Frederick Clarkson: Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters

Roundup: Talking About History

[Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and founder of, the group blog about the Christian Right. He is a member of The Public Eye editorial board.]

The notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is a central animating element of the ideology of the Christian Right. It touches every aspect of life and culture in this, one of the most successful and powerful political movements in American history. The idea that America's supposed Christian identity has somehow been wrongly taken, and must somehow be restored, permeates the psychology and vision of the entire movement. No understanding of the Christian Right is remotely adequate without this foundational concept.

But the Christian nationalist narrative has a fatal flaw: it is based on revisionist history that does not stand up under scrutiny. The bad news is that to true believers, it does not have to stand up to the facts of history to be a powerful and animating part of the once and future Christian nation. Indeed, through a growing cottage industry of Christian revisionist books and lectures now dominating the curricula of home schools and many private Christian academies, Christian nationalism becomes a central feature of the political identity of children growing up in the movement. The contest for control of the narrative of American history is well underway.

History is powerful. That's why it is important for the rest of society not only to recognize the role of creeping Christian historical revisionism, but our need to craft a compelling and shared story of American history, particularly as it relates to the role of religion and society. We need it in order to know not how the religious Right is wrong, but to know where we ourselves stand in the light of history, in relation to each other, and how we can better envision a future together free of religious prejudice, and ultimately, religious warfare.

We've seen how religious beliefs (and other ideologies) inspire people to view others as subhuman, deviant, and deserving of whatever happens to them, including death. It is the stuff of persecution, pogroms, and warfare. The framers of the U.S. Constitution struggled with how to inoculate the new nation against these ills, and in many respects, the struggle continues today. The story goes that when Benjamin Franklin, a hometown delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, emerged from the proceedings, people asked him what happened. His famous answer was "You have a republic, if you can keep it." To "keep it" in our time, we must appreciate the threat and dynamics of Christian nationalism, and the underlying historical revisionism that supports it. Then we can develop ways to counter it.

Meanwhile, the historical revisionist narrative has been fully integrated into the "biblical worldview" of a wide theological and political spectrum of the Christian Right. Christian nationalists include such familiar figures as Left Behind novelist Tim LaHaye, as well as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy and James Dobson, and the late theologian R.J. Rushdoony.

Indeed, the general approach Rushdoony outlined has become widely accepted among Christian nationalists, specifically that God actively intervenes in and guides history, and that God's role can be retroactively discerned, from creation to the predestined Kingdom of God on Earth. Historical events described as "God's providence" are then interpreted in terms ....

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James Renwick Manship - 10/18/2007

Dear Mr. Clarkson,

You rightly note the words of Benjamin Franklin, but then neglect to note the significance of the word Republic versus what the Founding Fathers feared, which was a "democracy". Of course you note that nowhere in this Constitution for the United States of America is the word "democracy" used, but "republic" is used.

If you wish to gain some insight to the difference you may like to read a speech on 16 October a year ago in one of the original "Revolutionary War" counties of Virginia, Botetourt County, that at the time extended all the way to present day Wisconsin. The speech is on a blog arranged by date, at:

May the God of the Founding Fathers, the Lord Jesus, bless you and keep you all the days of your life.

In GW - God's Will and His Son's service,

James Renwick Manship, Sr.

aka "The Spirit of George Washington the Christian LIVES!"