Tuesday, October 29, 2013

INHABIT Wrap-Up: Race and the "Christian America" Question

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the "Inhabit" conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian's organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton's History Department) on the question: "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?"  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics.

It was amazing to see so many Wheaton College students show up on a Friday night and Saturday to discuss racial reconciliation on their campus and in the church.  My experience confirmed everything I have heard about Wheaton students.  They are bright, thoughtful, and dedicated.

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind.  On Friday evening I was inspired by the Wheaton Gospel Choir and messages by Pastor Ray, Chris Beard of Peoples Church in Cincinnati, and Bryan Loritts, the pastor of a multiracial church in Memphis.  (Loritts is a big Jonathan Edwards fan and was very excited to meet Marsden.  He had just finished Marsden's biography of Edwards and was now reading some of Noll's work). The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow "return" or "go back" to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America's founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Beard's Peoples Church seems to have made the most striking reversal on the Christian America question.  As a member of the Assembly of God denomination, Beard taught his congregation that the founders were Christians, that America was a Christian Nation, and that patriotism was almost inseparable from the Kingdom of God.  He even had David Barton speak at his church.  But after reading folks like Noll and Marsden, and looking more closely at the historical record, Beard changed his mind.  He made a deliberate attempt to reject Christian nationalist teaching, build an international and multiracial congregation, and subordinate his patriotism to the Kingdom of God.  He lost a lot of his church in the process, but he has rebuilt it into an even stronger congregation.  The story of Peoples (no apostrophe) Church give historians like me hope.  McMillian (another Cincinnati area pastor) and Beard have found the work of Noll, Marsden, and my own Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to be helpful in correcting false views of history that have done damage to the universal Christian church.

I was honored to be part of this conference and hope to work more closely with Pastor McMillian and his Race to Unity team in thinking more deeply about the racial implications of the idea that America was or is a Christian Nation.

It was also a real highlight to get to hang out with two of my historian heroes--Noll and Marsden.