Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Part 2

As mentioned in my last post about the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?,  John Fea summarized the themes of Christian nationalist as follows:

  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.”  This has resulted in very negative results morally and politically for the country.

Fea spent a great part of the book dealing with the first idea above.  He summarized and commented on observations of several Christian nationalist such as Peter Marshal, D. James Kennedy, David Barton and others.  Later in the book, Fea dealt with many ways in which he thought they failed to recognize that history is complex.  Fea questioned their point on the grounds of how they limit the scope of what is meant as Christian to evangelical Protestant. Later in the book where he wrote on the religious views of the framers, I understood where he was going with the point.  Theologically, I question the idea of God’s dealing with a nation being confined exclusively to the United States.  God is indeed sovereign over history and over nations.  He oversaw the rise and fall of ancient empires, and He oversees the rise and fall of modern ones as well.  America has been and is exceptional in many ways, both in terms of politics and religion.  However, I do not see a Biblical reason to see the United States as being more exceptional to God’s plan than any other nation.

Fea pointed out that the original attempts at colonization at Jamestown and Plymouth were genuinely attempts to create Christian societies.  He questioned how successful they were win terms of orthopraxy due to slavery and intolerance of religious dissenters.  However, I think that here he may be guilty of taking modern assumptions into the past.  While modern Christians rightly believe such practices to be wrong, they were not inconsistent with prominent Christian practices in the past.  It could be that in their personal evaluations, the colonists were successful at creating Christian societies, more so at Plymouth than at Jamestown.  However, that is beyond the scope of Fea’s main point.

Fea’s main point is that it is a mistake for Christian nationalists to tie the founding of the colonies with the founding of the United States.  The original colonists did not set out to establish a new nation.  They set out to establish colonies of Britain.  150 years passed between the founding of the colonies and the American Revolution, and the founding documents of the United States are very different from the founding documents of the colonies.  The motivations of the Revolution were about economic and political rights.  Religion does not figure into revolutionary motivations.

The founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are sparse in their references to God.  The references to God in the Declaration of Independence are vague.  They would be accepted by evangelicals, deists, or any number of people who have some concept of God.  The Constitution’s one reference to God has no spiritual significance whatsoever.  There is not religious test for public office in the Constitution.  However, once again, Fea pointed out that this is not case closed against the idea of America being founded as a Christian nation.  The founding documents of the original States were filled with references to God and to being Christian states.  Some established certain denominations as state churches and most contained some religious test for public office.  To the extent that the States saw themselves as nations (and that was a strong sense) all, except perhaps Virginia, could be seen as Christian nations.  However, each state eventually brought itself voluntarily in line with the Constitution in the area of freedom of religion.  So, we can see a change over time.

Fea pointed out that the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is not found in any of the founding documents.  It is in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Baptists in Connecticut trying to get the preference for Congregational churches prescribed in that state’s constitution removed.  Jefferson supported them in this, but it is clear from Jefferson’s other letters and writings that he never presumed that the national constitution would override state constitutions in this matter.  In other words, based on original intent, the wall of separation today is much higher than the original framers intended.  In other words, to the framers, there would never be any question about a governor’s call to prayer or prayer in a local public school being constitutional or not.  Both would be as long as the state’s constitutions did not prohibit them.  However, the 14th amendment has been used by the courts to override the local laws in these matters.

Fea also wrote about the religious views of the founders.  To describe them as Deists is a mistake.  They believed that God was active in the world.  However, to describe them all as devote, orthodox, evangelical Christians is a mistake as well.  Washington, Jefferson and John Adams were not orthodox in their beliefs.  Washington was anti-sectarian and had a religion where he tried to offend no one.  Jefferson believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus and tried to practice those.  He rejected the diety of Christ and the miracle accounts in Scripture.  Adams was Unitarian in his understanding of the nature of God, but committed to the ethical teachings of Jesus.  Of all of the founders, John Jay most fits the bill of Christian nationalists.  One thing that it appears that many of the founders agreed upon was that the ethics of Christianity was needed for the Republic to be successful.

Fea concluded his book with the following observations:

  1. He suggested that “those who believe that the United States is a Christian nation have a good chunk of history on their side.”
  2. “…it would be difficult to suggest, based upon the formal responses to British taxation…that the leaders of the American Revolution were driven by overtly Christian values.”
  3. “…the founders are an eclectic religious group.”

He concluded the book by writing “…it is my hope that this book might help Americans think deeply about the role that Christianity played in the American founding.  We owe it to ourselves to be informed citizens who can speak intelligently about thoughtfully about our nation’s past.”

Fea’s book is strong in exploring the complexities of history.  As he wrote in his conclusion, history and the things that our founders wrote and said do not fit neatly into our sound-bite culture.  A simple yes or no does not adequately answer the question raised by the book.  The answer is very complex.

One weakness is that though Fea pointed out that those who believe America was not founded a Christian nation were guilty of abusing history also, he did not address any of their fallacies.  It would be interesting to read his thoughts on them as well.  Another weakness is that if you look at Fea’s website (see link in the first post), you will get the feeling that he is holding back some of his passion in this book.  He is not preaching to the liberal choir.  He clearly wants to influence conservative evangelicals, and he was very careful to write in such a way as not to turn them off before the end of the book.

Another weakness is that Fea does not address the last Christian nationalist theme that he listed: historical revisionist cutting out Christianity from American history.  I believe to some extent that he may see “revisionism” as a correction, but I also sense that he believes that it has been taken too far with political agendas driving revisionist to make the same errors in historical study that Christian nationalist make. I think that he does see a decline in the nation’s morality particularly in civility, but that he believes an honest study of history will produce the humility needed to correct it.  I would rather for him to have expressed his view clearly than to have to piece his view together.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of religion in the United States.  I also recommend it to my fellow conservative evangelicals.  It would be good to recognize the complexities of history rather than fear them or ignore them.  In part 3, I will expand on what Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? implies for those who are serious about being both citizens of a country and being followers of Christ.


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