John Fea: Is America a Christian Nation?

Below (scroll down or click here), I introduced to you our first contributing editor, John Fea of Messiah College, whose first blog entry concerns civic humanism, religion, and the eighteenth-century republican tradition. Here's John's next entry, on that much politicized question, "Is America A Christian Nation"?

John Fea: Is America a Christian Nation?

Most of us are no doubt tired of this politically charged question. I know I am. But there is also a part of me that just can’t stay away from it. As someone who teaches at a church-related college in the evangelical tradition, I get this question all the time from prospective students and their parents.

This is why I was intrigued when I saw Hugh Heclo’s article, “Is America a Christian Nation?” in the most recent issue of Political Science Quarterly. In one of the more thoughtful treatments of this topic I have seen of late, Heclo concludes that the answer to this question is much more complicated than both the Christian Right and the secular left tend to make it. (Of course it is!!). Is America a Christian nation? Heclo says that the answer is “yes--no--no--no--sort of--sort of--and no way.”

Here is how he breaks down his answer:
1). America is a Christian nation if “Christian” is defined demographically.
2). America is not a Christian nation in terms of the way Americans regard the “relevance of Christianity to their everyday lives.”
3). America is not a Christian nation in terms of how Americans uphold Christian creedal commitments.
4). America is not a Christian nation in terms of how they behave.
5). America is “sort of” a Christian nation in terms of its legal and institutional structures.
6). America is “sort of” a Christian nation in terms of its moral/republican ethos.
7). America is definitely not (“no way”) a Christian nation in terms of “Christianity’s view of the question.”

Some of us may be disappointed with Heclo’s lack of deep historical thinking and use of poll data to support his conclusions (after all, he is a political scientist), but his article is worth reading. I wonder how American religious life in the late eighteenth-century would fare under Heclo’s criteria for what makes a nation “Christian?”

If you do not have access to Political Science Quarterly (the article is not on-line), the essay stems from a 2004 lecture that Heclo gave at Boston College. You can watch that lecture here.


Phil said…
Interesting post, and interesting article; this is a question I get from time to time in class, mostly from evangelically-oriented Christians who've embraced a kind of secularization narrative.....
John Fea said…
Thanks for reading the post, Phil. I think we met a few years back at the CFH in Hope. Good to touch base with you again.
DEG said…
Like Phil, I get these questions from undergrads, usually around the time that we're covering the late 18th century in my Amer. religions class. A goodly portion of my students are from metro Atlanta and Cobb County (a veritable Colorado Springs, East). I usually respond with a question, asking them to reflect on why they want folks from two centuries ago to affirm what they see as "Christian values." That's led to some fruitful discussions, but I'm still often a bit befuddled about how to respond with sensitive prodding toward the complexities of the question.

By the way, John Inscoe put me on to this site and I'm glad he did. Great posts all around,..

Darren Grem
University of Georgia
Phil said…
Hey John, we did in fact meet at the CFH at Hope; likewise.

Good questions, Darren. I'm sure the responses are interesting for sure.
Paul Harvey said…
Thanks to all for commentary -- I think there are a lot of teachers now who get this question all the time -- I assure you we do in Colorado Springs.

Darren, please let other folks in Georgia know about the blog, and I'm always open to considering other contributing editors, as I've already seen the good response John's posts have gotten.
DEG said…
For all the South-o-philes out there, I wonder how John's categorizations might help us. Is the South/Sunbelt a "Christian region," so to speak?* When applied to the contemporary South (and compared with past Souths), how might we answer his questions?

* Obviously, "South," "Sunbelt," and "Christian" are relative terms. But heck, debating definitions in the course of addressing questions is what what we get paid for, right?
Louann Sabatini said…
I read this book and it was very informative on the analysis of answering the question that Fea posed...Was America Founded on a Christian Nation? He never seemed to actually answer this question but gave pertinent information to allow the readers to make their own opinions about it. I myself was convinced by the end of the book that our country did seem to be founded on a nation of faith...Which one, i have no idea. Overall, the flow of the book seemed to be good and it was organized very well. Very good book.

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