During the era of McCarthyism, Red-baiters fed upon the image of "godless" Communists infiltrating our educational system in order to brainwash the youth of America. As it turned out, that image was largely imaginary. Ironically, though, we now really do have a coterie of Christian evangelicals who are attempting to infiltrate our educational system in order to brainwash the youth of America. They are in Texas.
For reasons peculiar to the textbook industry and the Texas educational system, the Texas Board of Education has enormous influence on the content of textbooks used throughout the United States. Conservatives and Christian evangelicals have taken over the Texas Board of Education and they are right now in the process of rewriting the American history our children will learn.
Among the propositions the Texas Board of Education is attempting to impose upon the next generation of Americans is that the United States was founded as "a Christian nation." What follows from this, of course, is that our Constitution and laws must be understood through the prism of this perspective. Although evangelicals have been pushing this line for two centuries, it is simply, factually, and historically false. But the members of the Texas Board of Education, who are not themselves historians, nonetheless persist in this effort to propagandize the youth of America. This is dangerous. It must be contested.
Christianity played a central role in the promulgation of early colonial legal codes. The Bible was the rock and foundation of early colonial law, and the Puritans, in particular, injected a fierce religious fervor into their laws. In 1636, for example, only sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they adopted the "judicials of Moses," which provided that any person "shall be put to death" who "shall have or worship any other God, but the Lord God." Similarly, the 1656 "Lawes of Government" of New Haven colony expressly declared that "the Supreme power of making Lawes belongs to God only" and that "Civill courts are the Ministers of God."
By the late seventeenth century, however, the strict religious foundations of colonial law had crumbled. With the influx of large numbers of immigrants from widely diverse religious, ethnic and social backgrounds, the old Puritan beliefs and institutions faded, and as the new Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, the "pursuit of happiness," and the power of reason spread through the New World, traditional sources of authority were increasingly called into question.
With fresh energy and bold new ideas, eighteenth-century Americans sought to achieve a profound transformation in their society, their government, their politics, and their religion. The great American experiment was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment. In an Enlightened Age, -- an age dedicated to reason rather than revelation -- even the authority of Christianity was open to challenge.
The Framers of the American system of government were often quite critical of what they saw as Christianity's excesses and superstitions. They fervently believed that people should be free to seek truth through the use of reason and they concluded that a secular state, establishing no religion but tolerating all, best served that end.
Unlike the later French Revolution, the American Revolution was not a revolution against Christianity itself. But as men of the Enlightenment, most of the Framers did not put much stock in traditional Christianity. As broad-minded intellectuals and skeptics, they viewed much of religious doctrine as divisive, dangerous and irrational, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of conventional Christianity.
Benjamin Franklin, for example, dismissed much of Christian doctrine as "unintelligible." Franklin believed in a Creator, but not in the Judeo-Christian version. He dismissed Christian revelation and described himself as "a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine." Franklin regarded all religions as more or less interchangeable in their most fundamental tenets, which he believed called upon men to treat others with kindness and respect. He regarded Jesus as a wise moral philosopher, but had no use for Christian doctrine insofar as it had "corrupted" the original teachings of Jesus. A long-time friend, who was more wedded to Christianity than Franklin, lamented that a man of Franklin's "general good character and great influence" was such "an unbeliever in Christianity."
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that no member of the founding generation "embodied America's ideals more than Thomas Jefferson." A thoroughgoing skeptic, Jefferson subjected every religious tradition, including his own, to rigorous scrutiny. He had little patience for talk of miracles, revelation, or resurrection. Like Franklin, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral philosopher, but he believed that Jesus' teachings had been "distorted out of all recognition." He condemned the details of Christian dogma as "dross," "abracadabra," "insanity," "a hocus-pocus phantasm," and a "deliria of crazy imaginations." Jefferson expressed his hope to John Adams that "the human mind will someday get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago."
Adams himself rejected the rigid dogmas he had inherited from his Puritan forebears. The Creator, he declared, "has given us Reason, to find out the Truth, and the real Design and true End of our Existence." Adams rejected all religious doctrines "that could not be verified independently by human reason." He wrote Jefferson that his religion could be "contained in four short Words, 'Be just and good.'" When Adams was President, he signed the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which had been unanimously approved by the Senate, in which the United States unambiguously affirmed that "the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
Tom Paine's works -- Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason -- were the most widely read political tracts of the eighteenth century. Paine was merciless in his challenge to Christianity. He characterized Christianity as a "fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance, is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients." He decried Christianity's acceptance of miracles as ignorant superstition and charged that the postulation of miraculous interventions by God degrades Him to the "character of a showman" who "plays tricks to amuse" and to make "the people stare and wonder." Paine maintained that by insisting that believers accept superstition as truth, Christianity had fundamentally undermined the freedom of conscience and incited intolerance and persecution. The "age of ignorance," Paine declared, had "commenced with the Christian system."
I could go on, but you get the point. The leaders of the revolutionary generation were not atheists. Almost all of them believed in a Creator who had set in motion the laws of nature and given man the power of reason. But they most certainly did not intend to establish the United States as "a Christian nation." To the contrary, they were careful both in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution to avoid any such inference.
The notion that the United States is "a Christian nation" came later, in the nineteenth century, during the Second Great Awakening. It was during that fervent evangelical upheaval that the myth that the United States is "a Christian nation" first came to the fore -- to the utter dismay of men like Adams and Jefferson, who sharply contested it.
This is the truth of our history, and this is the history our children should learn. The truth may be upsetting to those who wish for a different history, but we cannot change what was. In our history textbooks, at least, the truth should count for something. The fables and crazy imaginings of the Texas Board of Education do a profound injustice to our Framers, our history, and our nation.
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