One Nation, Not Under God
By Stephen RohdeDecember 29, 2019
The Founding Myth by Andrew L. Seidel
Andrew L. Seidel chooses Orwell’s observation as one of two epigrams (the other by James Madison) to introduce his brilliant, ambitious, well-researched, and compelling new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Calling the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation (or, since the Holocaust, a Judeo-Christian nation) a “fabrication” and “political invention,” Seidel goes further: he demonstrates that “Judeo-Christian principles, especially those central to the Christian nationalist identity, are thoroughly opposed to the principles on which the United States was built.” Christianity is “un-American.”
He calls his book “an assault” and a “defense” — a defense “of that quintessentially American invention, the ‘wall of separation between church and state.’” And he calls himself “a watcher on that wall.” Seidel, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which handles thousands of state/church complaints every year.
Seidel is also very clear about what he is not arguing. He readily acknowledges that our “government and laws are distinct from its society and culture.” He is not arguing “that religion is absent from our culture.” But his concessions stop there. He refuses to assume that “religion is a positive influence on the world.”
I am an atheist with reasoned, thoughtful objections to religion. I do not think religious beliefs should be immune from criticism, even when analyzed from a historical perspective. Religious beliefs are ideas like any other, though they are defended more fervently and can often seem immune to reasoned argument. This book will treat religion like any other idea: not with contempt but not with undue respect either. Christian nationalism has succeeded in part because of Americans’ ingrained unwillingness to offend religious sensibilities. But catering to these sensibilities limits our search for the truth, as does religion itself. There is strength in throwing off those self-imposed restraints.
Based on Michelle Goldberg’s 2006 book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and his own extensive research, Seidel characterizes Christian nationalists as “historical revisionists bent on ‘restoring’ America to the Judeo-Christian principles on which they wish it were founded.” They “believe that secular America is a myth, and under the guise of restoration they seek to press religion into every crevice of government.” For them, “America was designed to favor Christianity” because “America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, and promoting that belief is a religious duty.”
Eager to get to the chief purpose of his book, Seidel offers only a brief but chilling account of the recent success Christian nationalists have enjoyed. He reports that according to research conducted by Andrew I. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry, and Joseph O. Baker and published in a 2018 edition of Sociology of Religion, the “single most accurate predictor of whether a person voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was not religion, wealth, education, or even political party; it was believing the United States is and should be a Christian nation.” As Seidel sees it, “Trump rode a wave of Christian nationalism, fostered by fables and myths about America’s founding, to the most powerful office in the world.”
Seidel recounts that in February 2016, a loose coalition of conservative religious groups and Christian nationalists launched “Project Blitz” with the goal of elevating “traditional Judeo-Christian religious values” in order “to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.” As of April 2018, Project Blitz had resulted in more than 70 proposed bills nationwide recognizing “the place of Christian principles in our nation’s history and heritage”; mandating the display of “In God We Trust” in all public schools, libraries, buildings, and on license plates; requiring “public displays of religious history affecting the law”; and allowing discrimination on the basis of religion against LGBTQ Americans, atheists, unmarried couples, and others in businesses, adoption agencies, and places of public accommodation.
Seidel identifies the leaders of the Christian nationalism movement and gives examples of the success they have already achieved during the Trump administration, including, most prominently, naming Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, which he calls “a dream appointment for the Christian nationalist goal of dismantling public schools through vouchers and school choice.” Although volumes could be (and have been) written on the subject, Seidel does a good job summarizing the problems posed by the rise of Christian nationalism.
Seidel begins his frontal attack on the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation with two strong arguments. First, “the Constitution is deliberately godless.” There are no references to any god, goddess, or divinity in the Constitution, which one would surely expect to see if ours was founded as a Christian nation. Instead of invoking a supernatural power as the origin of the Constitution, the preamble begins with a human force, “We the People.” Second, the Constitution actually excludes religion. The text at Article VI, Clause 3 expressly provides: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” According to Joseph Story, who served as a Supreme Court Justice from 1812 to 1845 and wrote the first definitive commentaries on the Constitution, the objective of this clause was “to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.” And to reinforce that principle, the First Amendment precludes the government from involving itself in religion (the Free Exercise Clause) and precludes religion from involving itself in government (the Establishment Clause). The first bill passed by Congress under the new Constitution established the Oath of Office. (Seidel effectively refutes the legend that George Washington added the words “so help me God” and notes that none of the next five presidents did so either. In 1881, Chester A. Arthur chose to add those words, and most presidents followed suit as a matter of personal preference. The first president to end a speech “God bless America” was Richard Nixon.)
Seidel then continues to marshal overwhelming historical evidence that establishes that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. One particularly compelling example took place during Thanksgiving in 1789. Presbyterian ministers complained to Washington that when he issued the first Thanksgiving message he made no mention of God. Washington forthrightly responded that “the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna Charta of our country.”
Seidel pauses to devote a separate chapter to the fall-back argument of Christian nationalists that the moral, if not legal, foundation of America is Christianity. He argues that “America is quintessentially a human achievement” with credit going, not to God, but to the genius of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and thousands of others. Seidel rejects the “insidious rationale” that “only Christians are moral.” He cites the findings of Phil Zuckerman in an innovative 2009 study published in Sociology Compass: the least religious countries are the most peaceful and prosperous; have the lowest rates of violent crime and homicide, corruption, and intolerance against racial and ethnic minorities; the highest quality of life; and greatest protection of women’s rights and political and civil liberties. Within the United States, those states that are the most religious have the highest rates of poverty, murder, violent crime, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and STDs; and the lowest percentage of college-educated adults.
Seidel finds ample support for the idea that one need not be religious to be moral from Enlightenment thinkers including Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, whom he quotes for the common sense advice that one “may find it easy to live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by religion.”
Seidel next addresses the Christian nationalist argument that it is the Declaration of Independence (with four references to God, the Creator, the Supreme Judge, and divine Providence) which proves that America was founded as a Christian nation. Seidel begins by reminding us that while the Declaration declared independence — dissolving the colonies’ ties to Great Britain — it did not create the government of the United States; that was accomplished by the subsequent Constitution, which, as he has already convincingly established, did not create a Christian nation.
But Seidel goes further. He argues that the “Declaration of Independence is an anti-Christian document with snippets of religious-sounding language as window dressing.” This is one of Seidel’s most original insights. “The Christian bible stands directly opposed to the Declaration’s central ideas, including that it is ‘the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [their government], and to institute a new Government.” This revolutionary idea runs directly contrary to Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 13: 1–2):
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
This is no obscure biblical reference. In the face of the mounting criticism of Trump, his closest evangelical advisor, Paula White, claimed that he “has been raised up by God” and because “God says that He raises up and places all people in places of authority” it is “God who raises up a king. It is God that sets one down. When you fight against the plan of god, you are fighting against the hand of God.” By this logic, impeachment would be a sin.
At the time of the American Revolution, Robert Boucher, an Anglican minister and a Maryland loyalist, opposed independence from the King of England because it was against the will of God, arguing that “it is our duty not to disturb and destroy the peace of the community, by becoming refractory and rebellious subjects, and resisting the ordinances of God.” Seidel points out that the biblical principle that holds that governments are “established by God” is directly contrary to the very text of the Declaration which declares that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed.”
But Christian nationalists argue that the Declaration was written at a time when many colonies had official Christian governments. Seidel readily concedes this is historically accurate but deftly uses this fact against the Christian nationalists. In the name of Christianity, many of these colonies were highly intolerant. They persecuted heretics and religious dissenters such as Roger Williams, who was banished by the Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and fled to Rhode Island, where in his 1644 tract, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace, he called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” (coining a metaphor Jefferson would borrow more than a hundred years later).
The Constitution was a rejection — not an adoption — of these examples of Christian governments. “When the framers, like James Madison, surveyed history,” Seidel writes, “they eschewed theocracy and intolerance, condemning the ‘torrents of blood’ spilled in the name of religion.” Jefferson “looked back on the ‘millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, [who] have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.’” Seidel concludes this analysis by observing that “[a]fter surveying this bloody history, the founders decided to build a wall that would forever separate church and state. They disestablished religion and abolished religious tests for public office. They invented the secular state.”
But Seidel isn’t done. He has two more major assaults to launch against Christian nationalism. The first tackles the subsidiary claim that biblical principles influenced the founding of the American nation, government, and legal system. Seidel notes that like “Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, Aesop’s fables, and the legends of Greek and Roman mythology, the bible has provided a common stock of stories for the English-speaking world.” But, he continues, influencing “the English language and American culture is not the same as influencing the founding of the American laws and government — our nation.” Seidel’s argument grows even stronger. Instead of Christianity having a positive influence on the founding of our government, Seidel argues it directly conflicts with the fundamental principles of our government.
Christianity’s view and treatment of its founding documents is at odds with the American view and treatment of its founding documents. God’s law is unchangeable. American law is not. The Constitution is not perfect. The framers knew this, and none left the Convention having secured everything they wanted.
Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16) that “[a]ll scripture is inspired by God”; John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called the Bible “infallibly true”; and Catholics believe the Bible is “without error.” In sharp contrast, the Constitution provides for its amendment and has been amended 27 times and interpreted by the Supreme Court thousands of times.
If the Bible influenced the creation of our government, Seidel asks how Christian nationalists explain the research of University of Houston professor Donald Lutz, who found that the Bible was cited only about 0.3 times on average in a representative sampling of political writings during the founding period and that when the Federalists defended the proposed Constitution during ratification, they never cited the Bible — not once. Seidel adds that during the debates at the Constitutional Convention, the Bible was only cited once. So much for influence.
A cornerstone of the Christian nationalist argument that America is a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation is the claim that the 10 Commandments was preeminent in the founding of America. As examples, the Texas School Board altered its curriculum in 2014 to include Moses and the 10 Commandments in teaching American History because of their supposed influence on the Constitution. The 10 Commandments appear at the Texas Capitol in Austin. When Bloomfield, New Mexico, lost a court battle over a 10 Commandments monument displayed in front of its City Hall (at a cost to the taxpayers of $700,000), the mayor expressed surprise at the decision, equating the 10 Commandments with the Bill of Rights. The 10 Commandments have been elevated to this stature because the widespread misapprehension that they are the basis of American law and morality has gone largely unchallenged.
Seidel mounts that challenge. In the most ingenious portion of his book, he convincingly vanquishes that false tenet. In illuminating chapters on each of the commandments, he argues that not only are the 10 Commandments not the foundation of our law and government, but they also “conflict with our American principles so completely that they […] prove that our nation is not founded on Mosaic Law.” In essence, Seidel is arguing that if the 10 Commandments were ever enacted into law, they would be unconstitutional, violating numerous provisions of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.
Beginning with the first commandment, Seidel argues that it
would be difficult to write a law that conflicts more with America’s founding document, the Constitution, than this rule: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me.” First, our Constitution protects every citizen’s freedom to worship as they choose, chiefly by requiring and guaranteeing a secular government. Second, the people, not god, are supreme. The Constitution’s first words are more poetic and quite obviously more reflective of American principles: “We the People.”
As John Adams put it, America is “founded on the natural authority of the people alone without a pretence of miracle or mystery.” Whereas the First Amendment protects free thought, free communications, and the free exchange of ideas, Pope Leo XIII used the first commandment to declare it “unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man.” Seidel concludes that the “Judeo-Christian first commandment and the US First Amendment fundamentally conflict. They are irreconcilable.”
In the second commandment, God prohibits the making of any “idol” or “graven image” and threatens to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” This commandment, Seidel points out, is in direct conflict with the First Amendment, which protects anyone’s right to create and worship any idol or image they choose, including those considered blasphemous or sacrilegious. “It is specious to argue that a command punishing the very rights protected by the Constitution,” Seidel notes, “could have influenced it in some way.” Furthermore, punishing innocent children for the alleged misdeeds of their parents violates the provision in Article III, Clause 3, which Madison summarized as prohibiting “extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author,” not to mention Due Process and the presumption of innocence.
The third commandment, which prohibits taking “the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” likewise is directly contrary to the protections of the First Amendment. In 1814, Jefferson attacked blasphemy laws as “an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason.” The Supreme Court made it official in 1952 when it expressly ruled that it “is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine.”
The fourth commandment not only prohibits work on the Sabbath day, but imposes that restriction on all family members, including “your male or female slave.” To coerce attendance at church, many American colonies, before the adoption of the Constitution, enacted Sabbath laws requiring attendance. Under the 1610 Virginia statute, a third violation was punishable by “death.” In 1785, Virginia adopted the Statute on Religious Freedom, authored by Jefferson, on which the First Amendment a few years later was based, effectively repealing Sabbath laws. While the Supreme Court has upheld certain Sunday closing laws, it has scrupulously based its decision not on “religious sanctions” or “the promotion of religious observances” but on what it calls “community tranquility, respite and recreation.” In 1961, the Court held that any Sunday closing law would violate “the Establishment Clause if it can be demonstrated that its purpose […] is to use the State’s coercive power to aid religion.”
The second portion of the fourth commandment, with its reference to “your male or female slave,” is even more troubling. How can Christian nationalists pretend, Seidel asks, that this commandment had a positive influence on the founding of America by “contributing significantly to our country’s long and shameful history of slavery”? Here, Seidel develops two themes with extensive historical and textual evidence. First, he explains how the Bible and Christian history are rife with endorsements of slavery. (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” [Ephesians 6:5–8, et al].) Second, the “American justification for slavery was inextricably tied to Christianity and the bible.” The abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment renders the fourth commandment un-American.
While the fifth commandment’s instruction to “honor your father and mother” appears uncontroversial, Seidel points out that on further examination not all parents are worthy of blind honor or respect. To insist otherwise runs contrary to American values that protect children from abusive parents and encourages people to question authority. “The US Constitution honors individual rights over naked authority,” Seidel writes. “The fifth commandment is about perpetuating religion, ensuring obedience, and venerating authority. It had no influence on America’s founding.”
Seidel groups together the sixth, eighth, and ninth commandments that prohibit murder, stealing, and bearing “false witness against your neighbor.” He readily acknowledges that these admonitions resemble American law but argues that this “does not necessarily mean that they influenced those laws or the founding of this country.” Prohibitions on murder, theft, and perjury are universal principles that all humans understand, regardless of any religious affiliations, exist in every society and are not uniquely or originally Judeo-Christian. However, looking deeper into Christian history, Seidel reveals that these admonitions were reserved for the Israelites (“your people” and “a member of your community” [Leviticus 19:18]). According to 40 different passages in the Bible, shortly after receiving the commandments the Israelites commit 70 genocides of peoples who did not worship Yahweh. Research reported in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature indicates that “about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing […] are specifically enumerated in the Bible.”
The seventh commandment declares that one “shall not commit adultery.” Seidel concedes that Christianity did have influence on legislating sexual mores, but “upon that history, shame, not a country” was built. In practice, this commandment perpetuated sexism and discrimination. Seidel points out that in the Bible a married women and her partner were considered adulterers, but if a husband slept around or took multiple wives (as did Abraham, Jacob, Solomon, David, Gideon, and Moses) he was not an adulterer. According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, adultery is “sexual intercourse of a married woman with any man other than her husband.”
The 10th and final commandment encapsulates many of the unconstitutional aspects of the preceding nine. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Covet is not a word in popular parlance. It means “crave” or “envy” or “desire,” especially something that doesn’t belong to you. Correctly understood, the 10th commandment is a triple threat — it endorses slavery, treats women as chattel, and punishes mere thoughts. By endorsing slavery, for the second time in the 10 Commandments, this commandment is unconstitutional in violation of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. And in treating women on a par with oxen and donkeys, which the Bible repeatedly does in reaffirming the subjugation of women, the commandment is unconstitutional in violation of the Equal Protection doctrine and the 14th Amendment. In an article titled “The Degraded Status of Women in the Bible,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that “[i]t is not to Bibles, prayer books, catechisms, liturgies, the canon law and church creeds and organizations, that woman owes one step in her progress, for all these alike have been hostile, and still are, to her freedom and development.”
It is in explaining how this commandment creates a thought crime that Seidel proves most ingenious:
The nucleus of the tenth commandment is “shall not covet,” which prohibits specific thoughts. But the First Amendment protects — absolutely — the freedom of thought. The right to believe whatever one chooses is the only unlimited right under the Constitution. This Judeo-Christian principle does the opposite, seeking to stifle thought and enforce ideological uniformity.
Paul himself wrote, “We take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Seidel writes, “Religion must maintain a closed information system to perpetuate itself. […] Religious dogma cannot withstand the facts, scrutiny, or doubt that come with exploration, discovery, and expanded horizons.” In sharp contrast, the Constitution and especially the First Amendment zealously protect freedom of thought. One cannot be punished for thinking about his neighbor’s wife. Jefferson wrote that the “legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.” Amid the Red Scare of the 1950s when a majority of the Supreme Court lost its way and upheld an anticommunist oath that spineless labor unions imposed on their leaders, in dissent Justice Robert Jackson wrote that “our Constitution excludes […] government from the realm of opinions and ideas, beliefs and doubts, heresy and orthodoxy, political, religious or scientific.” Yet again, were the 10th commandment a statute, it would be unconstitutional.
Seidel provides an excellent example of a constitution that would indeed have created a truly Christian nation: the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. After secession, the confederacy essentially copied the Preamble to the 1787 US Constitution but added one clause: “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, declared that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God. […] It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” The United States fought a bloody civil war to defend its secular Constitution and adopted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to eradicate slavery. If the Constitution had created a Christian nation, the confederacy would not have needed to alter it.
Toward the end of his book, Seidel captures much of what has gone before in a powerful statement Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1989 in a piece for The New York Times entitled, “The Opening of the American Mind”:
As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source of our concern for human rights. In fact, the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense. They were notorious not only for acquiescence in poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression but for enthusiastic justifications of slavery, persecution, abandonment of small children, torture, genocide.
Seidel has written a masterful book. No one henceforth can attempt to discuss the claim that America was founded as, and is today, a Christian nation without seriously addressing his work. Seidel’s scholarship, on religion, history, law, and the Constitution, is prodigious, wide ranging, authoritative, and comprehensive. At times, his impatience, sarcasm, and revulsion toward religion is gratuitous and can alienate some readers who, coming to these questions for the first time, might otherwise be persuadable. But his arguments are well articulated, inventive, amply documented, and convincing.
The threat of Christian nationalism, which frequently promotes white supremacy, racism, sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and bigotry, poses serious risks to our constitutional democracy. Seidel has effectively exposed and unreservedly debunked the myth that America was founded as a Christian (or later Judeo-Christian) nation. Indeed, he has made a powerful case that the fundamental principles on which Christianity is based are entirely antithetical to the Constitution and to the government it established.
But this isn’t just an academic subject to be debated by scholars and historians. The Christian nationalist campaign to subjugate the Constitution to religious dogma has clear and present consequences as the Trump administration is demonstrating in spades. As this review was being written, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to allow a 40-foot Christian cross, commemorating the veterans of World War I, to remain on public property at public expense at a busy intersection in Blandenburg, Maryland (American Legion v. American Humanist Association). Conceding that the “cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol,” Justice Samuel Alito Jr., relying on “history” and “tradition,” wrote for the majority that the “passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.” Did history, tradition, and the passage of time make racial and gender discrimination constitutional? In a sharply worded dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that the decision “places Christianity above other faiths.” Politically and culturally Christian nationalists have convinced not only five conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents (including two by Trump), but two moderate justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, appointed by Democratic presidents, to uphold an admitted 40-foot Christian symbol erected on public property and maintained at public expense, thereby placing “Christianity above other faiths.” That’s a big victory for Christian nationalists.
This very recent and dangerous Supreme Court decision makes Seidel’s book even more timely and urgent. And it makes his concluding words even more imperative. He implores us to be prepared to refute the myths perpetrated by Christian nationalists both “factually and vocally.” He submits that this book “provides the first half of that recipe” and we “are responsible for the rest.” Quoting Madison, he insists that “outspoken resistance” is the “first duty of citizens.” Christian nationalists “have successfully persuaded too many Americans” — and one might add, too many Supreme Court justices — “to abandon our heritage, to spurn our secular foundations in favor of their myth.” “It is time to reclaim that heritage and refute these myths,” Seidel writes, and, citing John Kennedy, “We need to remind Americans that our Constitution demands absolute separation between church and state.” “We must raise hell when the wall of separation between state and church is breached,” he pleads. “We must, as Madison warned, take ‘alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.’”
Stephen Rohde is a retired constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Dan Friedman reviews Jay Wexler's new book, "Our Non-Christian Nation."...
Should Donald Trump be impeached? Stephen Rohde reads Cass Sunstein to find out....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.