Thursday, May 19, 2011

"It depends where you look..."

For some reason there has been much recent criticism of David Barton's version of American history. It deserves criticism — but he has been around for a long time and his oversimplifications are no more egregious than those of many of his critics. When actual history is being done about the role of Christianity in this Republic, the truth becomes more complex than either the "Christian America" or "wall of separation" types admit. At Patheos, an interview with John Fea: "The Founders, Faith, and the American Nation." From Greg Garrett's introduction to the interview:
Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? It's one of the questions ricocheting around our national discourse, and it has strong proponents of both "no" and "yes." Those who argue that we should do X because we are a Christian nation are assuming an answer. Those who argue that we have no responsibility to do X—or must not do X—because we are not a Christian nation are likewise assuming an answer.

But as Professor John Fea explores American history in his fine new book Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?, his intent is to complicate this dualist debate by doing his job as a historian. ....

History as a discipline is much richer and more powerful than we see when each side cherry-picks the facts or quotes it needs, and Professor Fea reminds us that the question framed by his book's title does not have a simple answer, no matter what you may have heard. And that history shouldn't be so easily reduced; that's not what history is for. ....
A couple of questions and answers from the interview:
Greg: In researching, writing, and, now, talking about your book, what historical misconceptions or factual errors have you encountered in the contemporary debate about faith and our founding that most surprised or alarmed you?

John: To be honest, I came into this project with the perception that it would be easy to show that the Founding Fathers were not out to create a Christian nation. But then I read the state constitutions written between 1776 and 1780. Almost all of them had very strong Christian qualifications for office-holders. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania civil rights were afforded to anyone who, among other things, upheld the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. This led me to wonder how we define nationhood in the 1780s—the time between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is clear that during this period political power was invested in the states (under the Articles of Confederation), and most of these states (Virginia was a big exception to this rule that cannot be ignored) had Christian religious establishments or Christian qualifications for office-holding. Did the founders want to create a Christian nation? It depends where you look and how you define your terms. ...

Greg: Given the complexity you mention that always pervades history, which of the founders would you say approximate contemporary understandings of Christianity? And what founders are sometimes called Christian but don't seem to express orthodox beliefs—or perhaps orthodox Christian practices?

John: Most of the major Founding Fathers were not orthodox. John Adams was a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. Thomas Jefferson rejected the resurrection. Benjamin Franklin did not believe in the deity of Christ. George Washington is a tough one to nail down. He was probably an orthodox Christian, but did not spend much time reflecting on matters pertaining to religion and theology.

But there is a larger issue here. It is illogical to assume that the personal religious beliefs of a founder automatically translate into his understanding on the role of religion in government. Recently Peter Lillback wrote a 1000+ page book defending the idea that George Washington was not a deist. Fair enough. I agree with him that Washington was not a deist. But I am not convinced that Washington's personal faith meant that he wanted to create a Christian nation. .... [more]
The Founders, Faith, and the American Nation: An Interview with John Fea