America is not a Christian nation, as the religious right and many Republicans would have it, intended by its founders to be governed by Christian principles or, more radically, biblical law. That’s because of our constitution, but also because throughout its complex history in America, Christianity has never been a monolith, but rather subject to the uniquely American religious imagination – and uniquely American political intrusions and manipulations.

Mainline Protestant churches, believed by the conventional wisdom to be in decline, were, in the last half of the 20th century, subject to persistent attack by organised, well-funded political opposition intended to undermine their religious credibility – and their political clout, both nationally and in their communities. So, for example, when the Episcopal church was attacked by schismatic conservatives over the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, it appeared to outsiders that the conflict was about sexuality and theology. That’s what got the blood boiling in the pews – but in the end, legal fights were over who controlled the land and the churches that sat on them.

The maligning of do-gooder Protestants is far older than Glenn Beck’s assault on social justice. Self-anointed defenders of the faith in the early half of the century cheered union busting and opposed the New Deal; during the cold war demagogues like the Reverend Billy James Hargis attacked the liberal National Council of Churches as a treasonous, anti-American cabal infiltrated by God-hating communists.

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