An article in this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine dives headlong into one of the most popular controversies of the contemporary American culture wars: Just what was the Founders relationship with Christianity, and what relationship did they want the Church and the United States to enjoy? Author Russell Shorto does a solid job of reviewing something that he concedes is the cause of endless vexation to political liberals who think that Christian activists whitewash American history. When they say that America is a Christian nation, “the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on their side.” Yet, he also looks at scholarly assessments of that history and those of some conservative Christians whose read on the meaning of the separation of church and state is itself controversial. The result is an interesting analysis that is a study in comparisons between the academy’s world of scholarly opinion and the politics of who will control what history is taught to school-age children. All of this is done using the bureaucratic process of selecting textbooks for the Texas public schools as a backdrop.
The article includes an excellent review of Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 letter to Danbury Baptists, which is the source of the phrase “wall of separation” used to describe the constitutional principle of the seperation of church and state. I think the article is a fair representation of the points-of-view held by Christian activists who argue the Founders were people of deep faith. I leave it to readers to decide whether they agree with the activists’ take on how the Revolutionary Generation’s faith influenced the founding of the United States. However, one thing the article makes clear is that for these activists more than history is at stake:
The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.
The article worth is reading simply to understand the motives of people dedicated to revising American history so it reflects a religious and political intent widely held among many common American people. Those people vote, influence school boards, and demand that legislatures respect their views. They will attempt to shape who make the “roll call of history” and how it is presented in your children’s textbooks.