By Andrew L. Seidel
“I think that Christian Nationalism is the biggest threat to America today. It’s an existential threat to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
I said that at the Religion News Association conference in September of 2019 to a roomful of 250 religion reporters and alongside journalists and authors Katherine Stewart (The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism) and Jack Jenkins (American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country).
I said something similar at the FFRF convention a month later: “Do we have a government of the people, for the people and by the people? Or is ours a government of the Christians, for the Christians and by the Christians? That is our battle right now. America is in a desperate fight against Christian Nationalism, a political theology that is an existential threat to our republic.”
Two weeks later, a Christian Nationalist preacher, Greg Locke, who prayed for the founder of the Proud Boys at a D.C. rally on Jan. 5, burned my book with a blow torch. By that point, I’d been warning about this danger for five months, ever since my book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, came out in May 2019.
And, 20 months after The Founding Myth was published, Christian Nationalists would attack the U.S. Capitol and try to overturn a free and fair election, proving the subtitle of the book.
Warning about the threat Christian Nationalism poses was part of The Founding Myth, but not the point. My intent was not simply to refute the idea that we were founded as a Christian nation. I make the argument that America will never be a Christian nation because the moment it becomes a Christian nation, it will cease to be America.
Christian Nationalists rewrite our history and claim to be the true heirs of the American experiment to justify a hateful, exclusionary movement that is, right now, seeking to privilege conservative Christians over every other American. This is about claiming America had a Christian founding so that, today, Christians can receive special treatment under the law while others are lowered to second class status.
The two excerpts from The Founding Myth below, edited for space, are examples of sounding the alarm. I chose the first, a portion of Chapter 18, because it showcases the brilliance of one of the co-founders of the organization I hold near and dear: Anne Nicol Gaylor, who co-founded FFRF back in 1976. I quote her observations on the authoritarian nature of the Ten Commandments, which were incisive and prescient. This edited excerpt is from Part III of the book, in which I compare the Ten Commandments to the principles on which America is built. All of the Ten Commandments conflict in some way with America’s founding principles. (Yes, even the ones that you’re thinking about right now, though you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
The second edited excerpt is from the final chapter of the book in which I am literally exhorting Americans to “take alarm,” as James Madison once did.
I did not predict that Christian Nationalists would attack our Capitol to overturn a free and fair election, but I am not at all surprised. They believe this is their country, given to them by their god, that they are acting on his orders, and that Donald Trump is “God’s chosen one.” When reality collides with a belief system like that, violence is almost inevitable.
So, before we turn to the excerpts, one final warning: Christian Nationalism is not gone simply because Trump is out of the White House. It may be more dangerous now than it ever was. We need the tools and arguments in The Founding Myth to relegate white Christian Nationalism back to the fringe from whence it came.
On Family Honor:
The Fifth Commandment
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” — Exodus 20:12
Few assert with any real conviction that parental reverence influenced the American founding. Culture, yes.
Interestingly, this is the “only commandment that comes with an inducement instead of an implied threat,” as Christopher Hitchens observed. The reward is not only long life, but long life on the land you were given — the Promised Land.
The fifth commandment requires respect simply because of a family connection. But intellectual honesty requires that only those worthy of respect receive it. The “biological fact of fatherhood or motherhood does not in and of itself warrant honor,” observed Anne Gaylor.
Certainly not all parents are worthy of honor or respect, so this commandment is, to use a legal term, overinclusive: It’s a law that protects people it should not. But curiously, it is also underinclusive, failing to protect people it should. Since the code already mandates blind respect, it could easily be improved by extending the requirement to honor to all one’s family, or better yet, one’s fellow human beings. However, if blind respect is to be mandatory, perhaps the best formulation would require that every human deserves the chance to earn respect. One might justifiably end a moral code there and have done better than the Judeo-Christian god.
If the true purpose of this commandment is not to spread familial bliss, as seems evident by its shortcomings, what might it be? There are three possibilities: (1) ensuring obedience, (2) supporting priests, and (3) supporting the clan. All three purposes work to perpetuate the religion that issued the mandate. This commandment is not about honor and respect; it is about obedience and power.
The idea is simple: Honor your God-fearing parents if you want a reward. And since parents will worship the biblical god with no other gods before him, this commandment helps ensure the worship of the “correct” deity. This commandment teaches obedience at an early age and comingles household obedience with obedience to god.
Gaylor was correct to describe the fifth commandment as the authoritarian culmination of the previous orders. That authoritarianism — the veneration of authority — may have helped elect Donald Trump.
With his immodesty, lack of liturgical and scriptural knowledge, and “unChristian behavior,” Trump seemed like an improbable choice for American evangelicals. Yet 81 percent of white evangelicals supported him in 2016, more than supported Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush.
Trump’s dictatorial tendencies and mendacity, negative attributes for many voters, poised him perfectly to manipulate the evangelical mind. Like the biblical god evangelicals worship, Trump is a thin-skinned authoritarian with totalitarian tendencies. He craves love and punishes any disloyalty or slight. Evangelicals have been taught to worship and adore that type of being above all others. This strain of religion cultivates a veneration for extreme authority. Studies bear this out: Religious fundamentalism and a tendency to submit to authoritarianism are highly correlated. Trump acted like the character evangelicals worship and benefited from their ingrained adulation. Evangelicals were simply seeing in Trump a character they’d been taught to revere.
With the evangelicals’ ready heart comes an overly receptive mind, a blind faith in the righteousness of the strongman authority. If he says something, it is true. It becomes an article of faith, not an issue of fact or evidence or reality.
Evangelicals believe in virgins giving birth, talking snakes, and all manner of obvious falsehoods. The religious mind is primed to accept lies. Presented with an extraordinary claim, it does not demand extraordinary evidence, but instead engages faith to overcome skepticism. Their religion has taught evangelicals to accept, rather than to question. Trump’s constant waterfall of outright lies landed on amenable minds. His support was greater among regular churchgoers than among lukewarm believers. The greater the faith, the more subordinate healthy skepticism becomes. So, the biblical fetish for totalitarians may have helped America elect its first.
The U.S. Constitution honors individual rights over naked authority. The fifth commandment is about perpetuating religion, ensuring obedience and venerating authority. It had no influence on America’s founding.
“It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.
“We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.” — James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785)
The last mass I witnessed was during a full Catholic wedding. The priest mentioned the happy couple about 60 times — a respectable number, given that we had gathered together to celebrate them. But the priest was also able to mention his church and God more than 235 times. The Catholic Church is co-opting the prestige of more illustrious events, people and moments for itself. Two people dedicate their lives to each other, and religion injects itself in the middle.
Christian Nationalism excels at this type of piracy and imposition. It attempts, like the Catholic priest at those weddings, to bask in unwarranted glory. It seeks to co-opt undeserved greatness, accolades and credit. It claims a nation dedicated to the freedom of and 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. It declares that that revolution was the brainchild of a few Christians rather than of a group of unorthodox thinkers testing Enlightenment principles. It even claims universal human morality as its own invention.
Christian Nationalism also contends that the United States of America is exceptional because the nation was chosen by God, not because the Founders’ enlightened experiment was successful.
The sad irony of the myths of the Christian nation, biblical America, and Judeo-Christian principles is that they are born out of a misplaced zeal to revive or extend American exceptionalism. Trump and his Christian Nationalist brethren want a return to a Christian nation; they want to “make America great again.” But religion did not make the United States, let alone make it great. “We the People” make America exceptional.
Religion is the millstone around the neck of American exceptionalism because religious faith denies experience and observation to preserve a belief. It is for this reason that it is unlikely to contribute to progress, though it will take credit for what science, rationality, experience and observation have accomplished. America succeeded as an experiment because it was based on reason. If we abandon reason in favor of faith — or if our elected leaders commit this sin — we are asking to regress. Not to some golden age, but to a time “when religion ruled the world . . . called the Dark Ages,” to borrow from Ruth Green.
The foundational claim of the Christian Nationalist identity — that Judeo-Christian principles influenced American principles — must be discarded. Christian principles conflict with American principles.
Ben Franklin cautioned, “When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
By seeking to graft their religion on to the structure of the American government, the Christian Nationalists are simply showing their religion to be “a bad one.” Not only bad, but also, according to Thomas Jefferson, erroneous, for “it is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”
Christian Nationalism, by its very existence, admits the weakness of Christianity’s truth claims, the frailty of a morality based on supernatural authority, and the shortcomings of an antiquated book. As with the Catholic wedding, Christian Nationalists’ attempt to co-opt the power and prestige of the American Enlightenment for their own ends says far more about their insecurity and the genuine blindness of their faith than it does about America’s founding.
Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and a constitutional attorney.