Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Part 1

In the next three posts, I will review and interact with the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation by John Fea.  While there has been a great deal of buzz about the book, not much has been said about the author.  Fea is an associate professor of American History at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where is also Chair of the History Department.  Messiah College states on its website that it is nonsectarian but “…highlights the specific emphases of the Anabaptist, Pietistic and Wesleyan traditions.”  Those who are familiar with those traditions recognize that they emphasize private piety, separation of church and state and in more recent history, social justice.  Anabaptists believe strongly in the separation of church and state and are pacifist.  They strongly oppose government coercion by force.  It would be interesting to know how much these views shape Fea’s perspective; however, those views are not obvious in his book.

Fea did not make his purpose clear in the book until the concluding chapter.  He intended to show that the answer to the question in the title is much more nuanced than those debating the issue on left and right tend to understand.  As you will see in my summary and interaction with the book, I think that he in large part succeeded in his intent.  Those on either side of the issue wishing to discredit the other by using this book will have a hard time, not that it will stop anyone from trying.  Fea’s main concern as a historian is that we approach the study of history correctly which means that we do not read our current cultural wars back into it.

Fea outlined how we should study history in the introduction by discussing things that historians must do—the five Cs.

  • They must “… see change over time.”
  • They must “…interpret the past in context.”
  • They “…are always interested in causality.”
  • They “…are concerned with contingency.”
  • They “…realize that the past is complex.”

Fea believes that many people involved in the debate over Christian origins of the nation ignore these principles.  While he accused both sides in his book of violating them, he seems more disturbed by Christian nationalist such as David Barton than those on the other side.  Barton uses facts as a lawyer would.  He tries to overwhelm the opposing viewpoint with evidence.  Fea does not believe that Barton is doing proper historical study.

To illustrate how complex the issue is, in Chapter 1, Fea began with the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli to end interference of American shipping by the Barbary pirates.  Article 11 of the treaty says, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

This may look like case closed, but according to Fea, it is not.  While no one in America appears to have debated the wording of the treaty, the press during the conflict spoke in very different terms.  They portrayed it as a conflict between Christians and Muslims.  Tales of American sailors being forced to become Muslims were common.   By media reports and the writings of citizens, it seemed clear that the American public saw itself as a Christian nation. As I read the narrative that Fea wrote, it struck me how eerily familiar it sounded with the political establishment saying that America was not a Christian nation while much of the public had a very different understanding.  To clarify what a Christian nation means, Fea also attempted to define Christianity in terms of orthodoxy (basic doctrines that Christian denominations such as the trinity, belief in the Bible, sin and conversion) and orthopraxy (right practice of Christ’s teachings.)

Fea outlined the history of the idea of America as a Christian nation.  I am not summarizing it in its entirety other than to highlight a couple of points.  Both conservative evangelicals and liberal Protestants have had versions of America as a Christian nation.  While many liberal Protestants act as if they have never put forth the idea, history shows that they have.  In my opinion, the Religious Left is still putting forth its ideas of what America as a Christian nation should be according to their understanding of Christianity.  Conservative evangelicals dropped off the radar from the 1920s-1970s, but they have always been a part of the debate in some way.  During their exile from the public square, they focused on evangelism and education, thus unintentionally preparing themselves for a return to the public square.

According to Fea, Americans between the time of the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War understood themselves as a Christian nation.  Fea wrote that America became the most evangelical country on the face of the earth.  Most early histories of the United States described it in terms of being a Christian nation.  Many biographers reframed the lives of the founders to make them sound like orthodox, evangelical Christians.  During the Civil War, both sides of the conflict framed their sides as carrying on the idea of America’s Christian heritage.  After the Civil War, evangelicals and liberals divided in their views of what America as a Christian nation meant, but both continued to speak of America as a Christian nation.  Liberals dominated the public square after 1925 until around 1980 when evangelicals returned.  Fea also briefly described the Roman Catholic view of America as a Christian nation.  From Fea’s book, one can see that there have been different versions of the idea of America as a Christian nation.   However, the prominent assumption of the American public appears to have been that it was Christian.  In fact, in 1885, in the case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, the Supreme Court formally declared that the United States is a Christian nation.  Fea concluded this section about this court ruling, “While the United States should never be perceived of a “Christian nation” in any formal or official sense, it was certainly a “Christian nation” in terms of culture and history.”

In  Chapter Four, Fea discussed the modern proponents of the idea of America as a Christian nation characterized mostly as being social conservative, evangelical protestants.  He suggested that they have five central themes that he used as an outline for much of the rest of the book.

  1. “God is sovereign over history. God has acted providentially to shape the course of human affairs, and he has a special destiny for the United States that can be accurately discerned and explained by historians.”
  2. “The seventeenth-century settlement of the American colonies should be interpreted in light of the eighteenth-century American Revolution.”
  3. “Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the U.S. Constitution were men of deep Christian faith.”
  4. “The Constitution of the United States is a Christian document, rooted in biblical and theological truth.”
  5. “Historical revisionism, especially as it relates to school textbooks, is irresponsible and dangerous.  Revisionists, they argue, have removed Christianity from the stories of the nation’s past taught to Children in public schools.”

In part two, I will review the section of the book where Fea deals with these themes.  Part 2 will appear on Monday.  Part 3 will appear on Wednesday.

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