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Saturday, September 16, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Rewriting our religious history

By B.J. Paschal — a Christian

Why are many religious conservatives obsessed with invoking the Founding Fathers? That is, why is there such a brisk book trade in re-examining the founders’ lives? For the religious conservatives, the fight is about proving that America was set up as a Christian nation. And their efforts to rewrite American history are paying off, since a recent Pew Forum survey found that 67 percent of Americans believe this falsehood.

A cottage industry pushes the false argument that the founders intended virtually no separation between church and state, and this industry (authors such as Dee Wampler, James Kennedy, Gary Demar and David Barton;; and, especially, FOX News) has been very consistent in pushing the no-separation and Christian-nation messages.

The “Creator” Jefferson employed in the Declaration of Independence is not specifically God the Father or the God of Abraham. This is also true for the God of public religion that the Continental Congress created Sept. 6 and 7, 1774. Historian John Meacham concluded: “The right’s contention that we are a Christian nation that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument.”

Right-wing propagandists can attempt to deny the historical fact that Jefferson, Madison (principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights), George Washington, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, among other founders were deists, but it won’t change American history. They were different men; they were true heirs to the Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson did not believe in the God of Christianity and opposed religious tyranny over the human mind. He distrusted the clergy.

“Deism is a non-Christian religious belief that a disinvolved creator started the universe in motion but has no present-day concern for human actions and welfare. . . . In terms of their distance from conventional piety, deists in 1776 occupied much the same position that wholly nonreligious people do today,” wrote Paul Kurtz.

In his latest book, “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood explains how this elite fraternity (those who lived into the next century) were very disillusioned by America becoming so “evangelically religious.”

Remember that the Pilgrims/Puritans were mainly Congregationalists and Presbyterians; that the Continental Congress was made up of principally Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and deists. They were determined to create a secular Constitution or Lockean Constitution. And they did. In the midst of religious obsession on the right, scholars such as Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins (agnostics or atheists all) argue “atheism is smarter.” Unlike the cottage-industry authors on the right, these authors have no geopolitical agenda; they’re interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It’s the idea of putting trust in God they object to; that is, specifically God the Father, absent from the secular Constitution and Bill of Rights, whose authors knew “they were superior to other individuals,” wrote Wood. “They were unabashed elitists, and they weren’t embarrassed about it.” Yet the dominant feeling in American politics today is a blatant anti-intellectualism. It’s one of mixing religion and politics.

In the midst of this radical attack on separation, we are starting to hear from the 50-plus percent of Americans who never attend religious services. In fact, the 20 percent of Americans who are devout church- or temple-goers have a disproportionate voice in the forming of political opinion, according to the Pew Forum.

As a Christian, I’m convinced religion has failed (not God), and the religious right is trying to get government to do religion’s job. It’s time for thinking Americans to get angry, and not only with Islam.

The founders didn’t trust the clergy, and for good reason. Can you believe lots of evangelical Christians listen to the rot of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who told us that God allowed 9/11 because he was mad at America for harboring civil libertarians, gays and feminists?

It’s not hard to see how thinking Americans might listen to the message that “atheism is smarter.” They are fed up with the dishonest politics of the religious right.