The Christian Hijacking of America

How preachers and politicians continue to undermine the will of the Founders

Yesterday I stumbled upon a stunning factoid over at the Washington Post that left me momentarily flummoxed:  Just over half of Americans (57 percent to be exact) believe in evolution. What that means is that more than four out of 10 people presumably believe that some other process, or processes, gave rise to the human race. Intrigued, I did a little digging and found a Gallup poll released last year that revealed strikingly similar results but offered a bit more detail; it found that 40 percent of Americans still believe in Creationism—that is, that the world and everything in it was conceived in toto through the divine will of a single, all-powerful deity.

I dug a little deeper and discovered that when controlled for political affiliation, the results are even more skewed, with more than half of registered Republicans reporting that they believe the Judeo-Christian God created humans in his own likeness sometime within the past 10,000 years.

Yes, you read that right. 10,000 years.

That got me to thinking about the current GOP front runners for the presidential nomination—candidates, like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, whom only weeks ago I was lambasting in this very column for being so vastly out of step with the beliefs and values of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Now here I was, being confronted with the possibility that a sizable minority of the American population subscribes to a similar, if not the very same, archaic belief system.

Then it occurred to me that these people vote, and I’ll admit I got a little weak-kneed. After taking a few deep breaths (and a swig of hooch to calm my nerves) I decided to do what I do best, get to the bottom of things by finding out what was happening to my country and how we had strayed so far from our founders’ vision on the role of religion in the national discourse.

It’s true. Despite a professed aversion to the blending of church and state that goes back to the earliest days of our republic—an acutely Christian ethos now courses through American political and social discourse. You can see it in our near pathological subscription to the Protestant work ethic (which equates hard labor with spiritual salvation) and our puritanical squeamishness to all things sexual (Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” comes to mind); you see it in weeks-long congressional debates over how Terry Schiavo gets to die; and you see it in the recent increase in evangelical proselytizing in the U.S. military.

If that’s not enough consider this: America is the only Western democracy that evokes God on its currency, in its Pledge of Allegiance and at the end of its presidential speeches.

But it hasn’t always been so. For nearly the past century faith-minded politicians and their politically motivated counterparts in evangelical Protestantism have labored to gradually undermine the secular foundation of the American republic with the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the invocation of God in state ritual is decidedly un-American, if by the term you mean inconsistent with the vision set forth by the founders (you know, those guys in the pointy hats who you learned about in grade school and who the Tea Party thinks are cooler than Ayn Rand).

Primarily material deists who rejected supernaturalism in favor of reasoned discourse, men like John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were children of the Enlightenment who saw science and natural law as the supreme governing force of mankind. Their early writings (including the Declaration of Independence itself, early versions of which left out any mention of a creator) are filled with references to the “God of Nature” from which human rights are derived.

The founders took great pains to distance their new republic from the intercessions of dogmatic religious thought, choosing to begin the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause by ensuring freedom of religion (and freedom from religion) before even mentioning freedom of speech or the press (and ahead of the right to bear arms, rights against search and seizure and even the right to due process, all of which come later). Instead of faith, their revolution was constructed on a foundation of secular humanism (albeit an underdeveloped one that still excluded women and blacks from political participation) that would have regarded the idea of a literal interpretation of the Bible as anathema.

In fact, Jefferson found the Bible to be so filled with fantasy and superstition that he created his own version, using a razor blade to cut the “diamonds” from the “dunghill,” separating the ethical teachings of Jesus from the religious dogma and other supernatural elements. His “Jefferson Bible” – completed in 1820—is a short but enlightened version of Christian doctrine concerned with the moral message of Jesus the man, not the god.

According to Yale professor Jon Butler, who wrote Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People:

“Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ, but he believed that Christ was a deeply interesting and profoundly important moral or ethical teacher and it was in Christ’s moral and ethical teachings that Jefferson was particularly interested. But he was not an evangelical and he was not a deeply pious individual.”

While Jefferson’s views may have been a bit more radical on the subject than those of his peers, colonial Americans in general maintained a deep aversion to the church meddling in the affairs of state and/or religious edict influencing policy.

So where did things go astray? It’s been a gradual process, furthered by generations of “Christian revisionists” who have and continue to maintain the misguided belief that America is a Christian nation. The culprits include not only religious leaders and their supporters, but congressman, military leaders and not a few presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, for instance).

Back in May 2009, President Obama challenged this assertion at a press conference in Turkey, drawing the ire of religious conservatives when he said of America:

“[w]e have a very large Christian population—we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Needless to say, the president, in following the lead of the founders, is right.  But judging by the depth that faith has been injected into our private lives—right down to the money in our pockets—it’s easy to forget that. What’s less known is that the references to God that we take most for granted—like the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as our national motto—are barely 50 years old.

The revision to the Pledge of Allegiance was signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1954 after years of pressure from the Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus, while “In God We Trust,” which began appearing on coins during the Civil War, became the official motto of the United States in 1956. What both changes have in common is that they were primarily politically inspired as Cold War propaganda designed to differentiate America from the Godless Soviets.

I have not the inclination nor the power to change anyone’s mind about the science of evolution, but I will do my part to reject the Christianization of American discourse.

In the words of John Adams, America was “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”

Maybe it’s time for those who support injecting Christianity into national politics to learn their history.

Writer and photographer Christopher Moraff is a news features correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a contributing writer for the Chicago-based magazines Design Bureau and In These Times, where he serves on the board of editors.