Time To Do Some History Homework

Found a valuable piece on the History News Network: “Why Is Christian America Supporting Donald Trump?” It’s by John Fea, a historian  at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

Fea’s piece is not just timely, it’s also important. He homes in on the fact that the “Christians” in Trump’s base are operating on a specific religious reading of American history, one that’s not new, but which has always been false.

In fact, it’s not really an exaggeration to say that our struggle today for a democratic American future is also a fierce struggle to confront & root out a false so-called “Christian” pack of lies about our past. Unfortunately, at the moment the false history charlatans are way ahead, and it makes a real difference. And it could soon make much more.

For many of us it might be a horrifying truth: sometimes to make a revolution (or preserve one; the US was born as a revolutionary idea), we have to sit down and do some serious homework, lots of it, about stuff like history.
Why? Here’s how Fea puts it:

Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished in their perceived status as God’s new Israel—His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God. . . .

This “Divine Exceptionalism” had a heyday beginning during the  Civil War and the following decades, under the banner of the National Reform Association (Yes — NRA!) They pushed  a specific political goal, a constitutional amendment declaring the U.S. to be a “Christian nation.” One  version would have changed the existing preamble to the Constitution thus (the proposed change is highlighted):

“We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, and His revealed will as our supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government, to form a more perfect union, … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Note the motto under the title: “Truth for authority, not authority for truth.” –Lucretia Mott

The amendment was introduced in Congress in 1864, 1874 and 1896; it did not pass, but the idea did not disappear. One force that helped stop it in those years was the Free Religious Association, founded in 1867, as an interdenominational liberal association, which was an active defender of a strict separation of church and state. Among FRA’s ten founders were several Unitarians, and one woman: Quaker Lucretia Mott. 

Similar amendments bubbled up again in the next century, during the years of the Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria; none passed. But now the drive is back again, no longer in constitutional amendment form, but as a thick package of incremental statutes, aimed at a conservative Congress, a cooperative White House, and an expected complaisant Supreme court.

Behind the current resurgence is a coalition that has come together since the 1960s. Fea:

Though dissenters have always been present, the Christian culture of the United States remained intact well into the 20th century. But since World War II, the moorings of this culture have loosened, and evangelicals have responded with fear that their Christian nation is about to collapse. . . .

During the 1960s, the Supreme Court removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the federal government cut federal funding to Christian academies and colleges that practiced segregation, the country grew more diverse through immigration, and the sexual revolution threatened evangelical patriarchy and gave women the right to choose to have an abortion.

The fear that America’s Christian civilization was falling apart translated into political action. 

In the late 1970s, conservative evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye (the author of the popular Left Behind novels), and a group of politicians who had been closely affiliated with the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign, developed a political playbook to win back the culture from the forces of secularization. Most of the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 understood, and continue to understand, the relationship between their faith and their politics through this playbook. 

This playbook, which would eventual become the culture-war battle plan of the “Religious Right,” was tweaked occasionally over the years to address whatever moral issues seemed most important at the time, but it never lost its focus on “restoring,” “renewing,” and “reclaiming” America for Christ through the pursuit of political power. 

When executed properly, the playbook teaches evangelicals to elect the right President and members of Congress who will pass laws privileging evangelical Christian views of the world. These elected officials will then appoint and confirm conservative Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, defend life in the womb, and uphold religious liberty for those who believe in traditional views of marriage.

The playbook rests firmly on the Religious Right’s understanding of American identity as rooted in its view of the American past. If America was not founded as a Christian nation, the Religious Right’s political agenda collapses or, at the very least, is weakened severely.

The playbook: Note the logo at bottom right of the ‘Wallbuilders/ProFamily Legislative network.” It’s a vehicle for the bogus “history” pushed for years by fake historian David Barton and his allies. More on Barton below.

To indoctrinate its followers in the dubious claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, the Religious Right has turned to political activists, many of whom claim to be historians, to propagate the idea that the founding fathers of the United States were in the business of building a Christian nation.

The most prominent of these Christian nationalist purveyors of the past is David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders, an organization in Aledo, Texas that claims to be “dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built—a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.”

I can’t help  but interject that the agenda described here is based on a very selective and limited kind of “Christianity,” one that has never been unchallenged. In its early incarnation, it faced strong pushback from an emerging American liberal Quakerism among others. Today, though, this issue shows up on very few of their successors’ agendas.

Fea continues:

For the past thirty years, Barton has provided pastors and conservative politicians with inaccurate or misinterpreted facts used to fuel the Religious Right’s nostalgic longings for an American Christian golden age. American historians, including those who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges, have debunked Barton’s use of the past, but he continues to maintain a large following in the evangelical community. 

David Barton peddles fake news about the American past. . . .
The United States Constitution never mentions God or Christianity but does forbid religious tests for office. The First Amendment rejects a state-sponsored church and celebrates the free-exercise of religion. This is hardly the kind of stuff by which Christian nations are made. Yet Barton and [others] invoke these founders and these documents to defend the idea that the United States was founded as a distinctly Christian nation.


If the Christian Right, and by extension the 81% of evangelical voters who use its political playbook, are operating on such a weak historical foundation, why doesn’t someone correct their faulty views and dubious claims?

We do.

We have. 

But countering bad history with good history is not as easy as it sounds. 

David Barton and his fellow Christian nationalist purveyors of the past are well-funded by Christian conservatives who know that the views of the past they are peddling serve their political agenda. Barton has demonized Christian intellectuals and historians as sheep in wolves’ clothing. They may call themselves Christians on Sunday morning, but, according to Barton, their “world view” has been shaped by the secular universities where they earned their Ph.Ds. Thanks to Barton, many conservative evangelicals do not trust academic and professional historians—even academic and professional historians with whom they share a pew on Sunday mornings.

I know this first-hand from some of the negative emails and course evaluation forms I received after teaching a Sunday School course on the history of religion and politics at the Evangelical Free Church congregation where my family worship every Sunday. Because I was a college history professor—even a college history professor at a Christian college with strong evangelical roots—I could not be trusted.

Fea notes that Barton and his allies are well-funded by rich Fundamentalist right-wingers. He calls for progressive evangelical philanthropists to support a counterthrust by truth-minded evangelical scholars.

That’s a good idea, but I doubt many liberal Quakers or other progressive religious folks are ready to sign up for it. [One exception is the Quaker history H. Larry ingle, who took on one of the other main “textbooks” of this fake history in Quaker Theology back in 2005.] Personally, my own sense is that progressives need to do their own homework and strategize to make their own thrust against Barton and his baloney.

One reason why progressives should pay attention is that Bartonism is taking dead aim at some of the issues closest to their hearts and communities.

For an example, here from the current edition of the legislative playbook, is part of a lengthy section on what they call–

“The Marriage Tolerance Act (a/k/a/ First Amendment Defense Act)
— which ought to be dubbed the Whole-hog Homophobia Protection Plan. It is:

An act to prohibit discriminatory action against a person who believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.

Section 1. Title
This act shall be known as the “Marriage Tolerance Act.”

Section 2. Purpose
This act is intended to ensure that the First Amendment’s protections for the free exercise of religion is statutorily enforced in (State) so that no legal ambiguity exists regarding the fact that all persons are free to believe, speak, or act upon their sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage, without fear of discrimination or adverse or discriminatory action initiated or enforced by any governmental entity. . . .

As used in this act, the term:

A. ‘Discriminatory action’ means any action that directly or indirectly adversely affects the person against whom the discriminatory action is taken, places the person in a worse position than the person was in before the discriminatory action was taken, or is likely to deter a reasonable person from acting or refusing to act. It includes, but is not limited to, any action to:

a. Alter in any way state tax treatment of an exemption from taxation under state law;

b. Cause any tax, penalty, or payment to be assessed against a person or deny, delay, or revoke an exemption from taxation under state law;
c. Disallow a deduction for state tax purposes of any charitable contribution made to or by a person;
d. Deny, withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate, reprimand, censure, or otherwise make unavailable any government grant, contract, subcontract, cooperative agreement, loan, guarantee, license, certification, scholarship, accreditation, employment, or other similar position or status from or to a person;
e. Deny, withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate, or otherwise make unavailable any public benefit from or to a person, including for purposes of this act admission to, equal treatment in, or eligibility for a degree from any educational program at any educational facility administered by a government; or
f. Deny, withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate, condition, or otherwise make unavailable access to any speech forum (whether a traditional, limited, or nonpublic forum) administered by a government, including access to education facilities available for use by student or community organizations; or
g. Enter into a contract that is inconsistent with, would in any way interfere with, or would in any way require a person to surrender voluntarily the rights protected by this section.

B. ‘Government’ means the State or any local subdivision of the State or public instrumentality or public corporate body created by or under authority of state law, including but not limited to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and every department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, authority, or similar body thereof; municipalities; counties; school districts; special taxing districts; conservation districts; authorities; and any other State or local public instrumentality or corporation.

C. ‘Person’ means any individual, corporation, partnership, proprietorship, firm, enterprise, association, public or private organization of any character, or other legal entity.

D. ‘Public benefit’ means any grant, accreditation, certification, license, advantage, employment, access to public facility, or other benefit conferred in whole or in part by government.

Section 5. Prohibition and Enforcement

(a) Government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.

(b) A person may assert a violation of this act as a claim or defense in a judicial, agency, or other proceeding and obtain special damages, a declaratory judgment, or injunctive or other appropriate relief against a government.

(c) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an action under this act may be commenced, and relief may be granted, in a court of competent jurisdiction without regard to whether the person commencing the action has sought or exhausted available administrative remedies. [Emphasis added.]

Note the emphatic repetition of “any action”. “Any action” against LGBTs in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief” is to be put beyond the reach of any government penalty. It is worth noting here that the biblical texts cited by such “sincere” homophobia advocates mandate, as a key such “action,” the execution of those involved in such “abominations.” If there’s any exception in this bill allowing for prosecution of such “sincere” murders, I didn’t see it.

There’s lots more here, transphobic bills among it, all to be wrapped in “official” labels like “In God We Trust.”

But isn’t this stuff just the rancid raving of sinister wackadoodles with too much rich fanatics’ money to spend? A few years ago it seemed that way. But I won’t belabor the point that that was then, and now we’re in a very different moment, with Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.

But I will repeat that for liberal Quakers and other progressive church folk, our response starts with a serious homework assignment. Continuing to ignore the history that John Fea lifts up could help leave him and us — and many of our most treasured values — on the ash heap of history.


2 thoughts on “Time To Do Some History Homework”

  1. Hi Chuck,

    I’m pretty certain that going our homework all by itself isn’t going to roll back the tide. The folks we need to reach aren’t conceptual thinkers: conceptual contradictions don’t register.

    What do you see as the step beyond doing our homework?

    Thanks for the prod, as always,


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