Is "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" Unlikely "To Reach Most Evangelicals"?

This week’s Books & Culture podcast focuses on Roger Lundin’s new edited collection, Christ Across the DisciplinesDavid Bebbington wrote the essay on the discipline of history.

Listen here.

John Schmalzbauer wrote the essay on sociology. In it he mentions my work on religion and the American founding.  He writes:

Addressing a popular audience, historian John Fea has written Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, a careful effort to get at the role of faith in the American founding.  Unfortunately, a book from Westminster/John Knox is unlikely to reach most evangelicals.  Far more effective was Baylor historian Thomas Kidd’s appearance on the Glenn Beck show.  A student of [George Marsden], Kidd bridges the gap between professional historians and ordinary evangelicals, 48 percent of whom admire Beck….”

I was a bit surprised at Schmalzbauer’s remark about my book failing to reach evangelicals, but maybe I am just feeling too defensive.  Granted, Westminster/John Knox is not an evangelical publisher, but I don’t think this has prevented the book from making inroads among evangelicals.  (For the record, the book proposal was rejected by every major evangelical publisher including Baker, Brazos, Eerdmans, and InterVarsity Press).

Is Schmalzbauer right about the limited reach of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  What do you think?  Any thoughts–either here or on Facebook (you will need to friend me first)–would be much appreciated.

16 thoughts on “Is "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" Unlikely "To Reach Most Evangelicals"?

  1. While I don't think your book will be able to reach Evangelical audiences – mainly from a book group experience. I do agree with other commenters that your video spots, blog posts and interactions with other professors/elites do and can reach those same audiences. So on that note, I think it’s critical that someone like you is able to do both; provide a solid and balanced book for those that are drawn to the topic by the shorter “sound bite” like presentations you provide. Keep at it.

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  2. Interesting thought, that left-wing audiences such as Colbert's–weaned on Kramnik and Moore's “Our Godless Constitution,” not to mention Howard Zinn–might have something to learn from the book as well.

    Interesting too that this is the first time it's been broached, albeit unintentionally. Perhaps some trigger fingers are a little itchier when it comes to the Religious Right…

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  3. John, had your book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” been published by an evangelical establishment publisher it would still have a difficult task making it to the evangelical rank and file. As I see it, researched theme books are not on the forefront of our reading list. On the book title's question, a majority of evangelicals would probably say they already believe the answer to be “yes.” But many church leaders, Bible study teachers, and college students will read a book like this. Such individuals will find your book, recommend it, assign it, and give it to a friend. If you want to sell a coffee table book, add a “Yes!” at the end of the title. To make us think and wrestle through these issues, particularly with your assembled historical research, continue to promote the cause.
    And as to it being more successful to reach evangelicals by appearing on Glenn Beck's show, many of his viewers (listeners only now?) might consider reading your book if Beck endorsed it or if you had sufficient time to present your findings (please do not hold your breath for either to happen). Hold out for Colbert!

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  4. Keep putting your info out there–as others note here, it's all a process. Your work may eventually influence others who have more direct contact with the evangelical community.

    As a side note, as long as you indulge smarmy elitist attacks on evangelicals from individuals such as Mr. Dick [above, September 19, 2013 at 4:08 PM], your even-handedness may remain questionable, even if it's not reflected in your work. Tommy Kidd doesn't play that crap.

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  5. John- my impression is that the book itself has made inroads at evangelical and evangelically inclined colleges and universities more than evangelical churches. The instantaneous effect of high profile media appearances may be more noticeable, but the long term effect on those places training future evangelical leaders holds potential for long term significance.

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  6. Paul: Yes, most of my speaking was at mainline churches (with some exceptions). But most of these churches were quite evangelical–especially the Presbyterian churches. In fact, most of the people who attended my talks at these churches came into the lecture leaning toward “yes” on the question in the title of my book. There is still a very strong “God and country” feeling in the mainline. Or to put this differently, many of the laypeople who attend mainline churches do not share the theological liberalism of mainline seminaries or even their pastors.

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  7. Doug: Thanks for the comment. I am not sure that most evangelicals who need to be better informed about the whole Christian America issue really know the difference between evangelical publishers and a press like Westminster/John Knox. In this day and age marketing is everything. WJK marketed the book to its traditional mainline audiences, but I (with some help) marketed the book to evangelical audiences by appearing on Christian radio, speaking to a lot of evangelicals, and encouraging the book for classroom use.

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  8. Jimmy: Thanks for the post. I agree. I don't think a book like mine or Tommy Kidd's will penetrate deep into the Christian nationalist world of conservative evangelicalism, but I have seen a lot of minds changed in the course of my travels with the book. I remain optimistic about the usefulness of our books.

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  9. David S: Most evangelical publishers said that a book like this had already been written and the market was too saturated. I am glad that Jana Riess at WJK picked it up.

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  10. John: I just send you a personal note on Facebook. I can't disagree with anything you say here. I must admit that I got a bit defensive when I read your comment since I have worked hard to bring the book and its message to evangelical audiences. A defensive person with a blog can sometimes be a dangerous thing, so I am sorry if responding took time away from other more important things. Whatever the case, thanks for mentioned me in your essay!

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  11. Don't be too hard on yourself. Christian nationalism is pretty ingrained in evangelical culture.

    That said, Schmalzbauer is probably right that the publisher makes some difference, but again, there's nothing you could've done about it.

    It is notable that most of the churches you put online are mainline(with a few exceptions, including the EFCA church you mentioned recently). I'd expect your critique to play well with mainline audiences because it fits easily with their low opinion of “fundamentalists.” Again, not sure to what extent that's up to you–it's not like you're asking them to let you come.

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  12. On the one hand,evangelicals in the pew buy few history books. If they do, not from WJK. Schmalzbauer is correct.
    On the other hand, I doubt that I am the only faculty person using John's book in courses. This use, plus John's touring, get the book out to many. Still, TV appearances might well increase the sales.
    (Before entering academics, I was the book buyer for Logos Bookstore, Berkeley, 1970s. Also, I am an erstwhile librarian. I think I know reading habits since the the 1970s fairly well, especially among evangelicals.)

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  13. I think what John Schmalzbauer says about “popular experts and amateur historians having more of a voice among ordinary evangelicals,” tends to be true. The real problem lies with people who only want to hear what they already believe.

    It does not matter what the subject is. Historians have a hard road ahead of them in challenging popular belief. The issue is compounded by demagogues such as Beck and those that appear on his show as well as similar types. The shysters and hucksters have always been there so it is nothing new.

    The good news is you are reaching people and they in turn reach others.

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  14. I have no idea about the reach of Westminster/John Know. I just can't get over the fact that all those evangelical presses rejected the manuscript! Do they have any idea how many interviews, books talks, and lectures you do to promote your books? They're crazy.

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  15. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? deserves to reach the widest possible religious audience. I am a big fan of the work you've done on this topic.

    I was merely lamenting the fact that Barton, Marshall, and others have outsold the scholarly treatments of this topic.

    Certainly, many evangelical scholars, clergy, and laity will pick up Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? It has the potential to make a difference in the evangelical subculture's discussion of these questions.

    This is especially true when people like George P. Wood (the son of Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood) make a point of praising its arguments.

    Will it reach the audience it deserves to reach? I have to be realistic about that question. It is instructive to compare the sales rank of The Jefferson Lies and other such works to Kidd, Fea, Marsden/Noll/Hatch, and many others.

    I think Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson were right when they argued that popular experts and amateur historians have more of a voice among ordinary evangelicals.

    I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say.

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