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Why America’s Christian foundation is a myth

A new book by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel takes on Christian nationalism.

Image Source: Ericsphotography / Getty Images
  • 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."

American principles

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

the American flag

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?

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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