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Rant: This “America is a Christian Nation” thesis is a load of crap, and potentially more dangerous than Birthers or Truthers

How Christian were the Founders? (nytimes, and they’re way more generous than I’m going to be; h/t LGF)

I don’t want to spend too much time on this topic – the arguments for the Christianity of America as a whole depend on a lot of dishonesty and cherry-picking. I realize for those of you sympathetic to the “argument” (it isn’t really an argument. It’s really the assumption “I’m religious and I read religion into everything, doesn’t everyone work that way?”) the case is “obvious” or “common sense:” Once upon a time, most people were more Christian (truish), and they mentioned “God” a lot in documents that are relevant to the Founding (true to a degree). Doesn’t that mean America is a Christian nation? (no) Doesn’t it mean we have a prophetic destiny? (oh hell no. You have to be pretty out there as a believer to hold that).

That’s the case in a nutshell – to get more specific, what I know a lot of homeschoolers and fundamentalists do is ignore and marginalize the entirety of the Enlightenment. I know this because I’ve seen this happen among some in graduate school, no joke. So in other words, what’s happening when the Texas School Board pushes something specific like the study of the Mayflower Compact is that they’re trying to push the Pilgrims (and their faith) as founders as opposed to the Declaration, which explicitly appeals to “nature’s God.” That God is anything but the Judeo-Christian God; the Constitution does not mention the word “God;” the settled law that founds the United States of America is secular. Period, end of conversation: there are no prophetic or apocalyptic fantasies to be legitimately had.

Now some of you know the picture is a bit more complicated than that, but it’s not so much more complicated that America becomes the most Christian place ever under reexamination. Rather, it’s like Jefferson’s First Inaugural: this place exists to avoid the religious warfare that defined Europe for centuries. When people bring up Enlightenment and democracy arising or finding sustenance because of a religious context, ala Tocqueville, that’s again a very complex set of claims about how what constitutes piety involves passions that are key to self-government. It does not become a basis for saying that Cleon Skousen is correct, or, as one Reverend Peter Marshall says:

“The Founding Fathers’ biblical worldview taught them that human beings were by nature self-centered, so they believed that the supernatural influence of the Spirit of God was needed to free us from ourselves so that we can care for our neighbors.”

That’s such an egregious misreading of the historical record that anyone who seriously thinks this should not only enroll in classes, but get their head examined. You’ll note that Marshall is one of those working on revising Texas’ curriculum in an official capacity. If anything, the reading of man as “self-centered” comes from a very secular worldview; one can trace back the principal logic behind Constitutionalism from Locke (“life, liberty, property”), who was preached by pastors during the revolution (yes, recognizing the difference between what is “atheist” and “theist” is not easy in a world where you’ll get your head cut off if you write “I hate God”) to Hobbes (where an emphasis on security came from) to Machiavelli (who said that Christianity wouldn’t last as long as the world would). You can argue against the very brief summation I just made (usually, the argument is that Locke isn’t that secular), but you’re not going to get as far as “America is Christian.”

It is true some Founders were Christian. It is true they were vocal. I’m not saying that secularism today doesn’t go too far in marginalizing the proper place of religion in the study of history or politics. But the contemporary study of history and politics in the academy, for all its faults, is absolutely more sound and thorough than this nonsense being spouted by cranks. Keep in mind that the purposes behind the rewriting of history are not evangelization so we all love each other or tolerate each other. The purposes that the “Christians” advancing this stuff are working toward are apocalyptic in many cases. The nytimes article does not get into this, but any of you who know fundamentalists know that this is not far off the table. You can see shades of the rhetoric here:

After the book came out, Dunbar was derided in blogs and newspapers for a section in which she writes of “the inappropriateness of a state-created, taxpayer-supported school system” and likens sending children to public school to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.”

Richard Brookhiser’s statement in the article is a much better starting point for education and scholarship:

“The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

That’s a good enough place as any to end this rant. The burden of proof is not on me, nor on any of us who work on the history of political thought or philosophy full time. The task ahead is for right-wing Christian fundamentalists who are engaged in rewriting history for their own purposes to show some humility and stop demonstrating that a strict wall of separation might actually be a really good idea.

8 Comments

  1. Religion is a common and useful way to maintain tradition and the structure of the dominance hierarchy. But this is the goal and nature of conservatism itself, so you shouldn’t be whining.

    If you don’t like the religious litmus tests and historical revision, don’t associate with the party that has Creationist hicks as a base.

  2. Every time I have one of these “I have problems with conservatives” threads, really nasty liberals emerge. I always let them talk, because they only embarrass one person, and it isn’t me.

  3. As President, on October 3, 1789, George Washington made the following proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America:

    “ Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
    Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
    And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
    Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

  4. Thanks for that! I find that argument tiresome too.

  5. @ Christine: Thank you for reading! I’ve been ranty lately and I wanna offer something positive and uplifting and instead this comes out. I think I have to get away from the news.

  6. Norton Mansfield

    February 17, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    re:rant-this-america-is-a-christian-nation-thesis-is-a-load-of-crap-and-potentially-more-dangerous-than-birthers-or-truthers/

    The site below had numbers on it. I didn’t see any numbers in your post.

    http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/

    Upon what data are you basing your comments?

  7. Based on the data in the link provided by Norton, 75% of adult American’s self-describe themselves as Christian. I beleive they call that an over-whelming majority.

    I expected a couple of comments on G. Washington’s proclamation. What do people think he was referring to when he said – “To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue….”? How much clearer could he have been?

  8. I think it does not matter what is your religion as long as you believe in God. There are other people who say that they’re Christian but they act otherwise.

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