Many Christians insist that the United States is a Christian nation, or should be a Christian nation, or was intended by its founders to be a Christian nation. It’s what makes ours the best country in the world, and maybe why God has blessed us (well, that and our unwavering support for Israel).
According to Pew Research, 45% of Americans (60% of Christians) believe America should be a Christian nation, and 1/3 believe we already are a Christian nation (my Muslim husband is very uncomfortable with this stat, as are millions of other Americans).
In the next few Grace-Colored Glasses posts, I will be sharing thoughts from Andrew Seidel’s revealing book, The Founding Myth. As I mentioned in the post introducing this series, Seidel is an atheist. He is, however, something of a Bible scholar – I daresay he knows our Bible better than most Christians.
Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: we’re using the Luther’s Catechism numbering system for the commandments. I’m pretty sure that’s how they appeared on the original stone tablets.
(Speaking of Luther, here’s a mini-backgrounder on me: I was born into a Missouri Synod Lutheran family, and attended Lutheran schools from kindergarten through college. My eyes were opened to a more progressive variety of Christianity just about nine years ago. Some things die hard – the numbering of the Ten Commandments is one of them!)
THE 1ST COMMANDMENT: You shall have no other gods before me.
Here are a few snippets about this commandment from Andrew Seidel’s book (Seidel does not capitalize God or Bible, and I have left them in lower case to reflect for his preference):
It would be difficult to write a law that conflicts more with America’s founding document, the Constitution, than this rule: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.”
First, our Constitution protects every citizen’s freedom to worship as they choose, chiefly by requiring and guaranteeing a secular government.
Second, [in America] the people, not god, are supreme. The Constitution’s first words are more poetic and quite obviously more reflective of American principles: “We the People.”
Let’s stop and ponder that for a moment. America is a democracy (or to be precise, a democratic republic). That means, at least in theory, that the people, not God, call the shots.
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This is as it should be. Not all Americans are Christians – and among those who are, their beliefs and practices vary widely. No one should be telling anyone how (or whom or whether) to worship. No one should be stopping anyone from worshiping either.
Seidel goes on:
The First Amendment is one of humanity’s greatest political and legal triumphs. Every fiber of that legal commandment stands opposed to the Judeo-Christian god’s Ten Commandments…The six rights enshrined in the First Amendment—secular government, religious freedom, free speech, free press, free assembly, and a right to petition the government—can be summed up as the freedom of thought.
This reminds me of the Garden of Eden: God desired the companionship of Adam and Eve, but he didn’t want them to feel obligated to serve him – he wanted them to do it freely. So he gave them free will. America’s founders may (or may not) have had a preference for Christianity (if you can’t guess which it is, read especially chapter 2 of The Founding Myth), but they didn’t want to force it on anyone.
A few more sentences from Seidel on obedience to God:
[T]he bible’s demand for slavish obedience prohibits rebellions of the very type that freed the American colonies from Great Britain: “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” [Isaiah 1:19-20].
There are many more passages in the bible that not only revere but also require servility, especially in the New Testament: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” [Ephesians 6:5–9]. “But I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” [John 14:31]. “Taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” [2 Corinthians 10:5].
I can picture some readers raising their voices in protest: “Wait. God is not forcing us to be obedient! He doesn’t need to threaten or command us. We willingly submit ourselves to God’s will.”
Let’s think about this for a minute.
When Moses presented the commandments to the Israelites, they responded, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3).
But in fact, they disobeyed God in big ways, and repeatedly.
The “gods” that caused the Israelites to stray were straightforward: golden calf (Exodus 32:1), Asherah (1 Kings 15:13, 2 Kings 23:14) the sun (2 Kings 23:11), and Molech (2 Kings 23:10), to name a few.
We Christians would never worship other gods, right?
The “gods” we worship are more cleverly disguised, but we sacrifice to them and obey them every day. Some of their names are Wealth, Power, Body Image, and Education. Do you know anyone who has sacrificed their children to the god of Wealth, or to the 2nd Amendment god? I know people who have sacrificed their friends to the god of Politics and its sidekick, the god of Being Right.
But I digress. We were talking about the First Commandment: God’s command that his people have no other gods. Not a suggestion – a command. Andrew Seidel indicates that this is incompatible with the First Amendment. A nation that is commanded to obey God only does not have freedom (of religion or from religion) – even if some of us “want” to obey.
Seidel is not wrong. It’s undeniable: the First Amendment hobbles the First Commandment – but only on the public level. It does not hinder us from worshiping God – it only means we are free to worship God or not worship God.
God commanded the Israelites – that’s fine. They were a set-apart people. We are a melting pot. The same rules simply do not apply to us as a nation.
America’s original sin
Ephesians 6:5-9 (above) offers an illustration of obedience to God: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling… as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” That’s right: Paul condones the enslavement of humans. This is one of many Bible passages that do so.
Endorsement of slavery is a huge (and legitimate) criticism that many people raise about Christianity and the alleged infallibility of the Bible).
Ephesians 6:5-9 enabled Christians – Christians! – to support the institution of slavery when it obviously should have been condemned. Christians in the South fought and died in an attempt to preserve slavery in their states.
Maybe that’s a sign that slavery was a god – or maybe the wealth that plantation owners got on the backs of enslaved people was a god.
When the pressure was high enough, we American Christians acted like we had forsaken that god, but we had not. We just re-engineered it to blend in a bit better with the landscape – and called it “segregation.”
We – we Christians – have had a long procession of gods in America – but we use the Bible to rationalize our false worship, and refuse to see it as sin. “I will glorify God by climbing the ladder of success”; “if I have the best car/house/phone/clothes, people will ask me how I got so fortunate, and I will give God the glory”; “when I humiliate this person with whom I disagree, they will realize they are wrong, and it may lead them to Jesus.”
(Maybe we don’t always express our rationale in so many words. I believe many of us pursue what we want simply because we want it. We are our own god. If we give God a thought, it’s along the lines of, “God, give me the desires of my heart”, or “God, bless my effort” – or we just assume that God is on board with us.)
We Christians have not been able to obey the first commandment; we Christians have been slow to condemn evil.
But more to the point, our Constitution protects us from becoming a Christian nation.
Because, based on our track record, that would surely be our downfall.
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OTHER POSTS THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU:
- Did you know? The “pro-life” party is also pro-suicide
- Texas wants to take away religious liberty
- Gun violence and the “politicization” of dead children
- Catholic church sex abuse scandal in the light of eternity
- Is there such a thing as too much Scripture?
- How the Bible helps us demonize the poor
- What evangelical certainty looks like