Monday, June 20, 2011

An Interview with John Fea on the Historian's Public Role and the Christian Nation Debate

Randall Stephens

With the 4th of July just around the corner, it's a good time to reflect on how Americans conceive the settlement and founding of their nation. John Fea
has been thinking and writing about colonial America and the Revolutionary Era for quite some time. (He writes on that and related matters at his popular, always interesting blog Way of Improvement Leads Home.) Fea is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) and an editor of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation, with Jay Green and Eric Miller (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). His most recent book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminister John Knox Press, 2011), uncovers the historical roots of the Christian nation question and offers much-needed, timely insight. I recently caught up with Fea and asked him about his book, contemporary discussions on the matter, and his experience lecturing on the topic.

Randall Stephens: Gordon Wood has commented on the strange fascination Americans have with their founders. Other westerners, he observes, are not so obsessed with the lives and values of their nations' progenitors. Why do you think it matters so much, to so many Americans, that the founding fathers and the nation itself was and is Christian?

John Fea: As a I argue in the first four chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, the overwhelming majority of Americans have always seen themselves as living in a Christian nation. Though the idea of America as a "Christian nation" has been understood in different ways by different groups, I think one could make a pretty good argument that today's advocates of a "Christian America" have a large chunk of American history on their side. This is more a statement about the influence of Christianity on American culture and less a statement about whether or not the founders believed that they were creating a uniquely Christian nation or whether those who believe today that America is a Christian nation are correct in their assumption.

Anyone familiar with the historiography of American religion knows that American evangelicalism and American nationalism have, in many ways, grown-up together. A lot of Christians today have a hard time separating the two. Since this book came out I have talked to several people—both on the radio and on the lecture circuit—who have a hard time distinguishing their patriotism from their Christian faith. One radio host told me point blank that if America was not a Christian nation he could not be a patriot.

Stephens: You write about the difference between what the public wants out of the past and how historians actually practice history. Is this difference at the heart of the Christian nation debate?

Fea: Yes, I think it is. Before I wrote this book I was aware, at a cognitive level, that most people were in search of a usable past. But the reaction to this book has really opened my eyes to the way ordinary Americans think about history. I don't believe that there is anything wrong in searching for a past that helps us achieve our present-minded agendas. Lawyers do it all the time. But those who only approach history in this way miss out on the transformative power that the study of the past can have on our lives and our society. In a world in which self-interest, individualism, and even narcissism reign supreme, history forces us to see ourselves as part of a larger human story. It has the potential to humble us. Its careful study has the potential to cultivate civility as we learn to listen to voices that are different from our own. I am working on a book on this topic which should be out sometime in late 2012.

I would like to start a crusade to promote good historical thinking as a means of contributing to civil society. Now if only I could find a wealthy philanthropist or foundation who might be willing to fund my project. (If anyone wants to talk more about this let me know).

Stephens: What do you think accounts for the widespread popularity of amateur Christian nation historians like David Barton and the late Peter Marshall?

Fea: I can think of three reasons for their popularity. First, as I mentioned in my answer to a previous question, Barton and Marshall are reinforcing the God-and-country narrative that many American Christians feel comfortable with. Christians can read these authors and breathe a sigh of relief because someone is affirming their already held beliefs about the American past.

Second, I think both Barton and Marshall are/were effective communicators. Barton is smooth. He can be very compelling. I have watched him on television and have found him to be an effective salesperson. Marshall and his co-author David Manuel were excellent writers. When compared to your average history textbook, their million-selling The Light and the Glory reads like a page-turner.

Third, I think Barton and Marshall have been so successful because, frankly, they are the only game in town. Most scholars, academics, and intellectuals have not stepped up to the plate to provide an alternative narrative. Scholars do not go out on the lecture circuit or write for popular audiences. They do not have public relations people or connections with local churches. They don't have the time or inclination to do these things.

When most Christian academics think about being public intellectuals they think in terms of writing for The New Republic or The Atlantic or a similar venue. Don't get me wrong, I think that Christian intellectuals should be writing in these venues. I also think that Christian intellectuals should be publishing with major university presses and trade presses, but if they want to serve the church and society they need to think about their careers, or at least part of their careers, in a different way.

Stephens: How do you address the Christian nation debate in the classroom?

Fea: I have had several opportunities in the classroom to address this issue. I usually don't dive into it in any great depth in my U.S. survey course (although this could change since I have now written this book), but I do explore it a great deal in my upper-division course on the American Revolution and a seminar I teach on religion and the founding. I teach mostly Christian students so many of them come to my classes with some opinion about the whole Christian America debate. Since I am a history professor, I usually try to approach the topic without a strong opinion one way or the other. (In other words, I don't come into class with my proverbial guns blazing and tell my students that I am going to try to debunk their false views about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding). Instead, we usually handle the issue through the reading and discussion of primary sources.

Stephens: You've lectured extensively on the subject of your book. Could you comment briefly on your experience? Would you recommend going on the lecture circuit?

Fea: My experience on the so-called "lecture circuit" has been mixed. I have thoroughly enjoyed the speaking and engagement with those who come to my talks. On the other hand, I have realized just how difficult it is to get people to think historically about this topic. Most people who come to one of my lectures come with their minds already made up about the question in the title of my book and are thus looking for me to confirm their position. When this does not happen (for those on both sides of the debate), I think folks get a bit uncomfortable or perhaps even defensive. I welcome this response. After all, history is complex and messy. Any type of education or learning should make us a bit uncomfortable.

Would I recommend the lecture circuit? Yes. I think that academics and scholars should be able to take their research and explain it to a popular audience in an enthusiastic and passionate way. On the other hand, such an approach to an intellectual or academic life requires taking the time to leave the ivory tower and get on the road in order to meet people in all kinds of settings. Needless to say, I have had my share of cookies and punch in church basements, chicken dinners on college campuses, tours of local historical societies, microphone problems at revolutionary-era round tables, and long car rides listening to E-Street Radio on XM. I have enjoyed it all and hope to do more of it, but I also realize that not all academics will want to do this, nor should they.

1 comment:

dan allosso said...

It's very interesting that people associate religion with patriotism, and more generally with being a necessary part of the selflessness and civic orientation John Fea wants to focus on. I'm interested in many of the same ideals of civic responsibility, respect for others, tolerance, common social values above and beyond the profit motive, etc. But from an irreligious point of view. Seems to me that the current focus on the contribution religion has made to American society would be enhanced by understanding the long-standing dialog between believers and semi- or non-believers, throughout our history. Names like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Abner Kneeland, Charles Knowlton spring to mind. I'm sure there were more -- it struck me when reading _A Shopkeepers' Millennium_ that I had seen many of the names of early western New York newspaper editors Johnson mentions in the pages of Post's old standard, _Popular Freethought in America_.