The specter of Christofacism or as American as apple pie?
The UK’s Guardian recently published a piece warning its readers of the dangers posed by America’s new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.
“The separation of church and state is a misnomer,” they quote him as saying. “People misunderstand it. Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that Jefferson wrote. It’s not in the constitution.”
In fact, the Guardian piece continues,
Johnson’s contentious remarks fall in line with years of effort on his part to bring Christianity into the center of American politics. The New York Times has dubbed him the first Christian nationalist to hold the powerful position of speaker.
To my knowledge Johnson has never called himself a Christian nationalist, but no matter. Merely pointing out the—how shall we put it—less than contentious fact that Jefferson’s wall of separation isn’t in the Constitution appears to be enough to set the alarm bells ringing about the man who is second-in-line to the presidency (be scared). Oh, and he prayed on the House floor, allows the Bible to influence him in his vocation, and recognizes that our form of government is a republic, not a pure democracy. The Guardian claims he calls it a “biblical” republic, which is not true: he claimed the founders desired a “constitutional” republic because they were influenced by the Bible’s teaching on what civil society should look like. It is clear the Guardian intends this to sound like Johnson supports some sort of theocratic regime ala Iran (just Christian), which he obviously does not.
I hate to think what the Guardian would have to say about the following laws from near America’s founding (all examples and quotes are taken from Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Chapter 4). These are laws, mind you, not opinions like Johnson’s, however true his opinions may be.
Connecticut’s 1784 law-code
required all citizens ‘on the Lord’s-Day carefully to apply themselves to duties of Religion and Piety, publicly and privately’; required all citizens to attend church each Sunday; provided tax money to support churches and ministers; punished Sabbath breakers; required each family to possess a Bible and instructed town leaders to ‘supply’ Bibles and ‘a suitable Number of Orthodox Catechisms, and other good Books of practical Godliness’ to families in need; required civic officeholders and voters to take oaths witnessed ‘by the Everlasting God’; required families who adopted ‘an Indian Child’ to instruct him or her in ‘the principles of the Christian Religion’; and passed numerous statutes reflecting Christian morality on issues such as adultery, divorce, drunkenness, fornication, gaming, and horse racing.’
In 1779 Pennsylvania passed a law that included the following language:
Whereas sufficient provision has not hitherto been made by law for the due observation of the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, and the preventing of profane swearing, cursing, drunkenness, cock fighting, bull-baiting, horse racing, shooting matches, and the playing or gaming for money or other valuable things, fighting of duels, and such evil practices, which tend greatly to debauch the minds and corrupt the morals of the subjects of this commonwealth…
The Pennsylvania constitution, re-written in 1789–1790 (hence after the U.S. Constitution), restricted political office to those “who acknowledge the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.” In Pennsylvania’s 1780 law setting out a path to abolish slavery, there is even a quotation of James 1:17 in support, further insisting that slavery must end because “all are the work of an Almighty Hand.”
In 1784 Georgia crafted a law creating a state university system. “The statute also required that ‘all officers [of the university system] shall be of the Christian religion.” A statute passed by the Georgia legislature in 1785 “For the Regular Establishment and Support of the Public Duties of Religion” began like this:
As the knowledge and practice of the principles of the Christian religion tends greatly to make good members of society, as well as good men, and is no less necessary to present, than to future happiness, its regular establishment and support is among the most important objects of legislature determination; and that the minds of the citizens of this state may be properly informed and impressed by the great principles of moral obligation and thus be induced by inclination furnished with opportunity, and favored by law to render public religious honors to the Supreme Being.
Such laws would continue to be placed on the books throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (similar laws banning egregious public blasphemy and closing businesses on Sunday were enforced well into the 20th century).
The Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge could still write in his Systematic Theology (and believe it to be uncontroversial) in 1873 that
The proposition that the United States of America are a Christian and Protestant nation, is not so much the assertion of a principle as the statement of a fact. That fact is not simply that the great majority of the people are Christians and Protestants, but that the organic life, the institutions, laws, and official action of the government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.
A resolution of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives declared in 1854 that the “great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Such examples could be multiplied for hundreds of pages.
None of this, of course, proves that such laws were correct, but it does put Mike Johnson’s much milder views in perspective. If Johnson is a dangerous Christian nationalist, then what does that make America’s founders and the laws and constitutions they crafted? What does that make America for most of its history, in fact?
Perhaps the specter of Christofacism has been there all along. Or maybe, just maybe, the last few decades of anachronistic, radical secularism are themselves ill-fitted to America’s national character.
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