In 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago. I was initially surprised by the invitation. I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject. I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States.
I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation about my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot. After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to. He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trend in their African American and interracial congregations. Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals. The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinnati that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.
McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.” Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism? If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans. And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.