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.


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