Meathead, Meet John Q. Adams, ‘Christian Nationalist’

By David Marshall Published on February 19, 2024

It may be unfair to recall that Rob Reiner became famous as “Meathead” in the classic comedy All in the Family. Since then, he’s led a storied Hollywood life, acting in several movies, and directing Stand By Me, Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally (OK, can’t win them all), and that grand Nicholson v. Cruise fireworks display, A Few Good Men

Now he has a new documentary out, “God and Country.” The point of the film seems to be that the two should sue for divorce. Can Meathead handle the truth? (To steal a line from his best film.) Not, apparently, about American history, or the role Christianity has played in forming this nation.

John Quincy Adams — Christian Nationalist?

Reiner’s work is a pale cinematic shadow of the career of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams: brilliant diplomat, spy-in-chief, master of many languages, friend of czars, who helped secure for his country Florida, the Pacific Northwest, freedom of speech, peace with Britain, liberty to Amistad passengers, and ultimately, a nation without slavery.  

I am wondering if Reiner would call Adams a “Christian nationalist,” and accuse him of trying to Make America Great At First (MAGAF)?     

In a recent interview about his new film, “Rob Reiner Sounds the Alarm for the Rise of Christian Nationalism,” the term is defined as “the use of Christian values to push a political agenda.” It is not clear whether that definition comes from Reiner or his interviewer. 

Reiner’s own history of “Christian nationalism” begins in the 1950s. He tells a good story, if you like dark satires of history and logic:

The beginnings of this movement happened in 1954 with the Brown v Board of Education ruling, which said that everybody had to be treated equal in terms of where they could access education. And this was not taken well by a big swath of the population . . . So they created religious schools where they could keep Black people from integrating the schools. And it started this movement of bringing religion, or their idea of a religion, in maintaining the separation between Blacks and whites (sic). But it’s kind of ugly, if you think about it, that that would be the basis of a political movement.

Rob Reiner’s Ugly History

Reiner’s history is ugly, meathead ugly. Two generations ago, less than one percent of white kids attended “segregation academies.” That’s a “big swath?” The start of “Christian nationalism” for the whole country, which demonstrates the racism of anyone who supports Donald Trump today? Even though black students were as likely Christian as that “swath” of white kids? But Reiner’s reasoning only grows worse:  

It really didn’t take root, but then along came Roe v Wade, and by ’73 this became the galvanizing issue for Christian nationalists . . . Then over a period of time we saw the Federalist Society getting involved in making sure that the judges were put in the right place and getting them on to the Supreme Court, all the way up to Trump, putting three judges on the Supreme Court and we see Roe v. Wade overturned.

Are we clear, Lieutenant Kaffee? (I can’t stop myself from quoting A Few Good Men here.)  

  • First, some racists in the South started schools so their children didn’t have to mingle with black kids. 
  • Then nothing happened for twenty years. 
  • Then “good” left-wing judges found a right to abortion in the US Constitution — hiding under a blackberry vine all these centuries, I guess. Or maybe they smeared lemon juice onto the Constitution, and this new right became visible. 
  • Anyway, “bad” legal beagles then replied, “A right to abortion is not to be found in that document!” 
  • Christian nationalists among the peasantry added, “And killing babies is wrong!” 
  • Then after another half century, Christians and evil lawyers got our good “lemon juice” decision overthrown by electing Donald Trump. 

So all the bad guys worked in league — libertine casino owner, praying church ladies, and conservative lawyers — proving, somehow, that Republicans are racist. (Even though fewer abortions means more black babies!) And when people vote against things Hollywood producers like, that’s an attack on democracy.

Our Smartest President

Maybe Adams could make sense of Reiner’s reasoning, though I think he’d know better. He has been ranked as our smartest president. Son of a founding father, a man whose face, I now believe having just read Harlow Unger’s wonderful biography, belongs on Mount Rushmore. Along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and his father, he arguably did more to “make America great” the first time around than anyone.  

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And the scary thing is, he was a “Christian nationalist” before his time. He loved his nation fiercely. (He helped gain us a big chunk of it, including Florida and the Pacific Northwest.) Fulfilling a promise to his mother, Abigail Adams, he recited the Lord’s Prayer before arising for the rest of his life. He read his Bible and attended church “religiously,” and appealed to divine truth in public statements, including in attacks on slavery, with growing fervency and power as he aged. “Slavery is an offense against God!” Adams thundered. Sounds a lot like using Christian values to “push a political agenda.”

As did other evangelicals who preached against slavery and founded schools to combat it (Charles Finney), wrote great novels citing Scripture to expose its evil (Harriet Beacher Stowe), or legislated for decades to bring it to an end (that infamous English “Christian nationalist,” William Wilberforce).

Adams was also a dedicated historian, who read and/or spoke English, Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, and Russian. He was arguably America’s most talented and knowledgeable diplomat. He founded the Smithsonian Institute. He said that if the State of Georgia didn’t protect Creek Indians from encroachment, an “obligation even higher than that of human authority” would force him to act.

A Shameless Christian Nationalist

 In an 1837 address in Massachusetts, Adams showed just how dangerous a “Christian nationalist” he was, by linking Christmas to Independence Day:  

Why is it that next to the birthday of the Savior of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day [July 4th]? …. Is it not that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? …. Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity, and gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Savior and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before?

Talk about a shameless Christian nationalist! (Also an abolitionist, Indian-protector, Constitution-hugger, peace-maker, science-promoter.)

In short, Adam’s motives were much like those of pro-lifers in our day. They also believe a vulnerable class of humans is being wronged. Many are also inspired by the belief that God wishes them to stand on behalf of the helpless. Again, “Meathead” misses the irony that it is the Left which seeks to “decrease the surplus population” (to quote Charles Dickens, who asked Adams for his autograph when the two men met!) of African-Americans.

The Profound Impact of Judeo-Christian Values on Justice

We all have a right to try to make our country “great.” Each brings our concept of “the good” to those efforts, informed by what ultimate beliefs we hold. As an historian, Adams was surely aware of the profound impact Judeo-Christian values had on justice, and perhaps how it had begun to discredit slavery, foot-binding, forced prostitution, human sacrifice, the confinement of women, female infanticide, and other oppressive practices, around the world.

I would much rather see neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump in the White House next year. But slandering tens of millions who probably will end of voting for Trump is wrong. (Reiner also brings in January 6th, without offering evidence that the rioters were Christians, and without mentioning the far larger left-wing riots of the year before.)

Reiner ‘Can’t Handle’ the Truth of Christianity                                                                                           

While ignorant of history — or unwilling to see reality beyond his biases — Rob Reiner should still be smart enough to do better than simple-minded, ignorant propaganda. He makes some good points, after all. Christians easily do forget our first principles, and I agree choosing Trump is a mistake. Perhaps Colonel Jessup had the better measure of the man. A secular Jew, it seems Reiner simply “can’t handle” the truth about what the Gospel has done, and continues to do, for America and the world.

Perhaps it’s best to ignore Reiner’s film, and read about John Quincy Adams, instead.

 

David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia. 

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