A Christian Nation?

One of the key ingredients in the ideology of the Christian Right is the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. And somehow this intention of the Founding Fathers has been thwarted by (pick one) — liberals, judicial tyrants, the ACLU, secular humanists, all of the above.

This idea is tremendously powerful. It asserts that “the Christians,” (however one may define Christians), are the intended rulers of the nation, because that’s what The Founding Fathers, and by extension, by implication, the Constitution sought to accomplish. In some versions, God intended that America be a Christian nation. It’s a powerful piece of political and religious mythology that feeds into another powerful myth — that Christians are persecuted in the U.S. The effect is to make people feel that something has been unjustly, unrighteously taken from them and that that something must be “restored” or “reclaimed.” It’s a powerful narrative and it flows quite naturally from the mouths of D. James Kennedy, David Barton, Roy Moore, Pat Robertson, and many more.  There is a large industry of text books, seminars, speech and power point presenters that inform and popularize the movement. Christian nationalism is integral to the political events sponsored by the Christian Coalition and it is a recurrent theme on Christian television and radio.

But for all of the work that has gone into crafting this narrative, and as popular a notion as it is, there is a problem: the facts of history do not support the myth of Christian nationalism.  This is one of many aspects of the Christian Right that has been largely ignored and has gone largely unanswered by the rest of society during its march to power.

To some, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation may seem academic, and perhaps even unimportant in the face of the urgent affairs of state in Washington, DC and elsewhere.   But it is very important and deserves our urgent attention. The reason is that Christian nationalism is a powerful ingredient of the political and religious identity of the theocratic Christian Right. It is a powerful, quasi-religious myth that helps to animate their politics.  It helps to prop up their attack on the separation of church and state and the idea that Christians, (only of the correct sort of course), should be our elected and appointed government officials — among other things.  What if many members of the voters who support the Christian Right realize that they have been had?  That history does not support Christian nationalism?  What if the rest of us, who support religious equality and separation of church and state are able to gain the upper hand in the telling of our story as a nation?  It is a story that can be told by all of us, in our lives, in our writings, in our communities, in our media.

There are many flaws in the argument for Christian nationalism, mostly because of lack of evidence. Advocates for Christian nationalism resort to two main tactics. One is to cherry pick quotes from the founding fathers (often out of context, sometimes fabricated), that tend to support their view. The other is to cite the Declaration of Independence, which invokes the “Creator.”  Much is made of the Declaration for this reason. Given the importance of the Declaration in our history, and the way we revere the document, it is a shrewd choice. But the Declaration does not prove what D. James Kennedy sought to use it to prove — that America was founded as a Christian nation.

The Declaration, written in 1776 was a revolutionary manifesto, a political document used to rally people to rise up in revolt against the king of England. But the Constitution makes no mention of God or of Christianity. In fact, the only mention of religion in the Constitution is to state in article 6 that there will be no religious tests for public office. What this meant was that one’s religious orientation would not be a factor in determining criteria for public officials. By logical extension, it also meant that religion would be irrelevant to one’s status as a citizen. It meant that for the first time in the history of the world, we would have a nation based on religious equality.

The Constitution was written and signed by many of the same men who wrote and signed the Declaration. If they had wanted to include God and Christianity in the nation’s charter, they certainly could have done so. But they didn’t, and for very good reasons. And this is the problem faced by the Christian nationalists. The Constitution and everything about its history and development belies the assertions of the Christian nationalists. They did not invoke God or declare a Christian nation.  It starts out simply, “We the People of the United States” — no deities, no higher law. There would only be what “we the people” decided would be our laws and our governing principles, and how they would evolve over time. And that’s why the Christian Right invokes the Declaration to anchor their argument. They have no choice — the Constitution does not support their argument.

The Christian Right of the 18th century opposed ratification of the Constitution when it was sent to the legislature for ratification. Part of the opposition centered on the lack of acknowledgement of God and Christianity in the Constitution.  The Christian Right of the 18th century didn’t like the Constitution when it was written — and they don’t like it now. So they try to pretend that it says something different than it actually does.

It is long past time for a more concerted effort to challenge the Christian Right on its misrepresentations of our history.  We do not need to start from scratch.  Mainstream Baptists are taking on Christian theocrat Rick Scarborough who heads the political organization, Vision America. “I think he’s a very dangerous man,” said [David] Currie, also a former pastor and a devout Baptist, in a recent interview. “That whole ‘Christian nation’ movement is attempting to undermine the absolute strength and genius of this country, and that’s the First Amendment…. To make judges a religious issue is ludicrous.”


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