Demolishing the right's "Founding Myth": America was never a "Christian nation"

Author Andrew Seidel on America and the Bible: A country built on rebellion and a book built on obedience

Published May 18, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

George Washington; Thomas Jefferson (Getty/Salon)
George Washington; Thomas Jefferson (Getty/Salon)

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As I reported last year, nothing did more to elect Donald Trump than the belief in America as a “Christian nation.” By that measure, nothing could be more timely than a book that takes that myth head on and fundamentally destroys it. Such a book has just been published: “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American” by Andrew L. Seidel, a constitutional attorney who works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Seidel is far from the first author to address the historical myths and confusions of political philosophy that sustain Christian nationalism. But no one has written a book quite like this before, because of its sweep, its depth, its viewpoint and its tone. "The Founding Myth" goes far beyond debunking the false history that Christian nationalists advance to a detailed examination of how biblical principles are fundamentally at odds with our constitutional order. The rare exceptions at the time of our founding — biblical support for slavery and the subjugation of women — do not reflect how we view the Constitution today.

In addition, the fact that the Constitution has evolved, and was designed to do so, points to another sharp contrast with the unchanging edicts of the Bible, many of which simply go ignored today in order to preserve the mythic appeal. Seidel also examines how linguistic trappings — “In God We Trust” on our currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. — do not reflect deep principles of national political philosophy, but rather episodes of national weakness and political opportunism that cloud and obscure our true heritage.

To explore the book more fully, Salon interviewed Seidel by phone. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

As you pointed out the beginning of your book, Christian nationalism was the strongest indicator support for Donald Trump in 2016, but a lot of people still don't understand what that term means. So to start off, what is Christian nationalism, and what is the nature of your argument against it?

Christian nationalism is basically the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, built on Judeo-Christian principles, but somehow we have sort of strayed away from this religious founding, and that we need to get back to it. It's not an idea that is based on facts or history or reality. It is revisionist, and it is, I think, one of the greatest threats our country faces right now.

Your book is divided into four parts. The first concerns the founding era itself, and you first take up George Washington, who was very private and circumspect with respect to religion, and never took communion. But a very contrary image of his has been popularized, most notably around the myth of his prayer at Valley Forge. What should people know about the reality of Washington and how that contrary image came to be so widely believed?

The Valley Forge prayer didn't happen — we're pretty certain about that.  We know where that story originated. It originated from a religious writer, a guy named Mason Weems, who really set out to sell books. He wasn't trying to tell historical truths or record history as it happened. He wanted to sell books and didn’t care about the truth. He's the same writer who gave us the myth about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and ironically not being able to tell a lie about it. That was also fabrication.

So we know that the source is suspect. We also know that it didn't show up until pretty late in the publication of his book. The book had gone through more than 20 editions before that story was added to it. So there's really no evidence that it happened at all. But, by portraying Washington as this pious figure, modern politicians are able to imitate him in a very easy way. So instead of doing the hard things that Washington did — being quiet and reticent about your power, about your personal religion — all they have to do to be like the father of our country, is get down and act pious, get on one knee and pray. It brings the father of our country down to this imitable level, instead of the inimitable man he was. I think that's one of the reasons you see this deliberate attempt to repaint him as this pious man.

More broadly, you address the distinction between individual religious views — which varied among the founders — and what went into America’s founding documents, including but not limited to the Constitution. You discuss how religion and morality were not seen as synonymous by the founders. Could you give the illustration of each of these points and explain why they’re so important?

First, going to the religion of the founders, the central point I try to make in this book is that this is a fascinating debate — and there have been tons of books written on what exactly the founders believed — but really it is not central or even relevant to the debate that the Christian nationalists want to have, the argument they are trying to make.

What’s far more relevant is whether or not the founders chose to separate state and church — which we know they did, and almost all of them agreed on that point. Even if the Christian nationalists could prove that all the founders were Jesus-rose-from-the-dead, Bible-beating Christians, the way many evangelicals are today, even if they could prove that, that doesn't get them anywhere. They still have to show that those beliefs influenced the founding of this country and what I'm trying to show in the book is that they absolutely did not.

Religious beliefs don't claim ownership of any of the ideas that your mind generates. One of the examples I used in the book was vaccines and blue jeans. They were developed by Jewish individuals, but we don't call them Jewish blue jeans. It wouldn't make any sense. The same thing holds for the idea that we're a Christian nation. Even if you could prove that the founders were Christian, it wouldn’t make any sense to call ourselves a Christian nation. So that's the first one.

The second one is really important because the fallback to that is, "Well they wouldn't have been these moral individuals if they weren’t believers. And they knew that religion and morality were important for a democratic republic." That second part is true. They did think that religion and morality were important for a democratic republic, but they thought of those as two very separate things.

For these educated upper-class men, who have the time and energy and education — and libraries, for that matter — to think about moral questions, and investigate moral questions, they didn’t need religion. But for most of the people who didn't have the time, didn't have the education, didn't have the libraries, they needed simple rules that they could apply to their own everyday life, which shook out for the founders as religion being important. So actually, if the Christian nationalists are right, that argument cuts against their position. Because it shows that the founders didn't need religion to be moral, meaning they were not likely religious, meaning they didn't use those religious principles to found our country.

The Constitution is starkly godless. Its only religious references are to prevent intermixing church and state. So Christian nationalists hang a lot on a few scattered phrases in the Declaration of Independence. What's wrong with doing that?

A couple of things. First, they have to prove that the Declaration is one of the founding documents, and broadly that term is probably acceptable. But it was fundamentally a document of destruction, it destroyed the political bonds — "dissolved," in the words of the Declaration — which connected us with Great Britain.

Now,, in it, Jefferson did lay out the sort of political philosophy that informed the United States, but that was the idea that the power comes from the people, not from God.

If you look at the language of the Declaration, if you focus on those four supernatural references, you're missing the forest for the trees. Because it begins, and the whole document really centers on, humanity and what is happening in this world, not in some future or some supernatural framing. It begins “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with another.” I mean, it's "human events," "one people," "another people." It is very, very focused on the here and the now.

Even if you buy into the Christian nationalists’ argument, none of those references, not a single one, is Christian. They could have said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by Jesus with certain inalienable rights.” But they deliberately chose not to do that. They choose to use the phrase "their creator," instead. And none of those phrases — with the exception of "creator" — show up in any of the bibles from that time anyway.

You also brought out the stark distinction between American colonial history, typically focused disproportionately on New England, and the founding of America as an independent nation. What are the most important things that people get wrong and blurring them together?

Great question. By focusing on New England, you're obviously leaving out a whole lot of the country. I think the No. 1 thing that people get wrong about our colonial era is that people fled here — especially the Puritans and the Pilgrims — that they came to the New World for religious freedom. That is not true. They fled religious persecution, that's true. But that is not the same thing as coming for religious freedom. When they got here, they established some of the most repressive theocratic regimes that this continent ever saw. When the founders looked back on that history, they looked at those governments as an example of how not to build a nation or state.

The second part of your book is "The United States versus the Bible." One chapter is titled "Biblical Obedience or American Freedom." Could you talk about this opposition in attitudes and philosophy?

Sure. This also plays a lot into the Declaration of Independence itself, which was this document which was rebelling against this king, who was the defender of the faith. Even though the divine right of kings was gone by that time, he certainly believed himself to be instilled in that position by God.

The Bible demands obedience. The Bible is very, very clear on this point, many times over. The Judeo-Christian God demands obedience. And not just to himself, but also to the rulers that are on earth. Romans 13 is all about obedience to the earthly rulers. So here you have a country that was built on rebellion, versus a book that is all about obedience, and the two are in fundamental conflict. That's an important point that I try to make throughout the whole book. If you really pay attention to Judeo-Christian principles, and what those principles are — throughout the Bible, throughout the Ten Commandments — and look at the principles America holds dear and was founded on, the two are really diametrically opposed to each other. They’re in fundamental conflict. It does make it fair to say that these principles are un-American.

That leads to one striking quote from that part of the book, “America's justice system demands proof of guilt to avoid punishing innocence, the Judeo-Christian god intentionally harms innocents to punish the guilty.” Could you elaborate on that because that's a very striking comment that I think might strike some people as weird or unfathomable.

Yes, I think so, and that's partly because we — many Americans — have rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Bible. But you don't have to go farther than the Ten Commandments, for instance. In the Ten Commandments, God says, in Exodus 20, "For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children to the third and fourth generation of those who denied me." So you have God in the Ten Commandments themselves, which are supposed to be the most moral laws known to man, promising to punish not just innocent children and grandchildren, but great- and great-great-grandchildren for the sins of their parents.

That is just something our justice system would never, never countenance, absolutely not. It is un-American to punish children for the crimes of their parents. In fact, it says something along those lines in the Constitution in talking about treason. It says that "no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood," which specifically means that somebody found guilty of treason, their children will not be punished for that. So we have a fundamental conflict again between the biblical God promising to punish innocent children and the Constitution prohibiting it.

In answering that you anticipated my next question. The third part of your book is entitled "The Ten Commandments versus the Constitution," and in that you argue that each of those Ten Commandments is actually opposed to principles of the Constitution. So could you just pick one of them and explain the core of your argument about it, so that people can understand the kind of arguments you're making in this section?

Let's just take the first one, “I am the Lord your God,” which also goes on to say, “you shall have no other gods before me.” You’ve read it, so you know that what exactly the Ten Commandments are is not clear from the Bible, not clear in a particular religion, but let's just take the First Commandment. It's easy, that statement is fundamentally opposed to one of America's founding values, religious liberty. It is in perfect conflict with the First Amendment, which guarantees everyone religious liberty — you can worship no god or as many gods as you want, and it does not have to be the god of the Bible. You could not write a rule that conflicted more perfectly with America's founding value of religious liberty than the First Commandment.

You point out that when people do monuments of the Ten Commandments they leave out parts, like where slavery is endorsed. Can you say something about that?

Yes. If you go and see any of the monuments of the Ten Commandments that remain on public land, almost all of them are heavily edited, which itself tells us something, I think, very critical and important. If these rules really did influence the United States and our founding, and if these rules really were moral law, we wouldn’t need to amend them, to leave out the barbaric and awful parts, such as punishing innocent children or slavery, which is recognized twice in the Ten Commandments, or treating women as chattel. The Ten Commandments would appear on these monuments as they appear in the Bible, but they don't, because they don't reflect American values and principles.

You just mentioned two things that stood out that I wanted to ask about, which are biblical values that actually did influence our founding that we've now rejected, meaning slavery and the subjugation of women. So could you talk about that, the fact that one way in which you could say the Bible influenced our founding is something that we've now rejected.

I think that is true. I think it is fair to say — and I do concede this influence in the book — that Judeo-Christianity, especially the Bible, influenced how this nation dealt with slavery, and how it dealt with women, both at the founding and throughout a good chunk of our history. And it doesn't reflect well. These were bad values that any nation needed to shake off and get away from. But it’s certainly true that if you would like to believe that up to the Civil War, all the arguments for slavery were biblical — and it's also true that there were some abolitionists who are highly religious and tried to use the Bible to argue for abolition — but anybody who has read the Bible can tell you that the slaveholder has a better side of the theological argument. The Bible when it comes to slavery is very, very clear that's perfectly fine. It's much harder to argue against slavery using the Bible.

And that's just one example. We saw during the segregation era, too, where all these Southern segregationists were turning to the Bible and using it to justify segregation. And of course, the treatment of women in the Bible is abhorrent. I don't know that there's another word for it, they are treated like property in the Ten Commandments and throughout the Bible. Many of the women who would be central characters don't even have names in the Bible, which just reflects how they were viewed by the writers of the time. That idea did work its way into a lot of American law and government for a long time, unfortunately. Thankfully we've gotten away from that in recent years.

So I think it's fair to say that not only was America not founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it's a good thing it was not. And those few principles that did influence the founding and did infiltrate our government and laws, we have worked diligently to get away from for decades and centuries.

Finally, in the fourth section of your book on American verbiage, you deal with public slogans — "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God," "God Bless America" — which had nothing do with America's founding, but are rhetorical favorites for Christian nationalists. The common theme, as you describe, seems to be that they emerged and gained a foothold in times of national fear and weakness. Most striking to me was how "In God We Trust" emerged during the Civil War, even as the South wrote their constitution, modeled on the U.S. Constitution, they very consciously added God and made it a central argument that they were protecting the Constitution. What should we learn from that history?

That was one of the more fascinating things I learned: There have been pushes throughout U.S. history to put God into the U.S. Constitution. It is a deliberately godless document and at the time that it was drafted there was pushback against it because it was deliberately godless. People said, "Hey, you left God out. We gotta put him back in." And there been pushes throughout our history, including even before the Civil War, to amend it to improve this religious language, and actually there was another massive attempt to do that during the 1950s, when "In God We Trust" is added to paper money, when the National Day of Prayer was passed.

But it is pretty striking how the South, which rebelled against this nation so that it could continue to enslave people, did so with God’s sanction, the sanction of the Bible, and incorporated that in their governing documents. And they did so deliberately, they believed they were fighting for God: Deo vindice was their motto, "God the vindicator" or "God the defender." So they thought they were doing God's work, and the Bible really backed them up on that.

There's so much in this book. I've only asked a small fraction of the questions I wanted to ask. So I’ll  finish with a question I always like to ask: What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

There are other books out there about this history, and about the idea that we’re a Christian nation. I guess the question would be, what makes my book different? I think the answer is there are two big differences. First, as soon as you debunk the Christian nation myth — I think a lot of Americans understand we're not a Christian nation — but as soon as that myth is abandoned, it's abandoned in favor of this subtler argument that, well, our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. So my book actually focuses on that second myth, because it pervades all the other Christian nationalist arguments. If America was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles, or if those principles are fundamentally opposed to the values that America was founded on, then everything that the Christian nationalists believe, including their core political identity, falls. So that's the first difference.

The second difference is one of approach. Other books sort of offer these gentle corrections to the Christian nationalists: Here's what history tells us, you guys are actually wrong on the history, you may not know this, this is what the founders really said, this is what the founders really believed, and kind of left it at that. But correction is not enough. Otherwise you wouldn't have President Donald Trump, who rode a wave of Christian nationalism into office in 2016.

So this book really is an assault on the Christian nationalists' identity. Not only are Christian nationalists wrong, but their policies and their identity run counter to the ideals on which this nation was founded. Christian nationalists are un-American. And that's a fight we need to be having. We can show true facts and true history and use it to refute their fake news all day long, but at its core, this is a fight about what it is to be an American.

Right now their lies are driving public policy, they’re driving education, immigration, civil rights, women's rights, minority rights, LGBTQ rights, our foreign policy. Judges now are deciding cases on the basis of these lies and myths. So it’s not just culture war issues. Put simply, these lies are destroying our country and they’re gnawing away at our liberty. We, the people, have a duty to stand up to these lies, and to the bullies pushing them.

So I'm way up on my soapbox now. I’ll get down now and end with this: Patriotism has no religion. I think I say that in the introductory chapter of my book. Christian nationalists are seeking to change that. This fight, at its core, is about what it is to be an American and it's a fight that we cannot afford to lose.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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