Paul Rosenberg recently published an essay at Salon that challenged the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. The occasion was the then-forthcoming annual celebration of Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Statute, written by Thomas Jefferson and shepherded into law by James Madison in 1786, is generally regarded as the taproot of how the Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment approach religion and government. Rosenberg interviewed me for his story, and we agreed that that the Christian Right generally, and the Family Research Council (FRC) in particular, is promoting the myth of a Christian nation that never was. I believe that this is a serious weakness in the justifications the Christian Right uses to advance its contemporary agenda. It is an effort to press the Framers of the Constitution into their service with the false claim that the Framers held to a certain “Christian worldview” –– and that they forged the Constitution and the First Amendment to establish and advance it.
Tony Perkins, president of FRC responded by devoting the entirety of his regular Washington Update missive to slamming us. But out of the fog of Perkins’ remarkable tangle of distortions and falsehoods, his essay inadvertently underscores my point about the weakness of the Christian nationalist claim.
First, let’s note that the Christian Right generally avoids talking about the Constitution because of the well-established history that the Framers deliberately did not include anything about God, Christianity, or religion at all in the nation’s charter, except to state in Article VI that there shall be no religious tests for public office. But Perkins, writing “with the aid of FRC senior writers” rests his case with this:
Our own Constitution closes with the words, “In the year of our Lord, 1787.” That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.
Common sense tells us that the style of the dating of a document does not define its contents or the intentions of the authors. However, historian John Fea of the evangelical Messiah College has written about this very point.
I am often asked about this reference when answering questions about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
The phrase “Year of our Lord,” which is the only reference to God in the United States Constitution, was, of course, a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.
Then he explains:
We know that the phrase “Year of our Lord” was not included in the draft of the Constitution that was approved by the Convention.
No one knows for sure how it got in there, but it is clear that it was added afterward, perhaps as some speculate, as a “scrivener’s touch.”
Second, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that so guided the Framers of the Constitution, was intended to guarantee the rights of conscience of individual citizens, declaring: “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
And when Jefferson wrote “all” he meant everyone, including, as he later wrote “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law––was central to the intent of Madison and the Framers and cannot be undone with false claims and interpretations of convenience.
Anyone who wishes to get the real story should consult legitimate histories by contemporary historians (such as John Ragosta’s Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.)
Third, Perkins regales us with the spectacle of setting up and knocking down of a strawman:
Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, was so proud of writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom that it’s included on his tombstone! Does that sound like someone who doesn’t believe in expressions of faith?
Like Jefferson, Paul Rosenberg and I are not opposed to expressions of faith, and there is nothing in Rosenberg’s essay that suggests otherwise. It is certainly true that Jefferson had his authorship of the Virginia Statute engraved on the monument that marks his grave. As a matter of fact, John Ragosta and I discussed that very point in an interview at Religion Dispatches, published on January 8, 2018. Jefferson certainly believed, as do Rosenberg and I, that the right to believe as you will, to think differently than powerful government and religious institutions, and from the rich and the powerful, is essential to democracy.
Another strawman is Perkins’ claim:
One minute the Left is rushing to write our obituary — and the next, we’re powerful enough to create a theocracy!
There have certainly been many obituaries for the Christian Right published over the years, but none of them have been written by me or by Paul Rosenberg. In fact, I have criticized such unfounded claims many times over the years. As recently as December 28, 2017, for example, I tweeted “Nota bene for the New Year. The Christian Right is not dead, dying or diminished.” I also have never written and do not believe that they are “powerful enough to create a theocracy” – although I maintain that they have not only been effectively building for power, but their theocratic intentions are unambiguous, and they are not to be underestimated (as my new article in The Public Eye makes clear.)
But of course, I could be wrong this time.
Tony Perkins and most of the Christian Right hitched their wagons to the political fortunes Donald Trump and losing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. It was a big risk given the long shadows on their characters including credible accusations of serial sexual predation. Trump and Moore were featured speakers at the 2017 Values Voter Summit hosted by the FRC and other leading organizations of the Christian Right last fall. Most of the Christian Right stood by Moore throughout his campaign, and continue to stand by Trump, who in his first year in office has managed to become the most unpopular president in modern American history. And there are indications it may get worse. Polls show that once overwhelming White evangelical support for Trump is slipping. What’s more, some evangelical leaders are concerned that Trump, Moore and the evangelicals who supported them may have severely damaged the reputation of evangelicalism itself. The editor of Christianity Today, the leading magazine of evangelicalism wrote that in the wake of the Roy Moore fiasco, “No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”
It’s possible that such reactions are overwrought. As bad as things may look for Trump and evangelicalism right now, Christianity has withstood worse. What’s more, the political climate could change quickly, as sometimes happens. Part of the strength of the Christian Right has been its ideological adaptability, its political resilience, and its attention to the details of building for political power.
Whatever the future may hold for religious and political leaders, they intend to wield the power they have now in ways that will affect many people.
There could hardly be a better example of the stakes in the contemporary struggle over the meaning of religious freedom than the recent formation of the federal Department of Health and Human Service’s “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within its Office for Civil Rights. The division will oversee enforcement of federal laws that allow medical providers to refuse to provide or to even be indirectly involved in care that conflicts with their moral or religious conscience. This is understood to mean an expansive policy tilt to the discriminatory doctrines of the Christian Right and Roman Catholic Bishops on such matters as reproductive choice, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Jefferson, Madison and the leaders of their generation sought to prevent favored factions from being able to use the government to enforce their doctrines on everyone else. And yet this is exactly what the FRC and their allies are trying to do.