Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"To Be Faithful to Jesus or Secular Paganism?"

In case you have not heard, "secular pagans" are rewriting American history and having "difficulty embracing the facts of history."

I am apparently one of these secular pagans.

In the latest example of the Christian Right's failure to fully grasp the complexity of the American founding, David Lane of the American Renewal Project has chosen to criticize me at the website of the Christian magazine Charisma.  

I have written about Lane before.  I am quoted in a recent Reuters piece about Lane and his attempt to get evangelical ministers to run for political office.  I also wrote a blog post in the wake of that article.  Yet Lane does not want to address those articles.  Instead, he has chosen to focus on a recent interview I did with National Public Radio that appeared over Thanksgiving weekend.

I will try to respond to Lane's Charisma article point by point:
Lane wrote:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. "There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,' he says. 'But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'"
Just to be clear, here are the quotes that NPR religion reporter Tom Gjelten used in the article after I talked with him for about one hour at Messiah College:
Historians, however, have disputed the extent to which the Pilgrims can be counted as among America's founding fathers.
"This is one little pocket of colonial America," says John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn. He has written widely on America's early religious history.
"It's hard to make the same argument if you're studying Virginia or Pennsylvania or the Carolinas or Georgia," Fea says. "We've taken that New England model and extrapolated from it over the last 200 or 300 years into some kind of view of the nation as a whole."
Fea notes the absence of any reference to the Bible in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
"There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,'" he says. "But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out."
Here is the part of those NPR comments that Lane included in his Charisma piece:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. "There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,' he says. 'But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'"
As you can see, he does not include everything I said that made it into the interview. Lane continues:
Apparently, even though the Founders wrote Christianity into the State Constitutions and Charters of all 13 original colonies, that does not meet the requirements of evidence. What does Fea do with the following documentary evidence?
Before I address the documentary evidence below, it is clear that Lane did not read the entire NPR transcript.  Or maybe he did read the entire transcript and simply chose to focus on the parts of the transcript that he found useful.  If he read it carefully, he would realize that I made the comments above in response to Gjeltin's question about whether or not Christianity influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Anyone who reads the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution knows that there are no references to the Bible in these documents.  There is no "smoking gun."   
But just for fun, let me respond to Lane's evidence:
  • Virginia Charter (1606) "... propagating of Christian Religion to such People as yet live in Darkness."  
Yes, the settlers of Virginia did want to propagate the Christian religion in Jamestown.  Thanks to new scholarship in this area, along with archaeological finds, we now know that religion played an important role in the colony.  Yet I would argue that Anglicanism and other forms of Christianity never came to define the culture of 17th-century Virginia in the way that Puritanism defined the culture of 17th-century Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth.

  • Delaware Charter of King Adolphus (1626) "... further propagation of the Holy Gospel."
This is a reference to the Swedish charter associated with colony of New Sweden on the banks of the Delaware River.  New Sweden functioned as a colony between roughly 1638 and 1655.  It existed before the English settlement of the region.  The Swedish Lutheran Church was an important cultural institution in New Sweden and, as I have argued, these Swedish churches remained on the Delaware Valley landscape after the English settlement. 

  • Massachusetts Constitution (1780) Part 1, Article 3, "Every denomination of Christians ... shall be equally under the protection of the law and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall be established."
Lane is correct.  The Massachusetts Constitution does promote religious freedom. Lane could have strengthened his argument further here by noting that the Congregational Church was the established religion in Massachusetts until the early 1830s.  Either Lane is unaware of this, did not have the space to develop his thoughts, or he realized that the Massachusetts establishment may not be useful for his religious freedom argument.  Lane also fails to note that the religious establishment in Massachusetts was perfectly legal since the Constitution, until the passing of the 14th amendment, did not apply to the states.  No serious student of early New England should be surprised that the Massachusetts Constitution had a religious establishment since John Adams and the other framers were products of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts that also had a religious establishment   As I said in my NPR interview with Gjeltin, New England is just one "pocket" of colonial America.
  • Pennsylvania Constitution (1968) Article 1, Section 3: "All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their won consciences."
  • North Carolina Constitution (1971) Article 11, Section 4: "Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state."
Not sure how the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 or the North Carolina Constitution of 1971 relates to the founding era, but these references to God and Christianity are very interesting.  I am guessing (and only guessing) that these may be left over references from the 19th-century.  I will need to do some more research on this.  
Lane continues to mount evidence:
1. "The Christian History of the U.S. Constitution," says: "Among the more notable ventures of the Congress was an effort to see about the printing of a Bible, as the supply from England had been cut off by the fighting. In October 1780, Congress adopted a resolution recommending that 'such of the states that may find it convenient ... take proper measures to procure one or more new and correct versions of the Old and New Testaments to be printed.' Congress also approved, as a matter of course, chaplains and religious services for the soldiers."
No argument here.  The Founding Fathers did believe that religion, even Christianity, was important to the health of the republic.  This is why they promoted the Bible. If there has been a "wall of separation between church and state" in American history, that wall has had a lot of checkpoints. Chaplains are a great example of this.
2. "Conservatism, Religion, and the First Amendment" says: "In addition to appointing chaplains, resorting to prayer, and seeing about the printing of the Bible, Congress took still other measures to advance the interests of religion [Christianity]. It passed, for instance, the Northwest Ordinance to manage the territories beyond the Ohio River, saying it did so, among other reasons, for purposes of promoting, 'religion and morality.' The committee approving the legislation (with Madison as a member) stipulated that, in the sale of lands in the territory, Lot N29 in each parcel, 'be given perpetually for the uses of religion [Christianity].'"
Yup.  See my comments above.
3. An online exhibit at the Library of Congress, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," says: "Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of 'humiliation, fasting, and prayer' were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by 'covenant theology,' a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they 'should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.' Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation."
Was the Continental Congress influenced by covenant theology?  Maybe.  But good historians are divided over whether this theology influenced the delegates who did not hail from New England.  I would argue that it did not.
And Lane concludes:
It looks as if America has come to her kairos, her moment in time—to be faithful to Jesus or to pagan secularism.
Lane implies that anyone who does not believe that America was founded as a specifically Christian nation is a pagan.  He cannot fathom another, more responsible, Christian approach to this material.
If you want to learn more about my views on religion and the founding and why I think that this history is not usually helpful in our current political debates, read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  I also address the use of history in these debates from an evangelical Christian perspective in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.