Thank You “Otter”

RevisedI recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical IntroductionIt is written by someone who goes by the name “Otter.” He or she titled the review “Equal Opportunity Disorientation.” I have no idea who this is, but I think “Otter” captures well what I was trying to do in this book:

If you’re anxious to score debating points in the debate about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, avoid this masterful book.

If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.

With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.

Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its “Christian roots” or to minimize America’s religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America’s relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion’s relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? What’s the best understanding between religious rhetoric and institutional commitments? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.

Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.

For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.

Thanks!

Trump’s “God and Country” Language in National Prayer Breakfast Speech

Trump prayer

I offered my take on the speech here. I also contributed to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted as well.

“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.

However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

“Passion of the Christ” Sequel to Feature Jesus Helping Founding Fathers Establish America

Passion

The Babylon Bee continues to deliver the satire.  A taste:

HOLLYWOOD, CA—According to industry sources, director Mel Gibson’s highly anticipated sequel to The Passion of the Christ will center around the resurrected Jesus traveling to the Western Hemisphere to help the Founding Fathers establish the United States of America—God’s chosen nation.

Read the rest here.

Understanding David Barton’s Political Influence

723d3-barton

Check out Tara Isabella Burton‘s excellent piece on David Barton: “Understanding the fake historian behind America’s religious right.”  I am glad Burton found The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog useful in her research.

Here is a taste:

Barton is still cited as an expert by a number of GOP lawmakers. Another is Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania Republican congressional candidate running in a special election to replace Tim Murphy, who resigned following allegations of an extramarital affair and asking a woman he was involved with to have an abortion.

Saccone’s tacit endorsement of Barton — he chose Barton to introduce him at a rally in early 2017, signaling Saccone’s wider political and religious views — should come as no surprise to those who have been following his career in politics. Saccone’s rhetoric as both a state lawmaker and on the campaign trail centers around Bartonian ideas of America as a foundationally Christian nation.

His own book, God in Our Government, seems straight out of the Barton playbook, arguing, as Barton does, that secularists have conspired to obfuscate the Christian history of the United States. Historian John Fea, a longtime critic of Christian nationalism, refers to Saccone on his blog as “one of Pennsylvania’s biggest David Barton supporters….”

The founders double as hero-saints to Barton. Central to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is the idea that America was founded unproblematically; that only a return to this mythologized past will somehow solve perceived problems of structural inequality. “Real” America, in other words, is above criticism.

Of course, it’s worth saying that all accounts of history — left-wing or right-wing, secular or Christian — can also be, in a sense, a form of propaganda. Any narrative of America’s foundation will, of course, be mediated by the specific biases and concerns of the teller. (Historian Fea does a great job pointing out that the secular counterpart to the Barton narrative, that all founding fathers were non-Christian, deist secularists, is also wrong).

Read the entire piece here.

“Christian Politics?”: Week Two

Falwell

Yesterday I taught the second of four 90-minute classes on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Read my summary of Week One here.

If you recall, in Week 1 I explained five ways in which Christians have thought about politics–past and present.  We discussed Anabaptism, Lutheranism, the African-American Church, Calvinism, and Catholicism.

This week we asked: “How have American evangelicals practiced politics, especially in the last fifty years?

We began by defining evangelicalism using the Bebbington Quadrilateral: Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism.  This proved to be a very fruitful conversation.  I taught about 120 people this morning (in 2 sections) and nearly all of them believed in the theological tenets of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.  But only a small percentage ( roughly 25%?) use the word “evangelical” to describe their faith.  In both hours I had people ask me to distinguish between an “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.”

I then offered a quick history lesson focused on why so many conservative white evangelicals in the 1970s began to worry about the decline of Christian culture.  We touched on the separation of church as defined by the Supreme Court in 1947Engel v. Vitale (1962), Abington v. Schempp (1963), changes to American immigration policy (Hart-Cellar Act of 1965), the relationship between segregationism and evangelical libertarianism, Roe v. Wade (1973), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and the religious liberty debates of the last twenty years (“Merry Christmas,” Johnson Amendment, Ten Commandments in courthouses, etc.).

I then introduced the political playbook devised by the Religious Right in the 1970s to deal with these social and cultural changes.  The playbook teaches:

  1. America was founded as a Christian nation
  2. America’s status as a Christian nation is in jeopardy
  3. We must “reclaim” or “restore” America to its Christian roots
  4. We must do this through electoral politics by electing the right people who will, in turn, pass the right laws and appoint the right judges
  5. We will win back the culture for Christ
  6. If this happens, we’re not really sure what we will do next, but we do know that God will once again be happy with the United States.

When I talked about #6 above I emphasized how evangelicals have not thought very deeply about politics.  Many evangelical leaders have no idea what they will do if the proverbial dog catches the proverbial bus.  This, as Ronald Sider described it, is the “scandal of evangelical politics.”

Here is what I told the class they could expect in Week Three:

  1. The current evangelical political playbook, as written over the course of the last fifty years, privileges fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.
  2. We will then ask: “Are these healthy or biblical ideas (fear, power, nostalgia) from which to build a truly evangelical approach to politics?

Stay tuned.

CBC News on the Museum of the Bible

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

Canadians are apparently interested in this week’s opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.  I was happy to help Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Matt Kwong make some sense of this museum.  Here is a taste of his piece at CBC News:

A museum attraction on the second-floor Impact collection called Washington Revelations is feeding evangelical scholar John Fea’s doubts. The multi-sensory “4D” ride takes visitors soaring over D.C. landmarks to highlight scripture inscribed on landmarks, such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.

To Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the idea mirrors evangelical activist David Barton’s WallBuilders movement, which promotes a view the United States was founded as a Christian nation. A signature program of the WallBuilders is to bring ministers and state politicians on tours of Washington to show them places bearing biblical verse.

“There’s a temptation there to send the message that America is a certain kind of nation, a Christian nation,” Fea said. “A nation where the Bible should be important and prominent in shaping public life. In other words, [suggesting] we were a Bible nation from the beginning.”

Though he admires the museum project in concept, he questions whether the building just three blocks from Congress will service a conservative vision of American Christian nationalism.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Judge Roy Moore

MooreRoy Moore is going to keep people like me busy.  If he wins the Alabama Senate seat in December he will go to Washington and continue to make his historically misinformed Christian nationalist claims.  But in terms of politics, I don’t think it really matters that Moore is probably going to the Senate instead of Luther Strange.  Both men will vote the same way on most issues.

Here is a taste of Rachel Chason’s Washington Post piece on Moore’s brand of Christian politics:

Roy Moore’s reading of the Bible has long informed the way the former chief justice of Alabama interpreted the law, and it promises to continue to do so now that he has won the Alabama Republican primary.

Moore, unlike any other Senate candidate in recent history, made his belief in the supremacy of a Christian God over the Constitution the cornerstone of his campaign.

“I want to see virtue and morality returned to our country and God is the only source of our law, liberty and government,” Moore said during Thursday’s debate with incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who was backed by President Trump and the Republican establishment.

The central argument of Moore’s campaign, The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reported, is that removing the sovereignty of a Christian God from the functions of government is an act of apostasy, an affront to the biblical savior as well as the Constitution. He even carries a pocket pamphlet that he published with a legal theory of God’s supremacy.

Read the entire piece here.

“Faith Facts” on Roy Moore

Roy Moore,Patricia Jones

He may be the next senator from Alabama.  Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron provides five quick “faith facts” about Roy Moore:

  1. He is a Christian nationalist
  2. He was removed twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court because of conflicts between his religious convictions and the law
  3. He is a Southern Baptist
  4. He believes Islam is a “false religion.”
  5. He does not believe in evolutio

See how Shimron unpacks these points here.

I was happy to contribute background to Shimron’s piece, especially on point #1 above.

Alabama Republicans May Have Just Sent a Christian Nationalist to the Senate

Judge_Roy_MooreIf Judge Roy Moore is able to defeat his Democratic opponent in December, his ticket to the United States Senate will be punched.  Last night Moore defeated Luther Strange in an Alabama special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat.  The election has been getting a lot of attention because Donald Trump backed Strange, the GOP “establishment” backed Strange, and most of Trump’s supporters in Alabama supported Moore.  But let’s also remember that Moore believes that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation.

Moore made national headlines in 2001 when he was removed from his position as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court because he refused to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments.  Moore was elected to Alabama’s highest court again in 2013, but was suspended in 2016 when he told probate judges under his authority to continue to enforce the state ban on same-sex marriage.  He resigned in April 2017 and soon after started his Senate campaign.

In August 2017, VOX reporter Jeff Stein interviewed Moore about his God and country beliefs.  Here is a taste of that interview:

Jeff Stein:

…Where should the limits be between religion and public life if you could?

Roy Moore:

You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.

And then it starts there first. You have to understand it was the duty of the government under the First Amendment, according to Joseph Story who was there for 37 years and wrote the stories on the Constitution.

It was the duty to foster religion and foster Christianity. He said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution that “it was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to be favored by the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience.”

Read the entire interview and Stein’s accompanying article here.

Baylor University Surveys Trump Voters

c7789-trump

Read the entire report here.

Trump voters:

  • say they are very religious
  • see Muslims as threats to America
  • view the United States as a Christian nation
  • believe in an “Authoritative God” (a deity who is highly engaged and highly judgmental)
  • value gender traditionalism

The report notes:

This collection of values and attitudes form the core ethos of what we might call Trumpism. It is a new form of nationalism which merges pro-Christian rhetoric with anti-Islam, anti-feminist, anti-globalist, and anti-government attitudes.

New Review of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?*

RevisedRobert Weir of the University of Massachusetts reviews the revised edition at the website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.  Here is a taste:

In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.

Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.

But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not theUnited States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.

Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.

Read the entire review here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: Trump Should Not Apologize for Charlottesville Statements. “He Did Just Fine”

Here is court evangelical Robert Jeffress on Fox Business News last night.

He rightly condemns racism, as he has been doing all along.  This is good.  But he also defends the POTUS,  saying that Trump wants to condemn “all racism.”  I’m not sure what he means here by “all racism.”  Is he somehow referring to “racism against whites?”  Is he suggesting that there was racism on both sides in Charlottesville?

Jeffress again takes on the “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, Republicans, and the “religious establishment”) that wants to “take this president down for various reasons.”

Then he begins suggesting (with the help of the host) that the members of this “axis of evil” want to erase American history and the “Judeo-Christian foundations of this nation.”  He repeats the historically dubious claim that “no president in history has done more to stand of for religious liberty than Donald Trump.” (See my comments on this claim here).

Finally, he advises Trump not to apologize for his handling of Charlottesville.  According to Jeffress. “he did just fine.”  It looks like we are finally getting a sense of what the court evangelicals are whispering to Trump in those secret meetings.

“He did just fine.”

Did You Know That God or the Divine is Mentioned in Every State Constitution?

Pew

I knew it!  We really are a Christian nation!  🙂

The Pew Research Center has just released a report showing that each of the 50 state constitutions mention God or the divine.

Here is a taste:

All but four state constitutions – those in Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii and Washington – use the word “God” at least once. The constitutions in Colorado, Iowa and Washington refer to a “Supreme Being” or “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” while Hawaii’s constitution makes reference to the divine only in its preamble, which states that the people of Hawaii are “grateful for Divine Guidance.”

Most state constitutions – 34 – refer to God more than once. Of the 116 times the word appears in state constitutions, eight are in the Massachusetts constitution, and New Hampshire and Vermont have six references each. Perhaps surprisingly, all three of these states are among the least religious in the country, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis.

In addition to the 116 mentions of God, there are also 14 mentions of a Supreme or Sovereign Being, seven mentions of the “Creator,” three mentions of “providence,” four mentions of “divine” and 46 instances of the word “almighty.” While there are 32 mentions of the word “Lord,” all but one refer to “the year of our Lord” and so are not direct references to God. (Indeed, the U.S. Constitution also makes reference to “the year of our Lord.”) There also are seven mentions of the word “Christian.”

Read the entire post.

I am surprised I have not heard more about this report from all those Christian nationalists out there.

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.

But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

Rod Dreher: It’s “grotesque idolatry”

jeffress

Rod Dreher, conservative blogger and author of The Benedict Optionunloads on Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress, his First Baptist Church in Dallas, and patriotic worship.

Here is a taste of his blog post at The American Conservative:

I find it impossible to watch that ceremony (I’ve been sitting here in the Miami airport watching much of it) and judge it as anything but grotesque idolatry. Not patriotism, idolatry. It’s idolatry of Donald Trump, and idolatry of the United States of America. It is shocking and repulsive, and there will be heavy consequences for conflating the Gospel of Jesus Christ with burning a double handful of incense to President Trump and the USA.

It is good to love one’s country, and to be grateful to God for it. I do, and I am. But this is something different.

What, exactly, does it mean to call on the church to “lift the torch of freedom all across the land”? It’s cant. It’s kitsch. “Freedom” is not the same thing as righteousness. As St. Augustine taught, sin is disordered love. You can love good things in a disordered way, and fall into sin. Christians whose moral imaginations are formed in this way, what is going to happen to them when the US government — under Donald Trump, or some future president — does something wicked, something that followers of Jesus Christ ought to stand against?

Read the rest here.