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WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION?

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By John Fea

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The Montréal Review, June 2011

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"Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction" by John Fea (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011)

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During the week of June 11, 2007, four thousand Christians converged on Williamsburg, Virginia, to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown-the first successful English colony in North America. The event was sponsored by Vision Forum Ministries, an organization that, among other things, is committed to "teaching history as the providence of God." The "Jamestown Quadricentennial: A Celebration of America's Providential History" was a gala event. For the cost of admission visitors were treated to lectures on various themes in early American history, historical reenactments, "faith and freedom" tours of Williamsburg and Yorktown, and hot-air-balloon rides over the site of the Jamestown settlement. The week came to an end for the American Christian pilgrims with a Sunday morning worship service.

The providential historians' quadricentennial was part of an attempt by some American evangelicals to reclaim what they believed to be America's Christian heritage. They have made the relationship between religion and the creation of the American Republic a dominant topic of debate in our recent culture wars. Many well-meaning Christians, like those associated with the Vision Forum, believe that America was founded as a uniquely Christian nation. These evangelicals have used this historical claim to justify policy on a host of moral and cultural issues facing the United States today. The study of the past, they argue, has been held hostage by secularists who have rejected the notion that the American founders sought to forge a country that was Christian. Instead, these revisionists wrongly claim that the American Revolutionary era was informed by Enlightenment ideals about toleration and pluralism.

In their attempt to counter these arguments, some believers in a Christian America have supported House Resolution 888, an attempt by Christian lawmakers in Congress to establish an "American Religious History Week" that celebrates "the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation's founding." Others have taken control of the Texas State Board of Education in an attempt to change the state's social studies curriculum to better represent the Christian themes that they believe all school children should study and learn. Since Texas is the nation's second-largest market for textbook publishers, and these publishers craft their textbooks to suit the needs of their best customers, it is likely that the decisions made by the Texas State Board of Education will influence what students learn in other states as well. It is likely that the 2012 presidential election cycle will bring even more conversation about this aspect of American identity.

Was America founded as a Christian nation? In my experience as a Christian and a Christian college history professor, I have found that many average churchgoers are confused about this topic. Unfortunately, those who dominate our public discourse tend to make matters worse. For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain announced that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation," but the Constitution says nothing about the relationship between Christianity and the United States. Former Arkansas governor and fellow presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said on the campaign trail that "most" of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence were clergymen. In fact, only one member of the clergy signed the Declaration-College of New Jersey president John Witherspoon.

We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues. It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the nation's founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, which can often be contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and America's founding.

But it is not just the secularists and Christians who disagree. American evangelicals have legitimate differences over these issues as well. In 2005, when Time announced the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America, the list included both David Barton and Mark A. Noll. Barton, the founder of an organization called "Wallbuilders," is one of the country's foremost proponents of the theory that America is a Christian nation. Recently he has drawn the attention of The New York Times and comedian and pundit Jon Stewart. Noll, a scholar of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame (and a long-time member of the faculty at evangelical Wheaton College), has spent a good portion of his career attempting to debunk, both directly and indirectly, the notion that America is a Christian nation. Barton has suggested that Noll, and scholars like him, rely too much on the work of other historians and not enough on primary documents. Noll has offered careful and nuanced arguments to refute the Christian America defenders, but as a scholar his works lack the immense popularity among ordinary evangelicals that Barton enjoys.

All of this, of course, still leaves us with the question at hand: Was America founded as a Christian nation? I recently wrote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction for the historically minded and thoughtful reader who is looking for help in sorting it all out. I have tried to avoid polemics as much as possible, although I am sure that my treatment of these controversial issues will not please everyone. I hope this book will be viewed as a historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone who wants to make sense of the American past and its relationship to Christianity. I hope it might be read and discussed in schools and congregations where people are serious about considering how the history of the American founding era might help them to become more informed citizens in the present.

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John Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. His book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction was published in February 2011 by Westminster/John Knox Press. John blogs daily at www.philipvickersfithian.com

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