Amid the culture wars of the 1990s, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore published a slim volume. It had a provocative title and a silly subtitle: The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. Thankfully, the subtitle was later changed to A Moral Defense of
the Secular State (although, of course, the “a” before “moral” could cause some confusion). Kramnick and Moore argued that the founders of the United States purposefully created a secular nation and that waves of evangelicals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries added religious appendages to the secular framework. This left many Americans confused, frustrated, and bitter. Thank goodness Kramnick and Moore could show us the right (and by right, I mean left) way. Reviewing the first edition, UNC’s John E. Semonche concluded that The Godless Constitution was “not an unworthy entry into a debate that has never verged on the profound.”
Wow. If that doesn’t make you chuckle, then you haven’t read enough reviews that essentially end, “makes a significant contribution to many significant fields.”
“Profound” is such a tricky word. Semonche certainly wasn’t referring to Madison’s and Jefferson’s discussions of church-state relations – so profoundly analyzed in David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Perhaps Semonche was thinking of Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer, but their acolytes certainly took their works to be profound.
Thanks to John Fea, historians now have a profound tool to use in the debate. I have been teaching Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in my historiography class, and we’re having a blast. Fea shares at least one commonality with Kramnick and Moore. All write from a shared frustration with the simplistic histories of the nation presented by the religious right. Unlike Kramnick and Moore, however, who wish to defend a secular state, Fea wants to teach about history. He wants students and interested readers to think in terms of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. And as a teaching device, this book is without doubt profound. There is so much to commend in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, especially Fea’s examination of the history of the idea that the United States was a Christian nation.
When I hold The Godless Constitution and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? side-by-side, I’m left with a few questions. First, where are the women? If “American religious history is women’s history” (or is it women’s history is religious history … I can never remember; thank goodness for google), as Ann Braude so famously put it, how are we still able to write histories like this without women playing prominent roles? Second, do the voices of African Americans or Native Americans or immigrant Americans trouble the discussion? Years ago, I published an essay on African American uses of “Christian nation” rhetoric and others have done similar work, such as Joanna Brooks in American Lazarus or Eddie Glaude in Exodus! Have we abandoned “religious outsiders” in this debate?
My point from these questions would be this: to understand historically the Christian nation debate, we need to expand the parameters of inclusion and more richly think about the political fabric of the nation. Without doing so, we’re left thinking antebellum Whigs dominated American politics (they didn’t!), that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the only one to use Christian nationalism for moral politics (he wasn’t), and that contemporary conservatives are convinced antichrist is among us (many don’t and many think those who do are nuts).
I’m off to the East Coast with a satchel full of new books … so I’ll be back with some reviews from 35,000 feet. You can expect several “unworthy” entries.