In writing Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, historian John Fea has written a thoughtful book about our national story in the United States. In so writing, Professor Fea has provided a template for the careful questioning of the identity of all people in all human communities.
The title is complicated and hedges several issues. America is the United States, not the North American continent. “Founding” depends on definition, whether in the 17th century Jamestown or at the 18th century revolution or the refounding after the Civil War in the 19th century. The term “Christian” requires definition within the larger western tradition including Catholicism, the dominant diffuse Protestantism or a particular theology within Protestantism.
In any case, this book is a lesson in thinking historically. Author Fea is an historian and he demonstrates the historian’s method in carefully addressing these questions. The author is fair, comprehensive and clear in his analysis, which is in contrast to the work on the same subject by David Barton, Separation of Church and State: What the Founders Meant (2007) and David Manuel and Peter Marshall, The Light and the Glory: 1492-1793 (God’s Plan for America), arguing for the foundation of the United States as a Christian nation.
The deeper subject addressed through this book is human identity. How do we deal with this universal struggle to tell ourselves who we are as persons and as communities? Do we use the criteria of religion, politics, history, gender, race, language or geographic residence to address this issue? How human identity is defined and embraced has great consequences. Americans, Serbians, Southern Sudanese, Israelis, Lebanese are but current community products of tortured identity searches, for which the conventional identifying words used in this sentence mask and prejudge both the process and outcomes.
This book has an informative table of contents. The book is divided into three parts dealing with questions of how the idea of the United States as a Christian nation developed, the ways in which the revolution was seen as a Christian event and the range of religious beliefs of some of the founding fathers (Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Witherspoon, Jay and Samuel Adams). The historian’s notes and index are helpful. The book has no final concluding summary chapter, but the author’s answers to the questions posed in the title are folded into the book’s preface.
The author’s conclusion is that the United States was not founded in the 1770’s as a Christian nation, but the pervasive culture of the people living in the geographical area of the new United States believed the new nation to be a Christian nation and saw its creation in Christian terms. Regarding the founding, Fea marshals evidence of the founding secular documents of the government’s statement on foreign policy (Declaration of Independence) and the structure of the government (Constitution) and he assesses the complex range of faith commitments of the founding fathers who all agreed that some general religion was necessary to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic.
Following the public’s early view that the U.S. was founded as a Christian country in the 18th century, the 19th century’s Second Great Awakening strengthened a political community and informal moral establishment in security against religious domination by any other denomination by the Constitution’s Establishment Clause in the First Amendment and with confidence in the universal freedom to evangelize in the Free Expression Clause of the First Amendment.
Other authors working in this area on this subject include John Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty (2010) and Barbara Clark Smith, After the Revolution (2010). (See a discussion of this subject among these authors and John Fea on Booktv at http://www.booktv.org/Program/12368/2011+Virginia+Festival+of+the+Book+Panel+The+Founding+Fathers+and+Religion.aspx)
This book addresses part of the identity issue for the humans residing in the geographical area of the United States. There are unique particulars in that history of the people of the United States, but this is only one story of one community’s efforts to clarify its identity. All other communities are continuing their assessment of their identity. It is a universal issue, one worth reflection by all of us as Quakers.
In addition, I would like to recommend this video that explores this question in light of current controversies regarding Muslims and Sharia law. This video is an excellent conversation-starter.—Anthony Manousos.