John Fea: On the Road With Christian America

May 16, 2012 By John Fea 7 Comments

As many of the readers of my blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” are aware, I have spent a good portion of 2011 and 2012 on the road and on the radio waves promoting my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the process, I have learned a lot about what Americans think about the founding of the United States.  Many of the people I have encountered have been thoughtful, open-minded, and willing to listen to my interpretation of the relationship between Christianity and the American Revolution.  Others have not.

I have been keeping a journal about my experiences. The computer file is called “On the Road With Christian America.” I use the journal to reflect on what my encounters with “Christian America” tell us about how American evangelicals, and Americans more broadly, engage the past.

One day I might publish an edited version of my journal, but in the meantime here are just a few of the more interesting things that have happened to me since the publication of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

  • In a talk to a group of mainline Protestant clergy I was accused of anti-Catholicism for quoting John Adams.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the other ministers in attendance explained to their colleague that I was not personally endorsing anti-Catholic views, but only trying to make the point that the world view of some founders, particularly Adams, was profoundly anti-Catholic.
  • A conservative talk radio host in Orange County, California asked me if the founding fathers would have opposed the placing of American flags near gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.  (There was apparently a news story dealing with this issue at the time of my interview). When I said that I did not know, he went off on a tirade about how liberal history professors were destroying this country.  At one of the commercial breaks (off the air), he changed to a friendly tone of voice and praised my answer to his question.  He said that the interview was “going well” and called it “one of the best I have done in a long time.”  When we returned from the break he continued his tirade.
  • A syndicated Christian radio host asked me if I thought Thomas Jefferson was a Christian.  When I said that it is hard to label a person “Christian” who rejects the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he responded, “Well, he may not have been a Christian, but he was a believer!”  (He then promptly cut to commercial break before I had a chance to respond).  I am still trying to get my head around this one.
  • A Christian podcaster conducted a one-hour interview with me as her dog barked relentlessly in the background.  I am assuming that the canine did not like the answer to the question in the title of my book.
  • A  talk radio host in Atlanta  asked me if I was a Christian.  I said yes, fully expecting him to ask how a Christian could not endorse the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.  Instead, he asked me if I had ever heard “Jesus Freak,” a song made popular by the Christian rap group D.C. Talk.  When I told him that I had indeed heard the song, he seemed rather excited and started talking about D.C. Talk with his co-host/sidekick.  He then took a commercial break and when he came back on the air for the second half of the interview he played “Jesus Freak” and announced, “This one is for you, professor!”
  • A Christian radio host asked me to define George Washington’s position on abortion.
  • During the Q&A following a talk to a group of youth workers in Minneapolis, a man said that he would not buy my book unless I told him what I thought of David Barton.  (No sale was made).
  • After hearing me talk about Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? at Colonial Williamsburg, a man asked me if Messiah College “was still a Christian college?
  • At the same lecture, a woman wanted to know if I believed in “collective salvation like Barack Obama.”
  • When speaking to a group of atheists in Pittsburgh, the projection screen on the platform mysteriously lowered in the middle of the lecture.  I told the audience that I was not planning on using any visuals for the talk, so the lowering of the screen could only be explained through an appeal to a divine being.
  • A host of a Christian radio station spent the entire 30 minute interview reading to me quotes from the Founding Fathers, Supreme Court decisions, the Star-Spangled Banner, and John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity.”  I think my voice was heard on the program for a total of two minutes.  Following the interview, he invited me back on the show so that we could continue “this stimulating conversation.”
  • I began a talk at an Arizona mega-church by asking the audience of 200+ evangelicals to raise their hand if they thought that America was “founded as a Christian nation.”  Nearly every hand in the room went up.  (I have since learned not to start my talks in this fashion).
  • A caller to a Pittsburgh Christian radio station, who identified himself as a “minister of the Gospel,” said that my suggestion that history is “complex” was “wishy-washy.”  He went on to tell me that “everyone knows that history is black and white.”
  • During a Q&A at a public lecture someone asked me what Thomas Jefferson, if he were alive, would say about the election of a black president.  When I probed a bit deeper,  I realized that she assumed Jefferson would have opposed an Obama presidency because he had said in Notes on the State of Virginia that Africans were inferior to white people.
  • One Christian radio host introduced me as a history professor at Messiah College.  He then caught me completely off-guard when he proceeded to ask “Do you believe in THE Messiah?”  When I said “yes,” he responded by saying, “OK then, hallelujah, praise Jesus, we can now continue with this interview.”
  • I arrived at a book signing at a northeastern Pennsylvania Barnes & Noble to find a table of my books positioned under a large sign that read “Special Story-Time With Therapy Dogs International.”
  • Last summer I did a radio interview from an eighteenth-century house in the town of Greenwich, NJ.  Five minutes before the interview I hit my head on a low ceiling beam in the house causing me to briefly black out.  I also fell to the floor, resulting in a badly sprained ankle.  I did the entire interview while slightly dizzy and with a docent applying ice to my ankle!

And I could go on….

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