Why do Americans Know So Little about the Religious History of the United States?

May 22, 2015
Why do Americans Know So Little about the Religious History of the United States?

Catherine A. Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, Harvard Divinity School

A surprising story about the Constitutional Convention is often included in Christian books about the founding of the nation. The story is so popular—and so controversial—that a Google search of the words “Benjamin Franklin, prayer, and Constitutional Convention” gets 294,000 results.

This particular version of the story comes from David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders and a Christian political activist, but versions of it can be found in many books and on Christian websites. In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked as small states and large states bickered over states rights. Some delegates had left in disgust, but in the midst of this chaos, Benjamin Franklin, 81 years old, implored the Convention to turn to prayer. Addressing George Washington, he said, “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” At the end of his speech, he recommended that the Convention should pray together every morning before turning to business.

According to David Barton, the result of Franklin’s motion was that “in only ten weeks [the delegates] produced the document that has become the longest on-going constitution in the history of the world.” In other words, “the independence of America and the creation of its unique Constitution and government” were “direct answers to prayer.”[1] Barton argues that the Constitution should be understood as the product of divine inspiration. Like the Bible, the Constitution is God’s word, and the United States is not just one of many nations, but God’s favored nation. Most important, the United States is a Christian nation.

Parts of Barton’s story are true. Though Benjamin Franklin was famous for his unorthodox religious views, he did indeed make a speech at the Constitutional Convention suggesting daily prayer. But according to historical records, his motion was tabled. Franklin’s handwritten copy of his speech says, "The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayer unnecessary."[2] More to the point, the Founders mentioned God only once in the Constitution, when they dated it “anno domini 1787.”

Barton’s version of prayer at the Constitutional Convention is emblematic of the kinds of misrepresentations that appear in popular Christian books about American history. For example, Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s bestselling book The Light and the Glory, first published in 1977, argues that America was founded as a Christian nation with a divine destiny. “Does God have a plan for America?” the cover asks. The answer is a resounding “yes.” The Light and the Glory is commonly used as a homeschooling textbook, and it has sold more than a million copies.

These books misrepresent America’s religious history, but unfortunately, many of the mainstream textbooks used in American classrooms today suffer from the reverse problem: they rarely mention religion at all, as if religion has played little role in the nation’s history. Jon Butler, an emeritus historian at Yale, has described the treatment of religion in American history textbooks as “jack in the box history”: religion is absent in most of these books until it unexpectedly “pops up” in discussions of events like the Scopes Trial.[3] One popular online textbook, which counts major historians like Carol Berkin, Ira Berlin, and Gordon Wood as its editors, does not mention religion at all in its discussion of the abolitionist movement—this despite the fact that the majority of antislavery activists claimed to be motivated by Christian faith. Nor does the book mention the influence of religion in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.. The book names him as “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr., with no mention that he was also a minister.[4]

Given these misrepresentations by both Christian activists and professional historians, we must make a greater effort to educate the American public about the nation’s religious history. When popular Christian authors present America as a Christian nation, they not only erase the religious pluralism of the past, but whether intentionally or not, they also help to justify discrimination against religious minorities. Nineteenth-century Americans used the argument that America was a “Christian nation” to discriminate against Catholics, who they denied were Christian, and today many Americans use similar language to argue that Muslims, by virtue of their faith, cannot be true Americans. Activists like David Barton are determined to rewrite American history to show that Christians, as the heirs of the supposedly Christian Founders, should have the most power in American politics, education, and the law.

Barton’s popularity reflects the priorities of the Christian Right, but it also reflects the hunger of ordinary Americans to know more about America’s religious past. The people buying Barton’s books seem eager to learn, but they have few places to turn for information, and they are skeptical—justifiably—of the treatment of religion in mainstream American history textbooks.

Especially at this juncture in our history, when we are struggling to determine what the place of religion should be in civic life, we need balanced, accessible histories of religion in America that are aimed at public audiences. The history of American religion is morally ambiguous, filled with moments of both tragedy and inspiration, and it does not offer any simple advice about the role that religion should play in our culture today. But if we can find ways to teach Americans about the nation’s complex religious history, we will not only come to a deeper understanding of who we have been in the past, but who we want to become in the future.

[2] John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

[3] Jon Butler, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1357-1378.

[4] ushistory.org, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” U.S. History Online Textbook, accessed May 26, 2015.

Image Source:

Benjamin Franklin, by Franklin Duplessis (1785), Wikimedia Commons.