The title of John Fea’s new book comes phrased as a question. This is a judicious choice, for the author, a Messiah College historian, does not venture to resolve the contentious debate over Christianity’s role in midwifing American democracy.
Many people bring predetermined conclusions to the question posed by this volume, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press). But Fea counsels humility, pleading that “the question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.”
Fea exhorts readers to greater curiosity about what testifies to a nation’s “Christian” identity. Is it demographic dominance by professing Christians? Citizens and leaders of authentic Christian character and conviction? Laws, customs, and founding documents embodying Christian principles?
Addressing such questions, Fea practices admirable fair-mindedness, giving each side its due. Although amply critical of intellectuals, activists, and pundits who peddle the Christian nation thesis, he allows that they have “a good chunk of American history on their side.”
Studied impartiality of this sort often yields dreary exercises in forced evenhandedness. Happily, Fea’s passion for objectivity avoids this pitfall. Indeed, the book fairly brims with judgments both specific and, at times, surprising.
Did the American colonies protest British tax policies and declare independence for Christian reasons? Not especially, although revolutionary pulpits thundered with broadsides against tyranny. Did the Constitution reflect Christian governing principles? No, but state constitutions tended to privilege Protestantism. Were the Founding Fathers Christians? Yes and no. Most proclaimed a creator God who governs the world providentially. Virtually all thought Christian morality essential for the cultivation of virtue and public spirit. But many doubted Jesus’ divinity and other core teachings.
Fea also sketches a helpful history of the Christian nation narrative, showing how feuding factions—northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders, fundamentalists and Social Gospellers, contemporary conservatives and progressives—have defined and appropriated America’s contested religious heritage.
In presenting the past disinterestedly, Fea rebukes the habit of “cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political or cultural agenda in the present.” Washington’s Farewell Address doesn’t validate the Religious Right’s blueprint for society, any more than Jefferson’s bowdlerized Bible validates the Left’s alternative.
Here Fea’s commitment to balance falters slightly. He singles out several Christian nation apologists, devoting sustained attention to their historical misrepresentations. But despite acknowledging forthrightly that secularists sometimes massage evidence, he provides fewer examples.
Sensible Christians understand that America’s past, present, and future are inexplicable apart from Christianity. Just as sensibly, if sometimes hyperbolically, they discern among American elites widespread indifference and hostility to this reality. In emphasizing the purveyors of Christian nation fantasies, Fea lets these elites off the hook a little too easily.
But this is a forgivable offense. Sufficient unto the day is the revisionism thereof. If Fea succeeds in dislodging this nettlesome speck from the Christian eye, he can tackle the secularist beam some other time.
Matt Reynolds is CT associate editor of books.
You can also find the review here.
Brad Hart says
I have been thoroughly enjoying your book, Dr. Fea. I will try to do a review of it on our blog as well.
This is a nice review overall. I was bothered by this line: “Sensible Christians understand that America's past, present, and future are inexplicable apart from Christianity.” Well that's saying both a bit much and nothing at all. One supposes that “sensible Christians” might think that Christianity “explains” everything. Sensible historians, on the other hand, don't plead Providence when making their case. But this is a pretty favorable review in a pretty important place. Kudos.
(BTW, I have ordered your book.)
Our Founding Truth says
Dr. Fea wrote: But many doubted Jesus' divinity and other core teachings.
I have been critical of your work, but you deserve an objective critique of your book, so I will buy it.
From the review above, he writes “many doubted Jesus' divinity.” My question is besides: TJ, John Adams, Timothy Pickering, and Franklin, Dearborn, Williamson, and Ethan Allen,(Marshall renounced Unitarianism while still in public service) what other framers denied Christs' Divinity?
John Fea says
Brad: I look forward to a review at AC.
LD and OFT: Thanks for giving the book a fair shot.
“If Fea succeeds in dislodging this nettlesome speck from the Christian eye, he can tackle the secularist beam some other time.”
Wait a second. Have I been reading bad translations of Matthew 7 for 50+ years?