Myth of the Christian Nation

One of the more enduring myths on the religious right is the notion that America is a “Christian” nation, or at the very least a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Despite having no basis in fact or history this has become central to conservative mythology. One hears it from virtually every Republican politician, and it’s always accepted uncritically by conservative commentators and audiences.

Earlier this week, Republican candidate for president Ben Carson repeated this on Fox News, and he did it in typical nonchalant fashion, as though it were a truism. Near the end of a rambling interview about traditional marriage and religious liberty, Carson said: “This is a Judeo-Christian nation, in the sense that a lot of our values are based on a Judeo-Christian faith.”

This statement isn’t remotely true but it reflects a widespread ignorance about American history. America is currently populated by a majority of Christians, but this isn’t a Christian nation in any meaningful or legal sense. This inconvenient distinction is often lost on conservatives, and it’s why they’re under the impression that the government should respect their religious morality at the expense of all others (i.e., Kim Davis/Mike Huckabee).

There are two primary ways to argue that America is a Christian nation: One is to claim that our laws and Constitution are grounded in Christian values. The other is to say that the Founders of the country were Christians and that they conceived the government on the basis of those beliefs.

Both of these arguments are patently false.

First, the Constitution, which is sacrosanct in conservative circles (the parts they like anyway), makes no mention of Jesus, the Bible, Christianity or even God. In fact, when it does mention religion, it’s to prohibit the state from favoring one over another. When confronted with this fact, Christians eagerly point to the Declaration of Independence, particularly the part that reads “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

But again, with no mention of the Bible, Jesus, etc. that statement in no way justifies the view that America is a specifically Christian nation. Nearly all religious traditions have a “Creator.” Plus, even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that “all men are created equal” and posses “inalienable rights” are not values that the writers and early (or even many current) practitioners held.

As for the Founders themselves, many of them were deists, not Christians and certainly not Christians in the sense that Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal are. John Adams, for instance, the principal author of the Massachusetts constitution and our second president, signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of the Independence and our third president, wrote in the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom (the precursor to the First Amendment) “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

There is nothing unclear about the Founders’ intentions in other words. America’s political roots are decidedly secular, only fundamentalists are confused about this.

The irony of all this is that the Founders (most of them, at least) are precisely the kind of people modern conservatives openly hate. They were elitist European-style intellectuals who were inspired by the (for the time) progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. They looked to history and Western philosophy for guidance, not to the Bible. They wanted to create a government based on classical republican principles not divine-right monarchy, the preferred method of government found in the Bible. No objective or disinterested analysis of our founding documents suggests otherwise.

Conservatives can (and almost certainly will) ignore this, but that doesn’t change the fact that America is and was intended to be a secular republic, not a Christian theocracy. If the myth of America as a Christian nation endures among conservatives, it’s because people like Ben Carson repeat it endlessly without evidence and for political purposes.

So What Would A “Christian Nation” Actually Look Like?

A frequent refrain among the religious right and Republicans is that the United States of America is a “Christian nation”, or that this country was founded on “Christian principles.” Last week, I shared a story where textbooks in Texas will now teach that Moses was the originator of democracy.

It’s worth calling attention to the obnoxious rhetorical ploy of using “Christian values” to refer to very specific, right-wing beliefs: preemptive war, gay-bashing, tax cuts for the rich, creationism in schools, deregulating corporations, dismantling the social safety net, the standard Republican package. As if they owned or had the right to define all of Christianity. In reality, there’s such a huge diversity of opinion among self-professed Christians that the term “Christian values” could mean nearly anything.

This broad range of opinion comes about because the Bible never mentions many of these issues, and addresses others in only vague or contradictory passages scattered throughout its individual books. This gives individual Christians wide latitude to find support in the text for virtually any political position you’d care to name.

However, there’s one area where there’s much less room for debate, and that’s the question of political organization. The Bible sets out a very clear picture of what its authors believed the ideal state would look like. We can compare this statement to the dictates of the Bible to see what it would mean to have a government based on “Christian values.”

But right away there’s a huge problem; the Bible’s ideal government is unequivocally theocracy via divine-right monarchy, a system of governance where the church and the state are one, where there’s an official religion which all citizens are required to profess, and where law is made by a single supreme ruler and enforced by the priesthood.

The New Testament itself teaches the virtue of submission to authority figures. It states unequivocally that earthly rulers, even when they are unjust, are ordained to their position by God and that Christian believers should obey them without question and those who resist are in peril of eternal damnation (Romans 13:1-2).

All these ideas, so clearly advocated in the Bible seem contrary to what the United States stands for. The idea of divine-right kingship is what our founders successfully rebelled against in bringing forth this country. Americans have a long and colorful history of debate, protest, and civil disobedience. The right to criticize our leaders is sanctified in the Constitution.

So, in an attempt to clear up these apparent contradictions, I’ll list some of America’s core defining principles as given in the Constitution, and examine whether any of them could plausibly be said to come from Christianity or the Bible.

Republican democracy:

The Constitution: Through a public ballot open to all adult citizens, Americans elect candidates who will represent them at the local, state and federal levels. All officials of the American government are either directly elected by the people or are appointed by others who are elected (Article I & II).

The Bible: Despite the fact that Athens adopted democracy around 500 BCE and Rome was a republic from ~510 BCE until 44 BCE, the Bible never even mentions democracy. As stated above, rather than democracy, the Bible’s preferred model of government is  divine-right monarchy, where one individual is hereditarily chosen and wields supreme power. In fact, it stands to reason that Jewish and early Christian authorities hated the concept of democracy since to them it would have been a strange, backward tradition invented and practiced by pagans.

Separation of powers:

The Constitution: The American government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Through various mechanisms, these three branches can check each other’s power – the president can issue pardons and veto legislation, Congress can override vetoes and pass constitutional amendments, and the courts can rule laws and executive actions unconstitutional – which ideally prevents too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one individual or group (Articles I-III).

The Bible: Again, in the Bible’s divine-right monarchy, a single individual wields supreme power over all functions of government. Some apologists seek to find an equivalent in a verse from Isaiah 33; “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king”.  What they overlook is that this verse explicitly envisions all three of these powers as being held by the same entity.

Federalism:

The Constitution: The U.S. is set up as a series of states with a limited degree of autonomy, united together and overseen by a central, federal government. Power is shared between the two, with some areas being the province of the states and others set by the federal authority (Article IV).

The Bible: There is actually a partial equivalence found for this in the Bible. In the Old Testament’s society, each of the twelve tribes of Israel had partial autonomy over its own region, which is somewhat similar to the American model of states. However, there is a notable difference. The Bible envisions membership in a tribe as hereditary, whereas states are made up of free collections of individuals who can move around at will. In any case, some sort of hierarchy is unavoidable in any organization too large for a single person to directly oversee.

The process of amendment:

The Constitution: The U.S. Constitution can be changed in any way, either to pass new clauses or to repeal existing ones if the proposed amendment is approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states (Article V).

The Bible: Rather than creating a living, dynamic system of laws that can be improved and mended as society sees fit, the Bible claims that its laws are eternal and immutable, literally set in stone, and can neither be added to nor changed. The Old Testament says that each of its laws “shall be a statute forever” (Leviticus 23:41), and the New Testament says that anyone who suggests a different gospel should be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).

Religious freedom:

The Constitution: Explicitly provides that no religious test shall ever be required for any public office in the United States (Article VI), nor shall the government officially establish any religion (Amendment I). No law which infringes on the free exercise of religion is permitted.

The Bible: Do I even need to get into this? Far from granting people the right to worship as they see fit, the Bible says that anyone who encourages believers to serve other gods, or anyone who speaks “blasphemy”, should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Leviticus 24:16). God himself joins in on many occasions by slaughtering people who worship different gods (Exodus 22:20). Although Jesus says that people should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), there is no indication that any non-Christian should enjoy the same freedom of worship as believers.

Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition:

The Constitution: The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that no law shall be passed which abridges the citizens’ freedom of speech, nor their right to protest and petition the government, nor the right of the press to report information on the events of the day.

The Bible: Explicitly denied. As above, the Bible does not grant freedom of speech, but rather threatens death for those who speak in unapproved ways. Ancient Israel had no concept of the press, but there are many cases in which people were killed for unapproved assemblies or for questioning their leaders (Numbers 16:35).

Protection from search and seizure:

The Constitution: The police force in America (theoretically) may not enter a person’s home or search their possessions without proving reasonable suspicion and obtaining the consent of an independent magistrate in the form of a search warrant (Amendment IV).

The Bible: No equivalent. Lacking any judicial system or separation of powers, the Bible has no notion of search warrants or of protection from arbitrary seizure.

Trial by jury:

The Constitution: Americans accused of crimes can only be convicted by a jury made up of people living in the area where the crime has taken place. In addition, people on trial have the right to confront witnesses against them and may not be compelled to testify against themselves (Amendment V & VI).

The Bible: Nope. Again, the Bible has nothing like our custom of the legal or judicial system. It does say that a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery can bring her before the priests and force her to drink “bitter water” which will cause her belly to swell and her thighs to rot if she is guilty (Numbers 5). If anything, this is most similar to the barbaric concept of trial by ordeal. It also says that anyone who accidentally kills someone may be killed without consequence by a relative of the deceased whom it calls the “avenger of blood” (Joshua 20). Again, no mention is made of convening a jury to determine the guilt of the accused. Finally, it says that any person may be convicted of a crime on the testimony of just two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), which is a far cry from the American legal system.

Protection from cruel or unusual punishment:

The Constitution: Cruel, degrading, or torturous punishments are constitutionally forbidden (Amendment VIII).

The Bible: One of the most common punishments prescribed by the Bible is stoning – bludgeoning a person to death by smashing in his head and face with rocks. This penalty is prescribed for crimes such as disobeying one’s parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on Sunday (Numbers 15:36), or being gay (Leviticus 20:13). This is cruel and unusual punishment by any rational definition of that term.

Equality of all people under the law:

The Constitution: Most fundamental to the American experiment is the idea that all people have equal protection under the law, that no one group has any more or fewer legal rights than any other (Amendment XIV). This more than anything else is the idea that defines us, and though we have not always lived up to it, throughout our history we have steadily been making strides toward expanding the boundaries of liberty to include all Americans.

The Bible: Explicitly denied. The Bible makes it clear that the Israelites enjoyed special favor as compared to everybody else, and were treated differently by the Mosaic law code. For example, foreigners taken as slaves could be kept indefinitely, while Israelite slaves were freed every seven years during Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-46). Even among Israelites, there were stark divisions: women are worth considerably less than men (Leviticus 27:1-7), and the handicapped are discriminated against (Leviticus 21:17-23). Even Jesus joins in by making statements comparing non-Jews to dogs (Mark 7:27).

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In sum, the basic principles of American democracy cannot be found in either testament of the Bible. This is hardly surprising, America’s founders drew their ideas from the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as from English common law; they said so themselves. America is a secular nation with a separation of church and state. We have no official faith and no national church as many European countries still do.

But America’s Constitution is more than just a secular document; it’s literally godless. It never claims that the ideas it contains were the product of divine revelation. It states that governing power comes from the will of the people, not the commands of a deity. It doesn’t assert that God has specially blessed this nation or shown it special favor. In fact, it never mentions God at all.

If America’s founders had meant to establish a Christian nation, this is where they would have said so. But they said no such thing. And this is a historical fact that the religious right would dearly love to forget.

Moses Was the Founding Father According Texas Textbooks

Texas textbooks will now teach public school students that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the Bible, and the American system of democracy was inspired by Moses.

On Friday the Republican-controlled Texas State Board of Education voted along party lines 10-5 to approve the wholly  inaccurate textbooks. The vote signals a victory for Christian conservatives in Texas, and a disappointing defeat for historical accuracy and the education of children.

The textbooks were written to align with instructional standards that the Board of Education approved back in 2010 with the explicit intention of forcing social studies instruction to adhere to a Christian agenda, requiring teachers to emphasize America’s so-called “Christian heritage.”

Credible historians warn the misguided attempt to suggest biblical origins for the Constitution would lead students to believe that “Moses was the first American.”

Scholars claim the decision to include the biblical figure of Moses (who probably never existed, let alone invented democracy, not that the Bible ever claims he did) in social studies education is part of a concerted effort by Christian extremists to promote the idea that the United States is a “redeemer nation” giving a divine justification for supposed American exceptionalism.

Despite the efforts of Christian conservatives to pervert and twist U.S. history to satisfy their religious superstitions, the fact remains Moses was not the first American, and America is not a Christian nation.

Mything in Action

Many antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.”  They think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seeds that eventually grew into Christianity.

However other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.”  In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

Naturally, the notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were themselves Christians, and modern secular scholars rely heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under the historical presumptions of their former faith.

The arguments on both sides of this question, mythologized history or historicized mythology, fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. Many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists, that credible scholars might think Jesus never actually existed, here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the existence of Yeshua ben Yosef.  In the words of Bart Ehrman:

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians.

Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not actually written by them. To make matter even sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures.  The same is true of the New Testament epistles; except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of the 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine.  But even the gospel stories never actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . .

The gospels, the only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences in mind. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree with one another.

Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different people. They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, a Zealot revolutionary, and a nonviolent pacifist to name a few. A historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been one or many of those things but he could not very well have been all of them at the same time. John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.