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Scholars Challenge ‘Forsaken Roots’ Argument

A popular Web site that argues America has forsaken its Christian roots contains historical inaccuracies and distortions of quotations from the Founding Fathers, two First Amendment scholars contend in an editorial in the most recent Journal of Church and State.

Frustrated by its inability to change American culture through political means over the last three decades, the Christian right adopted a strategy to disseminate materials designed to “prove” that the Founding Fathers were not only Christian men but intended for the nation to be governed by Christian principles, Derek Davis and Matthew McMearty write in the article, “America’s ‘Forsaken Roots:’ The Use and Abuse of Founders’ Quotations.”

Authors like David Barton, whose widely circulated book The Myth of Separation, has made him a darling of the religious right, compile quotations supposedly from the Founding Fathers and use them as “proof texts” for the evils of separation of church and state and the need for America to return to its Christian roots.

Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, and McMearty, a doctoral fellow, say many such analyses are rife with inaccuracies, distortions and revisionism.

“Did you know that 52 of the 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence were orthodox, deeply committed Christians? The other three all believed in the Bible as the divine truth, the God of Scripture, and His personal intervention,” begins one popular Internet article, titled “Forsaken Roots.”

Davis and McMearty counter with a reliable Web site indicating that 77 percent of signatories were either religious or members of a Christian church, and for the remaining 23 percent there are no records indicating religious perspective or church membership.

They say church membership was very low, about 30 percent, in the period between the First and Second Great Awakenings. The comparatively higher percentage of church members among signatories was typical of political leaders of the day, they argue, but church membership is not a good measure of theological orthodoxy. A number of the nation’s early leaders, such as George Washington, were members of a church but held a viewpoint called Deistic rationalism, which viewed the Bible as a source of morality but discounted its miracles, inspiration and teachings concerning salvation.

“The great majority of the signatories of the Declaration were Christian in perspective,” Davis and McMearty conclude, “but to claim that all or most were orthodox reflects more an unfounded assumption of the compiler/editor than a fact of historical record.”

Other examples of where Davis and McMearty say the “Forsaken Roots” gets its history wrong include:

–The Continental Congress and the Bible. “It is the same congress that formed the American Bible Society,” the article claims. “Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of scripture for the people of this nation.”

The Continental Congress did not found the American Bible Society, Davis and McMearty say. It was not founded until 1816, 27 years after the Continental Congress ceased to exist.

The Continental Congress did in fact vote on purchase and importation of 20,000 Bibles, they say, but no action was taken on the proposal and no Bibles were imported.

The 1777 vote was prompted by a critical lack of Bibles resulting from the Revolutionary War. A number of ministers petitioned Congress to do something to remedy the shortage.

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia voted in favor of acting on the recommendation to import, at Congress’s expense, 20,000 Bibles. New York, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland opposed such action. Because of the margin of one vote, Congress tabled the matter, and no final action was taken.

In the meantime, a Philadelphia printer and Presbyterian elder, proceeded on his own initiative and published an American edition of the Bible. He sought and received an endorsement from Congress but was refused funding.

–Thomas Jefferson’s Christianity. “Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote on the front of his well-worn Bible,” says “Forsaken Roots.” “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our Creator and, I hope, to the pure doctrine of Jesus also.”

The quote has all the hallmarks of Jefferson’s authorship, but is not found in any of his writings,” say Davis and McMearty. When Jefferson spoke of being a “real” Christian, he was speaking only in terms of Jesus’ humanity. Jefferson considered most of the Christianity of his day as a corruption of what Jesus really intended, and most orthodox Christians of his day viewed him as an infidel.

Late in his life Jefferson summed up his religious convictions saying “to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion.” Other doctrines, like the Trinity, Christ’s deity and resurrection and earthly return, Jefferson viewed as “deliria of crazy imaginations.”

Jefferson expressed confidence “the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.”

“Jefferson was no atheist,” say Davis and McMearty, “but neither was he an orthodox Christian. His is best described as perhaps an enlightened Deist.”

–George Washington’s faith. “Forsaken Roots” quotes words supposedly from Washington’s personal prayer book indicating he was a Christian.

Davis and McMearty point out that Washington was Deist who was also a member of the Episcopal Church. His bishop wrote in 1835 that he had never witnessed Washington receiving the Lord’s Supper, but Mrs. Washington “was an habitual communicant.”

In another letter the bishop wrote, “Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion.”

Davis and McMearty counter charges by the religious right that schools censor America’s religious heritage from textbooks, that the founders intended for the nation to be governed in accordance with the Ten Commandments and that God has been “kicked out” of public life.

They say the founders purposely vested authority in the Constitution to the people, not God.

“Had the framers desired to create a Christian commonwealth, calculated to cause Americans to endeavor to keep God’s laws, they could easily have done so,” they write. “But they chose not to, because in their minds the government derived not from God but from the people. Religion was to be subordinate to liberty; liberty was to free all persons to exercise their faith absent government prescription.”

“If Christians want absolute freedom to spread the gospel, they must refuse to make America a religious state with the authority to define its religious character in ways that might impede their ability to determine God’s truth for themselves and to share it with others,” Davis and McMearty conclude.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.