Monday, April 13, 2009

American Atonement: Part 1

Imagining a Christian Nation
in the 20th Century

As many of you know, I have spent the past few weeks working on my final research paper for graduate school. The topic that I have chosen centers on how the "Christian Nation" thesis can be construed as an imagined community, according to Benedict Anderson's definition. Now, I know I have already posted small segments of this paper, so this might be a little repetitive, but I have made a few adjustments here and there based on some of your comments and the comments of others. Over the next three days I plan on posting three different segments of my paper. A couple comments a preface: this paper does adopt the angle that the "Christian Nation" argument is false. I know this will likely ruffle some feathers on this blog, but that's the angle I have chosen. In addition, this paper does not use any sources from the founding era. My class was on modern American history, so there's no need for 18th century sources to be cited here. Again, my intent was to look at how the 1960s and 1970s served as the "incubator" for the Christian Nation movement, which then evolved into a palpable and legitimate imagined community.

So, without further delay, I give you part I, Roots of an Imagined Community:

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 present America’s proud history 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 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 in the 1960s and 1970s spawned a highly organized and thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement (predominantly of Evangelical Christians), which does indeed constitute an imagined community. In his popular work on fundamentalism in America, historian George Marsden 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] Faced with an impending moral crisis brought on by the popular rights movements of the 1960s, Christian conservatives were forced to reassess their loyalties by proclaiming that it was time for Christians to reclaim America for Christ: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And the idea of reclaiming America for Christ has definitely come.” [7]

The reasons behind the Christian Nation’s desire to save America for Christ are simple. As George Marsden points out, “In the 1970s distress over rapidly changing public standards regarding sexuality and the family combined with longstanding anti-communist patriotism to make fundamentalistic evangelicals ripe for political mobilization.” [8] With the passage of several landmark Supreme Court cases restricting religious ceremonies in public schools, changing standards regarding sexual intimacy, and the right of a woman to choose an abortion, conservative Christians experienced a literal crisis of conscience, which pitted religious and patriotic loyalties against each other. [9]

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 the Reverend Jerry Falwell stated, “All across the land people were just as afraid of the dangers that threatened the American family as we evangelical Christians were. It wasn’t necessary to be born again to hate abortion, the drug traffic, pornography, child abuse, and the immorality in all its ugly, life-destroying forms.” [10] By uniting together under the blanket of American immorality, Evangelical leaders were perfectly positioned to take the moral “pulse” of the nation, which was then infected with a fever of conservative Christian rhetoric aimed at polarizing the masses to embrace a new doctrine of politics mixed with religion.

In an effort to capitalize on an apparent political swing, Evangelical Christian leaders set out to establish a new breastwork of political ideology, which incorporated religious piety with political action. The result was an unlikely but extremely effective union of multiple faiths under the banner of a “new Christian Right” known effectively as the “Moral Majority.” [11] This new faith-based political organization included not only faithful evangelicals, but also brought disaffected Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and other religious denominations to the political table. [12]

The immediate impact of the Moral Majority was tremendous. Within three years of its conception the organization had raised over ten million dollars and had amassed a following of religious devotees who were willing to become Christian American soldiers at a moment’s notice.[13] In addition, the Moral Majority had persuaded a large number of congressional representatives to not only support but also participate in the Moral Majority’s various activities across the nation, thus giving the organization added influence in the halls of government. [14] As the self-proclaimed chief of the Moral Majority put it, “This was war, and temporarily it was necessary to put aside the issues that divided us to work together for then goals we had in common…We registered voters. We informed them of the issues…We held rallies and parades. We filled tiny churches and great coliseums.” [15] These rallies often brought in huge amounts of cash along with new loyal recruits to the cause. The “I Love America” rallies, which were held in forty-four state capitols in the late 1970s, brought together conservative local, state, and federal legislators with Christian leadership, all of which served to promote the “new Religious Right” in its agenda of saving America from its immoral self. [16] As a result of these various rallies and their massive propaganda machine, the Moral Majority succeeded in uniting Christian groups with various conservative political associations, who before would never have considered such a union. [17] In fact, prior to the Moral Majority’s efforts to politicize their base, most Christian conservatives did not believe that America was facing a major moral dilemma, nor did they believe that America needed to be reclaimed for Christ. [18] Simply put, the Moral Majority achieved huge success in swaying the majority of Christian voters to their side. As a result, the line between the godly and the damned became clearer than ever.

With evangelical leaders now allied with policymakers in Washington, the question of where to draw the line between church and state became more problematic than ever. In an effort to justify their intrusion into politics, evangelical leaders were forced to redefine the role that religion (or Church) could have on government. D. James Kennedy, a prominent Evangelical leader, member of the board of directors for the Moral Majority, 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.” [19] Or as one Mormon publication of this time put it, “Not only is the American constitutional system a freedom system requiring a religious citizenry for its successful operation, but its philosophical presuppositions are also rooted in a religious orientation toward life.” [20] By attempting to suggest that a separation between church and state was preposterous, Christian Nationalists had effectively declared war on those who sought to maintain a secular government. As a result, the Christian Nation had taken its first “baby steps” towards becoming an imagined community. By blaming all of America’s faults on the perceived alienation of Christianity, along with eliminating the annoying prerequisite of a separation between church and state, the Christian Nation was beginning its evolution towards becoming a legitimate and palpable entity in American culture and politics. The imagined “Christian Nation,” though still volatile and in its infancy, was born.

[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] D. James Kennedy, Beginning Again (Nashville: Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc., 1989), 2.
[8] Marsden, Fundamentalism, 241.
[9] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 1080-1082.
[10] Falwell, Strength for the Journey, 362.
[11] David Snowball, Continuity and Change in the Rhetoric of the Moral Majority (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991), 50. Snowball points out that the establishment of the Moral Majority effectively united a mass of “disaffected conservatives” who numbered between 250,000 and 8 million strong, which was hardly a number to constitute a “majority” of the American population in 1979.
[12] Marsden, Fundamentalism, 242.
[13] Falwell, Strength for the Journey, 364.
[14] Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 40-41.
[15] Falwell, Strength for the Journey, 364-365.
[16] Snowball, Continuity and Change, 64.
[17] Christian Smith, Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 15.
[18] Ibid, 25. Smith points to several surveys in which only 40% of American Evangelicals stated that they believed America was or should be a Christian Nation, and that the nation was facing moral issues of an apocalyptic nature. After the efforts of the Moral Majority, however, these numbers drastically changed.
[19] D. James Kennedy, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 5.
[20] Jerome Horowitz, The Elders of Israel and the Constitution (Salt Lake City, UT: Parliament Publishers, 1970), 29.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"I don't think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child's mind the moral code under which we live.

The fundamental basis of this Nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days.

If we don't have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state."

---Harry S. Truman, Christian Nationist [1950]

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Brad!

So what's the thesis of your paper? What is the takeaway point, of which you want to leave your reader persuaded that you have shown it by valid deduction from premises supported by evidence?

To me, this reads like a NYT op-ed, not a grad paper...

Brad Hart said...


Thank you for your candor. Have you read Anderson's "Imagined Communities?" That might be the starting point for understanding my thesis.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Sounds pretty solid to me. I like the angle you are taking. If nothing else, it's unique.

No surprise to see that supporters of the Christian Nation are coming out to protect their "imagined community."

Tom Van Dyke said...

No surprise to see that supporters of the Christian Nation are coming out to protect their "imagined community."Hehe, Lindsey. Nice. For my part in this, take it up with Harry Truman. After people get done calling each other liars, whatever remains might just be the truth. We do an OK job around here sometimes looking for it together.

Me, I'm not part of any community I know of. Of all the "imagined communities" I've seen operating around here---and there's more than one and more than two, don't fool yrself, Lindsey---not a one will have me. Which is cool.

Kristo Miettinen said...

No, no, no, Brad.

If your thesis is not presented in your paper then you have none. It's got to be yours.

My objection is not to your content (yet) but to your structure. You have no specific claim that you are defending, only a series of claims that you are advancing unsupported.

If you will accept a courtroom analogy, you are not presenting the prosecutors' case, you are presenting the idictment only.

Brad Hart said...

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.This is my thesis. I would appreciate knowing where you (or anyone else for that matter) think I could make this clearer.

Kristo Miettinen said...

OK, this is (kind of) what I thought might be your thesis, but I didn't want to put words in your mouth, since I see that claim as simply put out there, but not supported.

So, now that we know your thesis, what is your argument?

In other words, from what premises, and by what reasoning, do you infer the truth of your thesis, and expect us to do likewise?

jimmiraybob said...


Kristo's comments are almost identical to mine when you first posted on this. I certainly come from a different "theistic" point of view and I'm a bonefide Barton 'not liker and liar caller' to boot. Also, I didn't/am not yet commenting on the content.

I think that maybe an abstract prior to Section I or the introduction would help. I think that it should contain a no frills statement of the thesis and should also contain a statement of how you intend to defend (or have defended) the thesis. And then a statement of how you did - a brief presentation of the conclusion or conclusions of the work. Kind of like a "I came, I saw, I conquered" statement. Or as I was taught, tell em up front what you're gonna tell em, then tell em, and then tell em what ya told em. All very concisely and matter of factly presented.

I'm not sure what the scholarly work product in your field looks like at the level you're writing but when I did my MS thesis I did something of a hybrid of plain thesis writing and journal writing (plenty examples of each available) since publication was on the immediate horizon.

Not to write for you but I might do an abstract like...

Originally conceived out of the surge of Christian Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, [a] “Christian Nation” movement has evolved to encompass the majority of [today's] 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:Add definition

Then: I will show that the evidence ...


The evidence that I present clearly demonstrates this to be absolutely true/strongly supported/substantially supported but......, not supported, needs more work, I thought this would work but I really need to wrap this up and get my degree, etc.

Possibly followed by recommendations for additional work that could help clarify of expand the subject matter (lay the ground work for your next two books - following the first based on your thesis - here).

I hope this helps some. Of course when you are published I will sit around the pub waxing on about "I knew him when..."

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Jimmyray! I really appreciate the comments, and I think you are probably right. I do need to clarify a few things. Thanks for taking the time. I really do appreciate it.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Riffing off of JRB, let me add that I believe you need a layer between your thesis and your evidence, namely your reasoning. Let me give a simple example (much simpler than your thesis, yet very difficult to defend):

Thesis: World War 2 began in 1939.

1st layer of breakdown: (a) WW2 was not yet underway on 1/1/1939; (b) WW2 was underway on 12/31/1939.

I think you would agree that if (a) and (b) could both be established, the thesis would be established. That is my attempt at an illustration of valid reasoning.

But establishing (a) and (b) is no easy task; it requires a good definition of WW2, showing that the Japanese campaigns on the mainland in 1937-38 do not satisfy the definition, and that various other campaigns (e.g. direct American involvement, or the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany) are not necessary for WW2, etc. In practice, both (a) and (b) need their own breakdown into further supporting propositions.

Sooner or later, if successful, you will have reached the level of propositions like "Germany invaded Poland in 1939", which can be taken as accepted by the relevant audience, or else directly supported by evidence. Such propositions that do not require further breakdown are your premises.

Phil Johnson said...

So far, an excellent approach to the problem.
I would have come at this from another perspective of how religious leaders combined forces with economic leaders to form the so-called Christian Nation movement in the first place. Brad touches on it.
The Imagined Community is, of course, another term for sociology's Normative Group.
And, it all gets into conspiracy theories about how certain forces want to change the course of history.
We are experiencing societal dysfunction brought on us by combined religious and economic forces in their effort to take political control of our government.
Plain and simple--its a strategy.
Why should our time be any different from other historical periods when such forces ran their gambits?

Tom Van Dyke said...

We are experiencing societal dysfunction brought on us by combined religious and economic forces in their effort to take political control of our government.Nonsense. If that were true, Pat Robertson would have been elected president or at least won the nomination. Your animus is showing, Phil.

Phil Johnson said...

It's an old, old story, Thomas.
Far back into history, it was the landed aristocracy always had the greatest influence of what was preached from any pulpits.
And, if you know anything about how churches work today, you would know that where the wealthiest members of the congregation don't like what is being preached from the pulpit, one or the other has to go.
Quite often, the preacher changes his tune.
The Family is under attack, Education is under attack, and Government is under attack. Who is it that attacks them except the combo of the Economic and Religious institutions of our society? The Religious is being upheld and the Economic is being upheld. Give it some thought. These five are the basic institutions of our American society.

But, we are made ignorant of this fact in post-modernist (aka post-structuralist) times.
I think it is YOUR animus that shows most of all.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't have an animus except against nonsense. When you write

We are experiencing societal dysfunction brought on us by combined religious and economic forces in their effort to take political control of our government."

that is not only moronic, it's without a shred of proof or even argument. Blaming our contemporary problems on the Religious Right? As if the Religious Right has any influence atall on Wall St.?

Your problem with me is I actually read the crap you try to slip in.

Phil Johnson said...

"...that is not only moronic, it's without a shred of proof or even argument.".
It is an hypothecation and there is more than enough evidence to give it support.
My comments do not constitute a claim to scholarly study; but, are merely comments. As such they need little more than to be expressed. If you want to question them, that's your prerogative; but, to call it "moronic" and to claim my comments are "nonsense" amounts to nothing less than cheap insult.

It seems obvious, to me, that you want to be seen as an insider member of a circle of scholarly types. These simple-minded antics of yours are little more than attempts to draw a line around that circle.

I never claimed to be an historical scholar; but, I sure do like learning about history and especially American history. Since I've come here, several authors have come to my attention--I've purchased many and have or am reading them.

I'm learning. I am not and do not claim to be a scholar. I have opinions and I recognize honest endeavor. You seem to be quite dishonest to me, Mr. Dyike.

The proof is in the pudding, wise guy, and it is that you are trying to show yourself as being someone of special standing in the world of historical scholars.

But, you're just like everyone else--common in history.

Now settle down and stick to the purpose of this blog spot and stop being such a bore..
You are doing a great disservice to Hart's paper. He didn't publish it to get your flack.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sure, who needs facts when you have your opinions?