Wheaton’s Inhabit Conference: Race and the Christian Nation Question

I am hearing good things about the Inhabit conference held at Wheaton College this past weekend. I had wanted to attend but couldn’t due to a previous commitment. One topic of discussion at the conference was the problem of the Christian nation concept.

John Fea notes that the Christian nation theory is offensive to many African-American evangelicals. Here is a taste:

On Friday evening I was inspired by the Wheaton Gospel Choir and messages by Pastor Ray, Chris Beard of Peoples Church in Cincinnati, and Bryan Loritts, the pastor of a multiracial church in Memphis.  (Loritts is a big Jonathan Edwards fan and was very excited to meet Marsden.  He had just finished Marsden’s biography of Edwards and was now reading some of Noll’s work). The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Rev. Beard’s experience as a minister in Cincinnati illustrates Fea’s observations:

Beard’s Peoples Church seems to have made the most striking reversal on the Christian America question.  As a member of the Assembly of God denomination, Beard taught his congregation that the founders were Christians, that America was a Christian Nation, and that patriotism was almost inseparable from the Kingdom of God.  He even had David Barton speak at his church.  But after reading folks like Noll and Marsden, and looking more closely at the historical record, Beard changed his mind.  He made a deliberate attempt to reject Christian nationalist teaching, build an international and multiracial congregation, and subordinate his patriotism to the Kingdom of God.  He lost a lot of his church in the process, but he has rebuilt it into an even stronger congregation.

Beard’s views certainly motivated his opposition to The Jefferson Lies when it came out, as well as to the recent surge of interest in the Institute on the Constitution and League of the South.

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  • Tom Van Dyke

    There was more to the American Founding than slavery. Further, many or most of the Founders were quite aware of its moral wrongness, even that hypocrite Jefferson.

    “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” Jefferson on slavery, Notes on the State of Virginia [1781]

    Trading one simple-minded version of history for another makes no sense, in this case going from believing the Founding was Christian to believing it was anything but.


    Dr. Mark David Hall, George Fox University:

    “Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.

    According to those who answer “Of course not!” America’s Founders were guided by secular ideas and self, class, or state interests. These scholars do not deny that the Founders were religious, but they contend that they were mostly deists—i.e., persons who reject many Christian doctrines and who think God does not interfere in the affairs of men and nations.

    For instance, historian Frank Lambert writes that “[the] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone avers that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Virtually identical claims are made by Edwin Gaustad, Steven Waldman, Richard Hughes, Steven Keillor, David Holmes, Brooke Allen, and many others.

    In addition to asserting that the Founders were deists, these authors regularly contend that they abandoned their ancestors’ intolerant approach to church–state relations and embraced religious liberty. They often concede that some Founders thought civic authorities should support religion but argue that this is irrelevant as Jefferson’s and Madison’s conviction that there should be a high wall of separation between church and state was written into the Constitution and reinforced by the First Amendment. As we shall see, there are significant problems with this story.

    The second answer to this question is offered by popular Christian writers such as Peter Marshall, David Manuel, John Eidsmoe, Tim LaHaye, William J. Federer, David Barton, and Gary DeMar. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions.

    To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders. The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Using this methodology, Tim LaHaye concludes, for instance, that John Adams was “deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the use of Biblical principles in governing the nation,” and George Washington, if he was alive today, “would freely associate with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence upon our nation.”

    This approach leads to similarly bad history.

  • Stogumber

    “Slavery is embedded in the Constitution”? Then what’s the problem with Peroutka and Hill? Their historical view is obviously identical with the view of African-Americans – only that the African-Americans have understandably no nostalgic sentiments whereas a lot of white Christians understandably have!

    African-Americans and white Southerners seem to be the sane block of constitutional realists, whereas the Lindolnites are the foolish sentimentalists which invent a Constitution which never existed.

    • Stogumber


      • Tom Van Dyke

        A lot of skin-deep historicizing going on these days. I think Frederick Douglass should have a say in this [if they still teach who he was]:


        “On January 27, 1843, in a resolution adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison famously denounced the U.S. Constitution for sanctioning the crime of slavery. “The compact which exists between the North and the South,” Garrison wrote, “is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

        Was he right? Did the Constitution protect the right to own human property? Frederick Douglass, the escaped former slave, self-taught author and editor, and leading abolitionist orator, thought not. “Take the Constitution according to its plain reading,” he challenged the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. “I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.*” In fact, Douglass told the crowd gathered to hear his Independence Day address, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”


        Ibid.: “The Constitution, [Lysander Spooner] argued, failed this test. In fact, “not even the name of the thing, alleged to be sanctioned, is given.” Douglass echoed this point in his Independence Day address, asking, “if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it?””

        • Stogumber

          Tom, thanks. I was too lazy to look it up and refer to the Garrison/Douglass controversy.
          Also, I was too unobservant to see that we now have an “Edit” function and mustn’t live with our spelling sins eternally (even if that would be better for our souls, perhaps???) So, Dr. Throckmorton, many many thanks to you for having moved to Patheos! I already like some of the other stuff here, like country music etc.)

          • Stogumber

            I just see that Booker T. Washington wrote about Douglass, out of sympathy I suppose.
            Which gives me an opportunity to say that indeed I think a white communitarian/nationalist movement will be a rather good idea – in particular good for the not-so-rich Whites – but I also think that this movement has to learn from B.T. Washington: Self-improvement is more important than political campaigning.

          • Tom Van Dyke

            Yes, Booker T. Washington is the forgotten man of Black History, of US History. He was eclipsed by WEB DuBois, who believed that political power and social justice were more crucial than economic self-empowerment.


            Booker T. Washington, educator, reformer and the most influentional black leader of his time (1856-1915) preached a philosophy of self-help, racial solidarity and accomodation. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.

            W.E.B. Du Bois, a towering black intellectual, scholar and political thinker (1868-1963) said no–Washington’s strategy would serve only to perpetuate white oppression. Du Bois advocated political action and a civil rights agenda (he helped found the NAACP). In addition, he argued that social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called “the Talented Tenth:”