Writing in the most recent issue of Books & Culture, Grant Wacker (reviewing a festschrift for George Marsden co-edited by Thomas Kidd) wrote:
On the Mount Rushmore of living American religious historians, four people hold a secure place: Martin Marty, Mark Noll, and George Marsden.
(Borrowing a line from Marty, I haven’t decided on the fourth one yet.)
So what does half of the Mount Rushmore of American Religious Historians think about the quest to demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation?
In 1983, Noll and Marsden (along with Nathan Hatch) co-authored a book entitled The Search for Christian America (revised in 1989 for a second edition). They covered issues such as:
- how much Christian action is required to make a whole society Christian;
- Puritan New England as case study;
- Christian principles vs. baptized ideology in the Revolutionary period;
- the stumbling block of incorrect views of America’s history for effective Christian involvement in critical public issues;
- the relationship of Christian convictions to political or social agendas;
- learning to think historically as a guard against shortsighted or simplistic approaches.
In 2010, Noll and Marsden sat down with Skot Welch to film a half-hour conversation with Inner Compass at Calvin College. After the video, I’ve added rough time-stamps for their dialogue.
1:20 What is the origin of the idea of “Christian America”?
3:15 How did America come to be seen as having Israel’s role in this understanding of American history?
5:15 Are the founding documents religious?
7:25 What can we say about the faith of the founding fathers?
10:35 Why does a book like The Search for Christian America vastly undersell the Christian America books?
13:15 What do Columbus’s encounters with the Natives tell us?
15:05 Where does the desire to make them more than they were come from?
16:55 How do they treat the unsavory parts of American history?
19:15 What kind of America would the defenders of a “Christian America” like to see now?
20:55 Are there dangers in promoting America as a Christian nation?
22:35 What would be a more unifying vision?
23:50 Can you give examples of where this has worked?
For further reading on this, see (among other books):
- John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historian Introduction (revised edition coming September 2016)
- John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
- Gregg L. Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution
- Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A History of the American Revolution
- Warren Throckmorten and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about our Third President
Readers will also profit from historians interacting with incorrect historical claims by popular authors advancing this idea. See, e.g., those who are critiquing Eric Metaxas’s new book with its claims about the role of religion in the founding of America: see Gregg Frazer, Tracy Mckenzie, Warren Throckmorton, and John Fea.