Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching "American Jesus"

Ed Carson in action at Brooks School
Edward Carson teaches history at Brooks School, an independent boarding and day school in North Andover, Massachusetts.  Last year he taught a short course at Brooks entitled "American Jesus" and I had a chance to participate. 

Carson's students read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and I spent an hour Skyping with the students taking the class.

Brooks reflects on teaching this course in a recent piece at the Christian Century entitled, "Changing the Face of American Jesus."  Here is a taste:


Teaching a course with Jesus in the title is risky here. New England, according to Stephen Prothero, is the least churched culture in the United States. Students who took “American Jesus” often lacked basic religious literacy, making conversations about American evangelical culture a greater challenge than anticipated. The term evangelical evoked suspicion. Often national religious figures such as T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren were unfamiliar to students.
I created a syllabus in which the American construct of Jesus was on trial, allowing students to present their skepticism toward evangelical Christianity. I recognized the value of this personal exploration for students—and for me, as a southern African American navigating a traditional white world of privilege. My journey and the journey of this course had transitioned as I escaped an ideologically conservative institution: my previous school, which sought courses that expressed God’s grace in influencing America’s founding, rather than the free inquiry at the core of “American Jesus.”
Students were asked to discover their own points of view regarding the political nature of God and nation. They greeted John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? with a great degree of gratitude, finding it balanced in constructing a case for each side of this question. Students discussed Fea’s work and talked with him through Skype. He challenged their thinking about the historical forces that established Christianity as the dominant American thought. This also helped with later discussions regarding America’s ideological position in linking Uncle Sam to Jesus Christ. Topics such as printing “In God We Trust” on currency and naming God in the Pledge of Allegiance allowed discussions to shift from the Founding Fathers’ faith to the dawn of the cold war.