Pastors and the Debate Over Christian America

One of my goals in writing Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was to provide a primer for a general audience on the relationship between religion and the American founding.  I had hoped that the book would reach Christians, students, people in the pew, and especially pastors.

Yesterday, following my talk at the Bible in the Public Square conference at Duke, a divinity school student asked me how pastors might deal with this kind of controversial issue in their future congregations.  After reminding the student that his primary responsibility as a pastor was to care for his flock and lead them toward spiritual formation, I  encouraged him and his fellow students to create space for civil conversations about things like American history or politics.  Christians too often approach hot-button contemporary issues by acting, not thinking.

I have been very encouraged that so many pastors and congregations have been interested in my work.  Since the book came out I have not turned down an offer to talk about these themes in congregations.  I have found that the mainline churches do a better job of creating space for these kinds of conversations.  Most pastors of evangelical congregations do not seem ready to engage with questions such as “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  They either do not see this kind of Christian intellectual engagement as part of their mission, or they are worried that hard conversations will cause too much division and strife among their members.

My thoughts in this post were prompted by a friendly review of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by Josh, pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in San Carlos, CA.  Here is a taste:

Sadly, the perception that America has been a Christian nation has not been accompanied by Christian practice. Fea laments American slavery (pp. 17-21, 153-154), the genocide of Native Americans (p. 91), and the misuse of Scripture by clergy to support war (pp. 108-121). The fact that Americans have “understood themselves to be citizens of a Christian nation” (p. 21) does not mean that America has in fact been Christian.

When he comes to the more specific question of the founders’ intent, Fea presents similar ambiguity. In the Declaration of Independence, there are four references to God; but these references are to a “vague” deity rather than the specific God revealed in and by Jesus Christ (pp. 131-133). Most of the first state constitutions were explicitly Protestant (pp. 144-145); however, the U.S. Constitution includes no references to God (p. 150). Some of the founders were Christians (John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams); some of the founders were Unitarians (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) (pp. 171-242).

Thanks, Josh.  

2 thoughts on “Pastors and the Debate Over Christian America

  1. Bill:

    Thanks for this comment. I am really glad to hear that the book is getting some positive feedback in evangelical congregations. Frankly, I would LOVE to do a DVD/documentary on the book, but really wouldn't know where to begin. I will definitely keep this mind though.

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  2. John,

    I am an evangelical pastor who used your book (along with the classic The Search for Christian America) as the basis for a Sunday School class this summer. While I think the class could have gone better, I did see a remarkable willingness on the part of participants to rethink what they “knew” about the past. I know that those who came walked away with a firm understanding of the fact that the past is more complex and nuanced than we typically understand it to be. Despite my feelings about the class, the response was enormously positive. And I know that you sold some extra books! I have to say I was yearning for a DVD series based on your book though. Barton has them. Why not you?

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