Review of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction

Paul Otto of George Fox University reviews Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (along with Thomas Kidd’s book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution) in the January-February 2010 edition of the Christians in Political Science Newsletter.  Here is a taste:

It’s complicated. Or so John Fea claims about the past. And indeed, his new work and Thomas Kidd’s both demonstrate that questions about faith and the founding of the United States are not easily answered because of the complexity of the past. In popular venues, debates swirl around the question of whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Such debates are often tied to present-day concerns about the place of religion, and particularly Christianity, in the public square and the meaning of the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, such debates are rarely informed by good historical understanding. Those arguing for one position or the other often miss several crucial elements of historical thinking—the “5 Cs of Historical Thinking,” which Fea introduces to his readers. These include change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. Popular, and some scholarly, inquiries of religion and the founding fail to ap- preciate these factors. Instead they seek simple solutions to complex problems—were the founders Christian or not? Did they go to church or not? Did the founding documents use Christian language or not? These and many other such questions try to reduce the multifaceted and changing world of the founders to a series of yes and no answers. In short, they lack nuance and historical insight. But Kidd and Fea, both Christians and trained historians, set out to demonstrate the complex role that Christianity played in early American society at the time of the founding and do so admirably.

Fea’s book is didactic in nature, but this is not a criticism. Directly aimed at modern-day debaters, his work seeks to instruct its readers in the historical task, inform them of the nuanced history of religion in early America, and to challenge a number of common misinterpretations. His book is comprised of three parts—after a brief primer in historical research, Fea surveys the history of historical interpretations related to the question of America as a Christian nation, delves into several specific questions about the role of Christianity in early America, and looks at the religious beliefs of several founders. Fea demonstrates that American history has been shaped much more prominently by Christianity than many present-day detractors believe, but he also argues that Christianity often didn’t play a role in American history in the way many modern Evangelicals would like to believe. A key element in Fea’s book is his effort to highlight certain episodes commonly put forth in the modern-day debate and place them more firmly and accurately in their historical context. This, for example, is the reason he singles out a few prominent founders for consideration. Other instances include an exposition of Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) that asserted that the United States was not “founded on the Christian religion” and an extensive discussion of the many sermons preached by American ministers in favor of revolution. John Fea makes clear that religion and politics have long mixed in American society, but he also helps readers understand the way they mixed and equips them to better understand and answer the question “was America founded as a Christian nation?”