You can’t listen to Christian Right leaders, and more than a few GOP elected officials these days without hearing the phrase “America was founded as a Christian Nation.” What about separation of church and state, you may ask? What about the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Well, the Christian Right has it’s own version of history, it’s own historians, colleges, universities and even law schools. So what about `em? There is a war on for control of America, its institutions and its history. This essay is about one element of the struggle.
A crucial part of the war for the future of America is the battle to define the past. It is in this past that we find key understandings of the Constitution. It is also in this past that modern politicians, judges, and conservative evangelical religious leaders justify their contemporary actions and public policy views. The mythology of America as the once and future Christian Nation, is a powerfully animating factor for the Christian Right. The myth of Christian America is highly debatable. Well, let the debates begin.
Here in the age of “framing the message,” the Christian Right has done a good job with Christian Nationalism — so much so, for example, David Barton, one of the leading figures in the Christian Nationalist movement, works full time spreading the message of Christian historical revisionism. (The Republican National Committee put him to work this year touring churches. He is also the vice- chair of the Texas GOP.) There is no analogous figure fighting for a non-revisionist version of history (although Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has done a terrific job of debunking Barton over the years.) The idea that America was founded as a Christian Nation is prevalent and widely broadcast, by Christian Rightists like Rev. D. James Kennedy, and is largely unrefuted in public life.
Christian Rightists are able to compile a lot of information to support their thesis. They can quote from the Mayflower Compact, from the preambles of constitutions of state legislatures, to various religious statements by various “Founding Fathers.” Absent a grounding in American history and the development of the constitution, this stuff can be hard to refute. Do you have to be a constitutional lawyer or have an advanced degree in history to refute Christian Nationalism? Hopefully not. The political battles in our schools and in electoral contests are not usually going to be waged by folks like that. Somehow, the rest of us need to have useable renderings of our history, so we can go toe-to- toe at the school board, on the op-ed page, and in candidate debates.
I found a helpful place to begin, where the information and the implications are unambiguous. And that’s in Article Six of the Constitution.
For over 150 years of the colonial era, there were established churches, just as there had been in Europe for centuries before. In different colonies, there were different established churches. In Massachusetts it was the Congregational Church. In Virginia, it was the Anglican Church. As a general rule during this period, you had to be a member in good standing of the established church to vote and hold public office. What’s more, one had to swear a Christian oath, of one sort or another. Details varied and changed over time. But the framers of the Constitution had some knotty problems to resolve. They were well aware of the history of religious warfare in Europe, and indeed, of the religious persecution and bigotry in the colonies. One of the formative experiences of the young James Madison was witnessing the beating and jailing of a Baptist minister who dared preach the gospel as he understood it in violation of Virginia law at the time. In the previous century not only witches, but Quakers were executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jesuit missionaries, if any had shown up, would also have been executed.
How could the Framers of the Constitution stitch together a nation out of 13 separate colonies, each with its own established churches? How could they inoculate the new nation against the ugliness of religious bigotry and persecution, and the risk of religious warfare? They started to answer these questions in Article Six.
Article Six, Clause 3 states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
What this meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one’s qualifications for office. This clause, effectively disestablished the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. The Christian Right of the 18th Century didn’t like article six and unsuccessfully fought ratification in the state legislatures. The Christian Right spent much of the 19th Century unsuccessfully trying to amend the Constitution to acknowledge God or Christianity in some way. In the latter part of the 20th Century (through the present) the Christian right has tried to revise history to say that the U.S. really was a Christian Nation after all.
But its hard to get around the simple fact that there is no mention of God or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution. This was not because the Framers were irreligious. It was because they believed in religious freedom and did not want the government to interfere in religious affairs. Nor did they want the abuses of power that come from commingling state power with the power of the clergy. Its true that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution or any of the amendments. But the meaning has been unambiguously there from the beginning.
The Christian Nationalists have a tremendous problem in Article Six, so they either ignore it, or attempt bizarre interpretations. Still, growing numbers of people are getting steeped in the mythology, in Christian Schools, home schools, and events with the likes of David Barton.
But one prolific theocratic writer, Gary North, a longtime Christian right strategic thinker, is honest about Article Six. North, who holds a legitimate Phd in colonial history, writes that Article Six erected an explicit “legal barrier to Christian theocracy” and that the ratification of the Constitution was a “break with Christian America.”
Indeed, the colonies had been little Christian nations. But they were overthrown by the ratification of the Constitution by the 13 state legislatures. Each state in turn, gradually brought their state constitutions into conformity with the national charter. Acheiving religious equality did not happen overnight. Arguably, we could say that we have not acheived it yet. But we have come a vast distance in the past 200 years. And I believe that being able to describe that difference in a clear, factual and persuasive manner is one of the great tasks and challenges for all who are concerned about the Christian Right’s vision for America.
Christian Nationalism is an ideology that ought to be easy to demolish, from a powerful factual and moral high ground. Christian Nationalism presumes second-class citizenship at best for the religiously incorrect. The nostalgia for more theocratic times by the likes of Rev. D. James Kennedy and David Barton is offensive. The early colonies were hotbeds of legalized religious bigotry and persecution. That’s one of the reasons why the churches were disestablished. We don’t want to go back to that era. Teasing effective “messages” out of the facts and the history is not that hard, but our knowledge and our arguments are sorely in need of being updated.
We have allowed the Christian Right to own the phrase “religious freedom.” Its time to take it back. On the matter of religious equality and religious freedom, we are the political descendants of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Framers of the Constitution. Let’s act like it.