Considering how to do good historical thinking and understanding and also how to journey with Christ faithfully and attentively are things I have been working at here at my college for years. This year, I have been using John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in my “new” general education course. (I will get to meet Fea, by the way, next month when he comes as our outside evaluator amidst our departmental self-study.)
Fea argues, among other things, that Thomas Jefferson was a theist, but not a Christian if orthodoxy is the standard. This point is part of his larger presentation of evidence that makes it hard to give either a simple yes or no answer to the question of his book’s title. Fea has in mind those who for political reasons, at least in in part, want simple answers. One of those who argues for a simple “yes” answer to the question is David Barton.
Fea has critiqued Barton (see, for example, here). So too, now, has Robert Tracy McKenzie. McKenzie, a blogger like Fea, is a historian at Wheaton College. From McKenzie’s post, I’ve excerpted the following:
There is a cost to using history primarily as a weapon. Rather than facilitating our understanding, it actually gets in our way, making it harder–not easier–to see the past rightly. Complex answers don’t fare well in public debates, even when they’re true. One of my favorite observations on this point comes from the pen of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to the United States who related his observations in the classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville concluded, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Tocqueville nailed it. Simple, appealing answers are always preferable when your goal is to win the battle for public opinion.
Beyond distorting our vision, what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach also commonly feeds our pride. Self-righteousness is often one of its first fruits. After triumphantly “discovering” what we had predetermined to find, we applaud our superior understanding, congratulate ourselves on our disinterested commitment to truth, and condemn our opponents for their blindness and bias.
But when the debate that we’re drawn into concerns the nature of the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders, there is something more important at stake than historical accuracy or our personal character. In assessing whether our nation’s founders were Christian, we’re inevitably saying something as well about the Christian faith and Christ himself. Stephen Nichols makes this point marvelously in his book Jesus: Made in America. As Nichols puts it, when we exaggerate the degree to which the founders were Christian, we not only “do injustice to the past and to the true thought of the founders,” but we also do “injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus.”
McKenzie is stressing that Barton’s argument that Jefferson was a Christian is not only bad history, it is bad Christian theology and testimony. You can read the entire post here: WHAT’S REALLY AT STAKE IN THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” DEBATE | Faith and History.