(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Ben Carson's theocratic lie: The pernicious myth of America the "Christian nation"

The surging presidential candidate revives a destructive, ahistorical trope about America's founding


Sean Illing
September 10, 2015 7:00PM (UTC)

One of the more enduring tropes on the religious right is this notion that America is a Christian nation, or at the very least a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. This has become central to conservative mythology in this country. Despite having no basis in fact or history, this trope simply won’t die. One hears it from virtually every Republican politician, and it’s always accepted uncritically by conservative commentators and audiences.

This week, Republican candidate for president Ben Carson repeated this lie on Fox News, and he did it in typical nonchalant fashion, as though it were a truism. Near the end of a rambling interview about traditional marriage and religious liberty, Carson said: “This is a Judeo-Christian nation, in the sense that a lot of our values are based on a Judeo-Christian faith.”

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This statement isn’t even remotely true, but it reflects a widespread ignorance about American history. America is populated overwhelmingly by Christians, but this isn’t a Christian nation in any meaningful sense – and it never was. This inconvenient distinction is often lost on conservatives, and it’s why they’re under the impression that the government ought to respect their religious morality over and above all others (i.e., Kim Davis).

There are two ways to argue that America is a Christian nation. One is to claim that our laws and Constitution are grounded in Christian values. The other is to say that the Founders of the country were Christians and that they conceived the government on the basis of those beliefs. Both of these arguments are patently false.

First, the Constitution (which is sacrosanct in conservative circles) makes no mention of God or Christianity or even Christ. Indeed, when it does mention religion, it’s to prohibit the state from establishing one over the other. Of course, Christians eagerly point to the Declaration of Independence, especially the part that reads “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” But that statement in no way justifies the view that American is a Christian nation.

To begin with, that line was authored by Benjamin Franklin, who was a deist, not a conventional Christian. More important, the use of the word “Creator” is intentionally vague; it certainly does not specify Christianity. And that’s because the Founders were intent on building a wall of separation between church and state. If Franklin (or any other Founder) wanted to refer to Christianity or Christ in that document, he would have.

As for the Founders themselves, many of them were deists, not Christians – and certainly not Christians in the sense that Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal is. John Adams, for instance, the principal author of the Massachusetts constitution and our second president, signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of the Independence and our third president, wrote in the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom (the precursor to the First Amendment) “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” There’s nothing unclear about the Founders’ intentions, in other words. America’s political roots are decidedly secular – only fundamentalists are confused about that.

The irony of all this is that the Founders (most of them, at least) are precisely the kind of people modern conservatives abhor. They were elitist European-style intellectuals who were inspired by the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. They looked to history and Western philosophy for guidance, not to the Bible. And they wanted to create a government based on classical republican principles above all else – no objective or disinterested analysis of our founding documents suggests otherwise.

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Conservatives can (and almost certainly will) ignore this, but that doesn’t change the fact that America is and was intended to be a secular republic, not a Christian theocracy. If the myth of America as a Christian nation endures among conservatives, it’s because people like Ben Carson repeat it endlessly without evidence and for political purposes. It’s true that, culturally speaking, there were periods of American history that were dominated by Christianity (e.g., the post-Civil War era). It’s also true, as I wrote several months ago, that Christianity became deeply politicized in the 1940s, thanks in large part to the influence of industrialists on the political process. But if you return to the founding documents of this country, there is no question that revisionists like Carson are wrong about this.

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Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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