Michelle Goldberg’s description of Christian nationalism in her book Kingdom Coming has been an eye-opener for this non-American on a number of levels. Till having read this book I had heard or read the odd strange comment from a US citizen that implied they believed the framers of the US constitution were divinely inspired, or that the founding fathers did not intend a separation of Church and State, but I dismissed these views as coming from the oddball eccentric. I know something of fundamentalist Christian power in the U.S. but Goldberg showed me that there really is a mass movement of radical Christians who believe these whacko or similar myths about their own national history. (Someone do please tell me Goldberg’s book is all b.s.)
Many Christian “restorationists”, I may be the last to have learned, really do trace the founding of their nation to idealized colonial “theonomies” (the rule of god’s law) and not to the War of Independence and related unification with their first Constitution.
I would love to trace the origin of this utopian myth and to know a little about when it first made itself felt among these religious groups, and to see how its growth has perhaps coincided with social conflicts and the religious identities of these groups feeling threatened, rightly or wrongly.
Are past Utopias a necessary part of constructing a vision of what we want for the future or sooner? Are they an atavistic analog of modern Soap Operas? (I’ve read statistics that said those who believe in God and watch Soap Operas are “happier” than those who don’t — true! But I’ll leave the commentary on the connection between these two to others) 🙂
Visions of past Utopian ages have always been among us.
Plato even created a past Utopia when he told the story of Atlantis. And the whole point was to teach a lesson in political science. He even said it is necessary for the ignorant to really believe the myths perpetrated by the educated elites. Is there anything to learn here about the origins of the “Christian nation” myths about the founding of the U.S.?
Earliest Christians would have found it a handicap being a new religion in a world that valued the antiquity of ideas, beliefs and traditions. This was a problem, some believe, for the Marcionite brand of Christianity — it rested on a complete break from Judaism and taught that Christianity began with Jesus coming from another God entirely. Hence, we are told, those Christians who embraced the antiquity of the Jewish Scriptures had the upper hand. And how did those Scriptures shape their collective identity? By giving them the foundation of a Golden Age, tracing a direct spiritual line from the Garden of Eden and how God intended the world to be, right through to their divinely privileged selves.
Some early Christians believed as doctrine that God intended their future to be a return to that Golden Age past.
Medieval and later Europe
Later in Europe around the time of the Reformation some even dropped out of society to live naked in forest or garden like communes in conscious imitation of how God meant them to live. And animals were not there to be eaten! Perhaps others did the same even earlier, and that was the basis of some of the more outlandish “scandals” that were rumoured about certain “heretics”.
Socialist Utopians have attempted similar reconstructions in the last few centuries and up to today. The visions of some of these are inspired by their Utopian (cum scientific!) view of how humanity lived naturally in a pre-urban world. Others did the same again in the 60’s and some still do today.
Medieval peasants loved their labor and working conditions and life conditions so much many found more comfort in tales of the hedonistic Land of Cockaigne (Cokaygne) — pronounced, pleasantly enough, like cocaine — than the church’s visions of heaven. But that was less of a “past” golden age than it was a current wish or dream.
Hindu and Jew
Hindu nationalists believe in a past golden age and get quite cranky with “minimalist” archaeologists who insist on interpreting the evidence according to scholarly rules that don’t support religious and nationalist aspirations.
And in that Hindu nationalist context need I mention the past golden age of David and Solomon, also disputed by “minimalist” archaeologists with whom some Christian and Jewish believers get a bit cranky.
And let not anyone breathe a word that Jesus himself might have been mythical! (Remember how that gospel story opens with a divine man showing great powers against all enemies and thousands flocking to him . . . ? but shh!)
It’s not hard to understand why the crankiness in both cases (or three, if someone did breathe). Imagine a young toddler being told there is no Santa Claus. Young children can only cry. Children grown tall into adult shapes can fight back.
The Book of Acts
Early Christians (late first and early to mid second centuries) were the least united than at any time since, it has often been remarked, and it was from that period that a Christian founding Utopian myth may well have been crafted. The Book of Acts opens with perfect harmony (after making sure Judas was completely dead and gone), a harmony that is stressed repeatedly with each cycle of evangelistic growth — until the first blemishes slowly cracked this facade. Ananias and Sapphira was shocking blow to how heaven on earth had been functioning but Peter attempted to plaster over the damage by having God strike them down dead on the spot. But then another crack appeared, and so on it went till by the end Paul had to issue dire warnings against incipient traitors at Ephesus and was forcibly shoved into the hands of the Romans and Caesar by “thousands of Jews who believed” in Jerusalem. But the important thing is we know how it started, so that means we know how the church is meant to be.
And that gives us a justification for whatever we do now to try to make our world just like that “again”. Differences have not been tolerated to the point of tears and blood in so many Christians’ ideal vision.
Mass totalitarian movements of the last centuries also had Utopian visions of the past (though these were not entirely mythical) that they sought to restore, grounded in some part at least in Rousseau’s Romantic Utopian theories of an original social contract and the pre-civilized “noble savage”.
But Christian nationalists have a dream of the future that is prescribed by their vision of the past. That leaves them two alternatives. To “drop out” and fulfil that dream in their own communities. Or uncompromising conquest. To impose their dream — because its details have already been made clear in their vision of the past. Like Cromwell. Or the rulers of Salem in 1692.
Martin Luther had a dream, and it mobilized many to work towards making it a reality. But it was a Utopian dream of a future world. It had never existed before. How it was to be realized was to worked out solely in negotiation with contemporary conditions and actors.
There is no room for negotiation if God has already spoken and revealed the original blueprint.
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes. — Thomas Jefferson.
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