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.