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The Christian Right in Context, Part 1: The Long View

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Thirty-five years ago, in a time that seems like ancient history to most young people today, the eminent social critic Robert N. Bellah wrote a book that illumines the current American crisis with devastating precision.

I do not use the phrase, "American crisis," casually. All Americans, whether on the right, the left or in between, understand that the nation is now in a crisis of significant proportions. But most Americans fail to grasp how deeply that crisis runs.

Liberals and conservatives alike seem to think that the core of the American crisis stems from a flagging economy and the threat from Islamic terrorists.

But the American crisis runs much deeper than that. Ultimately, the crisis is a religious one, and that is the point that Bellah's book, The Broken Covenant, helps us to see.

The Christian Right stands at the heart of our current crisis since, for 30 years and more, the Christian Right has so successfully eaten away at the core, bedrock values that shaped this nation at its founding.

To advance this argument, of course, is to advance an irony, since the Christian Right has claimed from its inception that others -- especially liberals, secularists and humanists -- were eroding the values of the nation that they sought to affirm and protect.

And precisely in that claim we find the seeds of the current American crisis.

To understand the extent to which the Christian Right has helped to create this crisis, we need to place that movement in a much larger context, for the Christian Right has built its house on a foundation that is as old as the nation itself.

In this four-part series, we will ask who built that foundation and why. We will then ask why the house recently constructed by the Christian Right sits so awkwardly on its centuries-old foundation.

The Religious Dimensions of the American Crisis

Bellah's book, The Broken Covenant, points to three "times of trial" in America's past when the very existence of the nation hung in the balance. In each, the heart of the crisis was the pervasive erosion of agreement regarding the meaning of the American experiment.

Constructing meaning is one of the most important jobs that religion performs, and it does this for nations just as surely as it does for individuals. And to the extent that religion provides a nation with a widely agreed-upon sense of meaning, to that extent it provides the glue that binds the nation together.

Not all religions create meaning by pointing believers to a personal God, but all religions create meaning by connecting people to something commonly understood to be ultimate or transcendent.

The former Soviet Union, for example, was built on the conviction that history moved inevitably toward the final victory of the proletariat. The Soviets believed that a nation in harmony with that inevitability was a nation that stood shoulder to shoulder with the ultimate forces of the universe -- forces that lay beyond human control. That is why Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could therefore predict with total confidence in 1956 that Communism would bury the United States and western-style capitalism. It was precisely that inevitability, then, that functioned as the religious glue that bound the Soviet Union together, even though that nation was officially atheistic.

In America, on the other hand, the religious glue that has bound this nation together has been the pervasive conviction that God -- not historical inevitability -- ultimately controls the affairs of humankind; that God created all human beings to share equally in the inalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; and that, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the moral arc of the universe ultimately bends toward justice.

Americans of the founding generation concurred with the Declaration of Independence that these ideas were rooted in "Nature and Nature's God" and were therefore "self-evident" and inevitably and unfailingly true.

Obviously, these profoundly American convictions were grounded in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, though it is simply wrong to claim that Judaism or Christianity or the "Judeo-Christian" tradition has been the religion of the American people.

Each of the times of trial that Bellah described was a time of crisis precisely because the religious glue that bound the American people together had ceased to be "self-evident" and was therefore contested ground.

The Revolutionary Period

The first great "time of trial" was the period of the American Revolution when it was by no means clear that there would be a United States of America at all.

Nor was it clear what might serve as the religious glue that would bind this people together. Would it be the established faith of Puritan New England, the established Anglican Church of the Southern Colonies, the Deism of the Enlightenment, or something else entirely?

When the smoke finally cleared, the core religion of the American people found expression in the Declaration of Independence -- a belief in the sovereign rule of a God all "men" could know through the light of nature and in the "self-evident truths" this God had created all "men" to enjoy: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Civil War

Bellah's second "time of trial" -- the period of America's Civil War -- was a time of crisis precisely because half the nation had rejected the religious principle so central to the American experiment that all men were created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.

From the standpoint of the North, the South had embraced evil as good, and southerners viewed Yankees in much the same way. The "religion of the Republic" had therefore become contested ground. No wonder the nation fought a bloody civil war that threatened to dissolve the Union.

The 1960s and Beyond

Bellah's third "time of trial" -- the 1960s and beyond -- was a time of crisis for a very similar reason, since to many Americans the government itself had seriously undermined the nation's core religious values by permitting the evils of segregation and racial inequality to remain the law of the land and by fighting a war in Southeast Asia that many Americans viewed as fundamentally unjust. Consensus regarding the meaning of the American experiment had therefore eroded, threatening the cohesion of the nation.

What most Americans fail to grasp today is that Bellah's third time of trial has by no means run its course. For the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s spawned a whole series of reactionary movements that are with us still and that now, roughly half a century later, threaten to undermine the nation's core.

Chief among those reactionary movements is the Christian Right, a movement that began to coalesce as early as 1969 but was officially born when Jerry Falwell launched his Moral Majority in 1979, only four short years after Bellah's book was published in 1975.

Even though most scholars agree that the Christian Right as a movement is now in decline, its enduring legacy continues to undermine the nation's values.

It obscures the Founders' intentions, distorts the Christian faith and, for both those reasons, it threatens the health of the nation.

The Christian Right in Historical Context

To sort this out, we must acknowledge several historical facts.

First, many of the Founders who framed the core American values in the Declaration of Independence were Deists -- people who affirmed God as the governor and providential sustainer of the universe, but who denied the deity of Jesus Christ.

Many others, as Professor Mark Hall has demonstrated, were more orthodox in their Christian convictions.

And even the Deists -- people like Jefferson and Franklin -- had roots embedded so deeply in the Jewish and Christian traditions that it is impossible to imagine the American version of Deism apart from its profoundly biblical underpinnings.

Thus, when proponents of the Christian Right claim that the Founders were uniformly Christian, they are clearly wrong. But when they argue that the Founders were religious men who built this nation on a deep and abiding belief in God and in the moral order this God ordained, they are clearly right.

But in spite of the Founders' strong religious convictions, many Christians of that period thought those convictions inadequate at best and diabolical at worst. Many orthodox Christians, therefore, routinely labeled the Founders -- especially Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration -- as infidels and atheists who promoted "the morality of devils."

Three factors lay behind the Christian attack on the Founders in the early 19th century. First, orthodox Christians quite accurately understood that some of the Founders were Deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.

Second, the Declaration of Independence grounded the religious meaning of the American experiment not in a God exclusively revealed in the biblical text, but in "Nature and Nature's God". That is, in the God all humans can know and understand through nature, quite apart from the biblical revelation.

And third, orthodox Christians in the early 19th century were profoundly disappointed in the fact that Christianity -- indeed, all religion and all reference to God whatsoever -- was simply missing from the Constitution. And when the Founders finally addressed the topic of religion in the First Amendment, they did so in a negative, prohibitive way: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In spite of the claims of the Christian Right today, the simple truth is this: The Founders had no intention of creating a "Christian America." In fact, they categorically rejected the idea of a Christian nation for one important reason: They knew the history of the "Christian nations" of Europe, nations that had persecuted non-conformists and waged war against countries that embraced a form of the Christian faith different from their own.

The Founders, therefore, hoped to create a nation that honored religious diversity, a nation in which everyone would be free to practice any religion or none.

In light of the current hostility toward Muslims and the many recent attempts to ban their mosques and restrict their religious freedom, the Founders' stance on Islam is instructive. Jefferson, for example, argued that America should extend complete freedom of religion not just to Christians but to the "Mahamdan," the Jew, and the "pagan" as well. And following passage in Virginia of his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), he reaffirmed the bill's intent: "To comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan."

Washington helped Muslims "obtain proper relief" from a Virginia bill that would tax them to support Christian worship. And pointing to the Founders' high regard for religion broadly conceived, and not for Christianity alone, Benjamin Rush affirmed his preference to "see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles."

But many orthodox Christians resisted this sort of broad toleration and hoped to create instead a distinctly Christian nation.

Why were so many orthodox Christians of that period so fearful of religious freedom, so hostile toward the Founders and so insistent that the United States should become a Christian nation?

The answer to that question emerges when we consider that all European immigrants to America in the late-18th and early-19th centuries came from countries that maintained an officially established church. That was all they knew. Christians who had experienced oppression at the hands of a European or colonial state church -- Baptists and Quakers, for example -- obviously worked with the Founders to promote religious freedom. But Christians who had belonged to legally established churches -- Anglicans and Puritans, for example -- could not imagine that a stable state could exist apart from uniformity of religion.

And so, in the early 19th century, many Christians joined hands to launch a massive, popular movement to achieve by persuasion what they could not achieve by coercion or force of law: Christianizing the American republic. We call that movement the Second Great Awakening.

Apart from the foundation laid by the Second Great Awakening some 200 years ago, the Christian Right in our time is incomprehensible.

But there is more, for the Second Great Awakening was the first of three massive efforts in the history of the United States that sought to transform a nation of religious freedom into a nation dominated by Christian conviction and practice.

How the Christian Right fits into that much larger drama is the question we will seek to answer in this four-part series.

This series is based on Richard Hughes' book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009), and will continue with three more installments. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College.

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