Convention speech: Andrew L. Seidel — Constitution belongs to ‘We the People’

Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, speaks at the national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Andrew L. Seidel says his goal is to “utterly destroy this un-American ideology” of Christian Nationalism. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Andrew L. Seidel speaks in October about his book, The Founding Myth, with Isaac Kramnick, right, who died in December. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Andrew L. Seidel at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker:

Andrew is the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He graduated from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and he graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School in 2009, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. Andrew studied human rights international law at the University of Amsterdam, completing his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law in 2011.

He was also one of FFRF’s student essay contest winners that year, which is how we met him. Andrew joined FFRF as a constitutional attorney on Halloween 2011 and ever since then he’s been scaring the hell out of the Religious Right.

He also writes for many other publications including Think Progress, Religion News Service, Rewire News and others. Andrew’s new book is called The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Please welcome Andrew.

By Andrew L. Seidel

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.

That is why I wrote The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Christian Nationalism is not a scholarly debate. It is a sinister exclusionary idea. The goal is to redefine America according to the Christian Nationalist identity and then reshape our law accordingly. Christian Nationalism is the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that is based on Judeo-Christian principles and, most importantly, that we’ve strayed from that foundation. Now we’ve got to get back to our godly roots. They use that language of return to justify all manner of evil public policy.

Christian Nationalists seized power in 2016. The best predictor of a Trump voter in 2016 was thinking that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. So, Trump tapped into this fearful undercurrent of Christian Nationalism and he rode it into the most powerful office in the land. And since then he and his administration chockablock full of Christian Nationalists have been implementing this exclusionary public policy. You’ve seen it. They love to talk about it.

The Muslim ban is a really great example of this. Not only did it ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries, it also favored immigration for Christians, and the child separation policy at the border. The administration justified it. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, got up there and justified it using the bible. Romans 13 opposition to LGBTQ equality and opposition to reproductive rights is almost exclusively Christian Nationalist and it’s not just at the federal level. We are seeing it all across the states as well. There is a coordinated push.

Religion becoming law

They call it Project Blitz and it is unabashedly Christian Nationalist. Their religion is becoming the law. But there’s good news because the very identity of the Christian Nationalists depends on myths and lies. You’ve heard them before. Trump loves to spout them all. “One nation under God.” “In God we trust.” “The Declaration of Independence references the Christian God four different times.” “Our Founding Fathers were all the equivalent of evangelical Christians.” “They prayed at the Constitutional Convention.” “George Washington got down on his knees at Valley Forge in the snow and said a prayer.”

And my personal least favorite: that our law is based on the Ten Commandments. Without the historical cover that these myths and lies give, their policy justifications begin to crumble. Their identity begins to wither and fade, so their entire identity and political ideology is actually incredibly weak and vulnerable because it is based on these historical distortions and lies. 

But we need more than facts to fight back. We need better arguments. So, that is the purpose of The Founding Myth — to bury Christian Nationalism. It’s a lofty goal, I admit. I want to utterly destroy this un-American ideology. The book is not simply a refutation of the idea that we are founded as a Christian nation. Instead, I wanted to go deeper.

So, I asked, did Judeo-Christian principles positively influence the founding of the United States of America? And the answer to that question is no, they did not. In fact, it’s a good thing they didn’t because Judeo-Christian principles, and especially those principles that are central to Christian Nationalism, are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which this nation was built. There is such disagreement and conflict that it is fair to say, albeit bluntly, Christianity is un-American.

That is the argument I make. There are these two conflicting systems. They have irreconcilable differences so much so that the Founders had to divorce the two.

To make the argument in the book, I broke it up into four basic parts. Part one goes over the Founding Fathers and their personal beliefs. It also talks about the Declaration of Independence. I walk you through every one of those four references to God or the Christian God, supposedly in the Declaration, and I talk about our colonial history. And, again, what I’m trying to do in the book is give you better arguments. 

So, it is really fun to talk about the religion or lack thereof of the Founding Fathers. But if we do that, we are actually ceding a central point, and that is that it doesn’t matter what they personally believed about God or Jesus or any of that. What matters was their views on the separation of state and church. That’s why we need to be focusing on the Declaration of Independence. We can go over all of the references in there we can talk about it, but, at its heart, it is an anti-biblical document. The central points in it are that power comes from the people and the people have a right to overthrow and rebel against their government when it becomes tyrannical. Both of those central principles are refuted in the bible in Romans 13, the same chapter that supposedly justifies the child-separation policy at our border.

Part 2 of the book is called the “United States v. the Bible.” And here I really dig into those Christian principles that you can find in the bible. Things like hell, vicarious redemption through human sacrifice, biblical obedience and any notions of justice, and I compare those to America’s founding principles. Again, you see this fundamental disconnect.

Part 3 is where the book began. This book actually started out as a law review article that just got really, really out of hand. In this section, I compare the Ten Commandments to our founding principles and I walk you through every single one of the Ten Commandments and show that they really are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which our nation was built. All of them — yes, even the ones that you’re thinking of right now.

Part 4 is called “American Verbiage.” This is argument by idiom. These are the things that you all know and loathe: “In God We Trust.” “One nation under God.” “So help me God.” “God bless America.” Almost all of you know that none of those is from the founding generation. They’re all much later additions to the American vernacular. But our better argument is that these phrases were deliberately foisted on America during times of national fear and crisis by Christian Nationalists who were often seeking to wipe out earlier unifying phrases. “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many One”) replaced by “In God we trust,”  “one nation, indivisible” literally dividing the indivisible with God, historically the most divisive force known to humankind.

So, you have not read a book like The Founding Myth. It is different. Previous books have offered this gentle correction to the Christian Nationalists. Here’s what our Founding Fathers meant. Here’s what they actually said. This is the real history and they’ve kind of left it at that, but correction is not enough.

Facts are not enough

Facts are not enough. Pointing out errors is no longer sufficient. So, this book does that, but then it takes the next step. This book goes on the offensive because patriotism has no religion. This book is an assault on the Christian Nationalist identity. Not only are Christian Nationalists wrong, their beliefs and identity run counter to the ideals on which this nation was founded. They are un-American.

Christian Nationalists are not just un-American, they’re also thieves. Christian Nationalism seeks to steal America’s greatness, its accolades and credit. It insists that a nation with a godless Constitution is dedicated to one particular god. This is a religion that demands fearful unwavering obedience and it’s trying to claim credit for a rebellion against a godly king and a revolution in self-government. It declares that that revolution was the brainchild of a few pious Christians rather than a group of unorthodox thinkers testing Enlightenment principles.

Christian Nationalism also bears false witness. It claims that a nation dedicated to the freedom of and from religion was built for one particular religion. It seeks to bury a fundamental truth on which our republic rests. That there is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.

Christian Nationalism claims that the United States is exceptional because it was chosen, but a religion did not make America great, let alone make America at all. “We the People” make America great. America did not succeed because of Jesus or the bible. America succeeded as an experiment because it was based on reason. And if we abandon reason in favor of faith, or if we ask our elected leaders to commit this sin, we are asking to regress and not to some golden age but to a time when religion ruled the world, which was called the Dark Ages, as Ruth Green had said.

The Christian Nationalists will not go gently into the obsolescence for which they are bound. They have grown accustomed to religious privilege. They are used to imposing their beliefs on unsuspecting schoolchildren. They expect politicians to pay lip service to their duty and they demand acknowledgments of their god on government property.

But that time is ending. The end of Christian privilege is near. But you have to fight. As progress marches on, the lies exposed in this book will be professed more often, more loudly and with more desperation. You must be prepared to refute them factually and vocally. The Founding Myth gives you the facts and it gives you better arguments. You are responsible for the rest. Outspoken resistance is, to quote James Madison, the first duty of citizens.

Christian Nationalists have persuaded too many Americans to abandon our heritage, to spurn our secular foundations in favor of their myth. But America invented the separation of state and church. It is an American original. The idea was born in the Enlightenment, but was first implemented in the American experiment and it is time for us to reclaim that heritage and bury their lies.

This is not a Christian nation.

Our Constitution does not belong to the Christian Nationalists. It belongs to “We the People” — all of the people — and it’s about damn time that we take it back.

Purchase Andrew L. Seidel’s book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, from ffrf.org/shop and Andrew will donate his royalty to FFRF.

 

Q&A with Andrew L. Seidel

Here is a selection of Q&A from convention attendees to Andrew L. Seidel following his presentation.

Can you speak to the intersection of White Nationalism and Christian Nationalism?

Yes. So, if you’re looking at a Venn diagram, it’s a circle.

I know that FFRF frequently sends friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court. Do the judges read those?

The clerks certainly read those. The judges are supposed to read all that. Sometimes, I think they just get briefed by clerks on what is in them. But they can be effective, especially if you can make them stand out among the pack, which is something that we really work on doing.

I have a question about the intersection of the bible as the myth of the Christian Nationalists, but the Constitution as sort of the myth of the American people. Can you talk about how you dealt with that in your book?

Yeah, absolutely. I do get into that in the book, a lot. There are many of the principles that are in the Declaration and the Constitution that were aspirational at the time they were written and successive generations left it to their children to do the hard work of realizing a lot of those principles. 

I have devoted quite a few chapters in the book to this because it’s taken us a long time to get to the idea that all of us are equal, but I don’t think we’re there yet. There are a few places where I actually had to concede some influence to Christian Nationalists. It’s just not a positive influence.

I mean, seriously, slavery is a really good example. All of the justifications for slavery on the “we need to have slaves” side were religious. And it’s in the bible, it’s in the Ten Commandments twice. Jesus tells you how hard you have to beat your slaves in a parable. I mean, if you have a holy book that you can point to that says, “Yes, slavery is totally fine,” you’re gonna hang a hat on that. And they did.

And there were few other areas where I had to concede that influence. The subjugation of women is another area where Judeo-Christianity had a massive impact. And the fight for LGBTQ rights is another area where we have to concede some influence, but it’s not good influence. It’s a poisonous influence that we are trying to shake off and have been for centuries.

Could you address Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the taking over of the State Department’s website to promote his Christian leadership?

For people who did not see this, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, spoke in Nashville at this conference of Christian counselors. He basically said the bible should be a guidebook for leadership. He told everybody to read it, then used the secretary of state website to promote his talk. The Department of State’s website had this huge image of him with a link to his talk, including the full remarks. So, he’s using the resources of the state to promote his personal religion, which is Christian. That is Christian Nationalism. 

That’s exactly what we are working to fight. FFRF wrote a letter within a couple of hours of that happening. That did come down from the website shortly thereafter, but not just because of our letter. There was a huge outcry. This is what we are fighting.

And it’s not just Pompeo. That same day, Attorney General Bill Barr gave his really hateful speech at Notre Dame, where he weaponized religious liberty. He vilified nonreligious Americans, he bastardized American history and the law, and just spouted pure Christian Nationalism as the U.S. attorney general, which was nothing new.

We warned everybody that he had these views. He gave speeches that were very similar to that back in 1992. We warned Congress not to confirm him in this position for that very reason. So, nothing new there. But this is the kind of stuff that we are regularly fighting.