The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, by Andrew L. Seidel (New York: Sterling, 2019, ISBN 978-1454933274). 343 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.
The term game changer is tossed around too often in publishing these days. That’s a shame, because every now and then, a book comes along that really does change the game. However, if we make that claim too often, such tomes might get overlooked.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with Andrew L. Seidel’s new book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. It deserves to be widely read, discussed, and, most importantly, shared.
Seidel, an attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, makes an argument that is simultaneously familiar yet groundbreaking: There are so many pieces of evidence (chief among them the text of our own Constitution) that the United States was not founded to be an officially “Christian nation” that only the historical creationists of the religious Right and those they mislead continue to resist.
Seidel takes the argument one step beyond. Not only is the United States not founded on the Ten Commandments, Christianity, or “biblical values,” the nation’s core principles are often in relentless conflict with those concepts. In other words, many of our country’s foundational values clash sharply with what the Bible offers—so much so that what the Founders built can be best interpreted as a conscious rejection of a “biblical” society.
Here are a couple of examples:
- The Declaration of Independence is a radical document that promotes rebellion. The Bible does not. That tome advises that you obey the government—no matter how bad it is, apparently.
- Biblical punishments are harsh and extreme, as is to be expected from a volume written during a pre-literate, pre-scientific age. The Bill of Rights, by contrast, is based on Enlightenment principles and bans “cruel and unusual punishment.”
- The Bible speaks of government frequently, but the governments it promotes are nothing like the structure the Founders bequeathed us. As Seidel puts it, “There is no whiff of representative government in the Bible.” Instead, that book speaks of autocratic kings and theocracies. The Founders did not consult the Bible when building our government; they turned instead to ancient Greek city-states and pre-Christian Rome.
Section III of the book, “The Ten Commandments vs. The Constitution,” is especially useful. Here Seidel methodically breaks down each commandment and explains why it clashes with the U.S. Constitution and legal principles. It’s easy to see that commandments that attempt to control what god people worship and how they worship have no reflection in American law. After all, our First Amendment guarantees the freedom to believe (or not) as the individual sees fit. But Seidel goes far beyond that, much to the reader’s benefit.
Consider the commandments that bar murder, lying, and theft. These are often cited by members of the religious Right as evidence that U.S. laws reflect biblical principles (even though such laws are common-sense and undoubtedly stretch back to the time when people began living together in an organized manner). As Seidel notes, these commandments as originally written were limited to a certain set of believers. Therefore, you were commanded not to kill, lie to, or steal from fellow believers. You could do what you wanted to “heathens.” Modern translations of the Bible blur this important distinction, but as Seidel points out, the text as originally understood stands in stark contrast to U.S. law, which makes it a crime to murder your neighbor whether he belongs to your faith or not.
Even a commandment such as the one against coveting can be problematic. Seidel puts it bluntly: “Even Americans with no historical or legal training should recognize that coveting is the basis of American capitalism and our consumer society.” He’s right. For better or worse, many Americans’ desire to keep up with the Joneses by getting a bigger house or flashier car turns the wheels of the national economy. Furthermore, it’s not illegal to merely want what your neighbor has. (Breaking into his or her house and taking what you want is another matter, of course.) Again, a simplistic religious dictate conflicts with the more nuanced scope of American law.
The Founding Myth is also notable for its takedown of “civil religion.” The tendency of the government to endorse religion in a generic way—“under God” slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” stamped on money, and the like—is ubiquitous. As Seidel notes, none of this stuff goes back to the founding period. Most of it is of relatively recent vintage and can be traced to the country’s struggle with “godless communism” during the Cold War. Seidel’s discussion of the Cold War–era hysteria that sparked so much civil religion is one of the best I’ve read. As more and more Americans declare their independence from organized religion and embrace the label “None,” it’s high time we had a national discussion about whether a government that constantly affirms the existence and value of a generic god makes sense for us any more—or if it indeed ever did. If Seidel’s book jumpstarts that conversation, we’ll all be better off.
The book contains many other fascinating tidbits. I’ve long wondered when presidents (and pretty much every other politician) started ending every speech with “God bless America.” Seidel traces it back to President Richard M. Nixon, hardly a paragon of virtue. And did you know that the first law passed by the U.S. Congress was a measure dealing with the language of oaths of office? Early versions of the oath contained two references to God. Both were removed, and President George Washington signed the bill. (Speaking of Washington, Seidel does an admirable job rescuing our first president from the clutches of Christian fundamentalists by marshaling a mountain of evidence that indicates that the man simply wasn’t that devout.)
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that Seidel is a friend of mine and a professional colleague. I read an early draft of the book and was enthusiastic—and for good reason. Given the relentless assault on church-state separation emanating from the Trump-Pence administration, we need a book like this right now. And Seidel’s tome, employing a writing style that is user-friendly but instructive, fills that role.
The sad thing about The Founding Myth, though, is that it will likely be read by the already converted. That’s still a good thing because no matter how much you know about separation of church and state, you will learn things from it. But the people who really need to read it are those who have fallen under the spell of the religious Right’s fake “Christian America” history.
So consider buying two copies of The Founding Myth. Read one yourself and pass the other on to a family member or acquaintance who needs to hear its message. Or maybe consider mailing it to the White House.