The Christian Heart of American Exceptionalism

Wall Street Journal, by William A. Galston, Dec. 30, 2014

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This is all the more remarkable because our Founders drafted a deliberately secular constitution. In 20 quietly revolutionary words, Article VI declares that “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Consistent with that prohibition, newly elected officials—from the president on down—may choose either to “swear” (that is, to take a religious oath) or simply to “affirm” their loyalty to the Constitution.

In 1789, this secular national constitution perched uneasily atop a Christian population residing in states the majority of which had established an official religion. These establishments have disappeared. But despite the enormous growth in the nation’s diversity over the past 225 years, Christian conviction remains pervasive.

If you doubt this, take a look at the survey the Pew Research Center released without much fanfare two weeks ago. Among its principal findings: 73% of U.S. adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 81%, that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger; 75%, that wise men guided by a star brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and 74%, that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Fully 65% of Americans believe all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while only 14% believe none of them.

Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.

What about the growth of secular thought in young Americans? As the Pew report dryly notes, there “is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.” That’s an understatement. Seventy percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 69% that an angel announced his birth; 80% that he was laid in a manger; and 74% that the wise men made their gift-laden trek.

To be sure, the most-educated Americans are less likely to profess belief in the Christmas story. But even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53% affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, with comparable or larger majorities for the story’s other elements.

These public beliefs have constitutional consequences. When it comes to church and state, many Americans are soft rather than strict separationists. When asked whether religious symbols like Christian nativity scenes should be permitted on government property, 44% said yes, whether or not the symbols of other religions are present. An additional 28% said that Christian symbols would be acceptable only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths. Only 20% took the position that no religious symbols should be allowed.

Democrats should pay careful attention to these findings. In reaction to the excesses of the religious right in recent decades, many secularists and strict separationists took refuge in the Democratic Party. Their voices are important. But if the party takes its bearings only from their concerns, it risks serious misjudgment.

Many Americans believe that religion has a legitimate if limited role in public life—including politics. Many Americans believe that it is wrong—not always, but usually—for laws and regulations to coerce individuals contrary to their conscientious beliefs. As Democrats pursue new policies in areas from health care to equal rights, they should work hard to minimize their intrusion on these convictions.

This will not be easy. According to the Public Religion Research Institute 2014 American Values Survey, the country is split down the middle. Forty-six percent of Americans are more worried about “the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion” than they are about “religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others,” while 46% of Americans feel the reverse. Each group offers strong arguments and poignant anecdotes. A political party that wants to build a durable majority should listen carefully to both sides and seek policies that acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.

In this era of hyperpolarized politics, we are tempted to believe that everything right is found in our preferred party—and everything wrong in the other. It would improve the content of our policies as well as the tone of our politics to recognize that many issues are not like that. The relationship between religion and public life would be a good place to start.


One response

  1. Senator_Blutarsky

    Interesting analysis of this so-called “exceptionalism”.

    Link contains many imbedded links and photos-

    The Bible instructs us that a dog will inevitably return to his vomit, and a sow will eventually resume wallowing in the mire. In similar fashion, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association cannot free himself from the habit of making incomprehensibly foolish and brazenly bigoted statements in defense of the quasi-genocidal dispossession of the American Indians.

    “The native American tribes at the time of the European settlement and founding of the United States were, virtually without exception, steeped in the basest forms of superstition, had been guilty of savagery in warfare for hundreds of years, and practiced the most debased forms of sexuality,” Fischer asserted in a February 2011 column. He insists that “the superstition, savagery and sexual immorality of native Americans” left them “morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil” – which is now properly the possession of Euro-Americans by right of “conquest.”

    Since “the Europeans proved superior in battle, taking possession of contested lands through right of conquest,” purchasing Indian lands on mutually beneficial terms was desirable, but not necessary. Violent conquest was a form of redemption, Fisher maintains, given the irremediable wickedness of the red-skinned heathens who populated North America and the virtuousness of the European settlers who were brought here to “Christianize” the indigenous population.

    Although it may seem as if the AFA exists for the sole purpose of keeping left-wing outrage mills well-supplied, the group does have a substantial national audience. Fischer, who served a short stint as chaplain to the Idaho State Senate, joined the group in 2009 as a Director of Issues Analysis. He is also a columnist and host of its national radio program “Focal Point.”

    Most of Fischer’s commentary is an exercise in what might be called co-dependent pandering: He clearly thrives on the outrage of the progressive Left, which in turn revels in the outrage that he provides. It sometimes seems as if Fischer is playing a satirical character, much as comedian Stephen Colbert played a dim-witted right-wing blatherskite of the same name.

    In any case, Fischer’s blithe endorsement of 19th century ethnic cleansing left many readers wondering if the author had just been extracted from a glacier. This prompted an unsuccessful effort by the AFA to purge the essay from the Web.

    During the past four years, however, this theme has repeatedly bobbed to the surface during Fischer’s monologues on his AFA-sponsored radio program. The claim that Euro-Americans have been divinely appointed to have dominion over dusky “savages” appears to be a key pillar of his worldview.

    “Many of the tribal reservations today are still mired in poverty and alcoholism because many Native Americans still to this day continue to cling to the darkness of indigenous superstition instead of coming into the light of Christianity and assimilating into Christian culture,” Fischer maintains. He singled out for specific condemnation Indian parents who didn’t encourage their children to become part of “mainstream” American culture, choosing instead to let them languish in “dependency, poverty, and sterility.”

    Proudly and expansively ignorant of 19th Century U.S. history, Fischer either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, that asserting “sovereign control” over the Indians required the systematic destruction of family cohesion in order to make them dependent on the State. Nor does he seem to recognize the fact that the murderous hypocrisy exhibited by the “Christian” conquerors alienated Indians from the faith – including more than a few who had initially received the gospel with gratitude.

    Following the resounding victory at the Battle of Greasy Grass – or what the losers called Little Bighorn – the vengeful Regime in Washington escalated its campaign to annihilate the Plains Indians. Sitting Bull, perhaps the most celebrated of the Lakota chiefs, led his band to relative freedom in Canada in the hope of preserving their cultural and family life. Owing to Washington’s intimidation tactics, the Canadian government assigned Sitting Bull’s people a sterile and inhospitable tract of land.

    Rather than watching his people starve, Sitting Bull led them back to the U.S. in July 1881. After being imprisoned without cause at Fort Randall, Sitting Bull was dragged in front of Senator John Logan to endure a demeaning lecture on the supposed virtues of servility.

    “You are not a great chief of this country,” pontificated the Illinois Republican, an exemplar of the “Christian” superiority extolled by Fischer. “You have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all that you have and are today is because of the government…. The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.”

    Decades earlier, Sitting Bull had warned his fellow chiefs that the U.S. Government’s plan to “civilize” them would entail the annihilation of any Indians who comported themselves as free people. The dishonesty and violence exhibited by the Regime that conquered Sitting Bull’s people left him permanently alienated from Christianity, but he did send his children to be educated at a Christian school.

    In 1890, two weeks before the Seventh Cavalry avenged its defeat at the Battle of Greasy Grass by butchering hundreds of disarmed Sioux,Sitting Bull was murdered by tribal police officers whose role in Indian life was akin to that of the Janissaries in regimenting Turkey’s conquered Christian population under Ottoman Muslim rule.

    Sitting Bull had been arrested because of concerns that the widely respected shaman would join the Ghost Dance movement. This was a lethal pre-emptive strike by the BIA to prevent the chief from exercising his freedom of religion. Fischer, who is on record claiming that the First Amendment does not protect non-Christian religious beliefs, would probably regard the seizure of Sitting Bull as necessary to discourage “superstition,” and his violent death an appropriate punishment for resisting arrest.

    After Sitting Bull’s assassination, Dr. Charles Eastman pointed out, the Regime, acting through corrupt appointees – many of whom affected clerical titles – “robbed the Indians, then bullied them, and finally in a panic called for troops to suppress them” whenever the slightest tremor of resistance appeared. Many of those bureaucrats affected clerical titles, and were the type of pharisaical functionaries who couldn’t look upon vice with the smallest degree of allowance – but could countenance industrialized slaughter as an exercise of righteous dominion.

    The December 29, 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, which could properly be called the American Babi Yar, closed the parenthesis on more than a century of perfidy, plunder, and bloodshed carried out in the name of “civilizing” the American Indians.

    Summarizing the views of Bryan Fischer’s spiritual forebears, historian Roy Harvey Pearce points out that once the Indian had been dismissed as a subhuman savage, his very right to life was subject to the whim of his conqueror: “Save him, and you save one of Satan’s victims; destroy him, and you destroy one of Satan’s partisans.” In any case, the moral blame for the bloody deed couldn’t be assigned to those who were merely carrying out a divine commission.

    Ironically, one of the first voices raised in defense of the property rights of the Indians, and to condemn efforts to dispossess them, was that of Henry Knox, the U.S. Government’s first Secretary of War.

    “The Indians, being prior occupiers, possess the right to the soil,” declared Knox in 1789. “It cannot be taken away from them unless by their free consent. To dispossess them in any other principle would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature and of that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation.”

    Less than a generation later, troops commanded by Andrew Jackson, Washington’s future successor, annihilated an Indian village in Tallushatchee, Alabama, in retaliation for a Creek attack on a military installation called Ft. Mims. Under the influence of the revanchist “Red Sticks” movement, the Creeks assaulted the military outpost in the hope of turning back settlers who were encroaching on their territory. (In doing so, incidentally, they also emancipated a relatively large population of black slaves.)

    The siege of Ft. Mims was brutal. Some of the warriors killed indiscriminately. Others tried to distinguish between military personnel and non-combatants. One Creek warrior named Sanota –perhaps motivated by the desire to repay an earlier act of kindness — placed his life at considerable risk to protect Vicey Cornells and seven of her children, whom he fed and cared for until he could take them to a white settlement. According to

    No similar scruples were displayed by Jackson and his men in their retaliatory strike in Tallushatchee. The village, which had no fortifications, was targeted because of its vulnerability.

    Only handful of men in the encampment had weapons. They interposed themselves in defense of the women and children, fighting with foredoomed valor and dying where they stood with their faces to an enemy that had surrendered itself to demonic bloodlust.

    After the defenders had been killed, historian Gloria Jahoda recounted in her 1975 book The Trail of Tears, the attackers continued the siege, gunning down “women and children until the ground ran vermilion.”

    This still wasn’t sufficient to sate the appetite for vengeance. A scout discovered that 45 Creeks – including women and children – had concealed themselves in a cabin. As if anticipating the FBI-inflicted slaughter at Waco some 180 years later, Jackson ordered his men to set fire to the pathetic dwelling and surround it to prevent the victims from escaping.

    For what may have been hours, the air was clotted with the acrid smell of burning human flesh and rent with the anguished shrieks of tortured people crying out to the Creator for deliverance.

    On the following day, Jackson’s troops discovered a root cellar in the basement of the charred cabin. The assailants, who had endured a lengthy forced march to reach the village, were famished. They gorged themselves on potatoes that had been roasted in the fatty runoff from the previous day’s holocaust.

    If Bryan Fischer had served as chaplain to Jackson’s saintly band of butchers, he most likely would have said grace over that cannibalistic meal, thanking God for the “victory” and asking His benediction on further righteous undertakings of its kind.

    Over the next several days, Jackson’s Berserkers – whose ranks included a disgusted and horrified Tennessee frontiersman named Davy Crockett – exercised the “right of conquest” without stint or limit, putting scores of houses to the torch and killing hundreds of helpless people. Overmatched and desperate, the Creek leader, Chief Red Eagle, offered himself as a ransom for the women and children who had been driven into the wilderness and faced death in a mop-up operation.

    Like many prominent Indian leaders in the region, Red Eagle had European ancestry. Born William Weatherford, Red Eagle’s father was an American settler in Georgia, his mother a woman of mixed Scottish/French/Creek ancestry. His brother, John Weatherford, followed the “righteous” Euro-American path. Red Eagle may not have read the Bible, but his self-sacrificing gesture displayed courage, compassion, and charity that were entirely foreign to the nominally Christian men who had murdered hundreds of his people.

    Andrew Jackson never pretended to be a man of God. John Chivington, who presided over the November 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, Colorado, was an ordained Methodist minister. Under his command, more than 150 Cheyenne Indians – again, most of them women and children – were annihilated by troops who gave free rein to every imaginable debased impulse.

    As with the assault on Tallushatchee, the American troops carefully selected an outpost that was weak and poorly defended. Chief Black Kettle, leader of this small band, was a known peacemaker who – like many others of similar convictions – appeared to be utterly fearless.

    On one occasion, as Cheyenne warriors faced off against American troops, Black Kettle threw down his weapons and rode between the opposing forces, crying out that he would be the first to fall if either side broke the truce. It is a testimony to the respect Black Kettle had earned from both sides that neither was willing to risk killing him, and the antagonists stepped back from the brink.

    On the morning that Chivington’s raiders appeared outside the camp, Black Kettle raised the U.S. flag provided to him by Army commanders who promised to protect his band during their winter encampment.

    Neither the flag nor the promises it represented were honored by Chivington and his Colorado Volunteers. The ensuing slaughter, wrote Hampton Sides in Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, “is now widely regarded as the worst atrocity committed in all the Indian wars.”At the time, however, Chivington and his men were embraced as heroes by the fine “Christian” people of Denver:“Chivington returned to Denver in triumph. At a theater his men paraded their war trophies before the cheering crowds: Scalps, fingers, tobacco pouches made from scrotums, purses of stretched pudenda hacked from Cheyenne women. The Denver newspapers praised the Colorado Volunteers for their glorious victory.”

    “Posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter,” boasted Chivington. “I have eclipsed Kit Carson.”

    Carson, who fought Indian warriors in actual military engagements before becoming thoroughly disillusioned with Manifest Destiny, had nothing but frigid contempt for “that dirty dog Chivington and his dirty hounds … up at Sand Creek.”

    “His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children,” Carson complained in a letter to Army Inspector Col. James Rusling. “You call such soldiers Christians…? And Indians savages? What do you suppose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile Redskin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ‘em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew bead on a squaw or a papoose, and I despise the man who would. I’ve seen as much of ‘em as any man livin’, and I can’t help but pity ‘em, right or wrong. They once owned this country…. But now they own next door to nothing, and will soon be gone.”

    In 1869, as Generals Sherman and Sheridan busied themselves carrying out what the former brazenly called the “final solution to the Indian problem,” a Presidential Commission on Indian Affairs published a report that contained a bracingly candid indictment of the Regime’s conduct:

    “The history of the Government connections with the Indians is a shameful record of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises. The history of the border white man’s connection with the Indians is a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery, and wrongs committed by the former, as the rule, and occasional savage outbreaks and unspeakably barbarous deeds of retaliation by the latter, as the exception. Taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect them has ever been ready to sustain the aggressor. In our Indian wars, almost without exception, the first aggressions have been made by the white man.” (Emphasis added.)

    As the report acknowledged, we shouldn’t fall prey to the Rousseauist delusion that the Indians were living in prelapsarian innocence and harmony with nature. Horrible things were done both to and by various Indian tribes. But as the report also documented, this reflected the fact that then, as now, there were fortunes to be made by cultivating and exploiting a terrorist threat.The Presidential Commission recognized the existence of “a large class of professedly reputable men who use every means in their power to bring on Indian wars for the sake of the profit to be realized from the presence of troops and the expenditure of Government funds in their midst. They proclaim death to the Indians at all times in words and publications, making no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. They irate [sic] the lowest class of men to the perpetration of the darkest deeds against their victims, and as judges and jurymen shield them from the justice due to their crimes. Every crime committed by a white man against an Indian is concealed or palliated. Every offense committed by an Indian against a white man is borne on the wings of the post or the telegraph to the remotest corner of the land, clothed with all the horrors which the reality or the imagination can throw around it.”

    These official admissions, remember, came in 1869. Over the next two decades the Regime would wage unremitting warfare against the Indians –reneging on scores of treaties, confiscating land as elite interests dictated, slaughtering the buffalo to reduce the Plains Indians to starvation, and mounting punitive expeditions that gave no quarter to the defenseless.

    “They were not subjects of fascism who clubbed to death infants in the arms of Indian mothers,” writes historian John Upton Terrell in his study Land Grab. “They were not Nazis who shot running Indian children to demonstrate their prowess as marksmen. It was not a dictatorship which condoned the illegal appropriation of territory awarded to Indians by solemn treaty for `as long as the waters run and the sun rises.’ It was not … a fuhrer or a duce who herded [Indians] into prison camps and let them die of malnutrition, cold and disease…. The bugle calls of American history proclaim not only noble victories and morally justified accomplishments. They proclaim, as well, base deeds and infamous triumphs.”

    Once Manifest Destiny ran out of room, Washington turned its gaze abroad in search of new populations of “savages” to Christianize – and new lands over which to exercise “sovereign control.”

    Among the first populations to be blessed by Washington’s armed benevolence were the Hawaiians, who had already been infiltrated by agents of politically favored corporate interests. In 1887, a junta of sugar plantation owners, acting with the full support of Washington, imposed the notorious “Bayonet Constitution” on what had been an independent, constitutionally limited Christian monarchy.

    The usurpers’ charter “gave all Americans and Europeans, even non-citizens, the right to vote” while denying it to the majority population of Asian laborers, recounts historian Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.

    Attorney Lorrin Thurston, who concocted the Bayonet Constitution, was an agent of the cabal that sought to steal the Islands on behalf of corporatist interests. Thurston appointed himself the Hawaiian government’s interior minister, in which capacity he arranged the coup of January 1893 that overthrew the legitimate monarch, Queen Lilioukalani.

    As was the case with many of the American Indian leaders who saw solemn treaties abrogated and their people reduced to servitude, Lilioukalani was not an adherent of native superstitions; she was Christian believer who was educated in missionary schools. As the U.S. government consummated the coup by taking control of Pearl Harbor, the Queen described the event as “a day of infamy in Hawaiian history.”

    The government that stole Hawaii would later plagiarize the Queen’s lament.

    Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. government announced its intention to “uplift and Christianize” the Filipinos, many of whom were Roman Catholics. In a speech defending this venture in murderous evangelism, Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota assured Filipinos that “We come as ministering angels, not as despots.”

    After independence-seeking Filipino partisans displayed their ingratitude toward their “liberators,” American military commanders appointed

    Colonel Jacob Smith, a decorated veteran of Wounded Knee, to bring his distinctive brand of enlightenment to the archipelago.

    “I want no prisoners,” Smith ordered his troops as they descended on one village. “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me.” He commanded his troops to obliterate the village, kill everyone over the age of ten, and reduce the surrounding countryside into “a howling wilderness.”

    Smith was court-martialed after the war – not for mass murder of civilians, mind you, but for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” His sentence was to be “admonished by the reviewing authority” – that is, to receive a brief lecture in the courtroom.

    Elsewhere in the Philippines, troops commanded by General Frederick Funston dragged people indiscriminately from their homes to be detained, tortured, and executed. In their search for guerrilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo, Funston’s men made extensive use of the same interrogation tactic used decades later by the Imperial Japanese: The “water cure,” now more commonly called “waterboarding” or, as Sarah Palin christened the practice, “terrorist baptisms.”

    During a post-war speaking tour, Funston boasted of his exploits, which included torturing countless Filipinos, committing dozens of summary executions, and ordering numerous massacres of civilians. Rather than being prosecuted for war crimes, Funston was given the Medal of Honor. Suffused with the impudence impunity brings, Funston “suggested that anti-war protestors be dragged out of their homes and lynched,” observes historian William Loren Katz.

    Then, as now, there was no shortage of Christian clerics who commended atrocities like those wrought by Funston and Smith as heroic deeds in a war against a demonic enemy. One man of the cloth who distinguished himself as a defender of torture was Reverend Homer Stuntz, who published a monograph entitled “The `Water Cure’ from a Missionary Point of View.”

    Fischer, who is nothing if not predictable, found Palin’s sadistic aside about waterboarding to be charming and witty. Since people identified as enemies of the Regime have no rights, Fischer maintains, torturing them is both necessary and proper, if only for ritualistic reasons.

    As a commentator, Fischer divides most of his time between itemizing the sexual transgressions of non-believers and promoting open-ended war against the Islamic world.

    Like altogether too many people who make themselves conspicuous by their piety, he seems more eager to send people to hell than to teach them how to get to heaven – and his support for torture suggests an indecent desire to get on with the gratifying business of eternal torment.

    Whatever Fischer’s profession of faith and doctrinal views, the religion he promotes and practices is the worship of the American Imperium. This is a heresy far deadlier than any of the indigenous forms of superstition it suppressed.

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