Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Many American Christians operate within a “fall paradigm” when it comes to the history of the United States. A fall paradigm sees the world like this: at some point in the past, things were the way they should be. Then something happened (a “fall”) that changed things for the worse. Our task today is to get things back to the way they were. There is nothing inherently wrong with a fall paradigm. The question is whether it depicts reality accurately or not.

Enter John Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College. He explains in his introduction that one of his goals in the book is to convince his readers to think historically:

Most human beings tend to be present-minded when it comes to confronting the past. The discipline of history was never meant to function as a means of getting one’s political point across or convincing people to join a cause. Yet Americans use the past for these purposes all the time. Such an approach to the past can easily degenerate into a form of propaganda or, as the historian Bernard Bailyn described it, “indoctrination by historical example.” (xxv)

The book comes in three parts. In the first part, he traces the idea that the United States was meant to be, in some sense, “Christian,” from the 1700s to today. In the second part, he examines the question, “Was the American Revolution a Christian Event?” In the third, he looks at the religious beliefs of a range of founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Witherspoon, John Jay and Samuel Adams.

The last line of the book, which is intended to summarize Part Three, actually does a good job of summing up the book as a whole: “In the end, a close look at the beliefs of these statesmen reminds us that Christianity was present at the time of the American founding, but it often merged with other ideas that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity” (242). When I wrote a paper on this subject for a history class in seminary, this is what I found as well. I don’t believe that the fall paradigm through which many Christians see the history of the United States is entirely accurate.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I hope that it reaches a large audience, especially Christians. I hope that Fea accomplishes his goal of getting “Christians to see the danger of cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political or cultural agenda in the present” (xvii).