A peculiar thing happened in the news on the Fourth of July: there were surprisingly many stories about religion and nation. It wasn’t overwhelming, by any means, but there were enough that it was noticeable as a trend, which struck me as sort of weird.
First, there was a bit of a flap about atheism. It seems that the American Atheists wanted to conduct an advertising campaign in the skies above 27 states on Independence Day using planes pulling banners that read “God-LESS America” or “Atheism is Patriotic.” Trouble was, “out of the 85 people in the country who fly these sign-pulling planes only about 17 have agreed to fly the messages” as of whenever CNN posted the story.
It made for an interesting news story that looked at the Fourth of July from a different angle, so I can see why they’d run it to spice up the otherwise routine flag-waving, irritatingly Lee Greenwood -saturated coverage that the Fourth of July tends to produce. (Obligatory “God Bless the USA” YouTube link; feel free to skip.)
It was certainly not the case that "CNN's Belief Blog Promotes Atheist Group's Fourth of July Airplane Messaging" despite the headline at NewsBusters (though such hysteria isn’t exactly unexpected from an organization who defines their business as “Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias”), not least because plenty of other news outlets covered the story.
And then, also at CNN, Independence Day brought an opinion piece from Kenneth C. Davis, whom Wikipedia describes as “an American popular historian, best known for his Don't Know Much About... series,” called “Why U.S. is not a Christian nation” (because apparently the headline editor is allergic to definite articles).
The go-to answer to why the U.S. isn’t Christian is that we have separation of church and state. It’s in the First Amendment, duh.
Except that it isn’t really. The relevant part of the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which certainly points to the government staying out of religious institutions and practices. But the phrase “separation of church and state”—the phrase that makes me chuckle every time I’m on a bus that turns from Church onto State in Champaign—actually isn’t there.
Instead, as Davis points out in that CNN opinion piece, the phrase “separation of church and state” comes not from the Constitution but from a letter Thomas Jefferson penned in 1802 when he was president. Jefferson wrote, as Davis’s piece quotes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State
That all sounds great. The Founding Fathers, objecting to the ways in which the Church of England was headed by whoever was on the throne, wanted do things differently in the new country they were envisioning.
Any public schoolchild (hopefully) knows the story of how the Puritans left England for religious freedom. Some of the people involved in the founding of the U.S. as a nation had even been victims of religious persecution much more locally, such as Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island because he’d been “banished from neighboring Massachusetts, the ‘shining city on a hill’ where Catholics, Quakers and Baptists were banned under penalty of death” (Davis).
But here’s the thing, and here’s where the “America is a Christian Nation” proponents get their ammunition: those are all denominations of Christianity. Intra-Christian strife there was aplenty, but all of them were some sort of Christian or another (Unless they were Deists. But even Deism relies on there being a God, and to my knowledge it was a Christian-flavored one).
The fact that those Founding Fathers were all Christians isn’t just an interesting historical coincidence, but rather had the effect of making Christianity part of the basis of the U.S., to the point that, in some sense, it is a Christian nation. Christianity is normative in this country. If the scripture you follow consists, in entirety or primarily, of the Old and New Testaments, you never have to explain yourself or apologize for your deviance from the norm.
Believe that God kept talking after the New Testament with The Book of Mormon? Maybe you’re not electable as president. Stop believing after the Pentateuch? At certain points people believed you might be a traitor. And forget about it if the Koran is your main holy book—we all know that Muslims aren’t quite trusted to be loyal in the contemporary U.S.
So how did we get here? Christianity as the norm or not, whatever happened to the free exercise of religion and it being “between God and me”? (Which, that part of Broadway musical RENT is one of the most brilliant rhymes ever: “To sodomy/it’s between God and me” = <3)
What happened to the nation where “In 1790, President George Washington wrote to America's first synagogue, in Rhode Island, that ‘all possess alike liberty of conscience’ and that ‘toleration’ was an ‘inherent national gift,’ not the government's to dole out or take away” (Davis)?
Here again, my current favorite book helps make sense of what’s going on. Yes, it’s Wendy Brown and Regulating Aversion. The problem is that Mormons, like Muslims, like, at certain points in history (or maybe even today), Jews and Catholics (JFK "getting orders from the Pope,"anyone?), are imagined to be members of their religion first and Americans only secondarily, but “the state promises to protect and tolerate individuals, not groups whose fealty is to some higher or lower god, to some other national formation, to some elsewhere” (95).
That is, under contemporary assumed and normative (I am sort of tempted to say compulsory) Christianity, the nation and Christianity are assumed to basically, fundamentally align. It’s not a conflict. However, the flip side of this is that if you aren’t Christi-merican, there is a demand, implicitly or explicitly, that you be American first and religious second.
Notably, this takes place with respect to Islam, as Jasbir K. Puar has skillfully illuminated in “Monster , Terrorist, Fag” (with Amit Rai) and Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. But it’s also the case that Mormons are suspected of holding their religious allegiance above their national one—though being generally white, conservative, and not all that downtrodden they don’t make such a good cause célèbre.
The default Christianity of the United States is why we have a National Prayer Breakfast that is Christian but doesn’t have to announce itself as such. This is why it is such a scandal for those who (incorrectly) believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. And, ultimately, it’s why the atheist plan to fly their banners on the Fourth of July was so powerfully symbolic, because it was a rejection of that embedded Christianity. It’s also why it was so offensive to people who want the U.S. to stay stealthily Christian.
Those wacky current events just keep being fascinating. Next time, the weird racial politics of the way Casey Anthony keeps getting conflated with O.J. Simpson