Do We Live in a Christian America? Not Quite
For many conservative American politicians and members of the fundamentalist right wing, the idea that our nation is God’s “chosen land" is a frequently invoked trope. But a new book by Steven K. Green, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, suggests this is a misreading of history.
For many conservative American politicians and members of the fundamentalist right wing, the idea that our nation is God’s “chosen land,” resting on a bed of Christian laurels, is a frequently invoked trope.
Take David Lane, a self-described conservative political consultant with ties to Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. “If America is going to be saved it will be done by Christian men and women restoring a Judeo-Christian culture to the country,” he told the Washington Times in 2014, arguing that the United States was unassailably established, as the Times summarized it, as a “Judeo-Christian nation.”
His friend, former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, takes this agenda one better. If elected, he promises to stop what he calls “the criminalization of Christianity” by liberal courts and legislatures and says that he intends to put God front-and-center through national repentance and public school prayer. “Our rights and freedoms come directly from God, not the government,” Huckabee tells viewers in a video called Learn Our History. What’s more, he fervently believes that “God’s special relationship with America makes us different from the rest of the world.”
Similarly, Flip Benham, head of the virulently anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-gay Operation Save America, is giddy at the thought of returning the United States to God and restoring the nation to its allegedly Christian foundation. His argument is based on the Mayflower Compact, a famous document penned by the Pilgrims as they sailed from the Old World to the New in 1620. In the World According to Flip, the Compact—and its emergence in the country’s governing documents—proves that the Europeans who settled America valued Christian piety and biblical values, and intended to create a hierarchical, God-fearing, society (regardless of the Native people already present).
The problem with this analysis, writes Willamette University professor Steven K. Green in Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, out this month from Oxford University Press, is that it is false, reflecting a serious misreading of U.S. history and a misunderstanding of the Compact’s intent and subsequent influence on documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Green notes that the Compact’s frequent references to the Almighty bolster the idea—accepted as gospel by the right—that the cornerstone of U.S. government comes directly from heaven.
In reality, however, heaven’s role was a bit more complicated, and the rationale for the Compact was a bit more opportunistic.
“The Compact was largely a pragmatic device for diffusing dissention among the passengers of the Mayflower,” Green writes, “caused, in part, by the decision to settle in New England rather than in the Hudson River Valley, as was planned and authorized by their patent.” Green also points out that nearly half of the passengers on board were not what he calls “religiously regenerate … In order to secure their commitment to the enterprise, the Pilgrim leaders had the passengers ‘Covenant and Combine themselves together into a Civil Body Politic,’ … a body politic to which they ‘promise[d] all due submission and obedience.’”
And herein lays the crux of the misinterpretation, Green writes, for the Pilgrims did believe that a rigid theocracy, led by a “spiritual aristocracy,” was the best system of governance. “Based on their biblically centered worldview,” Green explains, “Puritans argued that divine law … served as the basis and authority for all law, with applications extending to even mundane matters.” Some, like Plymouth Colony minister John Cotton, unsuccessfully lobbied for the death penalty to be imposed on anyone found guilty of idolatry, witchcraft, or Sabbath-breaking.
This strict theology did not endure, Green notes: By the early 1700s, Massachusetts had effectively silenced advocates of such severe punishment. Instead, the new government imposed the same secular Common Law practices that were by then in place in Virginia and in settlements of “nonconforming” Quakers. “By the time of the American revolution,” Green adds, “the Puritan-inspired Biblically based legal system was a relic of the past. There is no evidence that politicians and jurists of the founding era considered the Puritan experiment when they developed their legal system.”
Indeed, Green concludes that the flowery religious-sounding language of the Declaration of Independence, for example, may have been little more than kowtowing to the vernacular of the day. “Members of the founding generation lived in a social milieu in which religion played a prominent role, both privately and publicly,” he writes, “Religious terminology, metaphor, and allusion were a large part of popular discourse. Some of the more common religious language was ceremonial and customary (e.g., ‘in the year of our Lord’); other usages were habitual or were expected ingredients in exchanges between people.” Green believes this explains the religious references in the Declaration of Independence; still, he makes clear that by the time of the Constitutional Convention, the consensus was that government had no business interfering with people’s privately held ideas about God or faith, and hence had no business in the Constitution itself, except to state, once and for all, that the federal government could not impose any type of religious test on candidates for public office.
Oops. I sure hope someone breaks the news to David Lane and company—and the sooner the better.
But let’s get back to the real question: How did the myth of America’s Christian foundations develop and why it has been so hard to shake off?
The answer, Green writes, rests with longstanding and near-constant religious declarations by politicians—whether in stump speeches or when campaigning for office—that “perpetuate the impression that America was specially ordained by God and that the nation’s governing documents and institutions reflect Christian values.” Numerous misconceptions bolster this faulty belief system: among them, that God wanted the nation’s so-called founders to create a New Israel; that every founder was a devout and pious churchgoer; and that the founders’ faith was so ingrained that it infused everything they said and did.
But this wasn’t just the work of today’s 21st-century right-wingers, or even their fathers or grandfathers. Green argues convincingly—albeit in academically stilted and often repetitious language—that “the idea of America’s religiously inspired founding was a consciously created myth created by a second generation of Americans in their quest to forge a national identity, one that would reinforce their ideals and aspirations for the new nation.”
That’s right: According to Green, putting forward the idea of the United States’ Christian roots was basically a public relations stunt to fuel national cohesion and unite disparate groups of people. Indeed, clergy members and politicians spewed these messages so frequently—and the media repeated them with such vigor—that rank-and-file Americans simply began to believe that they were true.
In fact, in Green’s account, the initial impulse to conjure a mythical Christian history came in the immediate aftermath of George Washington’s death in 1799. “Politicians,” he writes, “praised his military exploits and political leadership, comparing him to Caesar and Cincinnatus, while clergy highlighted Washington’s moral virtues and religious piety.” In more than 550 separate eulogies, he was equated with Moses, Joshua, King David, and Jesus; some went so far as to claim that he had been selected by God to lead the nation into war and later, the presidency. A spate of hagiographic books celebrated his life and described him as a Scriptural literalist, a man whose every action was divinely inspired. Conveniently absent, Green quips, were references to the actual Washington whose beliefs were more in tune with “rational theism”—a philosophy steeped in the idea that “knowledge and goodness could be achieved through reason rather than through revelation and redemption.”
Nonetheless, the first president’s sanctification became the stuff of legend. In addition, endless repetition of stories glorifying him led many people to conclude, Green writes, “that God’s providential anointment of Washington as an agent of change meant that God had also been instrumental in the creation of America.”
This interpretation has rarely waned. For hundreds of years the idea that God is an indispensable partner in government—and that civil law is inadequate to counteract depravity and sin—has been repeatedly articulated by politicians, political aspirants, and Christian social-issue activists. These arguments have also been boosted in popular culture, such as by the influential writer and evangelical minister Tim LaHaye, whose popular Left Behind books and movies—which are available in 33 languages and have sold more than 60 million copies—make it seem as if there is a “Christian consensus” on American history. In other words, they promote the meme that ours is a blessed land, one that will be favored by the Almighty if we live Godly, Jesus-centered lives.
Which brings us back to today’s political terrain. For David Lane, Mike Huckabee, Flip Benham, and other conservative evangelicals, contemporary Christians are locked in a war against secularism. They see this as a high-stakes battle in which a “pagan” victory will damn America and render God, Christianity—and them—irrelevant. By using fear-based notions of damnation and wrath, they purport to know what God wants for the country and aim to reclaim the social restrictions that the Puritan supported.
Steven Green does not weigh in on these matters. In fact, he barely mentions the ongoing culture wars, the evangelical right-wing, or the religiously-inspired schisms that exist in 21st-century U.S. politics. This is unfortunate, since the issues raised in Inventing a Christian America are timely and important: In fact, we hear them from modern political figures on a regular basis. By confining the text to historical interpretation, Green missed an opportunity to link past and present. Then again, if Shakespeare was right, and the past really is prologue, there will be much to gain from looking back and grappling with the founders’ real desires and aspirations.