Posts Tagged With: Christianity

‘Inventing A Christian Nation’ Tackles Narrative Of Religious Founding

christian-americaAs an amateur student of American history, my reading and research has upended three previously held beliefs.

These are, in no particular order, the belief in upward social mobility, the belief we are a society without a class structure, and the belief we were founded as a Christian nation. A book I recently read, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, addresses the first two. Author Nancy Isenberg dismantles the myths about class and mobility in a fairly straightforward — and at times a very direct — manner.

The approach of author Steven K. Green in Inventing A Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, feels a little more lowkey. Like White Trash, Green’s book is very detailed and highly readable although some may find Christian America controversial since Green does not believe the country was founded as a Christian nation.

But, for the most part, Green takes a very non-confrontational approach as he slowly and methodically disassembles the Christian Nation Narrative. (Note: This book is not dealing with whether the population was or was not mostly Christian, but rather if the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other founding documents were written in a way to create a government built on Christian principles.)

Diverse Beginning

By reading other historians, like David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard, I had already come to the conclusion that the country’s founding was significantly more complicated than the simple narrative I had learned about the Pilgrims. In Albion’s Seed, Fischer highlights the differences in the four British American colonies. Woodward’s American Nations builds on this idea by looking at the 11 nations that eventually became the United States.

In Christian America, Green opens by developing a backdrop of the country’s early years. He dips into the writings, laws, practices and religious beliefs of that time period. By unwinding how the Christian Nation Narrative began, Green gives the reader a stronger understanding of just how complicated — and diverse — society was in the years leading up to 1776 and beyond.

And his approach is fair.

Dissecting The Arguments

Green does not shy away from the various Christian influences in early American history — like early Supreme Court rulings or the decision of Congress to hire a chaplain to open sessions with prayer. Nor does Green bypass the only religious reference in the Constitution — the clause prohibiting religious tests for office (i.e. I believe Jesus is the Son of God).

He fearlessly broaches both sides of the argument, painting a detailed picture of the thought-process and precedents behind the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. He does not cherry-pick statements, quotes or arguments to prove his position. Instead he lays it all out — both sides of the argument — while explaining why and how he arrived at his conclusion. He most certainly does not come across as anti-Christian. He comes across as an historian on a quest to understand how and when the Christian Nation narrative began.

In some ways, the book reminds me of a well-crafted Sherlock Holmes story, because Green embraces a wide body of evidence, and then he whittles it down to his well-defended, and well-thought out position. Reading the book, I felt a like bit like Watson, wondering why I had not made the connections before reading the book (in my defense, though, I am not as knowledgeable on all of the early historical documents as Green is).

When The Myth Began

In Green’s estimation, the Christian Nation myth started during the 1830s when the young nation, undergoing a spiritual renewal and a generation removed from the Founders, was seeking to understand why its republic and revolution succeeded when France’s did not. This prompted many writers, historians and clergymen to simplify the story of the country’s beginning. It also led to a desire of these writers to link God’s Guiding Hand to the Founding — largely in an effort to broaden the philosophical and political divide between the revolutions of the United States and France.

Both revolutions were based on Enlightenment ideas, but the French revolution led to the persecution, and massacre, of Christians and culminated in the eventual dictatorship of Napoleon. In contrast, the American revolution led to religious freedom (at least for Protestant Christians) and a (mostly) democratically-elected republic form of government.

So, to explain the divergent paths the revolutions took, writers in the 1830s deified the Founding Fathers while dismissing their Enlightenment beliefs. The words and works of the Founding Fathers were minimized as new stories — like the famous myth of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree — were invented to elevate the men into the role of conduits of God’s will.

Imposing Modern Beliefs on History

As Green points out, when the Christian Nation Narrative was created, the religious inklings of the population had shifted. The Second Great Awakening introduced a new strain of Christianity — evangelical Protestant — with a heavy emphasis on being born again and personal revelation. Being born again, though, would have been a foreign idea to the Founding Fathers, including many of the Christian Founders. As a whole, these men did not believe in revelations of a personal nature. Unlike some modern fundamentalist, the Founders easily combined science, rationalism and natural law with the spiritual teachings of Jesus.

In many cases, Founders (even Christian ones) chose reason and science over miracles. Some of the Founding Fathers Founders saw no moral conflict in dismissing biblical miracles despite being a Christian. (The concept of the inerrant Word of God evolved after most of the Founding Fathers had died. It was not until the late 1800s that it became, for many, an issue of faith. During the late 1800s, the belief of inerrancy was strongly, and famously, defended by Benjamin Warfield and Charles Briggs.)

When the Constitution was ratified, many political leaders — including the Founding Fathers — were criticized for the creation of a non-religious Constitution that omitted the role Jesus/God had played in the country’s creation. Clergy and newspaper editors reviled the politicians for their ‘reckless’ behavior.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are interested in learning more about whether the country was founded as a Christian nation — and can open your mind to the evolution of laws in society, it can be an enlightening book. The book is technical at times, dealing with concepts like higher law, natural law, covenants and compacts, but Green explains them in laymen terms.

The book is filled with plenty of examples, anecdotes, footnotes and familiar figures to give the reader an appreciation for our country’s complicated beginning — a beginning that is significantly more interesting than the Christian Nation myth.

Categories: American History, Books I have read, Religion | Tags: , ,

Birds On Beach Reveal Life’s Purpose

27459883292_71ac3298db_kThis past week I was in North Topsail Beach, North Carolina. My family, extended family and friends have been coming here since 2005. It is a non-touristy, serene location where long daily walks on the beach are mandatory.

Claywells on Eastern Shore

It was just north of here — a couple hundred miles or so — that the first Claywell landed on the continent, passing through Jamestown. Unlike me, Peter Clavell, an indentured servant, did not have many leisure hours and by the time he arrived in 1650, the seeds of exploitation had already been sown. Ship captains and land owners found inventive, legal ways to force wave upon wave of hard-working people, like Peter, into long periods of servitude.

So, Peter’s view of this continent was surely different than mine because personal experience colors how we see the world. In time, each of us comes to believe that, as a nation, America is the best, the worst — or somewhere in between.

Topsail Island


Missile used in Operation Bumblebee.

In many ways, Topsail Island typifies this — the good, bad and indifferent. The beach is southeast of Camp Lejeune, a Marine base that trains its personnel in tactics of war. On a nearly daily basis, the sound of waves crashing into the shore is interrupted by military helicopters and V-22 Ospreys flying overhead.

This region came to life in the 1940s as part of the war effort. On the south end of the island, Camp Davis — with its 20,000 inhabitants — swelled the region’s population, and as the U.S. government created thousands of jobs both on and off the base, life was good for the local residents. At the end of the war, Operation Bumblebee tested and perfected rocket technology. Jobs associated with that project kept the region blossoming a little longer, but eventually the government lost interest, and handed the region back over to the locals.

Today, Holly Ridge, the town that hosted Camp Davis has a population of less than 1,300. A small museum in Topsail Beach, details the specifics of Operation Bumblebee. The museum, run by volunteers, is open 2-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Mystery of Life Solved

I prefer early morning walks on the beach. At dusk, I can see the rhythm of life more clearly and the serenity it evokes transcends nationalism and patriotism.

As the sun rises, birds walk on the wet sand just out of the ocean’s reach. They eat. They do not struggle to find food. The ocean delivers it. The birds do not engage in epic battles of war. They do not destroy each other over biological differences. They do not Tweet about their greatest. They do not set long-term goals. They do not seem even remotely interested in the people passing by. They simply do their work. They walk along the shoreline, eat whatever beach birds eat, knowing with an unwavering certainty that the ocean will deliver their meal today as well as tomorrow. The birds eat and then leave, heading off to do whatever they do.

On my walks I am mindful of how Jesus said the sparrows do not worry or toil, yet they are fed. Maybe that’s where America veered off the straight and narrow. We have Americanized Christianity. In our country everyone struggles, competes and fights over limited resources while far too many churches obsess over minute details of doctrine. Even Jesus reduced the 10 commandments down to two. It was (mostly) Paul who created those long list of rules — rules that, in time, have been interpreted and re-interpreted, creating hundreds of denominations in the United States, and in the process branding the words of Jesus by personal preference.

I am no master of religious studies — I tend to rely on scholars who are well-read and more knowledgeable. But my interest in religion correlates with my interest in America. Religion, specifically Christianity, is a major theme throughout our country’s history. It has been used to motivate, control, manipulate and inspire people since the country’s inception.

A religion that never caught on here, though, possibly because of its similarity to the beliefs of the Gnostic Christians (which is viewed as heresy by the orthodox church) is Buddhism. One of the basic tenet of this faith is ‘life is suffering.’ On its surface, it feels very pessimistic. But Buddhists, like Gnostic Christians, place more emphasis on self-knowledge, self-discovery and less emphasis on converting people to one’s interpretation of truth. I have always been more comfortable with this approach especially since I do not believe I can change anyone’s opinion.

But, I do find clarity in the premise that life is suffering.

I now also understand that Buddha and Jesus are not all that different, they are spokes leading to the same hub, because they both teach that the ‘kingdom of God’ is within. Struggling to obtain, achieve or convert, although very American, is not the purpose of life according to Jesus, the Buddha or the birds on the beach. Being authentic is. Learning each life lesson as it is delivered and understanding that all events have a primary cause, is my job.

Nothing Really Changes

I’m not sure America is much different than when Peter landed here in 1650. Then, as now, resources are controlled and restricted by powerful people. Political entities are still fighting for power and politicians are still leveraging current events for personal gain. Today, and maybe then (it’s hard to prove) people rely on a feeling — a ‘gut instinct’ when selecting leaders. They need to ‘feel’ that this or that candidate is the right choice. This leaves people ripe for exploitation. It turns politics, especially presidential elections, into marketing campaigns. So, candidates, guided by their consultants, test various approaches and messages on the public to see which one ‘will stick.’

Once the candidate finds the right formula, they march on, even if it means using a horrendous event to keep their name in the daily news cycle.

Of course, none of us believe we fall for marketing campaigns. Even though it was our rush to buy Pet Rocks that created an instant millionaire, and in the 70s, we intentionally wore polyester leisure suits — a clothing style mocked to this day. In many ways, our elections are just smoke and mirrors, and in the current state of politics, the only elections that matter are mid-term elections in years that end in zero. Those elections set the stage for gerrymandering.

Monitoring The Toilet

HB2 is a clear indication of the absurdity that transpires when the political process is cobbled by gerrymandering. Despite the misguided memes on social media depicting transgender people as cross-dressing, middle-aged men abusing girls in public restrooms, the real threat is a public unwilling to educate itself on the biology behind gender identification. The public outrage almost feels unpatriotic in a country founded by men who embraced the Age of Enlightenment — an era that treasured reason and science above tradition and religion. But, the real problem with the memes — they are incorrect. As a Tennessee District Attorney notes, when it comes to sexual abuse transgender people aren’t the problem, straight men are. According to Assistant DA Chad Butler,

As long as I’ve been doing this job and the hundreds of cases I’ve reviewed, I’ve never once had a transgender person come across my desk as an offender. A majority of my cases are fathers, stepfathers, uncles, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, youth ministers, preachers. People that are already close to the family that the family trusts.

But, as I walk I wonder, how did we get to the place where elected officials felt the need to monitor the bathroom? To a place where spewing, “I was right” is an acceptable response of a presidential candidate after more than 100 people are injured or dead in a mass shooting — while the families are still coming to terms with the tragedy? To a place where Congress is complicit in the senseless gun violence? Government is not some non-human entity. It is people. People hired by the public to do governmental things. Maybe, instead of the current drive to dismantle government and enflame the public, which only benefits career politicians, government officials and those running for office, should focus on policies that actually benefit citizens.

We All Want Smaller Government, Until We Don’t

For some, I guess,  intrusive government is fine as long as it is monitoring restrooms, bedrooms or the uterus and a larger government is okay if it is financing Ospreys and rockets. But a government that tackles gun violence, poverty, job growth or tries to create a more balanced economic playing field is somehow cumbersome and unnecessary. In some ways it does make sense in our marketing-and-advertising-driven political world. Photos of decrepit buildings or impoverished children can never build the same level of excitement as planes engaging in vertical takeoff or images of the devastation rendered by our bombs.

Although, I lean toward a ‘this too will pass’ philosophy of life, I worry about a country that is becoming increasingly angry, intolerant and gullible. We have replaced dialogue and intellect with memes and pithy one-liners. We have divided the world into us and them.

I also think as I walk, that maybe it’s time to look at a simpler model of behavior — like those birds on the beach. As they scurry along the water’s edge, devouring the ocean’s daily offering, they seem much calmer and much wiser than me.

After all, they simply show up, do their work, and enjoy their daily meal. They do it all without a struggle.


Categories: Personal Essays | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mountain Dew, Politics & American Preachers Swallowing Camels

mountain-dewToday, April 6, marks a three-month accomplishment for me – January 6th was the last time I drank a Mountain Dew. In the scope of accomplishments – it hardly ranks high – but, for me, it signifies a shift.

I began drinking Mountain Dew in my preteen years, so by the time I quit I had been consuming the sugary liquid for more than 40 years and on some days I drank more than two liters. It is quite possibly the reason my gallbladder was removed last year – a gallbladder the doctor described as partially dead and rotten.

But as I write this, I still occasionally crave the drink.

Change is Hard
Admittedly, it’s not a major accomplishment to forgo a sugary drink, but change at any level is work. Scientists theorize this is because we have a limited amount of willpower at our disposal. Another compelling reason we don’t change is we fail to understand what motivates our actions. Too often every day is a repeat of the previous one. We fail to question our actions or to understand our world.

Such was the case of one mother who chose tradition over reason.

As she prepared a ham for the Sunday dinner this mother cut about 3-4 inches off the end and wedged it into the pan on one side of the ham. Her 6-year-old daughter, like many young children do, asked why she did it.

“Because that’s the way my mom always fixed a ham.”

“Why, did she do it that way,” the little girl persisted.

“I’m not sure, why don’t you ask Grandma when she comes over today,” the mom replied.

When grandma arrived a few hours later, the little girl did just that. “Why do you cut the end off the ham when you fix it – mom said she never knew why – but she fixes hers that way, anyway.”

“Because my pan was too small,” Grandma said.

Think Before You Do
Questioning our actions or beliefs is difficult. It’s much easier to slice off the ham because it has always been done. Some work feels better without mental input. But questioning can lead to a better understanding. As Orville Wright said,

If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.

As I have written before, I challenge what I was taught because truth can withstand scrutiny. But, my view of America has shifted significantly in the past several years as I have read, researched, pondered and written on her history and politics. Much of what I was taught no longer lines up. Raised in a Republican-leaning family, inside a white evangelical church that interpreted the Bible literally and in a lower socioeconomic class, I had a view of my country based on what I knew and what my environment delivered.

At times, I still crave that view. It painted the world in clearly, defined lines – there was an “us” and a “them”.

But history is messy. Stories are told from bias angles and even eye witnesses fail to see it all correctly. To truly understand the country’s past (and future) is to embrace knowledge even when it flies in the face of a perceived truth. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

Them is Us
American political parties prey upon our history’s messiness and our adherence to our own version of Truth. Like tossing a bone to a pack of hungry wolves, politicians throw out wedge issues to divide and conquer American voters — effectively herding people into an appropriate stall of thought. A few Americans rise above the game, understanding that even in a country where 70 percent of the population identify as Christian — politics is about power and not service.

The experiences of my life led me to believe there is an us –and not a them – them is a manufactured reality based mostly on fear but sometimes on hate. It serves no greater good. We are all essentially the same, cut from the same cloth, men and women, who want to be a productive part of something larger.

We were engineered to do good.

But, one of the greatest paradoxes of the American Way is how our adult lives clash with our upbringing. Most Americans are taught at a young age to play nice, share and help each other. Children are not naturally racist, homophobic, xenophobic or filled with hate. But by the time they are adults, many have absorbed traditions and beliefs that hinder their growth and cloud their views.

Just Sayin’ Christianity
Robert Fulham said, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but in the modern era, a more apt title may be All I Need To Know I Learned on Facebook. It is the new bar room — a place where every conceivable idea is promoted as Truth. Some ministers have even joined in, using social media to push their Truth — a video of one of these ministers landed on my Wall. His hate-filled message, interspersed with his own personal fear, hid behind the words of Jesus as this minister pushed and cajoled the Messiah down a path to a more Americanized version of Christianity. It was a version of godliness that the minister could embrace more easily. It was one affirmed the man’s fears and prejudices.

But as his just sayin’ approach went viral, the minister was doing the very thing Jesus condemned – straining the gnat and swallowing the camel.

He was simply a tool of division because quoting the Scripture is not the same as understanding it.

America has plenty of camels that the minister could have addressed if public morality was his ultimate goal. But it was the gnats, those legalistic interpretations of the law and Bible, that commanded all his attention.

What Would Jesus Do?
There was a time in American history when a large group of ministers were instruments of positive change, not tools of divisive politics. These ministers preached a Social Gospel and it was their movement in the late 1800s that coined the phrase – What Would Jesus Do.

This Social Gospel brought positive change to the United States. By the 20th century this Social Gospel was the driving force behind many of the much-needed upgrades to American life. One defining moment in American Protestant Church history occurred in 1907 and 1908 when The Social Creed was adopted by most of its churches.

Passed first by the Methodists in 1907, the Social Creed called for many measures to alleviate problems created by the new industrial workplace. They successfully fought for the alleviation of Sunday working hours, the elimination of child labor, and the creation of disability insurance for workers injured in factories.

There Must Be A Better Way
As Lisa Sharon Harper points out in Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican… or Democrat – the Social Gospel viewpoint shifted drastically after fundamentalism, with its emphasis on the impending destruction of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus, was introduced to the American culture. This is because of logic that surmises,

If the world is on the path to imminent destruction, social reform is a waste of effort and time. Personal transformation is all that matters.

This obsession with impending doom opened the door to political exploitation of many, including the Religious Right, by melding the non-compromising approach of personal religious conviction with political rhetoric. This union was destined to create governmental gridlock since, by its very nature, our democratic-based Republic, demands compromise to accommodate the needs of its citizens. One of the fathers of the modern conservative movement, failed 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, dryly admitted as much, when he said,

Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.

America And God
Religion has played many roles in our country’s history — both good and bad. In the case of the Social Gospel, it championed much needed change. In the case of some southern ministers, the Biblical story of Noah cursing his son Ham into slavery, was  ‘proof’ that God endorsed slavery — a very self-serving interpretation of the passage. But what I have come to know is, many of the Founding Fathers were Christian, and plenty were not and, through a series of debates and compromise, these men eventually settled upon a rational approach to church and state.

It was a matter of practicality — since the Founders were concerned first, and foremost, with the strength of the nation — not of an individual’s preferred religious beliefs. It may be why God was left out of the Constitution because even in the country’s inception, religious beliefs varied widely, and men like James Madison understood that if a government embraced a specific religion — it was a small step for the government to embrace a particular sect of that religion.

Unholy Union
So, it was a conservative, Christian preacher who help pave the way for the religious freedom we have today. As a Baptist in the colonial era, John Leland, knew what it meant to be persecuted. He had dealt with men straining the gnats, but unlike the modern-day, social-media savvy minister on my Wall, Leland did something important — something that outlasted him. He joined forces with Madison and Thomas Jefferson, even though at least one of the men, Jefferson, did not even believe in the divinity of Jesus. Leland fought for social change. In A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia, Leland wrote.

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks (Muslims), Pagans and Christians.

Now, that’s a belief worthy of a nation which champions personal liberty and freedom. And, for me, it feels much more productive — and Christ-like– than a ‘just sayin’ approach to Christianity.

Categories: Personal Essays | Tags: , , , ,