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).