Wall of Separation

Back in the days of the old Soviet Union, particularly under Josef Stalin, your life span in the Party hierarchy was likely to be fairly short. In fact, you lasted until the paranoiac leader decided a) you were a threat, b) you knew too much, or c) you’d make a useful scapegoat to pile his sins on.

Leon Trotsky (Father of the Red Army), Nikolai Bukharin (framer of the Soviet constitution), Nikolai Yezhov (Head of the NKVD), and hundreds and hundreds of others fell afoul of Stalin with fatal results.

But merely killing them was not enough. The dead became nonpersons. They had to be written out of all the history books or turned into anti-Soviet demons. And even more than that, they had to be removed from all of the official photos they had once proudly graced. And that was no simple matter. Given the number of people executed, and their prominence, there soon grew up a thriving trade of airbrushing them out of all the official photographs.

This careful editing of history became, outside the Soviet Union (and later, the People’s Republic of China under Mao) the stuff of satire and metaphor. Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four worked in the Ministry of Truth, constantly rewriting history to conform to the latest political line.

Naturally, we would never allow such insanity here, would we?

Well, let me introduce you to David Barton.

Mr. Barton is an evangelical Christian minister, collector of historic documents, and a prolific writer on American history. No problem there, right?

Unfortunately, it is dogma on the religious right that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the Founding Fathers never intended a separation of Church and State. David Barton is the primary academic authority quoted as supporting that view. In the political realm, Barton has been praised by U.S. conservatives Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, not to mention Glenn Beck.

Still and all, what is wrong with some scholar trying to show how Christian early America was? We all know that much of America was founded by people like the Puritans, the Pilgrims and such groups of Christians, for overtly religious purposes.

Well, part of the problem is Mr Barton’s academic credentials. He has a degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University. In other words, he is an amateur in the field of history, without the required training in sources and methods.

But even amateurs can be good historians. And Barton’s works are rife with quotations and citations from original sources. As long as one is willing to respect one’s sources and treat them properly, one can do some really good work

And there we have the problem.

For instance: The primary use of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state”comes from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists Association. Barton says the letter makes clear that Jefferson meant to keep the state from interfering with religion, but not the other way around.

Problem is, the letter actually says nothing of the kind. Barton just made that part up.

Another instance: Barton quotes James Madison as saying, “We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government…according to the Ten Commandments.”

But that quotation is found nowhere in the papers of Madison. In fact, his paper’s editors, when asked about the “quote” said, “the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”

But surely Barton gets some things right?

Well, sort of. He points out that Benjamin Franklin suggested that the sessions of the Constitutional Convention begin with a prayer. True enough (although using an old Deist like Franklin as evidence of Christianity is a bit odd). But he also suggests that it was with this Christian guidance that the disputes of the convention were dispelled and the Constitution written.

While Franklin apparently made such a suggestion in one session, the session adjourned without ever voting on it and it never came up again. Hardly proof of the obsessive Christianity of the delegates.

The examples go on and on. Barton cites his sources not for what they said, but for what they should have said.

As a result, Barton has not been well treated by academic historians. In 2012, Barton’s New York Times best-seller The Jefferson Lies was voted “the least credible history book in print” by the users of the History News Network website. He and Tim LaHaye and other Christian Revisionists have been pretty roundly beaten up for their un-historical views and shoddy research in papers and articles.

The result? Total success.

We now have millions of Americans who firmly believe that all of the Founding Fathers were good believing Christians who intended to base their nation on the Ten Commandments and solid Christian (evangelical) values. That this original America has somehow been stolen away by evil secularists and all our present evils can be traced to our separation from that original intent.

No, I have to say that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Washington and all the rest have not really become nonpersons, airbrushed out of history. They have, however, been completely rewritten to match a current orthodoxy. They are still heroes, but heroes for people who insist on seeing them not as they were, but newly clad in completely anachronistic and inappropriate armor of Christian righteousness.

And that strange sound beneath your feet? Don’t worry. It’s not an incipient earthquake. It’s just our Founding Fathers.

…spinning in their graves.

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