Shannon Gilreath reveals how Christian fundamentalists are rewriting American history
The ubiquitous red and blue maps showing the results of the 2004 presidential election illustrated just how polarized the United States has become. At least one segment of Americans was resoundingly pleased by the outcome though: the religious right rejoiced in Bush's victory, for they believed it to be their own. Indeed, their efforts at subverting both the American historical narrative and the national conscience were partially responsible for that victory. Without their masterful rewriting of American history, fundamentalist religionists would not have succeeded in getting the bornagain Mr Bush reelected to the White House, from where he has been able to continue to champion their world view and convince many Americans that the United States was founded on their particular brand of religious identity.
For example, Bush's former attorney general, John Ashcroft, told an assembly of Bob Jones University graduates that America was founded on religious principles and "we have no king but Jesus," echoing religious right propaganda like that of James Dobson, who says: "It is utterly foolish to deny that we have been, from the beginning, a people of faith whose government is built wholly on a JudeoChristian foundation. Yet those of our people who do not study our history can be duped into anything."
Indeed. Those who have studied the story of the ratification of the US Constitution know it tells a very different story one of religious scepticism and pointed rejection of government by superstition or religious tyranny. Testament to this is the debate among the Founders over religious tests as a requirement for holding public office. Ultimately defeated, the measure drew some impassioned rhetoric. Isaac Backus, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, addressed it thus: "Let the history of all nations be searched, from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen who are not giving in the right of conscience, in this great and important matter."
Similarly, in an open letter to fellow landholders, published 17 December 1787, in the Connecticut Courant, the jurist Oliver Ellsworth wrote: "In other parts of the world [...] systems of religious error have been adopted in times of ignorance. It has been the interest of tyrannical kings, popes, and prelates, to maintain these errors [...].It was the universal opinion that one religion must be established by law; and that all, who differed in their religious opinions, must suffer the vengeance of persecution."
Ellsworth concluded: "The business of civil government is to protect the citizen in his rights, to defend the community from hostile powers, and to promote the general welfare. Civil government has no business to meddle with the private opinions of the people. [...] If such had been the universal sentiments of mankind, and they had acted accordingly, persecution, the bane of truth and nurse of error, with her bloody axe and flaming hand, would never have turned so great a part of the world into a field of blood."
The founding generation had good reason for their hyperbolic rejection of any tendency toward theocracy. The Church of England of the time was very much a political instrument of the crown. Required homilies were read from every pulpit in the land a convenient propaganda tool considering that a law passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I required every able subject to attend Sunday and other holy day services. It is no wonder that even America's early religious leaders, like Roger Williams, hoped for a different order, as Williams put it: "a wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world." Or, as a more acerbic contemporary said: "The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever."
A more famous example of the sceptical Founder is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and America's third president. As a matter of personal belief, Jefferson did not accept the doctrine of the virgin birth of a divine godchild or of Jesus' divinity. He also despised a bedrock doctrine of today's Christian fundamentalists, that all men are sinners, fallen from grace; and he abhorred any notion of God's 'elect'.
While the religious right is not completely inventing history, they are certainly miscasting it. The right focuses on actions by Founders like George Washington, who placed great emphasis on what he perceived to be the unifying properties of religion, declaring a day of annual prayer and thanksgiving "to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being. . ." that "we may then unite in most humbly offering prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations. . ."
But to selectively read Washington's actions as evidence of a consensus among the Founders is dishonest. Thomas Jefferson, for example, refused to declare such days of thanksgiving, believing they violated the separation of church and state. And Jefferson was not alone. As president, John Adams signed the treaty of Tripoli, which pointedly declared: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
Moreover, James Madison, regarded as the father of the US Constitution and an opponent of tax exemptions and other benefits for churches, wrote: "What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy."
But the religionists' campaign to distort historical reality has been highly successful. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 58 per cent of Americans say a belief in God is a necessary precursor to being a moral person. The fundamentalists' political clout was made plain in the recent debate over Terri Schiavo's right to a dignified death. The willingness, even eagerness, of the Florida legislature and the national Congress to intervene in the Schiavo case, not to mention the overwhelmingly bipartisan nature of the interference, underscores the power of the religionists to pull strings, both locally and nationally.
Of less notoriety is pending Florida legislation that would actually allow students to sue professors who do not accept as accurate the students' views on intelligent design or other creationism theories. Paradoxically, the bill cites Thomas Jefferson.
"How," the bewildered observer might ask, "did America come to this disturbing place?"
The answer lies in the preceding quote by Dobson: "Those of our people who do not study our history can be duped into anything." Dobson can make this brazen statement, for he knows that his adherents aren't going to take his challenge. They have been taught that questioning is wrong, even sinful.
In the Southern Baptist church of my youth, I was taught to scorn those who rejected the church's fundamentalist beliefs. I was even warned not to get 'too smart' and lose sight of God's mandates.
The curious religion of my youth replaced reliance on intellect and reason with reliance on a 'salvation experience' and with unquestioning acceptance of God's 'revealed truth'. In many ways, Dobson's challenge and the admonishment, "don't get too smart", converge to form the heart of fundamentalist Christianity's success. As Bruce Bawer put it in his book, Stealing Jesus, fundamentalism can be understood as a way of "avoiding the obligation to think and, especially, to think for oneself". In that way, spiritually immature people mistake the voices of aggressive socialisation for the voice of God.
James Dobson said it best when he noted: "Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience what they see, hear, think, and believe will determine the future course of the nation."
Thus Christian fundamentalists distort history and discourage free thinking so that their children and America's future policymakers do not learn the truth that would derail the theocracy they are determined to establish. As put bluntly by antiabortion organiser Randall Terry, "Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country [...]. We don't want pluralism."
Dobson and Terry reveal that the religionists' ultimate goal is to create a nation and populace that will behave according to fundamentalist dictates. Now, if you think the chief proselytizers of fundamentalism know they are distorting history, be clear that fundamentalists sincerely, earnestly fanatically believe that the primary purpose of life is to live the biblical mandate to save souls and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ.
This is what makes the fundamentalists so dangerous for America; it is what explains their uncompromising rigidity in matters of abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, and others they believe deserve God's scorn. It also explains their astounding aggressiveness toward those who will not conform to their worldview. Their condoning of even murder to achieve their end (like the murder of abortion clinic doctor John Bayard Britton or gay man Matthew Shepard) should shock the American citizens, but it hardly does anymore. It has reached the point where almost no one seems willing to tackle the religious right, and decades of this handsoff approach has compounded an error that, by now, may be irreversible.
Where, then, does all of this leave America?
America at the hands of the religionists has strayed far from its founding ideals. From president to ordinary citizen, the bornagain American has a heavenly mandate that absolves him from responsibility for his actions and entitles him to intellectual lethargy. As America's Founders knew, the corrupting influence of religion on governments and vice versa is not new. What is remarkable about the American experience is the complacencies of our popular culture that have allowed such a pervasive and insidious church/state entanglement in a nation founded to be the opposite of what it has become.
If there is one thing this cynical professor believes, it is that now is the time to fight for America's future by defending its enlightened past against bornagain intellectual cowards. As James Madison warned, "religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together." It is the time for Americans for the sake of America to live that maxim.
Shannon Gilreath teaches at Wake Forest University in the United States, where he is an associated professor of law and divinity