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Friday, March 20, 2009

Christian America: The Roots of an Imagined Community

***The Following is the first five pages of my thesis on the Christian Nation movement as an imagined community.***

The December, 2008 grand opening of the five-hundred-eighty –thousand square-foot, six hundred million-dollar Capitol Visitor’s Center in Washington D.C. was the culmination of an almost forty-year project to provide tourists with an all-encompassing understanding of America’s proud founding heritage. The building’s construction, which has been hailed by renowned architects across the globe, crates an atmosphere of awe and amazement as guests witness first hand how the technologies of the twenty-first century are able to effectively resurrect America’s proud history, which is presented as “an intellectual and emotional encounter comprised of highly personal moments that will inform, involve and inspire those who come to see the U.S. Capitol.” [1]

Yet despite its obvious beauty and extravagance, not everyone has been pleased with the new Visitor Center. Congressional Representative Randy Forbes, in conjunction with Christian-based organizations like Wallbuilders, WorldNet Daily and the American Christian History Institute have criticized the new D.C. center for its negligence in referencing America’s “Christian heritage.” As Representative Forbes stated:

Our Concern is not with the Capitol Visitor Center, but with [an] increasing
pattern of attempts to remove references to our religious heritage from our
nation’s capitol…The Capitol Visitor Center is just one example of the efforts
to censor God, faith and religion from our historical buildings and
ceremonies…Historical buildings like the Capitol Visitor Center are there to
tell the story of our nation. When religious history is removed from these
displays, the American public is not able to observe an accurate depiction of
our nation’s story. We owe it to those who have gone before us and to our future
generations to provide a complete representation of our nation’s heritage. We
will continue to fight until this is achieved in the Capitol Visitor Center

And while his comments helped to trigger a quasi-custody battle over the type of history to be presented at the Capitol Visitor Center, Representative Forbes is far from alone in his sentiments. Over the past couple of decades, American society has witnessed a literal upheaval over the “founding legacy” of this country. Politicians, ministers and even some historians from all walks of life have endeavored to “save” America’s “lost” Christian heritage from the hands of those who they believe seek to remove God from the halls of government and the chronicles of American history. As historian Frank Lambert put it:

During the last two decades of the twentieth century and
continuing into the twenty-first, Americans have engaged in a culture war that
informs the country’s discourse in the new millennium. One side of the debate
are those who insist that America has been since its conception a “Christian
Nation,” and that somewhere along the way, as such it has lost its bearings.
They blame “liberals” for not only turning their backs on the country’s
religious heritage but openly attacking those who embrace “traditional”
Christian values.

It is this “Christian Nation” debate, which has successfully woven religion, politics, and history into a fabric of quasi-nationalism that has spawned a large grass roots movement to “resurrect” America’s lost heritage. Originally conceived out of the surge of Christian Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, this “Christian Nation” movement has evolved to encompass the majority of devout American Evangelicals, who, as a result of their religious and political devotion, have used the “Christian America” argument to create a new form of American Nationalism, or as Benedict Anderson would call it, an imagined community.

I. Roots of the Imagined Community

To effectively understand the “Christian Nation” phenomenon as being a nationalistic movement, it is important to recognize some of the key elements of nationalism itself. In his highly acclaimed book, Imagined Communities, Professor Benedict Anderson defines nationalism as:

an imagined political community -- and imagined as both
inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because members of even the
smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even
hear of them, yet in the minds of each lies the image of their communion...it is
limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living
human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other
nations...Finally it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the
actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is
always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is the
fraternity that makes it possible.

In addition, the imagined community sees itself as a uniquely sovereign entity, free to determine its own fate as determined by its own set of rules. In essence, the imagined community becomes a collective body united by a common intangible creed, which is exalted by the masses to be an infinite and abiding truth.

When looking at the “Christian Nation” movement on the surface, it may seem far too vague to be considered an imagined community. After all, a mere hope or belief in the providential nature of one’s country hardly substantiates any claims of it being an imagined community. However, a more detailed analysis reveals the fact that the rise of Christian conservatism spawned a highly organized and thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement (predominantly of Evangelical Christians), which is indeed interested in rewriting history to fit its own agenda. In his popular work on fundamentalism in America, historian George Mitchell explains how the Christian culture evolved from a “soul-saving” enterprise into a vast and influential political machine. He writes:

The most striking feature of fundamentalism since the
1970s that distinguishes it from its forbearers is its deep involvement in
mainstream national politics. This point must be stated carefully.
Fundamentalism has always had political implications. One of the several
dynamics shaping early fundamentalists was a sense of alarm over the demise of
Christian culture…The question to be addressed then is: How did a soul- saving
revivalistic movement that mostly steered clear of direct political involvement
emerge at the end of the twentieth century as known especially for its political
stances and influences?

It is to the 1960s and 1970s that we must look to witness the birth and infancy of the Christian Nation movement, and its eventual evolution into an imagined community. As Marsden points out above, the emergence of Christian conservatism as a legitimate political force, allowed Evangelical Christian leaders to immerse themselves in the turbulent waters of American politics. As one prominent evangelical leader put it, “if ever there was a time when God needed a job done, it was during the 60s and 70s. The very future of our nation was at stake.” [6] With the passage of several landmark Supreme Court cases restricting religious ceremonies in public schools, Civil Rights laws to blacks, and the right of a woman to choose an abortion, conservative Christians experienced a literal crises of conscience, which pitted religious and patriotic loyalties against each other. [7]

In an effort to remedy the apparent dichotomy of religious and national duties, Evangelical leaders attacked what they saw as a blatant disregard for God’s laws. By casting the United States in a Sodom & Gomorrah-like role, Christian conservatives branded their dissent as the truest and holiest form of patriotism. As a result, the line between church and state became further obscured, forcing religious leaders to redefine the role of religion in America. D. James Kennedy, a prominent Evangelical leader and passionate advocate for the “Christian America” movement, illustrated just how convoluted the church/state relationship had become for Evangelical Christians when he wrote, “The great misunderstanding of ‘the separation of church and state’ is closer in spirit and letter of the law to the old Soviet Union than it is to the spirit, letter of the law, and actions of the founders of this country.” [8] By suggesting that religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity, was a fundamental building block of American government and society, Evangelical leaders had taken their first “baby steps” towards establishing an imagined Christian community for America. Eliminating the annoying prerequisite separation of church and state essentially removed the “shackles” of religious restraint on American politics. The “Christian Nation,” though still volatile in its infancy, was born.

[1] Capitol Visitor Center Website.

[2] WorldNet Daily: Christian Heritage a No-Show at Capitol Visitor Center.

[3] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 5.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006) 6.

[5] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 232.

[6] Jerry Falwell, Strength For the Journey: An Autobiography of Jerry Falwell (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 362.

[7] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 1080-1082.

[8] D. James Kennedy, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 5.

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