Thursday, July 23, 2009

Revisionist History from the Religious Right, Deep in the Heart of Texas

When I said I'd have to take up the ridiculous notion that America was somehow founded to be a Christian nation in a future blog post, I didn't realize I would be writing on that topic so soon!

A recent article in Britain's Guardian newspaper describes the logical (if deeply disappointing) extension of the fruitcake fringe's attempts to force creationism into our science classrooms: the Texas state school board is "considering" revising the state's history curriculum to include the "role" [the Christian] God played in the history and success of the United States.

From the Guardian article:

One of the panel, David Barton, founder of a Christian heritage group called WallBuilders, argues that the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind including that "there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature", that "there is a creator" and "government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual".

Barton's knowledge of history clearly deserves a bright red "F" and reflects an apparently- growing misconception of the United States' founding amongst religious (and perhaps broader) circles, which erroneously conflates the historical fact of the religious backgrounds of many of our earliest settlers with the demonstrated and deliberate secular principles of government laid down by the founders.

Yes, the Constitution was written with "God in mind": if you accept protecting citizens from the tyranny of religion as having had God in mind. Madison, Jefferson, Paine, et al, expressly excluded the very concept of a state religion in the First Amendment to protect citizens of all faiths (and none) from the very religious persecution so many groups had fled in Europe.

Debate about recognizing Christianity did arise amongst the founders, but examining Jefferson's own words on drafting Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, it's clear that the intent, time and time again--from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution--was against establishing Christianity and indeed to reject that it and other religions as having some special place in our government:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
-- Thomas Jefferson, from his autobiography

Jefferson's writings are filled with similar sentiments, as are those of other of the founding fathers who played a critical role in the shaping of our government and the early history of our country.

Likewise, a common notion offered up by revisionist Christian "historians" is that the Declaration of Independence somehow defines America as a Christian nation, which fruitcake-fringer and TX school board advisory panel member David Barton seems to be talking about with his references to the laws of "God and nature" and a "creator." Disregarding for the moment that the Declaration is hardly of real legal standing in our system of government (unlike, say, the Constitution), or the fact that it was written largely by no friend to religion (Thomas Jefferson), let's look at the language so often cited by these revisionist fruitcakes:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
-- US Declaration of Independence (emphasis mine)

Oh, my--see that "Nature's God" and "Creator" bit? Doesn't that mean the Christian God is explicitly spelled out in one of the most important documents in America's history?

Not quite. Well, not even close.

As any real historian would be able to explain, "Nature's God" and the generic "Creator" do reflect a religious belief... just not a Christian one. They are hallmarks of deism, an Enlightenment philosophy held by several of our founders and which do not bear much resemblance to Christianity (they're also--to the delight of conspiracy theorists--the hallmarks of Freemasonry, to which many of the founders also belonged). If these terms were reflective of the Christian--or even the broader Abrahamic God, to include the Judaic God and Islamic Allah--then why use such a generic term as "Nature's God?"

The acclimation of "a creator" is common to nearly every religious faith, but you do not see Barton demanding a recognition of the creation accounts of classical Greek mythology, the many Native American mythic traditions, or the farcical faiths of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster, do you?

Simply put, Barton and his ilk are poor historians at best, deliberate revisionists at worst, and rather telescopically Christiancentric in their views.

Of course, Barton doesn't limit his ignorance and ethnocentrism to religion; he twists and conflates the very notions of democracy and republican government with none other than the Democratic and Republican political parties; in a bit suitable for a late-night comedy sketch, he says (again, from the Guardian article):

Barton, a former vice-chairman of the state's Republican party, said that Texas children should no longer be taught about democratic values but republican ones. "We don't pledge allegiance to the flag and the democracy for which it stands," he said.

The most frightening aspect of this discussion--aside from the fact it exists at all--is that unlike prior attempts to insert Christian religion into the public school system, it is not occurring in a backwater like Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, or rural Pennsylvania (no disrespect to residents of those areas; stick with me for a moment), but in Texas. As described by Diane Ravitch in her fantastic (and non-partisan) lament for the detrimental role of special interest groups in the public education system, The Language Police, school textbook publishers base much of their content on the demands of the public education systems of two states: California, and Texas.

That means should the religious right successfully rewrite history as presented by the Texas public school system, their egregiously incorrect revisionism could show up in textbooks used throughout the United States. While a footnote on "intelligent design" in a Dover, PA, school biology text would make local residents the butt of late-night jokes, such a ridiculous addendum would not find its way into the science texts in Massachusetts, Idaho, or Hawaii.

As a sad footnote, the Guardian article also points out that the religious right succeeded in Texas in introducing religion into science class. Discussion of evolution now includes the widely-discredited notion of irreducible complexity of the eye, a favorite canard of (un)intelligent design advocate Michael Behe, saying that evolution cannot explain eyes. Evolutionary science has demonstrated credible mechanisms for modern eye development for decades, a fact Behe, who continues to make the argument, is blithely (and likely deliberately) ignorant of; adding this ID notion to a science class is akin to teaching that the Earth might actually be the center of the universe; after all, geocentricism was only discredited a few centuries ago.

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