The Founding Evangelicals?
David Barton wants to put God back into American history. But whose God—history's or his?
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may have been dyed-in-the-wool deists, but did you know that “compared to today’s secularists these two guys look like a couple of Bible-thumping evangelicals”?
So says David Barton, a leading conservative Christian advocate for putting God—that is, the God of conservative Christianity—in public school history classes. In yesterday’s Times’ Week in Review, David D. Kirkpatrick describes Barton, who is also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican party, as a “point man in a growing movement to call attention to the open Christianity of America’s great leaders and founding documents.”
An historian with a BA from Oral Roberts University and an honorary doctorate from Pensacola Christian College, Barton has consulted the California and Texas school boards on their curriculums and helped legislators in a dozen states pass acts intended to protect teachers who discuss religion’s role in American history. Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, a national organization that seeks to “reclaim the original intent of our Founding Fathers in the areas of faith and family.”
The idea seems to be that if Barton and company can demonstrate that the 18th-century Founding Fathers thought like 21st-century evangelical Christians, well, then, resistance is futile—America has no historical grounds for objecting to the agenda of conservative Christianity.
As part of his mission to “educate the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country,” Barton personally leads “spiritual heritage” tours of the United States Capitol Building, and David Kirkpatrick took one. Kirkpatrick writes that Barton stood barefoot on a bench in the rotunda and told the group that Thomas Jefferson signed letters “in the year of Our Lord Christ.” “What would happen if George Bush did that?” Barton asked. “They’d rip his head off!” (And you thought liberal secular humanists were wusses!)
Frankly, I wish George Bush would embrace religion more the way Thomas Jefferson did. Wouldn’t it be great for this God-fearin’ nation if Bush, like Jefferson, sat in the White House study one night with a Bible and a razor and cut out all the stuff in the Gospels that don’t make sense, including the virgin birth, the miracle stories, and all claims to Jesus' divinity and the resurrection. Then, like Jefferson, he could publish the result. Maybe call it “The Freedom Bible,” for helping to liberate us from "the most perverted system that ever shone on man," as Jefferson called Christianity.
Of course, if Bush did such a blasphemous thing, then evangelicals would rip his head off.
As Barton reclaims the Founding Fathers’ conservative Christianity, I hope he’s relying evenly on the words of our great forebears (you know, not just turning to Abraham Lincoln’s lengthy denunciations of gays, feminists, postmodernists, and Hollywood). Here are some gems by Thomas Jefferson, who was denounced by political opponents as an atheist, though Barton told his tour that our third president considered himself a Christian (find more quotes at positiveathism.org and nobeliefs.com):
"I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature."
"Nothing but free argument, raillery and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion."
“They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.”
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile ty.liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
"[Creeds] have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made of Christendom a slaughterhouse, and at this day divides it into castes of inextinguishable hatred to one another."
“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.”
“I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did.”
“As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
“The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
"Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being."
“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
John D. Spalding edits SoMAreview.com and is the author of A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City.
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