I won’t attempt to capsulize the entire book, but, according to the author, an Associate Professor of history at Princeton (which would seem to give him reasonable credibility) the history of the current notion that “America is a Christian Country; founded by Christians and, primarily, for Christians” is, at least in large measure, a result of politically conservative corporate influences use of conservative Christianity as a force against the social agenda of the New Deal starting back in the 1930s. Certainly this rather well-documented book makes a pretty strong case for this, although it also goes into some detail about how this movement has morphed into the combination of conservative religion and politics which has become a feature of the contemporary political/social scene. This is something that I view with considerable concern, especially since it has led to the rather widespread belief that this is exactly what was intended by the Founding Fathers.
As the descendent of two of those who were persecuted by during the infamous Salem Witch Trials in 1692, I have strong feelings regarding the dangers of excessive interpenetration of religion into the political/legal system. It has always been my belief that the reason for the First Amendment clause regarding freedom of religion and the Jeffersonian notion (which may actually come from Locke’s idea of a completely secular state) of a “wall of separation between Church and State” was specifically to prevent religion from having official influence on the secular actions of government. Certainly the use of “spectral evidence” during the Salem experience was encouraged by religious leaders, although the trials were held under (more or less) civil authority as the Colonial Governor did establish the “Court of Oyer and Terminer,” which tried the cases, making them, at least technically, civil trials.
Now there is truth to the idea that many of the early colonists (possibly all of them) were, in fact, believers in religion and that many of the colonies which became the US were founded by religious people. That shouldn’t be too surprising since most of the colonies were founded by English people and England had an established religion; the Church of England founded by Henry VIII and supported by the English monarchy. However, many of the early colonists didn’t really support the “official” church. I believe that only New York, Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia were, at least officially, supporters of the Church of England. Some of the other colonies were founded by groups of Dissenters, Separatists or Calvinists; although Maryland was heavily Catholic and Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of the colonies had no established church and some which did, had no requirement demanding the following of the dominant religion. That, of course, was not true in England where attendance at the “official” church was required by law, at least at times.
By the time we get to the latter part of the Eighteenth Century (the time of the American Revolution and the creation of the Constitution), even a quick examination of the evidence seems to make it clear the many of the “Founding Fathers” had religious beliefs, although it is argued as to how many of them (and which ones) were specifically Christian (at least in the way that the term is used today). Certainly some seem to be essentially Unitarian (a movement which, traditionally, recognized Jesus as important, but not divine) or Deist (acknowledging the existence of God as manifested through nature and reason, but not through miracles, etc.). Of course, at this time in history, it would have been difficult for anyone to advocate against all religions in any meaningful way.
As I understand it, at this point (during the “Age of Reason”) the existence of at least a deity was viewed as rather clearly established by simple reason. In other words, Reason suggested to them that God may have been the force which created the laws of nature, but there was no reasonable evidence that this Creator was directly involved in the everyday events of each detail of human existence. Given this, the recognition of a “Creator” who endowed us with certain unalienable rights seems perfectly in keeping with the overwhelmingly dominant ideas of the time, but doesn’t seem (at least to me) to imply much more than that. Nor does the phrase “Nature’s God” (also in the Declaration of Independence). That would seem to suggest that the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration were not stating anything about a religious basis for the Declaration, they were just following the common practice and beliefs of the day.
This being the case, and given the quick adoption of the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”, it seems likely that the Founding Fathers were as concerned about religion playing too strong a role in what they saw as secular affairs as they were about people being able to practice whatever religion they desired without government interference, unless such practice constituted a violation of peace and good order. (See the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.)
Unfortunately, in the current political scene, I seem to see a number of instances where religion (dominantly in the form of conservative Christianity), has teamed up with socially, economically, and/or politically conservative forces (often wealthy individuals and/or corporate forces) to maintain that their social and/or political ideas are what the Founding Fathers really intended and, hence, any ideas which differ from theirs are “Anti-American,” non-patriotic, or against the “religion which the Founding Fathers used as the basis for this country,” etc. As Kruse points out, this notion appears to have largely been encouraged by these forces, initially, to protect their own self-interest against FDR’s New Deal, which COULD be seen (is by some) as largely an extension of the Nineteenth Century notion of the Social Gospel (which suggested that the function of religion was more about doing good works and less about obsessing over personal salvation). The insistence by these forces that such ideas as Social Security, protection of worker’s rights, anti-trust laws, regulation of industry to avoid monopolies, environmental concerns, etc., are “anti-American, atheistic Communism” seem out of place. One can certainly suggest that there are Socialist ideas involved, although I seem to remember Jesus saying something about “Doing unto others,” which suggests that the notions of the Social Gospel might have some sort of religious validity, in spite of the fact that it is a good deal like Socialism.
What I see as the biggest potential danger with the current mixing of conservative Christianity and conservative social/economic policies is the emergence of a set of behaviors which come dangerously close to fascism. Now that’s a word which is bandied about all too commonly and with much too little understanding of what it means (which IS complicated by the fact that its definition isn’t terribly specific and varies depending on the sources consulted. Here’s the one I prefer:
"A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." [Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 2004]
So how does this seem to be working? Well, I see a relatively small number of extremely wealthy people (traditional elites) funding PACs (and other organizations) for the purpose of convincing the masses that they need to become “committed nationalists” to protect themselves from “decline, humiliation or victimhood” by abandoning “democratic liberties” and pursuing “redemptive violence” against anyone whose beliefs differs from theirs, even when there is no logic or reason to the espoused beliefs. For example, the death penalty is good (in spite of the fact that there is considerable evidence that it is ineffective as a deterrent, expensive, and subject to mistakes) but the government should control a woman’s ability to opt for an abortion because “every life is sacred.” If life is sacred, then Life is sacred, especially since we know that innocent people have been executed by mistake. Another example, it’s perfectly okay for MY group to show up at someone else’s place of worship (armed to enforce our rights) and create a demonstration intended to be as religiously offensive as possible (like making obscene drawings of their religious founder). Of course, it is impermissible even to think of allowing them to do the same thing to US. All this reminds me of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church which came to Cullowhee when we presented The Laramie Project a number of years ago.
I’m concerned that if rational people don’t start to speak (and vote) in a rational manner, the prediction often (but apparently incorrectly) attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” just could come true. I don’t pretend to be so naïve as to think that an individual’s politics will not be influenced by their beliefs. It would seem productive, however, to think through the implications of one’s beliefs, to establish some degree of logical consistency and to consider that any time you take action against another because she/he is in some way different from you (be it in his/her religion, politics, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, whatever), you are establishing that that person has the right to act against you for the same reasons. You don’t have to agree with someone to tolerate his/her right to have an opinion. It’s supposedly (but apparently also incorrectly) Voltaire who said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Whoever said it, it seems like an appropriate attitude for Americans.
I was raised to believe in loving my neighbor; that one will reap what she/he sows; to do unto others; to do no harm; to judge not. These have always seemed like good advice and I have tried to live by these principles. Maybe, we should all encourage others to consider them….
And, really, Corporations are NOT people, too.