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Podcast: How the World Found Democracy—and Became Ex-Christian (Andrew Wilson)

By Koa Sinag

Podcast: How the World Found Democracy—and Became Ex-Christian (Andrew Wilson)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

How and Why the World Changed

In this episode, Andrew Wilson explains why the idea of democracy was so transformative in the decades following the American Revolution, how industrialization changed the way people thought about the world, and the complex ways a Christian worldview contributed to and confronted many of the key markers of Western thought.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

  • How Did the Year 1776 Create the Post-Christian West?
  • Why Should Christians Care about History?
  • WEIRDER
  • Ideological Motivation vs. Material Impetuses
  • Democratic Impulse
  • Should a Christian Embrace or Be Skeptical of WEIRDER?
  • What’s Next?
  • “The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had Writing a Book”
  • How Hamilton Points to the Grace of God

01:26 – How Did the Year 1776 Create the Post-Christian West?

Matt Tully
Andrew, thank you so much for joining me on The Crossway Podcast.

Andrew Wilson
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Matt Tully
The title of your remarkable new book is Remaking the World: How 1776 created the Post-Christian West. I want to jump in with the main question: In just a few sentences, how did the year 1776 actually create the post-Christian West? How did it contribute to where we are today?

Andrew Wilson
The year 1776 has a whole bunch of remarkable developments taking place at the same time, and of those developments I choose seven, and I think that those seven things are what is most distinctive about the modern world, not just in its leaving behind of Christianity but in our economic, technological, globalized, rich, democratic post-Christian kind of world. The developments which brought us to that point, and I bring out seven: globalization, the enlightenment, industrialization, enrichment, democracy, post-Christianity, and Romanticism (those are big words, and we can unpack that a bit in this conversation)—those seven developments all go back in some way to key events in 1776, which is like a fulcrum or like a pivot moment in the history of the West, where a whole bunch of sudden change, much of which has been hundreds of years in the making, of course, but there are key events in this year through which I think you can tell a fascinating story about how all seven of those changes happened. And in a sense, therefore, you can give people some sense of why the West is now the way it is, not just in the ideas we have but in the religious beliefs we do or don’t hold, the practices we have, the technology we have, the money we have, political systems, and so on. And so I think 1776 made the post-Christian West, in the sense that it had within it these seven events which lead to the kind of world we’re in now and that make us so different from any other societies, both in the past and today. So that’s the short version.

Matt Tully
So it’s not that everything started and was encapsulated in one year.

Andrew Wilson
No. History doesn’t work like that. Things don’t come out of nowhere ever. If I’d said, Oh yes, this year out of nowhere makes it, I’d be lying. That’s obviously not true. But it is a great year through which to see a lot of these changes happening in miniature. And so the one that’d be most familiar to people, the American Revolution, obviously the ideas and the things that lead people to say, “We hold these truths to be self evident,” they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s not like someone thinks of them in January and writes them July. No, of course not. But nevertheless, this year was an incredibly important one in people actually boiling them down, expressing them, fighting a war over them, and eventually establishing a nation on them. And I think that the same is true of other changes. The invention of the steam engine—James Watt’s steam engine in 1776—doesn’t come out of nowhere. People have discovered that vacuums can make power, and then they’ve discovered how to maybe transfer the heat within the engine to make it more efficient. But the development of Watt’s steam engine in 1776 is a huge leap forward, and for many would be like a launch pad for the Industrial Revolution.

Matt Tully
It sets a trajectory that then goes all the way to today.

Andrew Wilson
And I think with all seven changes, there is an equivalent of that, which is the argument I’m making.

04:41 – Why Should Christians Care about History?

Matt Tully
Before we get into those actual changes, the seven things that you highlight, I want to take a bit of a step back. Let’s camp out on the study of history itself because I think for many Christians they might be history buffs and they might love this. They’re ready to read your book and they’re ready to hear this conversation. But for others, when they think about the study of history, they think back to maybe a high school class they had where they were just bored out of their mind. So what would be your appeal to Christians? Why should all Christians, to some extent, care about history and why it matters for us?

Andrew Wilson
I think the short answer is that we all have a way of telling the story of the past. And therefore we all do history. The question is whether we do it well or badly. That’s the short version. The slightly longer version would be that there’s a thousand-year-old castle a few miles from my house. I know that’s not common in America—

Matt Tully
That’s an understatement.

Andrew Wilson
But when I go to Starbucks with my daughter, I drive past a thousand-year-old castle. Now, when people tour it they immediately start using language like, Oh wow, it must have been so weird to live in the Dark Ages. And you quickly get this sense that in the old days people were all playing “Greensleeves” on the flutes, and they were sitting around eating chicken legs and turnips, and then dying of plague and burning witches. They have a narrative. It’s a wrong one in important ways, and they don’t realize that actually castles were an incredibly important technological innovation. They don’t realize that society was, in the period they’re talking about, was forming universities and building cathedrals. They don’t see the whole story, but they have a story. And so do you, and so do we all. And the question is whether or not it’s valid or accurate. And that’s particularly important for the church because if you don’t have an accurate telling of history, it’s far too easy to flatten it into a very simplistic heroes and villains story on both sides. So the progressive version of that story might go something like in the past, Christians ruled the world, they told everyone what to believe, they killed gays, they killed women, they banned anyone from doing what they wanted, and it was awful. Therefore, we mustn’t go back there. And so a show like The Handmaid’s Tale would be a modern version of an apocalyptic reading of that story.

Matt Tully
Society has matured out of this.

Andrew Wilson
Yeah. We’ve grown out of it, and now we’re allowed to believe what we think, we can love who you want, all that stuff. That’s the way the story is told. There’s a conservative version, too, which is in the past America was a great nation, and we had built it on Christian values, and we had this and that. But over time, the lefties have come in and taken over and suppressed Christianity and now banned us from thinking, and they’re coming after your kids. To be honest, there might be some degrees of truth in either of those stories, but that’s a very thin story and it’s not a very good one for Christians to believe either of them because underneath it we have to stand back and say no, the good and the bad are mingled together. The idealistic developments—what we think—and the material developments—how we practice, what we do, what the world looks like, what technology we have—are connected and they feed into each other. I’ll use the example of the development in trans rights and being able to change sex or change gender. That is a product of technology, as well as a product of ideas. And the ideas, some of them come from Christianity and some of them come from absolutely not Christianity. This is a practice we have now, and people are going, Where’s this coming from? What’s going on? It is the result of a number of different historical developments. And figuring out what they are can help us not overreact or freak out to those things and instead make sense of what’s going on and why.

Matt Tully
So it’s just more complex than we often want to make it out to be.

Andrew Wilson
It is, but I actually think it’s not a particularly complicated story. I just think it’s one with a number of threads to it. And I just think it’s a more interesting story as well.

Matt Tully
We’re currently living in a time when history, and I think not so much the questions of what happened but questions of why it happened and what it means today, they are often questions that are incredibly contested. And I think there are lots of examples of this where people are looking back at history and kind of claiming that maybe what we’ve been taught, the simplistic stories that we’ve been told, are misleading at best, if not downright false and violent at worst. And I think of maybe the best example of this in recent years was The New York Times1619 Project, which kind of looked at the founding of America through a very different lens, and then traced that throughout the rest of American history. What do you make of that characteristic of how history is often done today? How did you think about your own book in light of that?

Andrew Wilson
Really good question. To some degree, this goes back to what we were just talking about, that we’re all going to do history a particular way. And obviously that particular project was, in some ways, a commendably honest attempt to go, We’re going to actually use history to completely reframe a contemporary debate. And I say commendably honest because although I don’t agree with many of the presuppositions of that project and I think at a historical level there are some serious problems with it, but I actually think there’s something quite valuable about someone being very honest and saying, We are telling the story this way because we want to see the following changes today.

Matt Tully
Because we all tell history a certain way.

Andrew Wilson
Exactly. And the person who objects to it and goes, No, actually the true founding is 1776 and let’s try and get rid of the dark side of the slave origins of our state and all that sort of stuff because that’s just embarrassing and that makes the founding fathers look really bad and it makes our nation look less legitimate—they’re also doing history to try and get a modern result, and it might be just as invalid as a reading of what actually happened. And so I think there’s something commendable about saying, I’ve got some presuppositions here. That doesn’t mean every view is as bad as every other view. It just means that you say, I’m being honest about the thing I’m interested in and why I’m telling this story, but then can go back and say there are some readings of these sources that are more or less valid than others. And you can do a serious study in the life of, I don’t know, Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin. You can reconstruct what they believe from their letters and the things they did and said and say, This is a complicated person, and these are the things that they did and said and there’s an inconsistency here and they seem to seriously have believed that and nevertheless done this and we have to make sense of why that would be true. And you get that in George Marsden or Thomas Kidd or these historians who try and drill into some of these guys and go, What’s going on there? How can someone possibly own this many slaves while saying all people are created equal? And actually, history requires us to do that and to really dig into the complexities of real people, just like you and I have some inconsistencies. I can rail against greed and materialism, and then I can go to Starbucks and buy that, and I don’t find it inconsistent. But someone in a thousand years time might think, What are you doing? How does that work?

Matt Tully
But that’s the most frustrating thing about reading history sometimes is you find, whether it’s a certain narrative from the left or from the right, that there is this tendency to flatten inconsistencies in people. We want to push aside the things that don’t fit our narrative. We want to embrace just the clean picture of people, but it isn’t true to how we experience life today and the friends that we have and the relationships that we have with people we know best. We know that all of us are inconsistent and flawed in many different ways.

Andrew Wilson
Yeah, we do. And it’s not just that we’re flawed, it’s that probably we are not as aware as we might be of the ways in which someone a hundred years hence will think about what we’ve done as inconsistent because everyone’s doing it. When you live in a society where everybody thinks a certain way about, I don’t know, our attitude to the natural world, it’s quite conceivable that my great-great-grandchildren will find the fact that I ate bacon for breakfast this morning completely inconceivable and inhumane.

Matt Tully
We’ve already had a whole conversation about different types of bacon.

Andrew Wilson
But they might. They might go, This idea of killing an animal in order to eat it is just unthinkable. But, of course, to me it doesn’t seem like that for, I hope, grounded theological reasons, but partly because I’m in a society where it is very normal to eat meat and eat pig. Whereas, of course, if I was in a different culture I would not have touched eating pigs. I’m not comparing eating bacon with slavery, of course, but what happens is our society teaches us to think of certain beliefs as acceptable simply because everyone else thinks they are. And therefore, we don’t think critically about the extent to which we might have something in common with people in the past that the whole debates being framed by an assumption in our culture that certain things are okay and certain things are not. That, I think, is quite an important thing to bring to the table and be honest and aware about as we’re reading history.

13:33 – WEIRDER

Matt Tully
You structure your book around an acronym, WEIRDER. Where did you get that, and I wonder if you can just walk us through briefly what each letter stands for.

Andrew Wilson
I’ll start with what it is. WEIRDER, in my use of it, stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. And that describes the seven developments I mentioned earlier, or the fruit of those seven developments in the modern world. I got the first five—WEIRD—they’re actually now being used in psychological papers and books and so on because it was developed by a psychologist in America who came up with Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic as a way of describing modern people in the West and what makes us distinctive from many others in the world today.

Matt Tully
In the global South, perhaps.

Andrew Wilson
In the global South, and nearly everywhere, actually, outside of what we think of the West. So there might be a billion people in the West and seven billion who are not. Most of those seven billion are not to the same degree that we are WEIRD in those ways. And he came up with it, and others have picked it up because they found that they were doing psychology experiments on American students because they had plenty of time, no money, and were hanging around near psychology research faculties. And as a result, the findings they got from studying them they realized were completely out of step with the way most people in the world thought, but they assumed they were just normal. And so it’s a good way of saying we are WEIRD. By virtue of having this conversation and the way we are in the room we are, we’re very unusual relative to most people. But then I’ve added Ex-Christian and Romantic because those two developments are very interesting to me, and they refer not just to the material and political conditions that people live in—W-E-I-R-D—but to the ideas and religious convictions people hold, which I think are a very important part of who we are. And so I’ve sort of slightly expanded their acronym to have seven letters, not five.

15:29 – Ideological Motivation vs. Material Impetuses

Matt Tully
So interesting. Obviously, we can’t get into all of them in this conversation. In your book, as you said, you explore each of these in various chapters and you dig into so many details—so many specific individuals and events and circumstances and ideas and inventions. You really flesh out each of these in a really vibrant way. It’s one of the most incredible things about the book.

Andrew Wilson
Thank you. That’s kind of you to say so.

Matt Tully
I think for evangelical Christians, conservative Christians, oftentimes the way we can tell our own history, the history of Christianity, is through the lens of ideas. We think in terms of ideas. That’s the primary lens through which we think about why decisions were made by certain people, what motivated people. And yet you, in this chapter, you kind of want to draw out the more material impetuses for the way that the world has changed and how we’ve become the people that we are today. Even how we think and what we believe today sometimes has material causes. Unpack that a little bit more for us. Is that an intentional, maybe correction to the way that we sometimes think?

Andrew Wilson
Yes, I’m definitely trying to do that. I think you’re absolutely right. Your diagnosis I think is bang on, I think probably because we know the power of the gospel to change somebody, and that’s so central to us, and the power of the word of God that we think in the realm of ideas, that’s ultimately how people change. And there’s a lot of validity to that, but I think we have to, in telling an honest account of how we got to where we are and what we believe, we have to include within our story the material forces that make us much more likely to live and behave in certain ways, and understand the connection between those material factors and the ideas. There’s almost a symbiosis—they feed off one another.

Matt Tully
It’s not one or the other.

Andrew Wilson
No, actually we just go take the example of slavery. This would be a good one. One of the reasons why slavery became so established as it did in the parts of the world that we now think of as the West is because of material factors like the invention of the cotton gin or whatever, which meant that someone could make an awful lot of money out of extorting other people, oppressing them, and forcing them to work.

Matt Tully
Or even the climate of the South.

Andrew Wilson
Indeed. It’s very, very hot. Certain things grow. No one wants to do the work. And there are inventions which mean we can make an awful lot of money out of it. And in Britain, there are factories that are turning that cotton into clothes and making even more money out of it. And so a lot of people have a financial stake in slavery. But similarly, abolitionism, in part, and the fact that we now find slavery so abhorrent, is also partly a result of technological factors because the growth of what machines were able to do in the end meant that forced labor wasn’t going to generate as much revenue as building machines. The capitalist north, in the end, won the Civil War, in part, because of its material power. So actually, both the case for and against slavery are bound up. They’re not reducible to it, and it would be very patronizing to abolitionists everywhere to say that was the whole story. Of course it isn’t. But I love the line of Upton Sinclair in his book where he says it’s very difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it. And I think we just have to be mindful of the fact that people’s livelihoods are baked into their material circumstances, and that shapes the ideas they have, the things we regard as possible. I think similar things are true of the way even now, that we would say we’re a very individualistic society. You could tell that story through the lens of Christianity’s influence in thinking about ourselves as individuals. You could talk about democratic values and political systems. You could talk about this sort of Romanticism, as I do in the book, and the ideals of the self and that sort of thing. But you also would have to tell it through the story of the invention of the car and the invention of the smartphone and the fact that it’s possible for us to live in a property in which we’re not dependent on multiple other human beings to get through the day, and the fact that we can trade with people without even needing to see them, let alone trust them. And so we could use countless examples integrating the Marxist account, in some ways, of history.

Matt Tully
That’s what I was going to ask is I think some people, more conservative types, could listen to this and say, Man, this sounds a lot like Marxism. It sounds like you’re reducing our life down to these material forces, economic forces. So what would be your pushback against that concern?

Andrew Wilson
I don’t know whether I’d push back. I think I would say I think Marx was right about a bunch of stuff. I think actually that if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just become the mirror image of what Marx was doing, which is to say actually ideas of what really brings change. And I think of course they do, but it’s actually the fusion of the two. So I’m not reducing everybody. I’m certainly not a determinist. I don’t believe that economic factors almost inevitably make history go a certain way.

Matt Tully
People still make choices. People still have beliefs.

Andrew Wilson
Yeah. And of course, one of the things I do in the book, and you could see this even just that Marx’s analysis of what would happen to the West has been proved utterly wrong. So I’m not a Marxist in that sense, but I think that Marx’s account of the importance of economic factors and the fact that the famous image Braudel used of the ocean, where you’ve got the sort of bubbles and the froth and the waves on the surface, and then you’ve got the tides coming in and out in the middle, and then you’ve got the deep ocean currents that change the weather at the bottom. That actually those deep ocean currents, which are forces like industrialization or economic growth, make a much larger difference to the way we live now than who’s in power this year or who’s just released an album. And those things shape it, too, but we need to read history at all three layers, and I think that’s what I’m appealing for. So if I just use one example of where the idea is, one of the points I make in the book and I’ve talked about since, is for all that we could say the American Revolution succeeded in part because of the wealth of America, it wouldn’t have worked—

Matt Tully
The natural resources available to us.

Andrew Wilson
It wouldn’t have worked. And an awful lot of land, and a people adjacent to the American settlers who did not have the same technological advantages.

Matt Tully
Who couldn’t resist.

Andrew Wilson
Right. So there’s material factors, but there are also human choices. If George Washington had not transition power in the way that he did, which he did for reasons of conviction, not just material benefit, the American experiment might well have imploded, like all the others at the time basically did (the French Revolution). And if that is what had happened, if Thomas Payne and Jefferson had not been counterbalanced by the impulses of John Adams and other thinkers who are more conservative and more pragmatic and a bit more skeptical about human nature, America might have turned into France. And at that point, they might have had better cheese, but at the same time you probably wouldn’t have had the same state. And that is because of a handful of choices made by a very small number of individuals. So I definitely believe that changes history, too, but I just think in America, probably, and in the West as a whole, we generally narrate the ideal story much more than the material one, which is partly what my book’s trying to help redress.

Matt Tully
This whole topic makes me think of another book that Crossway published recently, which you actually endorsed, called Digital Liturgies by Samuel James. And in that book, he makes a case for the ways in which recent digital technologies can shape and form us even spiritually, cultivating certain habits or ways of thinking about ourselves in the world and even God. And it just strikes me that we can sometimes see the importance of these technological or material forces on our lives in certain categories—maybe technology or social media. We are used to talking about that. But sometimes these broader forces, it’s a little more foreign to us.

Andrew Wilson
It is because we don’t generally notice the things which have not changed in our living memory. So whereas we would see social media, I don’t know how old you are, I’m forty-five in a few days time—

Matt Tully
Thirty-six.

Andrew Wilson
So for me I remember the world before social media, and I’ve seen how it’s changed in my lifetime. Whereas the car is a given to me, unless I’m very careful. I ten to think this will always be, as it was in the beginning, tis now and ever shall be, world without end. And I have to realize, no, that has dramatically changed the way a church works. The telegraph, or the fact that you’re able to communicate with someone in another country without meeting them ever. That development has made me a little bit more likely every time it happens, to think of myself as a slightly disembodied thing and to think of myself in a slightly more gnostic way than I should. But I probably only notice the changes that happen within my own lifetime.

Matt Tully
And that’s why history is so valuable because it kind of allows us to transcend our own finitude a little bit, our own limits in terms of even the scope of our lives, and actually get a sense of these big changes that have happened throughout history.

Andrew Wilson
The very fact that people listening to this are not physically present to hear my voice is likely to make them feel like I’m closer to the person listening to this, or to you, than I actually am. And that kind of thing makes people think about relationships and churches and families in subtly different ways, particularly when those developments are amalgamated over many, many years. And so, yeah, it can be helpful to stand back and say this is not how it has always been, even today, it’s not how most people live their daily lives. They might have phones, but their wider sense of community is much more embedded in bodies and places and limitations than ours is. In a way, of course, I’d say it’s almost the opposite of what you just said about transcending finitude. Reading history reminds us of that finitude because it says that the sense you have of being able to transcend your finitude is an illusion created by technology that makes you feel like you’re doing it when actually you’re not. So I think it could be helpful if you could almost put someone back in a peasant village in the fourteenth century and say, What job are you going to do? There’s only one thing to do—I’m going to farm, I’m going to grow some wheat, I’m going to own an animal, I’m going to feed my family. And suddenly your sense of destiny and ambition and empowerment would disappear. Not because the ideas have gone anywhere, but because the material factors have changed.

25:11 – Democratic Impulse

Matt Tully
Let’s talk about another topic that you hit on in the book that is near and dear to us as Americans, and that’s democracy. Democracy is one of those assumptions that we just have because that’s all we’ve known and it is so close to the center of the American ideal of what we view as central to what it means to be an American and to live even in the world more broadly. In the book you write that in 1775, a year before the American Revolution, there were no democracies in the world. However, after America, and in particular Washington’s decision to step down and to cede power to the next generation, so to speak, we started to see democracies pop up all over the world. And now, even less than democratic countries like a North Korea, will stick democracy or democratic in their name, almost as a hat tip to the importance of the idea, even if they’re not actually living it out. Unpack that a little bit more in the way that democracy became a really important force.

Andrew Wilson
I think what’s compelling about American democracy in the history of the last 250 years is not the fact that every country’s become democratic or even the fact that there was no democratic form of government before it. Because there were lots of experiments and consensus-based decision making in ancient Athens, in parts of medieval Europe, all sorts of city-states operated a bit like that in parts of what we now think of as Latin America and in some parts of Africa. So there are lots of precursors to it. But the distinctiveness of the American model is that people now think of the government as based on the consent of the individual members who share it, and obviously who counts has been a massive part of the American story in that, you know, it wasn’t anywhere near a majority of the people—

Matt Tully
Who gets that voice.

Andrew Wilson
Right. But nevertheless, the sense that governments are based on consent, and that over time individuals get to choose. Both of those assumptions, which are integral to the way that your government functions, have become deeply embedded in Western culture, even when people aren’t talking about politics. So the idea that I might have a voice to give the boot to the president of a company who did something that I thought was scandalous, and that if I was a shareholder, I ought to be able to get rid of them, that their leadership is not a given is something that I have a voice in. I have a say. It’s based on my consent. That that would be true in my church. That would be true, conceivably, even in a family, and in institutions which historically were never remotely democratic. But we now assume institutions are accountable to the individual choices of their constituent members, and that those members, if they don’t like what the leader or leadership is doing, can give them the boot. Those assumptions, I think, are the really long-lasting legacy of American democracy because it’s not just about a system of government. It’s the fact that the whole society Is almost powered by choice. And, of course, consumerism is just an extension of that into the commercial sphere.

Matt Tully
We see authority as fundamentally a function of the majority.

Andrew Wilson
We do. But even then, if the majority were all to vote for something, or were all to affirm something in something like a referendum, which in our nation recently there was obviously a couple of huge kerfuffles about that, that actually you end up almost posing a moral problem for politicians because they say, Well, we’ve been elected in this democratic system, and we think the people should choose to do X. But the people, when actually polled, very narrowly voted to do Y. But now we who’ve been put in charge have to implement their decision even though we don’t agree with it. And that causes problems for seven or eight years because where exactly does the democratic legitimacy lie? And so the whole culture is shaped by this belief that each individual has a choice to make. And again, we now almost think that that is just staringly obvious. How else would you do it?

Matt Tully
Even as Christians—as American, conservative Christians—we can almost think it’s biblical. Like, is there a Bible verse somewhere that talks about this? It’s just so assumed.

Andrew Wilson
It is. And that’s particularly true if you’re a Baptist, I expect. Because genuinely, I think different kinds of church polity are more or less likely to almost follow this. And I think one of the reasons why even the Baptistic church government appeals to many people, and I’m a credo Baptist myself, but I think I also have to be honest that way of governing a church appeals to people today, almost in large part because it feels intuitively obvious that that’s how we should do things, whether or not it was in the Bible. And obviously, we could have that debate on another day. I’m sure many do. But I think it’s just worth being aware of that factor. This is one of the reasons why I feel that, of course, I should be able to have a say in the running of this institution of which I’m a part. But that’s not the way that the Reformers would have thought about it. It’s not the way people in the 12th century would have thought about it.

Matt Tully
So let’s take this as an illustration of how we then approach these kinds of movements from a Christian perspective. So when you think about democracy and the democratic impulse that’s inside all of us as Western believers, how do we connect that with Scripture and with our faith and with Christian theology? Is there a connection there, or would you want to keep those separated and say, This is something that’s happening. It’s not really right or wrong. It’s not biblical or unbiblical. It’s just kind of its thing, and we need to make sure we don’t conflate that with biblical Christianity?

Andrew Wilson
I think it depends. I think there are situations in which I would say both of those things. There are situations where I would say this is morally neutral. It’s not right or wrong, and we just need to be aware that it is the case. And then there are other situations where I think I would say this may not be morally neutral, and everyone does it anyway, and therefore we have to ask some hard questions of our assumptions here, and we have to make sure that the fact that it is almost universal in the culture we live in does not make us blind to a biblical critique of it.

Matt Tully
Racism and white supremacy would be a great example of that.

Andrew Wilson
That’s a really good example because you can go back to say, in your country the obvious example would be African Americans in Europe. Perhaps a more obvious example, say, from the thirties or forties would be attitude toward Jews, which we generally think of as being something that a very angry, nasty minority, hated Jews and the rest of us were all good citizens. No doubt, there are analogies to the way we think about that with race in America as well. But actually, that’s not the history at all.

Matt Tully
It was more prevalent.

Andrew Wilson
Very prevalent. You and I would probably have been anti-Semitic if we lived in most European countries in the 1930s. Not to the degree that the Nazis were, but—

Matt Tully
It’s in the culture. It’s just the air.

Andrew Wilson
It’s just the way people are. And of course that’s much easier to see when you see the terrible devastation that it wreaks. But of course the question that should always raise is, What are the things like that now that we are living in? And of course there’s plenty of people who have suggested candidates for what those things might be that we just assume are okay. And to me history helps there because it raises our awareness partly of how the individuals back in the past came to the conclusions they did and did what they did, but it also helps us realize the chances of me not having anything like that in my world are pretty low. And therefore I think for Christians it can be a very useful tool in just reading the signs of the times, appraising our own moment and say, Have we baptized greed—that would be an obvious one—to the extent that we no longer see it as even an immoral evil, and don’t really have a framework for it because if people weren’t greedy, the economic growth of our country wouldn’t continue? At that point, I’m back to the Upton Sinclair quote: Am I now unable to see it because my salary depends on me not being able to see it? And there could be many other examples we could consider. So I as Christians it’s not to say every development is morally neutral. It’s just to say we have to ask the question of whether they are, and try and remove ourselves from the fact that we require it and assume it in our culture to be able to ask that question in the first place.

33:09 – Should a Christian Embrace or Be Skeptical of WEIRDER?

Matt Tully
Near the end of the book you quote historian David Hempton who writes, “Christianity was sometimes at war with modernity and sometimes was its midwife.” And I think that really succinctly captures the tension that we can feel as Christians as we look at the world around us, whether it’s the rise of democracy around the world or industrialization, which has lifted millions of people out of poverty, or other facets of this WEIRDER acronym that you’ve written about. I don’t think you’ll find many of us who would say, I want to go back in time before these things happened. We don’t want to undo all the progress, and yet we know that some of these same forces have contributed to many social ills, many bad things about our culture today. And so how do you make sense of that tension in your own mind, that some of the things that this WEIRDER world has produced are things that we would celebrate as Christians, distinctly as believers, but for many of them the same forces produce things that are really antithetical to our faith?

Andrew Wilson
It’s a very basic feature of the world God made, isn’t it? You have a beautiful garden, in comes a snake. And Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like wheat that’s growing, and then someone comes in and sows tares among them. And they said, Do we rip it all up? No, no, no, because then you’ll damage the wheat. No, you let them both grow, and then at the judgment they’ll come in and be separated. And I think that dynamic, which obviously is talking about people in the kingdom in Jesus’s story, but that dynamic of wheat and tares growing together is applicable to two things that are very important in this conversation. One is to new developments which have this good outcome and this bad outcome. How do you separate them? You can’t. But also to individuals, as we’ve been talking about. How do you make sense of George Whitfield’s response to slavery? How do you make sense of any number of people? Some of the people I even commend and lift up in the book as Christian responses, but then how do you make sense of the fact that they then did this over here? Actually, with that wheat and tares we should be expecting that, and that our anthropology is like that, and that our understanding of historical developments is as well. So with economic and industrial growth, which is the obvious example to use, we have to see that many of the things that we really want from the great breakthroughs of this kind of period are inextricably related to many of the developments we didn’t want, and the fact that Christianity is harder to practice and families have gotten smaller and people are less religious than they were is driven by many of the same forces that brought us longer life expectancy and greater economic prosperity. And you couldn’t undo them even if you wanted to, but even if it were somehow possible to do it, should you? Well, I don’t know. How many hospitals compensate for Hiroshima, and all those sorts of moral questions you have to ask. Well, the industrial developments that led to this also led to that, and we are not in a position to play God and separate them from one another. But I think being able to see that, using the word you used earlier, the complexity of how those things are related, and how they are related even in a human person, is an important part of doing history well and thinking wisely about many of the trade offs you have to make in a modern society.

36:15 – What’s Next?

Matt Tully
I think it goes without saying that many conservative Christians today, theologically conservative Christians, probably feel at times anxious about the future, anxious about our place in a post-Christian world, or a post-secular world, as you prefer to say. And we kind of wonder, Where is all this going to go? Will we increasingly feel out of step from the broader society around us? I wonder if you can put on your prophet’s hat a little bit. You’ve looked at the history of the world since 1776, and even going back before then, but what do you see in the future? What’s next?

Andrew Wilson
I don’t really have a prophet’s hat. Or if I do, it doesn’t work very well. It’s a little bit random. Obviously, I don’t know. Clearly that goes without saying, but I think some of the questions that I wrestle with are where, for some of the seven developments I’ve traced in this book, where they go when their limitations are exposed. So, for industrialization, the obvious things would be the environmental pressures. And obviously your country and my country are in different places on this, and a Christian in my country and a Christian in yours is probably in different places on what sort of obligations Christians have with respect to the natural world, in part because of geographical factors and how big your country is and lots of things. But that would be an obvious one, where industrialization goes. Does this go backwards now? Do you actually reach a point where you can sustain this level of economic fruitfulness?

Matt Tully
And that’s probably true for all the different topics.

Andrew Wilson
Exactly. It is with all of them. This is just one obvious one. But if it genuinely would mean that people get significantly poorer to make sure that we preserve the planet so that people in this country over here don’t get flooded, would people make that decision? Or would people say, In the end, that’s your problem. You live there, we live here; we’re not going to giving up our hot showers or our packaged goods or whatever. But you get the same with all of the others. You get the same with economic growth. What happens if economic growth, of course, is not an exponential curve, but it’s more of an S curve? It comes up, and then it flattens, and societies reach a particular point, and maybe that’s the point that Western nations are reaching at the moment since the financial crash, where economic growth is a shadow of what it once was and it never gets back to the boom years after the war. The same thing would be true of Christianity.
What happens if, as a society moves past Christianity, the metaphysical foundations are eroded so much that people no longer take it as a given that all human beings do have equal levels of dignity? And you can see hints of that, of course, in debates about abortion, probably in the way the nation like Canada has gone on euthanasia. But you think where might where might be next? What other groups of people in society might be deemed insufficiently useful to society to be worthy of protection, even if they are very vulnerable and weak? Does that eventually fade? And if so, what replaces it? So I don’t know the answer to those questions at all, but they’re the things that it makes me wonder. Even the Enlightenment. You could say a lot of people would say we almost need to preserve a lot of the stuff of the Enlightenment as sort of a swing back against it and say no, this sort of insistence on reason and just knowing everything has led us to almost Enlightenment thinking, and rationalism is a very Western project. What we really need is, for example, the silly examples you hear of, like people arguing, No, two plus two equals four is a Western conceit. Is there a reversing back there as well? I don’t know. But those are the things I find fascinating. But I’m not going to predict what happens in any of those cases.

Matt Tully
But those are the questions that we should be asking ourselves and trying to think carefully about.


Andrew Wilson
Maybe. To be honest, I don’t know whether they should be. I don’t know whether those things create more anxiety. I personally am not wired to speculate about the way the world will be in fifty years time because I’m old enough already to know some of the speculations that people like that had twenty years ago have proved completely unfounded. Therefore, I don’t want to stake too much of my emotional energy on something that may never happen. And in the end, don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have enough worry of its own. You just deal with today. So I’m more wired that way, and I do think that understanding the past, in many ways, is more valuable than speculating about the future. But I also understand the universal impulse to wonder about tomorrow. And I think if we were going to do that, that’s a few suggestions for some of the developments to consider.

40:32 – “The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had Writing a Book”

Matt Tully
As people can probably guess from this conversation, your book is just so wide-ranging, so broad in what you try to cover, but you dig into very specific examples and illustrations of these different forces in our world. Whether it’s Captain James Cook’s voyages to the South Seas, the invention of the steam engine, or the publication of Adam Smith’s seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, there’s so much there. But at the end of the book in the acknowledgments you write, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book.” It kind of led me to wonder, what was it like to write this book? How did you approach such a broad topic, such an ambitious topic? How did you stay organized? How did you take notes? What did that look like?

Andrew Wilson
Most of the work for this was done during lockdown. Depending on where you’re listening to this, your lockdown may not have been, and probably wasn’t, anything as long or draconian as ours was. So there was a lot of time in that two year period where I wasn’t really allowed to do very much.

Matt Tully
Most of us watched Netflix . . .

Andrew Wilson
I think Sam Allberry, who I think is on a show with you, I remember him saying, At the beginning of lockdown I said I’m just going to learn a foreign language, and I just totally didn’t. So that was my resolution, and it totally failed. For me, it was incredibly helpful. I hated lockdown. I was not a fan. I’m an extrovert. I love people. I love physical contact. I hated it. I couldn’t stand it. But one of the benefits was that I got a lot of time to work on this. The process for me was I tend to buy paper books, and so I bought a lot of books. My church is very kind. They fund my ministry, and so we give the royalties from things back to the church, and the church allowed me to buy books and other things. And so I actually bought a lot of physical books, and I sat and I did what you do. I opened the book, I would write all over them, I would learn lots of things, I would try and turn it into a chapter. What I tried to do, because I’m telling seven stories at once, that I would work very intensively on one of those seven stories at once. I didn’t then try and integrate it. In fact, I didn’t know what chapter 7 was going to say until I got to starting chapter 7. I knew what it would be about, but I couldn’t tell the story. I write in coffee shops. I’m an extrovert, so I need lots of noise and background noise, so when I wasn’t lockdown, I would write in a coffee shop. And when I was, I would go to a solitary office in a lonely building like a biscuit tin in an industrial estate where my office is, and I would just sit surrounded by books and I would try and write. The intellectual fun I had writing the book was a massive joy. And I think that’s why I say it was so much fun because there were so many things I had no idea about that I really enjoyed discovering, and so many people I feel like I met who I would never have met. And we haven’t mentioned Johann Georg Hamann, but I would never have come across him if I hadn’t done this study. And I’m so glad I did. And there are a lot of people like that.

Matt Tully
Another living person that you met was Tom Holland. And before everyone gets excited about meeting Spider-Man, I mean the other Tom Holland, the famed historian who’s written many books that feel a little bit similar to yours. His most recent book, Dominion, on how Christianity, the ideas of Christianity, really shaped the modern West. I wonder, what was that conversation like? What did he help you with as you approached this book.

Andrew Wilson
By then I had already read him, and so I don’t actually remember how the chat went, except that it was lovely. We just met for a beer in a pub. But the book was immensely important in my understanding of the ways in, particularly in the story I was telling a few moments ago about the way that some developments that we now think of as being a problem for Christian faith actually emerged from Christian faith. So he uses an example, for instance, towards the end of his book about The Beatles and the Summer of Love. That would now seem as being sexual revolution, everyone getting high, everyone sleeping with everyone. It wouldn’t seem like a conservative Christian paradise at all. But he’s saying that is inconceivable without Christianity, that that idea, all you need is love, is an utterly Christian idea. No one in the ancient world held love as the chief virtue. That was Jesus and Paul that said that, and then Augustine. That’s where we get this from. It’s not obvious to anyone except for Christianity, and the fact that we think that Caesar going and killing a million Gauls is bad, but he obviously thought it was good. And the fact that we think Jesus dying on a cross is good, but everyone at the time thought it was bad, that shaped the way we think about the weaker things of the world shaming the strong. Even back to the fact that my kids go to a special needs school. The fact that people in my country pay taxes to fund the government to run a school for children who have profound disabilities so that they are cared for, even though there’s no benefit to most taxpayers of the fact that that school exists, is an outgrowth of Christian assumptions about human beings and the fact that my daughter can’t do things for herself means someone else should help her. That’s not how people thought even 1,000 years ago, and certainly not 3,000 years ago. And Tom’s book and his wider thought has really—and he’s not the only one saying that—but he writes very well and has told that story in such a compelling way. The chapter I wrote in the book about that is probably influenced more by him than maybe anyone else I read.

45:53 – How Hamilton Points to the Grace of God

Matt Tully
Final question, Andrew. As someone who wrote a book about the year 1776, and as a Brit, I have to ask you your thoughts on probably the most popular cultural phenomenon to incite an interest in the American founding, in America at least, in the last decade or so. And that’s the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. And so my first question is, How much did you hate it? And more seriously, are there any scenes from that musical that you would say capture any of the emphases of this book that you’ve written in maybe a helpful way?

Andrew Wilson
Oh, that’s a great question. So I absolutely adore Hamilton. I imagine it comes out of my ears. I went to see it. Actually, my wife took me to see the West End version of the show on my 40th birthday. We were sitting in St. James’s Park in the sunshine on a deck chair at the end of September, and then went into the theater and watched it, and I was just blown away. I love it. I think there are a number of songs in the musical that reflect the story beautifully. I’ve got two I would particularly point to, but I think probably the most obvious one for what the story I’m telling is the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” where Hamilton’s son (spoiler alert) has just been shot in a duel, Hamilton has cheated on his wife, and she is not sure she won’t forgive him and she’s burned all his letters. And then there’s this moment of emotional catharsis, really, and Hamilton begins to go back to church and he realizes he starts to pray again—

Matt Tully
It’s literally the most beautiful song, I think, in the whole musical.

Andrew Wilson
It’s very beautiful. Effectively, he is a great example of the story I’m telling because Christianity in the musical is very in the background. You would never know watching Hamilton the difference between how devout Eliza Hamilton was and how very much not devout Thomas Jefferson was. It just doesn’t come across in the show. The show is a two-hour show about very complicated people. It’s not the focus. So you wouldn’t know until this song when suddenly it all comes out and you realize Hamilton, having lived this life without really centering his life on God at all, comes to a place where he realizes what I really need is grace. There’s a grace too powerful to name. I need forgiveness. And he realizes the consequences of what he’s done, and he’s desperate for grace both from God and from his wife, and he finds it, and it’s very moving. And I think it’s just a beautiful picture of the post-Christian West, which is that religion’s in the background because everything’s working. The economy’s growing, we’re not at war, everyone’s okay. But when a crisis hits—when hurricane Katrina strikes, or when the Twin Towers come down, or whatever it might be in your immediate story—it’s fascinating how quickly people go, Something transcendent is needed to pull me through this. Either I’ve done something awful and I need grace, or they’ve done something awful and I need to understand it and extend them grace. And I think that’s a lovely picture. Actually, most of the musical Hamilton is about economic growth and democratic norms and Enlightenment ideals. But in that song, the centrality of Christianity and the fact that whatever else you can find from jobs and careers and political achievements and wars, the only place you find grace is in Christ. And Hamilton is, in many ways, a beautiful expression of that idea in spite of itself.

Matt Tully
Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through this really wonderful book that you’ve written, and help us all better understand a little bit more how we came to be the people that we are today. We appreciate it.

Andrew Wilson
Thank you. It’s been brilliant talking. Thank you.


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