By Bruce Gourley
Christian nationalism is a hot topic, as a read of recent Associated Baptist Press articles and attendant commentary reveals. To wit, some Christians today insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that the concept of the separation of church and state is either the sinister invention of modern liberals, or — in the best-case scenario — a one-way street in which government sanctions and favors Christianity as the national religion.
And while a handful of conservative Christians try to argue the Christian-nationalist position, professional historians unwedded to Christian-nationalist ideology scoff at the notion. Hence the recent debacle in Texas, in which Christian nationalists with no historical training overruled objections from professional historians and voted down a requirement that the state’s social-studies textbooks teach students about church-state separation.
So, how does one sort out the rhetoric from the substance?
Let me suggest a simple, three-step method of discerning truth in this ongoing debate.
First of all, the method by which one does history is important. Selective use of sources, out-of-context quotations, fabricated quotations, philosophical musings that are empty of empirical substance and distortion of the historical record are all methodologies commonly used by Christian nationalists in supporting their views. While reconstructed and even fabricated “history” is often packaged as black-and-white soundbites that are designed for bumper stickers or popular appeal and presented in such a way as to put genuine history on the defensive, professional historians know that the historical record is neither as simple nor as cut-and-dried as ideologues wish.
For example, the historical record reveals that Christianity was the dominant faith in America in colonial and revolutionary times. Yet the same historical record also demonstrates that most Americans did not regularly attend church, most of our Founding Fathers were recognized by their contemporaries as Deists (and/or heretics) and their views criticized by orthodox Christian leaders, and the United States was intentionally founded as a pluralistic, secular nation.
Furthermore, history reveals that the separation of church and state, as advocated by Baptists and other dissenters and upon which America was founded, was a two-way street that protected the free exercise of all faiths, while prohibiting government from favoring or advancing religion of any kind.
Second, the manner in which one uses history is indicative of the motives behind the “history.” Christian nationalists typically use historical revisionism to argue for government favoritism of Christianity today. In another era, many U.S. Protestants misappropriated separation of church and state to stoke fears against Catholics. In short, history has a history of being used by religious groups to further their particular, pre-determined beliefs. Conversely, the responsible use of history is that of a window into understanding the nuances of the past, rather than a tool for furthering the agendas of ideologues. The truth, in other words, may not be as sexy or flashy as self-affirming revisionism, but don’t let ideological window-dressing blind you to historical reality.
Third, be aware of persons claiming historical knowledge but who instead confuse the historical record. Christian nationalists often conflate the surge of U.S. civil religion in the 1950s — an anti-communist reaction that led to the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to paper currency, as well as other vaguely religious statements in public and government venues — with America’s roots. In a similar manner, Christian nationalists often speak favorably of the 17th- and 18th-century colonial “Christian” theocracies, yet do not realize that the theocracies they hold up as models persecuted, sometimes to the point of death, Christians (including Baptists) and others whose theology and faith practices were deemed unacceptable.
Finally, historian Richard Pierard recommends two works for those who wish to begin to get a solid handle on the ascendancy of Christian nationalism and the movement’s reconstruction of history: Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus: the Religious Right’s Alternate View of American History, and Stephen Stookey’s two-part essay in the Spring-Summer 1999 issue of The Southwestern Journal of Theology titled, “In God We Trust.” I heartily concur with Pierard’s recommendation. Perhaps more than ever, it is important for Christians to discern between history and fiction.