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Leaping Back to the Founding, Part 2: Is this a “Christian Nation” Theory?

October 25, 2009

5000-year-leap

Click here for Part 1 of Leaping Back to the Founding

Here’s one way to tell when someone is lying about a person or a book: they fail to actually produce any quotes confirming the facts of what they’re talking about. Leftists who lie about David Horowitz do this all the time. They’ll ascribe some wild position to him and then not actually back it with a damning quote. A commenter here at NewsReal recently did it with the Rush Limbaugh controversy once the Left’s racist quote was determined to be fraudulent.

And Alexander Zaitchik did it with W. Cleon Skousen — and Glenn Beck by extension — in his Salon hit-piece on the conservative author.

What has Beck been pushing on his legions? “Leap,” first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah’s George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year’s annual fundraiser).

[Emphasis added.]

Everything that I’ve put in bold in the above passage is a lie about the book. And as our exploration and debates over the constitutional themes of Leap begin and continue then that will become clear.

As an agnostic conservative I have no sympathy for the “Christian Nation” argument that some on the fringes of the Right like to promulgate. (Briefly defined: the idea that Christianity is the foundation of America and deserves some sort of federally-mandated preference in American life.) I acknowledge that the Bible and Judeo-Christian concepts informed the founders but I bristle at the suggestion that the federal government should demonstrate any sort of bias toward Christianity, churches, or religious ideas.

And while Skousen does indeed cite the Bible as an influence for the founders — perhaps somewhat more than he should — 5000 Year Leap does not demonstrate a Mormon version of the founding or a “Christian Nation” thesis. And why would it? Skousen, as a Mormon, knew that only a government neutral to the country’s many religious traditions could be trusted to guarantee religious freedom for all.

Skousen does indeed have a religious tone and somewhat of a religious approach to the American Idea. (Some have rightfully labeled this “hokey” — which in Skousen’s hands it has a tendency to be sometimes.)

However, this conception of “civic religion” is nothing with which a mystically-minded agnostic like myself has a problem.  Though we may be divided by questions of theology, there is a “religion” that can transcend these differences.

Among its scriptures are the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. Its rituals are poltical discussion, campaigning, and voting. Its holidays are the 4th of July and Memorial Day. Its saints are all who have worn a uniform in defense of their country. What’s to object to about this civic religion?

I’m sure as we begin exploring some of the Founders’ concepts which Skousen has collected in his book we’ll find plenty of ideas that the Left has chosen to jettison as it continues its doomed quest to create  perfect.

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11 Comments
  1. Cas Balicki permalink
    October 25, 2009 2:25 pm

    “Among its scriptures are the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. Its rituals are poltical (sic) discussion, campaigning, and voting. Its holidays are the 4th of July and Memorial Day. Its saints are all who have worn a uniform in defense of their country. What’s to object to about this civic … “

    I took out religion, David, because what you describe is not a religion. It is the very core of what America is or at least was into the recent past. If anything your recitation more closely resembles a creed, a set of commonly held beliefs, than it does a religion. A creed is also a foundation on which all else is based, even the ideal of multiculturalism must stand on this foundation or it is not only useless as an objective but dangerous to the polity. If there is an implicit plea that redounds through this citation, it is one that begs the reader to have a degree of cultural self-confidence, which is something that the left has been trying mightily to erode throughout the last half of the twentieth and the first part of this century. If a country’s founding principles can be undermined by silliness such as a baseless multiculturalism that does not root in the rich soil of America’s constitutional inheritance than that inheritance is that much easier to marginalize and make irrelevant in an attempt to replace it with socialist mush. Cultural/constitutional divisiveness can also be seen in attempts to brand the founding principles as Christian or Judeo-Christian. The problem with this type of branding is that it is exclusive in that it alienates those that might not feel affinity for the brand. Under the terms of America’s constitutional inheritance all voices are welcomed in the public square and all are deemed legitimate, yet at the end of the debate the constitution rules, this is the American Creed, the shared belief, the modus vivendi that guarantees peace, security, and the strength of e pluribus unum.

  2. David Forsmark permalink
    October 25, 2009 6:25 pm

    Easily the best book about the role of Christianity in the Founding is Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Stephen Waldman of Beliefnet.com

    I reviewed it here:
    http://www.davidforsmark.com/4595/founding-faith

    A quote that personifies the even-handed and clear-eyed approach of the book:
    “…(I)n the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, both sides distort history. Each has embraced a variant of the same non-sequitor. In the eighteenth century it did not follow that one’s piety determined one’s views about separation of church and state. Being pro-religion didn’t mean one was anti-separation. And being pro-separation didn’t mean that one was anti-Christian. In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty. Freedom of conscience, as the Founders liked to call it, is one of the most important characteristics of American democracy, and yet the real story of how it happened is rarely told.”

  3. J Hampton permalink
    October 26, 2009 4:46 am

    I do not believe the federal government should endorse any religion or denomination. We however for the most part remain a christian nation in that the majority of Americans profess a belief in God. The Government can remain free of establishing a national religion without throwing christians under the bus. Some people even possibly some that comment here would like to see people of faith removed from the public square and there verilent hatred if given power would force christians into secret services probably as they were held behind the Iron Curtain fearing the proverbial knock on the door. While we do not want our leaders siding with any denomination or religious group we refuse to be outcast or to be intimidated by the loud and obnoxious.

  4. October 26, 2009 9:35 pm

    Great post, Mr. Swindle. Although I am a born-again Christian, with a strongly held belief in the Bible and salvation through Jesus Christ, I do not espouse the “Christian Nation” theory, as I fundamentally believe this country was founded on the freedom to worship or not to worship, as each citizen pleases. We must safeguard the right of each of our citizens to have freedom of religion, and even freedom of religion.

    I highly recommend the book “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church”, written by Gregory Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN, for further exploration of this subject. An excerpt:

    “I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. To a frightful degree, I think, evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with a preferred version of the kingdom of the world…For some evangelicals, the kingdom of God is largely about, if not centered on, ‘taking America back for God,’ voting for the Christian candidate, outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keeping the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, fighting for prayer in the public schools and at public events, and fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings…Fusing together the kingdom of God with…the kingdom of the world is idolatrous…This fusion is having serious consequences for Christ’s church and for the advancement of God’s kingdom.” (p. 11)

    • October 27, 2009 8:28 am

      Thank you Cynthia. 🙂

  5. Charles Hancock permalink
    October 27, 2009 7:22 am

    Mr. Swindle,
    What is you opinion of David Barton and his website name wallbuilders ?

    • October 27, 2009 7:47 am

      While I have only a basic knowledge of Barton and Wallbuilders I tend to think that he and it fit into what I’m critiquing. Much of my views on this issue of the founding and religion are informed by the writings of my friend Jon Rowe. He’s been researching and debating this stuff for years and seems to know what he’s talking about. Here’s a blog he did recently on Barton:
      http://www.positiveliberty.com/2009/05/my-biggest-problem-with-david-barton.html

  6. October 27, 2009 9:28 am

    I want to thank David Swindle for plugging my work and I want to comment on two figures named, David Barton and Stephen Waldman. In my learned opinion Waldman gets to the nuanced truth far better than Barton does. Barton is an evangelical who promotes his thesis to a largely evangelical-fundamentalist audience (nothing wrong with that) but gives them a misleading definition of the “Christianity” of the Founding Fathers (there is something wrong with that).

    Evangelicals view non-Trinitarians as “not Christian” and many of the “Christian” names on Barton’s list were non-Trinitarians, some of them militantly so. Stephen Waldman recognizes this and stresses it in his book; Barton does his best to avoid the issue.

  7. Jackie Durkee permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:11 am

    As a Christian, I don’t necessary look at this country as a “Christian Nation” as such, but rather it is supposed to be a nation of Freedom and Liberty. The Freedom to practice religion or not to practice religion. Freedom of speech, press, to bear arms, and all the rest.

    I do and don’t believe in separation of church and state. Many have taken Jefferson’s words out of context. As usual many go overboard in this whole area. I believe the Constitution makes it quite alright to say a prayer in the class room if a teacher wants to. I believe it alright to have the ten commandments in the courtroom.

    I do have a problem with atheists who try to take God out of everything. They should not be forced to pray or worship God, but they should not push for our freedom to do so to be taken away.

    FREEDOM – that is the founding principle of the United States.

    FaithfulinPrayer
    @ wordpress
    Jackie

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  1. Leaping Back to the Founding, Part 4: I’m Not the Only One Struggling with Understanding “Natural Law” « NewsReal Blog
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