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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. By John Fea. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Pp. 287).

Was America founded to be a "Christian Nation?" Did its founders endeavor to create a nation where Christ and Cross were joined hand-in-hand with the Constitution? And if so, how is America's current makeup in harmony/defiance with the "original intent" of our nation's Founding Fathers? These are just some of the questions addressed by John Fea, historian and author of the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. With the current climate of today's culture wars, which seem more interested in mud-slinging, name-calling and partisan hostility than honest scholarly inquiry, Dr. Fea's book is a breath of fresh air that cuts through the nonsense with its sharp historical foundation.

Fea's book jumps right out of the gate to address many of the problems facing the current culture wars v. the actual study of early American history. Appealing to the formula created by historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, Fea suggests that greater clarity on the issue of religion and America's founding can be achieved by adherence to the "Five C's": history CHANGES over time, must be put in proper CONTEXT, is interested in CAUSALITY, is CONTINGENT upon prior conditions and is often very COMPLEX. With this framework in mind, Fea effectively lays out the problems many of the culture warriors face when they simplify history to fit their respective agenda:

Such an approach to the past is more suitable for a lawyer than for a historian...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...The historian, however, does not encounter the past in this way (xxvi).
In other words, the "tug-o-war" mentality of today's culture warriors means that they aren't concerned with what history has to say, but with what they can say about history, and in the process the truth has become lost (or less important).

To get the reader back on the Yellow Brick Road of historical accuracy and out of the "sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue", Fea divides his book into three parts. In part I, Fea examines the evolution of the "Christian Nation" thesis by exploring how its conceptualization meant different things at different times to different groups of people. For example, Fea notes how southerners, during the Civil War, endeavored to portray the United States as a godless, sinful society while their new Confederacy embraced the Christian God with open arms:

Southerners looking for evidence that the Confederacy was a Christian nation needed to look no further than their Constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which does not mention God, the Preamble of the constitution of the Confederate States of America made a direct appeal to "Almighty God." (17).
In addition, Fea also mentions the ironic (but often ignored) fact that many liberals during the post-Civil War era supported the "Christian Nation" thesis while many conservatives rejected it. Liberal preachers like Henry Ward Beecher (who, like many preachers today, ended up in a messy sex scandal) campaigned vigorously in favor of America's Christian identity. They sought to ensure that America's destiny was in harmony with Christ's admonition to help the poor, sick, etc.:

These Protestants thought that the Christian identity of the United States should be defined by the way society and government behaved. The citizens of a Christian nation followed the social teachings of Jesus...Those who championed the social gospel sought to advance the cause of justice and love throughout the nation and the world. (37).
Liberal Evangelicals, advocating for the social changes needed in a "Christian Nation." Surely enough to make Glenn Beck's head explode in confusion and rage!

In Part II of his book, Fea addresses the question, "Was the American Revolution a Christian Event?" To address this question, Fea juxtaposes America's "planting" (i.e. the migration of the Puritans) to America's "founding" (the actual creation of the United States). Fea's analysis of America's planting reveals that although many of the first settlers to the "New World" came for religious reasons, their motives weren't always as "Christian" as we sometimes think. For example, the early Puritans, who crossed the Atlantic to ensure "religious freedom" made sure to establish the same rigid rules to protect their faith that had existed back home in England. In other words, America became a land of Christian liberty, so long as your Christianity fell in line with the accepted Christianity. In addition, Fea points out the fact that religion was far from the exclusive motivator for New World colonization. Economic factors (i.e. the "Get rich quick" mentality) became central to the motivations behind American colonization.

When speaking of America's founding Fea discusses the role that religion played in shaping the revolutionary rhetoric that led up to independence. In essence, Fea suggests that religion served as an effective rallying cry, as ministers wielded Christianity as a sword in favor of independence. And though this religious rhetoric proved extremely effective, the American Revolution was hardly a religious debate. Fea writes:

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. (106).
Fea supports this assertion by pointing to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the federal Constitution. He suggests that all three documents (especially the Constitution) remain intentionally neutral on the topic of religion. In consequence, the Founders essentially left the issue of religion up to the individual states. As a result, the founders were effectively able to endorse the United States as a religious nation without giving Christianity any preference points.

In part III Fea examines the individual religious views of many key founders. In so doing, Fea effectively illustrates the fact that America's founders included devout, orthodox Christians (John Witherspoon, John Jay and Samuel Adams), secular Deists who doubted the divinity of Jesus and Christianity (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson), and unitarian-leaning devotees, who detested orthodoxy but valued public and private religious devotion (George Washington and John Adams). This part of Fea's book is perhaps the most valuable because it shows that America's founding was as diverse as its participants. There was room at the table for Christians of all flavors as well as for skeptics of all shapes and colors.

In summary, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation is a fantastic introduction into this complex but fascinating era of American history. John Fea effectively sweeps away most of the smoke and mirrors employed by various culture warriors on both sides, thus allowing the history to speak for itself. So was America founded as a Christian nation? It probably depends on how you define those terms. Much of this debate is simply an argument over semantics. The more important question is, "can we cut through the convoluted mess of the culture wars and get at an answer"?

John Fea's book is proof that we can.

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