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Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding
Steven K. Green
Hardcover: Oxford UP, 2015
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Reviewed by Michial Farmer
In March 2010, the Texas Board of Education found itself embroiled in a national controversy when it debated, and ultimately approved, a textbook that put a social-conservative spin on American history. (The national scope of the controversy was justified because Texas is one of the country’s largest purchasers of textbooks; what is held true in Dallas therefore is made truth a lot of other places.) Among the distinctive features of the new textbooks was the removal of Thomas Jefferson from a list of thinkers who inspired eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions. He was replaced by Moses, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin.
This decision makes more sense in the broader context of American social conservatism, a branch of which has focused for several decades on proving that the Founding Fathers were devoted to orthodox Christianity, or at least not as committed to secular government as the liberal consensus would have it. Jefferson—as a demonstrably unorthodox religious thinker who literally cut the miracles out of his copy of the New Testament—does not fit into this narrative. And since he coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” the proponents of the new curriculum thought it wiser to downplay his undeniable influence on republican politics.
That social conservatives oversimplify the complexities of history is exactly the point of Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America. Green—a law professor at Willamette University and an expert witness at the Texas School Board hearings—bemoans the extent to which “the debate over the nation’s religious founding has encouraged participants to ignore the complexity of the times, to minimize the amplitude of the Founders, and to isolate their rhetoric from its context.” To some extent this oversimplication happens on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide, and Green corrects secular liberal interpretations from time to time. But this book is chiefly aimed at defusing conservative arguments, particularly the Christian nationalist argument that America was founded as a distinctly Christian nation.
A number of explanations are given by a number of scholars and pundits as to why exactly the United States is, or was, a Christian country. Green patiently attends to each of these and provides systematic and lawyerly repudiations of each of them, citing both period writers and historians. While he clearly thinks that the scholars who write in support of Christian nationalism are incorrect—at times dangerously so—he for the most part treats their concerns and arguments with respect. (A notable exception: He calls David Barton, of whom most conservative historians and thinkers are embarrassed, a “quotation compiler” rather than an historian.) And he positions himself in the middle of debates about the religious tenor of the colonial and revolutionary periods; he does not treat religion as the central motivating force behind the political turmoil of the time, but neither does he suggest that it was insignificant.
More often, Christian theology served as a lingua franca among the intellectuals of the eighteenth century, even as they tended to pursue Enlightenment rationalism away from orthodoxy. For example, he says that,
As members of a culture imbued with religious influences, the political actors could not isolate themselves from the popular zeitgeist as they crafted the most comprehensive republican government the world had ever seen. They spoke in religious terms and used religious customs, which were common for the day. They aligned their undertaking with God’s will so as to give it a higher cause and greater legitimacy.