Pub­lic here­sies

What politi­cians mean when they say the U.S. was founded as a Christian na­tion

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Sam Haselby

Per­haps no as­pect of the Amer­i­can found­ing is as politi­cized to­day as the role of re­li­gion. Be they athe­ists or deeply de­vout, lib­er­als tend to see re­li­gious plu­ral­ism and equal­ity as de­fin­i­tive Amer­i­can val­ues, while the right wing (Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, for ex­am­ple) in­sists that the United States was founded as a Christian na­tion and that fos­ter­ing the coun­try’s Christian, or Judeo-christian, iden­tity is es­sen­tial. Those with “a sec­u­lar mind-set,” Ses­sions ar­gued in op­pos­ing Sonia So­tomayor’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court, do not un­der­stand “who we are” and ad­vance a world­view “di­rectly con­trary to the found­ing of our repub­lic.”

It’s an old de­bate, as old as the United States it­self. Yet, con­trary to Pence, Ses­sions and other Christian na­tion­al­ists, the range of views on what the role of re­li­gion in Amer­i­can life should be has ac­tu­ally grown nar­rower, and shal­lower, since the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­er­a­tion de­bated the mat­ter. There are many rea­sons not to want to re­turn to the pol­i­tics of the 18th cen­tury, but they did hold a richer dis­cus­sion about re­li­gion and so­ci­ety.

When to­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists look back at the past two cen­turies of his­tory, they see sec­u­lar ide­olo­gies at the root of con­flict and war. For Thomas Jef­fer­son and James Madi­son, how­ever, re­li­gion lay as the root cause of blood­shed and tyranny. They stood, in pro­found ways, closer to Martin Luther, and Galileo, than we do to them. Jef­fer­son de­scribed his and Madi­son’s at­tempts in the 1780s to es­tab­lish re­li­gious free­dom in Vir­ginia as “the sever­est con­tests in which I have ever been en­gaged.”

Nei­ther the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence nor the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, the coun- try’s char­ter doc­u­ments, are par­tial to Chris­tian­ity. The Dec­la­ra­tion ac­knowl­edges the author­ity of “the Laws of Na­ture” and the deists’ beloved “Na­ture’s God.” Of the 27 griev­ances against the Bri­tish Crown that the Dec­la­ra­tion puts for­ward, not one con­cerns re­li­gion. Like­wise, the Con­sti­tu­tion merely rec­og­nizes “free­dom of re­li­gion”; it doesn’t en­dorse Chris­tian­ity — it doesn’t even men­tion it. These omis­sions present to­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists with a real awk­ward­ness. It has forced ad­vo­cates of the “Christian na­tion” or “Judeo-christian na­tion” into strained tex­tual ex­ege­ses at­tribut­ing im­mense sig­nif­i­cance to the use of the Christian cal­en­dar for ex­am­ple, or elab­o­rate jus­ti­fi­ca­tions as to why a gen­er­a­tion of men and women who said ev­ery­thing some­how left this im­por­tant thing un­said.

There was even preva­lent, open hos­til­ity to Chris­tian­ity, in the form of anti-catholi­cism, in Rev­o­lu­tion­ary-era Amer­ica. The Amer­i­can Colonies were deeply, pro­foundly anti-catholic. Anti-catholi­cism was one of the few things the di­verse Colonies shared. Colonists were hor­ri­fied when Bri­tain, with the 1774 Que­bec Act, rec­og­nized Que­bec’s Catholics as de­serv­ing equal pro­tec­tion of the law. The Con­ti­nen­tal Congress protested, claim­ing that Catholi­cism as a re­li­gion that had “del­uged” Bri­tain in blood and “dis­persed impi­ety, big­otry, per­se­cu­tion, mur­der and re­bel­lion through ev­ery part of the world.”

Then, as now, most Chris­tians in the world were Catholics. Claim­ing that peo­ple moved by deep prej­u­dice against most of world’s Chris­tians wanted to form a “Christian na­tion” makes no sense. The prob­lem can­not be solved by sim­ply de­volv­ing to “Protes­tant na­tion.” Bri­tain was known as the sword and shield of Protes-

tan­tism, set against a hos­tile Catholic con­ti­nent. In what form of Protes­tantism, ex­actly, did the United States rise up in re­bel­lion against the 18th cen­tury world’s stan­dard-bearer of Protes­tantism? Pos­si­ble an­swers quickly be­gin to look rather sec­tar­ian, ren­der­ing any un­der­stand­ing of “Christian na­tion” into some­thing very nar­row, per­haps some kind of pro­vin­cial coun­try de­nom­i­na­tion.

So there are in­su­per­a­ble ob­sta­cles to the Christian na­tion­al­ist po­si­tion. But there is also a ne­glected and fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, key to Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence. Quite sim­ply, Amer­ica’s first pa­tri­ots were acutely Christian and did en­vi­sion, at least, an acutely Christian, which to them meant Protes­tant, na­tion. They is­sued the first calls for Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence. More specif­i­cally, Amer­ica’s first na­tion­al­ist move­ment was a small group of young New Eng­land writ­ers at Yale Col­lege who were fiercely Christian. Ti­mothy Dwight and John Trum­bull were the group’s found­ing mem­bers, and by 1769, at the Yale Col­lege com­mence­ment, they pub­licly protested for Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence. Noah Web­ster, of dic­tio­nary fame, would later come into the group, too.

These young writ­ers, who called them­selves the Con­necti­cut Wits, were ter­ri­ble po­ets, but they were vi­sion­ary Amer­i­can na­tion­al­ists. Dwight’s epic poem, “The Con­quest of Canaan,” por­trayed an in­de­pen­dent Amer­ica as the new Holy Land. He be­gan it in 1771. Most Amer­i­cans, by con­trast, sup­ported rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Bri­tain well into 1776. Years later, Dwight would com­plain that for their early, open ad­vo­cacy of Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence they had suf­fered years of ridicule and con­tempt. Trum­bull’s 1773 poem “An El­egy of the Times” is a clear, re­peated call, steeped in New Eng­land Protes­tantism, for na­tion­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion. Though I’ve never met any­one to­day who has read it, Trum­bull’s 1775 poem “M’fin­gal” was the best-sell­ing poem of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. It went through 30 edi­tions, a feat no other Amer­i­can poet man­aged un­til Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low in 1847. “M’fin­gal” is a lam­poon of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment and a scle­rotic Great Bri­tain in the name of en­light­ened and vi­tal in­de­pen­dent, Protes­tant Amer­ica.

Here we have bona fide, as well as forth­right and pre­scient, 18th cen­tury Amer­i­can Christian na­tion­al­ists. Of course, you won’t see them in­voked by to­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists — for a cou­ple of rea­sons.

One, iron­i­cally, is that the Wits wrote too much, in too much de­tail, about how Christian Amer­ica should look. As a result, it’s ob­vi­ous that their vi­sion does not eas­ily fit with that of to­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists. Amer­ica’s 18th cen­tury Christian na­tion­al­ists, for ex­am­ple, were in­ter­ested in God and the­ol­o­giz­ing. To­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists pre­fer Je­sus and evan­ge­liz­ing. Amer­ica’s 18th cen­tury Christian na­tion­al­ists wanted the state to reg­u­late al­most ev­ery as­pect of life, from education to com­merce to re­li­gion. To­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists de­pend po­lit­i­cally on an al­liance with anti-statist cap­i­tal­ists; in­deed, this in some ways odd al­liance forms the ba­sis of modern con­ser­vatism.

Sec­ond, in the story of Amer­i­can na­tional his­tory, Amer­ica’s 18th cen­tury Christian na­tion­al­ists are losers. They lost a bat­tle for po­lit­i­cal con­trol of the United States to the deists Jef­fer­son and Madi­son, and to the rest of the South­ern planters, whom they de­spised. In De­cem­ber 1814 and Jan­uary 1815, dur­ing the War of 1812, these early Christian na­tion­al­ists’ alien­ation cul­mi­nated in the Hart­ford Con­ven­tion, in which a group of their close al­lies, state and fed­eral of­fice­hold­ers from Con­necti­cut and Mas­sachusetts, met and is­sued a se­ries of de­mands. Their most rad­i­cal demand? They wanted the three-fifths clause, which in ef­fect gave South­ern planters 66 votes for ev­ery 100 slaves they owned, ban­ished from the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. If their de­mands were not met, the Hart­ford Con­ven­tion threat­ened to se­cede from the United States. The threat mis­judged the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, how­ever, and helped de­stroy the Fed­er­al­ist Party that served their po­lit­i­cal ve­hi­cle.

Jef­fer­son ex­ulted at the Hart­ford Con­ven­tion’s mis­cal­cu­la­tion — their “mor­ti­fi­ca­tion,” he called it. Un­der any other gov­ern­ment, he wrote, “their trea­sons would have been pun­ished by the hal­ter,” that is by ex­e­cu­tion. Hart­ford, to Jef­fer­son, il­lus­trated the New Eng­lan­ders’ “re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal tyranny.” He com­pared them to pros­ti­tutes, “bawds,” who found in re­li­gion “a refuge from the de­spair of their loath­some vices.” Strong words, from one of Amer­ica’s founders, against the first Amer­i­can pa­tri­ots, and the coun­try’s orig­i­nal Christian na­tion­al­ists.

The his­tory of re­li­gion and the Amer­i­can na­tional found­ing does not of­fer sim­ple sup­port to either to­day’s Christian na­tion­al­ists or the lib­eral sec­u­lar­ists, who also tend to claim some kind of consensus ex­isted among the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­er­a­tion. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to no­tice that much has been lost from the Con­necti­cut Wits’ 18th cen­tury Christian na­tion­al­ism. They thought deeply about Chris­tian­ity, gov­er­nance and the broad so­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of a truly Christian state. If the deists were pre­oc­cu­pied with free­dom, the Christian na­tion­al­ists were as pre­oc­cu­pied with how so­ci­ety must fa­cil­i­tate grace.

By com­par­i­son, to­day’s de­bate is rather stark, with Christian na­tion­al­ists such as Pence and Ses­sions, or Education Sec­re­tary Betsy Devos and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-neb., com­mit­ted to an evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tant vi­sion that comes down to lit­tle more than pro-life pol­i­tics, home school­ing and rote pa­tri­o­tism. Anti-re­li­gious lib­er­als, such as co­me­dian Bill Ma­her, on the other hand, don’t know much about re­li­gion at all.

Why has such a vi­brant de­bate dimmed to a litany of talk­ing points? Par­tially, the an­swer is that Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity has changed. But more im­por­tant, rather than a his­tor­i­cal dis­agree­ment or a philo­soph­i­cal one, to­day’s ar­gu­ment about whether Amer­ica was founded as a Christian na­tion is a po­lit­i­cal one. Ar­gu­ing whether the United States was founded as a Christian na­tion is usu­ally just a coded way of as­sert­ing about what kind of na­tion we want Amer­ica to be. That’s a dis­cus­sion worth hav­ing, and hav­ing it di­rectly, without bad his­tor­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions — an en­deavor Amer­ica’s Founders could have re­spected.

AP file

An 1800 por­trait de­pict­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son by artist Rem­brandt Peale. For Jef­fer­son, re­li­gion lay as the root cause of blood­shed and tyranny. Jef­fer­son de­scribed his and James Madi­son’s at­tempts in the 1780s to es­tab­lish re­li­gious free­dom in Vir­ginia as “the sever­est con­tests in which I have ever been en­gaged.”

Jupiter Images, AP file

Nei­ether the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, left, nor the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, the coun­try’s char­ter doc­u­ments, are par­tial to Chris­tian­ity.

Sam Haselby is a his­to­rian, an edi­tor at Aeon Mag­a­zine and the au­thor of “The Ori­gins of Amer­i­can Re­li­gious Na­tion­al­ism.”

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