Saturday, January 19, 2008

Another Reason for Historians to Become Activist Intellectuals: National Religious History Week

In this week's edition of The Nation, Chris Hedges points us to House Resolution 888 intended, among other things, to establish National Religious History Week. Unfortunately, you can only access the full story if you are a subscriber to the Nation, but the bill, according to Hedges, "is an insidious attempt by the radical Christian right to rewrite American history, to turn the founding fathers from deists into Christian fundamentalists, to proclaim us officially to be a Christian nation."  Skillfully deploying a tactic invented by historian Carter Woodson in 1926, when he created National Negro History Week (now Black History Month) as a way of addressing the absence of African-Americans from school curricula, HR. 888 also -- by adopting a progressive intellectual tactic and turning it to its own purposes -- implicitly represents evangelical Christians as an oppressed minority on the model of women, gays, and racial groups.

The good news is that Hedges does not think this bill will even come out of committee, much less be passed, but let's take a closer look anyway, shall we?

You can read the bill yourself, courtesy of GovTrack, a terrific website that allows you to access pending legislation and its progress. The bill clips a fistful of historical "facts" that link American political institutions to Christianity, including the presence of a Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress. These facts are stripped of their historical context, and strung together in chronological order, to "prove" that the United States is, and was intended to be by its founders, a Christian nation based on Biblical fundamentalism.  It also argues, by using brief and selective quotes, that presidents have affirmed the inextricability of Biblical and secular law over time.

In other words, this bill is attempting to pass into law the notion that there is no legal or historical justification for a distinctly secular sphere. Curiously, it also suggests that religion really has no history as such -- only a timeless present that can be used to re-order a political past in the interests of a contemporary interest group, a charge often aimed at leftist academics by cultural conservatives who want to minimize the importance of race and gender to national history. Furthermore, H.R. 888 implicitly argues for fundamentalist Christianity as the dominant and original national religion. It implies that political figures, many of whom were elected by a mere fraction of the nation's population, were actually instruments of God, in that His words were put in their mouths repeatedly over the centuries. History is not change over time, just God's word conveyed over time. That should be enough to set of alarm bells for most historians. But there is another agenda in H.R. 888 as well: establishing a history of properly Christian presidents. Notably, as we near the end of an imperial Presidency in which George Bush and his cabal have attempted to establish the independence of the executive branch from Congress and the judiciary, this bill also implies that the highest office in the land ought to be held by someone who can be a vessel for God's will. Thus the bill does legal work to establish Christianity as a national religion, but it also makes a case for religious activism in the political sphere.

The bill, sponsored by Representative James Forbes (R-VA), who is -- significantly, I think -- also on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committee, is intended to leapfrog a variety of Supreme Court decisions that restrict or ban state-sanctioned religious expression.  It's specific provisions are as follows:  H.R. 888

"(1) affirms the rich spiritual and diverse religious history of our Nation's founding and subsequent history, including up to the current day;

(2) recognizes that the religious foundations of faith on which America was built are critical underpinnings of our Nation's most valuable institutions and form the inseparable foundation for America's representative processes, legal systems, and societal structures;

(3) rejects, in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure, or purposely omit such history from our Nation's public buildings and educational resources; and

(4) expresses support for designation of a `American Religious History Week' every year for the appreciation of and education on America's history of religious faith."

In other words, H.R. 888 would clearly put federal funding behind representations of Christianity in the public, secular sphere and make fundamentalist readings of Christian texts the basis of law, something the Founding Fathers - for all their warts -- opposed strenuously, lodging their opposition in the Constitution's establishment clause. It would potentially put our tax dollars to work to evangelize Christ. It intends to establish (or reaffirm, depending on your position) the United States as a theocracy. It would erect a potential legal barrier to policies that did not square with fundamentalist interpretations of the Christian scriptures: think gay anything, but also any policy measures that addressed the structural inequality of women; the teaching of evolution; health policies addressing sexuality, birth control, and abortion; and international policies that justified the oppression, or re-colonization, of nations with non-Christian populations in the name of freedom for oppressed minority Christian populations.  It could also, given current high stakes testing policies, affect national curriculum standards to codify the teaching of American history as Christian history.


Morgan said...

I agree that this bill does not sound like a good idea, nor do I think the founding fathers were Christian fundamentalists, but I do wish there was some way (not through legislature) to talk about the history of religion in the United States and the enormous role it has played (and obviously continues to play) without it turning into an argument about whether the United states is a "Christian Nation" or was founded on "Christian Principles" neither of which is a really meaningful term. However, I suppose that can only happen when people are comfortable enough with their own (ir)religious views or those of others to make the conversation not quite so personal. I don't think it does a service to American history for survey courses to discuss social and cultural ideas and not discuss religious movements.

Anonymous said...

What information do you have about survey courses "not discuss(ing) religious movements?" Maybe this is an issue for post-Civil War American history survey courses, but every pre-Civil War American history survey course that I teach deals substantially if not instrumentally with religion. Is this really a complaint that "the history of religion is taught critically and not filiopietistically," at least when it comes to MY religion? A medievalist friend teaches a course on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and her (mostly Protestant non-denominational) students have no problem looking at Judaism and Islam historically and critically, but they get very disturbed when they apply the same methods of inquiry to Christianity. (Yes, even though my friend teaches about a Christianity well before the Protestant Reformation, which is more properly the history of "their" religion.)

Flavia said...

Oh, this just makes me crazy. I support the teaching of religious history with my own kind of evangelical zeal, but only when it's history we're talking about--not the uninformed, uncritical celebration of one's own present-day beliefs.

Like Historiann, it drives me nuts that my students don't seem to understand that religions have a history, and when they persist in applying their own (often erroneous) understanding of their particular denomination's theology to medieval and Early Modern texts. If I thought this bill were aimed at correcting this--at actually teaching history--I'd be all for it. But as it is? No.

Clio Bluestocking said...

(Because I can't pass up a pun) Holy cow!

First of all, how can you not include religion in U.S. history survey courses? Puritans, Pilgrims, anti-Catholicism, Great Awakenings in the first half, and fundamentalism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and the religious right in the second half.

Second of all, if I am understanding this correctly, this bill is asking that I should teach mis-information about history?

Third, it seems that this bill almost nullifies it's intent. All of the "wherases" that it lists to support it's general thesis that America is a Christian nation seem to undermine the attitude that religious (by which they seem to mean Christian) history is somehow neglegted or threatened.

P.S. Thank you for the GovTrack link!

Belle said...

Thank you for this. I was wondering - since I don't do American history - what had happened that turned those rather determined Deists into card-carrying Christians. And there is this rather bizarre twist that my students have that Deists are really Christian. Where did that come from?

Unknown said...

I teach religious studies, and I've found most of my students to be quite open to the idea that religions, even Christianity, change over time. A few fundamentalists a year have 'conversion experiences' to more open views of religious belief, and it's very heartening.

I would presume students pick up 'Deist as Christian' from the steady misinformation campaign many Americans receive in high school, which equates any mention of a higher power with conventional contemporary Protestant belief. I recall being taught that Jefferson's writing 'endowed by their Creator' and 'nature's God' into the Declaration meant that this was a Christian country. Likewise for Franklin's pithy tombstone mention of his 'Author.'

Most American Christians are not educated at all about different varieties of Christianity or its history, let alone that of other religions. I sometimes have fantasies of traveling across the country teaching the historical-critical reading of the New Testament ("Paul never met Jesus, folks") in every town I come across. And I'm not even a Christian.

Morgan said...

I'm teaching post-Civil War US, and I feel like not really emphasizing the religious role in the progressive movement, as well as on-going Catholic/Protestant conflict and anti-Semitism really is a disservice. I think giving that kind of background to how religion has influenced society and politics helps to make sense of the ways religion continues to do that today. Christian fundamentalists as a political block aren't exactly new, after all.

Teaching the rise of Christianity las semester, I was surprised by how nonchalant my students were with discussing the origins and spread of Christianity. Perhaps it's a regional difference, but still a marked difference from my old school