America’s God, America’s History

America’s God, America’s History December 17, 2011

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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