What Conservatives Really Think of the Founders

Last week saw a brief debate about simplifying history for classroom consumption — “the Civil War was about slavery”; “Rome fell in 476 C.E.”; “the Dark Ages were dark”; “Columbus discovered the New World,” etc. — but there is a simplification that trims nuance to facilitate understanding for elementary students, while inviting further inquiry, and a simplification that elides significant facts to effect a materially different story.

Apparently, contemporaneously with us, Texas was having its own debate, which, to my dismay, resulted in a paradigmatic example of the noxious type of revisionism. There the school board, packed with paleo-conservatives who lost their elections for just that but seem determined to make the most of their lame duck status, made the following changes to the state’s social studies curriculum:

(•) The board rejected a proposed standard requiring students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” That means the board opposes teaching students about the most fundamental constitutional protection for religious freedom in America.

(•) Even as board members continued to demand that students learn about “American exceptionalism,” the board stripped Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from the 1700s to today. In Jefferson’s place, the board’s religious conservatives succeeded in inserting Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. They also removed the reference to “Enlightenment ideas” in the standard, requiring that students should simply learn about the influence of the “writings” of various thinkers (including Calvin and Aquinas).

These changes, among other shockers omitted from this post because I just can’t spare the outrage, amount to an utter rejection of one of the basic definitions of who were are as a people — we are free, not just from foreign tyrants and government overreach, but from the requirement that we think or worship a certain way. A candid look at the history of the founding generation reveals several inconvenient truths for modern fundamentalist Christians — among them, the fact that several presidents of that era, beginning with the third, considered public prayer too much of an establishment of religion to risk in the nascent republic:

Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect [N.B. omitted from final draft. – Ed.].

And that several of the Constitution’s framers, most notably Jefferson and Franklin, were Enlightenment men through and through, who regarded the supernatural component of religion as utterly secondary to, or even detrimental to, its moral power. Wrote Jefferson:

[T]he greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man [. . . .] The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, [FN1] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted man kind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.

[FN1:] e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, re generation, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c. T. J.

Ouch. Search through the rest of his letters for the name “Jesus” for some more zingers. Jefferson has some especially choice words for John Calvin. Interesting, then, which one Texas school children will hear the most about.

It’s wrong to say that America was built exclusively by deists and atheists, but wronger still to teach that America was built to be a Christian Nation as modern culture warriors mean the term, complete with public prayer, and invocation of the deity to justify prejudice against fellow citizens. We may fairly conclude that America was built to be a nation where Christian Morality would be felt, but not heard as such; but to support or counter that argument, or even recognize this country’s place in world history, students need a fair understanding of the Enlightenment, and an awareness of the voices of all of the founding generation, not just those whose lives, or cherrypicked versions thereof, best support Phyllis Schlafly’s latest book.

The Christian right is happy to embrace “American exceptionalism” — but only so far as it jives with their latent theocratic impulse. And they’ll happily defend us all against “brainwashing” by public officials, but only when the speaker isn’t, ah, “like” them.

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One comment

  1. […] exceptionalism (but see our criticisms of their limited view of the concept, here, here, here, and here, among others), elements of that faction seem peculiarly quick to dispense with one of the most […]

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