This week I finished Andrew Seidel’s book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. As is my custom, that means it’s time for a book review! I’m particularly excited about this one, because The Founding Myth is one of the few books that I have rated as five stars on Goodreads—and it’s one the most highly rated books on my whole shelf!
Even if you haven’t read this book, the name might be somewhat familiar to you for a disturbing reason. In October 2019, an unusually heinous pastor was sent a personally signed copy of The Founding Myth from Seidel himself, only to record himself burning the book with a blowtorch. Later on, the Christian nationalist challenged Seidel to a debate, to which Seidel agreed on the terms that his opponent read The Founding Myth first. As far as I know, Seidel never heard back.
I would contend that this debacle did Seidel and the rest of us a net good. Sure, it brought some of the pastor’s Christian nationalist followers out of the woodwork as they followed suit in insulting the book without having read it, but I would bet that sales of the book skyrocketed when this went viral. Case in point, that’s when I got it and decided that it must be one of my next reads. If a Christian nationalist pastor is setting a book on fire, it must be interesting at the very least.
The Founding Myth was everything I thought it would be. In addition to bringing to light excellent, simple, and matter-of-fact arguments, it was also eloquently written despite being Seidel’s first full book.
Notwithstanding what our pyromaniacal pastor friend might think, the book is a lot more than “the myth that the founding fathers were not Christian whatsoever.” I suppose that this would make sense to assume if you just took the words “founding” and “myth” from the title and threw out all the rest of them. (Kind of like the person who read only the headline and bullet points of this blog post and proceeded to insult it on Reddit.) Regardless, the religion of the founding fathers is discussed only in Chapter One of Part One of the book, and it’s tellingly titled, “Interesting and Irrelevant, the Religion of the Founders.” They weren’t Christian, but I’ll let you read the book to get the details on their unusual attitudes and beliefs toward religion.
The other 283 pages are organized as follows:
Part One: The Founders, Independence, and the Colonies
Part Two: United States v. The Bible
Part Three: The Ten Commandments v. The Constitution
Part Four: American Verbiage
The four parts are all relevant to the core argument, that Christian nationalism is un-American, but they’re different enough that you don’t get tired of reading.
Part One, like the rest of the book, and as the title promises, debunks a number of widely believed myths, such as that George Washington prayed at Valley Forge and said he couldn’t tell a lie about a cherry tree. Of course, even if the first US president did pray one time before he was president, that doesn’t make America a Christian nation. Seidel emphasizes this throughout the book: even if these myths were true, they still wouldn’t change our country’s secularism. But most of them aren’t true to begin with, so it’s a baseless syllogism on more than one front.
A lot of times when people are discussing the religious beliefs of the founders, they tend to bend or cherry-pick (ha!) the facts that would support their position. Going into The Founding Myth, I kept in mind that the author was an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and would probably have an anti-religious bias.
But Seidel doesn’t talk just to hear the sound of his own voice. Every page in this book is littered with in-text citations leading to a 32-page list of references that would be best read with a magnifying glass. What’s more, in the introduction, he makes it clear that “Wherever possible for the founding era, citations are to original sources. If no original source could be found, the point cannot be found in this book.”
Admittedly, a lot of Seidel’s points and language were anti-religious, but it’s hard not to be when you’re really looking at the message and values of the Christian (or Judeo-Christian, in the case of the Old Testament) bible. It must have been especially difficult to digest when pitting the bible side-by-side with the American values laid out in the Constitution, which is exactly what Seidel did in Parts Two and Three.
In Part Two, Seidel juxtaposes Yahweh’s and the bible’s most salient values directly against those that are the foundation of our country. He didn’t really have to do any stretching whatsoever to claim that biblical obedience is antithetical to American freedom, and the act of sending someone to burn and suffer in hell for all eternity is the most cruel and unusual punishment imaginable. If Yahweh had a Bingo card of breaking the Bill of Rights, he’d get Bingo faster than you could say “freedom”.
Similarly, Seidel spends Part Three going painstakingly through each of the bible’s Ten Commandments (before which, he appropriately asks, “Which Ten?”). This is when the book started to feel less about America and more about why Christianity is fundamentally immoral and at times repulsive. It honestly was reminiscent of my time reading Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is Not Great, but that was a welcome reminder of just how dangerous religion can get when it goes unchecked. Tellingly, some of the only biblical values that America actually did inherent were slavery and sexism, the effects of which we have been trying to lessen since the country began.
If you’re like me, then in reading these two parts, you might find yourself thinking, “Okay, no one expected you to hold God up to the Eighth Amendment or try to put together the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights. No one was seriously trying to fit these all together. They’re just saying that America is a Christian nation.” Sure, every Christian would probably define differently what it means to be a Christian, but if you’re trying to use these billions of interpretations to mean something coherent, you’d never get anywhere. The idea of “being Christian” wouldn’t mean anything.
So Seidel turned to the “Judeo-Christian” bible. And I would bet that most Christian nationalists probably haven’t read it (or the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence…). Because if you actually read any of these documents, you would see that just saying willy-nilly that “America was founded on biblical principles” is entirely contradictory. This grossly common phrase is automatically inviting someone to do something so seemingly off as holding Yahweh to the Eighth Commandment and declaring him unconstitutional. Seidel just happened to be that someone, and the strangeness of comparing the Constitution with the bible goes to show how far they should be kept away from each other.
I still feel conflicted sometimes about going to family get-togethers with the latest “atheist book” that I’m reading. But The Founding Myth was different—I was prepared to show it to anyone who would look and to argue with anyone who said that America was a Christian nation. Some things, like the existence of God, can be debated and don’t need to be discussed unendingly with people who won’t change their minds. But the freedom of non-Christian Americans is non-negotiable, no matter which religion you believe or practice. And it’s even worse that the entire Christian nationalist narrative is based on an outright myth.