Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Revised Edition

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John Fea
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2016.
     324 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262495.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is the second edition of a book first published in 2011; this version has an added epilogue that discusses some developments since 2011, such as the publication of The Jefferson Lies by David Barton (WallBuilder Press, 2013), and the use of “Christian America” rhetoric by some Republican candidates for the US presidencyduring the 2016 primaries. It is an excellent book overallthat was justly nominated for the George Washington Book Prize after its initial publication.

John Fea’s main polemical target in this book is David Barton and others of his ilk, who must twist and distort the historical record to make the argument that it is clearly and unambiguously the case that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Fea’s answer to his title’s question—was America founded as a Christian nation?—is “sort of”;“it depends on how you look at it”; “it is profoundly ambiguous.” Feadevelops his approach to this question in three main sections of the book: “The United States as a Christian Nation:The History of an Idea”; “Was the American Revolution a Christian Event?”; and “The Religious Beliefs of the Founders.” These three parts comprise roughly two hundred and fifty pages; they are very clearly written and contain abundant historical accounts of events, people, and ideas, so that this book would function very well as a supplement within a college level survey course on American history in general or American religious history in particular.

Part 1 covers 1789 to the present. The ambiguity at the heart of Fea’s message is conveyed here by noticing that many different voices expressed the hope that America would be a Christian nation, but there was profound disagreement on what being a “Christian nation” meant, and the idea became very muddled. Abolitionists in the North and defenders of slavery in the South, for example, both saw themselves as lobbying for the Christianization of society, and both quoted the scriptures. Religious liberals and conservative evangelicals, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had competing visions of what a “Christian America” would look like. Martin Luther King, Jr. longed for a “beloved community” that would be grounded in gospel principles, but viewed the history leading up to his time as one giant “bad check” of inconsistent Christian rhetoric in both the North and the South.

Part 2 reaches further back in history, to the precolonial, revolutionary, and constitutional debate periods, once again painting a picture of deep ambiguity. Various colonies had religious establishments, with the Congregationalists being strong in Massachusetts and the Anglicans strong in Virginia. Baptists, Quakers, and other small groups chafed under varying degrees of persecution and lobbied hard for genuine freedom of religion. Catholics were almost universally reviled and feared by Protestants of all stripes, as illustrated by various quotations in the book. Yet Fea argues that the lack of any reference to God in the Constitution and the First Amendment’s disestablishment of religion cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning that America was founded as a “secular” nation. This is an unsupportable idea, given that after the American Revolution, many of the colonies-turned-states had writtensupport for particular denominations into their state constitutions, and had religious tests for holders of public office well into the nineteenth century.

Part 3 consists of chapters on certain key shapers of thought and life in the revolutionary period. George Washington was, in a sense, a faithful Anglican his whole life, but he made the odd choice to avoid partaking of the eucharist. John Adams was raised in a Calvinist setting, but turned his back on the central doctrines of that tradition and became what the author calls a “Devout Unitarian.” Thomas Jefferson was baptized and buried as an Anglican, but in between was a religious skeptic who loved the moral teachings of Jesus but rejected the accounts of his miracles and his resurrection, and the whole body of orthodox theological doctrines that had developed in the history of Christianity. Benjamin Franklin saw religion as beneficial for society by encouraging the development of a virtuous citizenry, but his metaphysical beliefs were basically Deist. Another chapter covers John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams, seeing in them patterns of adherence to traditional Christian beliefs and practices that would make the conservative advocates of the “America was founded as a Christian nation” narrative happy. However, their support for the Revolution was often articulated through philosophical and political ideas “that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity”(242).

The present reviewer places a high value on the thought-provoking ideas of René Girard, and the lack of attention to a perspective such as his is the only substantive lack that I find in this book. Girard says that Jewish and Christian ideas present in the Bible have worked as a kind of moral yeast in history, gradually and inexorably leading Western culture to a heightened awareness of how scapegoating violence provides an “ontologically sick” structuring principle for society. To see the wrongness of the tyranny of the King of England can be seen as the rising of this yeast, but thissame yeast also leads to an awareness of the wrongness of slavery, of denying women the right to vote, of the Vietnam war, and so forth. Now, it is necessary that every movement for social change to claim that it is defending victims and exposing their victimizers. In this sense, America is a “Christian” nation, when even people who describe themselves as non-Christians have accepted the ideas of the scriptural moral yeast into the depths of their consciousness. But perhaps this simply adds yet another layer of ambiguity to the overall picture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He is a leading interpreter of American religious history and identity and has written for such media outlets as the Washington PostSojourners, Patheos.com, RealClearPolitics.com, and more. He blogs at www.TheWayofImprovement.com.

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