The idea that America is a Christian nation is both true and false.
It’s true that the history of America has been shaped by many Christians. At the same time, there are numerous examples of Americans acting against Christian principles, even as they used the language of religion as justification—chief among them chattel slavery. The history of America is a complicated mixture of ideals, failure, and the tension between these extremes.
Wading into this complex history is Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion. In an effort to provide a critical historical narrative that foregrounds the theme of religion, he has completed a two-volume history of the United States of America. These texts are meant to be useful for both homeschool communities and religious colleges. Kidd explores everything from the religious rituals of Native American nations to the voting and religious actions of evangelicals in the 21st century.
I asked him about some of the major themes of his textbook.
History is never just the retelling of facts, but the selection and interpretation of facts into a cohesive narrative. What is the narrative that emerged as you were writing this history?
American history textbooks are especially difficult to put into a coherent narrative, because literally anything that happened in the American past is “fair game.” Plus, there are events and figures that it would be quite peculiar to ignore, such as the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln, or the 9/11 attacks. Critics of history just see it as “one thing after another,” however, so I do try to draw out particular themes that help hold the story together.
One of those themes is religion. This focus emerges from my own scholarly interests and personal commitments as a Christian. But religion is also arguably the most vital subfield in the scholarship on American history over the past 30 years, so in focusing on religion I’m also working on a theme that has been of major interest to professional historians generally.
Religion is arguably the most vital subfield in the scholarship on American history over the past 30 years.
A second theme is ethnic and racial conflict. Again, this reflects the state of the field, but it also reflects the conspicuous sense of frustration in contemporary America that we can’t “get past” tensions and violence related to race. Christian communities have been on the front lines of grappling with (and often fighting about) race and ethnically related issues such as immigration, so Christians reading the volumes will have no difficulty seeing why the history of racial conflict matters.
A third theme is entertainment culture. This theme started to emerge as a major factor on the eve of the Civil War, and in the Gilded Age (late 19th to early 20th century) the business of entertainment became truly central to Americans’ lives. Entertainment was a product of entrepreneurial culture and disposable income, but it morphed into arguably the central preoccupation of American life. This development is troubling, and I suspect it will take decades for us to be able to grasp all the ways in which we are “amusing ourselves to death” in the smartphone age.
You blend the stories of great figures from history with accounts of average people. What is the benefit of combining these two experiences for historical narrative?
History teachers will rightly expect some coverage of well-known figures, from George Washington to Barack Obama, but I wanted to give a lot of space to people whose life experiences seem more typical for the average American.
There’s an important civic function connected with knowing about the George Washingtons of the American past. You would be poorly prepared as an American citizen if you didn’t know some basic information about our first president! But since there is an inherent value and dignity to the life of the everyday American, I integrate the stories of people such as Luna Kellie, who moved to the Nebraska frontier as a 19-year-old in 1875, or Manuel Padilla, who worked in citrus orchards in the West in the 1940s but got deported to Mexico when he ran into trouble with his boss.
Is religious liberty the only factor that accounts for the large number of denominations and sects that have flourished in American history? Did other factors spark religious innovation?
Religious liberty was certainly a major factor in America’s robust denominational environment. In particular, the “disestablishment” of the state churches (Church of England, and so on) meant that American religion became voluntary and competitive at an early date, and pastors and churches had to work hard at evangelism, recruitment, quality of services, and so forth. This entrepreneurial quality of American religion has also opened the door to heretical groups and dumbed-down theology, though Americans have also often gravitated toward congregations that ask for high levels of commitment.
Ethnicity and immigration have also played a major role in sustaining the vitality of American religion. New immigrants have commonly identified with a certain religious group (German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, and more) and have often been more devout in America than they were back home. This has continued to be the case in contemporary America, where Catholics, Protestants, and adherents of other religions routinely find that one of their main areas of growth is among recent immigrants. Many Christian denominations today—especially Catholics and Pentecostals—would be much weaker demographically if it weren’t for Hispanic immigrants, for example.
As you look at the history of religion in America, particularly Christianity, why do you think it’s so often understood as an oppressive force (as with slavery) when there’s ample evidence that it’s also been a source of comfort, freedom, and justice to marginalized groups (as with the civil-rights movement)? How are we to explain the tension between these two readings of faith?
Some scholars have a conscious or unconscious animosity toward people of faith, and therefore they tend to draw out the most negative examples of faith’s role in American history in order to demonstrate the validity of their animosity. But Christians shouldn’t go to the other extreme by painting an uncomplicated picture of the positive role of faith in America. As a matter of candor and self-policing, we should admit that certain Americans have done terrible things while citing Scripture to justify their deeds.
Christians shouldn’t go to the other extreme by painting an uncomplicated picture of the positive role of faith in America.
Even some of the heroes of evangelical faith, such as George Whitefield, were also deeply formed by the assumptions and biases of their time. This accounts for Whitefield’s slave-owning and pro-slavery advocacy, even as he was leading the most transformative revivals of the 18th century. But there are just as many historical heroes (I think of figures such as the antislavery pastor Lemuel Haynes, or the civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer) whose faith helped them to speak out prophetically against the injustices of their time. Part of the solution here is that we need a longer list of historical heroes.
What’s the relationship of church growth and strength to theological positions? Is it historically true that Christianity has decreased because it has refused to adapt theologically? Or does something else account for the decline of churches?
Most denominations in America grew, or at least didn’t shrink, through the 1950s, so the story of religious decline is largely a story of the past half-century. The most famous story of that decline is in the mainline denominations. Their decline seems indisputably connected to the liberal theology of their senior leadership, who were out of touch with people in the pews. A religion that is well synchronized with the ethos of dominant elite culture doesn’t seem able to retain adherents in modern America. The norms of mainline religion have had an outsized effect on large grant-awarding foundations, academia, elite businesses, and non-governmental organizations, however, so it may be that mainliners have lost the battle for numbers, but have won the culture war.
A number of Protestant denominations, most obviously Pentecostals and certain conservative groups such as the Presbyterian Church in America, have grown substantially over the past half-century. Recent signs of decline in the Southern Baptist Convention, however, dispel any easy connection between theological conservatism and denominational growth.