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Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction
John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
320 pp., 33.00

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P.C. Kemeny

The New Quest for Christian America

An even-handed assessment.

Was America founded as a Christian nation? To many, the answer is undoubtedly yes. The most aggressive proponent of this position, David Barton, president of WallBuilders, insists that America was and still is a Christian nation. With ease, Barton quotes a wide array of primary sources that seem to point to the obvious conclusion that America's founders originally intended to establish a Christian nation. In a Fox News interview on The Mike Huckabee Show, for instance, Barton claimed that "of the fifty-six" men who "signed the Declaration [of Independence], twenty-nine actually held seminary degrees" and "more than half of them held Bible school degrees."[1] Barton uses these historical claims as evidence of America's Christian origins and then to justify policy positions on a variety of moral and political issues facing the United States.

The actual role that Christianity played in the nation's founding, however, is more complicated than Barton lets on. While graduates of colonial colleges often did enter the ministry and mandatory Bible courses were typically part of their curriculum, America's founders did not, in fact, attend seminaries or Bible colleges. The nation's first seminary, Andover, was not established until 1807, and Bible schools did not come into existence until the late 19th century. To many academic historians, Barton appears to be incredibly ill-informed or dissembling.

Since the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1970s, many conservative Christians have followed the late Francis Schaeffer's lead by invoking the faith of America's founders as evidence of the country's Christian beginnings. Conservative Christians have then used this belief to criticize the secularization of American culture. Schaeffer's conviction, however, also prompted a response from evangelical historians. In 1983, Mark A. Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George M. Marsden in The Search for Christian America offered a brief but critical assessment of America's religious origins. Over the past decade, the debate has moved beyond evangelical circles and become a major political issue in the contemporary culture war.

In Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, John Fea offers a compelling answer to the question. In many ways, Fea's work complements Thomas S. Kidd's recent study, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the America Revolution. Fea sets out to help Christians "see the danger of cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political or cultural agenda in the present." His analysis may surprise both advocates of Christian nationalism and those who trivialize Christianity's importance in the founding period.

Fea divides his work into three major sections. The first section provides an overview of the history of the idea that the United States is a "Christian nation." In the second section, he answers the question, "Was the American Revolution a Christian event?" The final part of the work examines the faith of a number of the nation's founders.

If the United States was ever a "Christian nation," it was so during the period between 1789 and 1861, Fea contends. In the book's first chapter, he reviews how religious, political, and print culture of the early national period reinforced the notion that divine providence had a special plan for the United States. The second chapter examines how industrialization, immigration, and skeptical attacks upon the intellectual credibility of Christianity presented new challenges to the advocates of Christian America. The third chapter summarizes how Christian nationalism adopted different forms between 1925 and 1980. While evangelicals, mainline Protestants, African American Protestants, and Roman Catholics sought to make the United States a Christian country, each espoused a different vision of what such a nation would look like. The fourth chapter offers a detailed analysis of the contemporary defenders of Christian America.

In the book's second section, Fea assesses the Christian character of the Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies, the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, Protestant preaching during the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the struggle for religious liberty in various states, and the role of religion in the Constitution. While these chapters offer a careful analysis of critical events and important sources in America's founding, Fea's examination of the place of religion in the Constitution is particularly rich. Some scholars, like Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, contend that the framers deliberately omitted references to God in the Constitution because they wanted a secular nation. Others, most notably Daniel L. Dreisbach, argue that the framers' commitment to federalism explains their silence on issues of religion. In the end, Fea follows Dreisbach's argument. The Constitution was designed to be a frame for a government, not a treatise of the relationship between Christianity and the state. "Yet," Fea adds, "it is also important to remember that the framers of the Constitution did not exclude God because they wanted to establish a completely secular society devoid of any religion. Rather, they realized that the role of religion and the government should be decided locally, among the individuals who made up the states."

In the final section, Fea explores the beliefs and behaviors of a number of the nation's most influential founders, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Witherspoon. Fea's analysis of George Washington's faith is especially evenhanded. While Joseph Ellis, for instance, describes Washington as a "lukewarm Episcopalian" and Edwin Gaustad labels him a "cool deist," advocates of Christian America, such as Peter Lillback, reconstruct Washington as a deeply pious orthodox Trinitarian. Fea analyzes Washington's faith, church involvement, and commitment to religious freedom as well as his slaveholding. Based upon the evidence, Fea determines that Washington was a soldier and statesman, not a theologian. "Those evangelicals that claim him today," he concludes, "should realize that Washington would probably not meet the requirements for lay leadership in their own congregations."

So was America founded as a Christian nation? Instead of a simple yes or no, Fea draws three conclusions about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding. First, those who believe that the United States is a Christian nation "have a good chunk of American history on their side." Since the 19th century, there have always been believers who have tried to promote the idea that America was and should continue to be a Christian nation. Second, Christianity's role in the American Revolution was mixed at best. On the one hand, Christianity had little to do directly with the colonial leaders' response to British taxation between 1765 and 1774. On the other, state constitutions privileged Christianity even if the Constitution itself did not. Third, the faith of the founders was quite varied. Some founders affirmed the central doctrines of historic Christian orthodoxy, while others unambiguously rejected them. An evaluation of the founders' behavior produces equally mixed results. All the founders, nevertheless, did agree that religion was necessary for sustaining an ordered and virtuous republic.

Fea's analysis raises historical, theological, and political questions for contemporary advocates of Christian nationalism. To Fea, the central problem that hamstrings populist proponents of Christian America is not that there is little evidence for Protestantism playing an important role in the nation's founding. Instead, many "well-meaning Christians" are simply pretty lousy historians. In his brief introduction, Fea describes what it means to think historically. He observes that good historians interpret documents in their historical context in order to understand important changes that have taken place over time. They are always attentive to the causality and contingency of events. Finally, historians recognize that the past is complex and thus they avoid over-simplification.

Fea contrasts the craft of the historian with the work of David Barton. Barton insists that he conducts research like a lawyer by just letting "the Founders speak for themselves in accordance with the legal rules of evidence." But a lawyer uses the past differently than does a historian. According to Fea, "The lawyer cares about the past only to the degree that he or she can use a legal decision in the past to win a case in the present. A lawyer does not reconstruct the past in all its complexity, but rather cherry-picks from the past in order to obtain a positive result for his or her client."

This failure to understand primary sources within their historical context explains why contemporary Christian nationalists like Barton despise revisionist history, which he defines as a process that "intentionally ignored, distorted, or misportrayed" historical events in order to manipulate public opinion to promote "a specific political agenda or philosophy." Admittedly, such defenders of Christian America make a good point when they complain that some historians have minimized the influential role that Christianity played in the founding of the country. But their contempt for revisionism, Fea suggests, also helps to account for why they only quote primary source texts. To Barton, it is dangerous to look critically at primary sources in their historical context. In practice, however, this tactic means that primary sources should be taken at their face value. Fea provides an example of Barton's logic: "If John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, wrote that God was on the side of the patriots in the American Revolution, then it must be true—a theological certainty—that God was on their side." Barton's so-called "best evidence" method actually precludes both the exploration of historical contexts and the evaluation of the theological beliefs of historical figures. Since Joseph Smith, for example, believed he had received a new revelation about the nature and destiny of America, would Barton feel compelled to accept the veracity of Smith's claims without any misgivings?

Fea also uncovers a critical—and among evangelicals a highly debatable—theological conviction that informs the work of many contemporary defenders of Christian nationalism: a view of history that enables them (so they imply) to know with certainty what God is up to. For instance, when Christopher Columbus' fleet spotted a flock of birds—a sign that land was near—they landed at San Salvador instead of continuing on their course, which would have likely led them to Florida. In a passage quoted by Fea, D. James Kennedy explains what God was doing: "And to think, if it had not been for the flight of some birds, American would probably have the same culture and religion as that of South and Central America today …. I believe that just as God used a talking donkey to set Balaam straight (Num. 22:21-31), so He used a cloud and a flight of birds to change Columbus's destination." Therefore, Kennedy concludes, the hand of God led "Anglo-Saxons and Celtics rather than Spaniards" to become "the dominant force in Europe and in America."

This reading of history places the United States at the center of the divine drama. But to presume that America is God's New Israel or that Old Testament passages can be directly applied to the modern United States violates the hermeneutical standards of biblical exegesis. It also contradicts fairly widespread Christian convictions regarding the new covenant established by Jesus Christ, which transcends national boundaries. As Edmund Clowney, the late president of Westminster Seminary, wrote: "The patriotism is misguided that sees the United States or the United Kingdom as a Christian nation composed of God's elect and entitled to his favour and blessing. Such a claim is patently false, and illegitimate even as an ideal."[2]

Reformed theologians like Clowney, as well as Christians in other traditions, recognize that the heart of the problem is a very weak doctrine of the church. These Christians believe the new covenant that Christ established distinguishes between the church and the nation. This distinction does not necessitate the secularization of the public square but rather, to use Augustine's terms, the differentiation of the Kingdom of God from the Kingdom of Man. Advocates of Christian America, however, seem to expect the "City of Man" to do the work of the "City of God."

A third concern raised by the work of Christian nationalists is political. Advocates of Christian America sometimes appear to use their interpretation of history in order to promote majoritarianism. Fea cites a claim by Gary DeMar that the First Amendment "was not designed to make all religions equal, only to make all Christian denominations (sects) equal in the eyes of the Constitution and the law." If the free exercise clause only applies to Christians, it is little wonder that many people see the specter of dominionism in the work of some Christian nationalists.

While it may not be the last word on the subject, Fea helps to set the record straight about the role of Christianity in America's founding period. The book models what it means to do history well. Fea demonstrates a winsome and judicious tone as he unravels the complicated relationship between Christianity and America's founding. The work might also inspire further reflection upon how Christians in the present, like many in the past, can be responsible citizens and faithful Christians working for the common good in a diverse culture.

1. Barton's interview is available at youtube.com/watch?v=hfvEe1PZ1kk

2. Edmund Clowney, The Church (InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 195.

P. C. Kemeny is professor of religion and humanities at Grove City College. He is the editor of Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views (IVP Academic).

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