“Was America founded as a Christian nation?” All week we’ve considered this question from various angles, drawing upon historian John Fea’s soon-to-be released book by that title. Today, I offer his conclusion—his final verdict about America’s founding. His conclusion is important not only because it renders an accurate picture of our founding, but also because it is a corrective to the claims we are going to hear as the 2012 elections draw closer. The past is often taken hostage to promote today’s political agenda. As we witness these attempts to highjack the past, we should keep Fea’s message in mind.
“First,” says Fea, “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.” This was especially true in the period up to the Civil War, where the religious culture of the nation was shaped by Protestantism. My own research shows that even today, American culture is shaped by this religious-cultural heritage.
Second, Fea looked at the period of the American Revolution. Though many saw divine providence at work, it’s hard to conclude that “the leaders of the American Revolution were driven by overtly Christian values.” Ministers at the time used the Bible to support the cause of revolution, but this was informed more by the “popular political ideas of the day than by sound theological reflection and exegesis.” The Declaration of Independence mentioned God four times, but it was not a “Christian document.” The Constitution is a “Godless” frame for government. When it comes to the states, however, Fea concludes that “today’s defenders of Christian America have a compelling case.” Most state constitutions recognized God, Christianity, and had religious tests for officeholders.
Third, Fea concludes that the founders were an “eclectic religious group.” Some were devout Christians who tried to implement Christian doctrine in the new nation; the religious beliefs and practices of other leaders were quite different. All were united, however, in the conviction that religion played a central role as the moral backbone of the new republic.
What’s final verdict? Was America founded as a Christian nation? Fea’s answer is yes and no. There is no simple answer, unless you cherry pick your evidence.
How do you rule on this week’s evidence?
What’s your verdict?
Please Comment below.
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)