- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2011

By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, $30, 287 pages

Well, was it? Um, er, ah … it depends - the Christian Founding question, as John Fea addresses it, depends on more things in heaven and earth than are readily summarized in a bumper sticker. And if that doesn’t answer the question the author boldly proposes in his title, he still gives readers the raw data wherewith to draw conclusions that will likely differ from each other in large measure. And which certainly won’t resolve anything at this late date in American history.

That isn’t for a minute to say such questions aren’t worth raising.

Mr. Fea’s judiciously amassed research has in it something to unsettle firm convictions on all sides of the question: yes, Christian; no, Christian; Christian to a degree, but how a large a degree? Indeed, what does it mean, “Christian nation”? He finds that particular question as perplexing as any having to do with the early settlers’ and Founders’ intentions.

Was America at any point consecrated to Christian and no other purposes? Mr. Fea, chairman of the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., says - here’s what I hear anyway - probably not, but at the same time America was full of Christians intent that their faith should be fully realized here.

The problem in wading through the evidence - Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” language, state establishments of religion, the Constitution’s omission of divine purpose in the American arrangement, etc., etc., etc. - is the political nature of the inquiry. The U. S. Supreme Court got us into this. Didn’t it - with decisions proposing the unconstitutionality of prayer and Bible reading in public schools? Or did the Court really start this affray? If America were as thoroughly a Christian nation as some argue, why didn’t Americans instruct the justices to go to hell, literally or figuratively, and get out of Christianity’s upward pathway?

Mr. Fea has done a brave thing in simply laying before us the competing considerations and inviting us to make up our own minds. Many of these considerations don’t weigh heavily in favor of Christian consecration as the key to our identity. The religion of the Founding Fathers, as is often alleged by foes of the religious Founding thesis, was less than orthodox, despite the “vague and generic God-language used in the Declaration of Independence.”

George Washington seemed not particularly interested in the deeper questions of Christ’s divinity. John Adams, a Unitarian at heart, as Mr. Fea portrays him, sought a life of Christian virtue without putting much faith in biblical tales of Jesus’ divinity. Jefferson? Well, we know about him. He “failed virtually every test of Christian orthodoxy,” though, like Adams, he exalted Jesus’ ethical teachings. John Jay was a “Christian statesman,” but he lacked for company.

The states, yes, “made very clear that they were Christian societies, placing Protestant qualifications on officeholding and allowing government to tax citizens for the purpose of promoting the Christian religion.” On the other hand, the national government established by the Constitution kept clear of such questions, with no invocation of God as Founder and protector.

The Framers, says Mr. Fea, had no intention of excluding God from our national arrangements; they left it to the states to decide the method and terms of incorporating His presence into their life. “[T]hat the people of the United States did privilege Christianity over other religions” seems incontestable. Did that make us a Christian nation? No doubt, in some sense. In how large a sense? A significant answer is to be found in the Founders’ embrace of Christianity as discipliner and enforcer of morality. As Adams said, “There is no such thing as [morality] without a supposition of a God. There is no right or wrong in the universe without the supposition of a moral government and an intellectual and moral governor.” Never mind what Christopher Hitchens might say.

Adams’ affirmation joins itself spiritually to President Eisenhower’s much-derided words a couple of centuries later: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith - and I don’t care what it is.” He probably really didn’t care. He sensed at the same time, as had the Founders almost to a man, the insufficiency of purely human attentions to the larger questions of life. There likely was Something out there beyond the veil; and if there was, it mattered in considerable degree: how large a degree was up to the believer, in the good old American tradition.

Mr. Fea notes cheerfully enough the complexity of history and the problems inherent in getting interpretations just right. He is scholar enough to “avoid polemics as much as possible,” in the process producing “a historical primer for students, churchgoers, and anyone who wants to make sense of the American past and its relationship to Christianity.” Hold the auto-da-fes. There’s enough here to keep inquiring minds of diverse sorts busy, while on their knees or off them.

William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.

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