Matthew Rowley

Do Protestants Hold Three Dueling Views on American History?

Kennedy Lee on October 22, 2020

In a forthcoming book titled Trump and the Protestant Reaction to Make America Great Again, author Matthew Rowley argues that American Protestants, in their reaction to President Trump, now view U.S. history and our present polarization through the framework of three contrasting worldviews. Rowley deems these the Make America Great Again, Make America Lament, and Make America Better positions.

A book launch for Rowley took place through the University of Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics on October 21. Rowley, honorary visiting fellow at the University of Leicester, was joined in conversation with the Rev. Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, and moderator Judd Birdsall of the Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics.

The aim of Rowley’s book and the ensuing conversation was to analyze at how varying interpretations of American history and culture affect political views today. Rowley specifically analyzed the way Protestant Americans, often in clashing interpretations, view American history and the path forward.

“If more people work to understand those they disagree with, this would be a far more charitable country, and maybe we would even elect better leaders,” stated Rowley in his opening remarks. Rowley furthermore recognized that both the Left and Right in America “weigh American greatness over American failure.”

Rowley writes in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ensuing country-wide protests in late May and early June of this year, a time when racial and societal tensions in America were increasingly polarized.

In light of this, Rowley sought to capture the way that Protestants specifically view American history and the present moment. He constructed three contrasting worldviews that American Protestants hold — the Make America Great Again, Make America Lament, and Make America Better positions.

Those who hold the “Make America Great Again” position generally ascribe to the beliefs that one would expect when hearing the now famous line. These Protestants believe “America cannot do good if it does not remember the good its values did in the past,” stated Rowley. He elaborated that those who hold this view often bracket out the weightiest failures in American history for fear that it will negate what they see as America’s greatness.

Protestants with the “Make America Great Again” worldview cite court cases from the mid-twentieth century which eroded the power of the Bible and religion in society as the beginning of America’s decline, according to Rowley.

The second lens in Rowley’s analysis, the “Make America Lament” worldview, emphasizes Biblical call to lament. “They fear MAGA may even be a way of turning the clock back on progress,” stated Rowley about these Protestants. They hold the view that the past is not over, citing ongoing prejudices in American society.

Rowley conceded that those with this worldview often “seem allergic to speaking fondly about America’s past,” including about historical documents or figures who may have held views that do not live up to our current moral standard.

Thirdly, Rowley conceived the “Make America Better” position. These Protestants believe that there “has always been two Americas — the founding ideal and the founding reality.” Supporters of this worldview resist a zero-sum game between the claims that America is objectively bad or irreparably flawed.

Supporters of the “Make America Better” line of thinking “invoke a deep appreciation for their deeply flawed nation,” according to Rowley. Moreover, they hold that “America has come of age when it can squarely face its past.”

In order to move forward, Rowley believes that first and foremost we need a shared national memory. “Americans need to be willing to confess what went wrong in American history, and what went right,” stated Rowley.

Rowley furthermore asserted that “mature nations own the past and rectify the wrong,” and believes that the “Make America Better” framework allows for this believe to triumph and even lead to meaningful action and healing.

Despite the three dueling worldviews, Rowley believes that a starting point to moving forward in healing the divided nation lies in every American employing more imagination, more self-criticism, and more empathy. “Americans should generally be more curious… Half the country disagrees with me… and Americans should want to figure out why,” closed Rowley.

  1. Comment by David on October 22, 2020 at 7:29 am

    In 2011, Colin Woodward published a book entitled, “American Nations.” In it, he described the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. These divisions, he argued, can be traced to the original settlement of these areas. The Deep South was the product of planters from Barbados that wanted to establish a slave state emanating out of Charleston, SC. The liberal New York City area was established by the tolerant Dutch. His analysis is striking.

    The “Make America Great Again” movement never identifies when exactly the US was great. I suppose one could point to the 1950s when much of the industrialized world was bombed out following WWII. The economy may have been booming and a working father could support a whole family, but there was also a denial of human rights to minorities, especially in the South. The 1960s brought social justice movements, but also wage stagnation in terms of real purchasing power. This led to the need for both members of a couple to work in order to have funds as for educating children. Then came competition from rebuilt manufacturing centers that would prove devastating to American industrial workers. First it was Volkswagen, then superior Japanese cars that made deep cuts in the US market.

    “Comparing the United States of America on global indicators reveals we have fallen well behind Europe — and share more in common with “developing countries” than we’d like to admit. The US is the richest and poorest of advanced countries with a poverty rate of 18%, the same as Mexico. US high school students rank 19th in science, 20th in reading, and 30th in math. Infant mortality ranks 33rd. Life expectancy ranks 27th despite being #1 in health care spending. The US does rank first in several things including gun ownership, mass shootings, prescription drug abuse, and rate of imprisonment. The US does have freedoms, but so do other countries.” Taige Jensen and Nayeema Raza, “Please stop telling me America is great,” video, NYT (1 Jul. 2019).

    Some claim the US was a pious nation at its beginning as illustrated by paintings of the Pilgrim Fathers walking to church in the snow carrying a bible and a musket. The reality was somewhat different outside of the theocracy of MA.

    “Coming to speak of Pennsylvania again, that colony possesses great liberties above all other English colonies, inasmuch as all religious sects are tolerated there. We find there Lutherans, Reformed ,Catholics, Quakers, Mennonists or Anabaptists, Herrnhuters or Moravian Brethren, Pietists, Seventh Day Baptists, Dunkers, Presbyterians, Newborn, Freemasons, Separatists, Freethinkers, Jews, Mohammedans, Pagans, Negroes and Indians. The Evangelicals and Reformed, however, are in the majority. But there are many hundred unbaptized souls there that do not even wish to be baptized. Many pray neither in the morning nor in the evening, neither before nor after meals. No devotional book, not to speak of a Bible, will be found with such people.—Gottlieb Mittelberger, “A Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750.”

    Any country that refuses to engage in self examination and improvement of deficiencies found is doomed to decline.

  2. Comment by Douglas E Ehrhardt on October 23, 2020 at 4:57 am

    More leftist worldview, thanks for the NY Times quote. That seals the deal.

  3. Comment by David on October 23, 2020 at 11:07 am

    “Facts have a well-known liberal bias.”

  4. Comment by Star Tripper on October 24, 2020 at 9:43 am

    It is ridiculous to talk about our “current moral standards” and how our ancestors didn’t live up to them. The blatant sexualization of children is one clear example that our vaunted moral standards are nothing to brag about.

  5. Comment by Gary Bebop on October 24, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    The analysts are not in charge of world history. Remember 2016? The laptop pundits did not perceive what was coming. The elite chattering class is blinkering itself yet again.

  6. Comment by Tony Heine on October 25, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    To answer Kennedy Lee’s titular question, no, you can’t divide even the protestant subgroup of Americans into just three worldviews.
    Our worldviews are even more numerous, varied, and fractured than our demographics are.
    Being an historian, Rowley asks what is the right way to view our history, but that’s a minor problem compared to our deeper ones.
    How can we settle an argument over what’s in our history books, when we can’t even agree on what’s in our dictionaries?

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