Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Christian America: The Roots of an Imagined Community

***The Following is the first five pages of my thesis on the Christian Nation movement as an imagined community. Any constructive feedback would be appreciated***

The December, 2008 grand opening of the five-hundred-eighty –thousand square-foot, six hundred million-dollar Capitol Visitor’s Center in Washington D.C. was the culmination of an almost forty-year project to provide tourists with an all-encompassing understanding of America’s proud founding heritage. The building’s construction, which has been hailed by renowned architects across the globe, crates an atmosphere of awe and amazement as guests witness first hand how the technologies of the twenty-first century are able to effectively resurrect America’s proud history, which is presented as “an intellectual and emotional encounter comprised of highly personal moments that will inform, involve and inspire those who come to see the U.S. Capitol.” [1]

Yet despite its obvious beauty and extravagance, not everyone has been pleased with the new Visitor Center. Congressional Representative Randy Forbes, in conjunction with Christian-based organizations like Wallbuilders, WorldNet Daily and the American Christian History Institute have criticized the new D.C. center for its negligence in referencing America’s “Christian heritage.” As Representative Forbes stated:

Our Concern is not with the Capitol Visitor Center, but with [an] increasing
pattern of attempts to remove references to our religious heritage from our
nation’s capitol…The Capitol Visitor Center is just one example of the efforts
to censor God, faith and religion from our historical buildings and
ceremonies…Historical buildings like the Capitol Visitor Center are there to
tell the story of our nation. When religious history is removed from these
displays, the American public is not able to observe an accurate depiction of
our nation’s story. We owe it to those who have gone before us and to our future
generations to provide a complete representation of our nation’s heritage. We
will continue to fight until this is achieved in the Capitol Visitor Center
.
[2]

And while his comments helped to trigger a quasi-custody battle over the type of history to be presented at the Capitol Visitor Center, Representative Forbes is far from alone in his sentiments. Over the past couple of decades, American society has witnessed a literal upheaval over the “founding legacy” of this country. Politicians, ministers and even some historians from all walks of life have endeavored to “save” America’s “lost” Christian heritage from the hands of those who they believe seek to remove God from the halls of government and the chronicles of American history. As historian Frank Lambert put it:

During the last two decades of the twentieth century and
continuing into the twenty-first, Americans have engaged in a culture war that
informs the country’s discourse in the new millennium. One side of the debate
are those who insist that America has been since its conception a “Christian
Nation,” and that somewhere along the way, as such it has lost its bearings.
They blame “liberals” for not only turning their backs on the country’s
religious heritage but openly attacking those who embrace “traditional”
Christian values.
[3]

It is this “Christian Nation” debate, which has successfully woven religion, politics, and history into a fabric of quasi-nationalism that has spawned a large grass roots movement to “resurrect” America’s lost heritage. Originally conceived out of the surge of Christian Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, this “Christian Nation” movement has evolved to encompass the majority of devout American Evangelicals, who, as a result of their religious and political devotion, have used the “Christian America” argument to create a new form of American Nationalism, or as Benedict Anderson would call it, an imagined community.

I. Roots of the Imagined Community

To effectively understand the “Christian Nation” phenomenon as being a nationalistic movement, it is important to recognize some of the key elements of nationalism itself. In his highly acclaimed book, Imagined Communities, Professor Benedict Anderson defines nationalism as:

an imagined political community -- and imagined as both
inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because members of even the
smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even
hear of them, yet in the minds of each lies the image of their communion...it is
limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living
human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other
nations...Finally it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the
actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is
always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is the
fraternity that makes it possible.
[4]

In addition, the imagined community sees itself as a uniquely sovereign entity, free to determine its own fate as determined by its own set of rules. In essence, the imagined community becomes a collective body united by a common intangible creed, which is exalted by the masses to be an infinite and abiding truth.

When looking at the “Christian Nation” movement on the surface, it may seem far too vague to be considered an imagined community. After all, a mere hope or belief in the providential nature of one’s country hardly substantiates any claims of it being an imagined community. However, a more detailed analysis reveals the fact that the rise of Christian conservatism spawned a highly organized and thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement (predominantly of Evangelical Christians), which is indeed interested in rewriting history to fit its own agenda. In his popular work on fundamentalism in America, historian George Mitchell explains how the Christian culture evolved from a “soul-saving” enterprise into a vast and influential political machine. He writes:

The most striking feature of fundamentalism since the
1970s that distinguishes it from its forbearers is its deep involvement in
mainstream national politics. This point must be stated carefully.
Fundamentalism has always had political implications. One of the several
dynamics shaping early fundamentalists was a sense of alarm over the demise of
Christian culture…The question to be addressed then is: How did a soul- saving
revivalistic movement that mostly steered clear of direct political involvement
emerge at the end of the twentieth century as known especially for its political
stances and influences?
[5]

It is to the 1960s and 1970s that we must look to witness the birth and infancy of the Christian Nation movement, and its eventual evolution into an imagined community. As Marsden points out above, the emergence of Christian conservatism as a legitimate political force, allowed Evangelical Christian leaders to immerse themselves in the turbulent waters of American politics. As one prominent evangelical leader put it, “if ever there was a time when God needed a job done, it was during the 60s and 70s. The very future of our nation was at stake.” [6] With the passage of several landmark Supreme Court cases restricting religious ceremonies in public schools, Civil Rights laws to blacks, and the right of a woman to choose an abortion, conservative Christians experienced a literal crises of conscience, which pitted religious and patriotic loyalties against each other. [7]

In an effort to remedy the apparent dichotomy of religious and national duties, Evangelical leaders attacked what they saw as a blatant disregard for God’s laws. By casting the United States in a Sodom & Gomorrah-like role, Christian conservatives branded their dissent as the truest and holiest form of patriotism. As a result, the line between church and state became further obscured, forcing religious leaders to redefine the role of religion in America. D. James Kennedy, a prominent Evangelical leader and passionate advocate for the “Christian America” movement, illustrated just how convoluted the church/state relationship had become for Evangelical Christians when he wrote, “The great misunderstanding of ‘the separation of church and state’ is closer in spirit and letter of the law to the old Soviet Union than it is to the spirit, letter of the law, and actions of the founders of this country.” [8] By suggesting that religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity, was a fundamental building block of American government and society, Evangelical leaders had taken their first “baby steps” towards establishing an imagined Christian community for America. Eliminating the annoying prerequisite separation of church and state essentially removed the “shackles” of religious restraint on American politics. The “Christian Nation,” though still volatile in its infancy, was born.


Notes:
[1] Capitol Visitor Center Website.

[2] WorldNet Daily: Christian Heritage a No-Show at Capitol Visitor Center.

[3] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 5.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006) 6.

[5] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 232.

[6] Jerry Falwell, Strength For the Journey: An Autobiography of Jerry Falwell (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 362.

[7] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 1080-1082.

[8] D. James Kennedy, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 5.

28 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

It is to the 1960s and 1970s that we must look to witness the birth and infancy of the Christian Nation movement, and its eventual evolution into an imagined community.

Or one could go back to the 1900s or 1920s or 1950s and say that secular progressivism [for lack of a better term] is the imagined community, and its narrative is less consistent with the facts of the Founding than the Christian nation view.

You have chosen sides at your jumpoff point; therefore what follows is contention:

However, a more detailed analysis reveals the fact that the rise of Christian conservatism spawned a highly organized and thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement (predominantly of Evangelical Christians), which is indeed interested in rewriting history to fit its own agenda.

Geez. I can't wait to read the rest.

It's true that some bad evidence is presented [on George Washington's orthodoxy, for instance], but no worse than the bland assertions I see daily that the Founders were Deists. But you have framed the argument with pejoratives like "thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement," Brad. There is no arguing with you except back at your central premise, which is far from self-evidently true.

With the passage of several landmark Supreme Court cases restricting religious ceremonies in public schools, Civil Rights laws to blacks, and the right of a woman to choose an abortion, conservative Christians experienced a literal crises of conscience, which pitted religious and patriotic loyalties against each other.

Abortion is not interchangable with civil rights for black folk. Surely you're aware that the grassroots origins of the Civil Rights Movement was in the churches!

As for your opening salvo, was there indeed some chicanery about America's religious origins being consciously scrubbed out a bit with that thing at the Capitol Visitor Center? Or was it an imagined issue by some imagined, "thoroughly indoctrinated" community? The facts aren't in evidence here one way or the other...

Brad Hart said...

Tom:

Point #1: The reason I chose the 60s and 70s is because I believe this is the occasion when religion (Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, etc.) went political in a hard-core fashion. I have Marsden, Noll and Hatch who agree.

Point #2: Perhaps you are missing the point here. I'm trying to portray the movement as an imagined community. Too many people take that term in a negative way. EVERY nation is an imagined community...that's Anderson's entire argument.

Point #3: As for the "George Washington's orthodoxy," "founders as Christians/Deists" arguments I simply do not care. That's not the point of this paper. It has no relevance whatsoever.

Point #4: Yes, I realize that abortion has nothing to do with civil rights. If you read again, I was simply listing the things that many Christians saw as a threat. BTW, I was using Sydney Ahlstrom's book as a reference...one of the best books on American religion, mind you.

Bottom line: I think you should read Anderson's book before casting your "pearls before swine."

Our Founding Truth said...

Christian America: The Roots of an Imagined Community>

The Christian Nation thesis is easier to prove than disproving macro evolution. Christianity was established by the states, and supported by the judiciary, and congress.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Brad, my question would remain whether "secular progressivism" isn't just the other side of the same imagined community coin.

As for your #3, your excoriation of the "thoroughly indoctrinated" "rewriting history" means you simply do care about such things. You asked for feedback and here it is. You obviously are unsympathetic to this "imagined community," and in the least I thought it fair to point out that it's unfair to lump civil rights in with abortion.

Now if you wanted to trace this phenomenon you so clearly dislike to 1973 and Roe v. Wade, where moral issues were decided by an unelected judiciary instead of democratically, where government asserted primacy over its underlying society and putative constituency, perhaps the focus would be more clear.

But if your aspiration is a grander sweep of history, the alignment of religion and politics can also be seen in William Jennings Bryan or Catholic Workerish FDRism, which still has a resonance today in "social Gospel" Obamaism. But a more consistent thread that weaves through the entire 20th century [if not predating it] is the aforementioned secular progressivism, or secular humanism, or as it's better and more accurately known today, "Liberal Fascism."

;-D

Brad Hart said...

OFT:

I asked for constructive criticism. Everything you have to say is irrelevant. I've done my best to ignore you so please extend to me the same courtesy.

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

You asked for feedback and here it is. You obviously are unsympathetic to this "imagined community," and in the least I thought it fair to point out that it's unfair to lump civil rights in with abortion.

What do you want? Chronology? Of course I am unsympathetic to this "imagined community." That's what history is; taking a stand on something, not just doing a chronological account of the past. And no, it isn't fair to lump Civil Rights, abortion and the other things that made conservative Christians mad in the same boat. Again, I will refer you to Ahlstrom's book...where I got the information in the first place.

Liberal facsism...lol...and you accuse me of being unsympathetic to one side!

Brad Hart said...

Tom:

Your point about going back to the 20s (William Jennings Bryan, etc.) was something I considered, but it would make this paper too long. Besides, I still believe the the origins/birth of the Christian Nation movement as an IMAGINED COMMUNITY began in the late 60s, early 70s.

But yes, this argument goes WAY back...the imagined community aspect, however, does not...in my opinion at least.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course I am unsympathetic to this "imagined community." That's what history is; taking a stand on something, not just doing a chronological account of the past.

??????

Couldn't disagree more. Having such an animus makes one's history dishonest and reduces it to polemics.

I see it all the time here, where weak points are pounced on, "victory" is declared, but the best arguments are completely ignored and the polemicist goes his merry way, unconfused by the facts.

Now, I have a POV about all this, but stuff like the Liberal Fascism line is just tongue-in-cheek, and a gentle objection to the recent American Fascism headline that appeared on this blog and I found far too polemical if not somewhat offensive.

[Jonah Goldberg's book, BTW, doesn't compare liberalism to fascism as a pejorative, it actually shows liberalism's actual historical embrace of actual fascism, namely Mussolini's. But I digress.]

But to return to the premise of your thesis, it still rests on the assertion that the Christian nation argument is a discontinuity from American history, a new phenomenon, and as you clearly assert, built on a lie ["rewriting history"].

Eliminating the annoying prerequisite separation of church and state essentially removed the “shackles” of religious restraint on American politics.

Again, facts not in evidence, only assertion, indeed bald polemicism. Now, if your prof is as liberal as they say 95% of them are, he'll give you an A. But polemics aren't history or even sociology.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "[...] if your prof is as liberal as they say 95% of them are, he'll give you an A."

To which the appropriate reply is: "[...] facts not in evidence, only assertion, indeed bald polemicism."

;-)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re grading inflation, it depends on what dept. or school you are in. In the math & sciences it's certainly not the case. And when in my ultra-PC law school, back then with a lackluster bar passage rate, but today with a stellar one (thanks to a multimillion dollar endowment from our law school's now trial lawyer namesake), we had a mandatory faculty curve of 2.85.

Our conservative students weren't stupid. They knew what to and what NOT to say on those exams. Plus we had anynomous grading (which the ABA, I do believe, requires in regular "exam" classes). That was sufficient to quell the bias. But I'm sure it exists in other places, to which, again, smart, non-PC students learn how to "play the game" that philosophers have been playing since the beginning.

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

"I see it all the time here, where weak points are pounced on, "victory" is declared, but the best arguments are completely ignored and the polemicist goes his merry way, unconfused by the facts."

AHHHHH, ok I have it figured out now. "Objective" history is that which agrees with TVD's belief system. Everything else is baseless. Got it!

BTW, your "liberal fascism" defense is still...well...lol!

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

Again, facts not in evidence, only assertion, indeed bald polemicism. Now, if your prof is as liberal as they say 95% of them are, he'll give you an A. But polemics aren't history or even sociology.

So, YOUR facts...ok...I'll see what I can do. As for my Prof., my guess is he'll judge the HISTORICAL content, not the take...as opposed to your angle on history.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What angle? I'm just pointing out that you're making historical assertions without supplying the requisite historical proof, Brad. I'm taking your thesis on its own terms.

It seems to me you're using a sociological term to make unflattering political-historical charges against a group you don't like, ostensibly because they don't vote the way you do.

But hell, you've already come right out and called them liars and radicals against the American tradition of the "separation of church and state." Why bother with the scholarly veneer?

By proclaiming them a "new" "imagined community," you cut them off from their core claims of historical and political continuity with American history.

We need not be sympathetic to attempt to "understand them as they undertood themselves," as one political philosopher put it:

Their Christian nation argument is not provably different [unless you show otherwise] from Jasper Adams' in 1833. And surely they see their opposition to abortion as heir to the Christian religion's strong participation in the Abolitionist movement. [You wrote that one yourself, Brad.]

Not MY facts, Brad, God forbid. In fact, surely if you read that charge from my point of view, there's an insinuation of intellectual dishonesty on my part, which I find hurtful.

As for this "new" group tending to vote as a bloc based on shared values [and aside from some admittedly underinformed chatter, voting and political contributions have been the limit of their political involvement], their vote is still less monolithic than the black churches, the Jewish vote, or dare we mention, the Mormons and Unitarian Universalists.

If we were to condemn them on the same grounds you condemn these "Christian nationists" [am I a Christian nationist?], I think it would somehow come off as bigotry, not acceptable scholarly argument. But that's not asserted as fact, just my opinion, of course.

Peace. I still have no doubt you'll get an A, unless you're at the University of Dallas or Liberty University or something.

Brad Hart said...

Heh, your arrogant presumption knows no bounds, Tom. But hey, what are we to expect. First off, don't presume to know how I vote. All you've done in your "enlgightening" comments over the past few months is pick bones with others in an effort to demonstrate your "superior" understanding of...well...everything.

I don't despise "Christian Nationalists" as you suggest. In fact, I would like nothing more than to prove their assertions. It fits very well with my religion. The problem is that history says otherwise.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't present MY facts, Brad. In fact, when I started all this, on this blog, I had a different impression than I have now.

You asked for input. All I said was your assertions needed to be backed by evidence, by argument.
I'm arguing your thesis on its own terms, not mine.

I don't despise "Christian Nationalists" as you suggest

The quotes from your thesis [above] suggest otherwise, sorry. They're pretty scathing. I don't see how anyone could draw any other conclusion. C'mon, Brad.

I'm content to leave you with Jasper Adams. Not my facts, just facts. The Christian nation thing is not "new." Regardless of whether it's correct or wrong, this imagined community goes back a long long way, and isn't just a product of the 1960s and '70s. Let's just stick with your core premise.

Brad Hart said...

Again, you are right, I am wrong...as is the case ALWAYS on this blog.

As for your impression of this blog, I could give two shits!

Tom Van Dyke said...

You asked for feedback, you got it, Brad. Many of our contributors don't even ask. They just deposit their droppings and move on.

I'm not saying I'm right, and certainly not saying you're wrong. All I said about our blog was that my point of view has changed since I joined it. What changed my view was looking up the sources of those various droppings, the words of the Founders themselves, and I found something quite different than I was taught to expect.

I understand I make people mad and frustrated. But their frustration isn't with me, but with the evidence, and I get in the way, kill the messenger and all that. I try not to take it personally but Lord knows it's hard sometimes. You understand.

bpabbott said...

Tom: >>The Christian nation thing is not "new."<<

hmmm, Tom the "Christian Nation" activism certainly is a modern movement.

"Oy, you're arguing for the sake of arguing. If you can't tell your good arguments from your bad ones, it's no wonder nobody else can, either."

;-)

bpabbott said...

Regarding the modern Christian-Nation / Dominionism movement.

The Christian Nation movement qualifies as Soft Dominionism, but is still part of the boader Dominionsism movement which accompanied the relatively recent rise of the Christian Right.

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

I understand I make people mad and frustrated. But their frustration isn't with me, but with the evidence, and I get in the way, kill the messenger and all that. I try not to take it personally but Lord knows it's hard sometimes. You understand.

Don't flatter yourself, and make no mistake, people's frustration is NOT with evidence...it's MOST CERTAINLY with you.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I try not to take it personally but Lord knows it's hard sometimes."

? ? ... Tom, in all seriousness, you appear to go out of your way to make it personal ... and "Lord knows" your efforts make it hard to not take it personally.

Brad Hart said...

Here, here!!!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brad,

I think you have a very interesting thesis. Trying to take something constructive from Tom's feedback, it's true "Christian Nation" like ideas are nothing new and the Holy Trinity case and BF Morris's book are good examples of how popular it was in the 19th Century. But ultimately the idea is untenable and hence easily deconstructed which is what scholars did. Men like D. James Kennedy et al. set to "reconstruct" the "deconstructed" myth that we see in places like the Holy Trinity and BF Morris' book (or the book entitled "George Washington the Christian" that the Leathley/Farley debate below invokes). And therein lies the basis for their "imagined" community. That's the way I see it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me note that if I am not mistaken Mark Noll recognizes that Christian Nationalist ideas are not new. Just that they rested on an historical myth. "Republicanism" is not the creation of the Bible or Christianity and arguably the "modern republican" ideals of the Founding arguably are in tension with biblical Christianity. Yet, many figures did present them as going hand in hand. I also remember Noll saying something like in order to make the case that Christianity is compatible with Founding era liberal democratic-republican ideals it had to "import" "foreign" ideas into the pulpit.

The central thesis of the Christian America argument that is easily deconstructed is "it's by virtue of our specific theology [Sola-Scriptura Protestantism] that America's Founding order was created." And by that they mean not "bottom up" -- there is a kernel of truth there, most communities were quite culturally Protestant Christian. But top down, i.e., the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, and Federalist Papers are "biblical-Christian" documents. And the men from the Constitutional Conventation and signers of the DOI were "Christians" as they understand the term (orthodox Trinitarian). That's the modern reconstructed myth. It might be interesting, for your paper, (though this might turn it into a book) to examine the older Christian Nation idea, as it existed from the Founding, throughout the 19th Century, up until modern scholars started debunking it. And then look at the attempt to "reconstruct" from in the 1970s onwards.

Finally one other thing to keep in mind [I have to get this Kraynak v. Tierney post done, because Kraynak's lecture will help] yes there was a lot of God-talk and talking Christianity up during the Founding and perhaps the Visitor's Center ignores that. But if you look at the architecture of Washington DC, you DON'T see Christian architecture but Greco-Roman architecture. You could work the Freemasons in there. Now architecture is not necessarily political-philosophy, but I think it makes a metaphor for how much of what is "foundational" to the American Founding is FOREIGN to biblical Christianity.

Brad Hart said...

Jon:

Thanks for the comments. Yes, Noll does mention that the "Christian America" argument is pretty much as timeless as America itself. Marsden, Hatch, Ahlstrom and others also point this out.

For my purposes, however, I am not looking at how the "Christian America" belief extends throughout history, but how it became (in my opinion) an imagined community. I think your idea of comparing the "Christian America" movement from different time periods would be fascinating, but probably undoable for my paper...simply too long. However, that would make for a killer book/separat paper or something along that line. It's certainly worth exploring that idea!

You also write:

Men like D. James Kennedy et al. set to "reconstruct" the "deconstructed" myth that we see in places like the Holy Trinity and BF Morris' book.

I wonder if in some cases it would be better to call "Christian Nationalists," "Christian Reconstructionists?" Or if we really want to play with terms, "National Christian Reconstructionists." =)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Hmmm. Maybe I'll think about that as my angle in the book that I know is in me.

jimmiraybob said...

Brad,

I think that it would be a huge help to the general reader (who you should probable assume has no background in the specifics) to clearly and concisely define what you understand the "imagined community" to be - a definition of what the target is. And then set up the problem that your thesis is going to address based on the definition/concept of the imagined community.

As one such outside reader (at least unfamiliar with Benedict Anderson and his work) I am finding it hard to get involved. When I start reading I'm not immediately sure what the problem is that you are tackling and I'm not sure what your absolute specific goal is.

Obviously, in your thesis the concepts of the "imagined community" and that of the "Christian Nation" are somehow connected and likely in tension but before leaving page one I'm already starting to Google, which means I'm likely to be the one doing the work at defining the terms which may be different than your intent.

The detailed development of the thesis should flow from the initial strong thesis statement at the very outset - should also help people focus if you're doing and oral defense or presentation.

Your thesis topic is very interesting to me and I look forward to following the discussion. Although I don't really think that the Christian Nation movement will ever succeed, the proponents and a rather large, somewhat sympathetic constituency make a rather powerful force in trying to shape a national identity.

Thanks for sharing your work.

Brad Hart said...

Jimmyraybob:

Thanks for your take. I'd be interested to hear how you think I might be able to better clarify the "imagined community" concept to someone who is unfamiliar with that term. Where is my explination lacking? Where was it strong? In other words, what in the into was helpful and what was b.s. =)

Thanks again to everyone for chiming in...even thanks to Mr. Van Dyke!