John Fea: Is America a Christian Nation?
John Fea: I'm John Fea and I choose truth over tribe.
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Speaker 3: I think a lot of what the left supports is Satanic.
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Speaker 8: Is it possible to be a good Christian and also be a member of the Republican party? And the answer is absolutely not.
Speaker 9: From certainly a biblical standpoint, Christians could not vote Democratic.
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Keith Simon: Hey, let's start with a game, it's called America or Jesus. I'm going to give you a couple quotations and each quotation has a blank in it. You guess which word, America or Jesus, goes in the blank. All right? Here we go." Blank is the world's best last hope. Blank is the world's best last hope." America or Jesus? I hope you said America because that's the right answer. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Beto O'Rourke all said that. All right, here's another one." Blank is the savior of the world." America or Jesus? Well, again, America is the right answer. That statement was made by President Woodrow Wilson. You can keep playing America or Jesus over on our blog at choosetruthovertribe. com. These quotations, they make us ask the question is it possible that we might have conflated or even con confused our country and our faith? I really wanted to figure out when this fusion between God and government start and why did it start? And how does knowing about it in our past help shed light on our current moment? So I reached out to one of the premier historians of early American history, a professor named John Fea. In our discussion, we get into some really important questions. Was America founded as a Christian nation? What is Christian nationalism? Is it bad that American evangelicals turned out in big numbers to support Donald Trump? How should we think about our nation's very imperfect history? And specifically, should we be removing statues of historical figures? John Fea has written several books, but the ones relevant to our conversation today are Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? And Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Okay, let's go. John Fea, welcome to Truth Over Tribe.
John Fea: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Keith Simon: A couple years ago, I felt like I needed to try to answer this question, is America a Christian nation? And so I just started looking for books of people I respected and they kept referring me to your book, which the title of it is essentially asking that question, it's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? And in that book, you indicate that's kind of a hard question to answer. It kind of depends on what you mean by a Christian nation. Can you walk us through the different ways to think about America as a Christian nation and help us try to answer that question?
John Fea: Well, first of all, this whole question, was America founded as a Christian nation? Is something that hasn't been asked a lot in American history until only recently, probably within the last 40 or 50 years. It's a question that gets asked, people start to ask it in the late 1970s and 1980s, when there are certain conservative evangelical Christians who believe that American culture is under threat by the influence of secularism or liberalism or the 1960s movements to kind of remove prayer or Bible reading from public schools, or Roe v. Wade, or the influx of non- Christian immigrants into the country that arrived after the 1965 Immigration Act. So the culture is changing, the demographics of the culture is changing, demographics of the country I should say, is changing. And there becomes for the first time, this debate over whether or not America is or was a Christian nation. So today, as the debate goes, if you want to play with this and you want to have this conversation, there's all kinds of ways to identify America as a Christian nation. Which makes this, again, a very complicated issue, as you mentioned. You have pure demographics. If you go by pure demographics in terms of the amount of people who identify as Christians, whether it be mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, certainly we're a Christian nation. We're still overwhelmingly Christian. That number has been shrinking of late. Again, mostly from people in this category known as the Nones, N- O- N- E- S. But we're still demographically. The other way to address this is to look at the documents of our founding. Did they try to put forth some kind of idea of America as a Christian nation? That would be another way to do this.
Keith Simon: You're talking about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence.
John Fea: Yeah. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, the state constitutions that were created during this time.
Keith Simon: Wasn't there a debate between the North and the South, you lay out? That the South was saying, this is back in the Civil War," We are going to put God more prominently in our founding documents than appear in the nation's, the Union's, founding documents."
John Fea: This is one side trying to trump the other over who is the more Christian nation. I don't think this was a debate over which side was Christian and which one wasn't as much as who was the true and honest Christian side. There's this example of the Confederacy who believe that because they own slaves and the slavery is not condemned in the Bible because they have invested in the Christianization of their slaves, the Christianization of their culture, they add in the preamble to their constitution, which is created in 1861, shortly after secession, that they used the word almighty God. I don't remember it off the top of my head, but it's very similar to the preamble of the US Constitution," We the people, in order to form a more perfect union under almighty God..." Is the way that the Confederacy uses it. And then they politicize this. They use it to say," How can the North say that God is on their side in the war when we have God in our constitution?" And I say in the book, the book you referenced, I said this so bothers some Northern ministers that they actually create an entire organization known as the National Reform Association. This was the NRA before the NRA. The intent goal of the National Reform Association was to add an amendment to the constitution saying that we were a Christian nation because these ministers are so tired of getting attacked by Southerners who are saying the North are infidels and so forth. So this debate goes on. This conversation goes on about what it means to be a Christian nation. But I think these debates are kind of what we might call intramural debates within a larger playing field, if you will, or under a larger umbrella, and I know I'm mixing metaphors here, of the idea that," Of course we're a Christian nation. What kind of Christian nation are we? And what does that look like?"
Keith Simon: So if I understood what you said earlier, I think you said, but I might have this wrong, that in the last say 50, 60 years people have been asking this question, is America a Christian nation? But up until that time, people would have assumed that we were driven by Christian principles. Is that correct?
John Fea: They may not have necessarily thought that that was a good idea, but they would've certainly had to admit it. I'll give you an example of this. Maybe about five or six years ago, I was up in Rhode Island doing a panel on the 350th anniversary of Roger Williams, his famous religious liberty treaties that he wrote. This was Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, a great early champion of religious liberty. And it was an ecumenical panel. I was an evangelical on it. I was kind of the token evangelical historian. There was a historian of Judaism. There was a secular author of a biography of Roger Williams who was not particularly invested at all in Williams' ideas, but was just interested in him. And I made this assertion that I just made to you that America has always been a Christian nation and the Jewish scholar said," Of course, if anyone knows that America has always culturally been a Christian nation, it's a Jew. We get Christmas off, we get Christian holidays off." So I think that's what I'm saying. Now, again, he maybe didn't like that, the fact that it was as a Christian nation, he wanted more pluralism, but this is a historical statement I'm making, that historically most people living, whether they were Christian or not, realized they were in a Christian nation. And if they did not believe that it was a Christian nation, they were in a very, very small minority.
Keith Simon: The way I think about it, and I'm hoping you'll correct me if I've got this wrong, is that America as a nation became more self- identified or their vision of themselves became more identified with Christianity in the 1950s, that there was this marriage between Christianity and government to form this kind of Christian civil religion. If I have that right, what was it in the 1950s that happened that created this marriage between faith and the church and government?
John Fea: Yeah, I would probably phrase it a little bit differently, but you're right. But I would probably just suggest that the 1950s was a kind of enhancement of a side of American civil religion that had already existed through much of the 19th century. It was the logical extension of American civil religion that America was a Christian nation. But you're right, there is a break, there is a shift. Something different is going on after World War II. It's in the 1950s, for example, that the United States puts," In God We Trust.", on paper money. Had already been on coins since the Civil War. It's during the 1950s, where the words," Under God.", are placed in The Pledge of Allegiance. Dwight D. Eisenhower is this model of what it means to be a Christian statesman. And I think what's unique in the 1950s is there becomes kind of diplomatic and foreign policy and global reasons to double down on America's Christian identity, and that is The Cold War. The threat of, I don't know about you, I grew up growing up in evangelical communities, the word godless- communism was one word. There was no break. The godless- communist. No one even paused in between. This threat of an atheistic Soviet Union that we're in a Cold War with, it is a way in which the United States can distinguish themselves as a God fearing Christian nation against their global enemies in this sense. So I think much of the emphasis on Christian America. More over, you also see businesses. There's a wonderful book by a historian, Princeton historian, named Kevin Kruse, called Under God, in which he argues that the corporate world teamed up with many of the conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, to bring the free market capitalism and the pro- business agenda into conversation with Christianity. In other words, God is the author of freedom, the freedom not only to have political freedom and rights, but also to have free markets. And of course that is also laid out in contradistinction, if you will, to the communism, the socialism of the Soviet Union. So I think you're right, there is a moment. I just see more continuity between in the 1950s and the past. There is a break there where in the 1950s something happens. And I think you're right about that.
Keith Simon: What we see, I guess, in the'50s is a rise in church membership, In God We Trust, Under God added to The Pledge of allegiance, Eisenhower is the first and I believe only president baptized while he is in office. And I think National Prayer Breakfasts start in the 1950s. And so there's this marriage between government and the church, largely in an attempt to fight against the godless communist, like you said. I think you make a good point that perhaps that's more of a continuation than I was alluding to. And yet something coalesces there around America being a Christian nation. Now that doesn't last long because in the early'60s you get the Supreme Court saying that we can't pray in schools, we can't read the Bible in schools. And of course the social revolution, cultural revolution that happens in the 1960s.
John Fea: But I think taking a longer view of this, I think back to your first question, you see these debates about whether or not we're a Christian nation, or at least the assertion of the fact that we're a Christian nation, whether it's a debate or not, spike during times of intense change and pressure. So the Cold War, there's a reason why after the tumultuous'60s, that you just talked about, this question emerges again. There's a reason why in the 1850s Protestants are talking about America as a Protestant nation because of the massive influx of Catholics into the country. So there are these moments historically when this rhetoric of Christian nationhood or the idea that we're a Christian nation tends to spike. And I just wanted to point that out.
Keith Simon: I think that's a perfect segue into where I want to go next, which is the presidency of Donald Trump. And so he creates this slogan, Make America Great Again, MAGA. I don't know exactly who was in the room when that slogan was created. I don't know how much time and attention was paid to each word. I think most people focus on the word," Great." But I think the most interesting word is the word," Again." And it makes it a historians question. Make America Great Again assumes there was a time in the past when America was a better nation than we are today, a time that we want to go back to. You said that people assert the Christian founding of the country at certain key moments. And I don't know if Make America Great Again is the same thing as make America Christian Again, or not. But as a historian, you think there was a time in America's history that we were a better nation than we are today?
John Fea: That's a great question. Real quick, some context on that. Ronald Reagan used to say," I want to make America great again." All the time, but for some reason it didn't catch on.
Keith Simon: He didn't put it on a hat, that's why.
John Fea: Yeah, Trump made it his predominant campaign slogan. So it's not a new slogan in American politics, but it's certainly again, back to the moment of Trump. Yeah, the question you asked me, and you're definitely right, I've been saying this ever since Trump, in that phrase, Make America Great Again, again, I tend to zero in on the word," Again." That's how I'm trained to think. This question of greatness in the past or even goodness in the past or American morality or whatever you want to talk about, I think is not really a historical question. I think it's a complicated one. And what I mean by that is as a historian, I tend to approach this as," You tell me...", I'm not saying you particularly, but the people who use Make America Great Again," You tell me when was great. Was it the 1950s? Was it the 18th century? Was it the..." I don't know. This is how I like to approach this." Tell me when America was great. And then let's bring in people who are ethicists or moralists or biblical scholars or cultural critics or historians, a bunch of people, and then let's talk about the moral question." You want to take the 1950s. I think you could make a pretty compelling argument that in the 1950s, the coarseness of our culture, whether it be the easy access to pornography or the violence on television or the vulgar language, these kinds of things, I think weren't there. And I think there's a sense in which I think it's a legitimate Christian response to say," We went downhill, we're going downhill on that front." On the other hand, I remember saying this exact same thing to a group of people where a significant number in the room where African Americans, who said," I get that, but I don't want to go back." White people tend to be nostalgic for that 1950s home movie of the 4th of July picnic or something. I kid around my mom likes to show me, we watch these old films of growing up in the 1970s, everything looks so happy," Oh man, if we could just get back to the good old days." And then my mom continues to go on and says things like," Oh, there's Uncle Joe and whatever, right before they got divorced. Oh, there's Uncle.... Oh, this must have been right before he got cancer." I'm like," Mom, shut up. You're taking away my nostalgic longings."
Keith Simon: But you bring up a good point because we have this romantic view of the past, a nostalgic view of the past, rose colored glasses. And I guess it depends on who you are, who your grandparents were, great grandparents were, whether you want to go back. Because in the 1950s, we've talked about how there's this marriage between the church and state in a new and powerful way. And yet Black people didn't have the legal right to vote, that we were still living under Jim Crow laws. If you're a woman in the 1950s, you had far fewer opportunities than you have today. So Christians tend to be nostalgic.
John Fea: How far do you want to go back if you're a woman? Seriously, what did it look like for you in those golden days? So I think in some ways, this Make America Great Again plays on that kind of white nostalgia. I think nostalgia is a very narcissistic way of understanding the past because when you're nostalgic, it's usually you're nostalgic for something that is memorable to you. And people who are nostalgic about the past, as opposed to say historians who gauge the past, are not thinking about their own experience in the context of the way others are experiencing it. And I think thinking about others and their plight is a healthy and Christian response to the past, as opposed to this narcissistic," Well, it was good for me. I don't care about anyone else."
Keith Simon: So let's stay on this topic of how we should think about our past. When George Floyd was killed by the police officer in Minneapolis, who was later convicted of second degree murder, there was wide ranging protests and certain statues were torn down. There's still a call today for more statues to either be torn down or taken into a museum, but taken out of public view. And of course that's an intense debate depending on who you're talking about. Clearly our country has a very imperfect past. And as we look back on history, we tend to judge those who went before us, I think a lot of times rightly so, and yet I'm realistic enough to know that future generations perhaps will look back on us and judge us. And so how do we wrestle with the past? You're a historian. How should we wrestle with the past when it comes to these statues? How should we think about the statues that we want to remove without becoming self righteous critics who feel like now we've arrived and we're the perfect generation and we've got it all figured out?
John Fea: There are no easy answers to these questions. My counsel to people who ask me questions like this is you need to take each individual statue or monument on its own terms. I always get a little upset when I see sweeping changes. San Francisco recently try to change the name of schools. They had Abraham Lincoln on the list and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. It depends on the individual situation. Now as a general principle, I think Confederate monuments, when you know the history of Confederate monuments, these monuments, as you may know, your listeners may know, were erected in the early 20th century. They were deliberately designed and erected by racist pro- Confederate groups that wanted to celebrate white supremacy over Black rights. I would even argue that those should not be destroyed, they should be contextualized, or perhaps, again you mentioned, put in some other place. But those kinds of monuments are direct in your face visual assaults on the African American community. We could debate on exactly what to do with them, but we have to start with the fact that when an African American, a Black man or woman is driving in New Orleans or Richmond and they drive past Robert E. Lee and they know the history, that is offensive. So I think that has to be taken into consideration. Now you have others, I would judge a monument... I think one of the things historians do is they talk about the complexity of the human experience. You pointed this out, as a Christian one cannot think about American history without an acknowledgement, and I think a very robust view, of human sin. Where do we stop, is the question you often hear. I do think that complex individuals like Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves but also contributed to the founding of the United States and to the world with his statute on religious liberty and the Declaration of Independence even, these are complex figures who were known for more than just racism or white supremacy or treason to their country in the case of Robert E. Lee. The same goes with Washington. The same goes with Lincoln. I think there's this false perception out there that those monuments are equivalent to history, we're erasing history. No, these monuments provide opportunities, I think, they're almost like mirrors. We look at them, we see the good, we see the bad and we see," There for the grace of God would've gone I." Or God may have empowered me to do heroic acts like this person.
Keith Simon: Yeah, I think that's good. I recently heard Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, say that in her opinion, the monuments shouldn't be taken down, but they should provide context for a discussion about," How did these get here and what did they represent about our country's history?" But someone like Thomas Jefferson in our own community here at the University of Missouri, there is a debate about whether a monument to Jefferson should be removed. Clearly that monument wasn't put there to celebrate the negatives of Jefferson, his slave holding, his abuse of Sally Hemings. Clearly that was put there to commemorate the contributions he made to the founding of the country. So I appreciate your answer. These people are complex people and unfortunately, our culture right now doesn't deal very well with complexity.
John Fea: I'll just throw this out real quick. If you're worried about erasing history, I would say the real place where history is being erased, I'll just throw this out there, is in our schools as people cease funding for history education and so forth. That's where history is being erased. Let's talk about that instead of these politically charged debates over monuments.
Keith Simon: If you're like me and you leave each episode with a lot to think about and wishing you could go just a little bit deeper, you should subscribe to the Truth Over Tribe newsletter. Not only do we explore the topic further, but we also interact with people who disagree with us and tell you about upcoming episodes. Just go to choosetruthovertribe. com and sign up for the newsletter there. In your other book that I loved, called Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, you go back in history and share the historical path that led to 80% of white evangelicals, and I know there's debate about that number, but it's close enough, white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump. Now, one of my reactions to that is it's not necessarily new. White evangelicals have been voting Republican in high numbers since Ronald Reagan. So when did evangelicals start becoming identified with the Republican party? Is that something that has been true for decades or is that relatively recent?
John Fea: Again, this goes back to our earlier conversation. I think there becomes this alliance between the GOP and conservative evangelicals, at least it really begins with Ronald Reagan. There's a deep history here. Jimmy Carter in 1976, a Democrat, openly declared himself to be a born again Christian. I mean, many evangelical Christians love this. They voted for him. Significant numbers of evangelicals voted Democratic in 1976. Jimmy Carter let them down on a variety of fronts. One, he was unwilling to fight the culture war over abortion. He personally opposed abortion, but he defended Roe v. Wade, the right of a woman to choose. He also was willing to support a Supreme Court ruling that made white academies in the South, these are Christian schools in the South, as well as a, university Bob Jones University, to desegregate or else lose tax exempt status. Well this was viewed as Jimmy Carter working with the levers of big government to intrude in the religious beliefs of people who wanted to segregate. Jimmy Carter had his failures diplomatically with the Iran hostage crisis and so forth. Carter also called people to sacrifice during the energy crisis. And most evangelicals did not want to do that. Ronald Reagan offered freedom. He offered more liberty. He offered no big government interfering. He came just short of saying government shouldn't even interfere in segregated academies. He launched his campaign in 1980 in a town in Mississippi, the name's escaping me right now, which had experienced multiple deaths of Black civil rights people. The cues were all there. And then Reagan came during the campaign to a gathering in Dallas of the National Religious Broadcasters, which was sponsored by leading lights within the conservative evangelical movement, like Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, James Robison, and others, and essentially said," You can't endorse me, but I endorse you." That sort of began the relationship with the GOP. George H. W. Bush, he wasn't too keen on working closely with evangelicals, although evangelicals voted for him. And then the anti- liberal or Christian right really was solidified in the 1990s in opposition to Bill Clinton. And then George W. Bush, self- professed born again Christian. So it's been going on since the'80s. What's interesting to me about all of this is the Christian right in the late'70s and early'80s with this Reagan era, they developed a political playbook, I call it. The political playbook went something like this, and all of your listeners are aware of it," Vote for the right president who will appoint the right Supreme Court justices. Vote for the senators who will confirm those justices, will overturn Roe v. Wade, will protect religious liberty." Later on will use the court to fight for marriage, all of these things. And there were some wins and some losses along the way. But that political playbook, how a Christian should engage in politics until 2016, was always tied to what most white evangelicals believed was a person of character. So whatever one thinks of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, these were the G P candidates, whatever you think about these men, white evangelicals believed they were men of character who upheld the institutions of the office. They were moral people. I would say most evangelicals, even if they voted for Donald Trump, would have said that he was not a man of character, at least someone who reflected their faith and their beliefs.
Keith Simon: So this is where you see the switch happening. I mean, as a historian, you're looking back, if I understand you're right, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think what you're saying is that evangelical Christians and Republicans joined together in the'80s, but evangelical Christians could tell themselves," We're voting for people of character." Now with Donald Trump, now all of a sudden several, what you would end up calling, court evangelicals in your book, they flipped. And you're suggesting that what they revealed is that they were really about the power, that they wanted to be in the room where it happened. And that their willingness to jump in bed with a president without the character of the previous candidates said something about themselves.
John Fea: Yeah. Put it this way, in 2016, for the first time since the'70s, the playbook and the candidate were at odds. And evangelicals chose the playbook, which as a playbook driven by three things, I argued in Believe Me, fear of change, the pursuit of power, which you just described very nicely, and what we talked about earlier, this kind of MAGA mentality, this nostalgic longing for, and this goes back to the beginning of our interview here, that nostalgic logging for return to a Christian America.
Keith Simon: Here's my problem with all of this is that if you're an evangelical in 2016 or 2020, what do you do in the general election? So personally, I didn't vote for either candidate in 2016 or in 2020. I didn't feel comfortable putting down my vote for either one. Although I think voting is really important and I voted for all the other candidates and issues on the ballot. I just didn't feel like either candidate had earned my vote. I couldn't do it in good conscience. But here you're an evangelical, you feel like voting is important, you go to the poll and you have two candidates, neither of which measure up to your standards. So what I've said is that I can respect or understand how an evangelical goes to the polls in 2016 and 2020 and holds his or her nose and votes for either one, Clinton, Trump, Trump, Biden. I get it. In fact, I have lots of friends who did both. What I didn't understand is how any evangelical Christian could go to the polls enthusiastically supporting Trump, Clinton or Biden. But after reading Believe Me, I'm not sure that I know your take on this. What were evangelicals supposed to do? Should they have voted for Hillary? Should they abstain? Should they have voted for Trump? It feels like you're criticizing them, but I don't know what the options were.
John Fea: Obviously I've gotten this question a lot. And again, like all this, it's not an easy answer. Here's how I would take it. I don't expect others to agree with me some may, but I'll throw it out there how I would respond to that question. First of all, on the question of voting, you're absolutely correct. As an American historian, to me, I know the fight and the battle that it took to give people the right to vote. When Susan B. Anthony and the women's rights movement, just for example, was fighting for the right to vote they weren't fighting for the right to," Well, you have to choose the lesser of two evils." They weren't fighting for these calculations that we make." Well, if I vote for Trump it's... If I vote for Hillary or don't vote, it's technically a vote for Trump." All these calculations we make. That does not reflect the history of voting rights reform in this country. You vote for a candidate that you believe best reflects your views and understanding of America. In 2016, I have Libertarian friends who voted for Gary Johnson. I have progressive evangelical friends who actually voted for Jill Stein, the Green candidate. Some wrote in Evan McMullin, this Utah Senator, and some voted for Hillary and some voted for Trump. So I think that's the first-
Keith Simon: I voted for Kanye.
John Fea: Yeah, Kanye.
Keith Simon: In 2020.
John Fea: So that's, I think, the first premise. But your question and the question that I'm also asked also has a certain presupposition to it, it has a philosophical presupposition, and that is that somehow American culture is going to be redeemed. Our world is going to be better. We're going to change the world through politics and thus whoever we vote for, we're somehow exercising the role of the church in changing the world. So I think it plays into the idea that the answer is politics and it excuses many evangelicals from letting the church be the agent of change in the world. So let me give you an example of this. Let's just go right for the big issue, the abortion issue. If you care about abortion and you who care about reducing the number of abortions, and I tend to be a realist on this, I'm not sure Roe v. Wade is going to get over... At least this is what I thought in 2016. Now things have changed in the last few months. I don't think Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned anytime soon. And even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that does not end abortion in the United States. Simply, you're going to have half the states, like the big states, California, New York, and so forth, still allowing abortion. You're going to have Texas and others, maybe Missouri, forbidding abortion. What will reduce the number of abortions then in that situation? Do I invest in a candidate that's simply going to overturn Roe v. Wade and make that my primary reason, like many Christian leaders did in voting for Donald Trump? Or do I think about a more complex way of viewing the world Christianly? Do poverty programs? Do care for unwed mothers? Do family leave programs? Will these programs reduce? We know the largest percentage of people who get abortions are African American women. What are we doing to deal with systemic racism? What are we doing to deal with the fact that they don't have access to crisis pregnancy centers and counseling and so forth? To me, that's a pro- life position. I am pro- life. I think as a Christian, I have to be. That's my stand. But can I be pro- life and still believe that overturning Roe v. Wade is not going to be the answer to solving the problem of abortion in the United States? If you think that way, and you don't think that perhaps politics is the answer to solving problems of abortion, or maybe you do think politics might be a good way of solving abortion but you don't think the Republican strategy is worthwhile, this may shape your vote. But I think the presupposition behind the question," Well, who do I vote for?", is you vote for the person that's closest to your convictions, your well thought out convictions, and you keep working as a Christian for meaningful change in the places where God has placed you.
Keith Simon: I agree with you that this abortion issue is complicated. And while I am very much pro- life, I'm not a single issue voter, nor do I advocate for that. But I think, and you kind of alluded to this, I think someone who did vote for former president Trump because of pro- life convictions would say to you," Hey, turns out it went pretty well. There are now more Supreme Court justices on the court who look like they are going to at least cut back, if not overturn Roe v. Wade, and that will help save more our lives in more parts of the country." Not the whole country, but like you said, maybe half the country, and why not employ the government to protect human life? We didn't try to solve racism just by looking into people's hearts. We used laws to enact the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act to provide equality for people of all races, so why shouldn't we do that in the case of unborn life?"
John Fea: People are going to make different calculations on that front. I think the recent law in Texas, I think it's a terrible law simply because of the vigilante dimension of it where people can go and sue people for having abortions. On the other hand, it will save, until it gets struck down, it will save lies. I have mixed feelings on that.
Keith Simon: I think mixed feelings is totally appropriate about the abortion issue. Again, it's complicated. But let's say that 80% of evangelicals had voted for Hillary Clinton. Would you have felt the need to write a book explaining," Hey, how did we get to this point that 80% of white evangelical supported this particular candidate?" Or no?
John Fea: It's a hypothetical question that is sort of detached from reality in some ways.
Keith Simon: Sure.
John Fea: I'm not saying you're detached from reality, but the question is-
Keith Simon: I might be.
John Fea: So I guess I would respond that if 80% of evangelicals suddenly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, someone should write a book about that because the historic trajectory has been such that this would be amazing. It would need to be explained, I think much in the same way that it needed to be explained why so many white evangelicals decided to throw their hat into a guy who has the character of someone like Donald Trump. And we won't get into all the details on that. So, yeah, I think certainly would find that interesting to write a book about that. Whether I would be interested in doing it is another case, but someone should.
Keith Simon: So let's switch gears again and pick up this conversation that's been on the rise about Christian nationalism ever since the January 6th, if you want to call it an attack or riot, whatever, in Washington DC on the Capitol. That word, Christian nationalism, has been used more frequently. At least I hear it more often. Can you give us a good working definition of Christian nationalism? Is it simply someone who thinks of America as being founded as a Christian nation? Or is it more than that?
John Fea: Yeah, you're right about the recent popularity of this phrase. So 10 years ago, when I was writing my book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, this phrase was not popular. People didn't use it. But this has become a thing largely because I think of the work of some sociologists who have written about this idea. And also some journalists have really brought it up, religion writers on the left, people like Sarah Posner and... I'm blanking on the name of the other one who I've actually interviewed.
Keith Simon: I think in the book you're talking about the sociologists are Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry and their book-
John Fea: Yeah, Samuel Perry.
Keith Simon: Taking America Back for God.
John Fea: And they gave the academic credibility to a lot of the things that these journalists are writing. There have been people at organizations, People for the United Way who puts out a-
Keith Simon: People For the American Way?
John Fea: The American Way. I'm sorry. Yeah. Right wing watch. Who have been talking about this all for years and this kind of dominionism. So how would I define this? I think when people use the term Christian nationalism today, they're obviously talking about people who believe that the United States was not only founded as a Christian nation, but somehow lost its way, and now want to go back and reclaim America as a Christian nation, renew America as a Christian nation. And their politics and their political behavior is often motivated by a view of America that needs to be returned or restored to its Christian roots. So I think Christian nationalism is not only a historical reality, but it's also now a clear cut political motivation or political movement that informs, I think, much of the support that Donald Trump got within the evangelical community in 2016 and 2020.
Keith Simon: And of course the people on more the political left want to characterize more and more evangelicals as part of this Christian nationalist movement that maybe through violence or other means are going to try to return the country to these Christian roots. And they used hyperbolic language, as media often does, to say that they're looking to establish a theocracy or something like that. What I found when I read Taking Back America for God, by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, was that while there is definitely overlap between evangelicals and Christian nationalists, there's also a lot of Christian nationalists who don't even go to church. They claim to be evangelicals, but they're not in any meaningful way. And there's a lot of evangelicals who don't think of themselves as Christian nationalists, don't advocate for those policies at all. So I guess I've become concerned that the wrong people are defining what an evangelical is. Has that word changed a lot over the last few years? Do you consider yourself an evangelical?
John Fea: Well, I share some of the same concerns that you have. Let me answer the first part of your question first. I share some of the same concerns as someone who does consider myself an evangelical Christian. I actually prefer to use evangelical as an adjective rather than as a noun, because I think the noun is too politically loaded right now because of what happened with Trump. But back to the point about who's defining these terms, I think very few evangelical Christians... And by the way, very few people who the media and the academics describe as evangelical Christians, even use the word evangelical or evangelicalism to describe themselves. I had a student who was one of my assistants found a list of the largest mega churches in the country, I had her go through the websites in search of the word evangelical. Now, again, according to sociologists, historians, religious scholars, and even the media, these are all evangelical churches, but the word evangelical is never found there.
Keith Simon: I'm the pastor of a church and we wouldn't use the word it evangelical because it's become so controversial and loaded. I always call it semantic overload. Everybody reads into the term what they want. And I don't even know what people mean by it. So if people ask if I'm an evangelical Christian, I go," Well, could you define it? And then I'll tell you if I am or not."
John Fea: Let's take the 81% that some have said are all Christian nationalists who voted for Trump. If I had to go back and rewrite Believe Me, I think one of the big faults in Believe Me, maybe an error I'd call it, or a nuance that I missed, is that that 81%, and I think this has come out in our conversation here, that 81% of people who voted for Donald Trump are a much more nuanced group. There are people in that group who show up at MAGA rallies who wear the red hat, who are diehard Trumpers. But there are a lot of other people, like maybe our friends, who they voted for Trump for the reasons we talked about, whether it be abortion or whatever, but they're not Trumpists or they're not into Trumpism.
Keith Simon: I agree.
John Fea: I think that 81%, if that is the number, whatever the number is it's way too high in my opinion, but whatever the number is, I think that needs to be nuanced. And I think what people on the left, and I think what many academics, they miss nuance, they miss that complexity. So evangelicalism in their mind, or they like to use the term white evangelicalism is associated with Christian nationalism. But your point is exactly right. Not all evangelicals would build a political philosophy around restoring, reclaiming, renewing America as a Christian nation. And I think you're right about some of the evidence suggesting that you're asked at the polls by pollsters," Are you a born again Christian or an evangelical?" You're not asked any questions about church attendance or what that means. So I think some of those numbers are probably suspect and need to be deconstructed a little bit. So why do I still cling to this word, evangelical? One of the best speeches I've ever heard was the writer Richard Rodriguez, who gave a graduation speech maybe 15 years ago at Kenyon College in Ohio, you can look it up on YouTube. He has this wonderful saying. And to be honest with you off the top of my head, I can't remember what word he's talking about, but he's talking about a particular word that has meaning to him that has been hijacked and taken over by forces that he disagrees with. And he has this wonderful line where he says," I'm a writer. I'm a thinker. I'm a cultural critic. I want that word back." That's always stuck with me. This is what I apply I to, as an evangelical I want that word back, because the word means the good news, the gospel, the life transforming power of the gospel, the gospel that as a 16- year- old kid who grew up nominally Christian embraced and it transformed my life and it transformed of the trajectory of my life. I want that gospel. That's evangelist. There's a lot of my fellow evangelicals who are in the same position that I am in, especially in light of the discouragement that we feel right now, whether it be Trump, whether it be racial issues, whether it be COVID and masking. There's a lot of friends who in light of this discouragement have kind of abandoned ship and said," I can no longer be an evangelical anymore." I'm not in that camp. At least not yet. I want that word back. I want fight to reclaim that word. I want to reform that word. I want that word to once again have the dignity and power that it means.
Keith Simon: I love the way you said that, especially because this is the good news that changed your life. This is the good news that brought you hope. This is the good news that you've built your life on. And I think you and I share that it is frustrating to see that word be co- opted by all these other groups. So I will pray for you as you try to reclaim that word/
John Fea: I think part of it too, Keith, is that I'm a convert. I'm an almost adult convert, 16- years- old. I remember the aimlessness of my life prior to that. And even as much as we talk about evangelicals as being anti intellectual and so forth and," The scandal of the evangelical mind.", as one historian put it, which I agree with, it was evangelicalism and its commitment to Bible study and reading and inductive treatment of text that stimulated my mind and it set me on a trajectory towards becoming a Christian thinker. So I'm not ready to give that up yet. This is still my tribe, so to speak. But you can't control where your words go after you write them. I wrote Believe Me with a Christian publisher, not to give fuel to those on the secular left who want to co- opt me and say," Look, even Fea's against Trump. Look at this." But it rather to speak to my group, my tribe, I think in a way that you're trying to do, I think with this podcast, to get them to at least complicate their thinking about and think differently about politics from a Christian point of view.
Keith Simon: I love hearing you say that because I learned so much from Believe Me, along with your other book I read, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I learned so much. I read it twice. I gave it to one of my kids who likes to read along with me. I've suggested it to other people. And yet when I finished that book, I think I thought you were embarrassed of your fellow Christians. And if you were, I've been there, and some mornings I wake up and some morning I watch the news or listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill or whatever it is, and I'm embarrassed of my fellow Christians. But also at the same time, I don't want to be because the truth is that all the things that are inside of them are inside of me. And so I feel like by critiquing them, I'm critiquing myself in some way. Not that I've done the exact same things or they've done the exact same things as me, but it's inside of me. So I guess I'm going to just follow up because of what you just said about your love for the church. Are you embarrassed of the church?
John Fea: There's not a day goes by I'm not embarrassed, the things I see. It's easy to be embarrassed by the kind of MAGA extremism that you see within the church. It's easy to kind of cherry pick the people that make it onto the Right Wing Watch blog site who are saying Moses had a veil, these weird biblical arguments from not wearing a mask. Those are the kind of extremists. I'm often embarrassed by those who seem to be placing a battle for the culture, American culture, over the church as a prophetic witness within the culture. And when you are battling for a culture, you tend to prioritize other things and you start to lose your witness. And you're right. I'm guilty of this myself, if you read my Twitter feed or whatever. But it just embarrasses me, how is that going to lead someone to Christ? How is what you're saying right now, even if you may be theologically correct, you're just dividing even further. And I've lost friends over Believe Me. I've lost longstanding people in my church who don't talk to me. I've become kind of a lightning rod in those ways. There was a time when I was a new believer, 40 years ago, where I grew up in New Jersey, a very secular place, and I don't think I ever met an evangelical Christian until I became one. It was mostly Jews and Catholics. When you met another evangelical Christian, you somehow struck up a conversation and," Oh, you're a Christian. Oh my gosh, this is amazing. We're brothers and sisters in Christ." Now I see a fellow Christian in the convenience store getting gas or something like that and I'm like,"Are they pro- Trump? What's their view on critical race theory? What are they going to think about if they know that I wrote this about masks or vaccines?" In some ways it breaks my heart. And maybe I'm a little nostalgic for an older evangelism that's long gone. And I realize probably there's some of that, but I think some of that lament is real.
Keith Simon: I think we've all seen that the evangelical church has been fracturing, not because of biblical or theological issues, not even based on say ministry philosophy of how this church does it or versus that church. But instead because of these cultural and political issues that we've put our political candidate or our hot topics first, like you said, vaccines or masks or CRT or politics, whatever. And somehow we've come to the conclusion that we're going to change the world through politics or that the kingdom of God is going to come without King Jesus, maybe by King Biden or King Trump or King Elephant Donkey. And that's dividing us. And I want to get to a point, and I think you do too, where we have more unity in Christ than we do disunity by all these other topics, that we put on Jesus first and see ourselves as citizens of heaven, brothers and sisters in Christ first and foremost.
John Fea: I think this requires a much more robust understanding of the role of the church in public life. And I think for too long, the church has mirrored the culture. So take, for example, there's a wonderful book by an intellectual historian that most of your listeners wouldn't encounter called The Age of Fracture by Daniel Rogers. And what he argues is America has been fracturing as a whole ever since the 1980s with this emphasis on individualism, he blames it on the Reagan era a little bit, but this fracturing of the culture is taking place. And social media has exacerbated that because now everybody has an opinion. And of course, rather than resisting this kind of focus on fractured individualism and disunity, the evangelical church, as they often do, is just kind of mirroring the culture. The culture's fracturing, so of course we're fracturing. Why would we provide some kind of new way to the culture? And I think this is a long story that has unpacked about the close relationship between evangelical Christianity and American culture in America. And it goes back to the things we were saying earlier about civil religion and the kind of uncritical embrace that many evangelical churches have had of American civil religion.
Keith Simon: Yeah, it turns out civil religion might be attractive, but it's probably not good for the church. It probably hasn't had good fruit.
John Fea: I think there's a lot of good things to say about civil religion. I feel the warm and fuzzies when I go to a 4th of July parade or see the videos about 9/ 11 or whatever, just like everybody else. I love my country. I'm honored and proud to be an American. But it's not the church. And I love how N. T. Wright unpacks this, the church is always in a position of speaking the truth to the culture. And we've, I think, sadly become co- opted.
Keith Simon: When we stop being a prophetic voice of truth and start modulating what we say, being careful what we say, because we want to be at the table where the decisions are made, that's a dangerous spot for the church. And unfortunately there are some Christians, I think they're Christians, they call themselves Christians, who have made that deal, that they have been willing to go with a particular political party and compromise the prophetic witness of Christ, just become another special interest group.
John Fea: There's an old Baptist saying that an old Baptist minister once told me," When you mix horse manure...", although he didn't use the word manure," When you mix horse manure and vanilla ice cream together, the horse manure stays the same but the vanilla ice cream is ruined forever." And I think it's a wonderful example of what happens when the church gets involved in politics?
Keith Simon: Politics stays the same, but church is forever changed.
John Fea: Right, right. Politics isn't changing but, man, the ice cream is ruined forever.
Keith Simon: Hey, John Fea, we really appreciate your time with us. You've given a lot to think about. Where can people find you? Where are you active? Tell us about where to find you.
John Fea: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity to do that. I blog every day at a blog called The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which is part of a larger media platform that we've created, me and a couple friends have created, we're only about six months old, called Current. And the address is currentpub. com. And you can see a daily feature there written by all kinds of people. We have a daily feature. And then on the right, I blog every day. And in my blog, you can find links to my work and all those kinds of things. But currentpub. com.
Keith Simon: So currentpub. com is where people can find you. I found you through your books, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? And Believe Me. I would highly recommend both. I think they're both challenging and insightful. Hey, John, as we leave, would you pray for the American church, for our faithfulness to Jesus?
John Fea: Sure. Let's pray. Gracious God, we thank you for conversations like this. They're so needed, Lord, in the church right now. Help us to be faithful in the places that you have called us to work for your kingdom, Lord, first and foremost, and to speak the truth in love to our culture. Lord, we pray for the church right now in America, we ask that you would give us clear vision. We ask you for wisdom to deal with the complicated, messy world in which we live in. Thank you for Keith and his work in contributing to these very important conversations and the work of being salt and light in this world. So thank you, Lord, for all that you do for us. Give us courage, give us perseverance to do the work of your kingdom. In Jesus name. Amen.
Keith Simon: Amen. Thanks for listening. If you found this podcast helpful, make sure to subscribe and leave a review.
Patrick Miller: And make sure it's at least five stars.
Keith Simon: Stop. No. Just be honest. Reviews help other people find us. \.
Patrick Miller: Okay. Okay. At the very least, you can share today's episode. Maybe put it on your social, your favorite text chain.
Keith Simon: And if you didn't like this episode, awesome. Tell us why you disagree on Twitter @ truthovertribe_. We might even share your thoughts in an upcoming newsletter.
This week on Truth Over Tribe, host Keith Simon and guest John Fea discuss whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. John is a professor of American History at Messiah College and author of multiple books, including "The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America." Diving further into American history, Keith and John discuss Christian nationalism and dissect the phrase "Make America Great Again." Was there a time when America was better than it is today? Lastly, we take a look at how the meaning of evangelicalism has evolved over the years. Listen now!