[Great and good friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has a new gig at patheos.com as a regular columnist. From his latest:]
In last week's column, I argued that Americans, since the earliest days of the Republic, have believed that they were living in a Christian nation. But were they right? Was the United States founded as a Christian nation? Did the Christian nationalism espoused by educators and politicians, Unionists and Confederates, fundamentalists and modernists, and civil rights activists and the members of the Christian Right, reflect the spirit of the founding era or, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of Christianity?
The answers to these questions are complicated. How we answer them will depend on how we define our terms. What do we mean when we use terms such as "Christian," "founding," and "nation"? A close examination of these words and their relationship to one another in the context of early American history suggests that the very question, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" does not do justice to the complexity of the past.
We may also want to examine the Christian character of the people who made up the nation at the time of the founding. Although I am skeptical of the idea that any society on this side of eternity can be truly called Christian, it does seem that a society can reflect, in a limited sense, Christian principles if the vast majority of its members are doing their best, through the power of God's grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, to live authentic Christian lives. Such an approach takes the focus away from the founders and the founding documents and places it squarely upon the religious behavior and practice of ordinary Americans. Those who argue this way might examine church membership, church attendance, or the number of communicants in a particular congregation or denomination.
We could ask similar questions about the words "nation" and "founded." At what point did the United States of America become a nation? Was it in 1776, when the Continental Congress declared its independence from England? Was it 1789, when the United States Constitution became the official frame of American government? Or was it sometime later?
These are the kinds of historical complexities that we seldom hear debated in the public square. We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical matters. 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 founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, often contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.
We need historians more than ever.
[And I could not agree more.---TVD]