Yesterday I posted Martin Marty's response to David Barton's attempt to reconstruct a vision of an original Christian America that he wants to resurrect in the present day. In that response to Barton, Martin Marty noted that some of Barton's biggest critics are evangelical historians, such as Mark Noll and Richard Hughes. Another critic, not named by Marty, is Messiah College historian John Fea, whose book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (WJK, 2011) offers what is to my mind one of the most balanced pictures of this issue that I've read (and I'm not quite finished with the book).
In the introduction after offering the reader a look at what a historian aims to do (see my discussion of his five c's of the historical process), Fea speaks directly to the way in which Barton makes use of the historical record. Fea compares Barton to the way a lawyer forms a case -- in fact he notes that Barton himself claims to do his research in "in accordance with the practices of the legal profession." Now, I have nothing against lawyers and count several as personal friends, but the work of a lawyer isn't the same as the work of a historian. The same can be said of Philip Johnson's attempts to undermine the theory of evolution.
Barton "lets the Founders speak for themselves in accordance with the legal rules of evidence." The difference between how a lawyer uses the past and how the historian interprets the past is huge. The lawyer cares about the past only to the degree that he or she can use a legal decision in the past to win a case in the present. A lawyer does not reconstruct the past in all its complexity, but rather cherry-picks from the past in order to obtain a positive result for his or her client. Context, change over time, causality, contingency, and complexity are not as important as letting the "Founders speak for themselves," even if such speaking violates every rule of historical inquiry. The historian, however, does not encounter the past in this way. (p. xxvi).
Like I said there's nothing wrong with the practices of the legal profession -- but they're not the practices and principles of the historical profession. They're asking different questions. So, if we're going to deal with the question of whether America was or is a Christian nation, we need to ask that question in a way that allows for context, change, causality, contingency, and complexity to make themselves felt. The work of the historian is focused less on finding proof and more on interpreting how something was. There is relevance for the present, but one must understand the realities of what was, and one must understand that what was is very different from what is.
Thus, when we speak of the religious climate in 1787 and compare it with 2011, we need to first note that we are a continent wide nation and not merely a nation of 13 former British colonies. We no longer live in a nation where the predominant religious expression is Protestant (Congregational in New England and Anglican and Presbyterian in the South). The religious expressions today are much more complex and pluralistic than they were then. We also need to remember that back then hundreds of thousands of African Americans were held as slaves, a reality that in itself should raise questions about the nature of the Christianity that was present in the era.
Yes, the world was much different then -- so how might we hear the voice of history in the present? And what should it tell us about how we might give expression to a public faith in a very different era?