I’m not really sure Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth should be subtitled “Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American” because it’s not actually a rebuttal to Christian Nationalism. Instead, it is a rallying cry and powerful, persuasive argument for the history and virtue of secular government. While I highly recommend the book for that reason, Seidel’s received plenty of plaudits for that already (and one of the highest compliments possible: a rightwing minister publicly burned his copy), so I want to talk about the two things that bothered me about the book: It’s not really about Christian Nationalism in the same sense most people are using the term, and Seidel’s zeal for mocking Christianity runs the danger of alienating valuable allies in the fight for secular government.
There have been many books and articles written about “Christian Nationalism,” a relatively new phenomenon (despite what adherents insist) and still kind of nebulous, but most agree that “nationalism” is a pretty important part of the descriptor. After all, what really got people’s attention is the fact that white evangelicals, the people who had been insisting that they are the true representatives of “family values” for decades, enthusiastically supported Trump in 2016 and 2020. A lot of people (myself included) thought they actually believed that personal integrity and good character were essential to being a good leader, so when they overwhelmingly voted for a twice-divorced, boorish, narcissistic, bullying, racist, sexist, classist, Biblically illiterate, slum lord it was fair ask, “If they don’t believe in ‘family values’, what do they believe in?”
The answer seems to be “Christian Nationalism,” a peculiarly American ideology that’s as much about race (namely, white supremacy) as it is religion (plus patriarchy, notions about what the government’s role is, mythology, metaphysics, and some other things). For an “insider’s” explanation of what Christian Nationalism is, I highly recommend The Religion of American Greatness, by Paul D. Miller (a self-described white evangelical), which is kind of a long pastoral letter to clergy explaining why the ideology is neither Christian nor American and it’s their duty to lead their congregations away from it. Miller spends a lot of his book specifically addressing the racist half of the ideology, but Seidel doesn’t really go there, which is a pretty glaring oversight. He does devote a lot of time to examining how Christianity was used to justify slavery, Jim Crow, genocide against Indigenous Americans, and many other atrocities committed by the United States, but that’s in service of his real preoccupation.
The Founding Myth is a militant atheist’s forceful argument against one aspect of Christian Nationalism, namely the assertion that America was, is, and ought to be a Christian nation in law and culture. As someone who was raised mainline Protestant and left that community on bad terms to become a militant atheist for a while, I was already familiar with a lot of Seidel’s arguments, but found that they still resonated and refreshed. There are so many things factually, historically, legally, demographically, and philosophically wrong with the statement “America is a Christian nation” that Seidel’s is just one of the most recent, persuasive, and accessible examples of an entire genre. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is even slightly unsure about the Founding Secularism of our government and why it is a blessing.
But, having (mostly) made peace with my upbringing and personal grievances (I’m now a pragmatic agnostic), I’m kind of miffed with Seidel’s zeal in condemning Christianity as such as un-American and immoral. Seidel seems to relish explaining why the Ten Commandments are unconstitutional, which (while accurate) strikes me as in poor taste and, more importantly, strategically misguided. Most people in the United States still consider themselves Christian. In fact, the latest Pew Research poll says 64%. Christians are going to be the majority, or a king-making minority, for at least a couple more generations. In all possible scenarios, Nones won’t be the majority until at least 2070. Alienating self-identifying Christians is electoral idiocy. Besides, even though “Nones” are now 30% of the population and growing, most Nones are not atheists. Actually, not even all self-identified atheists are atheist; in 2019, Pew found that only 81% affirmed that they did not believe in god or gods, which means that about a fifth disagree with the technical definition of atheism. The point is, America is indeed undergoing a religious transition, but it’s not as simple or straightforward as, “People are leaving the Church and joining Richard Dawkins’ club,” which seems to be what both Seidel and Christian Nationalists think.
That’s what really bothers me about The Founding Myth‘s argument and tone. In condemning Christianity as Un-American, he’s undermining one of the most formidable arguments against Christian Nationalism: That it is not Christianity. There is a resurgent ecumenical and pluralist Religious Left in America presenting a powerful, beautiful vision, but is still trying to get its footing after being in conservative Christianity’s shadow since the late 1970s. Seidel runs both the risk of alienating them and essentially making one of Christian Nationalists’ main arguments for them: That they are the true representatives of the religion and everyone who says otherwise is no true Christian. Apparently, Seidel belatedly tries to correct that mistake in his forthcoming book American Crusade, but that does not improve the stand-alone argument in the Founding Myth.
Again, I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to push back against one aspect of the Christian Nationalist narrative: That America’s government and institutions are supposed to be Christian. They are not and never were. As Seidel points out, there are a lot of very misguided people being led by malicious actors with political agendas who must be stopped and persuaded back into the democratic fold. But the alternative is not necessarily atheism (it is for some), it’s the Separation of Church and State and Pluralism. Those two transcendent American values are what unites everyone who recognizes Christian Nationalism as a perversion of their most deeply held beliefs.