Sarah Palin Distorts the Founders' Religious Views

News at Home

Mr. Segal is Professor of History at the University of Maine and a writer for the History News Service.

Before the selection of Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, as the Republican vice presidential nominee, the 2008 campaign had been notable for the apparently declining influence of evangelical Christians on American politics. Notwithstanding the evangelicals' strong support for his candidacy, Mike Huckabee failed to get the GOP presidential nomination. And for all the distortion of Barack Obama's religion as supposedly Islamic rather than Christian, the controversy still offered hope that Americans of different faiths - or of no professed faith - might feel themselves to be the same full-fledged citizens as those who for years had insisted that America has always been and remains a Christian nation.

That hope, however, may be fleeting. When, last fall, Gov. Palin declared October 21-27 to be Alaska's "Christian Heritage Week," she was not merely issuing the kind of routine, pro-forma proclamation. Instead, she made a political statement that the United States is indeed a Christian nation, thereby once again marginalizing non-Christians.

True, she was not the first Alaska governor to make such a declaration, but her predecessors had not embellished theirs with pseudo-historical quotations and interpretations. In encouraging "all citizens to celebrate this week," she indicated that no comparable proclamations for, say, Alaska's Jews or Muslims would be forthcoming.

Gov. Palin's statement cited the leading Founding Fathers as the "giants in the structuring of American history," who were avowedly "Christians of caliber and integrity" and who "did not hesitate to express their faith" in public and in policy. Going beyond the customary invocation of God found in so many American institutions at all levels - not least, the Supreme Court's "God Save This Honorable Court" - Palin quoted prominent figures out of context in order to bolster her case. Or tried to do so.

The figures whom Palin quoted are, in order of appearance in her document, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and George Mason. Franklin said that "It is impossible to build an empire without our Father's aid," while Washington "enunciated" that we would prosper if "animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity." Jefferson asked if the nation's liberties could be "secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God." Madison promoted "the diffusion of the light of Christianity in our nation." Henry quoted Proverbs 14:34 that "Righteousness alone can exalt a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people." Finally, Mason insisted that "it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other."

Only Washington's statement would appear to embrace a purely Christian nation, but Washington is also revered for, among other things, advocating the right of Jewish Americans to practice their faith. Franklin, Madison, and Mason were at most promoting Christianity as a useful but not monopoly religion. Neither Jefferson nor Henry even mentions Christianity despite the latter's quotation from the New Testament. We are left, then, with modest evidence for Palin's exclusionary proclamation.

More important, serious scholars of American history and religion have never read the Founding Fathers as envisioning the new nation as purely Christian. Although they have differed on particulars, they have always emphasized that most of the colonial leaders believed in a firm separation of church (and synagogue) and state. Intolerant Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony was not the model they had in mind. More appealing in terms of tolerance of diverse faiths were Roger Williams's Rhode Island and William Penn's Pennsylvania.

It's sad that, in an election year that will presumably provide the nation with either its first African-American president or its first female vice president, Gov. Palin has tried to minimize her state's religious diversity and, by extension, that of the entire country. Let's hope that, if she does become vice president, she will rethink her position. To do so would acknowledge the original "Washington elite" that all contemporary Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, should continue to honor.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Raul A Garcia - 9/18/2008

I read Jonathan Butler's work on colonial america and found it most illuminating. It is his contention that America is more religious today than it was in the Revolutionary period.(This was voiced by him in an interview in 2000) There is no doubt as to the Christian bases for most of the elite members of those early congresses but it was certainly not the proselytizing, quasi-monolithic, conviction of the present, tempered as it was by Deism, eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy, and republicanism. I would also add that revision/interpretation is necessary in history and societies where history is active. The straighjacket of history as the Marxian class conflict creates- a simplification of history, has also been made too rigid by elements of the right who speak of an unmalleable American Identity. Many shun or make negative blanket statements about the good history,essentially necessary revisions to make a better history, that occurred concomitantly during the civil rights struggles. Though some such as the Afrocentric historians clearly presented a "stretch", they brought needed critique to keep us on out collective toes. As a teacher, I have noted how the history texbook I had as a student in High school, clearly had many omissions and glossing over critical and controversial issues.The one is use today is much, much better, but the work of history is never finalized.

Evan Shawn Powell - 9/17/2008

Leftist rant rarely provides an opportunity for dissent?

I guess my comment would be considered a leftist rant by you and yet I implicitly asked for a counter-argument and further discussion in my comment. This leftist blog allows you the opportunity to dissent.

I see no communists in this country with any more power than that of semi-organized group of college students wearing berets and chaining themselves to "capitalist-pig" retailers doors.

Neither the socialists or the communists have a meeting places scattered liberally in every city and town in this country. AFAIK,there are no atheist "churches". The socialist and communists have no publishing houses, or line of retail book stores specific to them, Christians and the religious right do. Same with a television network, I do not see a Buddist or Atheist network but I see a Christian network. I have not been accosted by an atheist in my workplace or on the street seeking to manipulate me or convert me to their absence of belief. Both have happened to repeatedly by the evangelicals. The atheist and AFAIK those other "leftists" don't send out their followers with a divinely sanctioned mission to convert.

If anyone has the power, ideology and mindset to stifle dissent it is the religious right not the almost non-existant and somehow omnipotent leftist in which you shake in fear.

Donald Wolberg - 9/16/2008

Sorry, I don't watch much TV and am at a loss for Jaywalking mention. My teaching of "history" is unfortunately laggard as well and is mostly history of science and ideas and the world(s) in which theese developed. I do have a daughter in "history" and who is a journal editor, however--and she forever corrects me.

Donald Wolberg - 9/16/2008

There is illusion and delusion: Mr. Wright seems intellectually challenged or learning diabled, e.g., AIDS/HIV was not a species jumping virus butwas a plot by "whites" to infect Blacks and created in a laboratory and follows innoculations of poor Blacks for polio. Another: "the brains of White people and Black people are different," or any of lots about Catholics and Jews, not really worth the effort, and of course the Cleopatra mythology. Hmmm, the Reverend (a strange term given the context) is not racist, he must be just dumb.

I suggest reading a bit more of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and even the amazing Mr. Franklin. Toss in a little Hamilton. A good place to star would be Mr. Meacham's "American Gospel".

arica coleman - 9/16/2008

Why are you taking cheap shots at Rev. Wright? Wright is not a racist. Wright merely called America out on its racism and offered commentary on white nationalism. I do not see the problem with that. Oh I get it. It's racist to point out racism. How stupid. Leave Wright out of this. The staw man effect is well, ineffective. Besides, Wright was made in the USA. If America truly lived up to its ideals of equality, you wouldn't have to worry about folks like Wright, Farrahan and the like.

As for the issue at hand, many Americans promote the myth that this nation was founded on Christianity. No it was not. It was founded on the pathology white supremacy which continues to informs our politics. This is the number one problem in America. We believe out own myths. Sad.

Donald Wolberg - 9/16/2008

That is quite a does "creationism" fit in and is it any worse from the anti-theistic rant of the left? One can ignore the cretionist or intelligent design crowd, simply because of the science that can be cited as a counterpoise. Unfortunately, a leftist rant, rarely provides an opportunity for dissent. As I recall, the lesson of history is that Stalin and Hittler meet in the middle atop tens of millions of corpses.

Evan Shawn Powell - 9/16/2008

Well, it has been said that ignorance is truly bliss.

Donald Wolberg - 9/16/2008

FDR wisely suggested "we have nothing to fear but fear itself," and the rant against the "fearsome Christians" on the right (which usually means very Constitutionally inclined folks) does wear thin. I am more fearful of the "Godless" left, with a perverted view of the historical greatness of cultural relativity and immorality of staying in an idiosyncratic "comfort zone at the expense of right and wrong. The pandering to revisionist history is the problem, as is the loss of a sense of context of history, not people who go to church.

In regard to a "Jaywalking segment," alas, I plead ignorance (but then I admit to ignorance of many things in this world, a fact that makes the world always interesting). i do admit to annoyance by knocks on the door urging me to accept the LDS notions of the world, or the Intelligent Design folks, who will not look at rocks, but that is minor. They have never told me what I can or can't say or write, one of the demands of the politically correct lineage of our age. Nor will thay shout me down at a public event for holding "dangerous" ideas.

There are sexists, racists, hHolocaust deniers, anti-rationalists, on all sides of the political and religious spectrum. After all, that is why we have a Constitution. My view is that there is as much danger on the right as there is on the left: the left will deny one's freedom of any thoughts other than those they "know" are correct, while the right will deny you the same freedoms for the same reasons. Somewhere in the middle are the 90% of Americans, getting by as they always have with a basic dislike for extremes of any suit. Yes, they do like their churches and the persception of a "hugher" authority. Ms Palin has this sense (and I am not a Republican).

Lisa Kazmier - 9/15/2008

You think they know? Have you ever seen a "Jaywalking" Segment? Have you ever taught a history class. The level of lack of knowledge and the lack of ability to put together cogent thought might surprise you.

Ms. Palin wouldn't think these things or attempt to lie to ppl (if she's being cynical) if ppl knew better.

Evan Shawn Powell - 9/15/2008

"Americans have a good sense of who they are as a people and a nation. Americans have an undeniable religious sense that this is a "Christian" nation (and I am not a Christian), but deny the need to codify that fact and can maintain a separation of "church" from the workings of government."

Are you certain?

Do you know or do you think the general public are aware of the extreme far religious right?

Were you aware, as a non-Christian, of Christian Identity, Dominionism, Reconstructionism, and other white supremeacist or theocratic sects in the religious right?

Are you aware even of the concerted agenda by the religious right that began in the Reagan years and has run till today. Starting with promoting stealth candidates in local school district elections and general proselytizing and ending today with a revitalized political activism of creationism, proselytizing in the military academies, conscientious objectors among the ranks of doctors and pharmacists, an increased presence of right wing Christians in Congress, and the faith-based initiatives in the Bush Administration that strain the concept of separation of church and state?

Are you aware of the plain and ordinary proselytizing that is carried out by the fundamentalist right overtly and covertly in this country and abroad? Do you know how much of it is really just manipulation using cult tactics?

Oh and I have attended, since my youth, 1st Baptist, Church of Christ, and Methodist churches amongst others. I also attended Ted Haggard's New Life church in Colorado Springs for two years. I have been paying attention to the religious right for many years and while separation of church and state is not on the brink of collapse it bears watching.

I hope as a non-Christian you have a good sense of just what the religious right is doing in this country. It may matter to you in the foreseeable future.

Donald Wolberg - 9/15/2008

It is always amazing that academics feel the urge to let Americans know what they already know, as if Americans knew nothing at all. Similarly, one is amazed that academics feel an urgent need to advance a particular political agenda or candidate of their own by finding vehicles to discredit an opposing agenda or candidate. Mr. Segal suggests he knows what Ms Palin thinks about religion and its place in America by selecting, without much context, a quote from a particular statement at a particular time with its own context. Similary, Mr. Segal suggests he understands what many of the the founders thought or meant about religion. I would suggest that neither position of Mr. Segal is useful or adequately reflects the very wide range of views held by the founders, as diverse as they were in these regards--compare the many thoughts of Mr. Franklin to those of Mr. Washington to those of Mr. Jefferson and so on. One would also extend the same diversity of view to Mr. Obama, for example. Does the racist and rather intellectually devoid rantings of Reverend Wright reflect his disciple of 24 years, Mr. Obama? Perhaps the "retired" terrorists, Mr. Ayers and Ms Dorn, who so assiduously plotted the blowing up of public facilities and likely hold marxist views on religion, also reflect the views of Mr. Obama?

Americans have a good sense of who they are as a people and a nation. Americans have an undeniable religious sense that this is a "Christian" nation (and I am not a Christian), but deny the need to codify that fact and can maintain a separation of "church" from the workings of government. Very early in the process of forming this nation, the language of its formation encompassed a view that the rights of its citizens originate from a theistic nexus, not from human origin. At the same time, no religious view was to be "marginalized" or denied freedoms of belief or practice. One suspects that Ms Palin would find no difficulty with a broad view of this nation's origins. To "marginalize" her would be a misrepresentation of her views (and I am not a Republican).