I’ve been casually interested in the “Christian America” movement and reinterpretation of America’s Christian founding (or questionable history thereof). I gravitate toward books that attempt to show that America was not founded as a Christian nation, and find them compelling, especially in the face of all the ill-founded, poorly researched, right wing over-generalizations. Thus, I found this brief passage from historian Carl Trueman to be provocative in that it points to contemporary appropriations of this topic, while most book-length treatments on the subject mainly examine the historical evidence. The context of this passage is in a discussion of the “genetic fallacy,” which happens when “historians are guilty of the error of allowing the origins of something to determine its current nature or meaning” (p. 158). Whether America was founded as a Christian nation or not, this excerpt is dedicated to Sarah Palin.
“Many readers might well be thinking at this point that this fallacy is so obviously problematic that it cannot possibly have much force within the writing of history today. True, its flaws are obvious; but, in fact, it does enjoy considerable vogue in some quarters. Take, for example, the most radical wings of the Christian America movement where the argument is that America was founded by men motivated by and large by their commitment to the Christian faith and their desire to build a Christian nation. Thus, America was and is – or at least, ought to be – a Christian nation, and her founding documents embody Christian virtues. This leads to interpretations of the present that can engage simply in anachronistic value judgments on actions and events; or, perhaps in a more sinister way, connect America to events in biblical prophecy, God’s providential plans for the world, etc.
“Few would deny that America’s founding documents embody civic virtues, though what makes those virtues distinctively Christian is surely rather debatable. Thus, the significance of the impact here is perhaps less on the actual writing of history than on the subsequent use of such history in contemporary politics; but it is useful to identify exactly what the underlying problem with such history is.”
-Carl Trueman in History and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Crossway, 2010), p. 159