How Did America Get Where We are Today?

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How have secular, anti-Christian forces, outlined so clearly in the video in my last blog posting, made such headway in America in the last 100 years? Why are those forces, now being seemingly so successful, meeting what appears to be such feeble resistance? Should we Christians not do more than simply mumble “Ain’t it awful” and retreat behind our stained-glass windows to promote our next church growth program? When a plan hasn’t worked, a change in life-trajectory, personally or nationally, involves a realistic evaluation of the past and implementation of whatever changes are necessary to alter that trajectory, no matter how painful. It is obvious something hasn’t worked. I think reviewing a bit of history is in order to locate the source of our current dilemma.

It is not commonly understood that America, at its heart, is neither a land mass nor a people group; it is an idea, expressed in one word—freedom. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Jesus claimed to be—Himself—the Way, the Truth and the Life to make that freedom reality.  Man was created to be free, not only free in his heart, but in his whole person, free to do what His Creator made him to do. God ordained civil government to make it possible for us, as fallen, sinful creatures, to fully experience that. How did that idea of complete freedom take root here in America with the particular people who live here?

Believe it or not, the genesis of America’s history of freedom occurred in the summer of 50 A.D. in Turkey. At that time, in that place, all American history hungangs on a seemingly insignificant change in plans.

On Paul’s second missionary journey, he had just completed a swing through the regions of Asia Minor (present day Turkey), visiting and encouraging the churches he had planted on his first trip. At Mysia, in the Northwest corner of Asia Minor, his intent was to swing North from there through Bithynia, evangelizing the Northern regions of Asia Minor and then ultimately head Southeast, back home to Antioch, planting churches as he went, just as he had done previously.  

However, “a man plans his way, but God orders his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Dr. Luke describes in Acts 16:7-9 what happened then: “After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. So, passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas (on the coast, directly across the Aegean Sea from Macedonia—Europe). And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Paul, living by faith, listening for the Lord’s voice in his heart for his direction, turned West instead of East, and the gospel and thus all history turned with him. Paul went to Europe instead of Asia, and Western Civilization was born, not “Eastern Civilization.” Ultimately, the gospel he preached and the civilization it fostered brought, not just the West, but the whole world out of darkness.

In the classical, Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived, so admired and revered by academia, a father had literal, life-and-death power over his wife and children. They were his property. A common practice was to leave unwanted children outside in the elements to die.  Slavery was taken for granted, and defended vigorously as the natural, normal and preferred state of affairs by Aristotle. Most of the great, revered Greek philosophers were pedophiles. Recreation for ordinary people in Rome involved going to the Coliseum, like we go to a football game, where they watched ravenous lions eat screaming people, and gladiators literally bash each other’s brains out. Just a typical Saturday night out on the town.  

This was the normal state of affairs in the “civilized” Greco-Roman world when the “Dark Ages” began—so called because that wonderful, advanced, brilliant Greco-Roman culture just described had fallen to “barbarian hordes” from the North. They simply kicked over a decaying structure that had already been defeated. The gospel Paul preached had ultimately conquered the Roman Empire by love and grace from within.

So, with the fall of Rome, the “Dark Ages” began. However, behind that cloak of darkness, the real light that the spiritually blind cannot see was spreading, slowly, unseen, like leaven at work in a lump of dough. Over several centuries and on into what are called the “Middle Ages,” through a sinful, imperfect, church wine-skin, all the above barbaric customs faded away and disappeared. The stage was set for Europe to experience the dramatic change that lead to the founding of America.

Most historians will say it was the Renaissance that propelled Europe from what they see as the intellectual stagnation of the Dark and Middle Ages to the Modern Age. However, the Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries in Europe was nothing new. It was simply a warmed over, refurbished, rediscovery of the pagan humanism of the previous Greco-Roman culture, without the brutal excesses that Christianity had expunged.  Man was revived as “the measure of all things,” as Greek philosopher Protagoras had said almost two millennia earlier.

Certainly this Christianized version of Greco-Roman culture was influential in forming what is now known as Western Civilization in the Modern Era, but it was not the primary cause. That was set in motion when Martin Luther, a German priest and seminary professor, posted a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic church on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, and the Reformation was born.

One of my son’s history professors in graduate school conceded, with not a little antipathy, that George Washington was not the real founder of America, but John Calvin was. Calvin was the great theologian of the Reformation. His ideas, planted originally by Luther and watered by the other reformers—ideas of salvation by grace alone and the freedom that inevitably brings—swept all of Europe and changed its face for the next 500 years. It was these ideas of grace and freedom under the Rule of God that motivated the Pilgrims and Puritans to forsake England and come to wild, dangerous, unknown America to found a government that protected and encouraged those ideas. Next week we will see what happened when they got here and over the ensuing 400 years.

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