Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

americachristiannationfeaTitle: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Author: John Fea

Bibliographic info: 332 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2011.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to WJK for the review copy!

Was America founded as a Christian nation? Ask anyone who identifies with the Religious Right and they will probably respond strongly in the affirmative and accuse anyone who says “no” of historical revisionism. But ask someone on the other side of the political spectrum and you may very well get a resounding “no”, along with the claim that all the founding fathers were deists and that America was founded solely on Enlightenment principles. (I personally think the term “Christian nation” is borderline oxymoronic).

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part Fea begins by discussing the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation and why this question is so important to many people. He provides us with a historical survey on the United States being a “Christian nation”, which is divided up into four periods: 1789-1865, 1865-1925, 1925-1980, and ending with the contemporary defenders of Christian America.

In the second part Fea examines the Revolution and whether it can be understood as an attempt to create a Christian nation. Here he provides us with a history lesson covering the times of the original British Colonies through to important events such as the Stamp Act, the first Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution. One interesting observation I gleaned from here is that the First Amendment of the US Constitution is perhaps best understood as prohibiting the federal government from imposing a national religion/denomination upon the country, with the idea being that this power should be left to the individual states who could do so if desired (and some states did do this in various ways). Here is a quote from Fea on the Declaration of Independence:

This kind of historical revisionism continues today among those who uphold the belief that the Declaration of Independence was a Christian document. While the Declaration clearly affirms, for example, that human rights come from “the Creator,” the original intent of the founders was not to write a theological document, a system of government, a treatise on American values, or even declare that human rights came from God. The “original intent” of the Declaration of Independence was something much more practical. It was written to announce the birth of the United States to the rest of the world.

In the third and final part of the book, Fea discusses the religious beliefs of some of the founding figures of this nation: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams. Due to the lack of evidence that can be utilized to reveal the religious beliefs of these figures, Fea is reduced to speculation at times (e.g. speculating as to why Washington didn’t go to Communion). Fea considers only Witherspoon, Jay, and Samuel Adams to be able to be rightly labeled as “orthodox” Christian (i.e. believing in key historical-orthodox tenets of Christianity such as the Trinity and the resurrection of Christ). John Adams is simply a Unitarian. Jefferson liked Jesus’ moral teachings but separated them from anything supernatural (though Fea points out that neither could Jefferson be considered an “orthodox” Deist). Franklin was an “ambitious moralist.” And Washington was a latitudinarian Anglican who seemed to only really care for the social utility that religion provides. On Washington Fea says, “the available evidence points to a man who did not seem particularly interested in the divinity of Jesus Christ or his salvific death for humankind. He tried to live by the Golden Rule and did a pretty good job of it, despite some rather blatant shortcomings. … we must show due prudence in celebrating him as a Christian. His religious life was just too ambiguous.”

My overall take from reading this book: while there is definitely a vocal stream of people in early American history (and throughout) who saw the hand of Divine Providence at play, even going say far to say that God was forming a “new Israel”, when one looks at the more important internal evidence such as the founding figures and founding documents, there doesn’t seem to much substantive support for the notion of America being founded as a Christian nation. Another thing I learned from this book is that those who did support America being a Christian nation provided some terrible biblical and theological rationale!

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book and think the author (himself an evangelical) provides a useful and informative historical presentation on the question of whether American was founded as a Christian nation. He does not give us a secular revisionist history of America, but neither does he give us an evangelical modification of it. In fact, Fea does not provide a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question and he pretty much leaves the answer of the question up to the reader. Though, with the way he presents the information, it seems hard to leave this book without the impression that while the founders and the general populace of early America was indeed influenced by the Christian faith (Protestantism), it is not as critical to the actual founding of this nation as the modern Religious Right would have us believe. Fea’s own opinion, however, seems to be of an affirmative nature, though not without equivocation:

I have suggested that those who believe that the United States is a Christian nation have a good chunk of American history on their side. … [Yet] it would be difficult to suggest, based upon the formal responses to British taxation between 1765 and 1774, that the leaders of the American Revolution were driven by overtly Christian values. … But when it comes to the individual states, today’s defenders of Christian America have a compelling case. Nearly all of the state constitutions recognized God and Christianity, and many required officeholders to affirm Christian theology.

I will finish this review with the final words of the book:

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.

In a sound-bite culture where public figures appeal to the past to score political points or advance a particular cultural agenda, it is my hope that his book might help Americans to think deeply about the role that Christianity played in the American founding. We owe it to ourselves to be informed citizens who can speak intelligently and thoughtfully about our nation’s past.

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