Is America a Christian Nation? What Both Left and Right Get Wrong
Mr. Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and is a writer for the History News Service.Americans love their history, but seldom think historically. The problem is not that they don't pay enough attention to history. Americans spend millions each year on heritage vacations and history books. Politicians and pundits use history to justify their views.
The problem is a common propensity to mangle the past to suit current needs, a sort of indoctrination by historical example. Too many believe that the study of distant societies and events is worthless unless it is somehow useful to prove a current point.
So what do they do when the past disappoints? Or when historians tell them something in the past that doesn't conform to the way they view the world? Ideally, when this happens they should follow the evidence and do their best to tell stories that reflect the past in all its complexity. But this is hard to do.
Consider the current debate over the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States. Over the last two years I've given several public lectures that tried to answer the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I never know how my audiences will respond to my presentation, especially since I am a Christian who teaches at a church-related college. But I'm sure that most are more interested in having their answer to this question confirmed by historical data than in being confronted with a past that they find uncomfortable.
Those who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation run roughshod over the historical record. They use the words of the Founding Fathers to support Republican jeremiads on the moral decay of American life. If only this country could return to its Christian roots, they say nostalgically, everything would be okay.
And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today's evangelical churches.
Even so, the leaders of the Christian Right have demonstrated that they can find a useable past in the words of the Founders. A recent survey by Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center found that 74 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats believe that the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, recently deceased evangelical leaders who led in promoting the idea that America is a Christian nation, did their work well.
But before we go too far in condemning the Christian Right on this front, let's remember that the secular left is not immune to errors of historical thinking. While evangelicals misinterpret the references to God in the words of the Founding Fathers, their critics simply have no idea what to make of those same quotations. Since they can't fathom why people today would make religious faith an essential part of their everyday lives, they have little interest in making sense of past worlds where such beliefs were important.
Such approaches to history seldom enable us to better understand the past. Thinking historically does not mean that people cannot learn from the past -- they should and must. But they should be careful how they use historical examples. Exploring the past requires a concern for what it was really like.
The past is like a foreign country. Those who enter it as guests should try to understand its foreignness in a way that respects our dead ancestors who inhabit it. We must not invade the past with the goal of remaking it into our own image.
The past may not always be useful when we want to invoke it. But only when we confront it head-on, without preconceived agendas, will we be able to learn from it and let it transform us. This is the lesson that both the Christian Right and some of its secular opponents need to take to heart.
This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.
comments powered by Disqus
craig alan ward - 10/7/2010
craig alan ward - 10/7/2010
No. the bible teaches that satan and his devils are believers and believe with great trembleing and fear.Just because some one says he believes does not make him christlike.The founding fathers preached and practiced racism,slavery,and genocide.Action speaks louder than words.If anything they were hypocrits.According to JESUS a hypocrit shall recieve the greater damnation.
Robert Connor - 1/16/2010
This article really sums it up...
America's Heritage: Are we a Christian Nation?
Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice's comment that America is a "Christian nation" touched off a storm of controversy in November(1992). Fordice's comment came during a meeting of Republican leaders after President Bush's loss to Bill Clinton. The remark was meant to remind people that Christian principles were important in the formation of our nation and continue to be important to the majority of Americans.
The fact that this statement should cause controversy foretells a coming resurgence of debate over the role of Christianity in determining public policy in America. It is also foretells a re-examination of our national roots - a focus that is much needed at a crucial juncture in our history.
America has lost the roots of its heritage. To recover the quality of life we knew as our kind of Western Civilization, we must rediscover the source and determine to re-establish these teachings as guidelines of conduct in every facet of our lives and teach them to our children.
What are those mysterious principles discovered by the Founding Fathers that made this a great country, envied by so many that millions endured hardship to enter and gain the freedoms, safety and opportunities found here and almost nowhere else on earth?
The answers two generations ago were taught with pride to every child in home, school and church. But somehow we have lost our way. It is imperative that we retrace our steps, learn how we became lost and recapture our inheritance through knowledge and dedication.
The United States of America is not a Christian country or state. The writers of the Constitution said, very wisely, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In other words, there will be no state church (such as the Church of England), but the people may worship according to their wishes, anytime and anywhere. A "country" is a geographical area inhabited by a certain people under a particular political government.
However, the United States of America is a Christian nation. A nation is an aggregation of people bound together "by common ideals and a common purpose. A rich inheritance of memories and the desire to preserve those memories ... a nation is a spiritual entity brought into existence by complex historical conditions, by similar traditions and a similar imagination."
A nation is not produced by a common language, race, religion or geographical outline, but these things may contribute to the unity of a people - a nation. Several different "nations" make up the Yugoslavia of today. The Jewish people were a "nation" during the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness but they had no land of their own.
Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are based on Judeo-Christian teachings. The textbook of these teachings in the Holy Bible. It is the "Owners Manual" or "The Book of Instructions" for our nation. The Founding Fathers and many others in position of authority ever since have recertified that fact. "America is a Christian nation." This does not mean that all the people were or are Christian. It merely means that there was a Christian consensus and all our founding documents, laws, moral codes and institutions are based on Christian principles from the Bible.
Joseph Edgar Edwards VIII - 4/15/2009
The U.S. is NOT founded on Christian principles or philosophy.
It is founded on HERMETIC principles of the alchemists, passed to Freemasons through the Rosicrucian Brotherhood.
For an in-depth look at these facts, read my essay at:
Cheri Stokes - 3/11/2009
Granted that we - the nations - speak of each other this way, but is this OBJECTIVELY the character, the political form of government that each nation subscribes to? Is it part of their constitution - their governmental makeup?
Besides, the Lord doesn't view ANY nation as "Christian" - only His people (wherever they may be) as a "holy nation" (Exo 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9).
James Renwick Manship - 10/18/2007
In the same way that Saudi Arabia, Iraq and many other countries are labeled as Moslem even though there are Christians and Jews who live within their borders, and Israel is a Jewish nation even though there are Christians and Moslems in their borders, America is a Christian nation that has Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Hindis, and even Wiccans within its borders.
Sometimes too much "larnin'" can be an handicap to understanding the truth.
Joseph C. Douglas - 10/12/2007
The author says the "left" is misunderstanding the Christian past too, but of course the author has no evidence to support his claim. More BS from a GOP parrott I say. Just another hack with no evidence or arguments to stand on.
This is a load of rubbish.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
This is a very well done article. Basic and bare-bones, perhaps, but we need that from time to time. One could only wish that HNN would make at least a minimal attempt to stick to its own stated and purported principles and avoid what Fea calls the "propensity to mangle the past to suit current needs, a sort of indoctrination by historical example." A minority of pieces here, but a very large minority - thousands now in total over the life of HNN, are atrocious examples of exactly that.
Jonathan W. Rowe - 10/3/2007
If anyone is interested in the context behind the FF's quotations on religion, this is something I've researched a great deal over the past few years.
Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007
The writer made it quite clear that *every time* evangelicals try to cherry-pick through the writings of the Founding Fathers to bolster their own views, they are wrong, because the Founding Fathers specifically did not create America to be a Xian country. He didn't need to post specific examples.
Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007
I have to agree that this was a strikingly "off" note in an otherwise fine article.
Tim Matthewson - 10/1/2007
Alan Dershowitz, Blasphemy, provides abundant evidence of why and how the Christian Right is attempting to hijack the Founding Fathers on behalf of the notion that the US is a Christian nation. The problems is that the CR is simply wrong, as Dershowitz shows.
Mackie Joseph-Venet Blanton - 10/1/2007
"The problem is a common propensity to mangle the past to suit current needs, a sort of indoctrination by historical example. Too many believe that the study of distant societies and events is worthless unless it is somehow useful to prove a current point.
"So what do they do when the past disappoints? Or when historians tell them something in the past that doesn't conform to the way they view the world? Ideally, when this happens they should follow the evidence and do their best to tell stories that reflect the past in all its complexity. But this is hard to do.
"Consider the current debate over the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States. Over the last two years I've given several public lectures that tried to answer the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation."
This is a perspicacious observation, isn't it? Nonetheless, I am at a lost to understand why we were not given examples of where the evangelicals are wrong. Why make such a pointed observation but give no concrete examples? If our author has lectured on this topic several times over, why not a link to these lectured texts? More to the point, why haven't we been given some of the evidentiary content of the arguments already presented elsewhere? I feel thoroughly unrequited as a willing reader.
Serge Lelouche - 9/30/2007
Professor Fea thinks that secularists misunderstand Colonial America because :
"critics simply have no idea what to make of those same quotations. Since they can't fathom why people today would make religious faith an essential part of their everyday lives, they have little interest in making sense of past worlds where such beliefs were important."
IS Fea serious? Does this really sound like the perspective of any secular intellectuals he knows? If so, he really needs to meet some dumb people!
- Historian Fernando Prado on quest to find remains of Cervantes
- Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood
- Female historian says human rights museum censored her
- Japanese historians slam sex-slave apology review
- Stephanie Coontz: "Marriages require much more maturity than they once did."