Religion in America: The View from Britain

I always find it amusing when our British cousins, being a bit older and often wiser, look at the American scene and feel compelled to give us a gentle reminder or serious lecture. In this case it is a sage reminisce on the Founding Fathers, religion, and politics. The chiding was prompted by the usual foolishness emanating from Texas and Republicans:

Believers in the idea that America was established as a Christian state scored a hit last year when the Texas school board, a politicised body in which evangelicals control crucial votes, ordered up textbooks laying out this view. Given the size of the Texan market, school-book publishers across the country often follow its lead. The best-known advocate of the “Christian nation” theory is a Texan, an author and evangelist called David Barton, who has been writing on the subject since the 1980s.

Among his recent claims are that the founding fathers rejected Darwinism (although they pre-dated Charles Darwin), and that they broke away from Britain in order to abolish slavery. In fact the southern states only joined the Revolution on the understanding that slavery would not be questioned. Strange as his views may sound to most scholars, Mr Barton’s philosophy is taken seriously in Republican circles. When Rick Perry, the Texas governor and presidential candidate, held a day of prayer for the nation in August, Mr Barton was an acknowledged endorser. One of Mr Barton’s admirers is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who argues that American history has been distorted by secular historians to play down the role of faith. “I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things,” Mr Gingrich has said.

It is easy to see why politicians are attracted by the assertion that America was founded as a Christian land, and is hence called to be a place of exceptional virtue. It elegantly fuses two beliefs: Christianity itself, and belief in American history as another sacred narrative, one that sees the founders as people of near-infallible wisdom and virtue waging a noble war against the forces of darkness.

It is an unfortunate fact that the people who most need to read this Economist article in its entirety won’t and those who do will instinctively or reflexively reject it. Don’t mess with evangelical Texas or Republican myths.

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