Is America a Christian or Secular Nation?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20:  Christian evangelist Mary Clement of Silver Spring, Maryland, sings and reads from her Bible as
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Christian evangelist Mary Clement of Silver Spring, Maryland, sings and reads from her Bible as she walks along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House as U.S. President Barack Obama takes the Oath of Office inside January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. One day before the public inaugural ceremony at the U.S. Captiol, Obama was officially sworn in for his second term during a private ceremony surrounded by friends and family in the Blue Room of the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It never fails. It happens every time I am lecturing or doing a radio interview about American secularism and the exceedingly complex question of whether our Constitution defines our nation as secular. Like clockwork, somebody calls in and asks me about the Treaty of Tripoli.

My guest, John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College notes that he, too, is always queried about this obscure 1796 document, Article 11 of which stipulates, "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion..." Which is interesting because he often engages the exceedingly complex question of whether our Constitution defines our nation as Christian.

If you want to know what the Treaty of Tripoli is and why we should be so cautious when interpreting those cryptic 16 words of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, then listen to Professor Fea's rich and detailed reflections on our foundational documents.

Along the way, all sorts of intriguing happenings occur. Professor Fea chuckles at my inveterate Yankee-ness for not understanding the significance that the Constitution of the Confederate States of America still maintains in the South. For my part, I heard myself saying that I wanted to destigmatize the word "secularism," if only so that scholars who have no animus toward it could one day re-stigmatize it.

We watch a video clip from Senator John F. Kennedy's 1960 address in which he thundered, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." We juxtapose it with President Obama's

We come to no definite conclusion as to what kind of nation this is. Suffice it to say that the question is illuminated by the scholarship of thoughtful authors like Professor Fea.