I don’t want to spend too much time on this topic – the arguments for the Christianity of America as a whole depend on a lot of dishonesty and cherry-picking. I realize for those of you sympathetic to the “argument” (it isn’t really an argument. It’s really the assumption “I’m religious and I read religion into everything, doesn’t everyone work that way?”) the case is “obvious” or “common sense:” Once upon a time, most people were more Christian (truish), and they mentioned “God” a lot in documents that are relevant to the Founding (true to a degree). Doesn’t that mean America is a Christian nation? (no) Doesn’t it mean we have a prophetic destiny? (oh hell no. You have to be pretty out there as a believer to hold that).
That’s the case in a nutshell – to get more specific, what I know a lot of homeschoolers and fundamentalists do is ignore and marginalize the entirety of the Enlightenment. I know this because I’ve seen this happen among some in graduate school, no joke. So in other words, what’s happening when the Texas School Board pushes something specific like the study of the Mayflower Compact is that they’re trying to push the Pilgrims (and their faith) as founders as opposed to the Declaration, which explicitly appeals to “nature’s God.” That God is anything but the Judeo-Christian God; the Constitution does not mention the word “God;” the settled law that founds the United States of America is secular. Period, end of conversation: there are no prophetic or apocalyptic fantasies to be legitimately had.
Now some of you know the picture is a bit more complicated than that, but it’s not so much more complicated that America becomes the most Christian place ever under reexamination. Rather, it’s like Jefferson’s First Inaugural: this place exists to avoid the religious warfare that defined Europe for centuries. When people bring up Enlightenment and democracy arising or finding sustenance because of a religious context, ala Tocqueville, that’s again a very complex set of claims about how what constitutes piety involves passions that are key to self-government. It does not become a basis for saying that Cleon Skousen is correct, or, as one Reverend Peter Marshall says:
“The Founding Fathers’ biblical worldview taught them that human beings were by nature self-centered, so they believed that the supernatural influence of the Spirit of God was needed to free us from ourselves so that we can care for our neighbors.”
That’s such an egregious misreading of the historical record that anyone who seriously thinks this should not only enroll in classes, but get their head examined. You’ll note that Marshall is one of those working on revising Texas’ curriculum in an official capacity. If anything, the reading of man as “self-centered” comes from a very secular worldview; one can trace back the principal logic behind Constitutionalism from Locke (“life, liberty, property”), who was preached by pastors during the revolution (yes, recognizing the difference between what is “atheist” and “theist” is not easy in a world where you’ll get your head cut off if you write “I hate God”) to Hobbes (where an emphasis on security came from) to Machiavelli (who said that Christianity wouldn’t last as long as the world would). You can argue against the very brief summation I just made (usually, the argument is that Locke isn’t that secular), but you’re not going to get as far as “America is Christian.”
It is true some Founders were Christian. It is true they were vocal. I’m not saying that secularism today doesn’t go too far in marginalizing the proper place of religion in the study of history or politics. But the contemporary study of history and politics in the academy, for all its faults, is absolutely more sound and thorough than this nonsense being spouted by cranks. Keep in mind that the purposes behind the rewriting of history are not evangelization so we all love each other or tolerate each other. The purposes that the “Christians” advancing this stuff are working toward are apocalyptic in many cases. The nytimes article does not get into this, but any of you who know fundamentalists know that this is not far off the table. You can see shades of the rhetoric here:
After the book came out, Dunbar was derided in blogs and newspapers for a section in which she writes of “the inappropriateness of a state-created, taxpayer-supported school system” and likens sending children to public school to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.”
Richard Brookhiser’s statement in the article is a much better starting point for education and scholarship:
“The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”
That’s a good enough place as any to end this rant. The burden of proof is not on me, nor on any of us who work on the history of political thought or philosophy full time. The task ahead is for right-wing Christian fundamentalists who are engaged in rewriting history for their own purposes to show some humility and stop demonstrating that a strict wall of separation might actually be a really good idea.