America’s God, America’s History

From The Economist:

Time to think again about boisterous, sometimes mistaken, views of the founding fathers.

Between now and the 2012 presidential election, many pronouncements by the founding fathers—especially but not only on the subject of Christianity—will be parsed and dissected with passion by both sides. Liberals, keen to protect the American variety of secularism from what they see as a resurgence of zealotry, will stress the rationalist leanings of most of the revolution’s protagonists; religious conservatives will point out that the revolution’s foot-soldiers were generally people of faith who would be shocked, for example, by the idea of banning prayer in schools.

Believers in the idea that America was established as a Christian state scored a hit last year when the Texas school board, a politicised body in which evangelicals control crucial votes, ordered up textbooks laying out this view. Given the size of the Texan market, school-book publishers across the country often follow its lead. The best-known advocate of the “Christian nation” theory is a Texan, an author and evangelist called David Barton, who has been writing on the subject since the 1980s….

Among his recent claims are that the founding fathers rejected Darwinism (although they pre-dated Charles Darwin), and that they broke away from Britain in order to abolish slavery. In fact the southern states only joined the Revolution on the understanding that slavery would not be questioned. Strange as his views may sound to most scholars, Mr Barton’s philosophy is taken seriously in Republican circles. When Rick Perry, the Texas governor and presidential candidate, held a day of prayer for the nation in August, Mr Barton was an acknowledged endorser. One of Mr Barton’s admirers is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who argues that American history has been distorted by secular historians to play down the role of faith. “I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things,” Mr Gingrich has said.

It is easy to see why politicians are attracted by the assertion that America was founded as a Christian land, and is hence called to be a place of exceptional virtue. It elegantly fuses two beliefs: Christianity itself, and belief in American history as another sacred narrative, one that sees the founders as people of near-infallible wisdom and virtue waging a noble war against the forces of darkness….

Academic historians are bemused at times by the inquiries they get from people with no previous interest in the nation’s beginnings: what did America’s creators really believe? Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor who deconstructs the uses and abuses of the past, is wary of would-be historians with an agenda. For her, the founders’ genius lay in their willingness to cast doubt on fixed ways of thinking inherited from the past. So to make them final arbiters is to traduce their spirit.

Nor, indeed, were the fathers of one mind. They did not spend their time producing pearls of unanimously agreed wisdom. They quarrelled bitterly. Indeed, if something about this period still resonates in modern politics, it may be the fathers’ disputes, and the subtle points each side brought to bear. The tug-of-war between Alexander Hamilton, who successfully campaigned for an American central bank and other federal authorities, and Jefferson, who favoured states’ rights, is in many ways still going on….

There is a great irony about all these disputes over America’s creators, whether they pit Christian against Christian, or religious types against secularists. Regardless of their own views on the spiritual, people like Madison, Washington and Jefferson were intensely concerned for the welfare and cohesion of the new republic. They worried not only about religious wars as such but about political disputes which were “religious” in their intensity. They wanted to create a state and political system to which people with utterly different ideas about metaphysics, and many other things, could offer unconditional loyalty. People who disagree over legal or economic matters ought to be able to respect one another and compromise; people who disagree over things they regard as ultimate—and therefore see one another as heretics—usually can’t.

The religious or non-religious character of the constitution (and what children should learn about it) is only one of many issues on which it is hardly possible, these days, to have a calm debate. Perhaps all sides should ponder the words of Jefferson in his first inaugural address: “Let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”

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  • Hector

    The only way one can honestly make the claim ‘Jefferson was a Christian’ (which I’ve heard some Republicans make) is by dumbing down the definition of Christianity so much that it becomes meaningless. I doubt that most of the Founding Fathers subscribed to the articles of the Nicene creed, or any of the other historic creeds, in any meaningful sense.

    I was going to say “Kim Kardashian was more of a Christian than Jefferson”, but a quick google search indicates that she actually gives like 10% of her substantial income to the church, so that may actually be unfair to Ms. Kardashian.

  • Jayflm

    I’ve often read how Benjamin Franklin, noted skeptic, urged a severely-divided Constitutional Convention to open its sessions with a prayer for divine guidance. Only recently did I discover, in the Franklin biography “The First American”, that his motion was voted down.

  • DRT

    Excellent article, thanks for linking to it.

    As I read things like this and the left / right split going on I am believing the idea of purity/disgust weighs heavily on the conversation. For me, I don’t get disgusted very easily, and purity is virtually an unknown idea for me now. But many are driven by purity and disgust avoidance. This is particularly true in anything that is important to their persona.

    I love my friends who, still, don’t like when their food touches on their plate and another friend who cannot accept evolution because it disgusts him to think we are like animals. I have a difficult time relating to that.

    So, making the founders Christian is a valiant attempt to purify their allegiance to the US. The cognitive dissonance of following, to the letter, the will of an atheist or deist is enough to make some vomit.

    But I also wonder about the motivation coming from the left. Is the adamant desire for secular government, which i share, a cry for purity of a different kind? I don’t think so. It is a rebellion against the excess of the purity reflex, in my opinion.

    Now to make my comment controversial, the quest for purity leads to irrational behavior. Is there someone out there who will not let their food touch on their plate that could comment on this?

  • The Barton vision is disturbing and goes way beyond just what he says about the Founding Fathers, sad to say. And their impact on legislation in Texas and beyond is substantial. Most notable on the federal level is a House resolution that is a virtual carbon copy of Barton’s most dubious claims. A fellow writer at Talk To Action detailed it all here:

    I am glad to see Scot posting material like this. THese questions are vital to the church’s mission and should be of concern to anyone interested in ecclesiology and the church’s self-understanding regardless of where one falls in partisan politics.

  • Newt Gingrich is no naïf when it comes to history. The Washington Post Fact Checker says, “As for history, Gingrich specialized in that subject throughout his academic life. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from Emory University in 1965 and 1967, respectively; he earned a PhD from Tulane in 1971, with a doctoral focus on modern European history” ( So I expect he knows how to check the validity of historical claims, such as those of David Barton.

  • Norman

    Yes, it has long been recognized that the European Religious settlers were entering the new Promised Land out of sinful Egypt (Europe) and that they would take the land under the auspices of Gods’ chosen people. The Canaanites (native Indians) were to be treated in the OT biblical manner and somewhere along the way slavery became ok for God’s people of the truly chosen in the South. Oh what a glorious beginning to our Nation’s founding and manifest destiny.

    Sorry but these issues have been what has driven me from the Republican Party to declare myself Independent. Can’t quite take the Democrats either so I’ll exist in the wilderness wanderings politically until I’m redeemed; by whom I have no great expectations.

  • Larry Barber

    Conservative crap like this is why I’m no longer a conservative. Once I started reading outside of the conservative ghetto, I realized that conservatives tended to be, shall we say, less than honest about their opponents and the evidence for their beliefs. David Barton should be ashamed of himself.

  • Tom F.

    Jeff, but certainly as a Ph.D Gingrich should be careful about endorsing someone who makes factual mistakes that honors history high school students could catch, no?

  • Tom F., have you actually heard or read Barton in context?

  • DRT

    Jeff, do you feel Barton is significantly misrepresented in the article? If so, how?

  • DRT, I don’t know if he is or isn’t. But I see that Gingrich, who holds a PhD in history, has heard Barton (in context, I presume, and not in snippets or second-hand comments) and apparently admires him. And I’m curious how many of Barton’s critics here have actually heard or read him in context. Have you?

  • Tom F.

    Jeff, I haven’t, but you have to admit, the Economist is not exactly a liberal magazine…

  • Larry Barber

    Jeff, just Google “David Barton”, you’ll get plenty of information about him, and why you really shouldn’t believe anything he writes.

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles, I have listened to and watch him talk for hours. I am familiar with him. He is a classic case of telling half truths and, as far as I know, that is as close to evil as it gets if he is doing that consciously.

    As far as this particular article is concerned, Gingrich is quoted as saying “I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things,”, well, I can certainly say the same things. Barton teaches me about distortion, fact manipulation, half truths and bald faced statements that any school child would be ashamed to say.

  • Fish

    This post reminded me that I must own this.

  • Richard

    @ 5

    Just because Newt is intelligent doesn’t mean he couldn’t be endorsing Barton because it helps his own agenda to consolidate power. And there are plenty of PhDs out there that know everything in their silo (i.e. Modern European History) and nothing outside of it. Either would be plausible explanations as alternatives to Barton is right because Newt hasn’t publicly called him out.

  • phil_style

    @Jeff, #5,

    You’re right. Gingrich is no naif when it comes to history. So why is he so keen to ally himself with such historical revisionism, a move for which he has no excuse?

    The cynic might suggest that he’s not politically naive either….