John Fea: On the Road about Christian American

From John Fea’s blog:

As many of the readers of my blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” are aware, I have spent a good portion of 2011 and 2012 on the road and on the radio waves promoting my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the process, I have learned a lot about what Americans think about the founding of the United States.  Many of the people I have encountered have been thoughtful, open-minded, and willing to listen to my interpretation of the relationship between Christianity and the American Revolution.  Others have not.

I have been keeping a journal about my experiences. The computer file is called “On the Road With Christian America.” I use the journal to reflect on what my encounters with “Christian America” tell us about how American evangelicals, and Americans more broadly, engage the past.

One day I might publish an edited version of my journal, but in the meantime here are just a few of the more interesting things that have happened to me since the publication of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

  • In a talk to a group of mainline Protestant clergy I was accused of anti-Catholicism for quoting John Adams.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the other ministers in attendance explained to their colleague that I was not personally endorsing anti-Catholic views, but only trying to make the point that the world view of some founders, particularly Adams, was profoundly anti-Catholic.
  • A conservative talk radio host in Orange County, California asked me if the founding fathers would have opposed the placing of American flags near gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.  (There was apparently a news story dealing with this issue at the time of my interview). When I said that I did not know, he went off on a tirade about how liberal history professors were destroying this country.  At one of the commercial breaks (off the air), he changed to a friendly tone of voice and praised my answer to his question.  He said that the interview was “going well” and called it “one of the best I have done in a long time.”  When we returned from the break he continued his tirade.
  • A syndicated Christian radio host asked me if I thought Thomas Jefferson was a Christian.  When I said that it is hard to label a person “Christian” who rejects the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he responded, “Well, he may not have been a Christian, but he was a believer!”  (He then promptly cut to commercial break before I had a chance to respond).  I am still trying to get my head around this one.
  • A Christian podcaster conducted a one-hour interview with me as her dog barked relentlessly in the background.  I am assuming that the canine did not like the answer to the question in the title of my book.
  • A  talk radio host in Atlanta  asked me if I was a Christian.  I said yes, fully expecting him to ask how a Christian could not endorse the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.  Instead, he asked me if I had ever heard “Jesus Freak,” a song made popular by the Christian rap group D.C. Talk.  When I told him that I had indeed heard the song, he seemed rather excited and started talking about D.C. Talk with his co-host/sidekick.  He then took a commercial break and when he came back on the air for the second half of the interview he played “Jesus Freak” and announced, “This one is for you, professor!”
  • A Christian radio host asked me to define George Washington’s position on abortion.
  • During the Q&A following a talk to a group of youth workers in Minneapolis, a man said that he would not buy my book unless I told him what I thought of David Barton.  (No sale was made).
  • After hearing me talk about Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? at Colonial Williamsburg, a man asked me if Messiah College “was still a Christian college?
  • At the same lecture, a woman wanted to know if I believed in “collective salvation like Barack Obama.”
  • When speaking to a group of atheists in Pittsburgh, the projection screen on the platform mysteriously lowered in the middle of the lecture.  I told the audience that I was not planning on using any visuals for the talk, so the lowering of the screen could only be explained through an appeal to a divine being.
  • A host of a Christian radio station spent the entire 30 minute interview reading to me quotes from the Founding Fathers, Supreme Court decisions, the Star-Spangled Banner, and John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity.”  I think my voice was heard on the program for a total of two minutes.  Following the interview, he invited me back on the show so that we could continue “this stimulating conversation.”
  • I began a talk at an Arizona mega-church by asking the audience of 200+ evangelicals to raise their hand if they thought that America was “founded as a Christian nation.”  Nearly every hand in the room went up.  (I have since learned not to start my talks in this fashion).
  • A caller to a Pittsburgh Christian radio station, who identified himself as a “minister of the Gospel,” said that my suggestion that history is “complex” was “wishy-washy.”  He went on to tell me that “everyone knows that history is black and white.”
  • During a Q&A at a public lecture someone asked me what Thomas Jefferson, if he were alive, would say about the election of a black president.  When I probed a bit deeper,  I realized that she assumed Jefferson would have opposed an Obama presidency because he had said in Notes on the State of Virginia that Africans were inferior to white people.
  • One Christian radio host introduced me as a history professor at Messiah College.  He then caught me completely off-guard when he proceeded to ask “Do you believe in THE Messiah?”  When I said “yes,” he responded by saying, “OK then, hallelujah, praise Jesus, we can now continue with this interview.”
  • I arrived at a book signing at a northeastern Pennsylvania Barnes & Noble to find a table of my books positioned under a large sign that read “Special Story-Time With Therapy Dogs International.”
  • Last summer I did a radio interview from an eighteenth-century house in the town of Greenwich, NJ.  Five minutes before the interview I hit my head on a low ceiling beam in the house causing me to briefly black out.  I also fell to the floor, resulting in a badly sprained ankle.  I did the entire interview while slightly dizzy and with a docent applying ice to my ankle!

And I could go on….


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  • Luke

    You can’t make this stuff up!

  • *sigh* I read much of this and weep for our country. There are just some prejudices that, it seems, can never be overcome (I’m not saying that this is actually so. Just that this is the feeling I’m left with whenever I read things like this, which is often).

  • Joe Canner

    What is almost as frightening as the content of the responses is the apparent lack of interviewing skills among supposedly professional broadcasters. Do Christians not have access to journalism training, or has the democratization of the internet made training unnecessary?

  • Percival

    American Christians are just weird.

  • Ron Schooler

    I loved your book. You maintained (as much as we can as humans) an approach that let the evidence speak. My view that we are completely off-base in thinking that America was founded by Evangelical Protestants was tempered by the number of times that it was close to true that this group held sway. It seemed that a theme of your book is that Protestants of an Evangelical stripe have tried many times to convert the nation, but have failed. This current incarnation is that there was a golden age when Evangelical Protestants set the agenda for the nation and that we should get back to that. Not only are they wrong, they don’t seem to know that history does not go backwards.

    Thank you for sharing these anecdotes.

  • I heard a Mars Hill Audio interview with Fea last week. I was very impressed. I can see how these incidents listed are not only amusing to such a scholar but discouraging that this is the state of things… like an alternative universe.

  • I must tell you that few of my radio colleagues (religious or otherwise) know or care to know anything about the art of the good interview. They do the show with a particular direction in mind based on their loyal audience, and will use their guest to get there. Also, there are more than a few listeners who get thrills from hearing some poor deluded author get flattened by their top-speed freight train of a host. Verbal carnage, even after so many years of it, still draws the listeners. Religious radio follows non-religious, on this score and many others; it is not out ahead.

    And, for anyone who thinks the people of today are ill-informed about US history: it has always been so, even in the eras those historic incidents were happening in. Believers or not.

    Item last: The more I read the US founders, the more I find them to be a self-contradictory bunch, on the whole. Just a bit less so than the rest of us were.

  • Bob Smallman

    “And I could go on….”

    And you really must! I’m about 20 pages from the end of your book and have enjoyed it greatly. You’ve taught me a lot.