The Founders, Faith, and the American Nation: An Interview with John Fea

Editor's Note: Two Patheos columnists converse about the Founding Fathers, contemporary political debates, and the nature of historical study. Visit John Fea's latest column here.

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? It's one of the questions ricocheting around our national discourse, and it has strong proponents of both "no" and "yes." Those who argue that we should do X because we are a Christian nation are assuming an answer. Those who argue that we have no responsibility to do X—or must not do X—because we are not a Christian nation are likewise assuming an answer.

But as Professor John Fea explores American history in his fine new book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, his intent is to complicate this dualist debate by doing his job as a historian. The question, he says, cannot be simply answered, and has to take into account not just a handful of Founding Fathers, or the language that is or isn't present in formational documents. It has to consider state constitutions, and popular sentiments, and the very fact that even the characters in American history about whom we know the most—George Washington, for example—are almost perfectly opaque to us when we try to determine what they believed and what that belief impelled them to do.

Professor Fea, who teaches American history and is chair of the History Department at Messiah College, argues that most of the time when people try to argue from history, they are making simplistic and even mistaken assumptions about what history is good for. "The past," he writes, "can be messy, complicated, and not easily summarized in a neatly constructed paragraph or two" (xxv). Historians don't work like polemicists do, a useful reminder. Instead of entering history with a preconceived purpose, as many of us do when we attempt to argue from history, historians note change, context, causality, contingency, complexity.

In terms theologians and preachers might find familiar, politicians, talking heads, and Tea Party activists alike use tend to use scraps of history as proof-texts. They know what they want to say, and then they search the letters of George Washington or the writings of Thomas Jefferson for something that supports it (or lift something off internet sites, which may or may not be quoting accurately or in context). People conceive of history as simple; in a story Professor Fea repeats, broadcaster Rush Limbaugh describes history as simply "what happened," although Professor Fea goes on to assure us that Mr. Limbaugh could not be more wrong about how historians approach history: "They are not only interested in facts, but always ask why a particular event in the past happened the way it did" (xxiv).

History as a discipline is much richer and more powerful than we see when each side cherry-picks the facts or quotes it needs, and Professor Fea reminds us that the question framed by his book's title does not have a simple answer, no matter what you may have heard. And that history shouldn't be so easily reduced; that's not what history is for.

Encountering the past on its terms instead of ours, he tells us, has the potential to teach us empathy, humility, selflessness, and hospitality. By listening to the voices of others—the same thing we're called to do in the here and now—we learn to set aside what we know and think to hear what others know and think, and we begin to see our relationship with the past not in a simple linear fashion, but in all its beautiful complexity (xxxvi).

Professor Fea closes his Introduction with a challenge:

Are we willing to allow history to "educate" us—to lead us outward? We need to practice history not because it can win us political points or help us push our social and cultural agendas forward, but because it has the amazing potential to transform our lives.

The passion of the historian for history radiates out from this book, and whichever side of the question on which you may believe yourself to be, you will find much in the book to challenge, stimulate, and engage you. Many thanks to Professor Fea for the research and writing that went into Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?—and for being generous enough to talk about the book with me.

Greg: In researching, writing, and, now, talking about your book, what historical misconceptions or factual errors have you encountered in the contemporary debate about faith and our founding that most surprised or alarmed you?

5/18/2011 4:00:00 AM