America and the Christian Right: A Dangerous Combination

The danger of America's religiosity is not lost on the a-theist, the non-theist, the secularist or even the deist. It is known as the Christian Right and for years has dominated the views of some American news organizations and special interest groups. It also attempts to influence public education, for example the movement in Texas to ban Jefferson from American History textbooks because as a deist he did not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ. I offer an excerpt from the book 'Christian America and the Kingdom of God', authored by Richard T. Hughes, which provides an historical account of the development of this absolutist and intolerant religion.

"Thirty-five years ago, in a time that seems like ancient history to most young people today, the eminent social critic Robert N. Bellah wrote a book that illumines the current American crisis with devastating precision. I do not use the phrase, "American crisis," casually. All Americans, whether on the right, the left or in between, understand that the nation is now in a crisis of significant proportions. But most Americans fail to grasp how deeply that crisis runs. Liberals and conservatives alike seem to think that the core of the American crisis stems from a flagging economy and the threat from Islamic terrorists. But the American crisis runs much deeper than that. Ultimately, the crisis is a religious one, and that is the point that Bellah's book, The Broken Covenant, helps us to see. The Christian Right stands at the heart of our current crisis since, for 30 years and more, the Christian Right has so successfully eaten away at the core, bedrock values that shaped this nation at its founding. To advance this argument, of course, is to advance an irony, since the Christian Right has claimed from its inception that others -- especially liberals, secularists and humanists -- were eroding the values of the nation that they sought to affirm and protect. And precisely in that claim we find the seeds of the current American crisis. Although the Christian Right as a movement is now in decline, its enduring legacy continues to undermine the nation's values. It obscures the Founders' intentions, distorts the Christian faith and, for both those reasons, it threatens the health of the nation. To sort this out, we must acknowledge several historical facts. First, many of the Founders who framed the core American values in the Declaration of Independence were Deists -- people who affirmed God as the governor and providential sustainer of the universe, but who denied the deity of Jesus Christ. Many others, as Professor Mark Hall has demonstrated, were more orthodox in their Christian convictions. And even the Deists -- people like Jefferson and Franklin -- had roots embedded so deeply in the Jewish and Christian traditions that it is impossible to imagine the American version of Deism apart from its profoundly biblical underpinnings. In spite of the Founders' strong religious convictions, many Christians of that period thought those convictions inadequate at best and diabolical at worst. Many orthodox Christians, therefore, routinely labeled the Founders -- especially Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration -- as infidels and atheists who promoted "the morality of devils." Three factors lay behind the Christian attack on the Founders in the early 19th century. First, orthodox Christians quite accurately understood that some of the Founders were Deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus. Second, the Declaration of Independence grounded the religious meaning of the American experiment not in a God exclusively revealed in the biblical text, but in "Nature and Nature's God". That is, in the God all humans can know and understand through nature, quite apart from the biblical revelation. And third, orthodox Christians in the early 19th century were profoundly disappointed in the fact that Christianity -- indeed, all religion and all reference to God whatsoever -- was simply missing from the Constitution.

When the Founders finally addressed the topic of religion in the First Amendment, they did so in a negative, prohibitive way: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In spite of the claims of the Christian Right today, the simple truth is this: The Founders had no intention of creating a "Christian America." In fact, they categorically rejected the idea of a Christian nation for one important reason: They knew the history of the "Christian nations" of Europe, nations that had persecuted non-conformists and waged war against countries that embraced a form of the Christian faith different from their own. The Founders, therefore, hoped to create a nation that honored religious diversity, a nation in which everyone would be free to practice any religion or none. In light of the current hostility toward Muslims and the many recent attempts to ban their mosques and restrict their religious freedom, the Founders' stance on Islam is instructive. Jefferson, for example, argued that America should extend complete freedom of religion not just to Christians but to the "Mahamdan," the Jew, and the "pagan" as well. And following passage in Virginia of his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), he reaffirmed the bill's intent: "To comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan." Washington helped Muslims "obtain proper relief" from a Virginia bill that would tax them to support Christian worship. And pointing to the Founders' high regard for religion broadly conceived, and not for Christianity alone, Benjamin Rush affirmed his preference to "see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles." But many orthodox Christians resisted this sort of broad toleration and hoped to create instead a distinctly Christian nation. Why were so many orthodox Christians of that period so fearful of religious freedom, so hostile toward the Founders and so insistent that the United States should become a Christian nation? The answer to that question emerges when we consider that all European immigrants to America in the late-18th and early-19th centuries came from countries that maintained an officially established church. That was all they knew. Christians who had experienced oppression at the hands of a European or colonial state church -- Baptists and Quakers, for example -- obviously worked with the Founders to promote religious freedom. But Christians who had belonged to legally established churches -- Anglicans and Puritans, for example -- could not imagine that a stable state could exist apart from uniformity of religion. And so, in the early 19th century, many Christians joined hands to launch a massive, popular movement to achieve by persuasion what they could not achieve by coercion or force of law: Christianizing the American republic."

 

The remnants of this effort still exist today as the Christian Right, though it is doubtful that those who adhere to this absolutist religion understand its origins.

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