One of the most pernicious beliefs of the Religious Right is the “Christian nation” myth – the idea that the United States was founded to be an officially Christian country with a legal system that reflects the tenets of conservative Christianity and where certain types of Christians enjoy more rights than everyone else.
There’s no support for this idea in our Constitution. In fact, that document’s entirely secular language cuts in the opposite direction. The Christian nation myth is also debunked by the words and actions of key founders such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Geroge Washington and others.
Nevertheless, the myth endures and is embraced by millions of fundamentalist Christians.
A darker story walks alongside the Christian nation myth – the idea that European (aka white) Christians had a God-given right to settle the Americas, that their invasion, conquest and subjugation of the indigenous population (including forced conversion) was, in fact, a fulfillment of the will of God.
How many Americans believe this? A recent study by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that while most Americans reject this idea, to no one’s surprise, it is embraced by a majority of white evangelical Protestants.
PRRI asked whether “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.”
Among white evangelical Protestants, 52% said they completely or mostly agreed with the statement. Hispanic Protestants were second at 46%. Non-white Protestants were at 38%, while white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics hit 37% and 35% respectively. Among white mainline Protestants, 34 % accepted the statement. Among Jews, only 27% agreed. Black Protestants were at 26%, other non-Christians hit 15%, and the religiously unaffiliated came in at only 11%.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, noted that the belief in a God-ordained America parallels the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, a concept embraced by popes over the centuries to justify the seizure of land in the New World.
Jones makes it clear that there’s another disturbing finding lurking in these results: Many of the people who believe that God meant for Christians to occupy America also accept the idea that modern immigrants are “replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”
This is the so-called “replacement theory” championed by white nationalists. We heard it in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 when fascists chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” We even hear it promoted on the Fox News Channel.
The problem with all of this is obvious: If you believe God intended for you to have land to fulfill his divine purpose, you need make no accommodation for the people who already occupy it. Also, you’re under no obligation to allow non-Christians or Christians who interpret the faith differently than you to settle alongside you.
Our founders were obviously products of the European settlement, but that doesn’t mean they believed they were instruments of God’s will or that they were forging a Christian utopia. They intended for a broad measure of religious freedom that would encompass everyone. As Washington observed in an Aug. 21, 1790, letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The belief in an officially “godly” (read: far-right fundamentalist Christian) America may be much loved by Christian nationalists. It may make them feel good. It may even motivate them to vote certain ways.
It has one huge drawback, however: It is completely and utterly alien to our history, and it stands as an impediment to the type of inclusive society we should be striving to build.