In January I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a course at my church titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”
“Mainstream Evangelical” is probably the best way to describe the people who attend West Shore Evangelical Free Church. The theological commitments and cultural sensibilities of the folks who attend West Shore represent the views of millions of white American evangelicals. The membership of West Shore is solidly middle class. The pastors are generally Calvinist (some more than others) in theological orientation. The music is contemporary (yes we have a worship band). The sanctuary has chairs (not pews) and a state of the art sound system. Members read popular books published by evangelical publishers and listen to Christian speakers such as Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Eric Metaxas, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Andy Stanley, David Platt, Tim Tebow, Max Lucado, and Ravi Zacharias. Most of the members vote GOP. I would guess that a good number of the people in my church voted for Donald Trump. I would also guess that many supported another GOP candidate in the primaries. And I would guess that very few voted for Hillary Clinton.
Again, this is mainstream white evangelicalism.
I went into this 4-week course expecting trouble. Frankly, I was surprised that the pastoral staff asked me to teach it. Most evangelical churches tend to shy away from courses like this. Such courses are too controversial. Pastors don’t want their congregations divided over political issues such as whether or not America is a Christian nation.
Anyone who has read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? knows that the book is not polemical in its approach to this question. But in certain evangelical churches, the very fact that a book like this does not openly promote the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation automatically makes it polemical and unChristian.
Now that the course is over, I am happy to report that everything went well. If there were David Barton-types in the class (I taught about 150 people per Sunday) they did not speak-up. (Although a few of them made themselves known anonymously on their course evaluations forms. Some were quite scathing). Those in the class seemed to approach the topic with an open mind. It gave me hope that we actually can make progress in bringing good American history to the evangelical church. It made me want to continue my work on this front (if other evangelical churches would have me).
The biggest challenge in a course like this is trying to get the class to think historically. As Sam Wineburg has taught us, historcal thinking is indeed an “unnatural act.” When most evangelicals come to a class titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” they naturally think about the question in political terms. This question has become one of the major battlefields in the so-called “culture wars.”
When I started to teach from a historical perspective–an approach that makes every effort to understand the material on its own terms rather than using the historical facts to make a contemporary political point–I think some people found it jarring. Why is he pointing out that the founding fathers may have been too innovative and political in their use of the Bible? Why is he calling our attention to founding fathers who were not Christians? Why is he pointing out the fact that God is not mentioned in the Constitution? Is this guy one of us? They feel much more comfortable when I talk about the God-language in revolutionary-era state constitutions or how Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams appealed to the Bible to make a case for independence. They want a usable past to fight the culture wars. But that is not how historians work.
A few years ago one of the people in my church who had just finished reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? stopped me in the hallway and thanked me for writing it. But he said that reading the book was like “riding a rollercoaster.” He said that as he read one page he found himself in agreement with me, but then on the next page he said that he was baffled when I raised issues that did not fit well with his political world view or his assumptions about the agenda behind my book.. This person was conditioned to read American history through the lens of the culture wars. It took him some time to realize that my book– a history book–was not written to promote a political agenda. My class at West Shore last month seemed to be just as disoriented. They were looking for ammunition to fight the culture wars and I did not deliver. Instead, I tried to tell the truth about the past to the best of my ability.
The response to the class was overwhelming. I received at least 8-10 e-mails each week from folks who had additional questions. I was encouraged that so many of my fellow evangelicals wanted to think more deeply about religion and the founding. Many left with more questions than answers. This is good. Some have already asked me for additional reading material so they can expand their knowledge of the subject.
I learned a lot from the course as well. I thought I attended a church filled with Christian nationalists. Instead, I discovered that many folks in my church are eager to learn. They want to make sure that their political witness is not damaged by claims that America is a Christian nation that somehow needs to be “restored.” And I also learned that there are a lot of folks in my church who did not think the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. They are very bothered by the fact that so many evangelicals manipulate the past to serve political ends.
I want to thank the pastoral staff at West Shore for inviting me to teach this class and for advertising it to the congregation. I am becoming more and more convinced that my church really does care about the cultivation of the evangelical mind as a means of equipping men and women for faithful Christian service.