bgy Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon.
On July 04, 2023, America feels like an antique shop on Fifth Avenue, filled with rooms and rooms of precious, irreplaceable sets of china, rooms that have been invaded by “raging bulls of Bashan.”
One of those “bulls of Bashan” is the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress. I recently received a fund-raising appeal from Jeffress. He offered to send me a copy of his book, America Is a Christian Nation, in exchange for a donation. Since I have a personal rule against making contributions to scam appeals, misinformation, and false claims, I did not send Jeffress a check. Instead, I have deconstructed his argument that America is a Christian nation.
From the outset, I am happy to state my case in straightforward language: America was not founded as a Christian nation. America has never been a Christian nation. America is not now a Christian nation.
Jeffress writes, “Hello Rod, Revisionists would have you believe that our founders intended for a complete separation between Church and State.” Jeffress confuses the entire membership of the American Historical Association with “revisionists.” What Jeffress should have said was that “American historians teach us that our founders intended the separation between Church and State. They didn’t imagine the nation becoming as secular as it is today, but they certainly meant for church and state to be separate.”
The book Jeffress is hawking is a larger version of his annual Fourth of July sermon. American historian John Fea says,
I do not have the space in the book to counter in depth the false and problematic claims Jeffress makes in his “America Is a Christian Nation” sermon. But it is worth noting that his manipulation of the past to advance his Christian Right agenda and scare his congregation into political action comes straight out of the playbook of David Barton, his friend and fellow conservative political activist.
David Barton is an entire ocean of misstatements, propaganda, false claims, and bad history. Barton is a history “hobbyist.” He wrote a book called The Jefferson Lies. Conservative evangelical historians debunked the book and showed that the “lies” in the book were “Barton lies” as he manufactured sayings of the founding fathers. Barton’s misinformation was so atrocious that the book’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, took the unprecedented step of removing the book from publication.
Jeffress should come clean by admitting that “my friend David Barton, who is not a historian, but a Republican political consultant who fabricates history, is my primary source for the false claims in my book.”
In their book, The Anointed, Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson point out that Jeffress and his fellow evangelicals have confidence that liberal, secular experts at leading universities should retreat in the face of his campaign to educate children with traditional Christian principles. On Main Street, where Jeffress preaches, worships, shops, and runs his corporation (The FBC of Dallas), the insights of credentialed, experienced historical experts are demeaned.
Jeffress claims that American historians teach that “Christianity should be absent from all aspects of our government.” This is a false and easily debunked assertion, but it is a bogus and emotionally-freighted charge that is designed to scare easily-frightened evangelicals.
Jeffress follows his fear appeal with his most blatantly false statement: “Our nation was founded on Christian principles, and the founders wanted our government to uphold those principles.”
Will Campbell, no stranger to strong language, offers solid refutation of Jeffress:
They preach that America was founded by right-wing Christians, who espoused the same theology as they do. Who were these people? How about John Adams, Daniel Webster, or Thomas Jefferson? Won’t work. They were Unitarians. What of Benjamin Franklin? A deist. Thomas Payne? A self-avowed atheist. There were no right-wing pietists in the motley crew that shaped America’s earliest documents. They weren’t trying to establish a Christian nation. Quite the opposite. They were fleeing from entanglement with anybody’s religion, for they had seen where governments based on religion led. They had seen the beggary, the bloodletting inhumanity of theocracies, and wanted no part of it. Church was never to be state. State was never to be church.
Jeffress expresses certainty in his dubious view of American history:
I’ve written a book whose title boldly declares what I know to be true: America Is a Christian Nation. Many would dispute that claim, but my book provides evidence for this truth using the very words and actions of the founders themselves. The book is a short read, accompanied by beautiful patriotic photos that I think you’ll appreciate.
But it is not that historians “would dispute that claim.” They would go further, dismissing Jeffress’ claim on the grounds that it is false and easily disproved. While historians use a more refined language, they would agree with Campbell:
THERE ARE LIES BEING TOLD ABOUT THE BIBLE AND AMERICA. BY PEOPLE WHO SHOULD know better, and probably do. They pose as the Messiah’s evangelists on programs subsidized with tax exemptions and protected by the same First Amendment they frequently denounce. They clothe a blatantly political agenda in pious rhetoric and peddle it as gospel.
Jeffress claims that fifty-two of the original fifty-five signers of the Constitution were evangelical believers. False. He claims that the First Amendment applied only to Protestant denominations. False. His selective and misleading interpretations of the First Amendment and the founding fathers reach a crescendo near the end of the book when he throws the kitchen sink at the “revisionists.” He assumes, without evidence, that increased violence, illegitimate births, divorce, and low SAT scores are the direct result of the Supreme Court ruling that allegedly removed prayer from public schools. False.
Here Jeffress echoes Mr. Flood Geology, Henry Morris, who insisted that
prayer and Bible reading had disappeared from the public schools, replaced by drugs, sex education, and demands for the tolerance of homosexuality. Standards of dress, obscene language in public, teenage pregnancy, and promiscuity ominously pointed to a culture in decline. Even nativity scenes and traditional Christmas greetings were under attack.
I have no doubt that Robert Jeffress is a sincere person. His appeal in the letter is heart-felt at times. He really seems to believe that America is threatened by liberal hordes, and that all good Christians “must preserve America’s unique heritage and fight for our religious freedoms. By understanding our nation’s Christian roots, we can work to bring our country back to its founding principles.”
But notwithstanding his apparent sincerity, Jeffress’ book is chock-full of misleading and false claims. How he manages to square these bogus claims is a sheer act of acrobatic interpretation, but he pulls it off in his concluding appeal for money: “I want to make sure that you know that your donation will help us continue sharing the truth of God’s Word and provide even more resources to help you grow in your faith.”
Beware of Christian Nationalists peddling fake history lessons packaged in appeals of fear of the future and a sweeping nostalgia for a past that never existed. The belief that America is a Christian nation is the dominant idol in our nation. I define “idol” as any love that exceeds love and loyalty to God. In reality, God doesn’t need a secular political kingdom, a Christian nation.
God already has a politics: The church. The church is an alternative to a nation-state operated by Christian Nationalists. So don’t send Jeffress any money and don’t read his Barton-inspired book, because America is not now, never has been, and never will be a Christian nation. What matters is whether we are going to be the Christians who embrace the politics of Jesus – suffering, sacrificing love on behalf of the entire world.
Here’s the letter I wish Robert Jeffress would send to all his followers on this Fourth of July, 2023:
The current dis-ease in our land means that we are vulnerable. The immense violence in our midst means there is great suffering, but it is also our moment of truth about the vulnerability we share with others. For now, we can empathize with other people who live through upheavals, civil wars, and violence for years and even decades.
What should we do with this knowledge? Should we try to close this door of vulnerability? Should we try to frighten our people with false visions and dead dreams of a nation founded by God and endowed by God to be the most powerful nation in the world?
Instead, we should say to the world: We will try to learn from our previous mistakes. America was not founded by evangelical Christians. Neither were all our founding fathers “born again Christians.” There is no special divine dispensation from God for the United States. We are guests on this planet, part of the world community. We are all connected to each other, dependent on each other. As Christians we should not attempt to rule the nation, set strict rules for how others are to live. Instead we should embrace diversity, plurality, equality, and the flourishing of all peoples of all kinds.
Our vulnerability must extend – and this may be the hardest task of all – to our commitment to become suffering servants for the world and to be the honest and caring brokers of the needs of the whole world. We need to accept the reality that America doesn’t possess a righteousness that is lacking in other nations, other religions, and other races.
The evil in this world has not been the product of the bad behaviors and actions of liberals, feminists, and gays. The evil is also with us and within all of us. Only together can we move forward to create a world more just, more equitable, and more empathetic.
Sincerely, Robert Jeffress
Ok, I’m dreaming. But I wish.
On this July 4 gather with family and friends for a rousing patriotic celebration. Hot dogs, bar-b-que, cheeseburgers, crawfish etouffee, beer, picnics, fireworks, and parades from shore to shining shore should mark the day. But don’t confuse it with Christianity. Round up the bulls of Bashan and put them in a pen before they destroy the foundations of democracy with their religious pretensions!
Happy Fourth of July!