‘The Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ (1857) by the American painter Robert Walter Weir at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City’ via Wikipedia.
Kevin M. Kruse’s op-ed in the New York Times---A Christian Nation? Since When?---is interesting but I’m not sure I buy it. I think the idea this is a Christian nation was introduced a little before the end of World War II. Somewhere around 1620, in fact.
And it wasn’t the brainstorm of desperate capitalists. The Pilgrims weren’t capitalists, at least not at the start.
The Founding Fathers did not found the United States. The United States wasn’t founded in 1776. It existed long before that, people just didn’t know exactly what to call it. But Benjamin Franklin, among many others, made the case for Independence based on the idea that we were already a nation unto ourselves, separated from England by our character and our culture and by traditions and ideals that grew out of those and by political practicalities made necessary by the physical facts of the country itself---the distance between here and England, the distances between one locality and another. It was a big place and a faraway land and the people living here developed a habit of self-government that taught them to think of themselves as if they inhabited their own country. And they took it for granted that they were living in a Christian nation basically because almost all of them were Christians. The legal arguments of a group of lawyers and intellectuals trying to put together a government that most of these people would accept carry weight but they don’t by themselves define us as a nation.
Constitutionally we’re not a Christian nation. Culturally, historically, and traditionally we are.
The question from the start wasn’t whether or not we were a Christian nation but what did it mean to be a Christian nation? What did that entail?
The argument began when the Puritans about to set sail for the New World decided to let non-Puritans join their company.
We’ve been arguing over it ever since.
Slavery was both condemned and defended on Christian principles.
Prohibition grew out of a temperance movement that was dominated by Christians and Christian ideals.
The Civil Rights movement was based to a great degree on the idea that we are a Christian nation and it was time we started acting like one.
It’s only lately that the argument has changed from what kind of Christian nation are we to are we a Christian nation at all.
Right Wing Christians and other conservatives and Republicans pushing their belief that the United States is or ought to be a Christian nation want to impose a very specific sort of Christianity on the rest of us: authoritarian, patriarchal, joyless, unforgiving, without charity or mercy. apocalyptic, and exclusionary---if you aren’t their idea of Christian, you aren’t a Christian, and if you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t American.
If they wanted this to be a Christian nation based on what Christ actually said and taught, I might have no objection to that. Or I might if even that didn’t exclude the growing number of Americans who aren’t Christian.
But to get back to Kruse’s op-ed, which seems to have been adapted from his forthcoming book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America and so it’s necessarily reductive and probably doesn’t do justice to the whole of his argument: the desperate capitalists who started making the case that Christianity and Capitalism went hand in hand and therefore good Christians were opposed to the New Deal weren’t inventing the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, they were exploiting it. And perverting it.
Still, you should read the whole thing.
Another hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.
There’s not much to be gained by lumping the Founders together on this or any question, something the Right and the Left need to keep in mind. Jefferson wasn’t exactly Christian, John Adams and George Washington were. But it doesn’t matter what they believed as individuals. It matters how they thought the country was to be governed, and they deliberately left explicit references to Christianity out of the document establishing that. That didn’t mean they didn’t still think of this as a Christian nation. Washington defended the rights and liberties of non-Christians but not on the grounds that this wasn’t a Christian nation but that it was meant to be an inclusive one.
As for Franklin, he wrote this in a letter near the end of his life:
Here is my creed. I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do…in whatever sect I meet with them.
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the Dissenters of England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needles to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displease.
---Quoted in The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands.