Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cushwa Seminar on American Religion Wrap-Up

The Fall 2012 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter from the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism has a nice summary of the April 2012 Seminar on American Religion, featuring my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

In Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Fea approaches the title’s question from a historical perspective, helping readers see past the emotional rhetoric on both sides of the issue. Through illuminating case studies of the Founding Fathers, he shows that three (John Jay, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Adams) were devout, while the other four (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) were more ambivalent toward orthodoxy. The book was a finalist for the 2012 George Washington Book Prize in American History. Lauren Winner, associate professor of history at Duke Divinity School, and Mark Noll, of history at Notre Dame, responded to the book. As Winner could not attend due to illness, Jana Riess, acquisitions editor at Westminster John Knox Press, read a transcript of her comments.

Winner began by praising Fea for his contribution to our understanding of the past. As a scholar of colonial Anglicanism, she appreciated that Fea treated Anglicans “on the terms of liturgical piety, and not the terms of evangelical profession and performance.” And as a historian of colonial religion more broadly, she was impressed by his “nuanced discussion” of the tension between Christian and currents in the Declaration of Independence; his “elegant consideration” of Jefferson’s failure to live up  Jesus’ moral teachings; and his “simple, also elegant observation” that Jefferson, as a slaveowner, had a convenient way of setting aside his belief that God was angry about the institution of slavery. The only drawback to Fea’s story, Winner thought, was its lack of women.

For all its historical acumen, Winner argued, the true import of the book lies in its capacity to engage general readers. Winner related how, her own state of North Carolina at the time of the seminar, people were debating a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Since much of the debate revolved around whether America was founded on Christian principles, she suggested, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? would serve as an excellent guide for people on both sides of the issue.

Mark Noll was also impressed by Fea’s work. Noting the author’s talent for “bringing together disparate concerns into coherent individual texts,” Noll said, “Fea does an unusually good job addressing several of the sub-questions that lurk beneath the central question posed by his title.” Noll then assessed Fea’s account in light of four of these questions.

Read the rest here.