Don’t Know Much

Pennsylvania does not come immediately to mind when “big states” are mentioned. When you have to drive the breadth of the state, however, you start to get a sense of the beast. Despite its abundant natural beauty, Interstate 80 manages to keep it to a minimum, so driving home yesterday we listened to the first disc of Kenneth C. Davis’s A Nation Rising in audio-book format. Mostly known for his Don’t Know Much About — books, Davis is a popular historian with a sense of what makes the past interesting. I can’t speak for the entire book yet, but the unabridged reading of A Nation Rising certainly was an educational experience for the first hour or so I’ve heard. The book focuses on the initial fifty years of the nineteenth century (1801-1850) in the United States. Of particular interest to me is the religious angle. In the introduction Davis states that it will become clear how the concept of America as a Christian nation is a myth. Other than my usual objection to “myth” being equated with falsity, this premise does look very interesting.

Stepping back before the nineteenth century, Davis spends several minutes (which I assume translates to several pages) describing the ancestry of Aaron Burr, one of America’s bad-boy politicians of the period. Burr was a grandson of the reformed minister Jonathan Edwards and this circumstance leads Davis to recount a bit about the Great Awakening. The first major religious revival on American soil, the Great Awakening spread throughout the States in the 1730s and ‘40s, setting the reputation of the young nation as a bastion of Reformed Christianity. Although many denominations became involved in the show, the origin and orientation of the Great Awakening was Calvinistic. Reacting against enforced Catholicism in much of Europe, many colonials flocked to America to practice their stripped down, Bible-based, generally intolerant religion in the New World. Particularly interesting in Davis’s rendition is George Whitefield. Viewing the preacher from hindsight that includes a distorted religious view of American history, Davis notes that Whitefield was as much performer as preacher.

Trying to figure out the next hot trend

Whitefield was an Anglican priest who helped set the mold for John Wesley’s success in bringing what would become the Methodist Church to America. “Whitefield pioneered the development of multiplatform marketing strategies,” using the media and staged events to draw attention to his evangelistic efforts, according to Davis. Whitefield knew that religion alone could not sway the masses. They had to be entertained. Davis notes that even the Tea Party has corollaries in early American history. What the mainstream has been slow—perhaps too slow—to realize is that entertainment works. In casting the die for American spirituality, preachers like Edwards and Whitefield knew the value of the gripping sermon vividly illustrated. The antics of many Tea Partiers reveal that they learned the lesson well. Showboating will garner more votes than substance any day. How else can we explain Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? This is America’s truest legacy: entertaining with religious faith will take you where intellectual depth just can’t go.

I will have to wait for another car trip to hear more of Davis’s interesting perspective on American history, but in the meantime I wonder how long it will take intelligent Americans to catch on. Don’t Know Much About History is a frighteningly prescient title for those who continue to ignore religion as a political force.

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