by Chris Hedgpeth
We’ve survived (and hopefully enjoyed) another holiday season! I kind of miss being able to use the phrase “Happy Holidays”. To me, the valediction reflects the American ideal of pluralism, but to some it represents a rejection of Christmas as the dominant winter holiday. This controversy is an apt analogy for something that’s happening on a larger scale in our nation, something Andrew L. Seidel addresses in his recent book, The Founding Myth.
The titular myth is that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Seidel argues, using historical examples, that the founders of our country clearly intended to keep the government free from the influence of any religion, Christianity included. The American Revolution was, after all, fought against a king who entwined his power with the authority of the Church of England.
The scope of The Founding Myth goes beyond 18th century history to explore and debunk the idea that our system of laws is based on the Bible, specifically the Ten Commandments. In what is my favorite section of the book, Andrew Seidel systematically analyzes the Ten Commandments (all three biblical instances of them) to demonstrate how they are fundamentally opposed to the American concept of justice.
Seidel quotes the long version of the Second Commandment from Exodus 20:4-6 that advocates for punishing children for several generations because of the actions of their parents. Punishing people for the crimes of others is unjust from an American legal perspective (not to mention any other legitimate moral perspective). Other un-American topics explored in this section of the book include thoughtcrime, compulsory religious adherence, slavery, and misogyny.
The book also addresses the religious phraseology that has been inserted into American society over the years. The indivisibility of our nation was literally divided by “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. “In God We Trust” became our official national motto in 1956, and was first printed on paper money in 1957. Seidel points out that these were knee-jerk reactions to the perceived threat of communism, and not foundational aspects of our nation.
An interesting fact from the book: the first president to end an inaugural oath with “so help me God” was Chester A. Arthur, in 1881, a full century after America’s founding. His plea to God was understandable considering the recent assassinations of James Garfield (which led to Arthur’s presidency) and Abraham Lincoln, 16 years prior.
The Founding Myth boasts an impressive 1,296 citations. It is dense with facts, and insightful quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, and George Carlin. Andrew Seidel contributes his share of clever observations and witty quotes. My favorite of his quips is “Faith enough to fill a mountain would not move a mustard seed.”
Andrew Seidel, in his capacity as the Director of Strategic Response with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, provides a unique perspective to this work. He understands first-hand how much the perpetuation of the myths of Christian nationalism threaten our civil rights. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an astute analysis of religion and government from the perspective of a constitutional lawyer (who isn’t, really?). It has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf.