“The fact that the [United States’] founders chose to keep religion and government separate speaks volumes. By protecting the freedom of religion and divorcing government and religion, the founders guaranteed that religion would flourish in the new country. The benefits they thought necessary for the common people would be assured by keeping the two separate forever.”
This dichotomy presented in Andrew Seidel’s book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (2018) — church and state on either side of a “wall of separation” (Thomas Jefferson coined the term) — was the true “American dream” the Founding Fathers envisioned, not a white picket fence and “two cats in the yard” of that old Crosby, Stills and Nash tune, “Our House.”
“If the founders believed that religion was important to ensure moral behavior for the masses but not for themselves — the educated elite — it means the founders were moral without religion. It means they built a government using their own morality, not religion. And this eviscerates the Christian nationalist claim. That the founders did not look to the bible or religion turns out to be an important character trait for the formation of America.”
Seidel notes a “strong correlation between reformers and religious heterodoxy,” and that if the founders had been “bible-beating believers” they might never have declared independence from their colonial overlords and revolted against King George in the first place.
Indeed, the bible teaches the faithful that temporal leaders are chosen by God and should be followed.
Still, the elitism of educated founders deciding religion is necessary for the masses but not themselves is troubling in a modern American context. Elite “eggheads” have intermittently been derided by conservatives in U.S. politics, as they are in the current fact-averse, science-denying, anti-intellectual Republican environment encouraged by the Trump administration. But when the nation was being founded, only the elite had the literacy, education and knowledge to do the job.
However, it is clear that the founders also envisioned that the American body politic would one day be well enough educated to be rational, effective citizens in the free democratic republic.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” as Susan Jacoby quotes Jefferson in one of her chapter-leading epigrams in The Age of American Unreason (2018).
But “elite” is an arguable term.
“The entire concept [of equating elitism with intellecutal liberalism] is summed up by the right-wing rubric ‘the elites,’” wrote Jacoby. “Prominent right-wing intellectuals, who themselves constitute a prosperous and politically powerful elite, have succeeded brilliantly at masking their own privileged class status and pinning the label ‘elites’ on only liberals.”
So the late 18th century was a different time, and educated intellectual elites were viewed perhaps differently by “the masses.” And the elite, then as now, tried to behave with noblesse oblige — honorable intent obligated by privilege — toward those less educated and fortunate in their day.
One way they tried to do this was by creating a government that would, as far as they could ensure, provide a stable, peaceful environment for the nation and its mostly non-elite people to prosper and pursue happiness, as the Declaration of Independence famously proclaims. Europe’s bloody, centuries-long religious warfare as church and state (and sometimes church with state) battled over their spiritual biases warned America’s founders to be very wary of any religion in state affairs.
So, a “Christian nation” was not what these rational Enlightenment men had in mind, although the nation was originally and now incidentally remains populated mostly by Christians. What he founders had in mind, their truly revolutionary innovation, was secular government with a freely religious (and, if preferred, irreligious) society.
Seidel points out that the “central pillar” of American political philosophy is “enshrined” in the first three words of the Constitution are “We the People” (not “We the Godly Christian People,” or the like). Readers can infer from this that the power of American government and, thus, of the nation were bound up not in the divine but the down-to-earth will of all its citizens.
Jefferson intended that his words in the Declaration of Independence would, as he wrote later, be “the signal … to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded [men] to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
“As that language indicates and as we’ll see,” Seidel explained, “that philosophy makes the Declaration thoroughly anti-biblical.”
Which is to also say, non-Christian.
In a sense, even the Revolutionary War was a anti-sectarian exercise. As Seidel explained, Great Britain’s King George III was a pious monarch who saw himself as “not only the titular head of the Church of England, but also a faithful and active supporter.”
“His opposition to [the war] stemmed, at least in part, from his opposition to religious heterodoxy … George conflated morality with [in biographer Jeremy Black’s words] with ‘the ideal of a Christian people led by a Christian king.’”
Also keep in mind that the American Declaration and Constitution do not reference the personal God of Christianity but the remote, uninvolved deity of Enlightenment Deism. It was a hands-off divinity that created everything then disappeared ineffectually into the background of existence to let its creations play out as they might.
So, as Seidel exhaustively underscores in his book, to think of the United States as a Christian nation is to unconscionably ignore or willfully misinterpret our original history, foundational documents and the clear secular intent of the Founding Fathers.
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“Erudite yet readable … very illuminating”
— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”
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