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.
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.
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...
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:
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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:
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.
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