NPR has just published a damning indictment of David Barton, an evangelical christian “historian” who – as you can see from the article – makes things up about the connection between the christian religion and the United States government. I’ve known about Barton’s lies for a long time; many skeptical bloggers have written posts exposing Barton’s ignorance or flat-out contradiction of the historical evidence. I don’t plan on writing about that today. What I do plan on writing about, and what I find worth looking into, is the fact that this argument takes place at all.
My experience has been that when claims such as Barton’s – say, that America was founded as a christian nation – are uncritically posted in blog posts, opinion articles, or Facebook statuses, non-religious people are quick to stand up and say That’s not true! And you can tell from the tone and immediacy of their responses that they feel something is at stake. They don’t want it to be true, which is part of why they are so quick to point out that it’s not. I’ve seen it numerous times, and certainly fallen prey to it myself. The same can be said of David Barton, who obviously wants what he says to be true, otherwise he wouldn’t be revising US history to say it.Why is this? Why does it matter whether or not America was founded as a christian nation?
To put it simply, there are systems of government that are more encouraging of human flourishing than others. Free speech, freedom of the press, balanced governmental powers, equal rights for all citizens, and so on all seem to be important factors in sustaining a prosperous society for the long-term. These things are not at all present in the Bible; in fact, several of them are completely at odds with Biblical principles. One need only look as far as the Ten Commandments to see that women are considered property, and that freedom of religion is anathema. “You shall have no other gods before me.” This was not an option. Clearly, the principles of US government are not religiously-inspired. And if they were, then the United States would probably not be as successful or prosperous as it is today, seeing as how such impositions on liberty do not ever lead to a society that is successful for everyone. Successful for those in power, yes. But for the common man? Not so much.
If the government of the United States were based on principles that, as far as history has shown, do not seem to work, we as a nation would have the option of keeping our government the way it is, or changing it to try and make it better. I think the argument that many religious conservatives would make, and that many rational people would oppose, is that if our nation was founded as a christian one, then it should always be so. But this does not follow. We should always be concerned with governing in a way that will bring the greatest happiness and liberty to the greatest number, and if the principals our nation was founded on turn out to be unsuccessful, then we had bloody well revise them.
So really, when someone makes the assertion that the United States is a christian nation, we should correct their error, but also ask the follow-up question: Who cares?