The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American
BY ANDREW SEIDEL
352 pp.; $24.95
The first thing I'll say about Andrew Seidels The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American is that it's sad it had to be written. To many of us, the founding of the United States as a secular nation seems so basic and incontrovertible a fact it's hard to imagine that it must be argued. And yet it increasingly has to be, as Christian nationalism--the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation--continues to grow as a real force in America.
Which is why Seidels new book is so important. The Founding Myth not only accurately debunks the historical myths that underly Christian nationalism, with an academic breakdown of the historical record that gives the lie to so many of those myths. It goes a step further by arguing that a close examination of Christianity and the American founding documents show them often to be at odds with each other--that the freedom of thought that exemplifies the US Constitution protects everybody--not just Christians (although it protects them as well). Seidel, a constitutional and civil rights attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, presents a compelling, well-researched, and clearly written argument for the founding of our country as a secular nation.
The book starts with a simple examination of the religious views of the nation's founders, many of whom, while maybe not atheists, were decidedly not Christian. A perfect example is George Washington. Seidel debunks the "Prayer at Valley Forge"--the popular image of Washington on his knees in the snow--which, it turns out, comes from yet another apocryphal tale by Washington biographer Parson Weems (who also came up with "I cut down the cherry tree"). The story of Washington praying at the Valley Forge winter encampment didn't even appear until the seventeenth edition of Weems's biography. From there it appeared in McGuffey Readers and numerous paintings, but there are no true accounts of it happening. In fact, Washington's religious views suggest he was not a believer in Christian revelation, confirmed by the pastor of Martha Washington's church, which Washington himself only sparingly attended; by all accounts he never took communion.
Seidel also debunks a more commonly held misbelief, that Washington added the words "so help me God" to the end of the presidential oath (those words are not in the constitutional oath...