If you want to start an argument at your next family gathering, tap your drinking glass with your fork, take a deep breath, and ask, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?”
Few topics seem to elicit such a wide range of reactions and opinions in contemporary America. Some, like Christian writer David Barton, have a made a career out of uncovering the religious motivations behind the founding of the United States. The most recent iteration of this impulse in the evangelical community occurred last month with comments made by actor Kirk Cameron to Christianity Today. Promoting his film “Monumental,” Cameron argued that a “trail of freedom” runs from the ancient “Hebrew republic” to the United States, and suggested that even Thomas Jefferson might have been a Christian. On the other end of the spectrum are books such as The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. As the title implies, these scholars de-emphasize the role of religion in the nation’s founding.
To this polarized debate comes historian John Fea’s recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., divides his analysis of this question into three parts: the American history of the “Christian nation” idea, the role of religion in the American Revolution, and the personal religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers.
First, Fea shows that Americans have always striven to associate the Christian faith with their national government. John Adams’s political friends, for instance, spent a good deal of the election of 1800 trashing the supposed godlessness of his rival Thomas Jefferson. One minister worried that a Jefferson presidency would result in “a nation of Atheists.” A half-century later, Northerners and Southerners both claimed divine sanction for their cause during the Civil War. In 1885 even the Supreme Court got in on the action, maintaining that “this is a Christian nation.” And in the Cold War atmosphere of the mid-twentieth-century, Congress added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and replaced the national motto of “E pluribus unum” with “In God We Trust.” There is no question that Americans, on the whole, have consistently sought to uphold the Christian character of the nation through the past two centuries.
But Fea’s next section complicates the story for Christian America’s defenders. Examining the period from the founding of Jamestown (1607) to the ratification of the Constitution (1788), Fea cautions readers against an overly positive view of the righteousness of the American colonies. Rampant mistreatment of Native Americans and the importation of African slaves severely marred the Christian societies that the colonies’ leaders hoped to establish. And while the Puritans of New England enjoyed religious freedom for themselves, they often failed to grant similar liberty of conscience to Quakers and other religious dissenters.
In some ways, the revolution itself poses even more problems for those who want to portray the founding of the nation as a Christian event. In Chapter Seven, “The Revolutionary Pulpit,” Fea demonstrates that few colonial clergymen made adequate distinctions between “civil liberty as taught by patriots and spiritual liberty as taught in the Bible.” One New York minister identified the colonists as God’s “elect” and baldly maintained that “the cause of this American continent . . . is the cause of God.” In addition to highlighting such problematic rhetoric, Fea encourages us to consider how the revolution failed to conform to the Bible’s injunctions to submit to governing authorities. Clergymen too often twisted passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to justify armed rebellion. Moreover, the colonists almost never invoked historic “just war” theory to justify the revolution because, Fea leads us to believe, the rebellion could not be justified on those grounds. While Christians took a backseat to no one in their enthusiasm for the revolution, their involvement in the conflict does not necessarily make the rebellion a Christian event.
In his final section, Fea turns to the personal religious beliefs of several of the Founding Fathers themselves. This part is likely to disappoint readers looking for unambiguously orthodox Christians as well as those who expect to find godless infidels. Fea makes clear that three of the most prominent founders—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—cannot be considered orthodox Christians. None of the three, for example, believed in the deity of Christ. Moreover, Jefferson famously excised the supernatural passages from the gospels in order to form what he considered to be a more authentic account of Jesus’ worthy sayings.
Yet some of the lesser-known founders were in fact Christians of traditional beliefs. In particular, John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams all subscribed to historic Christian doctrines. George Washington’s faith, Fea concludes, “was just too ambiguous” to be neatly placed in either camp. Fea’s admirable humility on this point reminds us of the difficulties inherent in interpreting the deepest convictions of people several centuries removed from the present day.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is an excellent introduction to the thorny issue of the role of religion in the American founding. Partisans on either side of the culture wars will not be satisfied with Fea’s conclusions, but that is probably a good thing. As Fea points out in his introduction, “We need to practice history not because it can win us political points or help us push our social and cultural agendas forward, but because it has the amazing power to transform our lives.” Fea takes the historical record on its own terms and helps us see more clearly the incredible complexity of our nation’s religious heritage.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a doctoral student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.