Monday, May 18, 2009

Ed Brayton and "Christian Nation Falsehoods"

I thought that this might spark some interesting discussion. Over at his personal blog, Ed Brayton has posted a response to several Christian Nation claims (some we've discussed here, some we have not) that I thought might stir a decent debate amongst our readership. Here is what Brayton had to say:


My latest post on Christian nation falsehoods attracted commenters
leaving yet more falsehoods. I've decided to move them up to their own post to
debunk them. The
first several came from someone using the name Derender and he starts out with one of the classic false quotes:

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation
was founded, not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions, but on the
gospel of Jesus Christ." - Patrick Henry

One of the most common false quotations passed around by the Christian
Nation crowd. Henry never said this. Even David Barton
that the quote has never been found in any of Henry's
original writings. Henry was certainly a Christian, of course. In fact, he was a
virtual theocrat.

But even if the quote was accurate, so what? Remember that Patrick Henry
opposed the passage of the constitution and he did so largely on the basis that
it was not Christian enough. This is a man who supported taxing people to
support the churches, a battle he lost to Jefferson and Madison both in Virginia
and nationally.

27 of our 56 founding fathers had Christian seminary degrees.

Absolutely false (and I'd love to hear Derender actually name which ones
had such degrees and from which schools). In fact, it seems that he can't even
repeat the Christian Nation propaganda correctly. David Barton
only says
, not 27 (out of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, not the founding fathers in general). But Barton's reasoning is absurd. He counts as a "seminary degree" any degree from any university that began as a seminary. Harvard, for instance, started as a seminary in the early 1600s (along with Yale, Princeton and most of the other major colleges), but by the time the founding fathers went there it was a full university. The vast majority of them got degrees in things like law, not religion, but Barton calls those "seminary or Bible degrees" even if they were in a completely different subject. Highly dishonest.

Jefferson was trying to protect religion from the government, not the

Actually, he was trying to do neither. He was trying to protect the
individual from the imposition of someone else's religion under all

Some people call Jefferson agnostic, deist, and other such things, but
those ideas can be countered simply by knowing history.

This I agree with. Anyone who thinks Jefferson was an agnostic is utterly
ignorant of Jefferson's own writings. Nor was he a deist because he believed in
an active, provident, interventionist God. But he certainly was not a Christian
by any reasonable standard either.

Jefferson did, in a way, contradict his own words about separation of
church and state and actually clarified things in his second Inaugural address
in 1805, three years after his letter to the Danbury Baptists. The words of this
address are ignored by those who, today, still believe in a "separation of
church and state" through Jefferson's letter. In his second Inaugural address,
he states:

"In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is
placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government.
I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises
suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under
direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the
several religious societies. Many contemporary writers attempt to read back into
the past a 'wall of separation' between church and state which, in fact, never
has existed in the United States".

These words spoken by Jefferson should proof enough about the truth of
separation of church and state.

Actually, this "quote" only proves that Derender, or whoever he is
cutting and pasting from, is a baldfaced liar (or incapable of putting quotation
marks in the correct place). Jefferson said no such thing. It's not as if
second inaugural address is not available on about a billion webpages to check the accuracy. The first two sentences are accurate; the third is obviously someone else's commentary that someone incorporated into the text. And the first two sentences do not, in any way, contradict Jefferson's stance on separation of
church and state. After Derender blathered in several more comments about
irrelevant subjects, someone using the nickname Right Wing Man
some more nonsense
. Like this:

In 1892, the Supreme Court of the United States declared, "This is a
Christian nation."

Yes it did, but what did that mean? If it only means that America is a
nation made up primarily of Christians, that is very different from claiming
that America is officially Christian. And Christian Nation apologists love to
conflate the two. This was actually a throwaway line in Justice Brewer's ruling
in the case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States; it was dicta, not part
of the holding, and it had no relevance at all to the legal issue. But any claim
that the nation is officially Christian is patently absurd; the constitution
says no such thing.

During the War for Independence, Congress resolved to import 20,000
volumes of the Bible because "the use of the Bible is so universal, and its
importance so great."

This old claim has been thoroughly debunked by my friend Chris Rodda. You
can read it

The New England Confederation stated that the purpose of the colonies was
"to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of
the gospel in purity with peace."

I'm always amused when Christian Nation apologists quote founding
documents from the colonies rather than the United States. Most of the colonies
were founded as theocracies, not free societies. And our revolution and
constitution was, quite obviously, a rejection of both theocracy and

Harvard College required that each student believe that "the main end of
his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal

I can't imagine why this is relevant. Harvard is a private university
founded as a seminary. What this has to do with the identity of the nation

John Adams wrote, "The Christian religion is...the Religion of Wisdom,
Virtue, Equity, and humanity."

John Adams used the term "Christian" very broadly, declaring that all
good people were "Christians" even if they were, in fact, Muslims or Hindus or
non-believers. I doubt very much that Right Wing Man would consider John Adams a Christian if Adams told him what he believed. He rejected the divinity of Jesus, for example, and the authority of almost all of the Bible. He was a unitarian
and a universalist.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Mr. Brayton catches his opponents in some well-known errors, although David Barton himself has withdrawn them. Who is Derender? Who is "Right Wing Man"? Who cares?

Yet Mr. Brayton claims Patrick Henry lost his battle nationally, but Henry never fought it nationally.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Mr. Brayton writes

But any claim
that the nation is officially Christian is patently absurd; the constitution says no such thing.
Who makes the claim about "officially"? Who argues the constitution says any such thing?

"Patently absurd." Indeed, Brad.

Brad Hart said...

I thought the Patrick Henry stuff might be the point where the most discussion would "sprout."

You are right that Henry never fought this battle nationally. I wonder, however, if he would have given the chance. Perhaps we'll never know. I do think that the point about Henry refusing to accept the Constitution because it wasn't "Christian" enough is a bit over the top. There were a lot of reasons -- religion being only one -- that Henry and others refused to get on board with the Const.

I had a feeling you would respond to an "Ed Brayton" post, being the huge fan of his blog that you are! =)

Tom Van Dyke said...

You got that right, Brad. But I'm not as interested in Ed's errors as he is in hunting down those of others [I see him on Christian-y websites in the comments sections]. Still, if Mr. Brayton's errors drop onto this blog, it seems proper to point them out.

But his triumphs over bad arguments here and there don't amount to much, especially if he himself is going to err in debunking them. And there are plenty of good arguments like those of early Supreme Court justices like Joseph Wilson, Joseph Story and John Marshall that aren't so easily disposed of, or that the men like Hooker, Locke and Sidney---the latter two Mr. Brayton mentions in his OP, quoting Jefferson---who influenced the Founding were thoroughly steeped in Christian thought.

Yes, unfortunately there are inauthentic pro-religion quotes about the Founding bounding around the internet, and correcting his anonymous commenters or hunting down underinformed bloggers is proper in its way. We all have our little jihads, I suppose.

But to label them "Christian nation falsehoods" is mere culture war invective, and dumbs down the actual search for truth.

Brad Hart said...

Just FYI (you probably already put this together) but the "Christian Nation Falsehoods" was HIS title, not mine.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed, Brad. You did use "scare quotes."

Of course, Brayton, polemicist and culture warrior that he is, did not.

Brad Hart said...

Anyone other than Tom and I want to jump in here? I had high hopes for this post.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm really busy until tomorrow. Calculating grades before a deadline tomorrow morning.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

I will add though that there is more than one way to analyze the religion & the Founding states v. fed govt. angle and the debate has been raging since day one.

Yes, Brayton is aware that as originally conceived religion was left to the states; he knows the record very well (well enough that he immediately caught the few brainfarts when he interviewed me, like for instance when I meant to say Madison as an author of the Federalist Papers but accidentially said Jefferson).

There are some on both the Left AND the Right who see the absence of God and ban on religious tests as standing for something more secular in principle than the forces of religious correctness desired. Indeed you can find lots of quotes from prominent religious conservatives of the time inveighing against the Constitution because of its Godless, secular nature.

As noted, there is more than one way to view things; but that certainly is a viable perspective.

Re Henry I think his biggest problem with the Constitution was that it was too powerful and centralized; he probably had MORE of a problem with that then the lack of religious or Christian language. Henry wanted the Constitution to be done in the name of "we the states" NOT "we the people." It probably sounded too Rousseau for him.