Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding/Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution/Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic

By Moots, Glenn A. | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding/Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution/Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic


Moots, Glenn A., Anglican and Episcopal History


Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding By Steven K. Green. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 295. $29.95); Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ Into the Constitution. By Joseph S. Moore. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 214. $29.95); Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. By Emily ConroyKrutz. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 244. $45.00.)

What is America's relationship to Christianity, particularly in its early history? These three books consider the question through a variety of interpretive lenses. In Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, Steven K. Green takes on the ambitious and unenviable task of challenging longstanding assertions that America is, or was, a "Christian nation." His efforts are admirable but largely unsatisfying. This isn't because Green hasn't done due diligence to track down the multiple permutations of the claim (scholarly and popular) and attempt refutation, though he has relied on older and sometimes inferior scholarship and omitted more recent and careful studies such as those by Michael Winship or James Byrd, for example. Too many of his most significant claims are entirely derivative from secondary scholarship and reflect the false dichotomies of this older scholarship. Green is also prone to citing the same primary sources repeatedly-sometimes in a contradictory way-giving no reason why they are representative. He occasionally makes puzzling arguments that undermine confidence in his grasp on the subject. For example, arguing that ministers were less consequential because the culture was moving from oral to print communication is unpersuasive given eighty percent of the pamphlets of the 1770s were sermons. Green falters mostly because of a lack of precision attributable to the absence of appropriate British or continental context and precedent. The result is a book that has partial value for bibliographic purposes and perhaps as an introduction for general readers or undergraduates; but it does not advance scholarship. Green's most valuable contribution, most developed in chapter five, is demonstrating how the myth was created, first in the early eighteenth century and then throughout the nineteenth.

Green begins in chapter one by challenging the myth that America was colonized and founded as a haven for religious freedom. He provides a useful history of religious tolerance and intolerance in America, though it is entirely derivative, demonstrating that almost every colony wanted establishment rather than toleration or liberty. Americans did eventually tell a mythical story retroactively (beginning with New England after the Glorious Revolution) to make uninvited religious freedom salutary. Remarkably, Green's whole endeavor is Rawed for one simple reason. Because he has accepted the premise of his opponents that a "Christian nation" believes in religious freedom rather than establishment he winds up contracting the whole thesis of his book. Prevailing establishment or near-establishment in almost every colony actually shows how close the colonies originally were to Christendom-the model for the "Christian nation" held since Theodosius. Ironically, Green winds up arguing for the Christian political character of the colonies against proponents of Christian America who themselves have created their own ahistorical understand of the Christian polity. Green unintentionally winds up illustrating just how much this whole debate has been loosed from history.

Chapters two, three, and four are running attacks on various claims by Green's opponents about "influence" on the legal and political ideas of the American Revolution and Founding. Green treads water but eventually sinks into the hope that hamfisted categories like "Enlightenment," "rationalism," "Whig," or "secular reasoning" will serve as Kryptonite against his opponents. …

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