America and France have a long love-hate relationship. French help was critical in our War of Independence. Many Americans were initially excited about the anti-monarchical tendencies of the nascent French Revolution in 1789. The implosion of the secular left and the rise of Napoleon cooled affections for awhile. America's help in WWI and WWII is appreciated and resented by French elites, who consider most Americans ignorant and too religious, while we Yankees shake our heads at the arrogance of a second-rate power that will be an Islamic state in less than half a century.
The American and French Revolutions of 1776 and 1789 share some similarities, but the difference is instructive concerning the nature of social transformation. Both nations wanted a new order of liberty and representative government, with more equality and opportunity. Both nations were suspicious of traditional monarchy and state religion. Both nations were impacted by the Enlightenment, an assortment of ideas and personalities ranging from common sense Scots to radical disciples of Rousseau and Voltaire. Both nations were on a mission to bring their enlightened visions to the rest of the world.
These similarities only underscore the key difference that makes all the difference, then and now. In 1685, Louis XIV, the autocratic "Sun King" who uttered, "L'etat ce moi" and "Apres moi, Le deluge" ("I am the state" and "After me, the deluge"), issued his famous Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The original Edict, dating from 1598, ended more than 30 years of civil war by granting religious toleration to the Huguenots (Reformed Protestants) and protecting their properties and cities. This was not complete freedom to evangelize, but a significant step toward liberty.
Between 1598 and 1685, numerous Huguenots found positions of influence and leadership as artisans, bankers, merchants and prosperous middle-class farmers. Hundreds of thousands helped the nation thrive. This modicum of religious toleration created an environment for the free thinking of French intellectuals, both religious and anti-clerical. Even the Roman Catholic Church of France (always a bit independent of Rome) improved her apologetic skills as she had to be more competitive for the allegiance of some of the population.
All this changed in 1685. With the stoke of a pen, between 150,000 and 200,000 Huguenots fled France for refuge in England, Holland, the Americas and even South Africa. The economy suffered and there was no middle ground between the ancien regime of very traditional Catholicism and the rising elitist skepticism and outright anti-Christian perspectives. By the time the tinder box was lit in 1789, the way was paved for the tragedies of the guillotine and Napoleon.
In contrast, England and her colonies in North America were increasingly tolerant in matters of conscience and religion from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Evangelical Awakenings of the mid-18th century. The variety of religious options, coupled with genuine inner renewal in the faith communities, created much different futures for England and the emerging American nation.
The "Great and General Awakening" in the Colonies from the late 1730s to the 1750s saw about one-eighth of the population experience some kind of conversion and renewal. Another important consequence was the birth of an Evangelical (Protestant) ethos that united communities across denominational and theological lines. One of the interesting sub-stories of this era is the wide divergence in style and theology among the leaders of the Awakening.
The Awakening also polarized religious communities. Not everyone identified with the "religious affections" that Jonathan Edwards eloquently defined. This said, the important sociopolitical consequences of the Awakening in the Colonies were 1) the birth of an American identity distinct from the Old World yet rooted in the liberties of English common law; and 2) a deep commitment for compassion and social change from many revived believers, including nascent abolition movements (John Woolman) and care for orphans. In one meeting, revivalist George Whitefield convinced freethinking Ben Franklin to empty his pockets for the orphans!
Even among those not directly impacted by religious fervor, a sense of personal reverence for God, responsibility for one's neighbor and a deep distrust of centralized institutions took root. When the conflicts with England arose during the 1760s, many radical leaders appealed to the past evidences of God's grace as affirmation of the justice of the Colonial cause.
Why does this matter in the post-Christian West of the 21st century? The answer is profoundly simple. Political revolutions, whether they are Left, Right or Center, without authentic moral and spiritual awakening in a critical mass of the populace, will simply displace one oligarchy with another. People who covet power do not care about principled policies or ideology - for them the masses are there to manipulate, whether it is an appeal to conservative or progressive ideas.
America 2010 is imploding. The current economic policies are bankrupting our future. Moral anarchy is rampant and compassionate and intelligent voices are drowned out amidst the noise of accusations from both extremes. We must have an authentic and holistic spiritual awakening or our Republic will be consigned to the ash-heap of history within one generation. Here are some facts that transcend simplistic ideology:
* Islam is not a democratic world-view and the aim of current leaders is not a land of pluralistic debate and liberty, but the gradual submission of all to a particular version of Islamic Law. I challenge all "moderate Muslims" to unequivocally affirm complete freedom of conscience and religion, regardless of what percentage of a population is Muslim. Please note that Islam has never produced a pluralistic republic in history.
* 21st century Christians of all traditions are not agitating for an undemocratic theocracy; in fact, it is Judeo-Christian values that set the table for the current freedoms we enjoy.
* Self-regulation, within a context of reverence for God and personal commitment to truth and virtue, is the best guarantee of liberty. The fact that we have a population expecting the federal government to solve all their problems is a tragedy of epic proportions.
The election of 2008 was a mini-revolution in the tradition of 1789 - contemptuous of traditional Christianity, radical in policy and destructive to our long-term future. Today's policies are so bad that some are willing gives up their freedoms for a government handout. The same mindset pervaded France in the 1790s, Russia in the 1920s and Germany as Hitler came to power.
Electing compassionate and intelligent conservatives in 2010 is a good start to reversing our current course, but it is inadequate to secure lasting change. We must have a Third Awakening that stirs religious commitment and stimulates social transformation. A rebirth of reverence and responsibility, local community action and real love for our neighbors - of all faiths or none - is our only hope.
Join me in praying for God to grace our land with holy love, humility, moral strength and sacrificial service. Then perhaps, in the Providence of the Almighty, we can see "a new birth of freedom" and aspire to the values of Washington and Lincoln.