In 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago. I was initially surprised by the invitation. I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject. I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States.
I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation about my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot. After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to. He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trend in their African American and interracial congregations. Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals. The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinnati that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.
McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.” Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism? If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans. And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.
I often think about Rev. McMillan and the Wheaton conferences on racial reconciliation whenever Donald Trump says that he wants to “make America great again.” I assume that most people, when they hear this phrase, focus on the word “great.” But as a historian, I am much more interested in Trump’s use of the word “again.” For white Americans, “making America great again” invokes nostalgia for days gone by. America was great when the economy was booming, or when the culture was less coarse, or when the nuclear family looked like the Cleaver family on Leave it to Beaver, or when public school children prayed and read the Bible at the start of each day. But as I listened to the African American ministers at the Wheaton conference, I came face to face with the reality that African Americans have very little to be nostalgic about. As one of those preachers observed, “The best time to be black in the United States is right now!” When African Americans look back, they see the oppression of slavery, the burning crosses, the lynched bodies, the poll taxes and literacy tests, the separate but unequal schools, the “colored-only” water fountains, and the backs of buses. Make America great again?
When many conservative evangelical supporters of Donald Trump first heard the phrase “make America great again,” they probably assumed that America was indeed great until the Supreme Court, through a series of cases, removed God from public life. If America was founded as a “shining city on a hill” (as Ronald Reagan taught them) and continued to exist in a unique, exclusive, and exceptional covenant relationship with God long after the decline of Puritanism, then the Christian Right might have a legitimate case. But if America was not founded as a Christian nation, the entire foundation of their political agenda collapses. Christians would still be justified in fighting against abortion and gay marriage, or advocating for religious liberty; but it would be a lot more difficult to use American history to make their case.
As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, until the 1970s, Americans—evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike—believed that they were living in a Christian nation. This is merely a historical statement. I do not mean to suggest that such a view was right or wrong. Neither is it a statement about whether those who made this claim interpreted the Founding Fathers correctly on the matter. To ask whether America was founded as a Christian nation is to take a debate that did not reach any degree of intensity until recently and to superimpose it on an eighteenth-century world of the white men who build the American republic. The Founding Fathers lived in a world that was fundamentally different from our own. It was a world in which Christianity was the only game in town. To be sure, there were some small Jewish communities located in coastal cities, and it is likely that a form of Islam may have been practiced among some African slaves. But the powerful influence of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, held unrivaled influence.
The Founding Fathers also had very divergent views of the relationship between Christianity and the nation they were forging. We need to stop treating them as a monolithic whole. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example, were strong advocates for the complete separation of church and state. John Adams and George Washington, like their fellow Federalists, believed that religion was essential to the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry. It is true that the Founders, by virtue of the fact that they signed the Declaration of Independence, probably believed in a God who presided over nature, was the author of human rights, would one day judge the dead, and who governed the world by his providence. Those who signed the US Constitution endorsed the idea that there should be no religious test—Christian or otherwise—required of those wishing to hold federal office. Those responsible for the First Amendment also championed the free exercise of religion and rejected a state-sponsored church.
Yet anyone who wants to use these documents to argue against the importance of religion—in the America of the time of the founding—must reckon with early state constitutions, such as those in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, that required officeholders to affirm the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, to obey the Christian Sabbath, or to contribute tax money to support a state church. Some of the Founders believed that Christians, and only Christians, should be running their state governments. Other Founders rejected the idea of the separation of church and state.
And so, was America founded as a Christian nation? A close examination of the American past makes it very difficult to answer with a definitive “yes” or “no.”
This leads us to a second question: Is America a Christian nation today? It all depends on what one means by “Christian nation.” In terms of the religious affiliation of its population, the United States is unquestionably a Christian nation—in the sense that most Americans identify with some form of Christian faith. Yes, while Christianity has had a defining influence on American culture, that influence has waned dramatically in the last fifty years. Moreover, from a legal and constitutional standpoint, it is impossible to suggest that the United States is now a Christian nation. Article 6 of the US Constitution still forbids religious tests for office. The First Amendment still does not allow a religious establishment and still secures religious freedom for all Americans. The fact that some of the individual states at the time of the founding upheld test oaths or supported state churches became irrelevant to this conversation when the Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board (1947), applied the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In other words, the Supreme Court made it clear that states now had to abide by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in matters of religion much in the same way that states no longer have the right to make their own decisions about whether slavery was legal. Many white evangelicals, especially those who champion the right of states to chart their own course on matters pertaining to religion and political life, are not happy about what the court did in Everson. But it remains the law of the land.
It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history. There is, of course, a lot to celebrate. We are a nation founded on the belief that human beings are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, namely, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have established some of the greatest colleges and universities in the world. Our standard of living exceeds those of other countries. When we have failed to live up to our ideals we have made efforts to correct our moral indiscretions. Those who fought tirelessly to end slavery, curb the negative effects of alcohol, defend human life, and deliver rights to women and the less fortunate come to mind. Americans have proven that they can act with a sense of common purpose and unity. We have seen the American character on display, for example, during two World Wars and in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And the United States has always been a place where immigrants can come and start new lives.
At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical standards that Christianity calls followers to live up to. Christians should be very careful when they long for the days when America was apparently “great.” Too many conservative evangelicals view the past through the lens of nostalgia. Scholar Svetlana Boym describes nostalgia as a “sentiment of loss and displacement” that “inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals. In this sense, nostalgia is closely related to fear. In times of great social and cultural change, the nostalgic person will turn to a real or imagined past as an island of safety amid the raging storms of progress. In other words, to quote Boym again, “progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it.” Sometimes evangelicals will seek refuge from change in a Christian past that never existed in the first place. At other times they will try to travel back to a Christian past that did exist—but, like the present, was compromised by sin.
Nostalgia is thus a powerful political tool. A politician who claims to have the power to take people back to a time when America was great stands a good chance of winning the votes of fearful men and women. In the end, the practice of nostalgia is inherently selfish because it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others. For example, people nostalgic for the world of Leave It to Beaver may fail to recognize that other people, perhaps even some of the people living in the Cleaver’s suburban “paradise” of the 1950s, were not experiencing the world in a way that they that they would describe as “great.” Nostalgia can give us tunnel vision. Its selective use of the past fails to recognize the complexity and breadth of the human experience—the good and the bad of America, the eras that we want to (re) experience (if only for a moment) and those we do not. Conservative evangelicals who sing the praises of America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” today, and those who yearn for a Christian golden age, are really talking about the present rather than the past.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, June 2018). He blogs daily at https://thewayofimprovement.com.