Trump's Immigration Executive Order and the "Christian Nation" Myth

Most of the immediate and impassioned responses to President Trump's un-American, immoral, and likely illegal Executive Orders on immigration and refugees have understandably focused on those elements that have produced such drastic effects: the Muslim Ban by another name and the 90-day ban on all refugee arrivals, to name the two most prominent. These policies have indeed been the source of most of the current and unfolding chaos--the detentions, the deportations, the denials of entry, even the deaths--and deserve our full attention, resistance, and condemnation.

Yet when the 90-day refugee ban ends, Trump's Executive Order will set in motion another shocking and troubling proposal: that Christian refugees will be given priority over those of other religions (most notably, of course, Muslims). The Trump administration has tried to defend this proposal by arguing that Christians have been particularly mistreated in Syria, but whatever the specific factors, I believe such a proposal would not be possible, and certainly would be receiving far more nationwide and sustained criticism, were it not for the still widely shared notion that America originated as a "Christian nation."

That notion, to be clear, is distinct from other controversial arguments. For example, while some Americans, including minister and pseudo-historian David Barton, have argued that the Framers did not intend for any separation of church and state in the Constitution and government, that originating national concept remains widely recognized. Similarly, while white nationalists such as David Duke and Steve Bannon would argue that 21st century America is still fundamentally Christian, most of us are aware of the nation's genuine contemporary diversity on matters of faith (as all others). Yet I believe that even many of those Americans would agree with the idea that in its originating and early periods America was centrally defined by Christianity.

The "Christian nation" myth starts in large part because of an emphasis on the New England Puritans as a foundational American community. Yet by the time the Puritans first landed off Cape Cod in 1620, there were already numerous existing communities of European arrivals, each practicing distinct religious faiths and many (like the Jamestown colonists in Virginia or the French traders in what would become the upper Midwest) united and motivated by goals far distinct from spiritual ones. In most cases, including in Puritan New England, the settlers soon began importing African slaves, who brought numerous religious faiths (including Islam) with them to America. And in each and every case, these European arrivals encountered native peoples, communities with even more disparate religious beliefs and practices. All of these communities, from the Spanish in St. Augustine to the African slaves in Jamestown to the Wampanoag on Cape Cod, contributed to the development of the United States and have endured to the present (as have many many others, such as the mid-18th century Filipino villagers in Louisiana who after the Louisiana Purchase would fight for their new nation at the 1814 Battle of New Orleans). And a recognition of all their presences makes it far more difficult to see America's origins as linked to or unified by any particular religious faith.

Then there's the Revolution and the Founders. It's certainly true that many of the Founders shared and practiced a Christian faith, although it took widely varying forms (including the Deism of figures like Tom Paine, George Washington, and Ben Franklin and the skepticism of Thomas Jefferson). But it's also and more importantly the case that the Founders crafted a Constitution in which religion was stunningly absent: in an era when every equivalent nation featured a state religion (such as England's Anglican Church and France's Catholicism), the body of the U.S. Constitution includes but one mention of religion, the clause in Article VI which states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (A clause, I've argued elsewhere, that through Framer Charles Pinckney very well might have been tied to the period's well-known Moroccan "Moorish" [Muslim] community in South Carolina.) Although the Constitution was a pioneering document in many regards, I believe none were as groundbreaking as this entire absence of religion from it and from the government it created.

If the Constitution's explicit division of the new government and nation from any sense of a founding religion was not clear enough, a decade later that new government had occasion to express the separation even more overtly still. As part of the complex international entanglement with North African pirates and nations that came to be known as the First Barbary War, the U.S. sent envoys John Jay and Joel Barlow to negotiate a peace treaty. The resulting November 1796 "Treaty of Peace and Friendship," better known as the "Treaty of Tripoli," includes in its Article 11 the following phrase (as a rejoinder to any notion that the United States was at war with these Muslim states due to religion): "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." Early in 1797 the treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by new President John Adams, one of the first official actions of the new U.S. government on the international stage and as direct a rebuttal to the "Christian nation" myth as it's possible to find.

Christian churches, communities, and perspectives have been an important part of America from the first post-contact moments down to the present day. But America has never been a "Christian nation"--not in its earliest origin points, not in its founding and framing documents, and not in any other shared or communal way. Yet just as the slogan "Make America Great Again" relies on implied and mythic visions of our collective past and identity, so too do Trump's Executive Orders (including promised upcoming ones such as the "Religious Freedom" dictate or the decision to allow churches to take part in political activity) depend on this notion of a national Christian heritage or community. Contesting that historical and national vision is just as crucial as resisting and overturning the Orders' immediate effects.