Christian America or Not? What's the Truth?

The following piece is an excellent summation of the problems we have in talking about a Christian America. Too often people mangle history for their own purposes. Here a historian from an Evangelical College helps sort things out. John McCain, as we've seen, seems to have gotten himself in hot water with odd comments in a Beliefnet interview with Dan Gilgoff that I posted about earlier.

The link came from an interesting blog I recently stumbled across -- Religion in American History. I reprint it here for your thoughts and comments.


What Both Left and Right Get Wrong

By John Fea

Mr. Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and is a writer for the History News Service.

Americans love their history, but seldom think historically. The problem is not that they don't pay enough attention to history. Americans spend millions each year on heritage vacations and history books. Politicians and pundits use history to justify their views.
The problem is a common propensity to mangle the past to suit current needs, a sort of indoctrination by historical example. Too many believe that the study of distant societies and events is worthless unless it is somehow useful to prove a current point.
So what do they do when the past disappoints? Or when historians tell them something in the past that doesn't conform to the way they view the world? Ideally, when this happens they should follow the evidence and do their best to tell stories that reflect the past in all its complexity. But this is hard to do.
Consider the current debate over the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States. Over the last two years I've given several public lectures that tried to answer the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I never know how my audiences will respond to my presentation, especially since I am a Christian who teaches at a church-related college. But I'm sure that most are more interested in having their answer to this question confirmed by historical data than in being confronted with a past that they find uncomfortable.
Those who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation run roughshod over the historical record. They use the words of the Founding Fathers to support Republican jeremiads on the moral decay of American life. If only this country could return to its Christian roots, they say nostalgically, everything would be okay.
And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today's evangelical churches.
Even so, the leaders of the Christian Right have demonstrated that they can find a useable past in the words of the Founders. A recent survey by Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center found that 74 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats believe that the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, recently deceased evangelical leaders who led in promoting the idea that America is a Christian nation, did their work well.
But before we go too far in condemning the Christian Right on this front, let's remember that the secular left is not immune to errors of historical thinking. While evangelicals misinterpret the references to God in the words of the Founding Fathers, their critics simply have no idea what to make of those same quotations. Since they can't fathom why people today would make religious faith an essential part of their everyday lives, they have little interest in making sense of past worlds where such beliefs were important.
Such approaches to history seldom enable us to better understand the past. Thinking historically does not mean that people cannot learn from the past -- they should and must. But they should be careful how they use historical examples. Exploring the past requires a concern for what it was really like.The past is like a foreign country. Those who enter it as guests should try to understand its foreignness in a way that respects our dead ancestors who inhabit it. We must not invade the past with the goal of remaking it into our own image.
The past may not always be useful when we want to invoke it. But only when we confront it head-on, without preconceived agendas, will we be able to learn from it and let it transform us. This is the lesson that both the Christian Right and some of its secular opponents need to take to heart.


Anonymous said…
One problem I have with this article is that it poses the alternatives as being only the Religious Right or the Secular Left. As you well know, there is also a religious center and left and a secular Right. (In fact, except for the Hagee devotees, I think most of the Neo-Cons are secular.)

That false dichotomy is as ahistorical as much of what the author protests.
Robert Cornwall said…
You're correct that things aren't quite as simple as this -- anymore than Wallis' charges.

It is, however, the right that pushes the Christian America theme -- although that wasn't always the case. Many of the Social Gospelers had a pretty strong sense of the relationship between the two!
Anonymous said…
This is a Cristian nation believe it is so therefor it is. I have many friends that are working to have the government impose their interpretation of the of the bible on society. Senator McCain thinks that has became a majority of the population and wants to represent them in their quest to complete their goals.q
Anonymous said…
Sheesh! If my command of basic English grammar and spelling were that bad, I'd make sure I was anonymous, too.

Bob, thanks for your words. Yes, some of the Social Gospel folks spoke glibly of "Christianizing America" when they only meant turning us into a more just society. Even my hero, Walter Rauschenbusch wrote one book with the horribly Constantinian title, Christianizing the Social Order. Sigh--as a Baptist deeply committed to church-state separation, he should have known better.
Anonymous said…
America seem more like the antichrist than a Christian nation. Christianity is just a label for most people or a heritage which is increasingly being replaced by a secular view point.

Remember that the antichrist starts out as light until its true self is revealed. That maybe what is happening to America.

Other point: the antichrist will set himself up in the temple of God. Ponder on that one.


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