John Fea’s book tackles a debate that consistently goes on in our country. What debate? The title makes it obvious – was America founded as a Christian nation? If you listen to some evangelical Christians, especially those who are followers of David Barton, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Likewise, those on the other side respond with an equally unequivocal no.
This reveals part of the problem and challenge – this historical debate plays out in contemporary politics. What happened then is used to pitch ideas on what ought to happen now. Sadly, people want to use and manipulate history to get their own point across.
This is why John Fea’s book is so important. It is a thorough, well-researched but also easy to read study of the history surrounding this question. Fea is a historian and spends an early chapter talking about what historians do. History is not just reporting what happened, as some think. Instead history is interested in causality, why things happened as they did. And history is incredibly complex. Further, historical evidence is not the same as legal evidence. Here Fea uses Barton as an example, as someone who says we ought to let the Founders speak in accordance with the legal rules of evidence. Fea points out the problem – lawyers are only interested in evidence as it builds their case (as is Barton and others like him). History does not work this way. One example of how it is different is simply that contexts change – words mean different things in different times and thus it is hard work to know what people meant when they spoke. Or at least, it is not as simple as just hearing their unedited words.
Following this, the first part of the book is an overview of the history of Christian America, part two examines whether the American Revolution was a religious act, and part three examines specific Revolutionary era figures.
So is America a Christian nation? Fea’s answer is complex, like history. For example, in federal documents there is no endorsement of a religion, so some could answer no, America was not founded as a Christian nation. Yet when state constitutions are examined, many did have an official state religion, which could lead to a yes answer. In the end Fea does not really give an answer. When looking at the reasons for revolution given by the leaders of the revolution in the decade leading up to it, it is clear they were not driven by Christian values Yet ministers did use the Bible to support revolution. Of course, when their Biblical interpretation is examined it is seen to not rest on any sort of Christian tradition, instead it appears they bought into the ideas of the day, the idea of revolution, and built whatever biblical case they found around it.
Perhaps what was most interesting was Fea’s examination of various founders. Today these long-dead men are propped up to support one side (Washington was a Christian!) or another (Jefferson was a deist!). Fea shows their religions were more complex then that. For example, it is anachronistic to project our religion onto them. Washington was a lifelong, involved member of his church. But he was so in the context of his day, he was no 21st century conservative evangelical. Just as today, there were a wide variety of religions as there are a wide variety of people.
Overall, this is a fantastic book and a must-read for any who want to enter the “was America founded as a Christian nation?” debate.