John Fea Asks, Is American Supposed to be a Christian America?

By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 324 pages

This review first posted at: https://nepca.blog/2017/05/05/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation-book-review/  

For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no need to pose the question raised in the title of John Fea's monograph. Most self-identified evangelicals adamantly insist that it was, and humanists and political progressives vigorously assert that the Founding Fathers intended that a “wall” be erected between church and state. You might expect Fea to side with evangelicals, given that he’s a believer and a professor at a Christian school, Messiah College. He doesn’t. Nor does he cast his lot with those who take the opposing view. As a historian, Fea sees nuances, not nostrums. His is a take that, depending upon the openness of the reader, will be seen as a rare middle view within a polarized nation, or will induce outrage.

He begins this edition—the first appeared in 2011—with a recounting of recent reactions to his work. Predictably, he has been attacked by both born-again believers and committed secularists. Neither is satisfied with his insistence that how one answers the central question depends upon several subordinate questions. These are not political questions, though the debate is often discursively framed that way. For example, during his values-centered 2016 presidential campaign Mike Huckabee insisted that “most” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers. In truth, just one was a man of the cloth: New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Fea, however, suggests it really wouldn’t matter if all had been ministers; hard-right conservatives such as Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and David Barton fail to define their terms. Was America founded as a Christian nation? It depends upon what one means by “Christian, “founding,” and “nation.”

In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.

Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.

But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a "wall" between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.

Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy.  FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.

Rob Weir



Musical Potpourri for Spring


Sometimes it just doesn't make sense to look for common ground in the midst of rich musical turf. Here's a grab bag for various tastes.

The Waifs make you grateful that these days genre lines blur. Ironbark (Compass) is a double CD of 25 delights. This Aussie quintet—anchored by vocals from Josh Cunningham and sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson—is often labeled folk rock, but that doesn't begin to get it.  What's your musical taste? Need a reminder that you shouldn't ignore the beauty all around you? Try "Take it In," in which the lead vocal and gorgeous harmonies bounce off Cunningham's robust acoustic scaffolding. How about something moody? "Higher Ground" would be at home on Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. Get your honky-tonk fix from "Sugar Mama," and indulge in string/swing blues that sounds like they came from the 1940s in "Done and Busted." Want a country weepy? "Grand Plan" will bring you down. Curious about yodeling? "Goodnight Lil' Cowboy" is an outback lullaby that would be home on the American range. "Not the Lonely" updates the retro girl group vibe but keeps the kernel intact. Catchy little melodies get a workout in "Important Things," whose tune and upbeat message are the kind of earworms you want, and "Dirty Little Bird," has passages evocative of Japanese folk songs.  Then there's the dark and political, "Syria" that's as good a song I've heard about this tragedy. Simpson's voice positively oozes the pain. If you're itching for something just plain beautiful, man, do you have choices: the plea for enduring love in "Standing Strong," the close harmonies of "I Won't Go Down" and "The Coast," the praiseful "Amazing Everything," the Appalachian feel of "Something's Coming," and "The Lion and the Gazelle," in which Thorn sounds a bit like Emmylou. What a record! And I haven't even mentioned the poetic lyrics.  ★★★★★

K Phillips' Dirty Wonder (Rock Ridge Music) has everything you want in outlaw country: weeping pedal street, honky-tonk piano, slap-slap drums, twangy vocals, fuzzed out guitar, rolling organ, and grit. Here's a memorable line from the title track: I used to grow a beard to cover up the devil's face/But a wretch is still a wretch in satin or lace. Here's another one from "Coal Burner:" No one looks at the rust and sees the rain/No one blames the tracks, they blame the train. Maybe it's destiny. The K stands for Kris and his DJ mother named him for another West Texan: Kris Kristofferson. Like Kristofferson, Phillips writes about good times and bad, but mostly bad. In "Rom Com" a promising romance falls apart when "he caught the wrong ticket and she took the wrong flight." And there's the delicious line I know for a fact you didn't call to see how I was from "Don't Wish Me Well," the story of a dead relationship yearning to be laid to rest. There's also the humorous but palpably dangerous song about a man on the rebound with his mind on "18 Year Old Girls:" You should not be wearing my shirt/I should not have my mind in the dirt. Hey, did you expect outlaw country to be wholesome? ★★★★

Canadian pop/folk singer and Juno Award winner Ron Sexsmith admits he's a musical sponge. He counts among his inspirations the 1960s British Invasion (Ray Davies in particular) and the broad spectrum of Canadian folk music—from Leonard Cohen to Gordon Lightfoot. He's shared stages with everyone from Arie to R.E.M. and his admirers include Elvis Costello, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and k.d. lang. Dylan has performed a few of his songs. He's often compared to Martin Sexton for his penchant for writing introspective songs and for his ventures into falsetto territory (though Sexsmith's voice is more quavery). You'll hear slices of all this on The Last Rider (Compass). Selections such as "Worried Song" and "Upward Dog" would be at home on a Beatles album, and the latter lifts a snippet of the opening melody line of "Ticket to Ride." Yet "Radio," inspired by childhood remembrances, is more Billy Joel-like, "Only Trouble Is" has a killer hook and a memorable melody line, and "Shoreline" has Caribbean whiffs. "West Gwillimbury" was inspired by a town name in Ontario that Sexsmith saw many times on a tour without actually going through it. Sexsmith used that non-experience as a metaphor for heaven. For uplift, it's hard to be "Dreams are Bigger," with its instant classic line: If your dreams are bigger than your worries/You'll never have to worry about your dreams. Some listeners may find the songwriting stronger than the vocals. I  liked the stripped down offerings better than those layered with studio production, some of which drenched the vocals, and a lot of which seemed similar, but with 15 tracks, there's plenty for every taste.  ★★★ ½

Charlie and the Rays have a new EP Song of Love, which is also the name of the second track, an homage to a child. That's appropriate as the "Charlie" part of the band's name is a tribute to a seven-year-old who used to hang out with them. The Rays are sisters Jordan and Rebecca Stobbe, Gracia Bridges and sidemen Jack Brady and Sam Kastner. Like other Rays' projects, this one centers on lovely three-part harmonies that draw comparisons to a slicked-down version of the Dixie Chicks. Instrumentation is kept understated so it doesn't compete with those voices. Wise. We hear this decision in full glory on a cover of The Beatles' "Dig a Pony," which is paced slower and missing John Lennon's hard edges, but is bolstered by Bridges' prominent bass riff. I like everything about this group and it makes me jealous they used to busk at Seattle's Pike Place. My town has many talented people, but our buskers—not so much! The Rays' folk/R & B mix is easy on the ears and long on talent.
★★★ ½

Guthrie Brown is sometimes compared to Tom Petty, though I find his indie sound more geared toward the 21st century club scene. His EP, Natural, often evokes images of packed bodies waving their arms above the heads in time with the groove. This is especially the case with the title track, with its soulful R & B melody with hints of funk. In like fashion, his "Wild Child" isn't the amped uninhibited electric madness of Hendrix, rather a polished ditty aimed at getting the feet moving. In fact, if the Montana-raised Guthrie had twang in his voice, it's the sort of song that country musicians use as a bright change of pace. The indie part? Guthrie is hard to pigeonhole. "Day to Day" is decidedly folk in temperament, "Lightening" has Paul Simon-like vocal cadences, but "Stay Gold" has a central hook that flirts with discordance and a melody and lyrics suggestive of early rock and roll. Cool stuff.  ★★★ ½

Okay, this gets confusing. There are at least three performers with the name Jess Ray and two of them sing Christian music. The best of them is based in Raleigh, NC and has several albums on her résumé, including Pull the Stars from the Sky, 10 songs whose content is praiseful, not preachy. Ray recorded them in an old mill in a single day with just guitar, mic, and guitar. Ray's voice has sometimes been compared with that of Brandi Carlile, but on the new album it's more like Buffy Ste. Marie with controlled vibrato—not in tone, but in the way Ray uses the reverberant room and spare guitar to create drama with her big voice. Songs like "After," "Water/Wind/Fire," "Set Me Right," and "Come to My Senses" are as spare as can be, but they sound huge. Whatever your personal convictions, you can believe in Jess Ray's talent. ★★★ ½   

Rob Weir


Elle a Misogynist Film

ELLE (2016)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
SBS Productions, 130 minutes, R (nudity, violence, disturbing scenes)

Let's get straight to the point: Elle is a violent misogynist film dressed up as a psychological drama. It was the French entry for the Oscars' Best Foreign Picture award and Isabelle Huppert was nominated for Best Actress consideration, but all that shows is how male-dominated the film industry remains. I will grant that Ms. Huppert's performance was riveting and courageous, but I wonder what the hell she was doing in such a film in the first place.

Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a woman haunted by a horror that befell her when she was ten: her wealthy father, seemingly without any reason, went on a mass murder rampage. A journalist snapped a photo of the child Michèle staring blankly into space, her face covered in soot from a backyard burning of papers. Since then, both she and her mother have been objects of hatred by those assuming they too are sociopaths. Unfair? Well… mother Irène is a plastic surgery queen who takes up with younger men á la Zsa Zsa Gabor, a behavior that disgusts Michèle, though one wonders why when she's doing the same thing minus the surgery. She is divorced, estranged from her son, Vincent, flirts with younger work colleagues, and sleeps around like a nymphomaniac. She even has office sex with the paramour of her best friend and business partner. Her justification? "I just wanted to get laid."

Michèle's job also arouses suspicion. She and her friend Anna (Anne Consigny) are the founders and creative heads of a video game company currently at work on a sex-, rape-, violence-, and gore-filled version of Lovecraft's Cthulhu. Ratchet the drama when a masked man in black forces his way into Michèle's apartment in broad daylight, throws her to the floor, bloodies her face, and rapes her. Does she report it? No; in fact, it's days later before she tells her colleagues what happened, an event she casually dismisses as unworthy of pursuing further. Besides, she doesn't trust cops. She doesn't even go to the cops when her company's server is hacked and Cthulhu's female victim—and why is it always a female victim?—has Michèle's face?  

Is the above distressing enough for you? Wait, there's more. SPOILER ALERT:  Michèle seeks to find out the rapist's identity so she can understand his dark motives. When she finds out, does she go to the police? Nope. She has beat-down sex with him a few more times. Guess she just wanted to get laid.

OK—I get the idea that both the attacker and Michèle are damaged goods prone to living on the dark side. I get also that both try move beyond those impulses by wearing disinterested masks. I guess Verhoeven wants to make the point that Michèle's attacker is the logical extension of the fantasies she sells. Or do both she and her rapist suffer from a toxic mix of Piaget-level anxiety, anomie, and existential angst?  Maybe Verhoeven is just a creep? He has, after all, given us peep show dreck such as Diary of a Hooker, Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel, Showgirls and Basic Instinct (Tag Line: You'll believe Sharon Stone has a vagina!)  

I am at a loss to understand why Elle captivated critics. It is, as I said upfront, a misogynistic film—one glommed onto some very silly and unnecessary side stories—Iréne's antics, scenes with Vincent's total Gorgon of a girlfriend, obvious red herrings—to get us to a finale that raises the ghoul bar another notch. Yes, Huppert is excellent. Has she ever been bad? But one wonders why this film needed to be made. Maybe there are self-loathing people like Michèle running around. If you know any, for God's sake make sure they get therapy.

Rob Weir