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Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction Paperback – February 23, 2011
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“A remarkably useful guide for navigating the arguments about America’s ‘Christian’ origins.” Randall Balmer, Barnard College, author of God in the White House.
“Should be the last word for all who would claim America as a Christian nation. . . . Deserves to be widely read.” Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School, coauthor of Resident Aliens (with Will Willimon) and The Peaceable Kingdom.
“Should be the last word for all who would claim America as a Christian nation. . . . Deserves to be widely read.” Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School, coauthor of Resident Aliens (with Will Willimon) and The Peaceable Kingdom
"This is a timely book that will help make sense of one of the most important divides in American politics. John Fea offers a clear and balanced reinterpretation of how this debate has shaped American culture and society for more than 200 years." John Wigger, University of Missouri, author of American Saint and Taking Heaven by Storm
"Fea challenges his readers to think like historians, and presents them with the facts they need to weigh the evidence for themselves. Those who are ready to move past simplistic answers will be well served by this thought-provoking work." Mary V. Thompson, author of In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington
"John Fea has produced a carefully balanced and thought-provoking addition to the long-running debate about the role of religion in America's founding." Ira Stoll, author of Samuel Adams: A Life
"Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? explores this controversial question with remarkable objectivity and admirable scholarship. This is a book that every intelligent reader should have in his library." Thomas Fleming, author of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers
"This is a book for Christians who want a credible account of how religion affected the settlement and founding of the United States." Richard Bushman, Emeritus, Columbia University, author of From Puritan to Yankee and The Refinement of America
"Informed, judicious, insightful, and genuinely delightful." Scot McKnight, North Park University; author of The Jesus Creed
"Well-researched and up-to-date, [this book] is full of timely wisdom on a topic far more complicated than many people think. If I could recommend but one source on the Christian America thesis, this would be it." Douglas A. Sweeney, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, author of The American Evangelical Story
About the Author
John Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
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Top Customer Reviews
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.
In the Introduction to the book, Fea--an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania--explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a "usable past" to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.
Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts. Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.
Part Two answers a question: "Was the American Revolution a Christian event?" Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration ("nature's God") is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment deists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between "evangelicals" and "deists" during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists--such as Patrick Henry, again--were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation's Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson's "wall of separation" did and did not mean at the time.
Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered "orthodox" in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion's social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a "devout Unitarian," Jefferson a "follower of Jesus" who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus' life and teaching, and Franklin as an "ambitious moralist." They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: "religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic" (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).
I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation's history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well-written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will--or should!--complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification will, I hope, tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.
If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.
With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.
Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its "Christian roots" or to minimize America's religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America's relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion's relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.
Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.
For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.
All that being said, this is a great book, and possibly the most well-balanced approach to this subject I've ever read. Most everything written on the topic is usually from an over-the-top defense of America being a Christian nation (David Barton, et al) or an attack on that thesis by one of many anti-Christian authors. Neither does any justice to history in general or to this subject specifically.
John Fea offers a very well written, solidly documented, and even-handed approach to the question that makes up the title of the book. As one reviewer mentioned, the answer is yes, no, and....it's complicated.
Indeed it is, and anyone who doesn't address that probably has a serious agenda they are pushing. Fea seems content with being a historian and simply explaining the context of the time and using it to interpret the facts laid before us. He is confident, as am I, that the answer to the question has zero impact on the truth claims of any one belief system, so being forthright with all information available is of far more importance than pushing any ideology.
If you want to honestly address this question, purchase and read the whole book. If you want an agenda-pusher, look elsewhere. I truly enjoyed the work and learned a lot regarding early American history, in addition to realizing some questions to ponder I had never considered.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It’s a very well done history book.Read more