Unlearning The Founding Myth

Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is an atheist, and an angry one at that. His recent book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, is, in his own words, “not a work of academic history but an argument, an attack. Specifically, it is an attack on Christian nationalism.” There is nothing wrong with attacking something that needs to be attacked, but if an author hopes to convince the unconvinced, he or she needs to use evidence fairly, make persuasive arguments, and perhaps even do these things in a winsome manner. Seidel’s book will make no converts.

Apparently believing that ridicule is a persuasive rhetorical strategy, Seidel offers a steady stream of it throughout his work. Two examples will suffice to make this point. In a discussion of the Torah, he likens the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to a chest-slapping gorilla who issues that First Commandment because he is insecure. Turning to the Gospels, he suggests that the “whole of Christianity may be predicated on Mary’s adultery.” One does not need to be a person of faith to be put off by such depictions, and it is puzzling that a self-described “forward-thinking” press like Sterling would publish them.

Misusing Sources

Even an attack piece should treat primary source documents in a responsible fashion. Seidel seems to agree, promising early on that if “no original source could be found, the point cannot be found in this book.” So far so good. A few pages later, he begins a chapter with a quotation from Washington’s 1783 Circular Letter to the States:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.

Seidel seems to think that this quote supports his claims that Washington “was a man of little or no religion” who, “had he been religious, would have prevented showy religious display.” More broadly, he avers that the founders thought religious beliefs were “personal, not for public display or political benefit.”

Just a few lines after the passage quoted by Seidel, Washington wrote that progress in America was due, “above all” to “the pure and benign light of Revelation.” He concluded his letter with the following words:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for brethren who have served in the Field; and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

This prayer, which includes a paraphrase of Micah 6:8 (in bold) and an admonition to imitate the characteristics of Jesus Christ (“the Divine Author of our religion”) hardly seems like the work of someone seeking to privatize religion. There are reasons why one might discount these words, but Seidel doesn’t offer them. As he is wont, he simply ignores evidence that does not fit his narrative.

Seidel later quotes approvingly Edmund Burke’s 1775 speech in Parliament where he observes that “a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the [character of the Americans].” Seidel does not address Burke’s observation in the same speech that

Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. . . . All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our Northern Colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.

I could give many additional examples of selective quotations or taking quotations out of context, but the book’s outright errors present even more difficulties.

Misstatements of Fact

Founding Myth is littered with historical inaccuracies. Every writer slips occasionally, but the large number of errors in this work call into question the author’s commitment to providing an accurate account of the founding era. This is particularly significant for a constitutional attorney who believes history is, at least upon occasion, relevant for interpreting the First Amendment.

Seidel’s historical errors sometimes cut against his own argument. For instance, he asserts that “every colony had an established church.” By most counts, only nine of the original thirteen colonies had establishments; Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware did not. Some separationists point to these colonies, especially Rhode Island, as being ahead of their time with respect to church-state relations. Seidel offers no explanation as to why he considers them to have establishments.

Separationists are often interested in debates over religious establishments in only one state: Virginia. Seidel focuses on these as well, especially on the general assessment bill supported by Patrick Henry that would have provided state support to ministers from different denominations. The bill did not say how much support would be given, but Seidel refers to it as “Henry’s proposed three-penny tax.” He is presumably conflating the proposal with Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, which included a three penny tax on tea (to which Madison refers in his Memorial and Remonstrance).

Madison’s Memorial had some influence in Virginia, but not as much as an evangelical petition that received three times as many signatures. But whatever impact it had, it did not convince “the people of Virginia to vote against the bill giving financial support to Christian ministers,” as Seidel asserts. In December of 1784, the Virginia legislature postponed action on the general assessment bill until the fall of 1785, but a final vote was never taken on it. Instead, the legislature passed Jefferson’s famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, but it did so in 1786, not 1785 as Seidel claims.

Turning to the new republic, Seidel dismisses the Northwest Ordinance, which states the common view that “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” because “it was passed by the Confederation Congress while the leading founding fathers were at the Constitutional Convention.”  The law was indeed passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787, but Seidel is apparently unaware that one of Congress’s first acts in 1789 was to reauthorize the law—one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed.

As a final example, and many more could be given, Congress did not give President Washington an “official command” to issue his first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, it “requested” that he do so. Indeed, the initial suggestion was made by Representative Elias Boudinot, later president of the American Bible Society, the day after the House approved the final language of the Establishment Clause. The House agreed with Boudinot, the Senate agreed with the House, and President Washington complied with Congress’s request. Not surprisingly, Seidel does not quote Washington’s theologically rich proclamation, but you can read it here.

Unsubstantiated Claims

In light of Seidel’s promise that if “no original source could be found, the point cannot be found in this book,” I was looking forward to seeing how he would support his claim that “[w]e know that both Baruch Spinoza and John Locke profoundly influenced the founders’ thinking.” I’ve argued elsewhere that Locke’s influence in the era is overrated, but I’ll concede that many founders were familiar with his works. But Spinoza? Seidel provides literally no evidence to support this claim.

I suspect that Seidel thinks Spinoza influenced the founders because of Matthew Stewart’s assertion, in his book Nature’s God, that Spinoza was “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic.” Seidel doesn’t cite the book to support this claim, but he references it elsewhere and Stewart endorsed The Founding Myth. But even Stewart concedes that “[t]here was—and is—no meaningful evidence at all in revolutionary America” of Spinoza’s influence. Stewart at least offers an argument that Spinoza’s influence came through Locke, but his reasoning is not very convincing.

The United States v. the Bible

In parts two and three of his work, Seidel offers a long, tedious, and, ultimately, unconvincing series of arguments purporting to demonstrate that the Bible had little influence on the founders.  Here are two examples:

  1. “The governments the Bible espouses and those it has bred are theocratic monarchies.”
  2. America’s founders did not create a theocratic monarchy
  3. Therefore, the Bible did not influence the founders’ views of government.

Or this:

  1. The Second Commandment “prohibits images of anything in heaven, on earth, or in the water. That covers most of the known world. In short, it ends art.”
  2. America’s founders did not ban art and, in fact, the First Amendment protects “any form of expression.”
  3. Therefore, the founders rejected the Bible’s approach to art in favor of liberty.

One does not need to be an expert on the Bible to recognize that Seidel offers interpretations of biblical passages that virtually no one has adhered to for centuries; and it is questionable if anyone ever adhered to some of them.

Christian Nation v. Christian Founding?

The Founding Myth is a problematic book, but Seidel is correct about one important point. Some of the popular authors he criticizes contend that America was founded as a Christian nation. Such a claim implies that America was founded for Christians, and that while non-Christians may be tolerated they can never be fully at home here. America’s founders disagreed.

Article VI bans religious tests for federal offices, and the founders understood that this meant that Jews, Muslims, and even angry atheists might be elected or appointed to them. There were few non-Christians in late 18th-century America, but there were some, and the founders were convinced that the right of these citizens to believe and act according to the dictates of conscience must be protected. Consider, for instance, George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island (I’m pleased to report that both Seidel and I like this letter, although he thinks Touro Synagogue is in Connecticut). Washington wrote to this tiny religious minority that:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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.

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

This letter, from the era’s one indispensable man, reflects well the founders’ understanding that the religious convictions of all citizens must be respected. Yet it also illustrates the reality that they did not think that religion must be driven from the public square. The last paragraph contains eight allusions to biblical passages, including Washington’s favorite verse, Micah 4:4, which he paraphrased in his writings at least forty times.

America’s founders embraced the freedom of religion; not freedom from religion. Seidel is certainly free to argue for a religion-free public square, but he should not distort American history to support his policy preferences.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 06, 2019 at 10:18:09 am

Rant - n -- Angry, emotionally charged, or tediously negative speech or writing.

In a sort of Gresham's Law for the Academy, it appears that ranting is busy driving out knowledge and reason. Rants get all the love on social media, which is today the only audience that counts. People like this are responsible for educating our children and we wonder why they are devolving into mobs of ignorant ranters?

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on August 06, 2019 at 17:22:53 pm

Dear Boy - THAT is what they do.

The old adage, "Publish or Perish", you see, has been updated to "Rant or Perish."
We conflate this with educational instruction.

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Image of gabe
on August 07, 2019 at 02:01:49 am

At least Seidel is only an attorney, not an educator. And fortunately, he loses most of the time. Mark David Hall shows us here some of the reason why.

We must now hope that Seidel does not get the kid-glove treatment that Matthew Stewart's almost equally absurd "Nature's God" got from a sympathetic press and from secularist academia.

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Tom Van Dyke
on August 07, 2019 at 12:09:35 pm

The thing is that the First Amendment is not the only constitutional rudder of this issue; people forget that the Fourteenth Amendment (coming later, it modifies what precedes it) is no less a rudder. It's the latter that makes preferencing of a given religious practice/tradition as against others a constitutional problem. For example, even if one could say the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment would not bar school-sponsored prayer, the Equal Protection (possibly the Privileges & Immunities Clause if the SCOTUS would ever repair its Reconstruction era mangling of it) of the Fourteenth Amendment would potentially mean you'd need to open that prayer up to all-comers, as it were: say, Satanists or Occultists.

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Image of Liam
on August 07, 2019 at 15:10:42 pm

The Founders were quite aware that what went for Christianity must also go for Islam, Hinduism, etc. But that non-religion must be put on par with religion, arguable.


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Tom Van Dyke
on August 07, 2019 at 15:17:43 pm

I don't think that is a sound understanding of 14A. I acknowledge that it has been urged for a long time by the Left as working an implicit repeal or qualification of every Constitutional provision they dislike; essentially an entirely new Constitution in just 5 words. The sort of motivated intellectual dyslexia that reads "the equal protection of the laws" as "the protection of equal laws" is simply another demonstration that political expediency is the sole "principle" of the Left.

Not saying you personally believe this, but that is what your statement suggested to me.

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on August 07, 2019 at 18:20:19 pm

"Christian Nation vs. Christian Founding."
America certainly is a Christian Nation, in the sense that the values endorsed in its founding and practiced in its laws and operation are profoundly and uniquely Christian. The central stupendous insight of the inherent worth and dignity of the individual human being came directly from a Europe steeped in Christian culture for a thousand years. As historian Paul Johnson wrote in his "History of Christianity" (1976), "Europe was a Christian creation not only in essence but in minute detail." An America without its Christian roots and growth is not America.

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Fred Wild
on August 08, 2019 at 16:36:19 pm

Only those who are not familiar with the Holy Bible, the Protestant Resistance Movement and the Founders' works (all readily available in hard-copy and online) could be persuaded that the Bible is not primarily a document laying the foundation for liberation from slavery and superstition, the Christian religion is primarily concerned with outward forms of worship, that the Founding generation did not engage in a raging debate about the relationship between religion and government--a debate that have raging since before the Mayflower.

Their generation could not imagine a free society in the absence of religion. By "religion", they meant respect for God and faith in His Word. Most Americans considered themselves Christians even if they argued over questions of theology, doctrine, practice, etc. They did agree that only a people who follow the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule and Sermon on the Mount are capable of building a society where Liberty and Justice for all are possible. They also believed that the Laws of God are identical to the Laws of Nature, and that the Holy Bible teaches this concept.

The principle of Separation of Church and State comes from the Protestant Reformation based on ancient biblical teachings including those involving the Two Tables of the Law (Duty to God and Duty to Man), the desire of the Jewish people to practice their faith whether they governed themselves or were under the rule of others, Jesus teachings--including his famous statement about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's. The oft-overlooked champion of Liberty of Conscience, Roger Williams--who took notes for Sir Edward Coke and was ordained as an Anglican priest, then excommunicated for questioning certain church practices, eventually joining and leaving the Baptists, and earned fame as the founder of Rhode Island colony--came to America where he argued that Church and State should be separate--to keep the garden of the church free from the wilderness of the world. He believed that the bible's teachings on the role of the church, the state and the people would ensure Liberty and Justice for all if they were put into practice and so he was an advocate of public education--only not the kind we have today.

Thomas Jefferson did not originate the idea that Separation of Church & State meant God had no place in the public square. In fact, his idea was not to take God out of the public square, but to keep religious factions on an equal footing by preventing any one or combination from establishing a State Church. He knew there is a difference between acknowledging the almighty power that created the universe and governs it by His laws to which we are all held equally accountable and the various religions of the world, In this he was not alone.

In America at that time there was a common view that the existence of God is a scientific fact (made evident by the laws of Cause & Effect), and religion is man's way of seeking Him and worshipping Him according to His commandments.

The Founding generation had a much better grasp of these broad concepts than we do today, they weren't so hostile to traditional teachings about God, the Bible and religion as our society is today.

So, it is my opinion that Seidel has a lot more reading to do. Liberty Fund sells a lot of primary sources on the Founders and American political thinking during colonial and founding periods. You can learn more reading these on your own than going to college.

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Standing Fast
on September 16, 2019 at 18:38:16 pm

Andrew Seidel doesn't seem to understand that while the American Framers were certainly in favor of the 'Separation of Church and State' they weren't at all hostile to the idea of any modest display of religion. For example, there was an open/sponsored prayer at the 1st Continental Congress of 1774, there is even a classic painting depicting it:

He also doesn't consider that there is a huge difference between 'Friendly' and 'Hostile' approach to Church-State Separation. The French Revolution undertook a very 'hostile' approach:

The Friendly version is what we have in America and was established by the Framers, this (as stated) allowed religion to play a reasonable role in the public sphere, society and even government (both local and central). The Hostile variant, was established in such totalitarian regimes like France during the French Revolution (which had launched an extremely viscous and violent religious repression of Christianity and religion, known as the 'Dechristianization campaign').

Our mighty Founding Fathers wisely chose a middle ground between state-sponsored religion/theocracy and hostility to religion/aggressive secularism and state atheism...

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Robert A. Freid
on September 17, 2019 at 15:14:07 pm

Mr. Freid is right on target.

Mark David Hall mentioned the French Revolution's distorted view of freedom. There is an interesting discussion of French Republicanism in "The Founders at Home" by Myron Magnet, in the section on George Washington. Apparently the infamous Edmond Genet came to America during Washington's administration and went up and down the colonies forming Democratic-Republican societies. Their purpose was to assassinate Washington and John Adams, overthrow the Federal government (& the Constitution with it), and so forth. The French Revolution was really an exercise in Anarchy and Tyranny. Since then France has had seventeen different governments. The United States has had only one.

Liam mentioned the Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment correctly inserts the foundational principles identified in the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution. So, any claim that the two are not related is just plain nonsense. The Founders themselves even said so. The Self-Evident Truths are what make America tick.

Suggested reading:

"The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding", ed. by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Liberty Fund, Inc.).

"Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul", by John M. Barry (Penguin). Biography of the Protestant Reformer who introduced Liberty of Conscience and Separation of Church & State to America in the 17th Century. As a young man he worked as a clerk for Sir Edward Coke, the British jurist who made English Common Law a household word.

"The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams", ed. by C. Bradley Thompson (Liberty Fund, Inc.). Eye-opening collection of Adams' best. Those who enjoy the PBS series based on McCollough's biography will love this anthology.

"The American Republic: Primary Sources", ed by Bruce Frohnen (Liberty Fund, Inc.). Exciting chronicle of our history, includes Davy Crockett's famous speech to Congress and other obscure documents of importance to our generation.

"Albion's Seed" by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford). Survey of the four British folkways that formed early American society. Pay particular attention to the entries on Freedom, Religion, and Government.

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Standing Fast
on March 28, 2020 at 19:39:49 pm

I am more than half way thru his book right now and you are grossly misrepresenting his book. You have not covered or mentioned the numerous quotes and lines of evidence he provided. His arguments are very coherent and cohesive. He shows using history that I have researched while reading the book.
You obviously did not read it properly or thoroughly or you have some confirmation bias. He also uses multiple bible passages and explains why those passages matter to people trying to connect the Constitution and the Bible. He provides so much evidence that it would not do it justice to try and put them all in here.
It is honestly kind of disturbing that a college professor would misrepresent a book in this manner. Truly disappointing sir.

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Joel Mouton

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