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Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Darryl G. Hart

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2011, 340 pages, $30.00, paper.

What does it mean for a nation to be Christian? John Fea’s book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? obviously has the United States in view. But other nation-states have religious identities that demonstrate how difficult is the task Fea has undertaken (even if some readers think the answer is obvious). For instance, England is a constitutional monarchy in which the crown is the head of the Church of England. Does this mean that England is an Episcopalian (or Anglican) nation? And what does this identity mean for the other parts of the United Kingdom (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland)? Some cultural conservatives may think the affinities between contemporary Anglicanism and England’s cultural decay fitting. But England’s case makes the United States’ status all the thornier since we have no constitutional connection between the nation’s government and a specific Christian communion.

Or take the example of Turkey. It is officially a secular nation. Its founding in 1922 brought an end to Islam’s dominance in the former Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s constitution guarantees religious freedom and reserves no special protections for Muslims. And yet, the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs provides oversight of the nation’s mosques and pays for the services of Turkey’s imams and muezzin. Though Turkey is legally a secular republic, it is also formally a Muslim nation, given its official support for Islamic institutions.

Compared to England and Turkey, the United States resembles more the latter than the former (which makes sense considering America’s War for Independence). The nation that in the 1770s emerged from the British colonies in North America adopted a republican form of government and explicitly refused to use religion as a basis in setting up a federal government. Unlike England, the United States has no monarch and no established church. Even here, the United States is less religious legally than Turkey since the American government (and all state governments after 1833 when Massachusetts disestablished its churches) provides no financial support for religious institutions.

And yet, the notion that America is a Christian nation lives. Polls reveal that close to eighty percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This statistic likely accounts for the approximately seventy percent of adults in the United States who think that America is a Christian nation. To answer the title of Fea’s book in the negative is a sign of disloyalty within some sectors of American society. The book is more an attempt to clarify the sets of issues that go into an answer than it is an argument about the religious character of the United States. Fea builds on years of experience as a student of the American founding and a teacher of pious undergraduates with preconceived ideas about a Christian America. Some may become frustrated that Fea takes a simple question and complicates it. But as the examples of England and Turkey suggest, “Christian-nation” status is not a simple matter.

Fea breaks the question of his title into three aspects. The first includes a historical overview of Protestants in the United States who have asserted and promoted the notion that America is a Christian nation. For instance, modernist Protestants and fundamentalists both operated on the assumption that their country was Christian and fought threats to it. William Jennings Bryan and Billy Sunday became influential among conservative Protestants at least in part through their appeals to preserve the nation’s Christian civilization, whether by supporting Prohibition or opposing evolution in public schools. In this respect, they followed the Social Gospel minister, Washington Gladden, who hoped for the United States that “every department of human life—the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations—will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences” (37). Of course, Christians’ aspirations for their nation do not prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. They could be wrong. But as Fea explains, throughout American history “there have always been believers who have tried to promote this idea” (245). At the same time, as the example of fundamentalists and modernists shows, the idea of a Christian America has generally devolved into a form of moralism more congenial to liberal Protestantism than to historic Christianity. The measure by which most Protestants evaluated Christianity’s health within their nation was a virtuous citizenry, not church membership, or orthodox beliefs.

A second part of Fea’s book—arguably worth the price of the book—is a search for the place of religious interests in the political crisis that led to the founding of a new and independent republic in North America. As he concludes, “it would be difficult to suggest, based upon the formal responses to British taxation between 1765 and 1774, that the leaders of the American Revolution were driven by overtly Christian values” (245). So, for instance, in 1765 when Virginia responded to the Stamp Act (a provision to raise revenue for Parliament by requiring colonists to purchase only newspapers that been specially stamped) with the “Virginia Resolves,” a document that Patrick Henry strongly advocated, “no reference to God, the Bible, Christianity, or any religious reason” for political resistance was part of the argument (98). Indeed, between 1765 and 1774 as the colonists became increasingly alarmed by Parliament’s “tyranny,” delegates to the Continental Congress “seldom explained their views in religious terms” (106). Silence about Christianity extended, of course, to the Constitution where “it is clear that [its] framers ... were not interested in promoting a religious nation of any kind” (162). Fea rightly observes that a majority of the states in the union retained established churches. But if the Constitution defines the American nation legally and politically, its silence also informs Christianity’s place in the American nation.

The last part of Fea’s book addresses the beliefs of the founders themselves. He features George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, but includes a chapter on three “orthodox founders,” John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams. This is a subject where Christian nationalism has often turned the founders into devout and orthodox believers, partly at least to justify a reading of America as a Christian nation. Fea is not so sentimental, however. On Washington, he concludes that Christians may laudably celebrate his leadership, courage, civility, and morality, but not his Christianity. Washington’s “religious life was just too ambiguous” (190). Adams “should be commended ... for his attempts to live a life in accordance with the moral teachings of the Bible,” but was finally a Unitarian who denied the deity of Christ (210). Jefferson, likewise, was a great statesman who strived to live a moral life but “failed virtually every test of Christian orthodoxy” (215). Although a successful businessman and patriot, Franklin “rejected most Christian doctrines in favor of a religion of virtue” (227). Meanwhile, in the case of the orthodox Christian founders, Fea concludes that “Christianity was present at the time of the founding” but “merged with other ideas that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity” (242). The best that can be said of Christianity’s influence on the American founding was that “all the founders believed ... that religion was necessary in order to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic” (246).

The value of Fea’s book is not simply the careful historical questions he puts before readers that break through received religious and patriotic pieties. He also inserts sufficient distance between the United States as a political manifestation and the Christian religion, so that believers can entertain the notion that America is good even if it is not explicitly or formally Christian. Too often the categories used by Christian apologists for America lack a middle term. For them, either the nation can only be either Christian or opposed to it. Fea allows for a different category that is neither holy nor profane, one by which Christians may recognize the United States as valuable, wholesome, and virtuous (with admitted defects) without turning the nation into a Christian endeavor. Fea himself does not answer the question of his title explicitly. But his deft handling of some of the issues involved in sound historical answer will help readers be as careful as is his book.

Darryl G. Hart is visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, October 2013.

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