The notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is a central animating element of the ideology of the Christian Right. It touches every aspect of life and culture in this, one of the most successful and powerful political movements in American history. The idea that America’s supposed Christian identity has somehow been wrongly taken, and must somehow be restored, permeates the psychology and vision of the entire movement. No understanding of the Christian Right is remotely adequate without this foundational concept.
But the Christian nationalist narrative has a fatal flaw: it is based on revisionist history that does not stand up under scrutiny. The bad news is that to true believers, it does not have to stand up to the facts of history to be a powerful and animating part of the once and future Christian nation. Indeed, through a growing cottage industry of Christian revisionist books and lectures now dominating the curricula of home schools and many private Christian academies, Christian nationalism becomes a central feature of the political identity of children growing up in the movement. The contest for control of the narrative of American history is well underway.
History is powerful. That’s why it is important for the rest of society not only to recognize the role of creeping Christian historical revisionism, but our need to craft a compelling and shared story of American history, particularly as it relates to the role of religion and society. We need it in order to know not how the religious Right is wrong, but to know where we ourselves stand in the light of history, in relation to each other, and how we can better envision a future together free of religious prejudice, and ultimately, religious warfare.
We’ve seen how religious beliefs (and other ideologies) inspire people to view others as subhuman, deviant, and deserving of whatever happens to them, including death. It is the stuff of persecution, pogroms, and warfare. The framers of the U.S. Constitution struggled with how to inoculate the new nation against these ills, and in many respects, the struggle continues today. The story goes that when Benjamin Franklin, a hometown delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, emerged from the proceedings, people asked him what happened. His famous answer was “You have a republic, if you can keep it.” To “keep it” in our time, we must appreciate the threat and dynamics of Christian nationalism, and the underlying historical revisionism that supports it. Then we can develop ways to counter it.
Meanwhile, the historical revisionist narrative has been fully integrated into the “biblical worldview” of a wide theological and political spectrum of the Christian Right. Christian nationalists include such familiar figures as Left Behind novelist Tim LaHaye, as well as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy and James Dobson, and the late theologian R.J. Rushdoony.
Indeed, the general approach Rushdoony outlined has become widely accepted among Christian nationalists, specifically that God actively intervenes in and guides history, and that God’s role can be retroactively discerned, from creation to the predestined Kingdom of God on Earth. Historical events described as “God’s providence” are then interpreted in terms of what God must have been up to. This is how Rushdoony arrives at what he called Christian history, based on “Christian revisionism.”1
Here are a few examples of how Christian nationalism and revisionism permeate the Christian Right and affect American political life. They should lend a sense of urgency to the project of contending for the story of the origins of American democracy and the rights of individual conscience.
The Once and Future Christian Nation
“We want to reaffirm our Christian roots – we are a Christian country,” said John Blanchard, coordinator for The Assembly 2007, a Christian nationalist extravaganza to be led by televangelist Pat Robertson in April. The occasion is the 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestown. The Assembly is an alternative to, but technically part of, the official Jamestown commemorative events led by mainstream historians at Colonial Williamsburg. “They did come ashore dragging a cross… We were started as a Christian nation,” Blanchard told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, “and I feel it’s God’s purpose we stay a Christian nation.”
The Assembly, comprising two main events, promises to be influential on the Christian Right. There will be a “Consecration Conference” held at the Rock Church, a 5,200-seat megachurch in Virginia Beach, as well as a dedication ceremony at the beach, which will include a costumed reenactment of the landing. Participants will plant white crosses in the sand – the crossbars emblazoned with One Nation Under God, (available for $14.95). The act is intended to mean that “you dedicate your church, family, and nation to God!”
According to the press release: “It was on April 29, 1607, that a young Anglican chaplain, Robert Hunt, planted a cross on what is now known as Cape Henry, dedicating the new land for the purposes of God.”
“We see this as a God-given time for our nation,” said Bishop John Gimenez, who is leading the team that is organizing the event. “We are encouraging Christians across the country to plant a cross at their churches or in their front yards to do their own personal dedication of the land to God.” According to organizers, the event will both make history and renew it – by re-establishing a 400-year-old covenant with God on Dedication Sunday, April 29, 2007.
A film, “The Landing,” produced by Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, is scheduled to be aired on the ABC Family Channel. Additionally, parts of the dedication may be broadcast over various conservative Christian broadcast networks, and Paul Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network is among its organizers. Other leaders of the Assembly include Texas evangelist and political activist John Hagee; Ohio theocratic political operative Rod Parsley; prominent evangelists Jack Hayford and Kenneth Copeland; as well as Bishop John and Rev. Anne Giminez, who organized the massive Washington for Jesus rallies in 1980 and 1988; and Ron Luce, leader of Teen Mania Ministries, an agency that seeks to mobilize youth as a militantly dominionist force in American politics and culture.
John Blanchard claims that the Jamestown landing signifies that, “We were started as a Christian nation and I feel it’s God’s purpose we stay a Christian nation.” Indeed, to read The Assembly 2007 web site, one would think that the King had sent missionaries to Virginia. Far from it. The London Company behind the venture pooled investors interested in making money. For years, it floundered badly. Eventually, the company gave up the commercial charter and control reverted to the Crown. The gauzy view of Christians claiming the land for Christ and King is clarified by history.
When news of The Assembly 2007 and Blanchard’s claim reached Joe Conn at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he pulled out his history books in rebuttal: “According to Anson Phelps Stokes’ Church And State in the United States, the London Company’s November 20, 1606 ‘Articles, Instructions, and Orders’ did, indeed, demand that the prospective American colony ‘provide that the true word, and service of God and Christian faith be preached.’ But the charter added that the ‘true word’ must be ‘according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our real me of England.’”
In other words, Jamestown was to be a bastion of the Anglican Church, the established faith of England. The local government was to enforce religious conformity, not religious freedom. According to Leo Pfeffer’s Church, State and Freedom, the leaders of the Virginia settlement wasted no time in carrying out that edict. Governor Thomas Dale in 1612 mandated “Lawes Divine, Moral and Martial” that decreed the death penalty for those who “speak impiously of the Trinity… or against the known articles of the Christian faith.”
Those who cursed would have a bodkin (needle) “thrust through the tongue,” and all immigrants to the new land were to report to the Anglican minister for “examination in the faith.” Anyone who refused faced a daily whipping “until he makes acknowledgement.”2
The Separation of Church and State in Party Politics
Christian nationalism is permeating not just cultural but national political life. The Republican National Committee employed leading Christian revisionist author David Barton to barnstorm conservative churches in voter mobilization campaigns during the past few election cycles and to make appearances with GOP candidates. The talented Mr. Barton made hundreds of campaign appearances in 2004 alone. In his appearances, Barton glibly but effectively links the notion of one’s personal religious identity with the destiny of the nation, which in turn is conveniently interpreted in terms of the fortunes of GOP candidates.
This should come as no surprise. Barton was named one of the nation’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals” by Time magazine in 2005 and for many years served as the vice-chair of the Texas GOP. In the 2006 mid-term elections, Barton again went out on the stump, notably with unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell of Ohio.
“His presentation has just enough ring of truth to make him credible to many people,” wrote Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, (comprising mainstream Baptist groups, but not the Southern Baptist Convention) in a detailed critique of Barton in 2005. Among other things, Walker rebuts historical distortions and revisions regarding the phrase “separation of church and state.”
“Barton asserts that church-state separation is not in the Constitution,” writes Walker. He continues:
Of course, neither the words “church state separation” nor “wall of separation” appear in the Constitution. That does not mean Barton’s position is correct. The Constitution does not specifically mention “separation of powers” or “the right to a fair trial” either, but who would deny the Constitutional status of those concepts? “Church-state separation” is a metaphor for what certainly was and is the spirit of the First Amendment’s religion clauses – government is to be neutral toward religion to the end of ensuring religious liberty.
Barton mentions church-state separation as flowing from Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association. He asserts that later in the letter Jefferson made it clear that he wanted only a “one directional wall” to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.
A reading of the entire letter belies any suggestion that Thomas Jefferson thought it was “one directional.” There is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that that is the case. Indeed, to the degree that Jefferson’s notion was one-directional, most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa. (Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law, p. 1159.) Of course, Barton completely ignores Roger William’s reference 150 years earlier to the “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of church and the wilderness of the world.” (Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, p. 89.) It is clear that Williams, a Baptist pioneer, saw the advantage to the church of a clear boundary erected between itself and the state. More than that, he thought this wall was mandated by the very principles of Christianity. To that end, he wrote:
“All civil states with officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are… essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship … An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” (Stokes, supra, p. 199.)
Thus, Williams and Jefferson understood the benefits to both the church and state of keeping those two entities separate and distinct.3
Yet Barton has suffered little of this kind formal critique, and little mainstream or alternative press coverage, his prominent role in the GOP notwithstanding. Also lacking is a sufficiently accessible and credible narrative of American history that answers Barton and his ilk, and seizes the high ground based on sound history and a popular appeal to values we share or can come to share in common.
We need a widely agreed upon narrative of how religious pluralism and respect for the right to religious difference emerged in American history. Instead, political consultants demand that mainstream politicians speak of their “faith journey,” or excoriate “religious political extremists,” or denounce unnamed “secularists” who are said to be driving mainstream and progressive “people of faith” from public life. Such soundbite-ism seems to be the only narrative framework from which most of our national leaders operate, even as they make the customary paeans to religious liberty and the genius of the Founding Fathers, and other such disengaged platitudes.
Christian revisionist-influenced political breezes are even blowing in the Democratic Party. Prominent campaign consultants are advising their clients not to use the phrase separation of church and state because it raises “red flags with people of faith” and because the phrase does not appear in the Constitution. This is an excellent example of how successful Christian revisionists have been in their efforts to delegitimize the term as part of their efforts to shape and control public discourse in their direction. This is also symptomatic of the way that our political leaders are so far away from being able to articulate a compelling narrative of the story of religious liberty in America, that some are conceding the ground and listening to campaign consultants who say that it is better to say nothing.
Finding Our Place in History
A running refrain in the revisionist narrative is that somehow the original intention of God and the Founding Fathers has been thwarted by some combination of liberals, judicial tyrants, the ACLU, secular humanists, and more. This notion, which seems silly to some, is tremendously powerful in the context of the conservative Christian subculture. It asserts that “the Christians,” (however one may define Christians), are the intended rulers of the nation, because that’s what God, the Founding Fathers, and by implication, the Constitution, sought to accomplish.
It is a powerful piece of political and religious mythology that feeds into another powerful myth – that Christians are persecuted in the United States by the very forces that have thwarted God’s plan for America. 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.” The Christian Right’s Jamestown event captured this sentiment.
But for all of the Christian revisionism 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. That is why history has to be revised in the first place. 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.
Thomas Jefferson himself summarized the history of religious persecution in his own state in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia. It is worth quoting at length:
The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren…
The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets.
If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country for about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and… two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the present revolution. The laws indeed were still oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsided into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect.4
Jefferson, in a few sentences, summarizes the history of oppression and control exercised by the Anglican Church – the outlawing of Quakers fleeing persecution in Europe, the punishment of religious dissidents, the banning of books. He also briefly underscores the role of religious dissent in the run up to the American Revolution. It was this disentanglement of church and state in the name of the rights of individual conscience that the doctrine of separation of church and state sought to resolve, in Virginia, and in the new nation. Prior to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, nine of the 13 colonies had established churches. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania had been founded explicitly on the idea of religious freedom which they defined as the right to individual conscience. Baptists called it “soul freedom.”
A Marvelous Alliance
It is out of such material that we can tell the story of our nation with a strong, clear narrative of our own: one that discusses the role of religion in public life; one that tells the moving story of overcoming religious persecution and oppression; one that explains why there is no mention of God in the Constitution; one that appreciates the meaning of separation of church and state as a necessary prerequisite for religious freedom.
In order for us to be effective in doing this, we need to be able to speak with the person-to-person persuasiveness that comes from solid knowledge and authentic conviction necessary to build the political coalitions we need to meet the challenges of our time. With this understanding of history, we can craft a national ethos of respect for different views and religious pluralism. If we can do this, we will have a powerful story to tell – a story that challenges the bogus, revisionist narrative of Christian nationalism.
The development of our own story, rooted in the values of the framers of the Constitution, will illuminate the roots of religious freedom and the right of individual conscience in the United States.
There are any number of facts showing the country was not founded as a “Christian nation” that we can offer in the debates to come. For starters: the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated with Muslim states in the first decade of the United States, was ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797. It stated in part, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
The treaty is important because it clearly reflects the view of the founding generation.
But the strongest part of the story will always be the Constitution. It does not mention God or religion, except for Article 6 which prohibits religious tests for public office. Article 6 meant that any free, propertied man, religious or nonreligious, Christian or non-Christian, could vote and hold public office. If the framers, who were mostly Christians of various sorts, had wanted to declare a special place for Christianity in governance and society, they would have done so. But they didn’t. The Christian nationalists have to engage in some rather spectacular evasions to get around this inescapable fact.
The reasons for the founders’ decision – and this is important to be able to explain – is that they were operating on the broad principle of the rights of individual conscience. Mainstream historians note that early opposition to the ratification of the Constitution came from those who, like Jefferson, felt that the Constitution was insufficiently strong and clear on these matters. So in exchange for Jefferson and his allies’ support for ratification, the convention penned the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It took time to extend these rights fully to the states, and to make them real in the lives of all citizens. As a nation we are still working on it. But it was this founding right to believe as you will, to believe differently than the powers that be – and to change your mind – free from the interference of the state or unduly powerful religious institutions, that was the main original contribution of the framers of the Constitution and is a central part of the story of the nation.
And even as many will note that the Constitution perpetuated various forms of oppression – of women, slaves, and people who did not own property – this founding principle contained the powerful possibility for change. The right to believe differently (having disentangled mutually reinforcing institutions of oppression via the unity of church and state) made possible every advance in human and civil rights that has come since.
Here is where a marvelous fact emerges that should illuminate any narrative. The right of individual conscience and the ultimate ratification of the Constitution by the thirteen states was won because of the alliance between orthodox evangelical Christians of the day, notably Baptists and Methodists, and those influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, like Jefferson and Madison. For these strange bedfellows, the issue was not whether Christianity or religion was good or bad, although certainly many differed on the point. The issue was that individuals should have the right to believe as they will without interference from powerful religious institutions or the government.
It is true that a major reason people opposed ratification of the Constitution was the absence of any mention of Christianity in general and the banning of religious tests for public office in particular. But Baptists were notably active and eloquent in their support for religious freedom. Cornell historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore report that during the ratification convention in Massachusetts,
…a distinguished Baptist minister, the Rev. Isaac Backus, supported the absence of a religious test. “Nothing is more evident,” he commented, “both in reason and The Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and therefore, no men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ….And let the history of all nations be searched… and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests had been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.”
But Article 6 opposing religious tests for office was equally important to deists and atheists. The pseudononymous writer Elihu, report Kramnick and Moore, defended the proposed Constitution in an essay printed in Connecticut and Massachusetts newspapers. “‘The Constitution is a rational document for a wise people in an enlightened age. The time has passed,’ he said, ‘when nations could be kept in awe with stories of God sitting with legislators and dictating laws… [and the framers] come to us in the plain language of common sense, and propose to our understanding a system of government, as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it…”5
Religious dissenters and non-religious people wanted the same thing, for different but overlapping reasons.
Similar marvelous alliances are necessary today to answer some of the challenges of our time. As we look back at history – real history – it is evident that so many of today’s orthodox evangelical Christians and so many secular activists would have been great allies at the time of the framing and ratification of the Constitution. They would have known and agreed that to avoid the ravages of religious persecution, and even warfare, we need a nation based on the right of individual conscience; where our religious beliefs have no bearing on our citizenship or our right to hold public office. And we need a clear separation of church and state so as to make the state the guarantor of our rights, rather than an agency compromised and corrupted by official entanglements with religious institutions, jockeying for power and influence.
One of the ways we can achieve this is to recognize the power of the narrative of the once and future Christian nation, and what it means to the Christian Right political movement. Once we do that, we can more systematically expose the bogus underpinnings of Christian historical revisionism and recover the relevant facts of our history.Then we can tell our story powerfully, accurately, and well.
Four short accessible books that go a long way towards the development of a mainstream narrative of the development of the role of religion in American history are:
Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, Harper & Row, 1987.
Franklin T. Lambert, The Founding Fathers and The Place of Religion in America, Princeton, 2003.
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State, W.W. Norton, 2005.
Barry Lynn, Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, Harmony Books, 2006.
- Clarkson, Frederick. Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997), 83-86. See also; Jeff Sharlet, “Through A Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History,” Harper’s, December 2006.
- Conn, Joe. “Carry Them Back To Old Virginny: Historically Illiterate Religious Right Celebrates Founding Of Jamestown Colony, Wall of Separation,” Americans United For the Separation of Church and State, October 30, 2006. http://blog.au.org/2006/10/carry_them_back.html
- Walker, J. Brent. A Critique of David Barton’s Views on Church and State, Joint Baptist Committee for Religious Liberty, April 2005. http://www.bjcpa.org/resources/pubs/pub_walker_barton.htm
- Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
- Kramnick, Issac, and R. Lawrence Moore, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (W.W. Norton, 1996) pp. 39-40.