Behind the Rhetoric about America’s Past

JANUARY 2012: REVIEW

by Mitchell Kinsinger

WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION? A HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION
JOHN FEA
WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS
$30.00. 287 PAGES.

Among the hot topics in contemporary politics that inspire “religious” devotion is the proper relationship between church and state, or more specifically, between religion and government. Sooner or later this discussion will wend its way back to the founding of our nation, where opinions will differ sharply as to whether the founders were, or intended America to be, Christian. The same key founders are quoted on both sides of the arguments, and few minds are changed.

Into this dualistic debate comes John Fea’s helpful book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. Fea, a respected evangelical historian at Messiah College, from the outset seeks, not to offer a definitive answer to the title’s question, but to equip the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. CoverThe book is written for “the historically minded and thoughtful reader who is looking for help in sorting it all out” and is intended as “a historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone who wants to make sense of the American past and its relationship to Christianity.” Fea carefully lays out evidence that speaks to the issue from a broad cross-section of over three centuries of American history. The breadth and depth of the evidence he brings to the issue is a welcome departure from the usual narrow and cherry-picked quotes that bolster one-sided arguments.

Fea begins with fundamental questions about how to understand the words “founding” (does the founding of America begin with the colonies? the Revolution? the Continental Congress? the Constitution?), “Christian” (in orthodoxy? orthopraxy?), and “nation” (state governments? federal government?). His introduction on thinking historically is also helpful as he describes the nature of his project. “We need to practice history,” writes Fea, “not because it can win us political points or help us push our social and cultural agendas forward, but because it has the amazing potential to transform our lives.”

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 examines the history of the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. In the first three chapters, Fea looks at “Evangelical America, 1789–1865”; “Evangelicals, Liberals, and Christian America, 1865–1925”; and “Christian America in a Modern Age, 1925–1980.” The modern reader who is accustomed to the contemporary debate that pits conservative Christians against liberal secularists will be surprised to read that for the past two centuries both liberal and conservative Christians believed, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, that America was a certain kind of Christian nation.

The final chapter in part 1 takes a close look at the contemporary defenders of Christian America. Here Fea examines the ideas and methodology of Christian nationalists like David Barton of WallBuilders. Fea argues that their penchant for Whig history, their emphasis on the doctrine of providence, and a particular view of the contemporary historian as misleadingly “revisionist” result in their straightforward support of Christian America and the role the founders played in making America Christian.

Part 2 seeks to ascertain whether the “American Revolution was a Christian Event.” Beginning with the founding of the British colonies, Fea examines the buildup to the revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and America under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The Declaration, Fea points out, was ostensibly a “document asserting American political sovereignty,” not the value of individual rights as some contemporary arguments assert. Neither is the document uniquely Christian (there is no mention of God or Jesus Christ), but it is “theistic” in its assertions about a “Creator” and “providence.” Herein lies the genius but also the seed, in part, of the contemporary debate: Jefferson’s vagueness. Terms like “providence” and “Nature’s God” and “Creator” can be supported by traditional orthodox Christians, but also by “Deists, freethinkers, and Enlightenment liberals.”

In part 3, Fea examines the religious beliefs of select founders. Individual chapters are devoted to George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, and a final chapter examines three “orthodox founders”: John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams. Once again, conventional wisdom about the nature of the faith of these early Americans and their view of Christian America is nuanced and at times revised by Fea’s close look at their lives and thought.

Fea has done an excellent job of helping all of us to be historians by producing evidence and seeking to be as objective as possible. Whatever side the reader comes down on ultimately, he or she will have a better appreciation of the nature and kinds of arguments the other side is making and the evidence that supports their claims. Those looking for easy, certain answers will not appreciate this book. However, for those willing to carefully consider the historical evidence, this book is a mustread as Fea has given both sides of the debate a welcome and important resource.

 

Mitchell Kinsinger teaches religion at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.