Civil Religion Series: Let History Speak

Declaration of Independence, Trumbull
Declaration of Independence, Trumbull

Civil Religion, part six
Let History Speak

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

• • •

Today we begin looking at the second book I’ll be reading and writing about for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Dan McElhinny, a public historian who works for the state of Oregon, wrote the following in a review of Fea’s book, which he sent personally to the author:

John Fea produces a historical primer with spine for “anyone who wants to make sense of America’s early history and its relationship to Christianity”. By selecting a subject of profound civic importance and examining it with passion, Fea demonstrates the value of professional historical practice. Using care in topic selection and applying key concepts called the Five C’s of historical scholarship, Fea expresses a genuine faith in human’s use of history. By example, he helps the reader understand and use skills to identify bad from good history.

This is John Fea’s concern: that we get the history right. He approaches the question “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” as a historian, using accepted guidelines of good historical study. Noting that the question has become a contentious issue in our time, and that people are regularly throwing out claims and counterclaims about the subject, he writes:

We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues. 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.

…I have written this book for the historically minded and thoughtful reader who is looking for help in sorting it all out. I have tried to avoid polemics as much as possible, although I am sure that my treatment of these controversial issues will not please everyone. This book should be viewed as a historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone who wants to make sense of the American past and its relationship to Christianity. I hope it might be read and discussed in schools and congregations where people are serious about considering how the history of the American founding era might help them to become more informed citizens in the present.

Fea’s first chapters, then, are about history, studying history, what historians do, and what makes “good” or “bad” historical study. He recognizes that, in some ways, this does not come naturally to Americans, who have tended to look forward rather than backward, attaching themselves “to the train of progress.”

On the other hand, history has also been a subject of great interest, because “it is our natural impulse to find something useful in the past.” We look to it for inspiration, for a sense of continuity and familiarity with those who went before us, and to help us understand our present identity as citizens of the United States.

As soon as the United States was founded, historians began writing about the meaning of the American Revolution in an attempt to remind us of the values and ideals for which it was waged. History is a tool for strengthening the nation. It reminds us of where we came from and helps us chart where we are going. American history has always been a way of teaching children lessons in patriotism. History helps produce good citizens. We need the stories of our past to sustain us as a people. In America we study it to understand the values and beliefs that we as a people are willing to fight for and die for. We wish that our children and their children would learn the stories of the past and in the process embrace the beliefs that have defined the American experiment since its birth over two hundred years ago. This is why historical debates, such as the one currently being waged over whether the United States of America is a Christian nation, are so intense. The identity of the country is at stake.

But at this point, John Fea asks us to stop and remember something absolutely essential: “Historians do not approach the past with the primary goal of finding something relevant.”

Instead, historians take up the task of historical study and interpretation using methods formed by the “Five C’s of Historical Thinking.”

  • Change over time. The historian’s task is to chronicle the changes that have occurred over the course of generations and to uncover the processes which have created a gulf between the present and the past as well as to note the ways in which our human experience has remained relatively stable.
  • Context. Historians study the past in the context of the times and places in which past events occurred. Documents must be interpreted from the perspective of the world in which they were produced.
  • Causality. Historians form arguments, using such tools as change over time and context, about why things happened in the past the way they did. This is not a simple task, for it is likely that there are multiple explanations for why any particular past event occurred. Therefore, the study, interpretation, and teaching of history usually involves lively, ongoing debates about the relative contributions of any number of factors in causing past changes. There may be no simple explanations or answers.
  • Contingency. “To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place” (Andrews and Burke). From a Christian perspective, this suggests that, although God may be working out providential purposes in history, we cannot necessarily know or define those purposes, nor is it the historian’s task to try and explain them. Instead, the historian looks at the ways specific humans in specific times and places shaped the course of events and how various historical moments are connected to other historical moments.
  • Complexity. Once more, from Andrews and Burke: “Chronicles distill intricate historical processes into a mere catalogue, while nostalgia conjures an uncomplicated golden age that saves us the trouble of having to think about the past. Our own need for order can obscure our understanding of how past worlds functioned and blind us to the ways in which myths of rosy pasts do political and cultural work in the present. Reveling in complexity rather than shying away from it, historians seek to dispel the power of chronicle, nostalgia, and other traps that obscure our ability to understand the past on its own terms.”

John Fea is critical of many Christian spokespersons who “use” history rather than “study” history:

Most human beings tend to be present-minded when it comes to confronting the past. The discipline of history was never meant to function as a means of getting one’s political point across or convincing people to join a cause. Yet Americans use the past for these purposes all the time. Such an approach to the past can easily degenerate into a form of propaganda or, as the historian Bernard Bailyn described it, “indoctrination by historical example.”

This sort of present-mindedness is very common among those Christian writers and preachers who defend the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. They enter the past with the preconceived purpose of trying to find the religious roots of the United States. If they are indeed able to gather evidence suggesting that the founders were Christians or believed that the promotion of religion was important to the success of the Republic, then they have gotten all that they need from the past. It has served them adequately as a tool for promoting a particular twenty-first-century political agenda. It has provided ammunition to win the cultural war in which they are engaged. Gordon Wood has said that if someone wants to use the study of the past to change the world he should forgo a career as a historian and run for office!

Instead, he urges us to let history humble us. Let it remind us that we are not autonomous but part of a human story larger than ourselves. Let it teach us the limitations of our knowledge and understanding. Let it teach us “intellectual hospitality” — the ability to truly listen to the past and to people and events that in many ways are strange and foreign to us, no matter how familiar we seek to make them.

There is plenty of room for debate. Only let us debate on the basis of genuine historical study, not using the past to bolster our present agenda.

Earlier posts in the series:


57 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: Let History Speak

  1. During my ordeal as a public school English teacher in Tennessee, I did see a few examples of what I felt to be leftwing politics influencing the content of textbooks. Most of these involved what I would call fake literature — meaning short stories or poetry of very low literary quality that were obviously both written and chosen for inclusion in the textbook for political reasons. They seemed to me to be little more than intentional parables designed to promote politically correct thinking. Whether coming from the left or the right, there are few things that turn my stomach more than political propaganda trying to pass itself off as real art or literature. Now I’m not saying that strong political opinions or ideas should not be expressed in art or literature, but putting political icing on something doesn’t make it a cake.


  2. Oligarchy plus slavery/serfdom = some very, very bad things.

    Not if you’re one of the Highborn Oligarchs.
    If you’re Highborn, the System works just fine!


  3. In Dominionist context, “Christian Nation(TM)” means “Just like an Islamic Republic, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”


  4. More like “Barton’s fantasies” becoming Dogma Ex Cathedra, with the power of the Christian Nation State to enforce them.


  5. The short version is: Erasmus, and others like him, owed much to the Near East, whether they realized it consciously or not.


  6. You’ve got the time frame right, though I’m not sure about the “worm thelology” part. Seems to me like it had a great deal to do with the underpinnings of the Renaissance – rediscovery of the classics, continued growth of universities, etc. The theology of the Middle Ages – at least, what little i know of it – wasn’t the kind of thing that you can shoehorn into that “worm theology” category. But – i think this is important – the Middle Ages weren’t some kind of “dark” period as far as scholarship and the arts were concerned. And one thing that drove the Renaissance was the expansion of trade and commerce, all over Europe.

    As terrible as the Crusades were, they kicked open the door to so much learning, and to so many new ideas, that the West gained immeasurably as a result. In fact… the great Greek philosophers were taught and their writings circulated all over the Muslim Middle East. Baghdad and Cairo were among the most cosmopolitan cities in the entire world. (Did you know that most of the musical instruments that we think of as Western actually originated in the Middle East and N. Africa? I’m not exaggerating one bit; they were one of the many developments that came about as a result of the Crusades…)


  7. The fighting in Ireland was Cromwell’s thing, as was the Ulster Plantation (what is now Northern Ireland). Atrocities were, sadly, pretty commonplace.


  8. They were quite recent. Many Mass Bay men went *back* to England to fight for Cromwell. The Salem witch trials were also pretty recent. England suffered terribly dueto what both the Royalists and the Cromwellians did to it. I’m sure everyone could count off people from their family who had died in the civil war, as well as in the battles to subjugate Scotland and Ireland. I think most people over here were sick and tired of political/religious wars. (Nobody ever really wins those, do they?)


  9. It is funny how many Christians can’t wrap their heads around State disinterest in religion. No, for these folks the State must either SUPPORT religion or OPPOSE it, and not supporting it is automatically opposing it.

    The idea of the secular state and the separation of church and state are the greatest ideas ever stumbled upon in political discourse. And frankly the Middle East will never know peace until they stumble upon this idea as well.


  10. After a little research, I see that I’m using the word aristocracy imprecisely. What I was referring to was a class of nobles; and that applies even if that class is limited to one royal family, that rules by birthright.


  11. Yeah. Humanism started out as a CHRISTIAN movement in the late Medieval/early Renaissance period, to offset the “worm theology” of the time where the Spiritual had all but eclipsed the Physical.


  12. The question is now irrelevant. The USA today is a Secular Humanist nation with Secular Humanism as the de facto state religion.

    Duckspeaked with all the buzzwords of Christianese Culture War.


  13. You forgot the one of cultural institution absolutely necessary for a nation, as defined in the traditional way: aristocracy. In aristocracy, all the other elements that you enumerate come together: DNA (also known as Blood), language, culture (which included religion) and territory (also known as Soil). Such a nation is exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent from happening on these shores.


  14. The Thirty Years’ War (last and bloodiest of the Reformation Wars) and the English Civil War (and Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth) weren’t THAT far in the past, at least to an educated man of the day.


  15. Just before 9/11, I read on one atheist’s blog that the US is both a Christian Nation and Not at the same time.

    A “Christian Nation” in the sense its founders and most of its population have operated under a generic Christian consensus.

    But NOT “A Christian Nation(TM)” in the sense any single type of Christianity was able to dominate and make its own doctrine and dogma THE One True Way for the entire country.

    And it was the tension between these two — the baseline of the general Christian consensus and the freedom of no single Christianity(TM) dominating — that shaped the US.

    (Incidentally, said atheist blogger was very much in favor of this tension continuing, as it seemed the best possible combination for the country.)


  16. I’m gonna gum the works up good now.

    The United States of America is (singular deliberate) not now, never was, nor ever will be a Christian nation. The reason why should be apparent to anybody. It is not truly a nation. Nations are based on DNA, language, culture, and territory.

    The USA is a state, an algorithm. Actually, a pretty well-crafted and useful one, but one that that may be huffing and puffing as attempts to extend the applicability of the algorithm are beginning to break down under the current push to invite nearly everybody to come live here. I have a friend who worked for fifteen years trying to teach Iranians the American system of self-government. He came to believe it would probably require a genetic mutation.

    This is something that has been covered up until now, until the introduction of identity politics for the White majority. Suddenly everybody is up in arms. Formerly, all American politics was White identity politics, but we kept quiet about it)


  17. Christianity is true, allegedly. It’s all about truth. Know the truth and it will set you free.

    Christianity, if it’s about truth, should be about honesty.

    Idk the Virginia situation, but, just thinking in general…if Christians can’t be honest…how can anything they say be true?


  18. A Christian nation was never needed, nor is it needed now. In fact, a Christian nation is probably a bad idea, and impossible anyway. A Christian church, however, would be nice to have.


  19. The bugbear of “secular humanism” actually… does not exist. I’ve been hearing this since c. 1983, when it really gained traction (during Reagan’s 1st term) and cannot tell you guys who tired it makes me to see it being thrown out as if it’s new rhetoric *and* absolute truth.


  20. I suppose the Fathers had the common sense to want for our nation to be free of the kind of authoritarian religious manipulation people had left Europe to get away from. Like the Syrian refugees wanting to excape from ISIS . . . to leave behind something they feared and come to a place where they could live without fear of that kind of extremism calling itself ‘religion’.
    The Fathers of our country were wiser than we know. Because of that, we can spot extremists for what they are and recognize that they are not ‘Christian’ and their proposed ‘Christian Nation’ will be anything more than tyranny.


  21. WAYNE, this is true. But even the state of Virginia had a text book scandal where mis-information was allowed into a state history book. Fortunately it was TEACHERS who rebelled against teaching the erroneous information, and who brought light onto the problem. The author was confronted and admitted her scholarship on the issue was flawed.
    What a MESS.

    We can hope that our nation’s teachers are courageous enough to speak up against the politics of extremism when it attempts to force far-right progaganda on to our children in the public school system. Our teachers may be the only line left to protect these children . . . I was myself a teacher, and I know there are many out there who have courage and honor and will take a stand against abuse of our young people by extremists.


  22. The 5 C’s are not Fea’s invention but a recognized template for doing good history. Follow the link and you’ll see it used by others as well, to succinctly describe the historical enterprise.


  23. A historical scheme based on five C’s? Is this guy an Evangelical preacher? I read history in the attempt to figure out how we got to where we are today, and to avoid repeating mistakes, which doesn’t seem to work very well according to the historical record. When folks start talking about a “Christian” nation, I get nervous. The whole point to the American Revolution was to bring us out from tyranny and establish a place where liberty of thought and conscience was encouraged and protected. As far as I can tell, most folks espousing a “Christian” nation want to undo all that and enforce their own particular values and religious interpretations on everyone, me in particular. Bring back the stake. Makes the Enlightenment Deism of many of the founders look like a sanctuary of sanity.


  24. ‘the bigger question is what “Christian nation” means’

    This. It is trivially easy to come up with a sense of “Christian nation” that answers to either side of the debate. It isn’t necessary to start making stuff up, though people do anyway. None of this has ever struck me as an interesting or useful discussion.


  25. TIL that secular humanism is a “religion”

    j/k, I didn’t learn that today. It’s something I’ve been told often. And it’s still utterly false.

    Reminder that humanism by and large is a Christian invention, backed by deep theological roots. There no secular or sacred version.


  26. Yes, and both the Declaration and Constitution were written to appease several different constituencies. As far as I know, there are no references to God in the Constitution and only 3 in the Declaration, none of which are specific. If only they had written the Declaration thusly,

    “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and His Son, Jesus Christ ” they could have saved us all a lot of debate. Seems like quite the oversight on their part. 🙂


  27. Not to the same extent. The Texas school board has a tremendous say in what will and will not be in the textbooks that are in use across the country.


  28. I don’t believe this issue is restricted to right-wing agendas. I’m pretty sure “progressive states” have their own textbook political agendas.


  29. The question is decisively relevant, because those who wish to overturn the “secular humanist” order are making direct appeals to a mythic “christian american” past as a foundation for their efforts.


  30. The question is now irrelevant. The USA today is a Secular Humanist nation with Secular Humanism as the de facto state religion.


  31. If you notice, when the apologists for “Christian America” quote the Founders they tend to do so from their public speeches. Whatever else they were our Founders were consummate politicians and they certainly knew which side of the bread the butter was on. As is the case now the name of the Almighty has never been far from the lips of our polticos. However if you investigate their personal statements and private writings you see their real views.

    The lack of explicit references to Divine Sanction in the Constitution was quite controversial at the time.


  32. Agreed, Mike. We need to know what we’re looking for in order to find it. People tend to use the phrase “Christian nation” without clearly stating what they mean. Is it a nation of Christians? Is it a nation redeemed by Christ? Is it a nation founded on Christian values, whatever those are.


  33. America is so Christian that the founding fathers failed to put any reference to Christianity in the constitution itself.


  34. I toured the Library of Congress last summer. Saw the Jefferson collection, donated/sold to the LoC so Jefferson could stay afloat. Guy had NO money sense whatsoever.


  35. What if Barton’s histories become The Official History and (as God’s Chosen POTUS Huckabee put it) everyone has to learn Barton “at gunpoint, if necessary”?

    (Well, in North Korea’s Official History, Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung created the universe…)


  36. Another question is: Even if it was, or was not, what *ought* we to pursue today? Let’s say you could prove to me that my favorite founding father believed a series of ideas to be true, and that he argued cogently for them. I would find this very interesting. Being a “history person,” would also read an 800-page tome on the topic and think I was having fun. I would also, having the benefit of historical distance, be inclined to see how well that particular set of ideas worked out.

    So, this worthy founder might be able to recommend the idea to me. But I am not bound to agree or to accept the idea, so much as I am bound to engage him as a conversational partner. History is a good teacher and a bad taskmaster. Slavery to it is no better than ignorance of it; and it is just such a slavery the revolutionary generation wanted to throw off, or so it said. A fair number of the founders and other schooled men of the period (among whom there were a few women) would, being good children of the enlightenment, have said that propositions are subject to test, refinement, and verification. Jefferson, in an attempt to run the experiment, would probably have added books and specimens to his collection, further bankrupting an already bankrupt Virginia estate and inadvertently creating the basis of the Library of Congress, which has been stockpiling ideas ever since.


  37. THIS: ” . . . those Christian writers and preachers who defend the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation . . . . . . It has served them adequately as a tool for promoting a particular twenty-first-century political agenda. It has provided ammunition to win the cultural war in which they are engaged.”

    I’m concerned when textbooks are written by those who pander to the uneducated boards of education in red states that have a say in what texts are purchased in bulk for use in their state. I don’t look down on uneducated people, but when they are intent on using propaganda in textbooks in order to further their political agendas, I take exception to that. The mixture of extreme right-wing ignorance together with board of education power to choose textbooks filled with propaganda for a state is explosive to the future of our country. Our school children need protection from these creeps.

    “Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.” (Flannery O’Connor)


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