Friday, November 11, 2011

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Introduction, by John Fea

Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 9780664235048, February 2011

Whether or not America was founded as a "Christian nation" is a touchy political topic right now, and figures in other touchy political topics as well. John Fea gives us a very thorough and thoughtful discussion of the matter, and arrives at the conclusion most historians not involved in the political world would give: It's Complicated.

In the first part of the book, Fea looks at the substantial body of evidence, going back to the early 19th century, that the idea of America as a Christian nation is not a new idea of the political far right. It didn't start in the 80s with Ronald Reagan any more than it started in the Noughties with George W. Bush. It is an idea that has been prominently presented by politicians of the right and, maybe surprising to many not old enough to remember the 60s, of the left, as well, persistently throughout our history. Fea presents examples from politicians, ministers, and activists of all stripes in demonstrating this.
But that doesn't address the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation, and Mr. Fea proceeds to address that question in the subsequent sections. The complications begin with the question itself. What do we mean by "founded"? What do we mean by "Christian nation"? What, even, do we mean by "America"? As John Fea explains and demonstrates quite clearly, these are all multiple choice questions. Was America "founded" in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence? In 1787, with the Constitutional Convention? In 1789, when the Constitution went into effect? Or are all those dates too late, and America was "founded" when the first colonies were founded?

Even more complex is "Christian nation." Much of the history, with quotes and examples, offered by those who are deeply invested in the "Christian nation" idea are in fact deeply ahistorical -- taking quotes out of context, ignoring other statements by the same people, ignoring or not understanding what certain words, phrases, and expressions meant in the 18th century to the people who said and wrote them. In other cases, eloquent expressions of the Christian importance of the Revolution are clearly polemical in intent, and interpret the Biblical passages in question in ways directly opposite of how they had been used throughout Christian history and the history of the American colonies to that point, claiming them as support for Revolution when they had for nearly two millennia been understood as support for obeying lawfully constituted government even when its actions were deeply unjust. There are also determined efforts to ignore, deny, or argue away the fact that a number of critical figures in the the Revolution and the writing and adoption of the Constitution either weren't Christians at all, or were lukewarm, not at all devout Christians. Those who were, were nevertheless strongly influenced by Enlightenment thought and ideals that many who espouse the "Christian nation" position find reprehensible.

It means ignoring the fact that the Declaration of Independence mentions God only a few times, in conventional and unspecific ways. It means ignoring the more important fact that the Declaration as conceived by its writers and signers was not intended as a founding document or a statement of core American beliefs at all, but as a foreign policy document, "a decent respect for the opinions of Mankind," aimed at justifying the Revolution to foreign governments in the hope of getting recognition and support.

It means ignoring the fact that the Constitution doesn't mention God at all, and mentions religion only to exclude it as a test for office, and the First Amendment adds to that only the exclusion of any possibility of a national established church, and protection of the right of free expression of religion, with no qualifications on those rights at all.

Does this mean John Fea is a firm adherent of the idea that America was not founded as a Christian nation? No.

Those who categorically reject the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation are making their own historical errors and misrepresentations. Most of the Founders were Christians, and the overwhelming majority of the population of the American colonies were Christians. The Founders who were not Christians nevertheless believed that religion in some form was a necessary part of peaceful and orderly society, and had no quarrel with the fact that most of their compatriots were Christians. None of the Founders understood the Constitutional ban on religious tests for office, or the First Amendment ban on established churches, as applying to the states, most of which had both until well into the first half of the 19th century. It was important to many of the founding generation to justify the Revolution in Christian terms because Christianity was a basic, guiding moral framework for them.

As I said at the beginning of this review, It's Complicated. This excellent book will allow no thoughtful reader the comfort of their own unexamined certainties.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.