Including "Religious Others" in the Christian Nation "Debate"



15 comments
by Edward J. Blum

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?

Third, and finally, is there any difference in historical and theological opinion among conservative evangelicals and anti-liberal evangelicals? Jason Bivins published an amazing book several years ago on “anti-liberalism” (meaning animosity for the large state and liberal norms, but not necessarily pro-Republican Christians) where he showed how home schoolers and the Berrigan brothers shared a political sensibility of frustration. If we consider the contemporary political terrain as complex and variegated (even among conservatives who are so easily made into caricatures rather than understood on their own terms), then what are the differences of opinion among the anti-liberals and anti-secularists?

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.

15 comments:

Edward J. Blum at: September 27, 2011 at 3:18 PM said...

And just FYI to all of the loyal followers of this blog: I've encouraged (mandated) my historiography students to respond to this post since they're reading Fea, Kramnick and Moore, and most recently Robert Bellah's piece on "civil religion" and my essay on black challenges to the Christian nationalism debate. In the next few weeks, they're in for some treats: Matt Sutton's book on Aimee Semple McPherson and Kevin Schultz's _Tri-Faith America_.

Tom Van Dyke at: September 27, 2011 at 7:58 PM said...

Thank goodness Kramnick and Moore could show us the right (and by right, I mean left) way.

I appreciate the honesty here, but careful---you never know who's listening. ;-)

Edward J. Blum at: September 28, 2011 at 10:31 AM said...

Dear Tom, just FYI, that line was a joke ... Always appreciate your attentive reading eye!

Tim Lacy at: September 28, 2011 at 2:48 PM said...

Thanks for the Bivins reference. I've been looking for a solid text on left/center-left anti-liberalism, Christian and otherwise. - TL

BKelly at: October 4, 2011 at 8:37 AM said...

The most fascinating aspect of reading these two books is seeing how similar such different analyses of essentially the same source materials can be. As Professor Blum says: “Fea shares at least one commonality with Kramnick and Moore”. After their basic frustration with the simple historical interpretations of the modern religious right they also share in common a mainstream audience, and analysis of only well studied sources. It maybe my naiveté or cynicism of human nature, but I think that history written primarily for public consumption, as is the case in both books, loses a measure of its credibility by overtly working at some political angle. Secondly, a few short minutes in Prof. Blum’s class and the fifteen of us were able to come up with as many ideas for different source material dealing with the same subject. I would have liked to read arguments that took a chance on some fresh evidence instead of rewording the same old points. For instance; did the Canadian and Spanish colonials view us as a Christian nation? Did Academics (religious or secular) in our first universities have opinions on this subject? How did revolutionary soldiers write about the role of God in their endeavors? Or as Prof. Blum said what did the rest of the people in America think? These and many more were ideas for analysis that would likely have primary sources. If the authors intended to update old lines in the sand they succeeded. However, if they wanted drive forward the debate they did it on tires of retread argument.

Jwerner at: October 4, 2011 at 2:49 PM said...

It is interesting to see how three authors (John Fea and Isaac Kraminick & R. Laurence Moore) take the topic of religion in early American history and come up with two different points of view. Some things I didn't see when reading their books were: One, I would like to have read what Catholics thought about the Constitution having little reference to religion. It seems that in both books, the only reference to Catholicism is that they were shunned by Protestants. This raises another question for me which is was there different factions of Protestantism? Today there are Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. Were these different denominations around during the late 18th Century? Kramnick & Moore do a relatively good job of mentioning different denominations in Ch. 6 of their book, but Fea makes little reference to the different denominations as far as I could see. Others on this post have brought up my last point in that it would have been nice to see what the everyday man thought about religion during the 18th Century. Did the everyday man care that there was little reference to religion in the Constitution? I have class notes stating that the earliest settlers to America were here to "strike it rich" and return to England. This was over 100 years prior to the Declaration of Independence which gives people plenty of time to change their viewpoints, and perhaps they did.

MSchubring at: October 4, 2011 at 3:34 PM said...

I was pleased to see that Fea appeared to look at this topic with an open mind. He at least attempts to analyze the primary sources and events without bias. Keeping in mind he is a professor at a Christian university, he appears to make an honest attempt. However, Kramnick and Moore were obviously writing to support their preconceived ideas. Like BKelly, I was surprised how these authors analyzed essentially the same material and came up with very different interpretations. This opened my eyes to how and why it is so important review the primary documents myself and come up with my own conclusions since the ideas of others are often full of personal bias.

SBeckom at: October 4, 2011 at 6:01 PM said...

There must be a reason that Kramnick, Moore, and Fea in their respective books did not delve into the common person, women, minorities, faiths other than Protestantism, etc. Perhaps it was that they were writing to their audience. Kramnick and Moore's audience are college educated liberals. Though unfortunately a stereotype, that audience would be assumed to be mainly white individuals. Fea's audience seems to be college students and politically moderate Christians. Again, maybe it was assumed that this group would mainly be white people. Perhaps, in a effort to keep their works relatively short and be easily read by anybody, minorities, women and the like were left out. The authors could have focused on the political and spiritual leaders of America in an effort to take a "pulse" of the nation during their individual times. It just so happens that those leaders tended to be white Protestant males. I think the authors wanted to write a broad sweeping look about whether or not the U.S. was founded as Christian nation. Unfortunately, such broad sweeping looks tends to leave out and marginalize large segments of a society. These authors, though focusing on religion, are covering the entire U.S. history in just single volumes. The history of the U.S. is usually covered in at least two volumes. Simply put, the authors could not cover all segments of society in just a single book.

Louann Sabatini at: October 4, 2011 at 7:00 PM said...

When reading these two books, i tried to keep an open mind. I believe i did accomplish this and came to some conclusions:

Kramnick and Moore's The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State, was a book of intense belief that America was and still is a secular nation of Christianity. I detested this book for the simple reason that, i do not like to be forced into believing an idea. I would much rather be taught the facts and draw my own conclusions. These authors did a horrible job, at executing their beliefs and trying to persuade people. This was a terrible example of not being able to use primary sources adequately. It was so one sided and i felt that it forced the secular christian idea down the readers throats.

One is supposed to use sources to explain both sides of an argument, equally, and give a thorough examination of the topic, yet these two authors seemed to patch information and sources, here and there, to try and get their points and opinion across. I felt that it was done sloppily and that the book was not worth reading.

On the other hand, John Fea's book, Was America Founded On a Christian Nation?, was a beautiful presentation of what your supposed to do with facts and sources. He examined both sides, meticulously, and proved his point by using his evidence. That is the way i can tell, when a historian knows what he/she is doing. They let the evidence talk for itself, while fairly examining both sides. It was a very enjoyable read.

As far as women went, in both of their books, not much was mentioned. There were many pieces of evidence that can piece together the role of women in the forming of this nation. Yet, both books do not go into their role.

There were also things that were left out pertaining to Native Americans and African Americans. Scholars always focus on the white perspective because it seems to be the most influential, when trying to prove a point on this topic. Yet there are numerous facts and sources that explain how non-Christian those men were, in their actions toward these two races, while forming this nation.

Overall, both books tried to give their views on the topic of Christian roots in America, one is a very informative book and the other was a very one sided book.

MG Diaz at: October 4, 2011 at 8:03 PM said...

What I see in John Fea’s book is that the nation was not founded as a Christian nation, it was rather, packed with Lutherans, Episcopalians, Puritans, Presbyterians and other Christian denominations who collectively believed the country was Christian (Doesn’t this in some way constitute a Christian nation? A state filled with Christian citizens? Just saying). So in a sense, it was founded godless with a bunch of godly people. Or was it? During class discussion we learned that the Revolution lacked religious talk, it was mostly dinero. Also, Prof. Blum’s paper on what the reconciliation of the North and South meant to Blacks made me reconsider that NO, the nation was neither Christian, nor was it full of godly men (this immediately after considering how Native Americans were treated). I thought “no” because African Americans used and condemned with religion white Christians for “placing hierarchy above Christianity,” “sacralizing” segregation, and basically, treating a fellow human being with no compassion. Clearly, in Black American’s view, the US was not Christian. In the same way, the South also used religion to condemn the North for not doing God’s will (According to the South, God was ok with slavery because it was in the bible). The North did the same. God was on everyone’s side. Everyone was unchristian for not doing the Christian thing. But perhaps, using religion, or Christianity in this case, crosses into Robert Bellah’s idea of Civil Religion. Using religion for our own “petty interests and ugly passions.” This reminds me of the Veterans memorial in San Diego, where the cross (a Christian symbol) stands over the names of service members killed in war. I’ve long understood that the Revolution was fought for economic reasons, and that the Civil War over slavery, but not that both were “cloaked with God’s will” or in the case of San Diego, topped with the symbol of Jesus’ “ultimate” sacrifice. Its hard for me to see where Civil religion and Christianity divide. This is probably what the founders did not want. Kramnick and Moore seem to think so, according to K and M, the Founders valued religion so much that it was in our best interest to not make the US a Christian nation, since history showed how bad it usually turned out. However, as Sabitini said, K and M presented the debate terribly. Even I, who hardly reads, felt like I was reading the liberal version of Falwell with their polemic (and poorly cited) claims. John Fea was pretty good at not doing this. Except for the Christian moral editorials he snuck in, focusing too much on the Whigs, and not talking about other Americans (Blacks, women, immigrants, and Native Americans), it was a good book. Fea helped me think “historically.”

Jeff Minck at: October 5, 2011 at 1:30 AM said...

I have found it extremely interesting how two completely different books spanning a similar topic seem to mesh to provide a larger picture of religion in America. While it is true that Kramnick, Moore and Fea seem to miss out on some glaring perspectives (such as African Americans and women), their absence in a way calls attention to thought about their place in the story. In essence, the fact that some groups seem left out of the discussion force the thoughtful and curious reader to look into the missing pieces to see the whole picture.

BStrausheim at: October 6, 2011 at 12:25 AM said...

Kramnick and Moore seemingly confronted this topic with preconceived notions that the Constitution was designed for the specific purpose of separating the political sphere from the private religious one. They acknowledge that most people were religious in nature but set out to prove that the founders purposefully kept the religious notion out of politics. They set out to prove this, and as Fea noted about some historians who set out to prove a point, they find themselves similar to lawyers and, “cherry-pick from the past in order to obtain a positive result,” for their argument. Perhaps this is why Kramnick and Moore left out African Americans and women alike, for these two groups were notably religious and had profound influence on the private sphere. Fea, on the other hand, is much more difficult and complex, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why these groups were left out. Perhaps Fea was challenging his readers (meaning us right now) to have this discussion. He wants us, as historians, to think historically, and absorb the “Five C’s” when analyzing history, so that we can better educate ourselves about towards change. While Kramnick and Moore, I believe, were looking to display the “secular state”, and perhaps avoiding the complication added with the abundant impact of women and African Americans, Fea, I also believe, was challenging us to see these views. To see the context, change over time, contingency, causality, and complexity of these groups in regards to religion would allow us to better understand this rather important and “profound” debate.

Unknown at: October 6, 2011 at 6:40 PM said...

The subject of America being a Christian nation has been debated in academic and theological circles for years. The reason the idea has been pushed in the past is generally because certain groups have a particular interest involved in promoting that argument (religious right, 700 Club). Kramnick and Moore's work had set out to discount the ways in which the Constitution in no way had any intention by its authors to establsh a purely Christian state (whatever that may be) and did so purposely. Fast forward to 2011 and along comes another piece on the topic of America as a Christian nation by a historian of a Christian college institution by the name of Fea.

Fea takes a different approach to the argument and and looks how people should view history, not as simple black and white stories, but to look at the people of the time and the ideas promoted.

Its true that if this country was purely founded as a Christian nation, the Whigs would have had a longer run than they did than just the 19th century. However, such was not the case.

The idea that African and Native Americans as well as women do not get much review in these books is true, but they are certainly a good reference to use at looking into America's religious past and how people viewed the formative years of this nation nonetheless.

Michael Hartman at: October 6, 2011 at 10:39 PM said...

The authors, Fea and Kramnick and Moore, can be classified as "intellectual historians" because of their use of primary documents: letters, manuscripts, the Declaration of Independence, etc...The problem with these "intellectual historians" is that they fail to include the views of other American groups: women, African slaves, and Native Americans. Their research is based solely on the works of those in power, i.e. white Americans. The African slave's opinion on whether his enslavement is the work of a "Christian" nation is not expressed. The Native Americans were driven to near racial and cultural extension, do the authors attempt to express whether the Native Americans felt that this was the work of a "Christian nation?" The authors fail to bring to bear the views of other groups aside from white Americans. At the same time though the books are useful in providing a window into how white men perceived the question of, “is United States as a Christian nation?”

CSeidl at: October 7, 2011 at 2:19 AM said...

Kramnick and Moore along with Jon Fea both use effective ways in showing the affect the religious right has on the fabric of American society. Although Fea uses a more scholastic approach I really feel that Kramnick and Moore's "fight fire with fire," approach worked because of the religious right's constant contradiction of the true aims of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers needs a strong voice to counter. They both use very interesting source documents to prove their points, but I agree with Prof. Blum that without examples of the opinions of women, African-Americans and other important groups of the time, we are only left, yet again with the opinions of the rich white man.

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