Saturday, October 27, 2012

Does My Book Argue That America Was Founded as a Christian Nation? One Reviewer Thinks It Does

One of the advantages of having a blog is that I get to respond to reviews of my book.  I am very grateful to Kirsten Fischer of the University of Minnesota for her review of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in the June 2012 issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.

Last year I gave a lecture on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?at the University of Minnesota. Fischer was in attendance and offered some helpful comments on the book's argument.  I also learned that she was using it in one of her seminars at Minnesota.  Earlier in my visit to Minneapolis she invited me to present some of my work on Presbyterians and the American Revolution at the University of Minnesota early American history colloquium.  I came away from that session with some great ideas for how to move this project forward. Stay tuned.

The primary argument of Fischer's review is that I claim, on the one hand, to be evenhanded in my approach to the question "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" while, on the other hand, I marshal evidence in such a way that answers the question in the affirmative. 

I am actually quite pleased with Fischer's review because this is the first time that a historian of her caliber has read the book in this way.  Most of the criticism I get comes from Christian conservatives (who are not historians) who chide me for not making a definitive argument in support of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.  I guess if you are getting critiqued from both sides of a given issue you must be doing something right.  (Or maybe your interpretation is just very bad).

But back to Fischer's review...

In the first four chapters of my book I trace the "idea" of America a "Christian nation" from 1789 to the 1970s.  Here is Fischer's response to my efforts:

Fea rhetorically combines people with starkly different politics into a singular American "we" with a shared religious nationalism.  This overarching "Christian nation" concept is so capacious that we lose sight of the deep rifts between people who fought for very different version of a future of America. The result is that Fea's intended readers cannot be blamed if, when asked whether "Americans" have always wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, they answer with a misleadingly simple and homogenizing "yes."

Fischer is right.  There have been many different "versions of the future of America."  But I was not interested in turning these chapters into a study of the many different visions of America that have appeared in the history of this nation.  I was particularly interested in tracing the idea of a "Christian America" through United States history.

Have most Americans in the past understood the United States to be a Christian nation? Yes  The phrase "Christian nation" meant different things to different people over the course of the nation's history--and that is my point.  The idea that we are somehow a "Christian nation" appears in American history a whole lot more than the idea that we are not a Christian nation.  I am probably guilty of being too homogeneous, but sometimes that is necessary when writing for a public audience.

I still stand by my argument: the belief that the United States is a Christian nation has been quite mainstream in American life.  While Fischer's forthcoming work will force us to think seriously about radicals, Deists, and freethinkers in the early republic, I would be hard pressed to call them mainstream.  In fact, they were called "radical" (or Fischer and other historians call them "radical") because they challenged the status quo.  And the status quo was Christian America.

Moreover, Fischer seems to miss the point I was trying to make in these four chapters.  By suggesting that most Americans have always understood themselves to be living in a Christian nation, I am not making a statement about whether or not they were correct in thinking this way about their nation, or whether they were interpreting the founders correctly. 

Second, Fischer believes that I am answering the question in the title of my book in the affirmative because I give a great deal of credence to the religious clauses of the earliest state Constitutions.  Yes!  I try to suggest in the book that while the federal Constitution was Godless, most of the state constitutions were not.

It is clear that the framers of most of these constitutions wanted their governments run by Christians--in most cases Protestant Christians.  While many of these religious tests for office disappear in the decades following the original writing of the state constitutions, we must be careful not to interpret their original framing through the grid of the more secular and exclusive changes that came later.  We must also be careful not to interpret these statements in light of 20th-century Supreme Court decisions or even the 14th amendment.  Remember, my book asks whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, not whether it is a Christian nation.

In the end, we must ask how we want to define "nation" in the late 1770s and 1780s. If individual states had political power under the Articles of Confederation, and most states (Virginia being the big exception) had religious tests for office or established churches, then it seems that an argument could be made that America was indeed a "Christian nation."

But I am also sympathetic to the argument that we cannot truly call the United States a "nation" until 1787 or 1789 (or sometime later--1812, 1865).  This is the problem when you take a contemporary question like "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation" and superimpose it on the 18th century.  It is this kind of presentism that I warn against in the first chapter of the book.

Third, Fischer chides me for juxtaposing "providence" with "deism," as if a deist could not believe in providence.  I think she is correct here. A deist could believe in providence--in fact, most of them did.  As I have been speaking about the book to various audiences, I have realized that my discussion of "providence" as it relates to deism is not nuanced enough.

Yet I am not sure I agree with Fischer's characterization of my argument here.  She seems to think that I am arguing that if a founding father was not a deist, then he must have been a Christian who supported the creation of a uniquely Christian nation.  I think a sort of middle intellectual/religious ground is possible here.  For example, one could be a theist and still reject the core doctrines of traditional Christianity (such as the Trinity, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, etc...).  Gregg Frazer has called this position "theistic rationalism."

Moreover, Fischer makes a logical mistake here.  She assumes that if a given founding father was a Christian, then he must have also wanted to promote a uniquely Christian nation.  I try to avoid this fallacy in my book, but Fischer wants to suggest that my attempt to paint the founders as non-deists automatically means that I will answer the question in the title of my book in the affirmative.

Fischer closes by writing:

Fea asserts that "this book never offers a definitive answer to the question I pose in its title" because "the question cannot be answered with a simply yes or no."  Fea's concern for historical nuance is real enough, and he certainly avoids a polemical tone, but the book does make an argument.  Fea may not come and say it, but we are led to conclude that popular culture, state governments, and founding fathers point clearly in one direction.  Fea leaves it to his reader to answer the title's question in the affirmative.

After Fischer's review, maybe I will sell more books among the members of the Christian Right.  But somehow I doubt that they are reading scholarly journals.