John Fea, "The Staying Power of Christian America"

The Staying Power of Christian America: What is a Historian to Do?

A week or two ago I commented on the recent poll by Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center that found over half of Americans believe that the United States Constitution is a Christian document. Indeed, as John Turner has noted in his most recent post, the Christian Right, and particularly their view of American history, is alive and well.

What should historians think about such a survey? Some of them, like a prominent early American historian I spoke with recently about this matter, simply ignore such data. They write-off the Christian Right’s view of history from their elite perches in the ivory tower and return to their offices to continue writing their important new monograph on some subject that few average people care about. “There are no reputable historians who believe this stuff,” this scholar told me, as if such an authoritative assertion alone is all that is needed to dismiss the Christian Right’s historical errors.

While I agree that “no reputable historians” believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, I do not think this prominent historian’s blanket dismissal really gets us anywhere. It fails to take seriously, or even consider, the millions of Americans who actually do believe that America is a Christian nation and reveals just how detached some of us are from everyday life. At a time when public history is on the rise and historians are becoming more confident in their ability to educate mass audiences, why do these faulty views of the American founding still hold sway? In the 1980s, evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Peter Marshall, Francis Schaeffer, and John Whitehead, among others, began to use American history as a tool to promote their political and moral agendas. Shortly thereafter evangelical scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden published The Search for Christian America (1983) to challenge the Moral Majority’s view of the past. And according to most evangelical academics and historians, they dismantled it.

But while these three prominent evangelicals convinced a whole bunch of thoughtful believers that they had been duped by Falwell, Marshall, Schaeffer, and company, I wonder just how much of an impact this excellent book has had among ordinary evangelicals. When I say “ordinary evangelicals” I am referring to the history buffs in the pew who know just enough about the past to be dangerous.

While The Search for Christian America continues to be a valuable book (I use portions of it in my Age of the American Revolution course), it seem to have done very little to curb the Christian nation crowd. By the 1990s the Moral Majority had given way to the Religious Right and with it a whole new cast of so-called historians who were ready to carry the Christian nation torch. Enter David Barton, William Federer, and Newt Gingrich. Enter Tim LaHaye (who was known more in evangelical circles as the author of a book about sex than his now famous Left Behind novels) and D. James Kennedy (who was known for his books on personal evangelism), both established evangelical leaders who jumped on the Christian history bandwagon. All of these men wrote as if Noll, Hatch, and Marsden’s argument did not exist. A few years ago when Time named the most influential evangelicals in America, both Noll and Barton were on the list.

Thoughtful evangelicals, and especially evangelical historians, should be discouraged by the staying power of the Christian heritage movement, but how do they stem this revisionist tide? First they must admit that the Christian Right does a better job of promoting their view of the past. Second, they must do more to reach evangelical audiences. Let’s face it—the leaders of the Christian Right are better public historians than we are.

Granted, there have been a score of books trying to debunk this faulty view of history and a few of them do a pretty good job. Works by Randall Balmer, Michelle Goldberg, Laurence Moore and Issac Kramnick, Susan Jacoby, Brooke Allen, and Chris Hedges may be informative, but they all preach to the choir. They are screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history (among other things) written for people who get great pleasure from reading screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history. Most evangelicals who find these books and read them already agree with their anti-Christian nation arguments. In other words, they are not being read by the evangelicals who need to have their minds changed about how to interpret the Revolutionary-era. They are written instead to offer ammunition for the opponents of the Christian Right.

This then leads to the discussion I hope we can have on this blog. What is a historian to do? Should we care? How do we educate Christians who uphold this faulty view of the past? Is it possible? If so, then how?


Rebecca said…
I'd add to your list of books: David L. Holmes, "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers." Holmes also gives public presentations in which he basically says, look, I'm an evangelical, and I'm telling you, the way evangelicals try to construct the past of this nation is intellectually dishonest. He has a great way of explaining what deism was and how the founders viewed religion.
John Fea said…
Rebecca: Thanks for the post. Yes, Holmes's *Faith of the Founding Fathers*, and to some extent Jon Meacham's book *American Gospel* are the kinds of books we need, but I am not sure if evangelical laypersons are reading them.
Seth Dowland said…
John - I enjoyed the post and have enjoyed your series on the Christian right's view of history. And I agree - it doesn't seem that evangelical laypeople are reading Holmes, Meacham, Noll, Marsden, et al. If we as historians are really concerned about this, I think the answer isn't writing more monographs but thinking about new ways to reach the audiences we want to influence. Blogs like this one may be a starting point (though I wonder how many non-academics read here). Speaking in churches or working on curriculum used in churches may be another way to influence Christians' understanding of American history. I recently saw a Sunday School curriculum with the proposed title, "The Miracle of America: One Nation under God." With a title like that, how could the Christian right's view of history *not* hold sway?

I wonder if the groups who were using such materials would have any interest in curriculum that took a more circumspect approach to finding God's role in American history.
Russ said…
As you know, John, I'm writing from the perspective of a Christian historian, but I have at least some sympathy with your prominent historian friend's position (who, if it's who I think it is, would be coming from a different perspective). I'm inclined to think the problem is less a lack of good history as it is a lack of good ecclesiology. The nation becomes the sacred community (actually a fallen sacred community, tempted by serpents like the ACLU, that needs reformation/restoration through political action) because the evangelical church isn't much of a sacred community. "Christian American" can become as much an article of faith for the religious right as "I believe in the holy catholic church," and this is something that access to good historical scholarship cannot easily dislodge without an accompanying theological revision.
The flip side of the problem are those whose secularism is so deeply ingrained that they are incapable of recognizing any role, or at least any positive role, for religion in early American Republic.
John Fea said…
Russ: Thanks for the comment. I couldn't agree more. Indeed, this is a problem of ecclesiology. But teaching the church to be the church (and not the nation) does not rule out the historian's role in bringing needed correction to the Christian nation myth. Here Seth Dowland's suggestions are worthwhile. (Thanks for the comment, Seth!) Perhaps the ecclesiology piece and the history piece can be done simultaneously. Just a thought.
Rebecca said…
I don't know how we reach the folks we need to reach. Many evangelicals get their information from websites whose proprietors act like historians, but who routinely take documents out of context. It's really hard to fight that sort of thing.

Holmes makes a lot of public presentations. I saw him give one at CW, and many in the audience (ordinary CW visitors) were quite hostile. So, I'm not sure these folks can be reached. They want their own historical views and their religious beliefs confirmed, not questioned.

So how do we reach them? I don't think we do. I know that sounds pessimistic, but it's darn difficult to teach when your students don't want to learn.
Anonymous said…
I would strongly recommend that interested parties (particularly those familiar with The Search for Christian America) read the article by Barry Hankins in the most recent Fides et Historia. It's a fascinating account of a dispute between Francis Schaeffer and Mark Noll, George Marsden, etc. And it's a good read!
Paul Harvey said…
Barry's biography of Schaeffer is going to be published by Eerdman's -- should be even more interesting at full length.
John Fea said…
Yes, I saw Hankins deliver the keynote at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in September '06. Noll apparently gave him most of his correspondence with Schaeffer. Fascinating stuff.
Paul Harvey said…
To Susan Larkins: I removed your comment for the same reason as I removed the previous two comments. All of them 1) were irrelevant to the discussion at hand; and 2) contained bigoted references.
Phil said…
I'm late chiming in here, but I have to say I'm with Rebecca on this one.

There's no doubt new learning must take place, but I'm not sure to what degree some wish to learn new things. In my experiences many church folks are hostile to views that (they perceive) to challenge God's orchestration of history and get ruffled when other voices suggest alternative explanations.

It is an uphill battle any way one looks at it.
David said…
The problem with the Christian America issue is that it has little to do with accurate history and everything to do with politics. Evangelicals often ground their political agendas in the founding of the country. If one challenges their foundation, then they somehow think that their political agendas are weakened. Therefore, the battle to engage Evangelicals in a more accurate history begins by showing them that it doesn't matter whether the country began as Christian or not. They should ground their political agendas in the Scriptures and be more "church minded" than "nation minded."
Jonathan Rowe said…
One thing I like to do is enter the comment section of conservative Christian blogs and show them the evidence against "Christian America." And, though I'm quite fervent in my approach, I try to be as civil as possible to not turn people off into thinking that I am some sort of troll.

At WorldMagBlog I've convinced, I think, many ordinary religious conservatives of the folly of the Christian America thesis, even if some remain skeptical of me because they know I generally don't share their worldview (but neither am I a secular leftist).

Check out my blog if interested in the research I've been compiling over the last few years against the Christian Nation idea.

I generally take the same line/tone that Noll, Hatch, Mardsen, and Holmes take (all of whose work I greatly appreciate). Plus I explore the work of many other names of whom you may never heard.

And losts of digging deep into the primary sources!

Popular Posts