Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Gerson on Christian Nationalism



.... America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.

First, the Constitution was designed for religious diversity because the Founders were religiously diverse. The 18th century was a time not of quiet piety but of religious controversy. It was a high tide of American Unitarianism, a direct challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Jefferson's deism flirted with atheism -- a God so distant that He didn't even require his own existence. As journalist Jon Meacham points out, the Founders were less orthodox than the generation that preceded them, as well as the one that followed them. Their commitment to disestablishment, in some cases, accommodated their own heterodoxy.

Second, American religious communities were often strong supporters of disestablishment. Dissenting Protestants had a long history of resentment for the established English church. Others -- Catholics and Quakers -- were minorities suspicious of majority religious rule. Christians generally saw state intrusion as a threat to their theological integrity and worldly power as a diversion from their mission. They supported disestablishment for the sake of the church. And their political independence contributed to their religious vitality.


mark boggs said...

Wow. Nuance. Nuance regarding religion in the founding. Michael Gerson. Wow.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Some nuance. Again, establishment of a state religion is conflated with being "Christian."

Again, a categorical error: if America was or is, it's a descriptive term, not a definitive one. This is all a sophistry, and tells us nothing.

Phil Johnson said...

It might not tell us a lot; but, it sets the stage for further inquiry.
A pretty good set.

mark boggs said...

My apologies, Tom, as your inner Dennis Miller manages to go over my head, but isn't Gerson trying to rebut the absolutists who want to claim that America was founded as a "Christian Nation?"

I realize the majority of Americans are Christian if that is your insinuation. But I don't think it follows in the way that that "Christian Nation" supporters would think it does that we were founded a "Christian Nation."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, I have found "Christian Nationists" to mostly be a bogeyman. You can barely find the term on David Barton's

Even the Dominionists, the Rushdoony types, the real wiggy ones, want America to choose a Christian theocracy at some point in the future. They do not maintain we ever were one or are now.

During the Texas curriculum controversy, even Peter Marshall said that he and Barton don't use the term, that they wanted only to reflect America's Christian heritage.

Whenever someone uses the formulation "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation," the answer is invariably, hell no! It's a formulation used---sophistically---to defeat a point that isn't really being argued, to leave "founded as a secular nation" as the Last Man Standing.

Mark Boggs said...


But why would Michael Gerson not know the distinction of which you speak? If it is just a bogeyman?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Probably because Michael Gerson is a member of the "chattering class," using the left-liberal construct of reality that dominates our media and universities.

If you notice, he's not really arguing against anyone or anything in particular.

mark boggs said...

You mean this Michael Gerson?

Michael John Gerson (born May 15, 1964, New Jersey) is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.[1] He served as President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as a senior policy advisor from 2000 through June 2006, and was a member of the White House Iraq Group.

Prior to joining the Bush Administration, he was a senior policy advisor with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institution.[3] He also worked at various times as an aide to Indiana Senator Dan Coats and a speechwriter for the Presidential campaign of Bob Dole before briefly leaving the political world to cover it as a journalist for U.S. News & World Report.[4] Gerson also worked at one point as a ghostwriter for Charles Colson.[5]

In early 1999, Karl Rove recruited Gerson for the Bush campaign.[5]

Gerson was named by Time as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America" in the magazine's February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine, listing Gerson as the ninth most influential.[3]

is the one "using the left-liberal construct of reality that dominates our media and universities"?

You'd think a man with his background would be attuned to the language and definitions espoused by his ideological siblings.

And as far as your point regarding "Christian Nationists" being a bogeyman, just 'cause they don't call themselves that, does it mean the underlying meaning of the phrase (loosely, those who think this country was founded on
THEIR type of Christianity rather than the various different and often conflicting but nominal types of Christianity that you guys do a great job of highlighting here)doesn't exist?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm not sure if they embrace the label "Christian Nationalist" but they write titles to books like this:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Gerson was named by Time as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America" in the magazine's February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine, listing Gerson as the ninth most influential.[3]

Heh heh. Mark, you just proved my point. What's your source? Time magazine---the embodiment of left-liberal conventional wisdom!

Michael Gerson is nothing. He influences nobody on the right and the left now props him up as an "acceptable" conservative, like David Brooks, because he uses the ontology of the left and is properly wishy-washy.

To both you and Jon, I'll recycle a comment I just left over at the very left-leaning Religion and American History blog, where an old acquaintance of ours did a drive-by on the usual suspects:

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...
This helps explain the "let's take back our country" attitude seen on political stumps. People like Sarah Palin are massaging this fear that the "other" might be taking over.

Tom Van Dyke said...
I think we'd find most who use "Christian" in reference to America are equally comfortable with "Judeo-Christian." Too much has been made of the term, too little of the concept behind it: One God, providential, the creator, the endower of unalienable rights.

To not read too much innuendo into my old pal Pastor Bob's comment, "the other" is more a philosophical difference in American self-perception, multiculturalism or E pluribus unum.

Economic liberty and communitarianism.

Pluralism or laïcité.

"The other" here is European-style secularism/progressivism, which does not recognize the "laws of nature and nature's God." Natural law is passé, God is irrelevant.

That this "other" may be "taking over" is indeed a fear, and not an irrational one.

mark boggs said...


With all due respect to you and your seeming ability to understand the nuance of the topic you guys flesh out here on this blog, if you don't think there isn't a stream of thought among religious conservatives that doesn't espouse the very view you claim doesn't exist, I think you're not looking hard enough or don't want to see it.

And TIME magazine makes a list of evangelicals and you want to claim that because Bush's old speechwriter and a Heritage Foundation member is one of those listed, he is now a liberal? If TIME made a list of the 25 most influential conservatives, would they then all be liberals because TIME put them on a list? Your argument about Gerson's leanings do not follow. But I like that you picked that one thing out of his conservative CV to brand him to be of a liberal bent somehow.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, thx for yr response.

I'M a liberal. Compassionate conservative, all that shit that Gerson tried to sell to America via Dubya as "compassionate conservatism."

Didn't work politically, did it? But don't think for a moment that Dubya didn't believe in it. That would miss the whole point of the man. He didn't choose Gerson just out of expediency, to put one over on the American public.

We're all liberals. Don't be hating on the Christians.

The difference is that a liberal wants to help the poor, the leftist thinks he can cure poverty.

That's what's going on now.

And I based my comment on what Gerson's writing now based on reading what he's been writing over the past year, which I've actually read. I'm not throwing culture war grenades. I just don't wanna go there, Mark, don't have time for it. I gave you the time of day in case you wanted to discuss stuff, because you seem an honest person.

If TIME made a list of the 25 most influential conservatives, would they then all be liberals because TIME put them on a list?

C'mon, Mark, you know I wouldn't argue that. You've come across my writing here at and Jon's other blog to know I'm not that kind of cementhead. But if you put Michael Gerson or David Brooks in a list of the top 100 conservatives---maybe the top 1000---I'd have to say you're tapping into the conventional wisdom.

I mean, if you want to get into influence, with all the money he throws around, that POS George Soros is in the left-wing Top 10. I put him in the top 5 easy, behind Barack Obama but well ahead of Michele Obama and Joe Biden. Neck-and-neck with the Clintons, whom I'm kind of soft on, him more than her.

So let's get real. Jon is digging up a reliable bogeyman, D. James Kennedy, but who's fucking dead and has been since 2007.

My core point is that

I think we'd find most who use "Christian" in reference to America are equally comfortable with "Judeo-Christian." Too much has been made of the term, too little of the concept behind it: One God, providential, the creator, the endower of unalienable rights.

I'll hang there, if it's OK.

Mark Boggs said...

You're fine to argue the point you're arguing. I don't have a chance in hell to argue with you on what I've already accepted, in part, because of what you and others have researched and written on this blog.

And your whole liberal / leftist "don't be hating Christians" thing was, again, way over my head. I have no idea where that comes from. And the business about Soros and the Clinton's, I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you're referencing.

My point was that you seemed to think it was a bogeyman the very idea Gerson's addressing in his article re: Christian Nationists. And I was trying to point out that Gerson is not an outsider to the ideas of religious conservatives which made it seem that maybe he had a better finger on the pulse of the actual existence of the idea he's discussing in his piece.

But do you really think people like Palin have the same nuanced view of religion and the founding that you do?

Tom Van Dyke said...

What can I say, Mark? Sarah Palin is another bogyman. She's not going to be elected to anything.

Remember the countless articles and books on the coming "American Theocracy" when Bush was in? Didn't happen, didn't even start to happen. Bogeyman stuff.

So, yes, I've heard Palin parrot some inaccurate historical factoids, but what does that amount to? "Christian" is also understood as "Judeo-Christian." Nobody's gonna put a cross up over the White House.

In fact, this speech by Harry Truman

would be a lot more controversial today than anything Palin has 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."

Theocracy! Theocracy! The Christians are coming!

mark boggs said...


You know, before I started reading this blog, I was much more of a black and white thinker when it came to religion in our founding, but thanks to the likes of you and Jon Rowe, and KOI, etc., I've come to understand that it was a whole lot muddier than the absolutists on either side would suppose.

But the idea that the strain of thought that Gerson describes is some sort of imagined thing seems as silly as saying the Governor of Alaska will never be elected to anything.

But your agitation is noted and I don't want to drag you into the culture war debates you loathe, so consider me properly reprimanded about the idea of there being any strain of thought resembling "Christian Nationism".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well thx about the culture war. But the term "Christian nation" has little more meaning to these folks than what Truman said. [I'm not sure I agree with his facts, BTW.]

"Christian" is also understood as "Judeo-Christian." And keep in mind 25% of America is Catholic, and they sure don't want to be ruled by the fundies either.

My biggest objection to these attacks on "Christian nationists" is that the term is so ill-defined, and what indeed would they do if they had their way? Return us to 1950, I'd say. Not much chance of that, but still, hardly radical.

Tim Polack said...

I think I share some of Tom's frustrations with the "intellectual" arguments against this country being a Christian Nation. First, there are clearly those out there that do espouse such things. But the bogeyman as Tom's names it is not so much that those arguments don't exists, it's that the arguments are so weak, they are not nearly worth getting steamed up about as the media, Gerson, etc., would have you believe.

I know some on both sides, and those on the left are resolute in seeing those "Christian Nationalists" as needing to be silenced/corrected. But I believe that the much more dominant secular views are more of a problem; it's just that the media loves to splash the Tea Party on the front page, and viola, you have a problem!

So if we're going to discuss things like the thoughts of the Tea Party seriously, we can't really say that they have any sort of solid intellectual case. What they have is fervent followers, and really not many at that...though I know at least one.

There is much to say on this topic (obviously) but suffic to say, the dominant, though similarly biased view of this country's religiously founding affiliation is as much if not more of a problem to bringing public understanding closer to a truer view of the founding than that of the right wing fanatics.

I will refer to one book all Tea Partiers and Evangelicals should read, it would help immensely.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Tim.

I still don't know what these "right-wing fanatics" actually believe, as some sort of monolith.

To me it's a faceless strawman.

I made it a point to use the search function on David Barton's site for "Christian nation." Pretty much diddly comes up.

I googled "Christian nation" today out of curiosity. The lion's share came up as condemnations of the phrase, "the myth of..." etc.

And if we all agreed tomorrow that we are a "Christian nation," I dunno what difference it would make.

Prayer back in schools, I guess.

For some reason, and I don't think I ever recalled it until this moment, we said grace in kindergarten. Public school in Philadelphia, the 1960s. We said grace for our milk and cookies or whatever. "Through Jesus Christ Your Son Our Lord" was missing.

I guess I asked, because I remember hearing Mrs. Neubauer was Jewish.

I didn't know what "Jewish" meant, but I remember thinking, OK. Didn't rock my world or anything...

bpabbott said...

Tom, I think the lack of promoters of a "Christian Nation" theology is due to those who have worked hard to debunk and educate. Not so much the fanatics who still are still wrestling with what is now a strawman, but sites like this one as well as Separation of Church and State Home Page,, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps, Ben. I like Jim Allison's work very much [your first link] although I disagree with many of his conclusions.

Now all we have to do is correct the other side, who think "separation of church and state" is in the Constitution, and that the Founding Fathers "were all deists."

bpabbott said...

I've not encountered anyone who asserts the words are in the constitution. I think even the fanatic left understands it is a catch phrase for the intent of the Constitution's religious protections and boundaries.

Where I think some go wrong is thinking that our representatives are restrained (1) from relying upon religion to inform their conscience, and (2) from personal God speak, (3) others?.

Regarding Deism, I think the problem lies in how it is defined. By our standards or those of the founding period. I see the Deism of 200-300 yrs ago as a non-doctrine view of God. I don't see early Deism as requiring a non-personal distant God (just one that is divorced from what I'd qualify as myth, miracle, and superstition). So for me (and I think the founders) there isn't really anything incompatible with Deism (founding period) and Providence. However, I agree the modern view of Deism doesn't fit any of the founders well ... in fact it is difficult for me to see how Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen fit the modern view which I think is more accurately described as Spinoza's God.

Thus, I think the Deism thing is about definitions, and when definitions differ, it makes for great partisan fanfare since each side it eager to battle the Strawman they've created for themselves.

Of course, the same can be said of the term Christian ... orthodox, nominal, cultural, other?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree, Ben. However, I've seen the Founders' deism equated with "Spinoza's God" often enough, by people who should know better.

bpabbott said...

I've noticed Spinza's God being equated to early Deism as well. Ironically, this error is commonly embraced by the fanatic left and the fanatic right.

I see a similarity with the assertion that the founder's Christianity was *orthodox*. Again fanatics from both extremes (often the same individuals) hold the view that the founders' Deism was a blind watch-maker and the founder's Christianity was orthodox.

The middle is where the value of our Nation's ethos/culture exists.