Review: The Search For Christian America By Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, And George M. Marsden

Christians often mimic the tactics of non-Christians in the social and political realms. For example, the “cancel culture” found in legacy media and social media is also found in evangelical media and Christian social media. American politicians and pundits use scare tactics, name-calling, warfare lingo, and shock language to rally people around their political causes. Similarly, popular Christian pastors and pundits use the same strategies to rally people around their political causes.

One other way Christians fall prey to the tactics of non-Christians is on the topic of American history. Just as some left-wing progressives interpret American history in a way that suits them, some right-wing Christians do the same. Left-wing liberal progressives say America’s founding is darkly clouded by selfish white supremacists who were manipulative, power-seeking men. Right-wing evangelical conservatives say that America’s founding is a glorious example of a nation purposely established on Christian principles by Christian men. In reality, the truth lies somewhere in between.

On this topic of America’s founding, here is a helpful volume: The Search for Christian America (TSFCA) by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. The authors wrote the first edition of this book in the early 1980s when evangelicals were proclaiming the need to bring America back to its “Christian” foundation. Tied to the presidencies of Ronald Regan, evangelicals in America grew confident they could take the country back to the Christian roots upon which it was built. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden heard these calls to return to a Christian America. As university history professors, these men knew America’s founding was not explicitly or expressly Christian. Thus, they wrote TSFCA “to introduce a note of realism to tone down a romanticized view of America’s Christian heritage” (156). Noll, Hatch, and Marsden wrote this book from a Christian perspective to give Christians a more balanced view of America’s founding.

TSFCA has seven chapters, a concluding biographical essay, a bibliography, and a general index. The book is well-documented and includes numerous citations and plenty of information for further study. In this book the authors were not sharing their personal views on America’s founding. Nor were they out to gloss over some of the dreadful aspects of American history, such as the evils of slavery. Instead, this book is based on extensive research that helps readers understand some of the nuanced religious and political views of America’s founding fathers in a balanced way. The book also gives insight into America’s founding documents and its moral, political, and religious ethos in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter one of TSFCA is an introduction that describes the evangelical desire to return to Christian America. The authors then state the twofold argument of the book. First, they argue that a careful study of history shows that early America does not deserve to be called distinctly, uniquely, or predominately Christian (17). Second, the authors believe careful examination shows that the idea of a Christian nation is “a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (17). Those two points make up the twofold thesis of TSFCA. The rest of the chapters prove those points.

Chapter two is a deep dive into America’s so-called Christian origins, specifically focusing on Puritan New England. Although the early settlers of New England had high biblical ideals when coming to America, there is much evidence that they fell incredibly far short of those ideals. Furthermore, many of the first settlers misinterpreted Scripture in thinking they were a new Israel—God’s people settling in a new promised land. This chapter also wrestles with the concept of a “Christian culture,” noting that the Puritan New England failed example injects realism into the idea. Indeed, a predominately Christian culture is not a reality in this fallen world because the “full-orbed reality of the Kingdom . . . must await another age,” the age to come (46).

The Great Awakening and the American Revolution are the topics of chapter three. Here, the authors examine and refute the patriotic evangelical claim that God used the Great Awakening to prepare the nation for the righteous cause of the Revolutionary War. The authors note that some leading Christians who favored revival were less enthusiastic about the Revolution. Furthermore, the view that the Revolutionary War was God’s work was often based on unusual millennial views of the day. Interestingly, some who were firmly in favor of the War of Independence made loyalty to it a mark of Christianity, clouding the endeavor by tightly fusing their political views with their faith. Yet, as TSFCA argues, history shows that the Awakening was not God’s unique work to prepare “his” nation for a “righteous” war for independence. Both the Awakening and the Revolution were far more nuanced than that.

Speaking of the War of Independence, chapter four in TSFCA asks and answers the provocative question: “What should Christians think of the American Revolution?” The authors mention the belief that God’s plan for America was independence and to establish a uniquely Christian government. However, they argue that those views are not correct. For instance, although the country’s early leaders were religious, they were not all professing Christians. Many founders believed in some sort of god, but not the Triune God of Scripture. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Washington were not Christians. However, they believed in a benevolent deity, some sort of amalgamation of deism and Unitarianism (73). These men did have a high view of morality and religion, so they spoke in favor of both. This chapter also talks about Whig politics, James Madison, John Witherspoon, and the nebulous place of the Bible in America’s founding. The authors demonstrate that the place of Scripture is not as predominant in America’s founding as evangelicals have often argued.

Chapter five addresses the common myths and legends about America’s founding. Beyond that, it answers the question: Why are there myths and legends about our founding fathers and documents? Not all Americans spoke English in the nation’s early years, so language could not be a unifying factor. Another aspect of early American life was that most Americans were cut off from their families, traditions, and communities overseas. Most Americans had a sense of rootlessness, fragmentation, and an independent spirit, leading to all sorts of sects and religious groups. For these reasons, Americans lacked unity, which often led people to spread myths and legends about America’s founding to unite the nation for the cause of liberty. Another fascinating part of this chapter was the authors’ helpful insights into why Calvinism was despised and dismissed in America’s founding years and beyond.

The sixth chapter of TSFCA is more reflective. The authors combine some of the earlier discussions and apply them to the present day. Here is where the rubber meets the road. The topics include Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye’s calls in the 1980s to get back to American Christian roots, and explanations for why such a call is wrongheaded.

It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical worldview, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation. In other words it is wrong to call for a return to “Christian America” on two counts: First, for theological reasons . . . second, for historical reasons. (131)

The authors of TSFCA then explain the “two counts” in some detail. For example, the authors show how the Declaration and the Constitution are not explicitly Christian or biblical. For another example, the authors discuss John Adam’s 1797 comments about America’s government not being “in any sense founded on the Christian religion” after the United States made a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli (131).

Other questions arise in chapter six: Does it matter whether we call America’s foundation a Christian one or not? Is it such a big deal? Yes!

It matters because if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error. This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life. Nor is this to minimize the seriousness of secularism. Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively. (131)

The authors note there is a middle way between Christian theocracy and militant secularism: it is the approach of America’s founders. That is, religious tolerance. America’s founders did not want a Christian nation; they wanted a nation that was tolerant of various religions. Furthermore, America’s founders did not want an anti-religious nation. They promoted freedom of religion.

The last chapter is especially helpful and gives lessons about learning to think historically. The authors explain a few incorrect views of history. First, some people view the past as a mirror. This is when a person picks “out of the historical tapestry only those strands which reinforce” his or her own points of view (148). Others view the past as an escape, often leading them to break from their history and tradition without much thought (149). Still others view the past as a golden age. This view misses history’s nuances and dark spots and misrepresents the past in an overly idyllic manner (153). The chapter ends with a call for readers to be honest historians who do not project their own beliefs onto the past, historians who avoid thinking some era in the past is a golden age. Historians must note past complexities, ambiguities, and unknown aspects to remain level-headed and balanced in their approach.

Conclusion

Although TSFCA was initially published in 1983, it is extremely relevant today. In the 1980s, there was an evangelical call to get America back to its Christian roots. That call has been repeated several times since then—most recently (and ironically) in conjunction with the presidency and presidential campaigns of Donald Trump, who is not at all an evangelical. TSFCA is a much-needed resource introducing a “note of realism to tone down a romanticized view of America’s Christian heritage” (156). Furthermore, TSFCA is a helpful rebuttal against some aspects of Christian Nationalism. Christian Nationalists often hold to an idyllic view of America’s founding in an attempt to bolster their political position. TSFCA helps readers avoid the historical anachronisms in Christian Nationalism’s views of American history.

Whatever side of the political spectrum one lands on, it is vital to have a correct understanding of America’s past. While America’s founding was not led by evil and tyrannical men trying to gain power over the masses, it also was not led by strong professing Christians who wanted to set up a Christian nation. TSCFA is an excellent resource that gives a balanced view of America’s founding. All Christians who are interested in early American history should read this book. TSCFA helps readers achieve a fair and reasonable outlook on the founding of America. A balanced outlook on America’s founding will keep us from repeating the political and theological errors of the past. It will also help us understand and engage the present political situation with wisdom.

©Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.

Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America, expanded edition (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).


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One comment

  1. Having been turned on to this revelation by reading “Reckoning with the Past” which included essays by all these authors, I have been hungry for more. Just finished Hatch”s “The Democratization of American Christianity.” This is next. Thanks for sharing.

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