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Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction by John Fea

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The question posed by John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction continually vexes the American people and seems to drive the unending culture wars. Partisans argue vociferously for and against the premise that the United States either is a Christian nation or was founded as one. Both sides lob rhetorical mortar shells back and forth. On one side Christian nationalists argue that the intention of the Founders was for this to be a Christian nation governed by biblical principles. Secularists fire back claiming that at best the Founders were Deists intent on keeping church and state separated by an impermeable wall, wherein the state would stay out of the religious business and the church should in turn keep its nose out of the business of state. Of course, both sides marshal “evidence” to support their claims. Stepping into the midst of this fray and calling for a ceasefire is John Fea, who argues in this book that – from a historian’s perspective – the situation is a lot more complex than the partisans would like us to believe. Instead of “arguing the case” as might an attorney, Fea the historian invites us to engage in the work of interpretation.

Fea is a professional historian teaching American history at Messiah College, which is an evangelical liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. As a historian he asks us to consider the question of America’s religious past using the principles of the historical profession, five of which he names: 1) Recognition that historians must expect to find “change over time”; 2) they must “interpret the past in context”; 3) must look for “causality”; 4) be concerned with “contingency”; and 5) recognize that the “past is complex.” When one seeks to reconstruct the past according to these principles, refraining from cherry-picking evidence, then reality is rather muddled. Some of the Founders were evangelicals, others weren’t. Some were Deists, but others merely embraced what some would consider heterodox positions. Jefferson, Adams, and Washington weren’t orthodox in their theology but they embraced the idea of providence, which suggests a belief in an activist God and believed that religion played an important role in promoting virtue, which was an essential building block for democracy. Theirs was a mixture of Christian and Enlightenment ideals. Reality was, and is, very complex.

Fea recognizes that the reason why this debate is so heated is that it has implications for the contemporary situation. Because the question of America’s religious origins has contemporary implications, Fea invites the reader to join him in seeking the truth (to the greatest degree possible).

In laying out his argument, Fea divides the book into three parts, with Part One focusing on the “history of an idea” that America was and is a Christian nation. In the course of four chapters, Fea examines the ways in which this question has been understood, from the time of the passage of the Constitution to the present. He explores the ways in which the Founders dealt with the problem of establishment by essentially leaving it to the states, and from there he takes us through the various attempts to understand the religious nature of the nation, showing how the idea changed over time, relating to the context. What may surprise many liberal/mainline readers is that in the post-bellum era through the early parts of the twentieth century, liberals were just as likely to argue for America’s Christian nature as were evangelicals. Liberals such as Henry Ward Beecher believed that American social progress was a mark of the nation’s Christian nature and the Social Gospelers sought to Christianize America. Washington Gladden is quoted as suggesting that “the complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven” (p. 37). David Barton couldn’t say it any better!

Part Two returns to the founding era and asks: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” To answer this question Fea goes back even further to the “planting” of the British colonies and asks whether they were intended as Christian communities as many claim. Fea begins by distinguishing between “planting” and “founding.” The nation was founded much later than colonies were planted on North American soil. While there appear to be religious motivations, especially in New England, there were other motivations — economic ones primarily — that drove people to emigrate to these shores. Even in the Puritan colonies, however, the behavior wasn’t always Christian. There’s no better example of this than the persecution of those who differed from the majority, and in places like Jamestown – greed quickly became the primary motivator in the community.

As for the period leading up to the revolution, debates over taxation weren’t primarily religious – but political. Religion might have been used to rally opinion, but it wasn’t a religious debate. Fea notes that “the most important documents connected to the coming of the American Revolution focused more on Enlightenment political theory about the constitutional and natural rights of British subjects than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance to the Crown was necessary” (p. 106). That isn’t to say that the pulpit wasn’t engaged in the revolution. On both sides of the debate, religious leaders rallied their followers by appeal to scripture. On the “patriot side,” however, words from Paul were mixed in with Whig/Lockean political theory. There was no real attempt to bring into the conversation just war theory, and loyalist clergy were more likely than clergy who supported the Revolution to interpret scriptures such as Romans 13 along traditional lines. Ultimately religious partisans on the side of the Revolution baptized the Bible with Whiggish ideology.

Chapters eight through ten of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? explore three founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. The first, the Declaration, was a foreign policy statement (telling the world that these American rebels were now a nation to be recognized), rather than a statement of political principles. The Articles of Confederation guided the nation between the declaration and the passage of the Constitution. This document provided for a weak central government – with no chief executive or federal judiciary, and left religious questions to the states. In fact, Fea raises the question of whether we can even call the United States a nation at this point.

Finally, in 1789 the Constitution was enacted, and despite long debates about establishing Christianity (even in general terms), the Constitution essentially stayed out of the religion business, and for the most part most states, at least early on, took matters of religion into their own hands. But, despite the absence of God from the document, that shouldn’t be taken as giving support to the idea that the Founders intended a secular nation – only that it left this issue to the states. Interestingly enough, it was the anti-Federalists, those who argued against the passage of the Constitution, who were the most interested in establishing religion in the new nation.

The final section (Part Three) looks at the life stories of several of the Founders: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin (all of whom were at best heterodox – though the Unitarian Adams was very devout), and then three orthodox founders – Witherspoon, Jay, and Samuel Adams. Each of these stories is rather complex. Witherspoon and Jay were supportive of religious liberty, but like Samuel Adams, they didn’t want to extend toleration to Roman Catholics, whom they saw as being beholden to a foreign sovereign. Isn’t it interesting that a majority of Supreme Court justices, including those who are “strict constructionists” are Roman Catholics, and yet at the time of the passage of the Constitution there were regular debates as to whether the protections of the Constitution extended to them!

Fea’s book is essential reading because it tries to offer a balanced picture. He argues that when it comes to the idea that the Founders envisioned a Christian nation, partisans such as David Barton have a lot of evidence at their disposal. There was a strong belief, even on the part of Thomas Jefferson, that God had a hand in the founding of the nation and that religious observance should be promoted, but there was also a strong belief in religious liberty – at least if you were a Protestant. But, when it came down to establishing even a general sense of religious identity, the framers of the Constitution chose not to do so – leading to the charge at the time that this was a godless Constitution. It should be said that while Fea recognizes that partisans on both sides play loose with the evidence, his greatest concern is with the misuse and abuse of the evidence by Christian nationalists, especially David Barton. That he feels this is necessary is probably due to his own context within the evangelical community. Ultimately, however, this is a book that is written for the times that are upon us, and we have been well served by his historical acumen.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. By John Fea. Louisville: WJK Press, 2011. Xxvii +287 pages.

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