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I’ve heard it so many times I’ve almost come to believe it myself. “America was founded as a Christian nation,” the saying goes. Or something more like, “America was founded on Judeo-Christian values.”
It’s repeated constantly by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, certain FOX News hosts and countless right-wing evangelical Christian pastors, reverberating across the purple mountains and fruited plains of Rubeville, USA, like Joshua blowing his horn at Jericho, shortly before he and his decrepit band of desert marauders razed the city and murdered everybody in it.
Here in our own little corner of Rubeville, Kris Vallotton, the megachurch Bethel’s resident prophet and social media troll, has informed his hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers that “the separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution. It doesn’t exist in America.”
He’s half-right and all wrong. The separation of church and state is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the living document the founding fathers created to make amendments to the Constitution in 1791. Separation of church and state and freedom of speech was so important to them, both are included in the very First Amendment:
“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.”
Last time I checked, the First Amendment still exists in America.
Regardless, Vallotton and his acolytes believe they can convert anyone to their point of view simply by laying hands on them. Judging from the results of the vigorous massage newly elected 1st District State Senator Brian Dahle received from Vallotton’s nimble fingers on the campaign trail, it might even be true!
“I did not win this race. God won this race,” Dahle claimed last Thursday at a Christian-slanted Faith and Values Town Hall co-hosted by Bethel elder and Redding Mayor Julie Winter. “If I wasn’t supposed to be in the Senate, I wouldn’t be in the Senate.”
As I recently observed, Bethel’s considerable financial success has given the charismatic megachurch the power to exercise its Seven Mountain Mandate, dominionist theology that literally commands its believers to seize control of the “mountains” of government, education, family, business, entertainment, media and religion.
In the face of this onslaught, the wall of separation between church and state imagined by Thomas Jefferson performs more like a picket fence in Shasta County, as Bethel muscles and oozes its way through the slats into our government, educational system and personal lives.
It’s of absolutely no consolation, but we are not alone. Across red state rural America, conservative evangelicals who share the same dominionist theology insist this country was founded as a Christian nation, that our laws are based on Judeo-Christian principals.
You can’t tell them anything different.
But for those who wish to discover if these beliefs are in fact true, help is now available.
Constitutional lawyer Andrew L. Seidel calls conservative evangelicals who share these believes “Christian nationalists” in his recently released book, “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American,” (Sterling, New York, $9.89 on Amazon Kindle).
Fortunately for secular-minded citizens, the beliefs shared by Christian nationalists aren’t facts, they’re fictions; powerful myths that evaporate upon historical investigation, in Seidel’s informed interpretation.
Seidel serves as lead attorney for the Freedom of Religion Foundation, the Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the First Amendment. He has has written an unabashed, bare-knuckles polemic that pulls absolutely no punches as he pounds away at the “founding myth,” focusing specifically on what turns out to be the totally fallacious claim that the founding fathers created this nation using Judaeo-Christian values.
Last week’s column dealt with fake science. This week the subject is fake history.
“Christian nationalists are historical revisionists bent on ‘restoring’ America to the Judeo-Christian principles on which they wish it was founded,” Seidel explains. “They believe that secular America is a myth, and under the guise of restoration they seek to press religion into every crevice of the government.”
Sound familiar? As I said in the beginning, I’ve heard “this country was founded on Judaeo-Christian principles” so many times, I’ve sometimes called myself a Christian, even though I have absolutely no religious background in my upbringing. After reading “The Founding Myth,” I’ll never make that mistake again.
According to Seidel, Christian nationalists, once consigned to the fringes, have found their champion in President Donald Trump. He’s their sinful messiah, their King Cyrus, the thrice-married porn-star fornicator who never met a business opportunity he couldn’t drive into bankruptcy.
Trump has rewarded their unconditional fealty by placing Christian zealots such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in high-level cabinet positions and appointing—for life—a slew of federal judges who share the same beliefs, including two Supreme Court picks.
Seidel attributes his polemical style to the sense of urgency he feels at this sudden turn of events. Citing an extensive study on the electorate, he writes:
“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.”
From the book’s beginning, Seidel goes on the attack. He proves to be an adept knockout artist, a self-proclaimed atheist deeply familiar with the historical subject material who has successfully argued First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court. He makes short work of the numerous “anemic talking points” broadcast on right-wing talk radio on a daily basis.
Those four quasi-religious references in the Declaration of Independence? Three out of four of them were “strategic piety” added after the first draft by the mostly Deist founders to convince pious King George III to grant independence to the colonies.
As for the word “Creator,” which was in Jefferson’s original draft, he could have written “Jesus Christ” or “the Lord Almighty,” but deliberately chose not to, because he was Deist.
Christian nationalists are fond of claiming the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom. Wrong again. “The Mayflower settlers were looking for a place to practice their religion and force others to practice it too.”
That would be the opposite of religious freedom.
Presidents say “so help me God” when they take the oath of office, so we must be a Christian nation, right? Wrong. The phrase wasn’t in George Washington’s original oath, and was only added later when presidents felt it necessary to pander to the Christian vote.
Much of what we know about Washington is myth, based on a popular history written shortly after his death, Seidel observes. No, Washington never chopped down that cherry tree, and no, there’s no historical account that he knelt in prayer before battle at Valley Forge.
In fact, Washington was extremely reserved when it came to such personal religious displays. The fervent Christian “historian” projected his own beliefs onto Washington.
“This facile, reflected glory is why the fraudulent [Valley Forge] scene hangs in the Capitol prayer room, why Reagan gushed over a lie, and why all a politician needs to do is claim to be a prayerful Christian and he is suddenly Washington’s equal,” Seidel maintains.
Seidel spends the first quarter of the book interrogating scholarship on the writings of founders Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Madison, Washington and Jefferson.
While some of the founders were nominally Christian, most of them were children of the Enlightenment, a period when Western civilization was emerging from centuries of bloody religious wars. They purposely made no mention of God in the Constitution, other than the prohibition against religious tests for federal office, because they were charting a new course: for the first time in history, there would be a self-governed nation with no religious authority ruling above it.
“This book is an assault,” Seidler warns, “but it’s also a defense, a defense of that quintessentially American invention, the ‘wall of separation between church and state.’”
Seidler’s assault intensifies in the book’s midsection, which features titles such as United States v. The Bible and The Constitution v. The Ten Commandments. He searches for the Judaeo-Christian influence on the country’s founding documents and finds it lacking as he hammers away at both the Old Testament and the New Testament, bobbing and weaving with a masterful knowledge of biblical verse and moral philosophy.
Christians who point to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as a founding principle will be disappointed to learn that it’s a universal moral principle that exists across all cultures and predates Christianity by thousands of years.
Neither does the Bible have anything to say about the founding American principle of personal freedom, in Seidler’s view.
“The founding documents of the United States revere and protect freedom above all else,” he claims. “The bible worships and demands the opposite: obedience, submission and servility. And it secures that obedience through fear. Fear and obey god. The principles of the two traditions diverge.”
Even the term Judaeo-Christian is a misnomer, a phrase concocted in the 1950s to promote Christian religious belief over communism during the Cold War without offending Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
While the vast majority of Jews sees religious matters quite differently than Christian nationalists—for starters, Jews don’t believe in Jesus or the New Testament—Seidler notes that Jesus was quite clear when he said the old laws, meaning the Old Testament, still applied, despite the Messiah’s miraculous presence on planet earth.
Why do Christian nationalists claim the country was founded on the 10 Commandments? Blame Jesus, who does not escape multiple lashings from Seidler.
From the very first commandment, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me,”—a gross violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause—Seidler demolishes any notion that the United States was founded on the 10 Commandments.
Along the way, he confirms my recent critical reading of the Old Testament (King James Version), from Genesis to Malachi, which I found more akin to a death cult genocide manual than a collection of sound moral guidelines.
“Thou shalt not kill” and all the other commandments only apply intermittently to the Israelites as they wander about the desert slaughtering everyone else in sight; men, women and children, to appease the vengeful Yahweh.
“The in-group interpretation of these commandments makes even more sense given the events that follow the covenant,” Seidler writes. “Shortly after receiving the commandments, the Israelites go on a killing spree. According to the bible, they commit genocide after genocide—more than seventy all told.”
What does all of this this have to do with the Constitution? If you guessed absolutely nothing, you’re correct.
After dispatching the 10 Commandments, Seidler acknowledges that Christian politicians and activists have nevertheless sought to squeeze them into the Constitution since the founding and continue to do so to this day, with a disturbing degree of success.
“In God We Trust” began appearing on American coinage in 1863, and on paper currency and stamps in the 1950s. Also during the 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, Congress established the National Day of Prayer, the National Prayer Breakfast and the prayer room in the U.S. Capitol featuring the stained glass depiction of Washington kneeling at Valley Forge, an event that never happened. It also added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Seidler considers these and many other instances listed in the book, including ongoing Christian nationalist efforts to ban abortion access and limit LGBTQ rights, to be violations of the First Amendment establishment clause. They function “like a ratchet or a noose, with each violation tightening its hold and making it more difficult to undo.” They are then “used to justify other violations, and the tightening continues apace.”
Seidler ultimately concludes that not only was America not founded on Judaeo-Christian principles, but that such principles are profoundly un-American. He essentially charges Christian nationalists with hijacking the Enlightenment.
“[Christian nationalism] seeks to co-opt undeserved greatness, accolades, and credit,” Seidel writes, saving his hardest-hitting punches for the last round. “It claims a nation dedicated to the freedom of and freedom from religion, for one particular religion. It insists that a nation with a godless Constitution is dedicated to one particular god.
“A religion that demands fearful, unwavering obedience takes credit for a rebellion and revolution in self-government,” he continues. “It declares that that revolution was the brainchild of a few Christians rather than a group of unorthodox thinkers testing Enlightenment principles.”
After reading that, I couldn’t help thinking about Bethel’s Kris Vallotton, who recently compared himself to Galileo after he allegedly got some mainstream media push-back for his completely unscientific claim that “a fetus is a baby.”
As usual, he’s got it bass akwards. He’s the inquisitor in this equation, not the founder of scientific observation.
Just as the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo for observing the earth orbited the sun, contradicting the Church’s interpretation of various biblical passages, Vallotton and his fellow Christian nationalists seek to deny a women’s Constitutional right to an abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, based on an ancient text that has nothing to do with the founding of this country.
Yet here we are in northern California, where the Christian god just elected our next state senator. Our local Christian nationalists are promoting this heresy, and will no doubt find Seidel’s brutal, occasionally hilarious assault on their erroneous beliefs extremely offensive.
But for everyone else, particularly those concerned about this dismal state of affairs,“The Founding Myth” is the must-read book of the summer. It’s time to take the gloves off if we hope to save our country.