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

January 19, 2008, 1:30 pm

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.

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