This is part 1 of a 5-part series.
America's Religious Right - Saints or
Part I: The Lure of Christian Nationalism
Wednesday 06 April 2005
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
When Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin boasted that his God was bigger than Islam's, many people demanded his scalp. But, as angry as his critics were, they dismissed what he said as little more than military machismo, political insensitivity, and bone-headed public relations. How could we possibly win Muslim hearts and minds when this highly decorated Crusader so callously belittled Allah?
Few critics asked the tougher question: What did Gen. Boykin's remarks mean for the U.S. Constitution, which he had sworn to support and defend, and which - in the very first words of the First Amendment - forbids any "establishment of religion?"
Dressed in full military uniform with his spit-polished paratroop boots, Boykin spoke to at least 23 evangelical groups around the country, proclaiming that America was "a Christian nation."
"We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this," he declared. "[Our] spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus."
Defending Boykin, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld carefully cast the issue as one of free speech and religious freedom, both of which the First Amendment guarantees.
"There are a lot of things that are said by people that are their views," said Rumsfeld, "and that's the way we live. We are free people and that's the wonderful thing about our country, and I think for anyone to run around and think that can be managed or controlled is probably wrong."
But, in expressing his beliefs, Gen. Boykin spoke as a high-ranking official. A former commander and 13-year veteran of the top-secret Delta Force, he had recently become deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the Pentagon's top uniformed spook. In that post, he helped expand American torture at Abu Ghraib and currently oversees the Pentagon's worldwide covert operations, including the widely reported "death squads."
Nor was Gen. Boykin simply passing comment on the religious and cultural heritage of his fellows Americans. Instead, the evangelical general directly challenged the plain language of the Constitution and over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions maintaining what Thomas Jefferson called "the separation of church and state."
A Christian Nation
With all their many sects and denominations, American evangelicals differ on all sorts of questions, from when Jesus Christ will return to the proper way to run a church. But most Southern Baptists and Pentecostals share the belief, more political than religious, that America once was and should again become a Christian nation.
This is Christian nationalism, and no one has done more to popularize it than an energetic young man named David Barton. A self-taught historian, he has dredged up hundreds of fascinating historical quotes and anecdotes in an effort to prove that the founding fathers were primarily "orthodox, evangelical Christians" who intended to create a God-fearing Christian government.
Barton's books, videos, and Wallbuilders website are wildly popular on the religious right, and his views have become gospel for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum, and hundreds of Christian radio and TV stations.
In 2002, Barton appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club armed with a stack of books and historical artifacts.
"This is the book that the founders said they used in writing the Declaration ... John Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government, from 1765," he showed Robertson. "This quotes the Bible 1,700 times to show the proper operation of civil government. No wonder we have had a successful government - 226 years we celebrate this year. There are 1700 Bible verses at the base of what they did in writing the Declaration."
"So," said Barton, "this nonsense that these guys wanted a secular nation, that they didn't want any God in government, it doesn't hold up."
Robertson asked about a Revolutionary War motto.
"The motto ... was 'No king but King Jesus,'" said Barton. "It was built actually on what Jefferson and Franklin had proposed as the national motto, which is, 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.'"
To his credit, Barton highlights the religious side of the American Revolution that conventional historians often overlook. But to his critics, Barton's hyperactive enthusiasm quickly outruns any historical expertise he might have. He ignores mountains of evidence that contradict what he wants to believe. He relies on second- and third-hand sources, often with a religious agenda of their own. He fails to put much of anything in context. He misquotes and distorts Supreme Court decisions. And, he confuses his present-day evangelical faith with the very different religious sentiments of earlier times.
Even more galling to his critics, Barton systematically fails to see that many, if not most, of the founders were men of the 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment, who consciously rejected any literal interpretation of the Bible. To the degree they had religious faith, and many did, they believed in a God who - like a cosmic watchmaker - created the world and its natural laws, and then played no further part.
Deism, as they called their belief, runs unmistakably through the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote of the "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" rather than of the personal, miracle-working God of David Barton's Christianity.
To cite only one example:
I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies. (Letter to Dr. Woods)
Barton short-changes this Enlightenment philosophy. At one point, he even claimed that Jefferson wanted his wall of separation to work in only one direction. "Government will not run the church," Barton paraphrased him, "but we will still use Christian principles with government." Jefferson never said anything of the kind, as Barton was later forced to admit.
Similarly, he quoted "the father of the Constitution," James Madison:
We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.
No one could find where Madison ever said anything close. In fact, in the debate over religious freedom in Virginia, he said the opposite, advocating "total separation of the church from the state." Again, Barton had to back down.
Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is perhaps Barton's most persistent critic, and accuses him of "factual errors, half truths and distortions." Boston has published a list of 12 bogus quotations that Barton has admitted getting wrong.
But Barton suffers a bigger glitch. His "history" undermines his conclusion. The more he can show the founders as Christian in their personal convictions, the less he can answer the obvious: Why, then, did they leave out of the Constitution any mention of God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity? And why did they explicitly reject any religious test for public office, which many of the colonies had enforced?
The explanation is simple. Whatever their religious beliefs, their political philosophy led the founders to move in a different, revolutionary direction. Because they had seen religious conflict and repression first hand, and knew of the bloody religious wars in Europe, the authors of the Constitution set out purposely NOT to create a Christian nation. And they did it by prohibiting both the establishment of a national church and the mixing of God and government.
Succeeding generations have maintained the wall only imperfectly, as when Congress put the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. But, until recently, the vast majority of Americans paid at least lip service to the separation of church and state, and no one more fervently than Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, who feared that Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Catholics, and others might use the power of the state against them.
Now growing rapidly while the more established denominations decline, the evangelicals suddenly see a chance to bend government to their will. This likely explains why they have reversed their belief in separation and adopted a radically new understanding of American history.
As for David Barton, he became vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party, which has committed itself officially to declare the United States "a Christian nation" and "dispel the myth of separation of church and state." He also took a job in 2004 with the Bush-Cheney campaign, which hired him to tour the country spreading his Christian nationalism to evangelical groups, the very people who cheered General Jerry Boykin as their "Onward, Christian Soldier."
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.