Was America founded as a Christian nation? As we’ll see, the answer is so obvious and the argument so lopsided that it’s a wonder the counter-argument is ever made at all. But unfortunately, Christian nationalism, which should be a politically impotent fringe movement, is in fact a powerful force that not only got Donald Trump elected but that has, with surprising success, redefined what it means to be an American.
That something as specious as Christian nationalism has and continues to influence public policy is the reason The Founding Myth, written by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, is so important. Ten years in the making, this phenomenal and deftly argued book comes at the perfect time, laying to rest the claim that America is in any way founded on Christianity.
As Seidel notes, Christian nationalists argue either one of two positions that differ in subtle ways: 1) that the country was founded as a Christian nation, or 2) that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. The first argument, that the country was founded as a Christian nation, has largely been abandoned because it is so easily and obviously refuted. As Seidel writes:
“The claim [that America was founded as a Christian nation] is demonstrably false as revealed by any number of documents from the time, including America’s godless Constitution, Madison’s Memorial, or the Treaty of Tripoli, which was negotiated under President George Washington and signed by President John Adams with the unanimous consent of the US Senate in 1797, and which says that ‘the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’”
The language could not be clearer. Unlike the colonial constitutions that pre-dated the Revolution, which did include the terms “god,” “Jesus,” and “Christian,” the US Constitution does not mention god once. For the sake of comparison, here’s the text from the beginning of the Mayflower Compact:
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God…”
We find similar language in other colonial constitutions, which were not shy about expressing their reliance on the Christian faith. These pre-American British colonies were founded on the Christian faith, and it would therefore not have been surprising for the US Constitution to include similar language. In fact, many people explicitly stated their disapproval that god had been left out, which was surprising and without precedent. The US Constitution is the first example of a secular constitution, and the only logical explanation for the absence of god in a document that was endlessly debated in a religious environment was that the omission was intentional.
The Constitution doesn’t mention Jesus, Christianity, god, or the creator, and in fact only mentions religion twice, and only in a restrictive sense:
- Article VI, Clause 3: “…but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
- The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Clearly, the Constitution is not establishing a theocracy; it’s establishing a secular government free from religion so that the people can be free to practice any religion or no religion at all. The founders knew that freedom from the dictates of an ancient tribal code is every bit as important as the freedom to practice any particular variety of it, so long as it does not harm others or supercede the “supreme law of the land,” the Constitution. This is so obvious to anyone who has read the Constitution (and compared it to contemporary constitutions of the time) that most Christian nationalists have retired the “founded as a Christian nation” argument entirely. But they have unfortunately not given up so easily.
The next line of argument offers the more subtle point that the founders were deeply religious and that Judeo-Christian principles influenced their political decisions, the founding documents, and our constitutional and political identity. This is also false, but in less obvious ways. What makes The Founding Myth unique is that, unlike similar books, the idea of Judeo-Christian influence is thoroughly critiqued and conclusively refuted.
The first part of the book discusses the “interesting but irrelevant” personal religious beliefs of the founders. It’s not necessary to spend much time on this, because as Seidel notes, the founders went out of their way to stress the irrelevance of personal religious beliefs in public discourse and the importance of “the wall of separation” between church and state. Although many of the founders, including Thomas Jefferson, were Deists, not Christians, this point is tangential to the argument, as is the fact that Jefferson created his own “Jefferson Bible” by taking a razor and cutting out all references to miracles and supernatural events from the New Testament.
Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, famously said:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The Declaration does contain the phrase “The Laws of nature and of Nature’s God,” but this is exactly what you would expect from a Deist; a Christian intent on establishing a Christian nation would not hesitate for a moment to include the words “Jesus” and “Christianity,” as we saw in the Mayflower Compact.
James Madison, the principal writer of the Constitution, said, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
Again, this is all very clear. The father of the Declaration and the father of the Constitution were both adamantly in favor of the separation of church and state because they knew their history too well, and understood the dangers of mixing religion with government and in justifying public policy on the basis of the subjective interpretation of “god’s word.” (Which is the ultimate form of relativism, as you can make the Bible say whatever you want.)
The Christian nationalist, pushed farther and farther to the margins, has one final argument to offer. Despite all of this, they claim, the country, while not founded as a Christian nation, and despite Jefferson’s and Madison’s insistence on the separation of church and state, was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. This, as well, is ludicrous.
In parts two and three of the book, Seidel embarks on an extensive analysis comparing the principles of the Declaration and Constitution with those of the Bible. This, in my opinion, is the best part of the book, and will equip the reader with a plethora of new arguments to defend against the Christian nationalist myth. Seidel specifically analyzes, in the third part of the book, each of the Ten Commandments to show how they stand in direct opposition to our constitutional identity.
When Christian nationalists speak of Judeo-Christian principles, we often don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, but by their own admission, we know that the Ten Commandments top the list. So using this as a basic representation of Judeo-Christian principles is more than fair. As for the founding principles of the US, it’s obvious that the most important document in this regard would be the Constitution. It follows then that the best test of whether or not the country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles is to compare the Ten Commandments with the Constitution. And this is exactly what Seidel does.
What we find is that not only are the Ten Commandments not consistent with the Constitution, in most cases they represent ideals that are the exact opposite. We need only look to the very first commandment to see how.
The first commandment reads: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Compare this to the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
If you had been tasked at the founding with writing a law most opposed to the First Amendment, you might have come up with something similar to the first commandment. Whereas the Constitution protects free thought, speech, press, and religion, the first commandment demands the worship of a specific god within a specific religion. As Seidel wrote of the First Amendment:
“The first two clauses protect your right to think for yourself about life’s most important questions; the third, fourth, and fifth protect your right to speak and even publish those thoughts without fear of censure, and to gather with others to discuss them; the sixth protects your right to ask the government to listen to those ideas. Of the six clauses, the first two are arguably the most important, for without the ability to think freely about life’s questions, little would be added to the discourse protected by the other rights.”
Additionally, the Constitution grants power to the people (“We the people”), and Article VI states that “This Constitution….shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Conversely, the Ten Commandments grant ultimate power to god, which stands in direct opposition to Article VI. The Constitution also allows for amendments, while the Ten Commandments are literally set in stone.
Seidel goes on to show how every commandment stands in direct opposition to the principles of the Constitution. Without reviewing all of them, a few more examples are instructive. The second commandment states that “you shall not make yourself an idol….You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me…”
Contrast this with a quote by John Adams:
“We are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer.”
And so you have guilt by association, found all throughout the Bible, versus the presumption of innocence, the right to a trial by jury, and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments found in the Constitution. These two sets of guiding principles could not be more different.
And then you have the third commandment that prohibits using the lord’s name in vain, which explicitly violates the freedom of speech.
The commandment against murder, you might think, would seem to be more consistent with American law, but it turns out to be more complicated if you do a little research. To begin with, American law applies universally to all citizens. The biblical commandment to not kill someone applies only if that someone happens to be a believer. That’s the only logical explanation for why the Israelites went on a killing spree against infidels after being handed the Ten Commandments! The same goes for the biblical prohibitions against stealing and lying; they apply only to the tribe, and run counter to the universality of law and human rights found in the Constitution, which was influenced by the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
You might ask, what about the Golden Rule found in the New Testament? If the Ten Commandments are un-American, maybe we simply need to look to Christianity alone.
Not so. Christianity has the habit of stealing other people’s ideas and stamping them as its own, but don’t be fooled by its claim on the Golden Rule, which is found in several other religious and philosophical systems that pre-date Christianity. Seidel provides 13 examples in chapter 7 from ancient Greece, Egypt, China, and India, and from Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy. For example, Plato said, “We ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.”
Other ancient moral systems, for example Stoicism, also encouraged this same peaceful and tolerant disposition, without feeling the need to condemn non-believers to hell or require their adherents to abandon reason. Consider John 15:6, where Jesus says, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” As Seidel explains, a careful reading of the New Testament, as with the Old Testament, reveals a set of tribal proclamations that really only apply to believers. A good example is when Jesus refused to help a woman’s sick child until she supplicated herself to him and professed her faith. And consider this quote from the prince of peace, found in Matthew 10:34-39:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Judeo-Christian principles are therefore built on blind obedience and submission to authority, with ultimate power granted to god, and reliance on a sacred text that can never be altered. The US, on the other hand, was founded on the principles of reasoned debate, with ultimate power granted to the people, based on a text that was meant to evolve and which includes the ability to propose amendments, as found in Article V.
Further, the order of the Ten Commandments betrays its ultimate goal—the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship. As Seidel wrote:
“Judeo-Christianity’s attempt to keep the information loop closed is evident in the demands the biblical god makes in the Ten Commandments: no other gods before me, do not disrespect even my name, stop work for a full day to worship me, heed your parents because they will tell you to worship me, killing is acceptable if the victim is not someone who worships me, and finally, a decree to suppress certain thoughts.”
This tribal dictatorship is best described, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, as a “celestial North Korea.”
Ironically, the strongest Christian nationalist arguments for Judeo-Christian influence are the ones never made. The parts of our history we are most ashamed of—slavery, homophobia, and the subjugation of women—are found all throughout the Bible.
The tenth commandment tells us not to covet our neighbor’s slaves, thus implicitly condoning the practice; Leviticus 20:13 reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”; and Corinthians 14:34-35 reads “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
Based on all of this, I think it’s safe to say that America was not only not founded as a Christian nation, and not influenced by Judeo-Christian principles, but that Judeo-Christian principles are entirely un-American. The arguments set forth in the book are indisputable, and what I’ve covered here in this review doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Seidel has provided.
So what do we do about the inescapable conclusion that Judeo-Christian principles are un-American? We should start by recognizing that the phrases “In God We Trust,” “One nation under God,” and “God Bless America” are also un-American (and were incorporated more than 100 years after the founding). And if this is so, then we should not just sit quietly by and passively accept this “experiment on our liberties,” as James Madison would call it. It is on every one of us to ensure that the wall of separation between church and state is not breached. As Seidel wrote:
“As the myths debunked in this book are professed with more desperation, we must be prepared to refute them factually and vocally. This book provides the first half of that recipe. You are responsible for the rest. Outspoken resistance is, as Madison might say, the ‘first duty of citizens.’”
To report a State/Church violation, contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
For more information on the secular foundation and history of the United States, check out Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything shows how religious thinking distorts our knowledge of history, morality, and science, and blinds us to our common humanity. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism by A.C. Grayling exposes the weaknesses in the arguments for religion and religious belief and argues for an alternative system of humanism. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker examines the history of violence and why it has declined, including the religious causes of violence and the secular and rational forces of peace. Finally, in A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian shows how to respectfully and reasonably talk people out of their faith.