Is America a Christian Nation?
Carlos printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 01:15:20 PM EST
According to John Fea, writing for the History News Network, both the left and the right often answer this question the wrong way. An excerpt:
Those who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation run roughshod over the historical record. They use the words of the Founding Fathers to support Republican jeremiads on the moral decay of American life. If only this country could return to its Christian roots, they say nostalgically, everything would be okay.

And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today's evangelical churches. [   ]

But before we go too far in condemning the Christian Right on this front, let's remember that the secular left is not immune to errors of historical thinking. While evangelicals misinterpret the references to God in the words of the Founding Fathers, their critics simply have no idea what to make of those same quotations. Since they can't fathom why people today would make religious faith an essential part of their everyday lives, they have little interest in making sense of past worlds where such beliefs were important.

Such approaches to history seldom enable us to better understand the past. Thinking historically does not mean that people cannot learn from the past -- they should and must. But they should be careful how they use historical examples. Exploring the past requires a concern for what it was really like.

Mr. Fea, like so many others falls into the same old trap of false equivalence between the religious right and the strawman of the "secular left."

The reason that we discuss the matter of historical revisionism is because the religious right has made it a problem.

While I am glad that he is on the case of the revisionism presented by the religious right, Fea presents no evidence that "the secular left" (whatever that is), has misapplied, misstated, misquoted, misunderstood or fabricated history.

If he has a correction or criticism to make of someone he should make it -- and avoid the profound intellectual error of making vast, unsupported generalizations about "the secular left" -- as if whatever errors made by critics of the religious right are of similar magnitude and consequence.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 02:14:10 PM EST

that Fea is overstating his case and engaging in some unfair equivalence, but he still makes a good general point about the temptation of secular types to not fully understand, be interested in, or be sensitive to our Christian historical context and its consequences up to the present time.

by Carlos on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 02:32:15 PM EST
Once again, absent any actual facts about said temptations by alleged secular types, I'll withhold any judgement about whether he has any point at all.

We do get rather mixed up because of the use of the word "secular."  What does it mean? It depends on who is using (or abusing) the term and in what context.

To some, it means atheism or generic non belief such as in "I am a secular Jew."  (To others it means militant "new atheism".)

In other instances, it simply means support for neutrality in government with regards to religion.

In still other cases, it is synonymos with pluralism, meaning that a secular society which respects all religious points of view and prefers none.

I could go on.

But let's set aside the matter of secular types for a moment. Why pick on them? How about various religious factions involved in say, middle east politics, who abuse history for political purposes or confuse it for ideological reasons?

The point is that any time one sets up the secular strawman, absent any real facts, one is falling into the same old false framing that the religous right has used for decades.

There are plenty of real world misuses and misstatements of history without resorting to the great, unnamed secular anything.

Awhile back we had Wallis, Obama and others making vast claims about secularists driving people of faith from "the public square" or from the Democratic Party.  They have yet to name a single person who has ever been silenced or barred from public life because of their religous views or expressions. They have yet to name a single secularist or identified any secular movement that has behaved in this fashion. After having been vigorously challenged, we don't hear that embarrassing claim much anymore outside the religious right.

As for Fea, lets see him define "the secular left," by some reasonable standard, and name some specific incidents so we can understand and evaluate his claims. I have no idea what he is referring to, and I suspect, neither does he.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 03:09:44 PM EST
Parent debating what was in the Founders' minds regarding religion.  It's certainly critical to correct falsification of history, and Jefferson's views aren't irrelevant -- but I think it's much more important to focus on the pragmatic, specific implications of considering the US to be a "Christian Nation".

For example: should a teacher in a public school be allowed to lead a prayer in the classroom?  If you clearly answer "no" to questions like these, I don't really care whether or not you think we're a Christian Nation.  If you answer "yes", then I want to be sure I don't vote for you.

Prayer in school isn't the only implication, but it's in some sense canonical.  It might be interesting to come up with 10 such questions to serve as something of a "Dominionist Litmus Test".  I chose the number 10 completely at random, of course.

Let's try to force the discussion to its relevant impact on our lives and society -- this will make the debate less ideological and more actionable.

by dhr on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 11:10:28 PM EST

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