Part I: First Impressions
Part II: Doug Phillips on God in History
Part III: "Religious Liberalism" and Those Magnificent Mathers
Part IV: Kevin Swanson Is Tired of Losing
Part V: Messiah States and Mega-Houses
Part VI: Doug Phillips Rages Against the 20th Century
Part VII: Christian Vikings, Godly Explorers, and Strange Bacon
Part VIII: Closing Thoughts
On July 2nd, I observed the History of America Mega-Conference at the Radisson Hotel Harrisburg in Camp Hill, PA. The event is sponsored by Vision Forum, a ministry with a strong Christian Patriarchy slant that focuses strongly on "Biblical education" for children. On Tuesday evening, I sat among hundreds of Vision Forum supporters in the Raddison grand ballroom, where Vision Forum director Doug Phillips opened the conference with a talk about history, language, and forgetting. For nearly an hour, Phillips' voice alternated between calm speech and shouting as he shared a narrow, fundamentalist view of history.
On stage, reenactors in costume performed on bagpipes and drums, concluding their performance by circling the room. The introductory speaker praised America's forefathers, reminding the audience that they are still part of the great American experiment. Ominously, he claimed that the world is watching to see if the U.S. will be chastened by God for forgetting its past. Next, another man delivered the evening's benediction, praising God as "the only redeemer of sinners and cultures". He praised Doug Phillips as one of the most important Christians in the country for recognizing the Christian responsibility to be a "civilization-builder" and restore "Christendom".
Doug Phillips delivered the evening's main talk, entitled "The Panorama of God's Providence in the History of America". Phillips thanked God for the nearly one-thousand people in attendance. He lamented that this generation has supposedly forgotten our fathers and the goodness of God. A theme he impressed upon the audience was "now is the time", since the day may come when there are no longer opportunities to have conferences and monuments. I wasn't sure how to interpret this -- was Phillips envisioning a time when Vision Forum would not be hosting conferences, or was he trying to frighten the audience by claiming that a time of oppression and censorship would come? Given fundamentalist Christians' predilection for claiming that they're being persecuted, I lean toward the second interpretation.
Phillips provided an overview of the conference, discussing the historical reenactors in attendance, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the "War Between the States". "War Between the States" is a curious term I'd hear throughout the conference, and it surprised me since I've never heard of the Civil War referred to that way. When Phillips announced a Saturday reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, he cheerfully boomed, "We brought Lincoln back!" Boos rose from a section of the audience. Please tell me those were just Confederate reenactors acting in character, I thought.
After a rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by Danny Craig, Phillips dove into theology. "God speaks to everything," Phillips insisted, arguing that God speaks through every part of our history and culture as part of his plan. Phillips emphasized "the primacy of God's providential history", urging parents to teach God's history to their children.
Phillips asked the audience what they would do if they lost their identity and didn't know their name, parents, or nationality. Without any context for who they were, what would their lives be like? He shared the story of an elderly former admiral he met while visiting his ailing father. Even though the man had been a powerful military leader, his family wasn't there and no one at the facility knew of his accomplishments, thereby reducing him to a man without context. That is us in modern America, Phillips said. The "might hand of God" can be seen in monuments around the country, but many people do not know they're there. He likened Americans to the ancient Israelites when they forgot God, arguing that Americans have forgotten God, their the names of their great-grandfathers, and their history. "The average schoolboy in the beginning of the 19th century knew more about history than the average college professor does today," he claimed.
Americans have also lost their vocabulary, Phillips lamented, offering a dubious interpretation of one of the most famous lines in America's founding documents.
"We've lost our vocabulary. It used to be that we used words that meant something. When we said, 'All men are created equal', for example, we didn't mean that all men were created at the same income level. That's a socialist concept. We didn't mean when 'all men are created equal', that there were to be no hierarchy or differences within society. That's a Marxist concept. When we said 'all men are created equal', we understood that to mean that we're all judged by the same standard by the living God, the king and the pauper. Everyone has the same standard under God, and we've lost our vocabulary."Frankly, I don't know how Phillips arrived at that interpretation, given that the line appears in the Declaration of Independence in a passage discussing inalienable rights and the consent of the governed.
Words such as "freedom", "Christian", "family", and "marriage" are being redefined too, Phillips insisted, taking a moment to blast a recent Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He stated that ancient societies did not recognize same-sex marriage, ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary from pre-modern China, Europe, Africa, indigenous North America, and other cultures.
"We've lost our meaning of freedom. We've lost the understanding of what it means to be free men. We have redefined the word 'Christian', and you understand, brothers and sisters, that whoever defines, wins the culture. You change the words, you change the culture. How about this one? 'Family.' 'Marriage.' How about that one? Do you understand that yours is the first generation in the recorded history of the world in which the state has sanctioned two men as legitimately being, quote, married. Oh, listen. There has always been perversion. There's always been wickedness. There's always been evil. But even the Romans didn't call it marriage. Even the Greeks didn't call it marriage. The most vile pagans didn't call it marriage. Your president calls it marriage. That's wrong. We've lost our vocabulary. We've lost our definitions."Wrong, Phillips could use an LGBTQ history course, I thought.
Phillips told the audience that they were at the conference to "pick a fight" over America's language and history, lest "radical" forces such as evolutionists and feminists co-opt them.
"We are here to pick a fight this week. We are here to take it back. We are here to say that were are going to take it to the wall, and we are going to fight for those words, we're going to fight for those definitions, we're going to fight for the things that the Lord gave us, and we're going to say Jehovah is our God. That's why we are here this week. We do not want out vocabulary to be co-opted by Marxists, feminists, radicals, evolutionists, and others that would destroy it before our very eyes."Using a common argument among Christian nationalists, Phillips claimed that modern American law draws heavily from the Bible, an argument I found dubious. The idea that the United States was not founded as a theocracy, that the American legal system draws from many ancient and contemporary sources, or that legal systems do not evolve in a straight line, did not factor into his argument.
"Every single time you walk into a courtroom and someone wants to enforce contract law, they're getting it from the book of Exodus. Every single time someone says you just can't go assault somebody, they're getting it from the Pentateuch. Every single time you want to see order or civilization, they are hearkening back to a set of laws that a man by the name of King Alfred required becomes the laws of England that would ultimately transported over to America as part of what we would call, ultimately, our common law heritage, which was built on the word of God and the Bible. It was the Old Testament law applied to local custom ... While we have lost the vocabulary, and we have lost the reference points, we still have all around us these reminders, oh, that came from God, that came from Jesus Christ. That came from the law of Moses, breathed by the Holy Spirit, and then applied by our Founding Fathers."Phillips spoke at length about his late father, who read prolifically, gave history books to his son, and arranged for his son to meet historians and engaging figures. He warmly quoted his father's advice on studying history, such as the need to recognize imperfect people in history and the dangers of hagiography (a pejorative term for uncritical, sanitized views of history). Hagiography is to be avoided as an "error of the revisionists" who change facts or fail to see God in control of history, he explained. The irony of Phillips' words made me smirk.
History is about antithesis, Phillips claimed, arguing that history shows contrast and tension between those who obey Jesus Christ and those who do not. Every departure from Jesus in history is a move closer to a false understanding of reality, he insisted. God's providence in history is the outworking of his character through which he shows his mercy, justice, and immutability, Phillips said. The work of Christ and his love for the church is the "centerpiece" of history. Whereas the ancient Greeks saw God as part of nature, God is actually above and beyond it, he argued.
WHICH Greeks? Greek thought wasn't homogeneous on this topic, I thought. And if the Christian God is supposedly the centerpiece of history, where does that leave thousands of years of pre-Christian history? Or the rich histories of countless non-Christian cultures? Such historical tunnel vision could prevent someone from studying or appreciating world history, I thought to myself.
Phillips offered examples of God's alleged work through history. The rise of the Roman Empire facilitated the spread of Christianity, while the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada meant that America would be a "reformation Christianity beachhead" instead of a Catholic land under Spain. Yeah, because those dirty Papists aren't real Christians, right Doug? I thought.
Dedicated minorities, not majorities, shape history, he claimed. If the conference had 900 people in attendance who were "absolutely unswerving" in their mission, the world could be changed, he assured listeners.
Phillips painted America's founding as one "drenched with Biblical Christianity", arguing (dubiously) that America is indeed a Christian nation.
"Was America founded as a Christian nation? ... It really depends on what you mean. If what you mean is was America founded such that everyone in it was a born-again, regenerate Christian, then I would suggest to you not only is that impossible ... but your understanding of the terminology is completely wrong. It has never been that way, and that is not what determines whether something is a Christian nation or not. When we speak of America as founded as a Christian nation, we mean was America, in its inception, one perhaps though imperfectly which was dedicated to the God of the Bible, whose law systems were rooted in the holy scriptures, whose people perceived themselves as serving Jesus Christ of the Bible, where its basic ethical standards reflective of Christendom and the body of beliefs which we describe as Christian? Was this a nation in our laws, in our ethics, in our foundings, in our charters, in the hearts of our people one which was predisposed and dedicated at least in part to the God of the Bible? And the answer is emphatically yes."Phillips depicted the Christianization of the Native Americans and other non-Christian groups as overwhelmingly positive. He reserved special praise for the Christianization of Iceland, which purportedly ended the exposure of unwanted infants.
"This was a country that was historically visited by Vikings ... who may have very well have been Christians. You know, the very first Christian parliament did not take place in England. It took place about 999 in Iceland. You know, one of the very first laws enacted by a Christian parliament? You can't kill babies. One of the very first laws, because that's what pagans do. They kill babies. That's what PAGANS do! PAGANS KILL BABIES! Christians protect women and children. That was part of the legacy of Christendom. And we look back and we say, oh God, how beautiful it was when our people came and saw the great commission as leading the lost to Christ. The Indian nations and the Englishmen who knew not God. How beautiful it was when they sought to declare your law as the foundational law."Actually, Christian men have mistreated women and children as well. Early Christians kept slaves that included women and children, and men perpetrated domestic violence in predominantly Christian cultures, both medieval and modern. Once again, Phillips' pristine view of Christian history does not necessarily conform to historical facts.
As for Iceland, I suggest that readers take a closer look at the Icelandic kristnitaka before they attributes too many civilizing qualities to it. Phillips conveniently forgets the missionary efforts of Stefnir Thorgilsson, who reportedly destroyed non-Christian religious sites, and Thangbrandr, who reportedly had his critics murdered. He also forgets the actions of King Olafr, who reportedly threatened to kill non-Christians when faced with setbacks in converting Iceland to Christianity. (See the Íslendingabók, a 12th century account of Iceland's conversion.)
As for the Christianization of Native Americans, Phillips conveniently forgets the dark side of those proselytization efforts, such as demonization of Native American religions, the 1883 Code of Indian Offenses, Indian boarding schools, and other chilling attempts at ethnocide. For Phillips to sugar-coat Christian history just a few minutes after discouraging hagiography struck me as darkly amusing.
Phillips concluded his talk by urging homeschooling parents to teach both scripture and providential history to their children. With this view of history, Christians can fight for their culture. The nation is on a trajectory that cannot fail, he stressed. As with other Religious Right ministries, Phillips understood children to be torchbearers for the agendas of their parents' generation, urging parents to teach them in a manner that would continue that agenda. However, in an age of the internet, widely available books, and a rapidly shrinking world, those very children will likely be exposed to non-fundamentalist historical accounts at some point in their lives. Whether Vision Forum's efforts to instill providential history in children will prove successful remains to be seen.
Stay tuned for more posts on the Vision Forum History of America Mega-Conference!