by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
The “original birther conspiracy” is fueled by Christians intent on writing the history of America being born as a Christian nation. This original birtherism involves a recasting of the founding of America in an evangelical straitjacket of misinformation and lies. Here is the naked defense of colonization, nationalism, and nativism by a people who should know better. A pure America, an America chosen and founded by God, an America that has earned all her blessings, an America that is a “city on a hill,” a (white) American people who have inherited the Promised Land and have created a new Eden: this fantasy dominates the evangelical landscape.
The stifling innocence and naivete of evangelicals can be stunning to observe. As Rowan Williams has observed, here is a clinging to this mythological America “that shows itself in the longing to be utterly sure of our rightness.” A cursory look at the “original birther conspiracy” demonstrates the depth and width of this evangelical attempt to rewrite the history of our nation.
The Beginnings of the Birther Story
Steven Keith Green outlines the early beginnings of the “original birther conspiracy” in Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. In an email, I asked Green if there was one founding father of the birther conspiracy. He responded:
The best that I could tell from my research is that there was no one, leading nineteenth-century proponent for the idea of America’s Christian nationhood. Rather, there were a bunch of ministers, commentators, and jurists who all built on each other.
To give but one example, Lyman Beecher made a host of Christian America claims in sermons and pamphlets. As he proclaimed in A Plea for the West (1835):
There is not a nation upon earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world.
The African American prophetic tradition tells a very different story. As Jeremiah Wright satirically preached in his 2003 sermon, “God and Governments”:
Let me tell you something; we believe in this country, and we teach our children that God sent us to this Promised Land. He sent us to take this country from the Arrowak, the Susquehanna, the Apache, the Comanche, the Cherokee, the Seminole, the Choctaw, the Hopi and the Arapaho. We confuse Government and God. We believe God sanctioned the rape and robbery of an entire continent. We believe God ordained African slavery. We believe God makes Europeans superior to Africans and superior to everybody else too.
Then Wright brings down the hammer on evangelical birtherism: “God does not change! God was against slavery yesterday, and God who does not change is still against slavery today.”
The 1970’s: Peter Marshall and D. James Kennedy
Peter Marshall and David Manuel are the authors of The Light and the Glory, a book that sold almost a million copies, and that became the primary source for evangelical homeschooling history curriculum. Among the more blatant fictions in this book:
- America is in a covenant with God.
- Columbus was directed by God.
- God made the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill.”
- God led George Washington’s army to victory over the British in the American Revolution.
In writing this work of historical fiction Marshall ignored mountains of historical evidence, and yet he had the temerity to accuse “liberal” historians of not doing any research. According to Marshall, he prayed about writing this book, and God told him to proceed. Marshall would go on to claim that Obama’s 2008 victory was a disaster that would bring God’s wrath upon America.
Then there was James Kennedy, Coral Ridge Presbyterian pastor and early television preacher who was determined to reclaim America for God. As Kennedy saw it, the hand of God was everywhere in American history. Evangelical willingness to jump to false cause arguments may be one of their most misleading rhetorical tropes. Kennedy’s defense of the “birther conspiracy” appears most prominently in his book, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again?
2000 – Present: Robert Jeffress and David Barton
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, stands as the primary contemporary promoter of the fantasy that America was born as a Christian nation. All the previous attempts at the original birther theory are brought to full bloom in the hyperbole and misinformation and distorted facts of Robert Jeffress.
A primary artifact of the “birther” movement is Jeffress’ Fourth of July sermon, “America Is a Christian Nation.” Most of the material in this sermon comes from David Barton, as the two Texans morph into a single creature.
The dominant rhetorical trope in the sermon is “American exceptionalism.” In Demagogue for President Jennifer Mercieca identifies “American exceptionalism” as a major trope in the political speeches of conservatives. As Mercieca says, “Appeals to American exceptionalism rely on American’s pride and their desire to believe that their nation is the best among others, that it is chosen by God (News to the Jews?), and that it has a heroic destiny to spread democracy and enlightenment around the world.”
With blustering certainty and overweening confidence Jeffress promotes the idea that America really is God’s nation, and (mostly white) evangelicals really are God’s new chosen people. This is a sermon wrapped in red, white, and blue. The danger in the sermon is that its patriotism is, to borrow from Barbara Biesecker’s “The Rhetorical Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the War on Terror,” a species of melancholy. It allows evangelicals to ignore the nation’s violent, racist past. Rather than working through melancholia as a step toward “inventing a society that remembers, rather than unconsciously repeats, a murderous and authoritarian past,” evangelicals wave the flag, recite the creed, and give God’s blessing to the feast of idolatry. It may go without saying that a flag-waving, Bible-thumping tribe pouring out feelings from the evangelical-emotion machine is a menace to democracy.
Jeffress the patriarchal patriot dangles a dramatic vision of a godly and patriotic nation before his congregation’s adoring eyes. For Jeffress, the American way of life is under siege – its memories, origins, common territory, deep beliefs, ways of life, even God. While this epideictic celebration of American exceptionalism does not have the ring of truth, belief and obedience are almost automatic for Jeffress’ congregation. As Ann Willner put it in The Spellbinders,
Followers accept and believe that the past was as the leader portrays it [America was founded as a Christian nation], the present is as he depicts it [America is a Christian nation], and the future will be as he predicts it [Jesus will rapture the holy people of America]. And they follow without hesitation his prescriptions for action.
Cue the fireworks (in the sanctuary no less!)
Jeffress’ sermon comes from the low-hanging poisonous fruit that has fallen from David Barton’s “tree of lies and fabrications.” Jeffress uses David Barton’s material and Barton uses James Kennedy’s material, but they are all attempting to drink from “cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Two stories about America have collided. The originating story of America has a true story depicting the violence, the deception, the wickedness, the naked abuse of power against Others. The evangelical story tells a sanitized, innocent, misleading, and ultimately false story of American righteousness. In an age where democracy seems endangered by lies so huge that millions feel they must believe them, the Thanksgiving season seems a good time to face the truth. While giving thanks, we can also repent of our violent past.
Put another way, truth may yet lay waste to the antidemocratic historical fantasies and unscrupulous political machinations of evangelicals.