Debunking the Christian nation myth – Andrew Seidel

By Andrew Seidel


Andrew Seidel, FFRF staff attorney, gave this speech accompanied by PowerPoint (edited here for print) in October at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on Oct. 13, 2012 in Portland, Ore.

Id like to thank Dan and Annie Laurie for asking me to speak here today. It’s quite an honor to share the stage with such illustrious speakers. I’d also like to take a moment to thank all the FFRF members out there. Your generosity and support make my job possible, and I absolutely love my job.  

Today I want to discuss two things: One, the idea that we’re founded as a Christian nation. When you hear that argument, you may debunk it using, say, the Treaty of Tripoli, which most of you are probably familiar with, which says we’re not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. Or maybe you cite the First Amendment or the fact that religious oaths are constitutionally prohibited or that the Constitution is entirely godless.

When you use those facts to refute their first argument, your opponent will fall back on the second argument, which is that we’re founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Typically, you’ll hear three arguments as to why we are founded as a Christian nation: “In God We Trust” or “One nation under God” (these silly little phrases always seem to come up), the Declaration of Independence made us a Christian nation, and the claim that the founders were all Christian.

You obviously know that “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God” are not from the founding era. The former first appeared on one coin in 1863 and was required on currency only in 1956 and the latter was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

The timing of these late additions is telling. Lincoln had declared martial law in 1863, the year the battle of Gettysburg was fought. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 for the first time in U.S. history.  Brothers were killing brothers, and the country was literally tearing itself apart. It’s at this “propitious” time that Christian nationalists — a phrase I’m going to use to describe anybody who claims that we’re a Christian nation — push their religion on us all. 

When Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase ordered James Pollock, U.S. Mint director, to make the change on one coin, he wrote: “We claim to be a Christian Nation. . . . The time for this or the introduction of a similar motto is propitious. ’Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when man’s strength is weakness, when our strength and our nation’s salvation must be in the God of Battles.”

The same thing happened in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism and the “Red scare,” marked by witch hunts for nonbelievers and communists, blacklists, loyalty oaths and arrests. Chief Justice Earl Warren at the time said that if the Bill of Rights were put to a vote it would lose.

The second thing to note about these changes is their effect. That religion is divisive is probably not a controversial claim to make here. The founders were well aware of this. James Madison in the “Federalist Papers, Number Ten” wrote that the zeal of different opinions concerning religion has divided humankind into parties and enflamed mutual animosity. This is one of the reasons the founders wanted to keep religion out of government. The original motto was “E pluribus unum” (from many, one). The Christian nationalists erased that unifying theme and put their divisive, religious theme in its place.

The same thing happened with the pledge. It’s even more striking because they actually divided the indivisible and then injected religion. 

Natural law

When discussing the Declaration of Independence, the Religious Right typically focuses on four phrases from it: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “their Creator,” “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence.” Notice that not a single one of these is Christian. There’s no mention of Jesus or Yahweh or the God of Abraham.

There are two competing views on natural law. The first is that laws or rights are given to us by a divine being. The second is that we have rights because we’re human.

We know which one of these Thomas Jefferson was talking about because he wrote about natural law in several other places. A great quote from his opinion of the French treaties: “Questions of the natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man. Those who write treatises on natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate.”

Human rights — natural law — are discoverable by reason. This is most certainly not a divine idea of natural law. Jefferson also said in 1774 that “a free people claim their rights” — they are “not a gift of the chief magistrate.” I think that would also include they are not a gift from God. People have to assert those rights.

Moreover, the Declaration of Independence has two principles that Judeo-Christianity is directly opposed to: When you have a tyrannical government, it’s a “duty” and a “right” to throw off that government; and it explicitly states that governments are instituted by the people, not by the magistrate, not by the king. The bible directly contradicts these two ideas.

The Book of Romans in the New Testament says, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” The Old Testament Book of Daniel says basically the same thing: “The Most High has sovereignty over the reign of mortals and gives it to who He will.”

These principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out.

Founders’ faith

George Washington died in 1799. The next year, Mason Weems, a parson, wrote a book about him, a book in which we get the myths about the cherry tree and about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. There’s no evidence to suggest either happened, and the prayer story didn’t actually come out in Weems’ book until something like the 34th edition.

These claims are reminiscent of Mormons posthumously baptizing people — claiming that the founders were all Christian and therefore we’re a Christian nation. It’s also incredibly rude. These men and women sacrificed an awful lot — lives, blood, treasure — and it just ignores that and attributes to God this monumental achievement.

More importantly, what the founders thought personally about God or Jesus is irrelevant to the nation itself. Religion does not claim ownership over other ideas generated by a mind. For instance, there’s no such thing as Jewish blue jeans. We just call them blue jeans, even though they were invented by Levi Strauss. Same thing with vaccines. They’re not Jewish vaccines, they’re just vaccines. Algebra is just algebra, not Muslim math.  

Whatever the founders chose to do in their private lives, publicly they chose to erect the wall of separation between church and state. You’ve all probably heard the quip that if we’re a Christian nation, you might as well call us a white nation. That’s a very effective argument to make. The idea that they were all Christian and therefore founded us as a Christian nation is absolute nonsense.  

When I set out to debunk the Christian nationalist fallback argument, it took me a while to discover what a Judeo-Christian principle is. It turns out the best answer comes from Harry Truman, president during McCarthy’s rise to fame. Known for being a plain speaker, he occasionally used vulgarity.

Arguably, the most vulgar thing he ever said was, “The fundamental basis for all government is in the bible. It started with Moses on the mountain.” He then mentions the New Testament and the Ten Commandments.

Let’s compare the Judeo-Christian principles in the bible and the Ten Commandments to our nation’s founding principles.

The commandments

First, which commandments? There are four different sets of Ten Commandments in the bible. The first set is given to Moses on the mountain. He comes down the mountain and finds his followers worshipping a golden calf. They are breaking one of the commandments, a commandment they don’t know about yet. His response is to smash the commandments on the ground in anger and slaughter 3,000 of his friends, brothers and neighbors. Mark that term for later — friends, brothers and neighbors.

God orders Moses to make a new set and promises to sweep all of the current residents off the land in favor of the Israelites. So the second set is sealed with the promise of genocide, and in that set, God lays claim to all the firstborn of Israel. The third set is substantially similar to the first, and the fourth set is just a list of people who are cursed.

Any given bible cannot agree on which 10 are the 10. Actually, different religious traditions do not agree on how the commandments should be numbered or translated either. Such discrepancies may seem like small differences, but when you couple unshakable certainty with a claim to hold the ultimate truth, everything, no matter how small, matters. There is no such thing as a small religious difference.

Which set? I’m going to use the first set, the one that people are most familiar with because of Charlton Heston. We’ll use the Protestant version.  

First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” This obviously conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, but it also conflicts with Article VI of the Constitution. The Constitution specifically says that it, not God, is the supreme law of the land.

This commandment conflicts with the constitutional Supremacy Clause and the First Amendment. So it did not have an influence because it conflicts.

Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” But read the unabridged commandment, which continues, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God punishing the children for the inequity of the parents until the third or fourth generation.” This conflicts with the First Amendment again. You can make as many idols as you want, but the Constitution also directly prohibits punishing children for their parents’ crimes. Article III: “No attainder of treason shall work a corruption of blood.” That means if you are guilty of treason, only you will receive punishment, not your children, and certainly not your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This also conflicts with our principle of justice that only the guilty are punished.  

Third Commandment: “Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord thy God in vain.” I claim that this is void for vagueness. Under the 14th Amendment, laws have to be simple enough for people to understand them, so that they know what action is being prohibited.

I’ve asked this of a number of people and get different answers. The best I’ve heard is that it prevents people from swearing an oath and then violating that oath. It fails to give adequate guidance. Quite obviously, this also runs afoul of freedom of speech.

Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Again, read the whole commandment: “You shall do no work neither shall your male or female slave. In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”

First of all, we’re supposed to be celebrating because a God who is all-powerful took six days to make the earth and on the seventh day he had to rest? I call this celebrating lazy omnipotence.

Most importantly, this commandment sanctions slavery. We do have to concede the bible has had a severe influence on the history of slavery. Every original justification for continuing the practice came from the bible. We can concede that to the Christian nationalists. They are welcome to this shameful influence.  

Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and mother.” I don’t really like this commandment, not because I don’t want to honor my mother and father, but I think it should be simply to honor people. This really didn’t have an effect or influence on our nation’s principles, unless somebody can correct me later.

Six through nine

I’m going to group these next few together and come back to adultery at the end: “You shall not kill; don’t steal; and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”

These commandments are not Judeo-Christian at all. They are universal principles that apply to absolutely everyone. All successful societies have discovered them.

Secondly, the Judeo-Christian interpretation is actually less moral because it is not universally applied, but applied only to one’s “neighbor.”  

In the original Hebrew translations, there are no punctuation marks, no paragraph breaks, no line breaks. These commandments could be read so that “against your neighbor” applies to all the preceding commandments starting with “you shall not murder.”

So it could mean, you shall not murder your neighbor, you shall not steal from your neighbor, you shall not lie to your neighbor. I submit to you that that’s actually the better reading. 

Who is your “neighbor?” In Leviticus, “any of your people” is how they define neighbor. “Stand against the blood of your neighbor,” “your people,” “the sons of your own people,” “your countrymen.” It’s only the people who believe in the same God as you, your co-religionists. That’s what neighbor means in the Old Testament.

Immediately after getting these commandments, the Israelites commit genocide after genocide. But none of the slain are Israelites. So they are not actually breaking the “don’t kill” commandment if it only applies to Israelites.

“You shall not commit adultery.” The Seventh Commandment actually did have an influence. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Christianity has an incredibly powerful history influencing legislation concerning sex in the U.S. It’s also a shameful history.

In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court in 1967 overturned miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. One law was justified like this: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents.”

Condemnation of homosexuality is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian “moral” standards. Finally, a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. Again, Christianity had a very shameful influence.  

Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” Again, read the commandment fully: “or fields, nor his male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass, or anything that belongs to him.”

Women are chattel. Slavery is condoned. This is thought crime. Big Brother is watching. Christopher Hitchens was very fond of pointing this out. This completely conflicts with the First Amendment. 

To sum up the Ten Commandments and their influence on our nation’s founding: they either have no influence, being in conflict with our founding principles or have a shameful influence.

Hell cruel, unusual

Obedience is a theme that runs through the whole bible. In the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot and his wife are fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeys the angelic command to not turn around and look. She disobeys and is turned into a pillar of salt.

And obviously, Isaac and Abraham, the sacrifice, the murder of a child, is often held up as the ideal for obeying God. This is fundamentally opposed to our nature and founding principles.

Edmund Burke wrote: “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole.” In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about the importance of “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

People are required to believe this nonsense by their bible, but they are allowed to believe nonsense because our nation cherishes freedom and has enshrined it, not obedience, in our founding documents.

The Golden Rule? Here’s a list [PowerPoint slide] of Golden Rules that predate the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus is down there at No. 14. Hillel is down there at No. 12. We have found equivalence of the Golden Rule as far back as 2000 B.C.E. in Egypt. It’s arrogant for Christian nationalist Judeo-Christians to claim as their own a rule that is universally known and not even original to their tradition.

Hell is definitely a Judeo-Christian principle. More properly, it’s a Christian principle because Jesus invented hell. In the Old Testament is a place called sheol, which was a place for the dead to go but not a place of eternal torment.

On the other hand, the bible describes hell as where “The worm dyeth not and the fire is not quenched.” It’s described as a burning wind, fiery oven, unquenchable fire, furnace of fire, eternal fire and eternal punishment. You should get the sense that hell is hot and it’s eternal.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Need I say more?

The Supreme Court has actually said that being locked in a jail cell with a five-pack-a-day smoker is cruel and unusual, so I think that hell most certainly qualifies.

Finally, the Judeo-Christian principle: Vicarious redemption, that Jesus died for your sins. This is a total and complete abrogation of personal responsibility. Our entire system of justice is founded on the idea that people are responsible for their own actions.

But abrogation of personal responsibility is the central tenet of Christianity. This conflicts with the central tenet of our system of justice and government. You can imagine how this would go: The defendant gets on the stand and admits to raping children but says, “It’s OK, your honor, I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior and he forgave my sins, so you don’t need to punish me.”

I’d like to leave you with this quote from James Madison. It’s my favorite quote and is on my wall at FFRF. It’s how I motivate myself every day:

“It’s proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.  We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of all citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedence.”

I hope that I’ve given you some mental ammunition to counter the pernicious notion that we are a Christian nation or founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We must prevent that myth from growing and becoming entangled in precedent.

Thank you. 

Andrew Seidel graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School and has completed a master of laws at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law. He practiced law in Colorado before joining FFRF as a constitutional consultant in 2011. He became a member of the Wisconsin Bar in May 2012, and serves as one of four staff attorneys.

Freedom From Religion Foundation