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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Creation Myths: Founding Fathers

Do American Christians idolize their country? Do we worship the nation's founders more than our true Creator?

Many in the United States look to the 'Christian nation' that once was, and decry our modern wandering ways. We long to return to the 'morals of our founders' two centuries ago. Some think that if we were only as pious as those who came before us, perhaps our country wouldn't be facing its current crises. 

But it turns out that the founding fathers were not at all what we would co-opt them to be. Jesus is absent from almost all important documents of our founding. He's not in the Declaration of Independence, not in the Constitution, not in the Federalist Papers, nor the Articles of the Confederation

Moreover, the second president of the United States, John Adams, states in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli: "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion."  

While it's true that some founders believed in God, many were Deist and highly influenced by Enlightenment-era thought that espoused a powerful, but distant and uninvolved God (ie. no divine Son of God). 

James Madison, the primary drafter of the US Constitution, declared that "religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." Likewise, Thomas Paine, hero of the American Revolution stated "All national institutions of churches... appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind."

Thomas Jefferson famously removed all the parts of the bible that relate to Jesus's miracles, including his resurrection. He stated that "the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

Jesus makes no appearance in any of the first 20 annual presidential addresses (those of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson). Yet he is routinely dragging along on campaign trails today. We co-opt  the authority of the founders, just as we claim Christ for our causes. We cherry-pick constitutional clauses as well as biblical verses. 

So, why make such a big deal about this? Because deluding ourselves about history is a dangerous business. We have become very good and avoiding the uncomfortable truths of our past.  

Many of us already know that our nation's creation stories are myths. But we perpetuate and cling to them anyway for the validation of our own narrative. A desire to return to 'how things used to be' reveals a nostalgia for a country that was inherently unjust and unequal, not at all reflecting Christian values

It is good to respect our founders and honor them for their guidance of the nation.  But canonizing our history undermines the hard work of our heroes that strove for betterment of the country. It belittles the struggles of those that sacrificed to bring about change from the realities of that past. And it estranges us from those that continue to deal with the negative consequences of that imperfect history.


  1. Even the early US citizen were just as in danger of worshiping our founders as we are today. In 1811, Russian diplomat Pavel Svinin visited the United States and observed that "every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God's saints."

  2. These weren't the only foundation myths we buy into. Michael Frisch notes that Betsy Ross played "no role whatsoever in the actual creation of any actual first flag."

  3. How true! Plus it seems that people romanticize the past to suit their present beliefs! In fact we are a nation founded on the almost genocide of native peoples, and, at least in great part, through the sweat of slave and conscript/very low paid immigrant labor. It is also true we are a nation founded on high ideals, but fulfilling those ideals of equality has been a 200+ year process of increasing inclusion of women, immigrants, people of color, and now GLBT people. I am encouraged that there has been slow progress toward the radical inclusivity and diversity that is our greatest strength, even though I recognize there is still a long way to go and our progress is flawed..

  4. How true our selective memory! Also good to remember how much of a process it is. Like our walk with Christ, it's a journey of molding a growing. We're convicted by the imperfection and are in need of grace as we mature. It's an interesting tension between what are truly great ideals, and the reality that plays out. How does our telling of the narrative shape our approximation of those ideals? Does it help or hinder? Interesting to ponder.


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