Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction






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Publication: Church History
Author: Fischer, Kirsten
Date published: June 1, 2012

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This book makes a subtle and engaging contribution to the on-going public conversation about the nation's religious past and the relationship of church and state in the new Republic. Fea is a fine historian, as evidenced by his carefully researched and well-argued first book on an eighteenth-century Presbyterian diarist. In this second book, Fea is prompted by the polemics of the modern-day culture wars to weigh in on the side of responsible interpretation of historical material. "One of my goals," Fea says, "is to get Christians to see the danger of cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political and cultural agenda in the present" (xvii). Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College, has written "an historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone else" who wants help sorting it all out. He hopes his book will reach "historically minded and thoughtful" readers and be "read and discussed in schools and congregations" (xv).

This, then, is Fea's response to the likes of David Barton's WallBuilders ministry with its blatantly skewed history, and one of the best chapters examines the main concerns and arguments of the contemporary defenders of a Christian America. But despite Fea's measured tone and his presentation of complex historical material, the book is not the politically neutral and intellectually disinterested investigation it purports to be. While Fea offers a welcome respite from the polemical tone deployed by culture warriors on both sides of the "Christian Nation" question, his framing of key issues leads readers to draw certain kinds of conclusions. Fea does not admit to making an argument, but his book makes one anyway.

Fea opens with a 75-page historical survey of the United States and finds that Christian nationalism has persistently marked popular sentiment. (Non-Christians make no appearance here.) Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, pro-slavery Southerners, abolitionists--all of them upheld the conviction that the country is, has been, and should be a Christian nation. Fea notes their differences, but by downplaying the strife, by bundling together under a purportedly shared Christian agenda between slaveholders and Civil Rights advocates alike, and by making even Martin Luther King, Jr. a proponent of a "new kind of Christian nation" (53), Fea rhetorically combines people with starkly different politics into a singular American "we" with a shared religious nationalism. This overarching "Christian nation" concept is so capacious that we lose sight of the deep rifts between people who fought for very different versions of a future America. The result is that Fea's intended readers cannot be blamed if, when asked whether "Americans" have always wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, they answer with a misleadingly simple and homogenizing "yes."

Part II asks whether the American Revolution was a "Christian event" and focuses on the founding political documents to find an answer. The framers' "original intent" is often called upon to make the argument for a particular reading of the First Amendment, and this is especially so because the Constitution itself never refers to God. Fea says "two views have been the most popular": 1) that the framers "set out to create a secular nation" (150) and 2) that the framers believed only states should regulate religious matters. The first position appears instantly discredited, as no politician of the founding era favored (or even discussed) an entirely secular nation. The second option remains standing and has the additional advantage of being factually correct: the First Amendment constrained only the federal government in matters of religion, notwithstanding Madison's efforts to have it applied to the individual states as well.

But Fea leaves out the all-important third point, namely that the framers agreed to a clear separation between the federal government and religious institutions. The First Amendment barred Congress entirely from concerning itself with religious matters. The best historical understanding of the Constitution is not that it established a "secular nation," nor only that states remained involved in regulating religious matters, but that it also and very importantly sought to prevent what Madison called the "intermeddling" of the federal government in religion.

Given Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth-century and taxpayer supported faith-based initiatives in the twenty-first, many readers will want more clarity on just this point. Fea is more forthcoming when he writes that "if the 'nation' represents the national government formed by the U.S. Constitution, then it is clear that the framers of the Constitution were not interested in promoting a religious nation of any kind . . . but we must look to the state governments as the best reflection of the will of the American people. In other words, the state governments were 'the nation'" (162). The Constitution may be a "godless" one, Fea writes (167), but most state constitutions were avowedly Christian and inclined to establish Christian (and especially Protestant) tests for public office. Therefore, "the U.S. Constitution does not reflect the religious values, however we choose to define them, of the eighteenth-century American people." Fea's readers are led to answer the book's title with a "yes" for a second time.

The third part explores the religious beliefs of the founders, and here Fea finds various shades of non-orthodox gray. Some readers will be surprised that he defines deism in such as way as to make its existence virtually impossible. According to Fea's shorthand version of the distant "watchmaker-God," this "deist God rarely, if ever, intervened in the lives of human beings" (175). Therefore, Fea concludes, anyone who believed in Providence could not also be a deist. "Providence and deism were intellectually incompatible doctrines" (176). That may seem so to Fea (who also oddly sets deism and theism at odds with each other [133]), but plenty of deists believed in Providence. Thomas Paine, for example, who ardently promoted deism, believed Providence had intervened in his own life as well as in the course of the American Revolution. Fea's incorrect assumption becomes a useful shortcut, however. If belief in Providence precludes deism, there were no deists in America at all, and certainly none among the nation's founders who must have been Christians or "theists" of one stripe or another. Regardless of their individual religiosity, "if there was one universal idea that all the founders believed about the relationship between religion and the new nation, it was that religion was necessary in order to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic" (246). We are now three for three on the Christian nation question.

Fea asserts that "this book never offers a definitive answer to the question I pose in its title" because "the question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no" (245). Fea's concern for historical nuance is real enough, and he certainly avoids a polemical tone, but the book does make an argument. Fea may not come out and say it, but we are led to conclude that popular culture, state governments, and founding fathers point clearly in one direction. Fea leaves it to his readers to answer the title's question in the affirmative.

Author affiliation:

University of Minnesota

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