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Barry Alan Shain


One Nation, Under God

Why are some Christian scholars embarrassed by America's religious history?

Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent, by Derek H. Davis, Oxford University Press, 2000, 288 pp.; $39.95

Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Liberties, by John Witte, Jr., Westview Press, 2000, 224 pp.; $29, paper

America is a nation that was born Christian; indeed, it was born Reformed Protestant, and this suggests that an assertive and intrusive religiosity shaped this nation's political institutions and patterns of social life. Curiously, however, this is a heritage that some Christian authors who work and prosper in elite intellectual circles seem embarrassed by and attempt to mitigate or even, in some instances, effectively deny. More particularly, some—by means of a highly selective historiography, an anachronistic focus on "progressive" political actors, and confused depictions of Reformed theology—offer their readers a history of American political and religious life that renders America's past congenial to contemporary secular sensibilities and provides a valuable tool in "correctly" reading the "original intent" of the religious clauses of the First Amendment.

The works under review, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent, by Derek H. Davis, and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Liberties, by John Witte, Jr., are guilty of these intellectual shortcomings.[1] What needs to be made clear, and yet is obfuscated in differing ways by these two prominent Christian scholars,[2] is that America from 1630 to 1780 was predominantly Reformed Protestant in its religiosity, and continued to be powerfully Christian for at least the next 75 years. Although it is true that the nature of American religiosity was rapidly changing during the years after the War for Independence, this period witnessed a huge upsurge of pietistic and evangelical Christian activity and must not be viewed as a period of increasing ...

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