Most Americans believe in a skewed version of history. One can blame this on at least three factors:
In spite of these trends, most people still believe that history teachers give students the straight dope about the historical record, warts and all. This sometimes occurs in colleges, but in primary school these days, students are being taught things that simply aren’t true. U.S. History seems to be becoming ‘Christianized’ revisionist fiction. This article is intended to straighten out some misconceptions about history that many students are taught to believe, and which far too many do.
As Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. He implied that it is also rewritten by the victors. Who won in the United States? For the moment, at least, Christians did.
To wit, the Texas Schoolboard last March began an attempt to overtly state in textbooks that the founding fathers of the United States were Christian . This misconception is widely (and alarmingly) believed, but profoundly deceptive.
[Authors’ update: the following section has been updated for clarification]
Christians argue that a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Christian by pointing to the “religious affiliation” stated by each men. Indeed, out of 57 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 49 declared themselves affiliated with some Protestant denomination. So does the mean they held a world view that complements Christianity? Far from it. In 1776, practically every white man was born into a family affiliated with some denomination or other, but that affiliation might have had little influence on his thinking.
Once you drill deeper than their stated affiliations, the founding fathers represent a vast array of religious beliefs. They were heavily influenced by the cultural movement of their day, and in 1776, intellectuals were at the apex of the Age of Enlightenment. The impetus at the time was toward a materialist, scientific approach to truth. The two instances of the word “God” and “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence were distinctly deist, and not Christian, in nature. In fact, many of the men who are listed under some Protestant denomination were, in fact, deists in their sensibilities. The exact religious sentiments of some of these men are tremendously difficult to define. So the current notion that the founding fathers were Christian is, at worse, confirmation bias, and at best a conveniently shallow observation that stops at their stated affiliations.
What is clear, however, is that their intent was to create a distinctly secular government. Aside from the conspicuous absence of the word “god” in the Constitution, there are several excellent early examples of this.
First, as detailed in Jon Meacham’s “American Gospel,” at the Continental Congress in 1774, a lawyer suggested they commence the proceedings with a prayer. A huge fight ensued, and John Jay (an ardent Christian) objected. Jay’s motives cannot be ascertained. He may have felt that a public prayer would have given too much credence to every sect present. Or, he may have believed that a religious tradition might one day become a hindrance to religious liberty. Regardless of his motives, he was one of the most noteworthy Christians, and stood against a public religious display.
Another example happened in 1787, as the Constitution was being ratified. One statesman wanted to insert an overt statement that the nation held “… a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God…” The statement went on to outline “all rightful powers among men are ordained of … God.” His suggestion was met with such criticism and derision that he ended up quietly dropping his objection to the Constitution as written. And for some time afterward, he continued to be mocked by his opponents. This reaction solidifies the fact that “the founders” were fiercely opposed to their new country having any religious affiliation, however vague.
Aside from the first Amendment, which doesn’t even need to be discussed, there was another. In Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, an even more overtly worded statement belied the true intentions of the founders: “As the Government of the United States…is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion–as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity of Musselmen–and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
The point is this: contemporary politicians are misleading the general public by stating that the founding fathers were “Christian.” Just because their name appeared on a church registry does not mean they had any intentions of creating a theocracy. They were rebelling against that notion. After all, the Bible instructs Christians to obey the government—the founders were in fact rebelling against their current theocratic government of England, and thus also the Bible. The English king was ostensibly appointed by god—yet the founders set up a government that expressly gave the power of appointment to the governed. It was a novel and radical idea—and entirely secular. It moved in the opposite direction from god and religion—not toward it.
The notion that we were founded by Christians may come from the Pilgrim stories. They are commonly considered the first settlers and were deeply religious Calvinists. But they were not the “founders.” They werenot the men who set up the Democratic system that saw such radical success. There have been many volumes written about how the founding fathers were not Christians, so this may not be news to some of you. The rest of this section, however, might.
Our money currently continues doggedly to pay tribute to the Big Guy Upstairs. But did it always? No, IN GOD WE TRUST appeared now and then on US coins starting in 1864, during the height of the Civil War. It was originally intended as a means of holding the Union together, and the notion was born out of a well-meaning but naïve clergyman who sent a letter suggesting the change. In it, he suggested we add the word “GOD” to our coins, suggesting “…would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object.” If Thomas Jefferson had still been alive, he most certainly would have objected. The phrase didn’t appear on paper currency until 1957, but Christians seem to think that our nation pays homage to God by placing God’s name on our money.
Of course, one of the many ironies evident is the lack of which specific ‘god’ we are supposedly trusting. After all, there have been millions of them worshiped throughout the millennia; so while it may be inferred that the God of Christianity is the one mentioned on our filthy lucre, perhaps we were just hedging our bets all along.
Sadly, placing “God” on our money has not helped our economy in any measurable way, but it does give us a daily reminder that religion and money are inextricably linked. The irony here is that our monetary system is currently based on the concept of fiat money-money created out of thin air and backed by nothing-which makes the IN GOD WE TRUST motto more appropriate than ever. “Trust in God” is about all we have left in the bank, and many of us would quite seriously claim that such an antiquated notion is backed by the same amount of nothing as the currency itself.
The words ‘under God’ did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until Congress amended the flag code in June of 1954. Oddly enough there was something else going on that month as well: the Army-McCarthy hearings. So Senators were asked to vote on this bill during a dire moment in our history when everyone lived in fear of excoriation, and anyone could be accused of being a traitor. So adding a blurb about God to the pledge-and diluting the separation of church and state-seemed a trifle compared to being on the wrong end of the microphone during a Senate investigation. Religious extortion much?
This phrase is often mentioned by Christians as proof that Jefferson was a Christian. The original draft that Jefferson wrote, however, did not say this. In fact, it said, “…that all Men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable…”  The language of the first draft was changed, perhaps for effect or to appeal to a wider audience-but the point is that Jefferson’s original emphasis was on the equality of all men, not on a creator. Jefferson’s other writings rather emphatically indicate that he was not a supporter of the Church or of religion in general; however, what he and the others knew was that they were declaring themselves independent from the most powerful empire on Earth, and that empire was officially Christian. Perhaps the subtle meaning behind adding ‘endowed by their creator’ was to give the King of England a higher authority to answer to, one he ostensibly (at least officially) believed in. After all, Monarchies were supposedly appointed by God, yet we were rebelling against one in order to found a Democratic Republic. Does that sound like we were following the Christian tenets of the day? Or does it sound more like we were declaring ourselves free from that oppression?
The entire Declaration of Independence, like The Constitution and most political documents, ended up as a compromise – between the forces of secularism and freedom and the forces of religion and slavery; the latter two concepts united at first, but by the time of the Civil War, as strongly divided as the former. There have always been two main parties, with changing names and positions, and they have even swapped platforms at least once, but the tensions between them are nothing new-in fact, one could argue that the country was built on the aforementioned unsteady compromise between the two from its very inception. Anyone who thinks the ‘founding fathers’ were harmoniously united in one goal, with a single set of viewpoints and beliefs, is not only ignorant of history, but of human nature as well. That is why, in spite of the boldly anti-theocratic statement of the Declaration itself, there is even still an argument at all.
It’s important to understand that our collective memory goes back about fifty years or so. For information about anything older than that, Americans tend to rely on what other people tell them. So if enough high-profile people repeat the meme that “America was founded by Christians” then it’s not surprising that the majority of people will believe it. The fact is, America wasn’t founded by Christians. The Pilgrims were not the founders. A few of the actual founders were Christian, but most were not, and the Constitution-the document that defines our government-was pointedly written as a completely secular document.
In fact, Christianity started off extremely liberal by today’s standards, and especially by the standards of its own day. The words attributed to Christ were more than liberal, they were extraordinarily radical, and in line with the tenets of Buddhism, Humanism, The Age of Enlightenment, and yes, even the dreaded socialism. In an age when the Hebrew version of God as depicted in the Bible was considered to be essentially angry, jealous, wrathful, and some might say irrational and downright destructive, the words attributed to the central figure of Christianity are mostly about love and forgiveness. Christ is said to have exhorted his followers to sell their treasures and feed the poor; he spoke of brotherhood and charity; he associated freely with that society’s castoffs. He claimed what were extraordinary concepts during his time: that all people were equal in the eyes of God, and that no one was worthy to judge another. His wrath was reserved for abusers of power and hypocrites who hid behind the religious laws of his day. The Christ of the Bible would, if he were to appear in the flesh today, be considered a fanatically leftist, peace-loving ‘hippie’ who defied religious authority and endorsed a system akin to Socialism in the true meaning of the concept.
As the world gets more and more complex, American political discourse seems to be getting simpler. Us versus Them, Left versus Right, etc. There are certainly Liberal-minded Christians/Catholics in this country, but the loudest of them usually fall into the camp labeled “Conservative.” We frequently hear these particular Christians echoing the current Conservative platform in decrying the evils of Socialism and the virtues of Capitalism. An entire article could be written on the question of whether these people actually know the meaning of each term, but we’ll leave that for another discussion. I have, on occasion, issued a challenge to these Christians. I tell them that we can take turns quoting the Christ of the Bible. I will quote Christ promoting a socialistic principle, and my opponent can quote Christ promoting a capitalistic principle. Not surprisingly, no one has ever taken me up on this challenge-probably because they know they will lose. If you examine Christ’s teachings as written in the Bible, “true” Christianity is supposed to be far more Socialist than any Socialist country has ever been. It bears repeating: Jesus was consistently on the side of the poor and oppressed, and consistently told rich people to sell everything they had and give it to the poor. It’s no wonder they crucified him.
The political leanings of Christians in America has always been a continuum, but many early movements that gained political impetus in the United States were decidedly Liberal-and in contraposition to the current stance of many outspoken Christians. The Conservatives who long for “old time religion” might be surprised by what that might require of them.
The abolitionists were vehement against the enslavement of human beings. They saw it as a moral outrage, and much of the fervor came from Christians (the earliest from Quakers), who saw slavery as, in the words of Quaker Benjamin Lay, “a notorious sin.” Many Christian and secular groups joined forces throughout the early 19th Century to eradicate the practice through public lectures, Congressional appeals, publications, civil disobedience and even boycotts of slave-manufactured products. Other preachers, not surprisingly from the South, used the Bible to justify the ownership of slaves. The Bible does, after all, seem to condone it. South Carolina Presbyterian minister James Henry Thornwell argued that the Bible lent “righteous legitimacy” to the practice.
So although the Bible could be used to justify either the notion of freedom or of slavery, abolition and the liberal concept of individual freedoms prevailed-and largely due to the church’s influence. The abolition of slavery gave Christians their first major success as a political movement, and it created high-profile political careers for people who had formerly been small-town preachers.
As has been mentioned, Christianity was in large part responsible for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Certainly it also played a role on the other side, but with the defeat of the slave trade and the ethos of the Confederacy, the prevailing momentum of American Christianity became one of achieving the ideal of ‘the Promised Land’ By the turn of the 20th Century, at a time, when America was sky-rocketing into its position of power, many Christian groups were working to establish Government institutions that improved society. Christians were a major force in the Progressive Movement, which was responsible for child labor laws, food cleanliness laws, sanitation, conservation, etc.
As in all cases, Christianity held a continuum of beliefs regarding Child Labor. Some believed that work was a result of The Fall of man, and that applied to children as well. Others, as evidenced by this sermon by Edwin H. Hughes, given around 1924, when Child Labor was a heated issue in the US. Mr. Hughes clearly showed which side he was on:
“… let it be said with ardor unrestrained that when the United States secures fully the love and conscience of Christ, any mill-owner or any mill-manager who dares to hire little children in order that by pay ing them cheap wages he may secure larger dividends for greedy stockholders will be absolutely denied membership in any branch of the Christian Church in America.”
The Christian influence on many other “Progressive” issues cannot be downplayed. The messages that came from behind the pulpit had arguably as much impact and “repeatability” in American society in 1925 as television did in 1965. Each time mainstream Christianity hitched their wagon to successful social movements, the power and influence of the Christian church in America increased. This was seen from the anti-slavery movement through to Child Labor. Then in 1919, the church and the Progressives took their power a little too far, and made alcohol illegal. After that abysmal failure was reversed in 1933, the church receded a bit from the forefront of American political movements for several decades.
In the case of Civil Rights, Christianity provided a platform on which to establish a baseline of accountability. Civil Rights leaders were often preachers, and even those who weren’t tended to sprinkle their speeches with references to not only the promises of the Founding Fathers but appeals to the words of the Biblical Christ. Their purpose was to call out the hypocrisy of white society, both from a secular (‘all men are created equal’)and a religious (‘all are created in the image of God’) point of view. Christian revivalism in the black churches led many white Christians to question the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that was in reality anything but equal. Changing mores in the country itself, with races mingling in the cities and younger generations growing up in a less homogenous culture began to shift the collective consciousness. But for those steeped in religious traditions, the movement touched on the continuing schism in American Christianity that had existed since the days of slavery, and collectively, it all tipped the scales in favor of more and more equality.
While every Christians is a unique individual, there is a stereotype that Christians are Conservative. This is difficult to quantify, and is based on how you define both words. In broad terms, there is a tendency for Bible-believing Christians to be Republican. However, even that tendency is not as strong as the stereotype might imply. In rough terms, for every 3 Republicans who believe in the Bible, there are 2 Democrats. Among Evangelical Christians, however, 59% are Republican, while only 16% are Democratic. So many of today’s Christians are touting the virtues of Corporate independence, and speaking out against Liberal causes such as Public Healthcare and Open Borders. These voices, at least for now, seem to be winning the war of ideas among church-goers, but that hasn’t always been the case.
History is as wide as it is deep. One thin thread of an idea may have wound its way through history and be prevalent today, but that idea may not have been prevalent a few decades ago, and it may not even be true. People select ideas about history that confirm their own beliefs, and when enough people do that to an untrue idea, it can become status quo.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on some commonly held beliefs that do not stand up against true historical scrutiny.