The Issue At Hand
I imagine some Americans were quite concerned with the 2009 Newsweek article by Lisa Miller. Its title proclaimed, “We Are All Hindus Now.” Miller’s first sentence underscored this point: “America is not a Christian nation.” The author even goes on to quote the Rig Veda.
Since then, heeding the warnings of leading evangelical pastors, there has been a radical upsurge to “take back America.” William Wolfe, the Christian author, draws a line in the sand at a panel discussion on Christian Nationalism: “Laws have to have a moral foundation. It’s either going to be the Biblical Christian moral foundation, or it’s going to be a moral foundation made up by man.”
Franklin Graham firmly believed that the USA was founded on biblical principles and wants to bring prayer to the schools. And Pastor Robert Jeffress emphasized, during Faith Week of 2020, that America was founded “primarily by orthodox Christians, and they founded this country on the unchanging foundation of God’s eternal truth. . . . they believed that our success as a nation depended upon our faithfulness to God’s eternal word. . . America was founded as a Christian Nation.”
The above quotes are all core to Christian Nationalism. It can initially appear benign because many Christians believe America is a Christian nation. But not all of them think that their religion should control the government. Jeffress specifically referred to the Founding Fathers as “orthodox Christians” because he and many likeminded pastors believe that the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and other founding documents were divinely inspired and that the government today needs to be steered by the right type of Christian leaders.
Of course, Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have been too orthodox since he cut out Bible verses to create a bible that better suited his sensibilities. Jefferson’s firm stance against religion in government is well known. He writes, “I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.” And “Christianity neither is nor ever was a part of the common law.”
The Founding Fathers saw America as a nation with a new outlook on government and a new attitude towards religion and the role it would play. Previously, many state charters had been fashioned after one Christian denomination or another. However that was not the case in creating a federal constitution and government. The Constitution’s First Amendment stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In 1790, George Washington invited the rabbi of a Jewish congregation to his inauguration, writing, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty. . . happily, the Government of the United States, gives to bigotry no sanction. . . “
Numerous statements by the Founding Fathers echo the same sentiments. John Adams clearly explains, “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.” And James Madison noted, “The settled opinion here is that religion is essentially distinct from Civil Government and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both. . .” And Benjamin Franklin stated, “The United States Constitutional Convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”
The Founding Fathers saw an America led neither by royalty, an elite class, or any religion but by an involved and educated citizenry. But if Jeffress wanted to usurp the intentions of the Founding Fathers, describing them as “orthodox,” he had one small problem. It would certainly be an embarrassment if the founding Christians allowed America to expand and grow rich from the labor of slaves and the forced removal of Native Americans from their land. Not very Christ-like at all.
Did slave owners act on Christian principles when they ripped families apart? Christian Nationalists, trying to reconcile these atrocities, are rewriting America’s past. They claim that Africans were brought to America for their own benefit, and they had friendly relations with the plantation owners who provided them with trades and skills that improved their lives. But even when slaves accepted Christianity, they were still forbidden to learn how to read if they wanted to study the Bible.
In a recent book entitled “Not Stolen,” the author Jeff Fynn-Paul claims the Native Americans were not cheated out of their land by broken treaties but made handsome profits by selling their land to the government. The author ignores that the colonial mentality of the USA was prevalent as its history of “manifest destiny” unfolded. In the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh, the Supreme Court ruled that American Indians merely occupied the land, but they did not own land. The Court evoked the centuries-old colonial Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that because the Christian religion and laws of Europeans were superior, they had the right to usurp and own the land.
In the 1980s and 90s, I gave tours at the New Vrindaban Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold in West Virginia. In those early days, many Americans viewed the Hare Krishnas as a strange cult with their shaved heads and robes. The Hare Krishnas had an odd philosophy that included karma and reincarnation. They worshipped Deities in the Temple, considered idols by Abrahamic religions.
Many came to the Palace out of curiosity. On tours, I often meet Christians. On rare occasions, I encountered Christians with the notion that the USA was founded on biblical principles, that it was created by Christians and for Christians. For them, there was no place for “idol worshippers” in America. At the time, I dismissed these extremists. But over the years, this fundamentalist fervor has emerged today as the full-blown phenomenon of Christian Nationalism, sweeping into politics, education, and the workplace.
The USA now has more such avowed Christians active in Congress than at any time in recent memory. Curiously enough, they whine about being oppressed, that their religious freedom is under attack. People are becoming desperate. They’re circling the wagons. There is even talk of civil war. Some so-called Christians foolishly conclude that a violent solution is the only solution. They strongly believe that Christianity in this country is oppressed. They tell themselves that they can’t practice their belief how they want and where they want. One politician tells us that the church is supposed to direct the government and not the other way around. To practice their beliefs properly, they need everyone to comply with their standards.
Out of fear, people have gravitated to radical and fanatical positions. They have lost their ability to respect or consider different perspectives. People are losing their ability to empathize. They see threatening strangers in their midst. The belief in a dominant white Christian Nationalism has, in fact, instigated the murders in a Sikh temple (2012), a South Carolina Black church (2015), a Pittsburgh synagogue (2018), a Buffalo supermarket (2022), and the recent murder in the Chicago area of a Muslim child. These and more. All horrific events. Now, many Christian leaders themselves are concerned about the danger of this growing radical element in their midst.
David French, author, veteran, legal scholar, and pastor, in a talk at the University of South Carolina on this extreme Christian Nationalism, observed, “I have never in my life encountered more vile cruelty. . . the dangerous thing is tying, at a visceral level, our religion and our politics and our national identity so closely together that you can’t pull them apart if you tried. …. It’s not a theology.” He went on to explain, “no matter how any one person or entity can cloak themselves in faith and Christianity, it can turn dark and oppressive quickly.”
Panelists confronted the issue at Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice presentation in 2022. Rev. Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church explained that Christian Nationalism is not really a religion but “an ideology that is cloaked in religious language and symbols.” Amanda Taylor of the Baptist Joint Committee considered it a “huge threat to a flourishing Christianity in this country and the single biggest threat to religious freedom that we face in America today.”
In a program, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, one of the speakers was Robert P. Jones, CEO and Founder of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute). Jones grew up in the racist South and came from a line of slave-owning ancestors. However, in his book “White Too Long,” he offers another insight: “American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy.” And Andrew L. Whitehead, author, Christian, and ardent commentator on Christian Nationalism, explains that Christians need to “remake American Christianity to look a lot more like Christ than a servant of empire.”
When a mass shooting occurs, politicians readily send their prayers. But to establish their religion, prayers are insufficient. They resort to the ballot box and changing laws. In the Bible, this is quite succinctly explained in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This instruction helps establish the social fabric to create a peaceful atmosphere in society. The Book of Micah puts us on trial, and the faithful are especially required to act morally and accept responsibility to be an example for the entire society. This is real leadership.
This is also the essence of Dharma. For the Krishna devotees and the Hindu community in general, understanding and living in the Dharma is the very foundation of a civilized culture. Dharma focuses on having the right intentions and actions: to be truthful and compassionate, to be clean within and without, and to be regulated in one’s daily habits. We can more readily begin to understand who we are, our relationship to the world around us, and ultimately our relation to God. Thus, the ancient Vedic scriptures of Srimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharata, and Ramayana are all profoundly relevant to us today.
We are at a crossroads in America, the land of the free and home of the brave. Yes, people may have disagreements. But there will always be disagreement on one thing or another. Why allow the disagreements to destroy the social fabric of American society? The truly free and the brave will not create divisions in society but will find ways to maintain diversity and unity simultaneously. Within diversity, we can all worship in our own way and still work together for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is real leadership and perhaps even an example of divine inspiration.
Jesus Christ has provided ample teachings in the Bible. He tells the story of the good Samaritan. A man was left on the side of the road, beaten and robbed. People pass by, but nobody helps. Then a Samaritan passes by. The Samaritan is of a different tribe and religion. He doesn’t know the man, but, nevertheless, he stops to help him. We each have to take responsibility not only for our own well-being but, like the good Samaritan, for the well-being of others. Neither can we be foolhardy. It seems there are many agents, inside and outside the USA, who want to ultimately see anarchy and chaos. We have to figure out how to be both a good Samaritan and safeguard the well-being of all citizens at the same time.
The Way Forward
According to the Krishna perspective, the Christian response to Christian extremism is correct: one’s primary allegiance should be to God, not to a nation; we’re not meant to seek material power or wealth from God, but to lovingly serve Him; to see life through the eyes of scripture, and not through mundane considerations. America is a nation founded on certain freedoms, including religious freedom.
Srila Prabhupada appreciated how America treated him as a foreigner. Somehow or other, without funds, at age 70, he hitched a ride on a cargo ship, suffered two heart attacks on board, and arrived in the USA in 1965 to fulfill a 500-year-old prophecy that the teachings of Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God) and the chanting of Hare Krishna would spread all over the world. From a storefront in NYC’s Lower Eastside, he founded The International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Allen Ginsberg wrote of Prabhupada, “What kindness and humility and intelligence!”
In Prabhupada’s book “Light of the Bhāgavata,” text 6, written in 1961, he encourages all who have faith in God, especially the leaders of the various traditions, to counteract “the rapid growth of a godless civilization.” We can see, however, that Christian Nationalism is diametrically opposed to such a vision of interfaith cooperation since they believe no other religious process is valid or divinely inspired.
One can certainly be at issue with what is bona fide or not bona fide. Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad Gita (18:32) that those who are confused and without knowledge mistake “irreligion to be religion and religion to be irreligion.” Srila Prabhupada understood the damage that could be done by religious hypocrites and cheaters. He deemed that the function of government was not to establish a particular religion but to make sure religious teachers conduct themselves properly according to codes of their own faith and scriptures. The path forward is to inspire, to create genuine communities of faith, not to create legislation for others to conform to. In a 1975 talk in Mauritius, Prabhupada observed, “Modern civilization lacks this basis of love, so everything is superficial and false.”
The Hare Krishna Movement is not in competition with other religions, but is simply providing a spiritual education for the welfare of all. For instance, rather than deny abortion, the sacred text of Srimad Bhagavatam (Canto 3, Chapter 31) gives a detailed description of the growth of the child within the womb. When one understands this, surely they’ll think more deeply if an abortion is warranted or not.
Sometimes Krishna devotees might align themselves with Christian Nationalist politicians around issues like pro-life. But in a letter of February 4, 1977, Prabhupada warned his disciples, “Certainly we are opposed to abortion, and we can advise that it is not good but do not take an active part in this political agitation against abortion. We are not much concerned in that way, so do not waste time approaching politicians or affiliating with others on the basis of the anti-abortion issue.”
The Krishna devotees want to see everyone living in a peaceful, loving way. But this cannot come about by coercion. We all have free will. Krishna does not interfere with our independence. Toward the end of the Bhagavad Gita, after Krishna provides transcendental teachings, Krishna tells us, “Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.” It is our choice. Krishna leaves it up to us. And Christ also does not coerce us but rather invites us to follow him and abide by his teachings.
Living in peace can be achieved by understanding the universal principles of Dharma. At this time, people of faith can work together for everyone’s benefit to help people find a meaningful place in society to engage civilly with one another and with dignity. This is sorely lacking, and education is the key.
The world is on fire. It’s changing, and not necessarily for the good. It is certainly important to be aware of the various dangers that could be a threat to our liberties. In this time of polarization, it’s important to keep open channels of communication. Krishna devotees, along with Hindu Americans, have specific principles. But it would be foolhardy to jeopardize one’s freedoms based upon one or two issues they may have in common with the fundamental Christian Nationalists. The determining question to ask Christians is: if they want prayer in schools, would they mind Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or Native American prayers as well?
About the Author
Sankirtana Das, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a longtime resident of the New Vrindaban Community and an award-winning author and storyteller. His most recent book, Hanuman’s Quest, is acclaimed by scholars and has received a Storytelling World Resource Honors. At New Vrindaban, he offers sacred storytelling and scheduled in-depth tours. For more info about his work, visit www.Mahabharata-Project.com
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