Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Why America’s Christian foundation is a myth
A new book by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel takes on Christian nationalism.
- A new book by attorney Andrew Seidel, 'The Founding Myth: Why Christian nationalism Is Un-American', takes on the myth of America's Christian founding.
- Christian nationalism is the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation on Christian principles, and that the nation has strayed from that original foundation.
- Judeo-Christian principles are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which America was built, argues Seidel.
You've probably heard it expressed once or twice, by some political pundit or another, that America was founded on Christian principles.
While these sentiments have been floating around American political discourse for a while, under the Trump administration they have become more aggressive. Earlier this month, for instance, President Trump, Attorney General William P. Bar, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all spoke publicly on the role of Christianity in American life and politics.
A new book by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, 'The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American,' challenges that notion in arguably the most comprehensive take down yet of what he calls "Christian nationalism."
What is Christian Nationalism?
Seidel, an attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, defines Christian nationalism as the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation on Christian principles, and most importantly, that the nation has strayed from that original foundation.
It is this language of redemptive Christian nationalism, according to Seidel, that is used to justify recent policies such as immigration policy that banned immigration from Muslim majority countries, government funded voucher school programs, the child separation policy at the border, opposition to LGBTQ rights, environmental deregulation, the evisceration of women's reproductive rights, and Project Blitz - an overt Christian nationalist push to rewrite American law.
According to Seidel, the aim of certain politicians is to wipe away the regressive aspects of these policies by incorrectly claiming they align with America's Christian heritage.
"The political theology of Christian nationalism, their very identity, is dependent upon a common well of myths and lies," he says. "Without the historical cover that the lies give, their policy justifications crumble."
Common myths he points to include American verbiage such as "One nation under God" and "In God We Trust." The former was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the latter was not required on currency until 1956. The original motto the founders suggested was the Latin phrase E pluribus unum, which translates to "Out of many, one." Other untruths are that the Declaration of Independence references Jesus multiple times, that the founders prayed at the Constitutional Convention, and that our laws were based on the Ten Commandments.
But Seidel's book goes beyond gently correcting historical inaccuracies spewed by Christian nationalists, pointing out that correction is not enough at this political moment. He makes the claim that America's foundation is in direct opposition of the principles found in the Bible.
"Pointing out errors is no longer sufficient," says Seidel. "This book does that, but it takes the next step. It goes on the offensive. This book is an assault on the Christian nationalist identity. Not only are Christian nationalists wrong, but their beliefs and their identity run counter to the ideals on which this nation was founded. They are un-American."
Image Source: Wikimedia
The central question that Seidel sought to answer was: Did Judeo-Christian principles positively influence the founding of the United States of America?
"The answer to that is no, America was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and it's a good thing because those principles are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which this nation was built," argues Seidel.
For example, there is a common misconception that America's legal system is based on the Ten Commandments. He devotes an entire chapter of the book to rigorously debunking the myth commandment by commandment.
"When you crack open a bible and read those it becomes very obvious that they are fundamentally opposed to American values and founding principles," says Seidel, who points to commandment number one: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me. "It would be very difficult to write a sentence that is more fundamentally opposed to our First Amendment than the First Commandment."
Another founding myth that has prevailed is the story of the Pilgrims and Puritans arriving in the New World seeking religious liberty. It isn't exactly true.
"They were fleeing religious persecution," says Seidel. "But they didn't come to America seeking religious freedom. They actually didn't come to America first."
First, they fled to Leiden in the Netherlands, one of the (inconveniently) freest, most tolerant countries in Europe. The religious freedom there posed a bit of a problem for the Puritans according to Seidel, who says that the followers were exercising their freedom and leaving the faith. It led the church fathers to conclude that they needed to find a new land where they could use the secular law to impose religious law.
"[That's] why they came to the New World," says Seidel. "Not for religious liberty, but seeking the ability to establish tiny theocracies in New England. When the founders looked at that earlier history, they looked at it as an example of how not to build a government."
Claims on patriotism
Image Source: Wikimedia
Ultimately, 'The Founding Myth' is an aim to take away the exclusivity that Christian nationalists attribute to being an American.
"Patriotism has no religion," says Seidel. "There's no such thing as the freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion. America's unique contribution to political science is the wall of separation between state and church. That had never been done before. That is an American original."
This is something that he says we should be proud of, rather than seeking to undermine with myths about a Christian founding. We also, he mentions, should remind Americans that our Constitution demands the absolute separation of church and state.
"We have to raise hell whenever that wall between state and church is breached," says Seidel "This is not a Christian nation. Our Constitution does not belong to the Christians. It belongs to we the people, all of the people. And it's about damn time we start acting like it."
America has outgrown its ‘Judeo-Christian’ label. What’s next?
- Is the Trump presidency a religious cult? - Big Think ›
- ‘Christian nationalists’ less likely to wear masks, social distance - Big Think ›
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.