It is difficult to write a review of a book with which you mostly agree. The Founding Myth is one of those books for most secular non-Christians and those literate in American history and civics. While the conclusions that Andrew Seidel reaches in the book are common wisdom for those of us who value a secular government, its importance lies in the evidence he produces to demonstrate that the Christian nationalist position is founded on myth, erroneous assumptions, emotion, and flagrant lies. In the introduction, Seidel characterizes Christian nationalism as an “unholy alliance, an incestuous marriage of conservative politics and conservative Christianity” (p. 8). It’s the idea that America was founded as and should be a Christian theocracy, not a secular democracy. Under the Trump regime, Christian nationalists have achieved more influence and power than at any other time in recent history.
The Founding Myth was written as an assault on Christian nationalism and as a handbook for advocates of secular government. It is an intelligent and passionate call to arms for secularists, inverting the chant of Trump’s cult to “make America great again” into a plea to make America secular again. Or perhaps more accurately, a plea to make America secular for once. Seidel particularly focuses on a defense of the Constitution, especially the First Amendment which separates religion from the government. There are two fundamental myths that Seidel identifies as the underlying justification for the entire Christian nationalist view. The first is that America was explicitly founded to be a Christian nation, which Seidel points out is obviously untrue and easily disproven by merely looking at the Constitution. The second is more insidious, the idea that America was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles.” Disproving the second myth is the main focus of the book.
In order to demonstrate the falsehood of the myth that America is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, Seidel divides his argument into four broad topics. First is an examination of the religious beliefs of the Founders, the references to god in the Declaration of Independence, and the original theocratic colonies and colonies with established churches. In each instance, the Christian nationalist arguments are demolished by showing that they are irrelevant and fallacious. Seidel rightly points out that the personal religious beliefs of the Founders are irrelevant to the government they created with the Constitution, and in any case, the most influential Founders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were demonstrably not Christians in any orthodox sense. The invocation of colonial theocracies and established churches by Christian nationalists are also summarily discarded as irrelevant to the founding of the constitutional government. Indeed, the Founders explicitly used those colonial governments as cautionary lessons.
While the references to god in the Declaration are indisputable, Seidel argues that this does little for the Christian nationalist position. Firstly, they are references to the god of the deists or a general, non-sectarian deity, not the Christian god. Secondly, the references are little more than window dressing, which neither add to nor subtract from the main argument of the Declaration which is thoroughly secular and based in contemporary political philosophy; in fact, the revolutionary philosophy of the Declaration is antithetical to the Christian principles of obedience and submission to god’s chosen monarchs. Thirdly, the Declaration did not create the government of the United States and thus cannot be cited as evidence that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.
The second and third topics examined by Seidel are the biblical influence on American government and a more in depth analysis of the Ten Commandments. To analyze biblical influence on American government, Seidel analyzes seven principles, which he argues are indisputably biblical and central to “Judeo-Christianity”: 1) the Golden Rule, 2) obedience, 3) biblical crime and punishment, 4) original sin, 5) vicarious redemption, 6) religious faith, and 7) monarchy. He reveals how each of these biblical principles are fundamentally opposed to the political philosophy underlying the Constitution and American jurisprudence. The Ten Commandments receive similar treatment. After identifying which Ten that the Christian nationalists are idolizing, Seidel argues that they would not hold up as valid laws under the Constitution due to the fact that they are a tribal religious code predicated on religious rationale and thus invalid as American law. With regard to the two commandments that might hold up under constitutional review, against murder and theft, they are universal and unoriginal to either Judaism or Christianity. No commanding god on Mount Sinai needed.
The fourth topic is what Seidel refers to as “argument by idiom.” Christian nationalists use phrases such as “In God We Trust,” “one nation under God,” and “God bless America” as evidence that America is a Christian nation. Seidel acknowledges that these phrases have no legal authority and that they are not distinctly Christian. He spends the majority of this section analyzing the history of these phrases and how they came to be adopted by the Congress or politicians during periods of fear and stress. He also points out that they are impossible to challenge in court because challengers cannot show standing. Seidel argues that these seemingly harmless phrases are blatant violations of the First Amendment, which Christian nationalists use as precedent to further their agenda in other areas.
Despite how well researched and argued this book is, there is one major defect. Seidel acknowledges in the introduction that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a made up term to make Christian nationalism appear more inclusive. In fact, there is no such thing as “Judeo-Christianity” because Judaism and Christianity are distinct from each other precisely because they reject each other. Even after demonstrating, with examples, the ways in which the use of the prefix Judeo- is a “sop, a fig leaf, tossed about to avoid controversy and complaint,” Seidel uses this erroneous term throughout the book (p. 4). On the previous page, he states that the way the term is used by Christian nationalists indicates that they are using Judeo- to refer to the Hebrew bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament), in particular the Mosaic law. Even here, however, it is obvious that this term is only referring to Christianity because Judaism is more than the Hebrew bible. The Hebrew bible is read through the lens of the rabbinic tradition with the Talmud, Mishnah, midrash, and responsa. Sola scriptura is a distinctly Protestant Christian idea, not a Jewish one.
Aside from the issue of equating the Old Testament/Hebrew bible with Judaism, there is a bigger problem. Most American Jews, around 90%, are either secular or belong to a liberal denomination of Judaism such as the Reform or Conservative/Masorti Movement. In fact, nearly one-fourth of American Jews are atheists. The large proportion of atheists who identify themselves as culturally or ethnically Jewish belies the assumption that Judaism can even be reduced to religion alone, much less to the Old Testament alone. This means that if American Jews are reading the Hebrew bible at all, they are not reading it in a literal or fundamentalist way. By acquiescing to the Christian nationalist equation of Judaism with the Old Testament, Seidel helps to spread the impression that American Jews agree with the fundamentalist Christian interpretations of these texts and the policies based on them. This is precisely what Christian nationalists want: the appearance that their policies are not narrowly Christian but include American Jews as well. It would have been much more accurate and effective to simply acknowledge that there is no such thing as “Judeo-Christianity” and refuse to use the term after the initial discussion in the introduction.
Other than this issue, the book is otherwise entirely fair in its assessment of Christian nationalism and an effective warning for those who may not have been aware of its advocates’ sinister intentions. The most effective element of the book is its examination of the ways that the bible may have influenced American law. In Parts II and III, Seidel’s examination of Christian biblical principles and the Ten Commandments reveals that everything our society upholds as good and virtuous about the American legal system is directly contrary to Christianity and the bible. Things such as individual freedom, presumption of innocence, personal responsibility, secular democracy, reason, and even capitalism are opposed to the teachings of the bible and Christianity. This comparison reveals that the bible is a barbaric, authoritarian, regressive, and immoral collection of books, and it has always been used in this country to justify injustice and opposition to moral progress. For example, Seidel’s discussion of slavery and Christian support for the brutal oppression of black Americans shows one of the ways the bible may have influenced America’s founding. But it is not an influence many Christian nationalists would be happy to openly claim. The bible’s regressive doctrines have been used in opposition to other progress movements such as the Revolutionary War, the separation of church and state, women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, and immigrants’ rights. Trump’s practice of separating families and putting immigrants in concentration camps was justified by his then-Attorney General by quoting the New Testament book of Romans.
By debunking the myths and showing the ways in which the bible and conservative Christian theology are opposed to everything good about America, Seidel thoroughly demonstrates exactly why Christian nationalism is un-American and what we have to lose if they win the war for our government and culture. Seidel says it best in his conclusion:
“Christian nationalists have successfully persuaded too many Americans to abandon our heritage, to spurn our secular foundations in favor of their myth. It is time to reclaim that heritage and refute these myths” (p. 297).