Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Trump’s National Prayer Declaration in Historical Context

adams-proclomation

Here is Trump’s proclamation:

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7:  “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.

On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91:  “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”

As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

The founding fathers, of course, were divided over these kinds of proclamations.

On March 23, 1798, prior to the United States’s so-called “Quasi War” with France, president John Adams declared a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” for May 9, 1798. Here is a taste:

And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly Disposition, Conduct, and Demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by Depradations on our Commerce, and the Infliction of Injuries on very many of our Fellow Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the Seas.–Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the Mercy and Benediction of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its Inhabitants.

Here is what I wrote about this proclamation in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

Many perceived Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer to be little more than a political tool to win support for his own political party, the New England-concentrated Federalists.  The Federalists believed that government had the responsibility of enforcing public morality rooted in the Christian faith….Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was endorsed by the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was suspected by many to have secret ambitions of creating a national religious establishment.  The fast declaration was thus criticized by his Republican political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson, his eventual opponent in the next presidential election.  According to Adams, American religious denominations and sects, especially those who guarded their religious liberties closely and tended to vote Republican, cried out, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian president.” Adams was not a Presbyterian, but his firm belief that the president should promote religion and morality did not sit well with those Christians and others who feared that such government involvement in religious matters was the first step toward tyranny and the erosion of religious freedom.  Adams would later write that his decision to call for a religious fast day may have cost him a victory in the 1800 presidential election. 

While there is certainly a tradition of these proclamations in our country’s history, there is also a tradition of presidents using these proclamations to advance a political agenda. With this in mind, Trump is both calling the nation to turn to God in this difficult moment and strengthening his evangelical base as the November elections approach.

In 1808, in light of the British impressment of American ships and the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller asked president Thomas Jefferson to issue a day of fasting, humiliation, prayer. Here is a taste of his letter:

Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. Various means have been suggested for the attainment of this object. Among others, it has been proposed that the Clergy of our City, as a body, should make an application, more or less formal, to the President of the United States, requesting him, by Proclamation, to recommend such a public observance. I am not certain that such an application is determined on, even in the mind of an individual; but it has been proposed, and may possibly be made.—

The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise. I am sensible that a question may arise, both with regard to the constitutional power of the President to act in a case of this kind, and the occasions on which it is expedient to exercise such a power, supposing it to be possessed. But on neither of these points does it become me to offer any observation. It is possible that your views of the subject might forbid you to take such a step as that which is proposed, under any circumstances: and it is also possible that an application from a body of respectable Clergymen might be considered as, in some degree, removing your objections, if any exist; at least such of them as arise from an aversion to all interference, on the part of a civil Magistrate, with the religious concerns of the community.—

Miller knew that Jefferson was no fan of these proclamations. Here is part of Jefferson’s response to Miller’s letter:

I have duly recieved your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorised to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US. certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. it must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.   but it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. that is that I should indirectly assume to the US. an authority over religious exercises which the constitution has directly precluded them from. it must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it: not indeed of fine & imprisonment but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. and does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, its discipline or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies that the General government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. fasting & prayer are religious exercises. the enjoining them an act of discipline, every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets. and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. but I have ever believed that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. be this as it may every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

As you can see, Jefferson did not believe that the United States government had the authority to issue such days of prayer. Notice that Jefferson did not agree with Adams’s previous proclamations and thus refused to follow Adams’s precedent.

What about James Madison? On June 30, 1812, as the United States entered a war with England in 1812, president Madison received a letter from Jacob Jones Janeway, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and clerk at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which had met in Philadelphia the previous month.  Janeway wrote:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, during their sessions in May last, recommended to all the churches under their care, to observe the last Thursday in July next as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. The Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, which was sitting in this City at the same time, concurred in the measure: and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, which lately met at Albany, adopted it, and have recommended the observance of that day by their churches. And I have been informed that, at the request of the last body presented, through the Legislature of the State of New York, to the Governor, he has consented to recommend the observance of the same day to all religious denominations in that state. A petition is now preparing to be sent to the Governor of this State, requesting him to recommend a concurrence in the religious exercises of that day to the people throughout this state.

From the preceding statement, it will be seen, that a large portion of the citizens of these United States, will be engaged in the observance of the day already mentioned: and I take the liberty of suggesting, that it will be an accommodation to them, as well as secure a more general concurrence in the devotions of the day, if your Excellency should think it proper to select that as the day to be recommended to the people of the United States of America, as a day of humiliation and prayer to Almighty God. What has been written must be the apology for this intrusion, by Your Excellency’s humble & obedient servant.

Madison did not heed Janeway’s call for a July day of prayer, but he eventually did issue such a presidential proclamation for August:

Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint Resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request, that a day may be recommended, to be observed by the People of the United States, with religious solemnity, as a day of public Humiliation and Prayer:1 and whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed, to offer, at one and the same time, their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in which he has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States; I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next, as a convenient day, to be so set apart, for the devout purposes of rendering to the Sovereign of the Universe, and the Benefactor of mankind, the public homage due to his holy attributes; of acknowleging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance & amendment; and, especially, of offering fervent supplications, that in the present season of calamity and war, he would take the American People under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice & of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blesings of Peace. Given at Washington the ninth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twelve.

As historian John Ragosta argues in his book Religious Freedom: Jeffersonian’s Legacy, America’s Creed, Madison was always uncomfortable with these kinds of declarations. Ragosta writes,

[Like Jefferson], Madison…also struggled with proclamations.  During his administration, Congress asked for prayer proclamations at a time when the country faced the crisis of the War of 1812, a political crisis of confidence was almost overwhelming Madison, and dissolution of the union seemed a real possibility.  Even then, Madison was uneasy with the exercise. In 1813, he acquiesced to one declaration noting that Congress “signified a request” for a day of prayer, but he still moved cautiously, issuing “this my Proclamation, recommending to all, who shall be piously disposed…guided only by their free choice.” Later he explained: “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unit in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.”  Still, after the crisis passed, Madison regretted having issued even these qualified proclamations, viewing them as exceeding constitutional bounds. Government religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”  In addition to the problem of endorsement, Madison was concerned with the use (abuse) of religion to support political institutions (again, “priestcraft”).

If you’ve read this far, I hope this post give you some historical context for Trump’s proclamation today.  These proclamations have always been contested, political, and religious.

Christians Issue a Statement Against Christian Nationalism

Christian NAtionA group of Christians have written a statement opposing Christian nationalism, or the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and continues to be a Christian nation.  Such a view, as I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introductionhas a long history.  Today this idea drives much of the political agenda of the Christian Right.

Here is the statement, which I have signed:

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

 As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that:

  • People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

  • Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

  • One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

  • Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

  • Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

  • America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

  • Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

  • We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

Most of the original endorsers are affiliated in some way with the Christian left: Tony Campolo, Michael Curry, Melissa Rogers, Jim Wallis, and the leaders of several mainline Protestant denominations.

But where are the thoughtful moderate and conservative evangelicals?  Where do they disagree?  I read the names of every signer and see very few evangelical names that I recognize.

*The Guardian* and *Salon* Cover *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dHere is Tom McCarthy at The Guardian:

Meanwhile, Trump has addressed a central concern for white evangelicals that they are losing influence as a group and that the sun is setting on the United States they dream of – a nation that is white and Christian in its majority and in its essence.

“They’ll look away from the moral indiscretion in order to get their political agenda in place… they want to reclaim, renew, restore what they believe was a Christian culture, a Christian America that has been lost,” said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trump’s perceived delivery on that dream overwhelms qualms that many religious voters might have about sexual assault allegations against Trump, or about his multiple marriages or worship of mammon, Fea said.

“They don’t see this at all as hypocrisy,” Fea said. “They believe that Trump is appointed by God for a moment such as this. They believe that God uses corrupt people – there are examples in the Bible of this, so they’ll call upon these verses.

“They truly believe that ‘God works in mysterious ways. He uses even someone like Donald Trump to accomplish His will.’”

Read the entire piece here.

And here is Paul Rosenberg at Salon:

Clarkson’s reporting was his latest on Project Blitz — a Christian right stealth state legislative campaign first exposed by him early last year, and reported here at Salon. As I wrote then, its guiding vision is heavily influenced by pseudo-historian David Barton, who “has been discredited by every American historian I know,” according to evangelical historian John Fea. (See Fea’s latest on Barton here.) The myth of America’s founding as a Christian nation, and our supposed need to restore what’s been lost, are its guiding lights, with three proposed tiers of legislation.

Also this:

There are different schools of dominionism, and as Julie Ingersoll explained in “Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction” (Salon interview here), their ideas have had enormous influence on the religious right, even among many Christians who overtly disavow them. Barton and many others involved with Project Blitz subscribe to what is called “Seven Mountains” dominionism, devoted to infiltrating and taking over the “seven mountains of culture”: government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family and business. Coming out of the “New Apostolic Reformation,” styling themselves as “apostles” and “prophets,” those folks have an exalted opinion of themselves. Secretive, extremist means to a “holy” end often find favor with them. 

Clarkson points to the case of state legislation in Minnesota, which he sees as “a harbinger of a more profoundly theocratic politics on the horizon.” Project Blitz works through a network of state-level legislative prayer caucuses, and in Minnesota, the state director, Rev. Dale Witherington, also runs an explicit Seven Mountains organization, RestoreMN, devoted to the “restoration of Biblical values in our nation” and “Biblical citizenship.” 

This year provided a taste of what he has in mind. The story begins with an attempt to slash the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society by $4 million (possibly resulting in a 25% staff cuts) for failing to conform to Christian nationalist ideology. 

When the cuts were first proposed by State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, she refused to explain why, beyond saying it was because of an unspecified “controversy.” State Sen. John Marty, a Twin Cities Democrat, eventually got the scoop from another Republican member, who explained that it had to do with “what he called ‘revisionist history’ at the 200-year-old Historic Fort Snelling.

This “revisionist history” involved the fort expanding its educational mission to include the Dakota name for the area, Bdote, and a 10,000-year history that included “Native peoples, trade, soldiers and veterans, enslaved people, immigrants, and the changing landscape.” That history happens to be true. But as Marty told me, religious conservatives “wanted the history that they were taught 4th grade, and think that that’s all there is to it. Anything else is ‘revisionist history.’” 

Those proposed cuts restored by Democrats, who control the state House and the governor’s office. But the story doesn’t end there. In the May issue of Americans United’s Church and State magazine, historian Steven Greene blew the whistle on what’s probably the real story — a behind-the-scenes threat from the Minnesota Prayer Caucus, to slash the Historical Society funding in retaliation for scheduling two lectures based on his 2015 book, “Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding.

Greene’s book was published by Oxford University Press, arguably the world’s leading academic publisher, and was praised by evangelical historian John Fea, himself the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.” Fea called it “the most thorough critique of Christian nationalism available today,” and said, “Anyone interested in this subject must read this book.” (Fea and Greene both took part in a 2015 CNN forum on the subject here.) 

But the Minnesota Prayer Caucus was not impressed, and accused the Historical Society of “promoting a narrative about our nation’s history and founding that is patently false.” (Mind you, its members had not seen the book, let alone read it.) After an exchange of letters, the caucus eventually made a veiled threat, requesting “that our side of the story be presented with your support and promotion through the Minnesota Historical Society,” and saying that it should be scheduled and promoted by May 1 of this year, “when committees begin to meet to review appropriations to various organizations and groups.”

Read the entire piece here.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Back in 2015 I joined George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Tracy McKenzie to discuss this topic at a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by Wheaton College.  You can watch the conversation here:

I wrote about this conference in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is what I wrote:

In early 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio.  McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year on the campus of Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago.  I was initially surprised by the invitation.  I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject.  I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States . I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation on the subject of my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?.  I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot.  After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to.  He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trends in their African American and interracial congregations.  Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation . McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals.  The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinatti that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.  McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.”  Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism?  If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans.  And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.

Some Thoughts on Ben Shapiro’s David Barton Interview

It’s the season of patriotism in the United States. That means it is time for David Barton to emerge and try to convince us all that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Here is his recent interview with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro:

Some commentary:

2:15ff:  Barton describes the idea behind “Wallbuilders.” The core assumption is that America, like the temple walls in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, needs to be rebuilt.  Barton believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, but the Judeo-Christian walls of America are crumbling.  It is time for renewal, restoration, and rebuilding.

Barton is not the only one who has used this “wallbuilders” metaphor.  In a 2016 inauguration sermon, court evangelical Robert Jeffress described Trump as a modern-day Nehemiah–a president tasked with rebuilding America in the wake of the Obama administration. Those who think Trump is a new King Cyrus also make an indirect appeal to the Nehemiah and the wall.  Cyrus was the Persian King who set the Israelites free from their captivity so that they could return to the promised land and rebuild.

3:00ff: Barton explains why he collects documents.  As he often does, he assumes that the original documents somehow contain magical power.  He believes that because he reads the original documents he has some special interpretive insight.  Barton seems to have no clue that many of the documents he owns are widely available at libraries, archives, and online.  In other words, you don’t need to own these books and documents in order to accurately interpret what they say.  It still surprises me that Barton has managed to deceive conservative evangelicals into believing that he has the historical authority to interpret the founding era because he owns copies of these works.

6:40ff:  Barton makes it sound as if he travels around the country speaking at colleges and law schools.  This is technically true, but most of these schools are Christian Right colleges, universities, and Bible colleges.  A few years ago, Barton published a list of the the only schools in the country that he deemed to be true to the teachings of the Bible.

8:15ff:  Barton breaks out a copy of the so-called Aitken Bible.  Here is what I wrote about that Bible in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction: “In 1777 Congress explored the possibility of publishing an American edition of the Bible, but the idea was shelved due to the cost of publishing, the availability of the appropriate paper, and the pressing demands of war.  In Philadelphia, printer Robert Aitken went forward with the publication of his own American Bible.  Congress had turned down Aitken’s initial request for funds to support his Bible project, but it did give his new Bible an official endorsement.”  So Barton is technically correct here.

But something else is worth noting. Barton is a master at knocking down straw men.  After showing the Bible to Shapiro and noting that Congress recommended the Aitken Bible for schools, Barton says sarcastically, “wait a minute, I was told the founding fathers didn’t want religion in their schools at all, and you go, well then what do you do with this?” I say that Barton is attacking a straw man because I don’t know of any legitimate scholar of religion and the American founding who would argue that there were many founders who thought the Bible was a useful textbook in schools.

Barton’s understanding of the past is rooted in his originalism.  In other words, Barton believes that if the founders, men who lived in a very different time than our own, wanted religion in schools, then we should have religion in schools today.  Barton make a lot of factual errors about the past, but the deeper problem with his work is a failure to think historically.  This is why I often remind my readers and students that the past is a “foreign country” where they “do things differently.” Continuity between the past and the present is important, and should not be ignored, but in dealing with people like Barton the “pastness of the past” (to quote Gordon Wood) and the historical thinking concept of “change over time” is more important.

8:25ff:  Barton makes the claim that the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, including the belief that we “all men are created equal” and the notion that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” came from Massachusetts pastor John Wise. (He is not alone here). Barton seems unaware of the fact that these ideals have long standing roots in British political philosophy dating back to at least the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Many of them, in fact, date back to the Magna Carta (1215).  This is the first time I have ever heard Barton invoke Wise in this way.

11:05ff:  Barton believes that the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment only applies to specific Protestant denominations.  He has been making this case for a long time.  On the other hand, Barton is correct when he talks about the religious and moral clauses in the Northwest Ordinance.

12:25ff:  Here Barton implies that he learned about the founders’s view on religion and morality after he “got a copy” of George Washington’s farewell address.  Again, this address has been widely published and is easily accessible.  One does not have to “get their hands” on the document in order to know what Washington said.  And yes, Barton is correct about Washington’s call for “religion and morality.”  Again, no scholar is going to argue with him here.  (See my straw man comment above).

15:00ff:  Barton’s take on Jefferson’s Danbury letter, and the way it was used by the Supreme Court in 1947, is pretty accurate.

19:00ff:  I am curious to know the identity of this “scholar at Notre Dame” who Barton is referencing here.  If this unnamed scholar is claiming, as Barton suggests he does, that all the Founding Fathers were deists, then the scholar is just adding fuel to Barton’s fire.  I have argued that the founders were quite diverse in their religious views, but few of them could be called deists.

20:00ff:  Barton continues to repeat the preposterous myth that 29 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence graduated from schools “that in their day were considered Bible schools or seminaries.”  To his credit, Barton has nuanced this claim a bit with the phrase “in their day.”  But he still makes it sound as if the founding fathers all attended Moody Bible Institute or Liberty University Divinity School.

20:50ff: These proclamations of prayer and fasting were indeed pretty common in early America. Barton is right about this.

24:15ff: Believe it or not, Barton thinks that we don’t pay enough attention to Jews, African Americans, and women in American history.  He says that our study of the American Revolution is “too white” and “too Protestant.”  Wait–when did David Barton get woke?

Actually, Barton makes it sound like he is the first person to call attention to Jews, African Americans and women in the Revolution.  He is completely unaware of the fact that scholars have been studying these topics for a long, long time.  Also notice that Barton interprets these identity groups in terms of their heroic behavior, but he fails to say anything about America’s long history of anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, and discrimination against women.  Barton seems incapable of seeing the moral complexity in American history.  This is what happens when you cherry-pick from the past for the purposes of using it to promote a political agenda in the present.

29:35ff:  Barton claims that Ben Franklin was a deist, but he eventually rejected deism because he came under the influence of George Whitefield’s preaching.  Not really. (See my chapter on Franklin’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and in this collection). Franklin and Whitefield were friends, and they shared similar beliefs about public morality, but there is no evidence to suggest that Whitefield pulled Franklin out of deism and turned him into a “faith guy for the rest of his life.”  (I have argued that Franklin dabbled with deism early in his career, but never really embraced the movement in its purist form.  Nor did he ever become a Christian).

30:00ff: Barton makes the case that George Washington was a Christian.  Maybe.  But Barton here is still fighting with Paul Boller’s 1963 book George Washington and Religion.  I don’t know of any Washington scholars today who say Washington was a deist.  Yes, there many some secular pundits out there who make this claim, but Boller’s argument has been largely debunked.  (Although I would not go as far as Christian Right writer Peter Lillback who tried to turn him into something close to an evangelical Christian.  Again, I have a chapter on Washington in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).

31:07ff:  Shapiro asked Barton about Thomas Jefferson.  Barton answers with most of the same talking points he first introduced in his book The Jefferson Lies. This book has been largely discredited by historians, including many evangelical historians.  (The book had so many historical problems that the conservative evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson pulled it from publication.  I covered this extensively here. I also call your attention to Michael Coulter’s and Warren Throckmorton’s Getting Jefferson Right.

42:00ff: Barton uses the Barbary Wars to suggest that Islam is incompatible with American values.  This is why the Trump evangelicals love David Barton.

49:00ff:  Barton claims that the founders believed that only Judeo-Christian values would sustain a healthy republic.  In other words, Barton argues that the founders did not think morality with roots in other sources could sustain a republic.  Some founders believed this, but others did not.

51:00ff:  Barton says he has 120,000 documents from the founding era.  Please get these documents into an archive!

52:00: Barton claims that the separation of powers come from Jeremiah 17:9.  He rejects the idea that the American view of separation of powers comes from Enlightenment writers.  For a more nuanced view on the Bible’s influence on the founders see Daniel Driesbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

55:25ff:  Barton cites Donald Lutz’s study of the founding.  This is a good study, but the findings can also be twisted for culture war purposes.  I write about Lutz’s work in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

57:45ff: Shapiro asks Barton how he deals with the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery.  Barton invokes “original intent” here.  He claims that the Bible teaches liberty, not slavery. Note how Barton transitions from a historical argument to a theological argument as he answers Shapiro’s question. He defends the teaching of the Bible, claiming that if one considers its ideas in context one could not conclude that it endorses slavery.  I have some sympathy with this argument, but it also fails to treat the Bible as a product of the ancient world where slavery was generally accepted.

But what I find most interesting here is how Barton admits that the Bible was used for all kinds of things that we would consider immoral today.  If this is true, then why is he unable to point out the sins of the founders and the nation they created?  If we live in a sinful, broken world, wouldn’t we expect our nation to be a deeply flawed?  Why try to glorify the founders?  Why not embrace the complexity?  Because it all comes down to political power.  To tell an honest story about the founders would not fit very well with David Barton’s political agenda.

Click here to see all my blog posts about Barton.  I have been writing about this guy for a long time.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History

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Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner.  It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.

Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:

I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context.  Most early American historians would agree.  Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):

So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived.  Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms.  This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past.  As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present.  But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.”  As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.

Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians?  And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?

 

First Baptist Dallas “Christian America” Billboard Comes Down

Jeffress Billboard

Last week we wrote about the billboard in Dallas advertising Robert Jeffress’s upcoming sermon at First Baptist-Dallas: “America is a Christian Nation.”  Read our post here.

The billboard company pulled the signs down.

Here is a taste of Tre Goins-Phillips’s piece at Independent Journal-Review:

Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor and one of the Trump administration’s evangelical advisers, is facing criticism over billboards his church erected declaring America a “Christian nation.”

In fact, after a bit of online outrage, including an editorial from The Dallas Morning News, the billboard company contracting with the church, Outfront Media, decided to pull the signs down, describing the declaration — “America Is a Christian Nation” — as “anger provoking,” according to a statement from the church that was obtained by IJR.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, seemed to take issue with the billboards, too. In a statement to the newspaper, Rawlings said he doesn’t mind people “being proud of the Christian tradition in America” but added it’s important for the faith-based community to promote “a city of love versus a city of hate.”

And Metroplex Atheists, a branch of the national group American Atheists, is staging a protest at First Baptist Church to confront Jeffress’ patriotic message.

Read the rest here.

If a baker is allowed to deny services to same-sex couples, then I guess a billboard company can reject a message that they find offensive.

In my opinion, this billboard should come down because it makes a claim based on bad history.  It is fake news.  I wrote a book about this a few years ago and some of these themes will also appear in my latest book:

Believe Me Banner

Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

Yes, I am Biased!

Watch this:

At about the 3:40 mark, one of the hosts on The View asks Tapper if he has a liberal bias. Tapper says: “I am absolutely biased against lies.  When there are people lying, I am absolutely 100% against it.”

In some small way I can relate to what Tapper said here.  In case you haven’t noticed, I occasionally take some heat for criticizing my fellow evangelicals who ardently support Donald Trump.   So am I biased?  Yes.  To paraphrase Tapper, I am biased against politicians who use bad or misleading history to win political points.

The entire Trump evangelical coalition is built on the dubious claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.

I know I have been promoting my forthcoming book on evangelicals and Donald Trump, but I wrote this book in 2011 and a second edition was republished in 2016.  It may be more relevant than ever.

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*Was America Founded as a Christian Nation* (Revised Edition) is Now Easier to Find

RevisedSeveral 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.”

Christian Nationalism and Evangelical Support for Donald Trump

RevisedI 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:Believe Me JPEG

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

My Podcast Conversation with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers

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Bob Crawford plays bass for the Avett Brothers.  (I have also learned that the Avett Brothers are big deal).  He also has a history and theology podcast called The Road to Now.

Bob recently invited me on the podcast to talk about Christian nationalism, historical thinking, the founding fathers, and Donald Trump.  Listen here.

Learn more about the Crawfords and their beautiful daughter Hallie here.

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!

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

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.

The Freemasons and Christian America

FreeMasonryI have done and continue to do a lot of talks on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  One of my favorite parts of every lecture is the question and answer period.  At nearly every presentation someone will ask me a version of these two questions:

  • Doesn’t the Treaty of Tripoli make it clear, once and for all, that we were not founded as a Christian nation?
  • What does the fact that many founding fathers were Masons tell us about whether or not they believed they were founding a Christian nation?

I write about the Treaty of Tripoli at the beginning of the book, but I say nothing about the Masons.  If there is a third edition of the book, I think I will need to add something about the founding fathers and their relationship to Freemasonry.

Over at JSTOR, Peter Feurerherd has a short piece on Masons in America.  It is a nice starting point on this topic.

Here is a taste:

The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers as a Creator who largely left humanity alone.

Those theological views created friction with established Christian churches, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. While the Masons captured the allegiance of much of the early Republic’s elite, the group did fall under widespread suspicion. The William Morgan affair of 1826—when a former Mason broke ranks and promised to  expose the group’s secrets—threatened its demise. Morgan was abducted and presumed killed by Masons, and the scandal proved a low point in the public image of the fraternal order.

The anti-Mason backlash grew. Abolitionists like John Brown railed against the often pro-slavery Masons. Prominent figures including John Quincy Adams, a former president and former Mason, and publisher Horace Greeley joined in the widespread castigation. Future president Millard Fillmore called Masonic orders nothing better than “organized treason.” In 1832, an anti-Masonic party ran a one-issue candidate for president. He captured Vermont’s electoral votes.

Feuerherd’s post draws heavily from two scholarly articles: