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Is America a Christian nation? Metaxas, Fea offer competing views

Eric Metaxas speaks at Judson University’s annual Constitution Day chapel service on Sept. 26, 2018, in Elgin, Il., near Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

CHICAGO (RNS) — The biggest reaction Eric Metaxas got from students this week at Judson University in suburban Elgin was when Judson President Gene Crume introduced him as one of the writers and voices on “VeggieTales,” a popular Christian animated series many millennials grew up watching.

Metaxas, who co-wrote an episode called “Lyle the Kindly Viking” and narrated another on Queen Esther, has had quite an eclectic career.

A well-known talk radio host, he’s written popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther. He’s also written books for kids, including “God Made You Special,” featuring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber of “VeggieTales,” and a forthcoming humor book, “Donald Drains the Swamp,” referring to President Trump, whom he has vocally supported.

“I want to stress to you that I’m very confusing,” he told students, with a smile on his face.

As the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution passed this month, Metaxas was one of two popular evangelical Christian authors who offered competing views on university campuses in the Chicago area of whether America was founded as a Christian nation.

On Wednesday (Sept. 26), Metaxas was at Judson to talk about his book “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” for the school’s annual Constitution Day chapel service.

He shared the anecdote from which the book gets its title. As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after signing the Constitution, he was asked what kind of government they had created, Metaxas said.

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” was his reply, according to the author and speaker.

“You’ve got to understand that the Constitution doesn’t keep itself,” he said. “We the people have to understand it and keep it. We have to keep the republic. It’s up to us.”

Historian John Fea, left, joins “Things Not Seen” podcast host David Dault for a recording of the show at Seminary Co-op Bookstore on the University of Chicago campus on Sept. 24, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Historian John Fea is skeptical of Metaxas’ views on American history and his support of the current administration.

A couple of days before Metaxas spoke at Judson, Fea was in Chicago to talk about his new book, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” during a taping of the “Things Not Seen” podcast Monday at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on the University of Chicago campus.

Though he teaches American history at Messiah College, an evangelical school, he rejects the idea, popularized by evangelical writers such as Metaxas and David Barton, that America was founded as a Christian nation. Countering that claim is a difficult task. But, he said, it’s important for evangelical Christians to see a different view of early American history from a fellow evangelical.

“Because, you know, frankly, Barton and Metaxas especially are much more popular than people like me who are trying to push back,” he said.

John Fea, left, on the University of Chicago campus on Sept. 24, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Fea argues that the Founding Fathers’ view of religion was “much more nuanced and complex than people on the left and the right make it.”

Progressives are tempted to believe the Founding Fathers were all secular, didn’t care about religion or wanted everybody to be free of the matter of religion, he told Religion News Service. On the other hand, conservatives see the country’s foundation as “uniquely Christian.”

In reality, he said, some of the founders were Christians, and some were not. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would not have embraced “orthodox Christianity,” Fea said, but they believed that religion could be useful in a republic — that in order for a republic to work, one needed to sacrifice one’s own interests for the greater good.

In writing the First Amendment, they wanted religion — all religion — to flourish. At the time there were few non-Christians in America, he said, but the Founding Fathers’ writings show they always saw it applying to Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of other faiths and no faith, as well.

Views of America’s origins play a powerful role in today’s political climate, Fea said. Part of the idea of making America great again includes keeping America Christian.

Much of Metaxas’ talk Wednesday on his book “If You Can Keep It” centered on a similar idea — that the founders recognized virtue, faith and freedom as essential to keeping the republic.

He made that point by referring to a quote he attributed to President Lincoln, calling Americans God’s “almost chosen people.”

“When God blessed America — and he has blessed us all these years — he didn’t do it to bless us. He did it to bless the whole world through us,” Metaxas said.

Eric Metaxas at Judson University on Sept. 26, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Metaxas, who declined an interview with RNS through Judson, also linked his ideas to current politics, expressing concern that government has been growing larger and “we’ve effectively been losing our freedoms.”

He encouraged each student to do his or her part, whatever that might look like, and explained what it means to “drain the swamp” of corruption and money, a popular talking point of Trump.

The idea of being blessed to be a blessing resonated with a number of Judson students, who filled the 500-seat Herrick Chapel as they do three times a week for services, legs dangling over the side of the chapel’s wooden balcony.

Freshmen Arianna Wink and Madison Psinas said over lunch afterward they hadn’t learned in public school about the role religion may have played in the country’s founding, but they liked what Metaxas had shared about virtue and speaking up for what they believe.

“I haven’t grown up hearing a lot of politics mixed with religion,” said Psinas, who was one of a small group of students who had the opportunity to meet with Metaxas the day before.

“His discussion about compassion, living by example and being able to voice your opinion in this country was something we needed to hear in terms of feeling like we can really express ourselves and our faith.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

88 Comments

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  • I spent more than a decade in the US, but I’ll leave it to others to answer the question. Insofar as my home country is concerned, I would say that Italy is, once again, a pagan society heavily influenced by the history of Catholicism and the remnants of Catholic culture. I don’t think there are many Italians for whom the Church is the first resort when looking for answers or solutions.

  • Jesus, himself, said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Paul tells us we are ambassadors to the countries we were born into after our rebirth into the Kingdom. To claim any nation is a Christian nation is to call Jesus a liar.

    When Jesus returns, he will establish a Kingdom on earth and rule with a “rod of iron”. In the meantime, anyone who claims to be establishing a Christian Nation is an antichrist.

  • If the founding fathers intended the US to be a Christian nation they would have stated it explicitly in the constitution. They did not.

  • Of course the people who make such statements lie like cheap rugs when asked what they actually mean by a “Christian Nation”. What they want to say is that they expect Fundamentalist Christians to be given positions of privilege and authority over everyone else. What they lamely say in mixed company is garbage about a Christian minority or vague fictions about our system being based on “Judeo Christian Values” (a term which will mean anything the proponent claims).

  • Frankly, I would just settle for you to stop trying to repeal Christians’ constitutional Bill of Rights religious freedom. The rest we can handle on our own time & dime.

  • Precisely. We would have been called The Christian States of America, just as Iran is officially The Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Christians in this country should understand that they actually enjoy freedom of religion because they have (up until recently) enjoyed not only freedom from other religions but also freedom from dominance or attempted dominance by any of their own factions. Freedom from religion and freedom of religion are actually the same thing.

  • What freedom is anyone trying to take from Christians. We have the right to worship and live as we believe, as does any other religion in America (Muslims have been in America since the beginning). We have the right to persuade others of our beliefs. What we don’t have the right to do is force others to act according to our beliefs (Although the current batch of antichristian Evangelicals think they should have this power over others).

  • Why would I stop opposing your demand for special privileges for Christians to break laws and attack people?

    I love rule of law, freedom of religion and a free society. It is my duty to oppose such things.

  • Ask the 70-year-old gay marriage supporter (and a grandmother, and a former florist) Baronelle Stutzmann, exactly what freedom certain state governments are trying to rob from Christians.

    Hmm. Ask Christian baker Jack Phillips the same question. See if their answers match up.

  • You have ONLY as much freedom as you are willing be vigilant about.

    American Christians took their constitutional freedom of religion for granted, blindly voted their pocketbooks instead of their beliefs in 2008 and 2012, and NOW their religious freedom is on the ropes canvas.

    Trump’s the last remaining barrier to a total de-facto repeal, and his main man Kavanaugh may already be out of the game.

  • Oh, so you admit that it’s a bad idea to confirm an accused sexual predator to the Supreme Court?

  • “When God blessed America — and he has blessed us all these years — he didn’t do it to bless us. He did it to bless the whole world through us.”

    A fundamentally Jewish view, as well as Christian. It comes down to what you mean by a “Christian” nation. If you mean a country in which Christianity is the institutional religion, then no — some colonies yes, the United States no; no religious sect, Christian or otherwise, is the established church of our nation. But if you mean a nation founded on morality and philosophy fundamentally informed and supported by Christianity, then yes, absolutely.

  • spuddie isn’t very switched on so, don’t expect reason to work with him. He can’t cope with facts and he gives tacit approval to the domestic violence that islamic clerics condone.

    In other words, he’s a gormless worm.

  • eh?

    “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is Christian dogma. Literal stoning is islamic practice as defined in sharia law.

    You may claim the USA isn’t a Christian nation but I doubt you’d last long in Pakistan where the ‘worship of God’ as defined by Islam is practiced.

    ( Liberals exist because of Christianity but fail to comprehend what they have so, they work to bring in as much anti-Christian nonsense as possible in a bid to make the USA resemble an islamic hellhole. Seriously, if you love islam so, go and live in it. )

  • For 50 years now muslims have been killing Americans on American soil in the name of islam and jihad- nothing Christian about that.

  • I wouldn’t say that America is a Christian nation. But, there are some Christians in America. There is freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. There is a mixture of many different religions. We do not live in a theocracy. Never have. Theocracy was tried unsuccessfully during the days of King David through to the days of King Solomon. Instead of attempting to pursue a theocracy, or a Christian nation, in Matthew 18:11 Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost.

  • Most of the founding fathers were masons and Christians.

    They had no idea that islamic texts encourage literal violence- 107 verses condoning physical fighting against unbelievers or promoting the hatred of Jews in the quran alone.

  • In fact we DO have the right to force others to act according to our beliefs.

    What we DON’T have is the right to establish a religion.

  • Of course the people who post statements like yours lie like cheap rugs when asked what they mean by rule of law, freedom of religion and a free society.

    What they really want is to exorcise religious beliefs and people from the public square, gut the Constitution, rig elections, and call doing so “rule of law”.

  • What they did NOT do is establish an irreligious nation, create a “wall of separation between church and state”, or banish religion from the Public Square.

    The Founders believed religion to be a public good, exempt from taxation, and protected from compulsion by the State, as they believed education to be a public good.

    In the forum of the Public Square religion would be one voice among others.

  • Most of the founding fathers were Deists. Jefferson created his own version of the “New Testament” with many passages crossed out.

  • I followed the link and came away with a somewhat different message. Yes, the Koran does contain one verse that CAN BE INTERPRETED as advocating domestic violence. However, there are other ways of interpreting this verse and there are problems of domestic violence in other religious communities. Domestic violence is not just an Islamic problem.

  • I’ve lived in a majority Muslim country, visited another. They were generally nice, friendly, pretty much like us. I am a Christian. I am a liberal.

    And you have that backwards. America exists because of liberals.

  • The hypothesis that most of the Founding Fathers were Deists is not well grounded.

    There is virtually no evidence that more than a handful of civic leaders in the Founding era – notably Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Tom Paine – embraced anything approximating Deism.

    https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/did-america-have-christian-founding

    What they appear to have aimed for is leaving choice as to religion up to the individual, expressing a belief in natural law, and ensuring that religion had a voice – but not the only voice – in the Public Square.

  • Who? You seem to know and talk more about ANTIFA than I ever have.

    Your concession is duly noted. I see you will continue to keep throwing your lot in with white supremacists, Uncle Ruckus.

  • I voted in 2016. When the subject was relevant. Why do you hate free elections?

    It should be noted within the first few months, half of the people who voted for trump regretted the decision and continue to do so.

    But you were seeking special privileges for Christians to break laws and attack people long before the election. So the issue has no bearing here

  • One thing we can be sure of is none of them were contemporary Evangelicals since the rapture doctrine was invented in 1830,Fundamentalism in the late 1800s (and named for a series of pamphlets published in 1910), and the idea that Christians should dominate the govt was invented in the 1970s by RJ Rushdoony, even the idea that the Bible was inerrant was based on the relatively new art the time doctrines of sola scripture/scripture sola, but hadn’t evolved into inerrancy yet.

  • The rapture doctrine has zero to do with being evangelical.

    The rapture was “invented” in Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, not 1830.

    Fundamentalism in the sense of believing in:

    – Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture as a result of this

    – Virgin birth of Jesus

    – Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin

    – Bodily resurrection of Jesus

    – Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

    also dates to the first century, although the term “fundamentalism” is usually attributed to the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897).

  • What a (self imposed) scary little bubble you live in. “You’ve lost that Christian privilege, whoa that Christian privilege” – sung to a Righteous Brothers tune

  • America is a nation in which Christians reside – along with Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, JFK worshippers, Mormons, Spiritualists and so forth. To use “Christian” as an adjective is degrading. Anyone with half a brain would know that it is not an adjective. So please stop – that goes for so-called thinkers like Metaxes.

  • No, spuddie uses a tactic called doublespeak. He is skilled in false nuances and recanting his earlier statements.
    Debating him/her is like debating sand – constantly changing depending on the wind.

  • Fea is right, Metaxas wrong. Anyone with any acquaintance with US history would agree with Fea. I write as a former US history teacher.

  • Lee is truly coming from the twilight zone. The real threats to religious liberty are Trump and the religious conservatives who want to impose misogynist religious doctrines on all women, force all taxpayers to support sectarian religious institutions, subvert our public schools, and take government back to the Middle Ages.

  • Evangelicals who press the “Christian nation” issue are making some grave mistakes. 

    First, they envision the Founding Fathers as evangelicals like themselves. However, that literally cannot be true. It’s chronologically impossible! Christian fundamentalism didn’t exist at all until the 19th century, and the Protestant evangelical movement grew from that. The FFs all died before their version of Christianity (actually, a prototypical version of it) even came into existence. 

    So, they’re catastrophically wrong about that. 

    Second, there’s a reason they push that issue, and that is, to imply that every American is somehow obliged to be a Christian — and by extension, a Christian just like them (i.e. evangelical). The problem is that, even if the country had in fact been founded as “a Christian nation,” and even if they had been evangelicals, the FFs cannot have created an obligation of this kind for Americans living many generations later. Individual Americans’ beliefs cannot be dictated by what the FFs believed … whatever that may have been. 

    So that’s one more thing they can’t possibly be more wrong about. 

    Third, even if, by some means, evangelicals are able to make this into the “Christian nation” they want the US to be, what happens then? Will they be satisfied by the kinds of Christianity Americans adopt? Will they in fact be happy with a hodgepodge of various sects, ranging from Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, to the mainstream Protestant sects, to the various divergent sects, like Mormonism, the Unity Church, Christian Science, the Quakers, etc.? Will it be enough for them that every American can say s/he is “Christian,” and they leave it at that? I don’t see how that could ever work, in practice. It’s inevitable they’ll decide that some kinds of Christianity aren’t “‘Real’ Christianity” and their followers will come under attack. 

    There’s no way they can get what they want, without opening the door to sectarian conflict — a lot of it. 

    That’s in addition to the consideration of what becomes of anyone who insolently continues to practice a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc. as well as non-believers. What would they like to do with all those folks? Having decided the US is “a Christian nation,” how could they ever accept such people living among them? It’s an impossible situation. 

    For years I’ve issued an open challenge to any and all “Christian nationers.” If, in fact, you truly believe that I, as an American, am obliged to be a Christian because I live in “a Christian nation,” then what do you intend to do about it? Will you force me to convert? If so, how will you go about making that happen? Would you use force on me, and coerce my conversion? You could try … but I guarantee it wouldn’t work. Would you try to talk me into it? You could try that, too … but you’ve got quite a hurdle to get over before you can even start. And if, in the end, you decide you either cannot or will not convert me, then are you willing to just walk away and let me continue as the insolent, cynical, godless agnostic heathen that I am? Would you, in fact, leave me (and other non-believers) alone? 

    If it turns out that you do decide to leave non-Christians like myself alone, then what becomes of your belief that the US is “a Christian nation”? You’ll have decided you can’t implement that and make it a reality … so what, then, would be the point of insisting on that trope? 

    Just something for “Christian nationers” out there to think about. Most have never considered the ramifications of what they believe and want … but it’s time they did. Because their wish is, ultimately, untenable — unless they’re OK with turning the US into a bloody sectarian warzone. 

  • The Rapture Doctrine was invented by Darby in 1830,many people misinterpret Paul to their own destruction,

  • If we were to take an accounting, people identifying as Christian have committed way more acts of terrorism.

  • You can’t have Anti-Fascists without Fascist to Anti. 🙂

    Bear in mind, people making excuses for white supremacist violence love to bring up ANTIFA to pretend there is some immoral equivalent group for given arguments. Deflection in its most obvious form. But whereas white supremacists have the ear of mainstream politicians and a very long history of deadly terrorism in the country, the other group is infinitesimal in size, influence or even acts. What they forget is that ANTIFA is not the primary enemy of fascist white supremacists. Instead they go by a more common name: Freedom Loving Americans.

  • You mean the bigoted lawbreaker who is now living on wingnut welfare.

    Sorry buddy, but she is not a victim, she simply received the punishment her acts deserved. Bigotry and malicious actions towards others should have a tangible cost and penalty.

    Christians don’t have a right or privilege to attack people in service of their faith. There is nothing to rob here.

  • Alex, its telling that you have to lie so badly about my position because you are working off of such a stupid script. You are a stooge for terrorists. Doing their bidding and too stupid to realize it.

    “he gives tacit approval to the domestic violence that islamic clerics condone.”

    By all means give examples of where I do such a thing. Quote me.

    My posting history is an open book.

    You have been officially double dog dared.

  • “Most of the founding fathers were masons and Christians.”

    Which means nothing, since the created the first secular democratic nation. One whose laws reflected favoritism to no religion at all.

    “They had no idea that islamic texts encourage literal violence”

    They didn’t have to. Freedom of religion is not license to harm others in service of your faith. One’s religious beliefs are always an irrelevance under the law. One’s actions cannot be excused as an act of faith.

    Why do you hate the principles of our 1st Amendment so much?

    Why are you such an Un-American troll supporting terrorist propaganda?

  • If you are claiming the US is a Christian Nation, you are no different from the Taliban. You are seeking the same thing as Islamicists. A government which hates freedom and beholden to a given faith.

    BTW Pakistan was founded by a non-religious secularist and didn’t adopt Islamicism officially until about the late 1980’s in conflicts with India and in supporting anti-soviet forces in Afghanistan.

    Liberals exist IN SPITE of Christianity. We have a secular democratic government because our founders intentionally upheld notions of separation of church and state. Knowing the history of atrocity in nations which had official sanctioned churches.

  • “The latter is what liberals take for granted in their quest to make America into an islamic hole.”

    Because liberals oppose the strict separation of church and state? Nope. That is people like yourself.

    Its telling that you are not objecting to theocracy, you just want a Christian version of one. Making you as stupid and destructive as the Islamicists you refer to.

    So why do you hate the free exercise of religion so much? Is it because you don’t understand how it works?

  • Umm, the word ‘beliefs’ is dangerous in this context. A better term might be ‘preferences’. Let’s leave organized religion out of this discussion. In a pluralistic society, we need separation of church and state.

  • “There is virtually no evidence that more than a handful of civil leaders in the Founding era…embraced anything approximating Deism.”

    Questionable assertion at best

  • Trust me, I can’t stand Eric Metaxas either, but who is John Fea anyway, really? After reading the following critique, I’ve made up my mind: I can’t stand John Fea either, so there!

    “John [Fea] identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me [D. G. Hart]. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?”

    Source: D. G. Hart, “What Kind of Christian is John Fea?”, Old Life Theological Society, August 16, 2017.

  • The pseudo-Christian baker has lost no constitutional freedoms. There is no constitutional right to own a business. A Christian who chooses to obtain a business license and conduct a business has an obligation to obey the laws and obligations that come with the license, including anti-discrimination laws (see Romans 13) A Christian worthy of the Name, also has an obligation to serve everyone, especially sinners because Jesus did.

    I’m not familiar with the other person or their situation.

    I suspect, in either case, they still have the right to worship as they please. Religious freedom, however, does not give them the freedom to impose their beliefs on others. If you don’t want to follow the laws governing running a business ,surrender your license and go get a job.

  • The Mouth of Bob made that assertion!!! how dare you criticize the mouth of bob, which is the King and the God of bobWorld.

  • People who identify as Christian have killed far more. Violence is wrong no matter who perpetuates it, but the Christian Right has no room to judge.

  • Yes, they want power, money, and domination. But “revenge”? For what? No one has harmed them. 

    (I get that they think they’ve been harmed, but we all know they haven’t actually been harmed. They can’t be harmed … Christians remain by far the majority in the country, and the R.R. controls the federal government as well as most of the states, so how would that work? It can’t.) 

  • Revenge? Of course!

    How dare those uppity…fags, muzzles, wimmens, blacks, Browns, atheists, libruls, yids, or anyone else… think they are equals to me? I’ll show them.

  • A professional teaching “former US history” and that’s you? No wonder, judged by “former US history … Fea is right, Metaxas wrong.”

  • “Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost” – Amen!

    And “lost … are some Christians in America” – and then some!

  • “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, ” says Bunker Bob in all humility if he decides to acknowledge his history faux pas.

    In the meantime, let’s not hold our breath.

  • Our public schools are under particular attack. Pence, if Trump is kicked out, would swiftly move to enact even worse policies than doing away with protections for disabled children. Jesus must be spinning in his grave and these disgusting excuses for good decent Christians.

  • True, of course, but I think it’s important to note that the term “Christian” is never defined.

    Some years ago, Cornell Univ. prof. of govt Isaac Kramnick wrote an excellent book on this topic.

  • I agree with everything you say. The term “Judeo Christian” is like the term “dry water” or “watery oil”–that is, self-contradictory.

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