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Honor thy Fathers
Christian Nationalists reject the wisdom of the very Founders they claim to revere.
The evangelical right in this country adores the Founding Fathers™️ - or at least cherry-picked, whitewashed stories about the men whose words and actions shaped our nascent nation some 250 years ago. Many claim the Constitution was divinely inspired and revere the document with conviction surpassed only by the Bible. The Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights may as well have been chiseled in stone and handed to James Madison, the individual responsible by the Lord Almighty himself. Their relationship with the First Amendment is more complicated.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1791
Hostile foreign actors, reactionaries, and right-wing chaos agents LOVE the First Amendment protection for free speech. Peddlers of hate speech, fake news, and propaganda rely on the cover it provides as they lob attacks daily at the very foundations of democracy. “Free speech absolutists” howl against “cancel culture” as if the text of the amendment protected against the social consequences of assholery. News flash: the Constitution says the government can’t arrest you for your words. It does not prohibit individuals or organizations from shunning, denouncing, disavowing, disaffiliating, firing, or refusing a platform to those with whom they disagree. Meanwhile, conservative Christians ban books, militarized police threaten the freedom to peaceably assemble, and Donald Trump (among others) label the free press as “the enemy of the people.” Yet, none of these arguments so much as acknowledges the first, and perhaps most important, words in the Bill of Rights. Again:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Scholars of Constitutional law call this the Establishment Clause. Now, I’m no lawyer, but even as a kid learning about the Constitution for the first time I thought the meaning of the text was pretty clear: the government cannot declare a state religion, cannot favor one religion over another, and cannot punish an individual or group for worshipping in their own way. That’s why we didn’t think anything of having Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu classmates. That’s why it wasn’t a big deal when the Jehovah’s Witness didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s what we were taught in every history class and it is readily apparent from the founding generation’s own words:
“Whenever we read the Obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a Demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind: and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel.” - Thomas Paine
"The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy." - George Washington
“The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” - 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams
“Let me repeat that for all of those who think that government ought to have a role in religion: ‘Erecting the Wall of separation between church and state, therefore is absolutely essential to a free society.’” - Thomas Jefferson
“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” - James Madison
Between the First Amendment, the words of the individual Founding Fathers, and the text of the Article VI of the Constitution, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” the “original intent” of the Framers appears crystal clear. Over nearly two and a half centuries, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed and fortified the wall of separation between church and state through cases like Reynolds vs. United States (1878), Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), Engel vs. Vitale (1962), Epperson vs. Arkansas (1968), Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971), and Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987). To paraphrase a far more familiar paraphrase, the moral arc of the country has bent toward greater religious freedom.
While the vast majority of Americans think this is pretty great, a significant - but still disturbingly high - minority has a far different view on the meaning of religious liberty. Over the last ten to fifteen years, essentially correlating with the rise of Tea Party and Freedom Caucus Republicans, Christian Nationalism has become a threat not only to all of our religious freedoms, but to American democracy itself. This strain of dominionism is not new, and has waxed and waned in relation to Enlightenment ideals of religious self-determination throughout the nation’s history.
The thread of Christian conquest runs deep through the entirety of the “New World” narrative. From Columbus to Manifest Destiny, it always seems Providence guides white Christians to eradicate whom or whatever stands between themselves and material prosperity. You know, for Jesus. Though they eventually settled on explicitly secular language in the Constitution, many of the country’s founders - Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, etc. - advocated for an explicitly Christian nation. During the Civil War, the confederates adopted an explicitly Christian constitution.
The original post-Civil War KKK fought Reconstruction on the same religious grounds. The Klan was reformed in the 1910’s as a response to Catholic and Jewish immigration and reached its high water mark in Indiana, where 30% of the white male population, half the General Assembly, and Governor Edward L. Jackson were members. Christian fascist organizations like the Silver Shirts and Christian Front were active in the 1930’s. Silver Shirt leader William Dudley Pelley, headquartered in Noblesville, Indiana, was convicted on eleven counts of sedition and treason and served eight years in federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana. His Noblesville funeral in 1965 was commemorated with a cross-burning on the front lawn of the funeral parlor.
The great social conflicts of post-WWII America have ALL been framed in religious terms. Segregationists invoked God’s order to defend racial segregation:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” - Judge Leon Bazile
When over-the-top racism ceased to be fashionable, religious extremists shifted their focus to traditional gender roles, attacking feminism:
"Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature.” - Phyllis Schlafly
AND birth control:
“Birth control is wickedness… When a man and a woman are married and they agree, or covenant, to limit their offspring to two or three, and practice devices to accomplish this purpose, they are guilty of iniquity which eventually must be punished.” - LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith
AND abortion rights:
“Christ died that we might live. This is the opposite of abortion. Abortion kills that someone might live differently.” - Baptist Theologian John Piper
And on and on. As the population enjoys greater religious freedom, Christian nationalists flail about for an out-group on which to pin the moral decay of society. First they came for gay folks’ right to live openly:
“I refuse to stop speaking out against the sin of homosexuality… With God as my witness, I pledge that I’ll continue to expose the sin of homosexuality to the people of this nation. I believe that the massive homosexual revolution is always a symptom of a nation coming under the judgement of God… Please remember, that homosexuals do not reproduce! They recruit! And, many of them are out after my children and your children.” - Reverend Jerry Falwell
then, their right to marry:
“I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes,” he said. “Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.” - Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
Now, with marriage equality having gained widespread support, trans people have become the newest punching bag:
“A woman must not wear men’s clothing nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this… It’s not clothing or personal style that offends God, but rather the use of one’s appearance to act out or take on a sexual identity different from the one biologically assigned by God at birth… When men or women claim to be able to choose their own sexual identity, they’re making a statement that God did not know what he was doing when he created them.” - Florida Congressman Greg Steube
To be clear, all of these morality-based opinions are, in fact, morally repugnant. Still, I respect their right to harbor these putrid beliefs, announce them publicly, or proselytize in their favor. But I have a BIG problem when religious zealots use the levers of government to impose their medieval worldview on the rest of us.
In my last post, I briefly mentioned Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society. With the backing of billionaire funders, Leo and his group of ultra-conservative activists have waged a decades-long campaign to pack the federal courts with like-minded theocrats, the Supreme Court in particular. This amounts to an end run around Congress, around voters, around democracy itself. In this way, conservatives have been able to achieve goals they could never have achieved legislatively. Having successfully executed this scheme and stolen two seats on the highest court, Christian extremists have begun to roll back religious freedom for the many in favor of religious freedom for a few.
According to the ACLU, in 2022’s “Carson v. Makin the court held for the first time that a state must fund religious activity as part of an educational aid program.” Only one week later, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian public-school football coach who compelled his players to pray on the field, ignoring well-established precedent. Worst of all, this court - stolen, packed, bought and sold - threw out 50 years of Constitutionally-backed protection for women’s bodily autonomy by overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Many of these opinions, their authors, and the political leaders to whom they owe their appointments, have been inspired by Christian Reconstructionist “historians” like R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Tim LaHaye, and David Barton. All four men were members of the Council for National Policy (discussed at length a few weeks ago), their extreme theocratic worldview a virus gradually infecting the body politic via their relationship with fellow-CNP member Leo and the Federalist Society. Half of President George W. Bush’s appointees to the federal courts were Federalist Society members. Over 90% of Trump’s appointees were. All six Republican-appointed members of the Supreme Court are. With this kind of power to redefine the law, it is no matter that serious historians dismiss the kind of revisionist faux-history that props up this movement as “an embarrassment”.
It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic, so loaded with real consequences for the victims of these decisions. I can think of no greater attack on our fundamental freedoms, nothing so hostile to liberty, nothing so demonstrably un-American as the continued siege on the wall between church and state. Those who claim to love the Constitution the most, who idolize the Founding Fathers with religious zeal, disregard their heroes’ clear intentions and foist their own extreme interpretation of God’s word upon us all. For more than two centuries, generations of Americans gradually enjoyed greater religious liberty, until a cadre of well-funded radicals overwhelmed the system. Though compromised, the Establishment Clause still stands, protecting us from the worst of theocratic overreach. The First Amendment may have bent under the weight of incalculable corruption, but it cannot break. We must repair and reinforce this bulwark against autocracy.
In this way, maybe I’m the First Amendment absolutist. Our Constitution demands a secular government. I am happy to debate any of the most controversial topics in society. Want to debate whether life begins at conception? Fine. Care to argue whether marriage must only be a union between one man and one woman? Okay. Shall we haggle over the appropriate age at which trans kids receive gender-affirming care? If you insist. But, when arguing for government policy, it’s like playing Taboo. If you can’t defend your argument without saying “God”, “Lord”, “Bible”, “Jesus”, or “Creator”, you get the buzzer…
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