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Doug Sweeney of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a top-notch historian, writes:

Well-researched and up-to-date, [John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?]  is full of timely wisdom on a topic far more complicated than many people think. If I could recommend but one source on the Christian America thesis, this would be it.

In a recent interview Professor Fea explained the importance of good historical investigation:

Most people who read the book expect me to jump headfirst into the political debate. About 90 percent of the interviews I have done have asked me to offer a “yes” or “no” answer to the question in the title of my book. It has alerted me to the fact that our schools have failed to teach good historical thinking.

Historians listen to people in the past. They empathize with them and try to understand them, even if they do not agree. They show intellectual hospitality to people in the past. The people historians encounter may be dead, but they have left us with documents to help us better understand them. I firmly believe that mature historical understanding can be an antidote to the culture wars because it decenters us. It forces us to go beyond our brief life and see ourselves as part of a larger human community created in the image of God. I realize that it is very unnatural to think this way, but I will continue to hold out hope that this kind of thinking about the world has its merits.

His answer to the question seems reasonable to me: “It depends where you look and how you define your terms.”

HT: Scot McKnight

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15 thoughts on “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”

  1. Paula says:

    Thanks for directing me to this book. There are so many nuances to history and it’s important to study it from as many perspectives as possible. For example, in a hundred years, reading only Nancy Pelosi’s point of view about the health care debates in Congress would be inadequate as would John Boehner’s, even though they were both eyewitnesses and key players. And in 20 years, high school history textbooks may very well report that last night’s GOP debate asked such important questions as, “Coke or Pepsi.”

  2. Paula says:

    Oh, and almost 30 pages of endnotes? It’s officially on my Kindle wish list!

  3. Jeremy says:

    The element that frustrates me in the Christian nation discussion is the loose use of the term Christian. Christians should not be defined by their ethics. Christians are Christians because of their belief in the work of Christ ad their only hope. With this definition of Chrostian in view the discussion changes.

    1. Andrew Isker says:

      A much bigger problem with this thesis is that America was not originally founded as a nation per se. It began as 13 Christian Republics. It only became at nation-state in 1865.

      As far as what makes a nation a Christian nation? A polis founded under the authority of Jesus Christ perhaps? Does this mean that the antithesis of this is a secularized, pluralistic state (what we have today)? I would posit yes and yes. Does the first premise mean that there must be explicit institutional acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord? Not necessarily, though it is unquestionable that it this took place implicitly. It is also true that we as a nation have codified law that rejects outright the law of God as we descend further into secularism.

  4. Many thanks for taking the time to discuss this,
    The Muslim Fundamentalists have obviously identified the United States as a “Christian Nation,” as we seem to be one of the primary targets of their jihad. However, I would like to pose two questions:

    #1 – Was the United States FOUNDED upon Christian principles? With the recent growth of secularization in America, I wonder if we have been “conveniently” ignoring the intentions of our most cherished Founding Fathers? The answer to this will require a closer look at the words of our founders regarding the nation they were creating and why they did what they did.

    #2 – Can/Should the United States be identified as a “Christian Nation” today?

  5. Jonathan says:

    Too many people want to make “patriotism” a necessary virtue of Christianity. Such thinking is an error. Most of the major figures in the founding of our nation were at best moralists, and at worst, rabid anti-christs. This treaty says it all………………

    The Treaty of Tripoli (Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary) was the first treaty concluded between the United States of America and Tripoli, signed at Tripoli on November 4, 1796 and at Algiers (for a third-party witness) on January 3, 1797. It was submitted to the Senate by President John Adams, receiving ratification unanimously from the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797 and signed by Adams, taking effect as the law of the land on June 10, 1797.

    The treaty was a routine diplomatic agreement but has gained attention because the English version included a clause about religion in America:[3]

    As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries

  6. Gary H. says:

    Two things:
    1. The only thing that can properly be labled “Christian” are Holy Spirit-filled individuals and The Church. A political entity cannot be “Christian”, as the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a political entity.

    2. Roger Williams, the Puritan pastor who founded the Rhode Island Colony, was a faithful believer the exclusivity of Christianity for salvation. Yet he recognized that God made the human soul to be free to chose. Rhode Island was the only colony that did not have a state religion. There’s your paradox.

    I look forward to checking out the book!

  7. “It depends where you look and how you define your terms.”

    I’d say that’s a reasonable answer to most academic questions — just not very informative! ;)

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Was America Founded as a Secular Nation?

  9. Pastor Matt says:

    It is a good book and one I will be reviewing in-depth this weekend at my site, but there are a few concerns–as Matt Reynolds wrote in his review at Christianity Today, Fea states that both “Christian nationalists” and secular liberals, overstate their case but he really only takes the former to task. Moreover, I think Fea falls into the same trap as Gregory Boyd did, which is to largely assess whether America was a Christian nation solely by its behavior and focusing especially on its failures. Using such an analysis, churches would not be Christian! Furthermore, he correctly points out that most of the founders were not evangelicals but that doesn’t mean they would not see themselves as “Christian.” Finally, I think Fea misses the point of modern “Christian nationalism.” It is not just an excuse to push a political agenda, as Fea argues, but a response to secular liberals who want to push Christianity wholly out of the public sphere.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      “It is not just an excuse to push a political agenda, as Fea argues, but a response to secular liberals who want to push Christianity wholly out of the public sphere.”

      Hence my question above:

      Was America Founded as a Secular Nation?

      1. Gary H. says:

        From my study, I would say that it was founded as a nation where you could be Secular or Religious. To a great degree, our nation is patterned after the Rhode Island Colony, where Quakers, Puritans, Anglicans, Jews, and any one else that was a cast-off of a Colonial church (including “Turks”, if there were any) were welcome.

  10. Jonathan says:

    Here is an awesome documentary debunking much of the propaganda and misinformation concerning the supposed Christian faith of the leading founders of this nation….

    I have always been incensed at the all too common mixing in of patriotism, especially here in the “bible belt,” with the pure worship of the Triune LORD of the Holy Scriptures.

  11. Professor Fea came to Minneapolis several months ago, to present on this very issue for the MacLaurin Institute. The conclusion I gathered was that it’s a rather complicated issue. So yeah, it depends on where you look and how you define your terms. I agree that answer is not very informative. But to be fair, the question itself is fairly ambiguous. It can mean several things.

  12. JS says:

    While this book looks interesting and i am sure that it is well done the best book that I have ever read by far and away on ‘God and Country’ or the question on whether America was founded on or because of Christianity is Peter Marshall’s book called The LIGHT AND The GLORY. Simply the best because it reaches deep into our history and uses an abundance of original writings. He lets so many of the earliest founders speak in their own words. Here is the link on Amazon.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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