|National Press Club, Washington D.C.|
When I was out promoting Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I gave an invited talk to a group of secularists, skeptics, and Humanists from the Pittsburgh community of the Center for Inquiry. The lecture took place at the Carnegie Science Center (a fitting location) on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, right next door to Heinz Field.
If I remember correctly the auditorium was crowded that night as hundreds of skeptics packed in to hear a history professor from Messiah College talk about whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I didn’t know what to expect. I am guessing they didn’t either.
About ten minutes into the lecture a gigantic screen began to lower behind me on the stage. I had not planned to use any visuals during the talk and the event organizers knew this. As the screen came down I paused, turned around and looked at it, and said something like “I have no idea why or how this screen is moving. It must be a message from God.” There was an awkward silence in the room for a split second, but it seemed like an eternity. Then the room broke into uproarious laughter. I breathed a sigh of relief that my attempt at humor actually worked. The ice was broken and I continued with the lecture.
I look back fondly on that lecture. The leadership of the Center for Inquiry was very hospitable and gracious. They took me out to dinner before the lecture and actually apologized before the food arrived because, as atheists, it was not their custom to pray before meals. I tried to disabuse them of the idea that all Christians bow their heads and utter audible prayers before every meal they eat in a restaurant.
Several friends and acquaintances asked me why, as a Christian, I accepted the invitation to speak to this group. My response was “why not?” I am a historian. I wasn’t there to convince them that the claims of Christianity were true. I was asked to speak about the relationship between religion and the founding. Many of the folks I talked with that night wanted to be more informed about how they could or could not use the history of the founding to promote their views. Some of them bristled when I talked about how many of the founders believed in God or were Christians. Others nodded in agreement when I mentioned that many of the founders were skeptics and championed the idea of the separation of church and state.
The question and answer session following the lecture was phenomenal. I left believing that I helped this group understand when they could appropriate the founders and when they could not. I hope I got them to think historically. Perhaps there will be another time to discuss the issues that divide us. If that day ever comes, our conversation will at least be built on a firmer historical foundation.
I thought about that speaking engagement yesterday when I read a post at TheHumanist.com by Matthew Bulger, the “legislative associate” for the American Humanist Association.
As I reported on this blog a few days ago, several Baylor University professors recently visited the National Press Club to talk about America’s “secularization myth.” It was a pretty star-studded cast that included historian Thomas Kidd, sociologist Rodney Stark, and historian Philip Jenkins. You can read about it here.
As might be expected, Bulger, after attending the event, was not convinced that the “secularization” thesis was a “myth.” He was critical of all the presentations, but I was most struck by his critique of Kidd’s lecture titled “A Godless American Founding?” Here is what Bulger wrote: