Reader Feedback: A Review of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?*

I receive a lot of e-mails from folks who have read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Some of these writers want to thank me for my work and others want to argue with me.  But I have never had a reader e-mail me with an entire book review.  
Until now.

The other day I received an e-mail from Dan McElhinny, a public historian who has run historical societies in Alaska and Oregon and is now working for the State of Oregon.  He wrote:

“I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your web site. I took the liberty of writing a review of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.” Your work has piqued my interest in American Religious history…I missed history so I did the review to try to satisfy my love of history. I purchased your book at Colonial Williamsburg while vacationing in D.C. area a few years ago. 

Here is his review:

Was America Founded as A Christian Nation? reminds me that we need history more than we may realize. Some stories are so important they need to be remembered, told, and reexamined. Undertaking the difficult effort to understand the past provides us a better understanding of ourselves. This re-examination, if done with intellectual courage and rigor, allows historians to fulfill the basic human need of finding meaning. I say rigor and courage because these behaviors put spine in historical writing which is especially needed in times of national and/or personal crisis. In these troubled times, lack of spine may lead some to misused history with at least a lazy if not specific malicious intent. 

John Fea produces a historical primer with spine for “anyone who wants to make sense of America’s early history and its relationship to Christianity”. By selecting a subject of profound civic importance and examining it with passion, Fea demonstrates the value of professional historical practice. Using care in topic selection and applying key concepts called the Five C’s of historical scholarship, Fea expresses a genuine faith in human’s use of history. By example, he helps the reader understand and use skills to identify bad from good history. 

Fea examines modern day evangelicals’ claims the United States was founded as a Christian nation. In evaluating the claim, he takes us back to Early America when Evangeical Protestants held control of the American cultural atmosphere. Explaining the complex history of Christian evangelicals’ effort to hold and then take back the mantel of steward of our national culture, Fea illustrates a long and complicated time-line. Melding the influential Second Great Awakening with the American Revolution and the Civil War, Fea illustrates a timeline which anchors a complex yet enigmatic history. 

Illustrating strands of New England founding, critical analysis of founding documents, motivations of the founding fathers as well as describing minority opinions such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, Fea provides a glimpse into the events and people who, when subject to historical inquiry, at least suggests the contingent nature of nation founding and cultural development.

By applying these tools of historians, Fea challenges recent Christian Evangelical claims and clarifies our shared history. Quoting Historian David Armitage, Fea places the Declaration of Independence within the context of 1776. Armitage clearly asserts the documents’ purpose of declaring American political sovereignty. The original intent of the document was not to write a theological document but to announced the birth of the United States. Fea explains, it’s an example of a theistic document which focuses more on Enlightenment political theory than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance was necessary.

Fea continues his examination by suggesting the United States of America was not “founded “ by Pilgrims, Puritans and Jamestown settlers per Evangelical nationalistic claims. These groups planted English colonies. These colonies remained fiercely loyal to the English monarchy until a few years before the American Revolution. 

He highlights the complex nature of religious thought of some of the founding fathers and suggests the motives of these founders not only included using religion to provide order to society but also to respect the religious beliefs of all to insure their creation would survive. Washington clearly was more concerned with unifying the nation than seeking an evangelical goal. Jefferson also worried about the corrosive nature of religious intolerance and its threat to the new republic. These facts undermine the Protestant Evangelicals’ claim that the Founding fathers were Protestant and Evangelical. They were much more.

Fea challenges readers to sharpen their critical thinking skills as applied to historical study. Additional examination of the steps of critical thinking would have strengthened the primer’s goal. Just as he described the Five C’s of historical inquiry, he could also have included critical steps of thinking clearly as a basis of historical thinking. 

Specifically, much effort has been made to understand the value and practice of critical thinking. An example of the best of this effort is Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s The Art of Thinking: A Guide to Critical and Creative Thought. Ruggiero explains that thinking is not done automatically. In this information age the amount of information available to a student or historian is multiplied. Critical thinking allows the historian to select and interpret the information he needs to illustrate meaning. 

Ruggiero suggests that meaning is derived from making moral judgments. Ruggiero states: the most reliable basis for moral judgement, the basis that underlies most ethical systems, is the principle that people have rights existing independently of any government or culture. The most fundamental is the right to be treated with respect and left undisturbed as long as one does not infringe on others’ rights. Good historical writing is a process with a purpose. Coupling this or similar critical thinking volumes with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation would encourage students and the public to understand the awesome, intellectually stimulating power of practical critical thinking skills and how these skills can enrich the practice of historical scholarship.    

I agree with Ruggiero when he says: “no matter how difficult it may be to judge such moral issues, we must judge them. Value judgement is the basis of our social code as well as our legal system.”  Is it legitimate for us to pass judgment on the moral standards of other times or places?” No, for critical historical study seeks to understand a past in the view of those who lived that time. However, an accurate representation of the past allows citizens to make informed moral judgments to better our own lives. I enjoyed reading this fine example of historical scholarship.      

Thanks for this great review, Dan!  I am glad that the book is prompting people to think and engage!