Is America a Christian nation? The answer to that question will no doubt raise ire in some part of the room. People, speaking mostly without data, will assert yes or no, generally based on opinion and sensibility. It is refreshing, then, to read what an historian uncovers by asking the right questions. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People is a book that asks the right questions. On the surface, yes, colonial America was settled by disgruntled Christians from various religious conflicts in Europe. Actions, however, are notoriously louder than words. Butler examines church attendance patterns and affiliations among these early (and later) settlers and finds that they weren’t nearly so Christian as one might think, listening to the rhetoric. Indeed, for people struggling to survive in a new land, religion might well have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. Throughout the book surprising changes of perspective appear. When clear thinking is railroaded by political agendas the issues often become clouded.
A good example of this is Butler’s exploration of the survival of magic and occult traditions. It is not unusual to hear, anecdotally, that the Enlightenment did away with superstitious thinking. In fact, the data point elsewhere. Not only did Americans bring magic and occult practices with them from overseas, they actually continued to develop them in the New World. At times these beliefs substituted for congregational religion. At others, they subsisted alongside it. There was a “sea of faith” here, but it wasn’t always very orthodox. It wasn’t until fairly late in the history of the country that church attendance could be considered the norm. At the same time, many read back into history that “we’ve always been like this.” Not so.
The “myth of the American Christian past” was born out of wishful, and one suspects, political thinking. The country’s founding by Deists led to a fear of Deism—a fairly new phenomenon that descended from that self-same Enlightenment. Still, America could give birth to Spiritualism and a host of new religions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the United States as fertile soil for religions rather than a Christian country. Certainly, by the numbers, Christians have been in the majority since statistics were kept, but, if the anachronism may be pardoned, the “nones” are not a new phenomenon. They were previously just those to be converted. Through much of history, we’ve been a people who didn’t think too much or too deeply about religion. Only when the issue really became politicized did the past become distorted. We have Dr. Butler to thank for providing a clear view into what history actually reveals.