Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Greg Strand – March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

–comments by Greg Strand, EFCA Director of Biblical Credentialing and Theology

John Fea received a M.Div. and M.A. in Church History from TEDS. He received his Ph.D. in American History at Stony Brook University in 1999. He presently serves as Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the Department of History at Messiah College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grantham, PA, where he has taught since 2002.

In light of his indebtedness to John Woodbridge and his formative years at TEDS, this past January Fea wrote the following about an edited work that he dedicated to John:

I arrived in Deerfield, Illinois in January 1989 to start a Masters of Divinity degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. When I left the Chicago area five years later I was on my way toward becoming an American historian. Very few professional historians find their calling in an evangelical divinity school. I did. God leads people to all kinds of vocations, and he certainly led me to an academic life. But he also uses people. In my case, he used a Trinity church history professor named John D. Woodbridge.

I am writing my column this week from Deerfield. I am back in my old stomping grounds for a special symposium honoring my beloved mentor. For the last several years I worked closely with two other Trinity graduates—Jay Green and Eric Miller—to produce an edited volume of essays that examines the unique calling of the historian and how that calling intersects with Christian faith. The book was published last November with the title Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame, 2011). We dedicated the book to John Woodbridge.

Fea recently wrote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2011).

This past spring, MacLaurinCSF* invited Fea to address the topic of his book. Fea’s lecture, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”, was recorded and can be found at the following link: http://www.maclaurin.org/events-was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation

Fea also includes an article in this month’s The Bridge 2/3 (November 2011), the MacLaurinCSF newsletter, with the same title as his lecture.

Fea spells out his task:

For the last five months I have been trying to convince people, many of whom are deeply engaged in the so-called “culture wars,” to think historically about the relationship between American Christianity and the American founding. It has not been an easy task.

As he has engaged in these teachings and discussions, he finds there is much confusion and some of it has been perpetuated by public figures who state things inaccurately, yet as if they are true. He gives a couple of examples of this public discourse. (Though he mentions two inaccurate statements by Republicans, these are intended to be “an example,” not a statement about a specific political party.)

For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain announced that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” but the Constitution says nothing about the relationship between Christianity and the United States. Former Arkansas governor and fellow presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said on the campaign trail that “most” of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence were clergymen. In fact, only one member of the clergy signed the Declaration – College of New Jersey president John Witherspoon.

Fea delineates clearly what he hopes readers of his book will learn (I only include his points in the first two, while including his complete third point).

First, I want them to see that Americans have always understood themselves to be citizens in a Christian nation. This is not a statement about whether or not Americans have interpreted the founders correctly on matters of church and state or whether or not a “Christian nation” theologically possible. It is, instead, a historical statement.

Second, I want my readers to understand that religion played an important, but sometimes confusing, role in the American Revolution. Christians often used the Bible to justify revolution, but in doing so they allowed the meaning of the text to be held captive by the political demands of the day.

Third, I want my readers to know something about the religious lives of the founding fathers. The founding fathers all upheld a belief in religious liberty and the importance of religion to sustaining a virtuous republic, but their personal beliefs were all over the map. George Washington was a man of prayer who believed in divine providence, but rarely mentioned Jesus Christ in his extant writings. Thomas Jefferson was a “follower of Jesus” in the sense that he believed that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. Yet he had no use for doctrines such as the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, or the Trinity. John Adams was a Unitarian who believed that the government of Massachusetts should directly fund the activities of the Congregational Church. Benjamin Franklin argued that true religion boiled down to loving one’s neighbor. And then there were the evangelicals – John Witherspoon, Samuel Adams, and John Jay. I often say that the leadership of most evangelical churches would feel comfortable with these men as members.

I appreciate the care and diligence with which Fea attempts to answer this important and sensitive question. With this topic, often myth or legend is spoken as fact/truth, and this is particularly true among many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters. For example, a reference to “divine providence” does not necessarily refer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it does not only come from the lips (or pen) of true Evangelical believers. These kinds of statements are often read through an Evangelical lens or grid thus leading the reader to conclude that the author of that expression must be an Evangelical. The author may be a true believer, but that reality must be based on and determined by other evidence to substantiate it. This is the sort of homework Fea has done, which I find helpful and I appreciate greatly.

*“MacLaurinCSF is a community of students, scholars, and thinkers working together to explore and understand the implications of the Christian faith (the gospel) for every field of study and every aspect of life. . . . Our mission is to strengthen Christian thinking at the University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, and beyond. . . . MacLaurinCSF bridges church and university in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, bringing theological resources to the university and academic resources to the church. Our goal is to strengthen Christian intellectual life in this region by creating public space for leaders in the academy and church to address enduring human questions together. MacLaurinCSF is grounded in the Christian tradition as articulated in Scripture and summarized by the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, and our conversations are open to all.”

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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