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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Religions tend to be distinguished by their scriptures. Jews are not Christians because Jews believe the Tanakh and only the Tanakh was inspired by and so indirectly written by God. Christians are not Jews because Christians believe both the Tanakh, as reconfigured as the Old Testament, and the New Testament are holy books and no others. Christians are not Mormons because Mormons believe that, in addition to the Bible, the Book of Mormon is scripture—though, since Mormons do consider themselves Christians, perhaps a Christian is anyone who considers the Bible to be divinely inspired. If so, all Mormons and all Christians are by the same logic Jews, a view I suspect most Jews, Christians, and Mormons would reject.

The Mormon Church further expanded its list of holy books in 1976 when it declared: “The success of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War came about through men who were raised up by God for this special purpose,” and “The Constitution was and is a miracle. It was an inspired document, written under the divine guidance of the Lord.” Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, said as much: “The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner.” Brigham Young added that it “was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty.”

This would seem to be further evidence that Mormons are not Christians, since the belief that human documents are scripture is heresy from the Christian perspective that only the Bible is divine. The notion that Jesus Christ would favor one nation over all others also seems to contradict the Gospels (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Luke 14:26’s demand to reject even family allegiances), but Mormons aren’t the only Americans with that belief.

The Pew Research Center found in 2020 that 32% of Americans believe that God chooses U.S. presidents, specifically Obama and Trump—though most believe so in the broad sense of elections being part of God’s plan rather than as an endorsement of specific candidates. QAnoners, who believe that Jesus Christ selected Donald Trump to war against Satan-worshipping, sex-trafficking, child-raping, and child-eating Democratic leaders, is a notable exception. Americans broadly believed in Manifest Destiny, a term coined in 1845 to describe the notion that God willed the western expansion of the U.S., including the conquest and annexation of lands owned by other nations, including Mexico and dozens of native tribes.  

Again, such beliefs seem remarkably non- and even anti-Christian to me—unless the term “Christian” is used in the expanded Mormon sense of belief in the Bible as scripture but not the Bible exclusively. If so, a major new religion emerged over the past two hundred years with a following of potentially millions. Its followers refer to it as “Christianity,” though to differentiate it from other uses of the term, I will tentatively call it “Church of America,” because religions that expand on previous religions tend to be identified by their additional scriptures.  

Whatever its name, it has four holy works: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Its latter-day saints include Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and George Washington. Since the Church of America does not recognize the Book of Mormon as scripture, it is distinct from Mormonism, though both recognize the U.S. founding documents as divinely inspired.

In the last chapter of Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account, my co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I trace the development of the Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in terms of two kinds of revision of scriptures, expansions (often called sequels in other contexts) and retcons (which require reinterpreting but not erasing pre-existing facts), as well as a previous religious community’s ability to holdout against a revision. The relationships are complex, but Nathaniel compressed them into a single graph:

The Church of America is an expansion of “Christianity” (as defined as the exclusive belief in the Bible), but I’m not going to ask Nathaniel to try to add the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the graph.

How popular is the Church of America? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s massive. I co-founded a Facebook page where conservatives and progressives (sometimes) try to talk across the ideological divide. A Friend commented recently: “America was founded when we were inspired by God to recognize liberation from the King.” It’s a notion I’ve read there before, sometimes in significantly more detail. Another Friend wrote in response to my question:

“I do believe that the founding fathers were inspired by God in developing the founding ethos in our Declaration and the Constitution later made to ensure government is in line with that ethos. This perspective would be commonly held among Christian Conservatives who would draw from the more modern rhetoric of Reagan and Coolidge, along with ideas from Lincoln and statements by the founding fathers in their writings. … That being said, many in the religious right probably have not studied the rhetoric or Reagan, Coolidge, Lincoln, and the Founding Fathers in depth, but this conception of America’s founding is culturally recognized in the household and I would say a majority of politically active republicans likely view the founding in a manner like this.”

The belief explains why, when I pointed out the historically incontrovertible fact that the founders were racists (they believed African people were innately inferior to European people), I was accused of “demonization.” The opposite is true: the Church of America deifies the founders as holy instruments of God who produced sacred texts. To acknowledge their human flaws (there is no sense in which they were not racists) seems like demonization because it diminishes them to a similar degree but only because of their holy status.

Though I was raised Catholic, I am not now a Christian, so I am not in a good position to express opinions about what is or is not Christianity. I will say though that at a gut-reaction level the belief that political documents written by human beings were actually written by God through divine inspiration strikes me as sacrilegious. But understanding the Church of America as a distinct religion does make intuitive sense to me, because I have often been perplexed by conservative policy positions that seem to contradict the central tenants of the Gospels (where abortion is never mentioned, but Jesus directs his followers to relinquish all of their wealth and help the poor about a dozen times).

Many U.S. Christian conservatives prioritize securing the border over aiding impoverished people attempting to cross it. If they are not “Christians” but members of the Church of America, then the apparent failure to obey the New Testament may be explained by the stronger belief in the sacredness of the U.S. This follows since religions that expand on previous religions tend to hold their new scriptures in higher and more defining esteem. Christians, for example, see the New Testament as fulfilment of and in some ways a corrective to the Old Testament, and what would the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints be without its latter-day saints?

The Church of America seems similarly to privilege the U.S. and its founding documents over the Bible.

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