches about American history for a living, it is sobering to remember that, one day, America will cease to exist, while the Kingdom of God will go on forever. In heaven, my identity as an American will likely have very little significance at all, as the great throng composed of people from every "tribe, tongue, and nation" will set aside their ethnic, racial, and historical differences.