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In the late eighteenth century, many American Protestants saw the War for Independence and the freedoms delineated in the Declaration and Constitution as part of a global revolution that would inaugurate worldwide freedom. In the years since, many middle- and upper-class Anglo-American evangelicals have embraced triumphalist social causes—or what evangelical intellectual David Bebbington has broadly termed activism—in the name of moral reform and bringing about the kingdom of God. However noble this impulse might be, it has at times led evangelicals to embrace revolutionary and utopian movements with harmful effects. Evangelical support for such causes in the name of moral and social progress has often proved to be influenced less by Christian morality than by Whiggish idealism. 

Whig history is an unsound historiographic method that sees history as a predestined progression toward greater democracy and egalitarianism. According to James R. Rogers, Whig idealism “sees history as always progressing toward the abolition of arbitrary differences between people: between lord and commoner, free man and slave, man and woman, the propertied and the property-less, black and white, rich and poor, etc.” Americans have been taught that “America’s Founding is a singularly powerful unfolding of the Whig narrative, and with it the Whig narrative jumps into hyperdrive.”

American evangelicals have drunk deeply from the well of Whig history. Rogers rightly notes that “Whiggery and Christianity walked in tandem in the U.S. for centuries.” Evangelical sermons in “pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America glided all too easily between the political freedom promised in and by the revolution and the spiritual freedom promised in and by Jesus Christ.” Many of these evangelicals lionized Thomas Jefferson. They shared his loathing of state churches and other aspects of the conservative social order, like primogeniture and entail. They saw limitless potential for human liberty in a society shorn of medieval and early modern religious and social commitments. Christianity and humanity alike, they believed, could finally flourish in the free American republic. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a Pittsburgh Presbyterian minister would announce boldly to his congregation that God “would accomplish his purposes of redemption” and make Americans’ freedom “as citizens of the great republic the precursor” to all of humanity achieving the freedom by which “Christ makes his people free as citizens of the kingdom of God.” 

One example of the effects of Whiggish history on evangelical protestants can be seen in evangelical responses to revolutions. Many evangelicals celebrated the French Revolution without regard to whether that upheaval displaced or harmed older Christian communities. Democracy in France trumped the attacks on the Roman Catholic and Protestant hierarchy. In 1791, Presbyterian William Linn, the former chaplain of the United States House of Representatives, delivered a sermon extolling the French Revolution as a vehicle for human progress that would free all the peoples on earth from unjust governments. Linn told his listeners that because of the events in France, they could “indulge the pleasing thought, that the time is not far distant, when tyranny everywhere shall be destroyed; when mankind shall be the slaves of monsters and idiots no more, but recover the true dignity of their nature!” By 1791, attacks on French Catholics and Protestants were occurring regularly, but because American evangelicals believed traditional France was benighted, and that a cleansing of French society was necessary, the fate of French Christians was of secondary importance to them. 

Evangelicals like Linn particularly denounced Edmund Burke, whose rebuke of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man made the British statesman anathema to Americans who saw the French Revolution as a confirmation of the United States’ own struggle for independence. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, according to Linn, was “a performance containing abuse, misrepresentation, a specious rather than true eloquence, and sentiments unfavorable to liberty.” Burke’s book “awakened and called forth the real friends of liberty, particularly the celebrated Mr. PAINE, whose writings have been of so much service to mankind.” 

Evangelicals’ dispositions regarding church, state, and liberty mirrored Paine’s revolutionary commitments, so it is unsurprising that Linn was a partisan of Paine rather than the famous British parliamentarian. Burke, according to Linn, “sublimely” raved, but in vain. Burke’s cautions concerning the French Revolution, said Linn, only hastened the downfall of his “wretched cause,” traditional society. “The revolution in France,” exclaimed Linn, “is great—is astonishing—is glorious. It is, perhaps, not just to say, that the flame was kindled by us, but certainly we contributed to blow and increase it, as France will in other nations; until blaze joining blaze, shall illumine the darkest and remotest corners of the earth.” 

In the twenty-first century, some evangelicals still draw upon the same Whiggish reading of history as their eighteenth-century forebears. In the early 2000s, the cause of democracy and regime-change in Iraq trumped the historic stability of Iraqi Christians—much as the cause of progress and revolution in 1780s France trumped the stability of French Christians. Whiggish optimism typified the views of George W. Bush’s evangelical speechwriter Michael Gerson, who proposed unambiguously that “the unity of our country depends on idealism at home.” Attacks on America and American values, he argued, should be countered with “restless reform, idealism, and moral conviction.” Evangelical Whigs confidently know history ends in their eschatological victory through cycles of constant socio-ecclesiastic re-creation.

Gerson echoed Linn’s image of the French Revolution as an uncontrollable blaze of liberty. Only this time, the source of the revolutionary blaze was not Revolutionary France, but George W. Bush’s United States. Gerson helped write Bush’s second inaugural address, which justified the Iraq War in idealistic terms. Because the United States invaded Iraq “in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.” The United States, according to Gerson, “lit a fire as well—a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” Revolutionary France and Bush’s United States both, with evangelical support, marched the fires of liberty to Earth’s supposedly darkest corners at the cost of the lives of many French and Arab Christians.

Today, we need less untrammeled evangelical Whiggery and more latter-day Burkes. We can celebrate liberal freedom, but it must be decisively bounded by historic Western and Christian social precepts. This is not Christian nationalism, but simply a plea for caution and an awareness that our choices matter and have consequences. As Christians, we know that freedom is not inevitable, social change is not always good, and civilization is fragile. As Burke rightly noted, “time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all the good we aim at. Our patience will achieve more than our force.”

Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.

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