I support Jeffress’s free speech to preach this sermon, but I also support the freedom of every historian–especially evangelical historians–to show that Jeffress’s political views, which he preaches from the pulpit of First Baptist–Dallas, are rooted in some really bad history.
Yesterday Mike Pence appeared before a group of court evangelicals and Christian nationalists and exhorted them to “share the good news of Jesus Christ.” Here is a taste of a Christian Broadcasting Network piece on Pence’s appearance at the Watchman on the Wall Conference:
In a last second surprise appearance before a pastors conference in Washington DC, Vice President Mike Pence outlined how the Trump administration has championed causes important to the evangelical community and implored them to continue to, “share the good news of Jesus Christ.”
“Other than the service of those who wear the uniform of the United States especially our cherished fallen, the ministries that you lead and the prayers that you pray are the greatest consequence in the life of the nation,” the vice-president told those attending the 2018 Watchman on the Wall conference sponsored by the Family Research Council.
“Keep preaching the good news. Keep preaching in season and out of season as the Bible says. Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have,” he continued.
So just what did Pence mean by “the good news of Jesus Christ?” Here are some possible options:
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim Donald Trump as God’s anointed messenger sent to restore America to its Christian roots.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim that America was founded as a Christian nation.
- Go ye into all the world and continue to teach people to live in fear rather than hope.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim and peddle nostalgia for some of the darkest moments in American life.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim the right not to bake cakes for people you don’t like.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim the need to fight for your rights.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim the need to elect the right candidates in the next election.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim the need for victory in the culture wars.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim that the man in the oval office is a serial liar.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim the need to call immigrants rapists and murderers.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim and defend that guy who said that there were “good people” on both sides in Charlottesville.
- Go ye into all the world and proclaim support for a politician who has committed adultery with a porn star and Playboy playmate.
Unfortunately, the real message of the Gospel–the “good news”–has been corrupted in the minds of so many Americans because of Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and the kind of people who gathered at the “Watchman on the Wall” event. These men and women have exchanged the Gospel for political power and at the very least have funneled the “good news” through the lens of partisan politics. Their gospel is Christian nationalism and it is best preached with a healthy dose of fear, power, and nostalgia.
And as long as we are at it, let’s name some of the names of the people who spoke at this event:
Bishop Harry Jackson
Here is a taste of her report:
The girls in red, white and blue plaid skirts and boys in khaki pants climbed aboard the bus with their parents before it pulled away from the Red Lion Inn in Arlington, Va.
The 46 Mississippi sixth-graders from Tupelo Christian Preparatory School were headed to the Mall for a conservative “Christian history” tour — a theme that stands out in largely liberal, diverse Washington, even given the city’s role as host to tours for practically every interest.
“We are a nation founded by people who put their trust in God,” said Stephen McDowell, co-founder of the Providence Foundation, the right-leaning Christian educational nonprofit group in Charlottesville that sponsors the tours.
“What’s our motto?” McDowell called out to the students.
“In God We Trust!” they yelled back in unison.
“America is exceptional,” McDowell continued. “This nation was unlike any in history.”
The tours attempt to explain the buildings, monuments and symbols in the nation’s capital through a Christian lens, as visible proof of religious foundations upon which the country was built.
And here is my small contribution to the article:
Many historians takes issue with the idea of a tour that focuses at looking at national history solely through a conservative Christian perspective.
“People like McDowell get some facts wrong, but my real issue with them is the way they try to spin the past to promote their present-day political agenda,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College, a Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “They cherry-pick. … This is not how historians work.”
The political leanings of the Christian history tour group were apparent.
For example, the students and parents watched Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) give an address in the Senate chambers about labor rights for Native Americans and his opposition to Trump’s stance toward Russia and the recent tax reform law.
“He sounded like he was from somewhere in the North,” Julia Jane Averette, 12, said over lunch. “I wish a Republican had been talking when we went through.”
Averette said she is inspired to become president some day. “I would lower taxes and spend money on things that are useful, like protecting the country, not what Obama did,” she said.
Read the entire article here.
Several of you have mentioned that it was hard to find the revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction on Amazon. We have fixed the problem and the book is now easily accessible through an Amazon search.
Here is a description of the book:
John Fea offers a thoroughly researched, evenhanded primer on whether America was founded to be a Christian nation, as many evangelicals assert, or a secular state, as others contend. He approaches the title’s question from a historical perspective, helping readers see past the emotional rhetoric of today to the recorded facts of our past. This updated edition reports on the many issues that have arisen in recent years concerning religion’s place in American society—including the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, contraception and the Affordable Care Act, and state-level restrictions on abortion—and demonstrates how they lead us to the question of whether the United States was or is a Christian nation. Fea relates the history of these and other developments, pointing to the underlying questions of national religious identity inherent in each.
“We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues,” Fea writes in his preface. “It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the nation’s founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, which can often be contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and America’s founding.”
I wish I would have seen this study when I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. It provides statistical evidence for an argument I have been making ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy.
Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have found that evangelical support for Donald Trump is directly related to the belief, common among conservative evangelicals, that the United States is a Christian nation.
This supports my argument that evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on some pretty bad history. As many of you know, I have been writing about this bad history for a long time. A good place to start is my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.
Here is a taste of Whitehead’s, Baker’s, and Perry’s piece in The Washington Post:
The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump
First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations…
No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump
Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.
Read the entire piece here.
These sociologists used the following questions to decipher the ways that evangelicals think America is a Christian nation:
- “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
- “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
- “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state” (reverse coded)
- “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces”
- “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
- “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”
Now here is how people like David Barton and other Christian nationalists try to historicize these questions:
- The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation because it was founded as a Christian nation and secular liberals have been steering it away from its Christian roots since the mid-20th century.
- The federal government should advocate for Christian values because the founding fathers advocated for the role of Christianity as a way of bringing morality and order to the republic. (This, I might add, is only partially true).
- Separation of church and state is a myth because it is not in the Constitution. The doctrine of separation of church and state was created by the Supreme Court in 1947 when Hugo Black said that there is a “wall of separation” between church and state and it is “high and impregnable.”
- The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols because America has always allowed for such symbols. Just look at the Rotunda of the Capitol building or coins.
- America is exceptional because God is on its side more than He is any other nation. The United States is the New Israel–a chosen people. And because George Washington and other founders talked about God’s providence this must be true.
- The Federal Government should allow prayer in public schools because prayer has always been part of the American education system, separation of church and state is a myth, and many of the Founding Fathers were men of prayer.
There are, of course, serious historical problems with all of these statements, but my point here is that all of these points must be addressed from the perspective of American history. They must be pulled-up from the roots. In many ways the evangelical support for Donald Trump is a historical problem and the failure of evangelicals to study it. This is something akin to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
I recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical Introduction. It 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.
More from Glenn Tinder:
When Christians accept liberty they accept the possibility–a possibility that is almost certain to become a reality–of a world unformed and ungoverned by faith. The natural inclination of faith is to build a sacred order–to reconstruct the world in its own image. In granting liberty, it abandons that spontaneous project It acquiesces in secularism–life unrelated to God and unstructured by faith. Acknowledging the right of human beings to be free, it allows for a repudiation of faith…Granting liberty is making way for sin.
ADDENDUM: Several readers who are not familiar with my work here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home seem to think that Tinder is arguing on behalf of a Christian nation. Actually, Tinder is arguing for liberty rooted in the human dignity of all human beings and, as a result, a kind of pluralism.
Here is more context:
…when Christians commit themselves to liberty there follows an enormous complication of Christian morality; they deliberately refrain, in some measure, from resisting evil. They allow the tares to grow with the wheat.
But Moore represents a peculiar challenge to the GOP future. He holds to a particularly rigorous vision of a Christian America, ultimately ruled and legitimated by “biblical law.” In his conception, the freedom of “religion” in the First Amendment is limited to the Christian (and presumably Jewish) version of the creator God. So the protections of the Constitution do not extend to, say, Buddhism and Islam. “Buddha didn’t create us,” explains Moore. “Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”
The absurdity of this claim is just stunning. Moore is contending that when the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the document was actually intending to establish a religion. This indicates a type of zealotry willing to call night day and day night.
Stunning indeed. I need to do some checking, but I think Moore’s position is an even more consistent Christian nationalism than the stuff peddled by David Barton.
Gerson argues that Moore is less theonomist and more Bannonist:
It is easy to imagine Moore sleeplessly considering American decadence, because his version of biblical law is ceaselessly violated. It is worth asking: What is his limiting principle in enforcing the voice of Heaven? The Ten Commandments set aside the Sabbath for rest. Should that be mandated? How about Old Testament recommendations of the death penalty for adulterers, apostates, blasphemers and incorrigible children? Why not enforce the Apostle Paul’s admonition against “foolish talk”? But that would leave Moore speechless.
No, Moore is not really a theonomist. The boundaries of his worldview, it turns out, almost exactly coincide with those of the Breitbart agenda. Moore’s study of divine law has led him, in the end, to the shabby, third-rate gospel of Stephen K. Bannon.
Read the rest here. I also wonder how much longer we should call Gerson an “evangelical” or a “conservative.”
In 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 “evangelical 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.
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.
Check out Sam Haselby‘s 4th of July post at The Washington Post: “What politicians means when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation?”
Here is a taste:
…today’s debate is rather stark, with Christian nationalists such as Pence and Sessions, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), committed to an evangelical Protestant vision that comes down to little more than pro-life politics, home schooling and rote patriotism. Anti-religious liberals, such as comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, don’t know much about religion at all.
Why has such a vibrant debate dimmed to a litany of talking points? Partially, the answer is that American Christianity has changed. But more important, rather than a historical disagreement or a philosophical one, today’s argument about whether America was founded as a Christian nation is a political one. Arguing whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation is usually just a coded way of asserting about what kind of nation we want America to be. That’s a discussion worth having, and having it directly, without bad historical justifications — an endeavor America’s Founders could have respected.
It’s a nice piece. I encourage you to read Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.
Haselby’s piece reflects a position I have been arguing here and elsewhere for close to a decade and it drives home some of the fundamental questions and issues I have raised in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. (And our current #ChristianAmerica tweetstorm!)
On Sasse: I have never heard him speak about Christian nationalism, but I have a hard time believing he accepts that view. It is possible to be conservative and reject the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. In fact, some of the best stuff written on the subject has come from folks in this camp.
This is a keynote conversation with Jacques Berlinerblau at the 2013 “Secularism on the Edge” Conference at Georgetown University.
If what I am reading about Jay Sekulow is true, it tells us a lot about the Christian Right’s crusade for religious liberty. Sekulow is a lawyer, talk show host, and chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).
ACLJ was founded by Pat Roberson in 1990 at Regent University School of Law for the purpose of defending a conservative view of the United States Constitution. Today the ACLJ is associated with Sekulow, a graduate of Regent Law School.
Back in 2005, the Legal Times described Sekulow as “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian Right.” This role apparently makes him a lot of money. According to the Legal Times he used over $2.3 million from a nonprofit he controlled to buy two homes and lease a private jet. Here is a taste of that article:
Sekulow’s financial dealings deeply trouble some of the people who have worked for him, leading several to speak with Legal Times during the past six months about their concerns — before Sekulow assumed his high-profile role promoting President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees.
“Some of us truly believed God told us to serve Jay,” says one former employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “But not to help him live like Louis XIV. We are coming forward because we need to believe there is fairness in this world.”
Another says: “Jay sends so many discordant signals. He talks about doing God’s work for his donors, and then he flies off in his plane to play golf.”
Still another told Legal Times, “The cause was so good and so valid, but at some point you can’t sacrifice what is right for the sake of the cause.”
Sekulow shrugs off the criticism and makes no apologies. “I wouldn’t pretend to tell you we don’t pay our lawyers well,” including himself, says Sekulow. “As a private lawyer, I could bill $750 an hour, but I don’t.” He does lease a jet, he says, and he does sometimes use it to reach the golf course — but with donors or vendors, he insists. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a blip” of financial irregularity.
Nothing in the relatively loose regulations that govern nonprofits prohibits family members from serving on boards, drawing salaries, or spending money. But critics say the extravagant spending burns up money that Sekulow solicits from donors for legal causes. Citing the high cost of litigating Supreme Court cases, Sekulow wrote in a 2003 fund-raising letter, “We are asking God to prompt every member of the ACLJ to get involved personally in this effort.” He added later, “Please send a generous gift right away.”
Read the rest here.
Fast-forward to 2017 and it appears that little has changed with Jay Sekulow. He continues to use appeals to God to fund his efforts and, apparently, his lavish lifestyle. The only major difference between 2005 and 2017 is that he now serves as counsel to the President of the United States.
I don’t know if what Jay Sekulow is doing is legal or not. What I am interested in is the way that the crusade for religious liberty in America is lining his pockets. (I do not know if Sekulow embraces the views of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, but it would not surprise me if he did). Sekulow is a regular commentator on Fox News and has become a prominent and bombastic legal voice for the Christian Right. He has done a great deal to convince conservative evangelicals that their religious freedom is being threatened. He appeals to the fears of his followers. When Sekulow shows up, conservative evangelicals are comforted. He has their back. He will fight for them. He will take their case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Sekulow’s star will continue to rise among the Court Evangelicals as long as there are more and more threats–real and imagined– to religious liberty. And as long as there are threats to religious liberty, Sekulow can keep asking for money. Hmm….
Below is a video of Sekulow in action. Notice how he and Megyn Kelly root their understanding of religious liberty in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
A Ten Commandments monument now sits outside the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock.
As some monuments are taken down in the United States, others go up. If we have learned one thing through the recent and ongoing Confederate monument debates, monuments actually tell us more about the era in which they were erected than they do the event that they celebrate.
With this in mind, the Arkansas monument will be interpreted by future historians as a symbol of the culture wars. More specifically, it will be interpreted in the context of the Christian Right’s attempt to defend the idea that America is a Christian nation.
Historically, these kinds of monuments–whether they are religious or patriotic in nature–tend to appear in times of great social change. They are one of our best windows into the fear that members of a majority group feel when newcomers arrive or when they must deal with cultural shifts. It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution (and the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy) began erecting monuments all over America around the turn of the 20th-century. This, after all, was a time when the demographic make-up of the United States was changing with the arrival of millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Politicians exploit these fears in order to win elections. They then fulfill their campaign promises by building monuments that reflect their anxieties. I guess it makes people feel better. Apparently a monument now somehow makes Arkansas a Christian state.
Several historians who oppose the removal of certain Confederate monuments have suggested putting the monuments into context so that people can understand the world of white supremacy in which these monuments were erected. With this in mind, perhaps Arkansas might consider erecting another monument at the Capitol engraved with a verse from the New Testament:
There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. –1 John 4:18.
Secondarily, we might ask if this new Arkansas monument represents good history. You can find answers to that question here.
I also recommend Jenna Weissman Joselit’s book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.
Last night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.
During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.” If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”
It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.
Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation. White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term. I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013. Here is what I wrote following that conference:
This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity. I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….
I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer. I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question. But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots. They view America’s founding as anything but Christian. Many of the founding fathers owned slaves. When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former. Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue. One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.
Read the entire post here.
The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
Ronald Reagan invoked the phrase in the 1980s.
Of course this raises even more questions. Does he want to “restore” America to the way it was in the 17th century, at the time Winthrop first used the phrase? Or does he want to “restore” America back to the way it was in the Reagan era? Of perhaps he wants to “restore” America to the age of the Founding Fathers or the 19th century or the 1950s? Inquiring minds want to know.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, Mark Edwards of Spring Arbor University has put together a roundtable of historians over at CNN.com to discuss this question
I am happy to join Amanda Porterfield (Florida State), Steven Green (Willamette University), Kevin Kruse (Princeton University), and Ray Haberski (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) in trying to make sense of this question. It is quite a fitting discussion for Independence Day.
Here is my piece:
If Huckabee keeps pushing this Christian America stuff he will be competitive in Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and maybe even Texas.
Morevoer, Huckabee’s rhetoric basically ignores the religious pluralism that came to define our country in the wake of the 1965 Immigrant Act. How do we bring the Christian God into the center of a republic that is growing more religiously diverse by the day and still respect the founders commitment to religious freedom? Huckabee’s thoughts about the founding are more rooted in nostalgia than good history. He does not understand the concept of “change over time.” We cannot simply freeze the era and ideas of the founding apply them to 21st century America.
I believe Huckabee when he says he rejects a theocracy. But he does not make clear what a country with “God at the center” might look like?
Most Americans are not willing to think in a historically-nuanced way about the relationship between Christian faith and public life. This is why Huckabee, as long as he keeps preaching these ideas, has a decent shot at the GOP nomination.
Gregg Frazer teaches history and politics at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California. He is the author of The Religious Beliefs of the American Founders: Reason, Religion, and Revolution. I think it is fair to call him a conservative evangelical Christian.
Frazer’s book argues that the major founding fathers of the United States were neither deists nor Christians. Instead, they were something in-between. Frazer calls them “theistic rationalists.”
Frazer has also been very critical of fellow conservative evangelicals who claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. He has especially targeted David Barton, a Christian nationalist who has received a great deal of attention here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Barton has written several books, but he is perhaps best known for his video, America’s Godly Heritage. Several historians and bloggers have attempted to debunk some of the historical claims in this video (and there are many), but no one has made a systematic critique of the video until now. Frazer recently posted a devastating, point by point, critique of the video in the form of a thirteen-page paper.
Read it here.
Also check out commentary on Frazer’s takedown at Warren Throckmorton’s blog.
If you are in the Dallas area feel free to come out for this free lecture on Thursday night. Register here.