The (Futile?) Search for Christian America

Here’s a book that deserves to be brought back into our discussions and onto our reading lists: The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.  It was first published in 1983 and then expanded in 1989.  But the message is completely relevant for Christians today.

Here are some questions the book tackles: How “Christian” is America’s religious past?  Is the “Christian Nation” concept harmful or helpful to effective Christian action in society?  Was/is America God’s treasured nation among all nations?  Should we try to “go back” to “Christian America?”  What relationship does idolatry have with patriotism, if any?   How is the First Great Awakening related to the American Revolution?

If those questions didn’t grab your attention, here’s the two-fold argument of the book (in the authors’ own terms):

“1) We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.  There is no lost golden age to which American Christians can return.  In addition, a careful study of history will also show that evangelicals themselves were often partly to blame for the spread of secularism in contemporary American life.”

“2) We feel also that careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture shows that the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (p. 17).

I’ll come back to this book later.  For now, let me simply say that I highly recommend it.  Though it flies in the face of many American evangelical beliefs, I believe it is a must-read for Christians living the U.S.  The Search for Christian America will help the today’s church remain distinct from the world and able to engage culture in a wise, biblical, and prophetic way.

FYI, at the time of this post there are quite a few used copies on Amazon for less than $10 shipped.  It’s certainly worth that!  And my thanks go out to one of our readers for mentioning this book last week.  I trust he’ll back up my recommendation!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

7 Replies to “The (Futile?) Search for Christian America”

  1. I will indeed back up your recommendation! The book really is an excellent critique of a great deal of questionable scholarship and evangelical hagiography. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is that all of the authors are credible, Christian historians (if there really was a “Christian America” out there, these would be the guys to find it).

    Anyway, glad you appreciated the inadvertent recommendation! :)


    1. Thanks for not leaving me hanging, Nevada! You’re exactly right; the scholarship of this book is top-notch and trustworthy. Which reminds me, I should order a copy for our little church library. Thanks again!


  2. CONGRESS in 1854: “The great, vital, and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and the divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” ((Journal of the House of the Representatives of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Cornelius Wendell, 1855), 34th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 354, January 23, 1856).

    JOHN ADAMS = “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIII, p. 292-294. In a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.)

    Alexis de Tocqueville: “…there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”

    Also, William Wilberforce’s “Christianity and Politics” (published by the Witherspoon Institute – they sell the pamphlet for $5 from their online store) is a great read about why Christian principles furthered through politics serve and bless the nation in which they are implemented, regardless of whether anyone converts to Christianity.

    I’m not really sure what your point is. America is not “the” nation of God, obviously, but scoffing at America being a Christian nation is really not helping. The founding of America was exceptionally spiritual, achieved by much prayer and miracles. Early America was led by Christian men. American “Exceptionalism” (which was real and is not arrogant to acknowledge) was because of Christian principles playing out in culture. More than ever, we need the Godly to be in places of power and influence, both politically and culturally, and boldly speaking out and acting out to change culture (in love and humility). This does not mean converting every American to Christianity, but it does mean implementing (and acknowledging) Christian principles for the good of all, and acknowledging the Christian heritage and principles that underpin American values. This can be done in a “secular way” – there are really strong “rational” arguments for Christina principles be refuting relativism and appealing to both natural law arguments and consequences arguments.
    Maybe if you clarify your point I would agree with you. It just seems like you’re arguing that America was never a “Christian” nation, which I deeply disagree with. Obviously, there has never been a utopian America, but it’s definitely realistic to acknowledge that there was (and could be) a nation with laws and cultural constructs shaped by Christian principles that blesses the world because it is in line with what is true (in, of course, an imperfect way).


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