What’s the number one bestseller on Amazon.com? Give up? As of May 20, 2010, it was George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback, a work arguing that our first president “was indeed a devout, practicing Christian,” a view rejected by many scholars of colonial America. The book includes endorsements from Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, University of Pennsylvania historian Walter A. McDougall, and Princeton politics professor Robert George.
A theologian and church historian, Lillback currently serves as president of Westminster Theological Seminary, a pillar of conservative Presbyterianism since its founding by J. Gresham Machen in 1929.
Once unknown outside of evangelical and Presbyterian circles, Lillback has made a name for himself as a defender of “America’s historical Judeo-Christian roots.” As head of the Providence Forum, he has authored several works on the nation’s religious heritage, including Wall of Misconception, Lessons on Liberty, and the Washington book. Board members for the Providence Forum include John Templeton, Jr. and Francis Irénée du Pont.
In 2007 Lillback spoke at a celebration of Jamestown’s quadricentennial sponsored by Vision Forum Ministries, an organization led by Doug Phillips, son of Constitution Party founder Howard Phillips. According to Lillback, “It was wonderful to see that, four centuries later, Americans are still celebrating the Christian worldview of Jamestown’s founders.” The same year he participated in an event at the National Constitution Center with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and John DiIulio.
How did a seminary president become Amazon’s bestselling author? On Tuesday, May 18, Lillback made an appearance on the Glenn Beck Program with Jerry Falwell, Jr., chancellor of Liberty University. Though the focus was on the roots of social justice, Beck took the opportunity to plug Lillback’s George Washington’s Sacred Fire. Lillback thanked him for the exposure.
When Lillback called Beck “the best publicist in town,” he was on to something. On a March program, the broadcaster spoke of creating a virtual Glenn Beck University, promising to feature “some of the brightest minds in America.” In recent weeks, the FOX News personality has helped to publicize a version of America’s founding largely rejected by academic historians.
Among those rejecting the Christian America storyline are Lillback’s co-religionists, historians Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Well-regarded scholars with strong evangelical commitments, this trio published The Search for Christian America back in 1983, arguing that “a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return.” While acknowledging the influence of religion in colonial America, they also criticized the misuse of faith during the American Revolution.
Their interpretation of events stands in sharp contrast to the kind of history promoted by Glenn Beck and amateur scholar David Barton. On the April 28th edition of Beck’s program, Barton celebrated the heroism of the Black Robe Brigade, a group of colonial preachers who took up arms for the cause of American independence. Long active in the Texas Republican Party, Barton has been at the center of the Texas textbook controversy.
For academic historians, a bright spot on the Glenn Beck Program was the appearance of George Marsden’s student Thomas Kidd, a Baylor University scholar who does not push the Christian America narrative. The author of The Great Awakening (Yale University Press, 2007) and several other works, Kidd was there to talk about George Whitefield, a recent interest of Beck’s. Joining him was communications professor Jerome Mahaffey, author of Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation.
Unlike David Barton, Kidd and Mahaffey have won critical praise from scholars of colonial America. According to American religious historian Edwin S. Gaustad, Kidd’s tome “is a book to end all books on the Great Awakening.”
Some might argue that scholars should boycott Glenn Beck to avoid legitimating efforts to reshape the American story.
Yet, by venturing into this populist medium, Kidd and Mahaffey have reached an audience most academic historians miss. The day after their appearance, the sales rank for Kidd’s The Great Awakening had climbed to #377 on Amazon.com. Clearly, somebody was watching.