Glenn Beck has famously postulated — on a blackboard — that if all Americans knew the history and content of the constitution the way he and his team of “expert” historian’s do, the Tea Party would be running the country’s show, not President Obama or any of his like-minded radical liberals. Last week, Beck held the first session of “Beck University” to do just that, re-teach Americans the real intent of separation of church and state, “not what you’ve been sold.” His first guest was David Barton, founder of Wallbuilders and long-time advocate for the separation of church and state as a way to “keep the [church’s] influence in there [government].” Writes TPM:
He began by talking about Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of “American Exceptionalism,” noting that “there’s gotta be a reason we’re different” from other democracies. That’s where the “Black-Robed Regiment” comes in. These, according to Barton, were the preachers who influenced the bulk of the Declaration of Independence: “The Declaration of Independence is nothing more than a listing of all of the sermons that folks had been hearing in church in the decades leading up to the American Revolution.”
What makes us different? Barton describes God as a special ingredient. Chris Rodda, senior researcher at Military Religious Freedom Foundation and author of Liars for Jesus, has called this all hogwash. She’s been following Beck’s history lessons and debunking them in a multi-part series at Daily Kos. (You can read them here. You can also view a video of her appearance on the Keith Olbermann show at Ed Brayton’s site.)
While Beck’s objective is clear, his ideological ancestry is underreported. Many have poo-pooed his influence, citing fallen ratings and abashed sponsors. Others like Bruce Wilson at Talk to Action have tied Beck (via Barton) to a long history of constitutional revisionism that reaches back to R.J. Rushdoony, considered the founder of the modern homeschooling movement who died in 2001. But attempts to control how we tell the nation’s history date to the nation’s founding. Beck’s “University” is really only the most publicized, latest effort by fundamentalists to re-educate Americans about our nation’s purpose.
Susan Jacoby writes in The American Age of Unreason that American freethought, of which Deism was only a strain and out of which the writers of the constitution came, was always a minority movement. She writes,
The religious controversies of the early republican period established a permanent American fault line over faith. The fissure, often masked by a civic ideology of religious tolerance, nevertheless opens up periodically — as it has most recently in the culture wars dating from the mid-1970s — to reveal raw and irreconcilable religious passions.
These passions strongly played out in early America’s universities which were initially responsible for educating the clergy (in 1750, 45% of Harvard’s graduates entered the ministry, down from 70% a century earlier). Higher education in law, medicine and business turned out to be a secularizing force. Continues Jacoby:
The rational Christian path, in whatever portions it chose to mix rationalism with Christianity, encompassed and embraced intellect and higher learner. The fundamentalist path turned away from any form of learning that contradicted the Bible and therefore might serve as an obstacle to personal salvation.
While Jefferson saw education as a way to end aristocratic rule and make citizens more equal, few in the late 1700s and early 1800s felt the same way. The battle to tax the public for education was an amazing achievement and in public education’s early days, the states were able to use their tax dollars for sectarian education. In Virginia and much of the north where the children of various protestant denominations were educated in the same schools, separation of church and education became the mandate. The “homogenized” God which appeared in schools as a way to appease multi-denominational classrooms, says Jacoby, led to the secularized public school system we have today.
After an ebb and flow of acceptance of secular public education — the 1950s may have been a heyday for public desire to learn and achieve in the sciences — Rushdoony “helped launch Christian homeschooling and revived the idea of reading American history through a providential lens.” (That’s from former Revealer editor, Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.) It was Rushdoony too who decided de Tocqueville was a fundamentalist Christian.
At the same time that Rushdoony was rewriting history, Francis Schaeffer was sitting at his retreat in Switzerland, working, as his son Frank writes, to found the Religious Right.
In the early 1970s the evangelicals like my late father and James Dobson decided that the our society had fallen so far “away from God” and so far from “America’s Christian history” that it was time to metaphorically decamp to not just another country but to another planet:. In other words virtually unnoticed by the media and mainstream political operatives, a big chunk of American society seceded from the union in all but name.
What they did is turn the white race-based in “Christian school” movement of the 1950s into a countercultural phenomena. As tens of thousands of new Christian schools opened, it was no longer just about “protecting” white kids from minorities and African-Americans. It was about protecting your children from Satan in other words the United States government’s long reach through the public school system.
And who does Sharlet list as disciples of Schaeffer but a who’s who of the current fundamentalists who are influencing public policy, education, and culture: Tim LaHaye (Left Behind series), Chuck Colson (Watergate and Prison Fellowship Ministries), Randall Terry (the anti-abortion Operation Rescue), and, of course, David Barton.
In the last four decades, the American public education system has developed a Christian shadow. Schools established to bestow Christian B.A.s and medical and law degrees now feed Christian think tanks, legal societies and sectarian health care facilities.
Beck isn’t doing anything new; he’s simply the next generation of “teachers” with an established audience, hell-bent on creating, as Sharlet writes, “a vision of an American future so entirely Christ-filtered that beside it theocracy — the clumsy governance of priestly bureaucrats, disdained by Schaeffer and Colson — seems a modest ambition.”