Using and Abusing History for Political Gain

When people don't know their history, it's easy for others to twist it to their own ends.  And twisting of history is done across the board, from left to right.  But at this point in "history" the most egregious abuses of history are coming from the right, especially the Christian Right. 

People like David Barton make a living taking truths and facts and twisting them to suit their own needs.  At the same time, on the left, there are those who in answer swing the pendulum to the other side. 

History gets twisted for two reasons -- most Americans don't know much about history.  History is considered passe and boring -- and truth be told many history teachers, especially in high school, tend to be boring.  In part that's because schools don't value history, since it's not on the standardized tests, so why hire the brightest and best historians, when you have a coach needing to fill time (a pet peeve of mine -- though by and large my HS history teachers were pretty good, even if they were coaches).  

Well, as many of you may know, Glen Beck has stepped into the Christian Nation arena -- though his "orthodoxy" should be suspect to many of his followers.  At his recent rally he announced the formation of a "Black Robe Brigade," a reference to a term used by British soldiers for clergy who backed the American Revolution.  Well, now that we're to embrace all things patriot, let's get the clergy involved.  And so, Beck announced that he had recruited an ecumenical band of clergy in support of his cause to take back America -- something that sounds strangely familiar to campaigns of the 1970s. 

So, what should we make of all of this?  I appreciate Scot McKnight giving his Jesus Creed column over to historian John Fea of Messiah College.  Fea who has a new book out, one that I've just learned about, which deals with the Christian America phenomena.  Entitled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction, it should help answer some of the continuing misinformation. 

In this essay, Fea offers a cogent response to the ruckus, noting that there is truth to some of the statements, but they're half-truths since they don't deal with the other side of the question.  He notes for instance that few of the Founders were pure Deists, but many were Unitarians.  Just because Washington uses God in speeches doesn't mean that Washington believed that the United States was a Christian Nation, and just because Woodrow Wilson declared America a Christian Nation, doesn't mean that he is correct in his assessment -- at least theologically.

John Fea writes:

There is a lot of misinformation out there.  Not everything Barton, or Peter Marshall, or the Genesis of America people say is wrong, but it is twisted and presented in such a way that does not account for the complexity and fullness of the past.  Historians concerned with the integrity of the past and the integrity of their work must also note that John Adams rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.  They should mention that George Washington deliberately avoided taking communion.  They must also tell the whole truth about the so-called “Black Regiment.” Most of these clergymen were blatantly anti-Catholic.  Others blurred Biblical teachings on freedom (from sin) with political teachings on freedom (from George III).  These Christian America pundits tell just one side of the story because the so-called “rest of the story” does not suit their political needs in the present.  This is what I mean by indoctrination by historian example.  This is history at its worst!
We who are historians and we who are clergy need to know our history, and be able to help our people understand the nuances of history.  America at its founding was neither as secular as some on the left would have us believe, nor as evangelical Christian as others on the right would have us believe.  It's likely that many of the Founders would be quite happy to worship in our more liberal churches, but that's really not the point.  What is most important is that we must not allow history to be left to the hands who would use it simply for purposes of indoctrination!


James said…
Amen! Another example of twistin history is those that take "taxation without representation" out of context. The colonists were fighting against an aristocracy (that owned the government) that taxed the people for their own benefit. The rich were getting richer through the taxation of the working class. It was not taxation to provide infrastructure that benefited the citizenry nor was it taxation to support those struggling simply to live. It was taxation that took from the poor to maintain the rich! The aristocracy of today are the wealthy corporations, their executive staff and supporting boards (and most, if not all, politicians).
James, and taxation to provide for an army to control the people as well!
Rial Hamann said…
"Those who do not learn from history are condemed to repeat it"

And to learn, we MUST study it.
Peter J Walker said…
Well said! We need to know our history - both theological and ecclesial, AND cultural and political. Otherwise we're tools and pawns, bound to be manipulated, misrepresented, exploited or twisted into participating in the diabolical, corporate, Robber Baron shenanigans of free-market cronies we never intended...

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