by AndrewMc | 8/19/2009 07:00:00 AM
My university has an internal e-mail list for general discussion. Populated by a subset of the faculty and staff, it is in no way reflective of the general opinion of the university at large. But it's an interesting place, and it has some value. It is a forum for generalized discussion, criticism of the university administration, and a place where faculty and staff occasionally generate some good ideas for university initiatives.

The "forum for criticism" function is especially useful to the administration. Not because they get feedback that they can act on. No, I think that the mailing list serves as a kind of safety valve, where the activist faculty raise issues and speak out. A few others join in (never the staff, who are afraid of retaliation) and some issue gets hot for a few days, and then it dies down. So the mailing list is a place where faculty blow off steam without ever taking concrete action, which is safe for the administration.

I should say that anyone who thinks that college campuses are bastions of liberal thought should come to my school. Outside of the humanities the faculty are mostly conservative; the staff more so. And right now our internal mailing list is seeing a repeat of a fairly regular discussion—"The Founders were Christians."

This discussion comes up once or twice a year, usually at the behest of one of the conservative faculty or staff upset that, according to them, the United States "was founded as a Christian nation," or that "the Founders were Christians."

The complaint is a kind of jeremiad—we've strayed from the original intent, and now look at the mess we're in. It carries with it, of course, a subtext that goes beyond the claim that the United States no longer acts in a Christian manner (assuming it ever had). The subtext is that we've let all these weird foreigners and their weird religions into the United States, and "those people" have screwed the place up. If we could just cleanse America of Muslim and Buddhists, and send the Jews back to Israel to help bring on the Millenium, things would be OK again.

Little addendum follows the moaning, and any attempts by people to offer contrary evidence is met with either silence, or "you don't know what you're talking about" or "of course liberals say that," or, best of all, a barrage of quotes from the Founders that make it look as if their original point is correct.

History's kind of interesting that way. People believe that it's not like math or chemistry, where there is usually a concrete answer, and where a deep understanding of the subject requires years and years of specialized training. As we all know from talking to Civil War buffs, amateur historians can be well-versed in their subject. But more importantly, the general public thinks that specialized study in history isn't necessary. And public figures encourage this. It's just names and dates, right? All you need to do is read a book about the American Revolution, and you'll know everything you need to. Or, best of all, "it's just your opinion, your interpretation."

The last point isn't too far off the mark. History is interpretive. We all have scholars with whom we disagree, and yet for the most part we're all looking at the same evidence (except in cases where new evidence is discovered, of course). But the "America was founded as a Christian nation" kind of analytical narrowness is a hallmark of the far-right and its public discourse. And each time the point gets raised on our internal discussion list
and in public for that matterpeople engage the right wingers in an attempt to prove that the Founders weren't Christian, that the U.S. wasn't founded as a Christian nation, or some other fine point of history.

And there's the problem. Just engaging in the debate concedes victory to conservatives on an important point: That the religion of the Founders matters. Even slightly. Except as an object of study that might help us understand what went into the creation of the Republic.

Within that context, here are my main issues with the claim that the "Founders" were Christian."

1. The "Founders" were every man, woman, and child
black, white, red, yellowwho helped contribute to independence. To argue anything else is to take a narrow, elitist view of the United States and the struggle for independence. It's pretty un-American, in my opinion, to suggest that the Founders were only the people who wrote the Constitution.

2. The religion of the people who wrote the Constitution is similarly irrelevant. Despite what some conservatives would like to see or believe, the America of 2009 is not the America of 1787
and we should be glad it isn't. To buy into the debate over the religion of the Founders is to implicitly buy into the concept of originalism. No thanks.

3. Most importantly, the United States is a continuously evolving nation, which is as the people who wrote the Constitution intended. They planned for it to evolve. And it has. So irregardless of their religion, it is our religion
&mdashor lack of it&mdashthat matters.

The debate over this comes and goes, and to a large extent is only a concern of the base. But since the Republican party is evolving into a party "of the base," we can expect to hear a lot more in the future about why this matters.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/19/2009 8:58 AM:

My current institution doesn't seem to have one of these, but my last two did, and yeah, I've seen these before. You're right about the ratio of liberal/conservative voices.

There's one quibble, though. You write:

To buy into the debate over the religion of the Founders is to implicitly buy into the concept of originalism. No thanks.

It's not implicit: it's explicit, and originalists should be flogged, then forced to drive on roads built in the 18th century fashion.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/19/2009 9:22 AM:

I'll stand corrected on that.

The trouble is, most of those types are not evidence-based thinkers.


Blogger Joel Tscherne on 8/19/2009 10:08 AM:

I was actually working on an article similar to this, but you've hit the points perfectly. Frankly, I wish I knew why the conservative right wants to identify with the religion of the 1700s that believed that slavery was acceptable, native Americans deserved to lose their lands and lives, and women had little or no rights.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/19/2009 10:56 AM:

The trouble is, most of those types are not evidence-based thinkers.

I see Originalism as a variant of the legalistic/literalist approach to sources -- religious fundamentalism is another -- and social problems, very much a modern ailment, an attempt (I think) to make the world more sensible by foreclosing alternative understandings and protecting, rhetorically, the foundation of identity.


Blogger idiosynchronic on 8/19/2009 11:42 PM:

I should say that anyone who thinks that college campuses are bastions of liberal thought should come to my school. Outside of the humanities the faculty are mostly conservative; the staff more so.

Amen, brother. My land grant, science and technology focused university is remarkably conservative in some quarters. Apparently a high percentage of these scientists and engineers throw out fact and scientific method when dealing with anything outside their professions. The business college doesn't even bear discussion and the student body reflects it's rural and Midwestern upbringing.

This university was on the original DARPA network and proto-Internets; thankfully the mailing lists were long ago converted into alt.discussion groups. Most of these conversations and attitude displays take place elsewhere, like the pages of the student newspaper.

I still get similar all the time from friends and family; thanks for posting such a coherent and summarized rebuttal.


Blogger mark on 8/20/2009 10:01 PM:

Eh, I am not religious but count me as someone who thinks that if the phrase "The Congress shall make no law...." does not bar the legislative branch from doing exactly what the phrase forbids, then the Constitution is rendered meaningless. Why have one then?

That said, the argument that the US was deliberately conceived constitutionally as a "Christian nation" is an ahistorical fantasy. It would certainly have surprised the Deists and disestablishmentarians among the Framers to hear themselves being describeed as advocates of Christianity as a state religion. Even many of the professed Christians among them were Low Church Anglicans and nominal Congregationalists sympathetic to freethinking


Blogger Frank Partisan on 8/20/2009 11:12 PM:

Really interesting blog.

Why would the right identify with religion of the 1700s? They are not correct in analysis, even on present events. This economic crisis put their monetarist ideas in death throes.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/21/2009 5:50 AM:


I think it's all part of a larger package of wishful thinking that includes the desire to go back to a time "when things were better," or simpler, or whatever they think it was like back then.