Out of Context

January 07, 2004

We have to be careful when quoting things from out of context. For example, the following paragraph from Lyman Beecher "The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints" sounds at first like a rebuke to the Ralph Reeds of the world.

It is equally manifest, that christians should not attach themselves, exclusively, to any political party, or take a deep interest in political disputes.
No party is so exclusively right, as to render it safe for any man to commit his conscience to its keeping, and act implicitly according to its dictation. Nor can any party, in a popular government, be sufficiently secure from change, to render it safe to identify with it the interests of religion. Besides, if christians enter deeply into political disputes, they will be divided, and one denomination arrayed against another, in their prayers and efforts; and one christian against another, in the same church. A spirit of party zeal creates also, a powerful diversion of interest and effort from the cause of Christ; creates prejudices in christians one against another; and, in the community, against the cause itself. It annihilates spirituality of mind; prevents a spirit of prayer, and efforts for revivals of religion; and renders christians the mere dupes and tools of unprincipled, ambitious men.

But, when we read the entire sermon and remember its context, we see that Beecher was arguing that evangelical religion was the religion of the Old and New Testaments, that it was required for proper civil life, and that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a compelling interest in limiting Unitarian access to the official establishment - the established churches should be evangelical and evangelical only. He phrased his argument in these terms as a way to encourage low-church Methodists and Arminians to cooperate with high-church Calvinists. For Beecher, as for Joseph Story and many other religious formalists in the 1820s and 1830s, it was perfectly permissible to create a civil religion or favored status for Christianity, or even for one flavor (the "right" flavor) of Christianity so long as no particular church or denomination was favored over others.

In contrast, in the twenty-first century, most Americans would be unwilling to create an evangelical establishment, or a liberal establishment, or even a generic Christian establishment. Where Beecher swam in a sea of Protestant Christianity and worried about which denominational fish might devour the rest, and where a generation later swam in a sea of Christians and worried whether the Catholic or Protestants would devour the other, we swim in a sea of different faith traditions and want all of them respected, none of them endorsed.

The language remains remarkably similar, but the objects of analysis have shifted from particular sects to general families to entire faith traditions. Without an awareness of the context of the earlier language, we can easily quote a person contrary to his own intentions. Beecher would likely have been skeptical of Ralph Reed, tied as he and his organizations are to one particular political party, but he might well have helped Falwell organize the Moral Majority, organized around a non-denominational set of faith and moral policy claims despite being dominated by people from one particular group of Baptists.

Posted by Red Ted at January 7, 2004 07:21 AM | TrackBack