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My experience with religious patriotism is not a representation of every American upbringing, however similar experiences are not unheard of in parts of the rural United States.
American culture is filled with a variety of things: hot dogs at baseball games, family dinners followed by apple pie, and God. The Judeo-Christian God that is. I was taught at a young age that the founders of the United States were God-fearing Christians, divinely inspired to break away from the tyrannical British Empire. The United States stood on a moral high ground, where we simply did things right, and God blessed us for it.
This line of thinking made sense. We sang patriotic songs in church, placed God’s name on our currency, and even declared ourselves as “one nation” under Him. In fact, this part of our culture was the most prominent piece of what I deemed to be American. I belonged to a “God culture”, where God himself supported American exceptionalism.
Over time I eventually began to question this idea of an infallible United States. What moral high ground did our Founding Fathers actually stand on? After all, before they came to America they too had been British citizens that supported the subjugation of people all over the globe. Colonies in India and Africa weren’t equally represented in the British parliament. Where were the ideas of equality and consent of the governed then? Were those people not entitled to the “unalienable Rights” called for in the Declaration of Independence? It seemed that the American colonists simply wanted to be treated as they were before, as British citizens with basic rights, while giving little thought to those they subjected in the past and would continue to suppress in the future.
I became increasingly aware of the God culture I had participated in, but had never actually been aware of. The alleged “Christian founding” of our country was cited as a means to maintain status quo’s, and justify American actions. We needed to act as a world police force, spread democracy, and defend Christian principles at home and abroad. I began to notice how over-zealous people became in justifying their hateful words or actions with the argument that they were Christian-based and therefore purely American. In the eyes of these radicals, anyone who thought differently should simply go somewhere else.
Many of my friends and family hailed the Founding Fathers as Christians, which somehow legitimized Christian ideology over all others. This bias and exclusion of diversity was disturbing, so I was pleased to learn of the role that Deism played in the lives of prominent founders such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. While there are many arguments both for and against the idea of a Christian founding, exploring the diversity that shaped the opinions of these prominent figures provided me with the assurance I needed that Christianity was not the primary element to influence our country’s early beginnings.
Additionally, the Three-Fifths Compromise really upset me. If the Founding Fathers were quasi-holy individuals who were entrusted to create this God given political system, what was so holy about the Three-Fifths Compromise? Counting African-Americans as three-fifths of a person was completely immoral, so if God is the source of moral behavior, then how could he also be the source of this twisted morality in the American political system?
When confronted with these and similar arguments, many contenders of this God culture argue that our Pledge of Allegiance and currency stand as examples of our early Christian heritage. Surprising to many however, the Founding Fathers never recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Francis Bellamy wrote what later became the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, and even then, the words “under God” were not added until 1954. Similarly, the use of the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our currency didn’t begin until after the Civil War.
My reason for sharing these ideas is simple: I believe that living in a God culture is dangerous. Whether or not you believe in the existence of a God is irrelevant to this conversation, because all rational people should be able to see the damage that has been inflicted in the name of divinity throughout history. Take a look at the Christian crusades, where thousands of people were murdered for their differing opinions as crusaders marched to claim Jerusalem; or the reign of Queen Mary I, where Protestants were burned at the stake in an attempt to restore Catholicism to England. Even today, in the wake of 9/11, the United States is all too familiar with Islamic extremists who carry out devastating attacks in the name of God.
There is a loss of accountability when God is added to the equation. Actions are easily justified in the name of divinity- even actions that are morally reprehensible. It is much easier to hide behind faith, or a group of believers, than it is to own our own behavior. Ironically, the lines between right and wrong are often blurred due to the presence of a belief in God.
Many political debates, both on television and at dinner tables, revolve around this God culture we have created. Pulling the Christianity or “traditional principles” card in an argument is often seen as the final word, the bottom line, the Alpha and the Omega in a sense. Nothing can stray from what is perceived as the traditional beliefs of the founders. It is in this sense, that we suppress different ideas and stifle our overall growth.
The God culture present in some parts of the country definitely has an emotional appeal. As a young boy, I proudly sang Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American” and did my best to match pitch when those final words of “God bless the USA” came over the radio. I too spoke in church meetings about the divine inspiration received by our Founding Fathers. I found a sense of community in the religious patriotism around me. I was so enveloped in this God culture that I didn’t even realize it existed. It is here that the danger arises. People blindly follow and lack critical eyes when it comes to arguments for “traditional principles”. Instead of questioning why our country is taking specific actions, we are inclined to find some kind of religious justification rather than own up to our behavior.
I have no doubts as to the political achievements made by the early American colonists; but I believe they were just that: political achievements. And even then, not all of them can be counted as achievements. There is a reason that we did away with the Three-Fifths Compromise. It was wrong. Yes, the Founding Fathers were wrong to some degree. The world was not suddenly graced by the United States as a “city on a hill” in 1789 when our current constitution was put into practice. We still have a lot of progress to make, and the sooner we stop inhibiting ourselves with this God culture, and let religion be a private matter, the better. Call me a heretic, but I think that’s a policy even God Himself could get on board with.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.