The Truth About America's Religious Heritage

This "heritage" is not always a basis for pride.

Posted Feb 27, 2012

When religious conservatives use the apparatus of government to promote their religious views, they typically do so under the guise of "acknowledging religious heritage." This rationalization has been used to justify the national motto of "In God We Trust," for example, and inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.

There is plenty of reason to suspect that the "acknowledging heritage" argument is untrue, a disingenuous cover for an agenda of promoting religion. To acknowledge a heritage is fine, but it seems odd that we must do so by asserting religious truth claims (since the wording of both the Pledge and the motto assume that a God in fact exists). And isn't it puzzling that such efforts to "acknowledge heritage" are always led by religious organizations, not legitimate historical or educational societies?

But just for the fun of it, let's go along with the façade of "acknowledging our religious heritage." If we do so, what exactly are we acknowledging?  Here again, we see that misinformation clouds the issue, because common understandings of America's religious heritage more often reflect mythology, not facts.

Elementary school children, for example, are often told of how the Pilgrims left England in search of religious freedom, only to find it on the shores of New England. This, however, is false, as the Pilgrims were not at all interested in religious freedom, and in fact vehemently opposed it. After leaving England they settled in Amsterdam, a relatively free society, but they couldn't tolerate the openness and diversity there. In deciding to leave the Netherlands, Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote that he wanted to shield the community's children from being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses."

Bradford envisioned the American settlement as a "great hope . . . for the propagating and advancing the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ . . ." Properly translated, this meant he wished to establish a theocracy, which is precisely what happened. To suggest that early New Englanders were a group that longed for a society of religious freedom is an absurdity; harsh intolerance and cruel piety were the rule.

If indeed we are supposed to be thinking of America's religious heritage when we place our hand over our heart and declare that the nation is "under God," there is little need to be consumed with nostalgia. We should instead ponder with somber regret the victims of that religious heritage, such as Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of religious nonconformity. For holding religious views that were just slightly unaligned with those of her Boston neighbors, Dyer was strung up and killed along with several others, becoming a permanent symbol of America's rich "religious heritage" for which we now have our children Pledge daily.

Dyer and her fellow victims are not to be confused with the targets of the Salem witch hunts, which came a few decades later - yet another chapter in America's proud religious tradition. Once again, a confluence of fear, ignorance, and intolerance resulted in the early demise of innocents. 

Ironically, although religious conservatives argue so aggressively for America's religious heritage, the most remarkable thing about the birth of the new nation was its secularity. The framers were most influenced philosophically by the Enlightenment, which was the first period in European history where we see thinkers openly rejecting Christianity. Reason and empiricism, not religious dogma, were seen as the avenue to truth, and for the first time we see a non-Christian religious view, Deism, becoming openly acceptable, particularly among the educated.

Because the framers were so secular, religious conservatives give great weight to the Declaration of Independence reference to "nature's God" and men being "endowed by their Creator" with rights. These phrases, they insist, are evidence that America is a Christian nation. This is ironic, because the Declaration is notable for its intentional omission of any mention of Christianity or Jesus. "Creator" and "nature's God" are common deistic references, obviously an intentional effort to avoid Christian rhetoric. Thus, almost a century before Darwin's discoveries, in an era when outright atheism was still a crime, the framers took careful steps to avoid validating Christianity. In fact, when they finally drafted the Constitution the resulting text was entirely god-free. Religion is mentioned in the original Constitution only once, and that is in the negative: to ensure that there is no religious test for holding office.

Religious advocates will cherry-pick occasional quotes and actions by the framers paying respect to religion, but such examples hardly prove a "heritage" that deserves exaltation. Indeed, to the extent the nation has a religious history, that heritage often provides more reason for shame than pride. Take, for instance, the proud religious tradition that justified slavery. Citing both Old and New Testament passages, preachers and slaveowners insisted that God was on their side as they subjected their fellow humans to the ultimate inhumanity.

Even the occasional "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor that have dotted America's history, though surely an important part of America's religious heritage, are rather embarrassing if considered honestly. At the height of such revivals, apocalyptic religious leaders have convinced devout believers, some of whom had relinquished all possessions, that the Second Coming of Jesus is imminent. Such "awakenings" all end, of course, with great disappointment, when the day of reckoning passes unremarkably.

Venomous religious bigotry is another part of America's proud religious heritage. Almost all of the framers were strongly anti-Catholic, for example. John Adams wrote that he was glad that in New England Catholics were "as rare as a comet or earthquake." John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, promoted a law in New York that would allow anyone except Catholics to hold office. When Catholics finally began immigrating in large numbers to America in the 1800s, the anti-Catholic backlash was violent and extreme.

All countries have a religious heritage of some kind or another, and America is no exception. And like other countries, America has a religious heritage that should not necessarily be an object of pride. Though of course there have been some good works done in the name of religion—deeds of charity, support for civil rights, etc.—to suggest that America's religious heritage is so great that we should subject all the nation's citizens, believers and nonbelievers, to constant indoctrination via religious truth claims (i.e., that the nation is "under God" or that we all trust in God) is to distort history and disregard freedom of conscience.

Order Dave's new book, Nonbeliever Nation, here.

Join Nonbeliever Nation on Facebook

Follow Dave on Twitter.