The illusion of Christian unity and dominance in the U.S.: American religious pluralism is real

In a November post on her Patreon page, writer, thinker, and religious activist Megan Kennedy argued that we must face “a hard truth of modern American society: religious pluralism, in practice, is an illusion.” Kennedy finds evidence for her claim in the abusive treatment meted out by Fox News host Tucker Carlson to a prominent public Satanist during an interview on the channel in late September. In that interview, Carlson questioned the sincerity of Satanists’ beliefs, calling adherents to the religion “trolls” and suggesting at one point that the representative’s drive to involve himself in Satanism must have resulted from an “unhappy childhood.” Kennedy saw in Carlson’s refusal to acknowledge Satanism as a “credible” religion and just general testiness a frustrated sense of religious privilege. When Carlson asks his guest near the end of the interview, “Why don’t you back off and let people live their lives?” he shows himself unwilling to grant to adherents of non-Christian religions—or to atheists—the same principle of free and unfettered exercise of their (lack of) faith that Christians loudly bemoan is presently suffering infringement at the hands of groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). In Kennedy’s eyes, Carlson represents a vociferous element on the Christian right that would claim arguments on the basis of presumptive “religious liberty” as their exclusive province. For them, religious freedom in effect equals freedom for religious Christians and no one else.

I agree with all aspects of Kennedy’s analysis of the exchange, save one: her conclusion. Religious pluralism isn’t illusory in this country; it’s merely being eclipsed from view by a vocal, politically powerful and active monolithic Christianity that not only seeks to erase signs of religious diversity in the modern day, but also, through revisionist history, from our past as well. In this three-part series, I take a look at just how this process is taking place, discussing two specific instances of historical revisionism with a hagiographical bent that have been recruited in the creation of a myth of American religious unity under a generalized Christianity.

The episode between a public Satanist and Tucker Carlson recalls a similarly testy exchange in 2014 between Tea-Party Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas and Reverend Barry W. Lynn, ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and, from 1992 until his retirement in December of this year, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Americans United (AU) bills itself as “a nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure freedom of religion, including the right to believe or not believe, for all Americans.” The encounter between Gohmert and Lynn, which was widely reported in the media, occurred during hearings in the House of Representatives in June of 2014 on the subject of the “State of Religious Liberty in the United States.”

Over the course of his testimony, Lynn argued that the “many efforts to regulate and relegate religious minorities and nontheists to a second-class status in parts of the country” illustrate the imperiled state of religious liberty in modern America. He continued by observing that the source of that danger stems from an on-going redefinition of what “religious freedom” means among religious individuals and institutions in positions of power. Lynn lamented numerous instances of companies and religious institutions rallying under the banner of religious liberty as a means of enforcing their religious views on employees and skirting anti-discrimination laws. Lynn said:

“[I]ronically, the single greatest threat to religious freedom comes from a radical redefinition of the idea itself. Religious freedom does not mean what many of my copanelists assert, it does not mean that for-profit companies that sell wind chimes or wood cabinets can trump the moral and medical decisions of women employees who would choose contraceptive services that their corporate owners would deny them in insurance coverage. It does not mean that a university must provide funds to school clubs that will not admit gay and lesbian students. It does not mean that religious groups seeking government grants and contracts should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring people for those State or federally funded positions.”

When Gohmert receives five minutes to question Lynn following the reverend’s testimony, the congressman quickly turns to querying what Lynn means by calling himself “a Christian.” Gohmert asks:

“I am curious, in your Christian beliefs, do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to hell, consistent with the Christian beliefs?”

Note his use here of the phrase “the Christian beliefs,” with a definite article. Linguists trained in the subfields of semantics and pragmatics will tell you that use of the definite article the usually presupposes the uniqueness of the noun-phrase it determines, signaling as well that the content of that noun-phrase comprises information assumed to be known and shared in the present context. For Gohmert, there is obviously one, unique set of Christian beliefs presumably known to all and shared among all those who are rightly called “Christian.” Lynn responds to the question, however, by attempting to observe nuance between his own Christian beliefs regarding hell and those of fellow Christian Gohmert, saying: “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or why one gets there.” Gohmert, though, cuts Lynn off, again pressing his original question: “So you don’t believe somebody would go to hell if they do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth, the life?” Lynn attempts for a second time to assert a distinction between his own Christian beliefs and those of Gohmert on the subject of hell, saying: “I personally do not believe people go to hell because they don’t believe in a specific set of ideas in Christianity.” At that point, Gohmert cuts Lynn off a second time, making clear that his own view of what constitutes Christianity is not a nuanced set of ideas but a monolithic construction of Jesus and what Jesus demands of those who would follow him. Gohmert says:

“No, no, no, not a set of ideas. Either you believe as a Christian that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, or you don’t. And there is nothing wrong in our country with that. There is no crime, there is no shame. It [sic] should never be a law against those beliefs, because God gave us the chance to elect to either believe or disbelieve. And that is what we want to maintain, is [sic] people’s chance to elect yes or no, the chance that we were given.”

With these words, Gohmert demonstrates that his conception of Christian belief is not only monolithic, but also strictly binary, black and white: you either believe as he—and, presumably by extension, Jesus—does or you do not. Moreover, Gohmert appears to signal his view that government should play a role in ensuring that people have that choice to make, not only by refraining from passing laws that impinge upon the decision of whether or not to accept Christian faith—an objective consistent with the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution—but, more ominously, by actively maintaining “people’s chance to elect yes or no” specifically to Christian belief—a missionary objective that would appear to skirt the rule of the Establishment clause. Here, Lynn cuts in and to the quick of the matter, stating:

“Congressman, what I believe is not necessarily what I think ought to justify the creation of public policy for everybody, for the 2,000 different religions that exist in this country, the 25 million nonbelievers.”

After Lynn finishes his piece, Gohmert attempts to “summarize” the Reverend’s points by suggesting that the pastor’s notion of what constitutes Christian belief is entirely idiosyncratic, relative to him alone, and, moreover, that it apparently ignores the words of Jesus in scripture. Gohmert says:

“So the Christian belief, as you see it, is whatever you choose to think about Christ, whether or not you believe those words he said, that nobody, basically, goes to heaven except through me.”

Note again the Texas Representative’s use of the phrase the Christian belief. He just can’t get past the idea of a single acceptable, monolithic Christianity. As Lynn tries to suggest that he and Rep. Gohmert could, in some other venue, have an interesting discussion of various scriptural passages and their significance to what it means to be a Christian, the congressman simply talks over the reverend, saying:

“Well, I was just trying to figure out, when you said ‘Christian’ [Lynn continues trying to make his point] There is no judgmental [sic]—that is not my job. God judges people’s heart, in my opinion. But just to try to figure out what we meant by ‘Christian.’ So I appreciate your indulgence. Thank you.”

And with that none too subtle dig at the propriety of Lynn’s claim to the term Christian—as well as an equally unsubtle warning of divine judgment that awaits—Gohmert brings his contentious five minutes to a close.

By way of background on Louie Gohmert, you should know that since 2005, he has represented Texas’ first district, which encompasses the far eastern part of my adopted state, including the small city of Carthage that was satirized in the 2011 black comedy Bernie when Austin, Texas, native and actor Sony Carl Davis referred to living there with the memorable sentence: “This is where the South begins; this is life behind the pine curtain.” To judge from some of Gohmert’s intractably far-right stances on social issues and widespread reputation for making outrageous and unproven claims, both the implicit comparison here to the restrictiveness of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain and the obvious dig at the backwards and even buffoonish reputation of denizens of the rural deep South hit somewhere not far off the mark. Gohmert is best known for pronounced sexism, for keeping company with far-right ethnonationalist European politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, for stoking the fires of both Islamophobia and xenophobia with unsubstantiated claims of terrorists sending pregnant women to the U.S. as part of a plot to produce “terror babies” on American soil, and for conflating his Islamophobia with transphobia by arguing in support of President Trump’s ill-fated ban on transgender troops serving in the U.S. military that news coverage of Pentagon funding for gender reassignment surgeries for transgender soldiers would provide “an advertising bonanza for the radical Islamists,” who would naturally conclude that a society which would do such a thing “has no right to remain on the earth. We need to take them out. They are too stupid.”

Moreover, Gohmert’s views on the role of Christian religion in American political life tend decidedly toward the Dominionist. For instance, he has argued that the famous “wall of separation” between Church and State was intended by the Founding Fathers to be “a one-way wall, where the state would not dictate to the church, but the church would certainly play a role in the state.” In an op-ed entitled “Christians and Government” published online in 2010 in the conservative weekly Human Events, Gohmert decried Christian refusal to participate in governance by serving on juries or being active in politics via voting and even running for office, writing:

“YOU are the government! You are God’s minister to punish evil and reward good conduct. But, too many Christians have refused the figurative ‘sword’ or the power that in this great country, this little experiment in democracy as a republic, is supposed to be held by YOU. You are the one God has ordained to run the country, but you haven’t even participated.”

Given the title to the piece, the intended referent of the repeated YOU, in all-caps in the original, can only be Christians, and, as we’ve seen, for Gohmert the name of “Christian” can only apply to those who believe as he does. Of course, Gohmert’s clarion call seems to completely ignore the fact that from 1961 to 2017, the percentage of self-identified Christians in Congress has barely budged, from 95% down to a still whopping 91%. These numbers clearly fail to reflect Gohmert’s chiding “you haven’t even participated,” nor do they square with the claim the congressman has taken to making of late that, had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election, Gohmert would find himself in jail for his “Christian beliefs” within just four years’ time.

The main issue on display in these testy encounters between public representatives of modern conservative Christianity and both Christians and non-Christians who believe differently from them isn’t quite, as Megan Kennedy has characterized it, that religious pluralism is illusory. Rather, the problem is the fact that the very real religious pluralism inherent and more alive than ever before in American society has been allowed to be eclipsed in the view of those on the self-described “Religious Right”—and, because of them, in much of the public eye as well!—by a false monolithic view of religious unity and uniformity in America.

The roots of the apparent privilege assumed by folks like Carlson and Gohmert lie in a flawed perception of the unifying role of a particular, over-simplified brand of Christianity in American public and political life. Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse traced the development of this bland but vocal and politically active monolithic Christianity in the modern era in his 2015 book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. In Kruse’s view, this monumental construction of a public Christianity began in the 1930s with an attempt by corporate marketers to insinuate themselves and their libertarian economic and business agenda into religious life, where their views could take root and flourish like never before. From these humble origins, the movement quickly bore concrete fruit during the 1950s when the phrase “Under God” was added to the previously entirely secular Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was declared as the first official motto of the United States, supplanting the earlier informal motto and open celebration of diversity “E Pluribus Unum” or “From Many, One.” And even though conservative New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat decried the unholy union of Christian belief with nationalist-leaning politics as heresy in his 2012 book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, the idea of a political public Christianity has continued to grow in conservative Christian circles. Douthat highlights the role of evangelicals in the process of winnowing a historically multifarious Christianity down to a kind of simplified Christian monoculture of rigid insistence on certain key doctrinal—and political!—elements while outright ignoring more complex and nuanced spiritual matters. Douthat dwells in his discussion on the influence of Carl Henry, who downplayed denominational differences among Christian groups in favor of the large umbrella organizations he founded like the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the magazine Christianity Today; of Francis Schaeffer, who urged Christians to unite around moral issues like abortion and fight for them with “co-belligerency” in the political arena; and of Billy Graham, who preached a “stripped-down Gospel,” emphasizing core tenets of fundamentalist belief in Jesus while eschewing more sectarian and separatist concerns.

This essentialized, public Christianity has been able to grow so large as to eclipse religious diversity in America not only because of the political clout its espousers have managed to wield, but also because its proponents have recruited historical revisionism in an effort to give the false impression that American religious life has always been characterized by an essential unity of belief and practice, even from the very beginnings of the nation. The idea of a large, unifying public Christianity has received significant underwriting from a hagiographical approach to episodes in U.S. history that bear on the place of religion in public life. This approach can be seen most clearly in the contemporary work of far-right autodidact “historians” David Barton and William “Bill” Federer, much of whose work presents decontextualized quotations and simplified narratives cherry-picked from the ample textual resources covering the Revolutionary Period and early America and presented in such a way as to obfuscate any role played by diversity, pluralism, or dissent. Yet Barton and Federer represent merely the most modern and full-fledged expressions of this hagiographical tendency in U.S. religious historiography. The roots of the approach run much deeper and father back in twentieth and nineteenth century American history. In the next two parts of this series, we’ll trace those roots as they relate to two incidents in U.S. history that bear directly on the issue of religious unity and diversity and the place of public prayer in American life.

To continue directly to Part II of this series, click here.

One thought on “The illusion of Christian unity and dominance in the U.S.: American religious pluralism is real

  1. Pingback: Religious pluralism versus religious unity in America: Which is real and which an illusion? – The Devil's Fane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s