Presidential candidate Ted Cruz frequently states in his campaign speeches that he wants to see America return to “the Judeo-Christian values that built this great nation.” The inclusion of “Judeo” in Judeo-Christian has its own history, but the vast majority of Americans over the years have believed that they live in a “Christian nation.” As Messiah College historian John Fea argues, this is simply a historical observation, not an assessment of whether or not it is “correct” or “true.”On April 13, 2016, Fea spoke at a forum at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. The event was titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” You can listen to the podcast below.
The culture of Christianity has no doubt had a significant influence on American culture. However, some have tried to make the claim that the U.S. was “founded” as a Christian nation. This historical claim has strong political implications. Although legally the Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion, some have tried to argue that the founders intended the nation to be guided by exclusively Christian principles. The Christian nationalist David Barton has waged a decades-long campaign to prove America’s “Godly heritage” by demonstrating that the founders were all orthodox Christians and that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are Christian documents.
Barton’s pseudo-historical claims have been widely discredited, perhaps most articulately in John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction and in the dozens of articles he has written. Despite Barton’s lack of credibility as an interpreter of the American past, he has been extremely influential among a segment of Evangelical voters in the Republican party who frame political contests in terms of a culture war. Culture warriors see themselves at battle for the soul of America. They look to an idealized Christian past to counter what they see as the growing threats of religious diversity and creeping secularism. Barton’s message has financial backing. So much so that he runs the Super PAC for the candidate he believes is anointed by God to become president, Ted Cruz. Fea has been at the forefront of a movement to call Ted Cruz to clarify his associations Barton.
Although Fea does not explicitly use the term “myth” in his book to describe the the construction of a usable past, I think he would agree that it is a helpful category. Myths are commonly understood to be “lies,” but in a cultural or historical sense, they are the stories and claims that give shape to our social lives. Myths function to express a society’s hopes, aspirations, fears, anxieties, and prejudices. The Christian nation myth, in particular, has long been used to demarcate who and who is not a true American. At various moments in history, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and non-believers have labeled as outsiders.
For the past year, I have been hosting a series of forums dedicated to the theme of American Myths. The first forum, held last October, took a critical look at the American obsession with discovery myths. Lenape tribal leader and New Jersey pastor John Norwood delivered a devastating critique of the continued deference that white Americans give to Christopher Columbus. You can listen to the podcast here. In our second forum, I posed the question of “Why Myths Matter to Americans.” Several local scholars, including historians John Pahl and Katie Oxx, sociologist Nathan Wright, and theologian Jim McIntire delivered responses to my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. We had a robust conversation on why people believe in things that have been disproved by science and how myths perform both harmful and helpful roles in a society. You can access that podcast here.
I’m so pleased that John Fea could join us on April 13 for the event dedicated to the Christian nation myth. As a historian, he is deeply committed to engaging the public and he challenges us to look beyond the ideology and emotional rhetoric that has fueled historical arguments (from both the right and left) to look carefully at the recorded facts of the past. Be sure to visit his website The Way of Improvement Leads Home and subscribe to his excellent history podcast on iTunes.
The forum podcast above is a recording of his talk and the audiences questions posed to him. Fea based his presentation on his book Was American Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. Westminster/John Knox Press is re-releasing the book this September, just in time for the final months of the presidential election season. If you are on Twitter, you can search the hashtag #JohnFea to view the live tweets. Following the forum, a few of us joined John Fea for a beer at Brü Craft and Wurst located near the church. We had a spirited conversation with Anthea Butler and her American religion graduate students, Chelsea Chamberlain, Gabriel Raeburn, and Andrew Hudson from the University of Pennsylvania.
Stay tuned for upcoming events sponsored by the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. It is my intention to use this space to host future events that foster public discussion of religion, history, politics, and American culture.