America as a Christian Nation? Cherry-Picking from the Past
The title of John Fea's new book comes phrased as a question. This is a judicious choice, for the author, a Messiah College historian, does not venture to resolve the contentious debate over Christianity's role in midwifing American democracy.
Many people bring predetermined conclusions to the question posed by this volume, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press). But Fea counsels humility, pleading that "the question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no."
Fea exhorts readers to greater curiosity about what testifies to a nation's "Christian" identity. Is it demographic dominance by professing Christians? Citizens and leaders of authentic Christian character and conviction? Laws, customs, and founding documents embodying Christian principles?
Addressing such questions, Fea practices admirable fair-mindedness, giving each side its due. Although amply critical of intellectuals, activists, and pundits who peddle the Christian nation thesis, he allows that they have "a good chunk of American history on their side."
Studied impartiality of this sort often yields dreary exercises in forced evenhandedness. Happily, Fea's passion for objectivity avoids this pitfall. Indeed, the book fairly brims with judgments both specific and, at times, surprising.
Did the American colonies protest British tax policies and declare independence for Christian reasons? Not especially, although revolutionary pulpits thundered with broadsides against tyranny. Did the Constitution reflect Christian governing principles? No, but state constitutions tended to privilege Protestantism. Were the Founding Fathers Christians? Yes and no. Most proclaimed a creator God who governs the world providentially. Virtually all thought Christian morality essential for the cultivation of virtue and public spirit. But many doubted Jesus' divinity and other core teachings.
Fea also sketches a helpful history of the Christian nation narrative, showing how feuding factions—northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders, fundamentalists and Social Gospellers, contemporary conservatives and progressives—have defined and appropriated America's contested religious heritage.
In presenting the past disinterestedly, Fea rebukes the habit of "cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political or cultural agenda in the present." Washington's Farewell Address doesn't validate the Religious Right's blueprint for society, any more than Jefferson's bowdlerized Bible validates the Left's alternative.
Here Fea's commitment to balance falters slightly. He singles out several Christian nation apologists, devoting sustained attention to their historical misrepresentations. But despite acknowledging forthrightly that secularists sometimes massage evidence, he provides fewer examples.
Sensible Christians understand that America's past, present, and future are inexplicable apart from Christianity. Just as sensibly, if sometimes hyperbolically, they discern among American elites widespread indifference and hostility to this reality. In emphasizing the purveyors of Christian nation fantasies, Fea lets these elites off the hook a little too easily.