Dr. John Fea, associate professor of American history at Messiah College, implored the audience to “avoid the politicization of history” and instead “think together” in a historical manner at a lecture on Sept. 18. Fea’s lecture was given in the Elaine Langone Center Forum to a full crowd of students, professors and Lewisburg locals. The University departments of history, religion and political science sponsored the lecture along with the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences and the University Lectureship Committee.
The lecture title mirrored Fea’s most recent book, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.” Fea’s recent book was one of the finalists in the George Washington Book Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the nation, among other awards. Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College. Fea specializes in American history, with a special interest in how religion has manifested throughout the nation’s history.
While Fea conceded that most people come to such lectures with their minds made up about the role of religion in American politics, he challenged the attendees to think about the argument he outlined. His argument was critical of both the role of the political Left and Right in manipulating the “discipline of history” for political purposes.
Fea then gave a comprehensive overview of how the founders of the country viewed religion. The Founding Fathers did, in fact, believe Christianity was good for the republic. Yet, Fea argued that these men saw Christianity as one means to meet the ends of a society that promoted “virtue.” Virtue, for the Founding Fathers, was characterized by consistency in promoting the public good. Therefore, if people acted in line with Christian values of taking care of others, it was seen as an effective way to contribute to the public good.
Despite the Founding Fathers’ Christian values, Fea pronounced the Constitution as a “godless document.” This statement is one reason that both Democrats and Republicans are made “uncomfortable” by the argument that he puts forth in his book.
Assistant Professor of Religion Brantley Gasaway commended Fea for his criticism of both sides of the political spectrum in using religion to promote partisan agendas.
“I agree with Fea that answering the question of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation requires not only a recognition of the complexity of the evidence, but also a commitment to not let our contemporary political biases distort our historical interpretations,” Gasaway said.
Both Christian nationalists and secularists can be guilty of manipulating the past for present political purposes. Gasaway, like Fea, teaches his students to “be wary of simplistic appeals to the religious beliefs and motivations of the founders when they are used as justification for current public policies and political positions.”
“I thought that it was interesting that Fea took on this task by focusing largely on history rather than politics. He wasn’t very polemical at all, I think he was just trying to make a historical argument and found his evidence within the Constitution,” political science major Laura Bergamini ’13 said.