Historian On Countdown Debunks American History Lies From "Glenn Beck University"
Last night Keith Olbermann's Countdown featured an interview with historian Chris Rodda, who debunked a number of American history lies featured in the first installment of Glenn Beck's new "Glenn Beck University" online course curriculum (see video.) As announced with a flourish, "[Glenn] Beck University is a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics." Ah yes, 'experts.'
Why do David Barton's history lies matter?
Glenn Beck is fond of warning his viewers that America is sliding towards some sort of mutant totalitarian amalgam of socialism and fascism (oxymoronically ignoring the fact that through most of the early 20th Century Nazis and Communists were at each others throats) but Beck seems to have learned a trick or two from German fascism and Soviet-style communism - both movements were fond of rewriting history. Why ? George Orwell, in his dystopian novel 1984, summed it up - "Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future." David Barton's lies are concocted to buttress the inaccurate claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.
Chris Rodda, author of Liars For Jesus: The Christian Right's Alternate Version of American History and Senior Researcher for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has so far written four installments in her series debunking David Barton's history lies as showcased on the Glenn Beck Show. The latest is No, Mr. Beck, Our Constitution is Not Based on the Book of Deuteronomy.
So, how does the falsification of American history play out in the real world ?
Well, to take one notorious example, recently a panel of "experts" appointed by the Texas Board of Education recommended a number of changes to Texas public school social studies curriculum. Changes included renaming the slave trade the "Atlantic Triangular Trade," minimizing the historical role of Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for separation of church and state, and emphasizing the view that the Founding Fathers were motivated by Christian principles. David Barton was on the panel.
Thus, the horror of slavery gets papered over by the banal "Atlantic Triangular Trade," Thomas Jefferson gets cut out of the American history narrative because he's problematic for Christian supremacists such as David Barton, who want overtly Christian government, and the Founders, who chose to write a Constitution that contained no mention of "God" and prohibited religious tests for public office are magically recast as having been driven by Christian piety.
That's George Orwell's history principle at work.
I first noticed Chris Rodda's work in late 2006 while I was researching what appeared to be falsified American history showcased by the US Library of Congress. One day in the Spring of 2007, while chatting on the phone with Chris, I found myself idly running Google searches to see if David Barton's falsified American history was being promoted by the United States military. Why would that matter ? If you're comfortable with the fact (as Chris Rodda mentions during her Olbermann Show interview) that David Barton often gives talks on US military bases, consider journalist Frederick Clarkson's summary in his 2007 Public Eye article, "History is Powerful - Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters"
"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."
If America's military class became convinced the true intent of the Founders was to create an overtly Christian nation but that intent had been thwarted by an evil plot to rewrite American history, my reasoning went, it could pose serious problems for the stability of American democracy, to put it mildly.
The Junior ROTC program serves as a feeder system for America's professional military class, and that day in March, while talking to Rodda, I found out that David Barton's twisted interpretation of the principle of church-state separation had been inserted into the US Army's national JROTC curriculum. It seems to still be there.
On page 66 of Unit Six of the Army's JROTC Leadership and Training curriculum, "Citizenship and American History" ( PDF file of curriculum), we find the following:
"SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
The "separation of church and state" phrase was taken from an exchange of private letters between President Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, shortly after Jefferson became President. It is not found in any governmental American document.
The inclusion of protection for the "free exercise of religion" in the constitution suggested to the Danbury Baptists that the right of religious expression was government- given and therefore the government might someday attempt to regulate religious expression. Jefferson shared their concern. He believed along with the other Founders, that the First Amendment had been enacted only to prevent the federal establishment of a national denomination. He assured them that they need not fear; that the federal government would never interfere with the free exercise of religion.
In summary, the "separation" phrase so frequently invoked today was rarely mentioned by any of the Founders; and even Jefferson's explanation of his phrase is diametrically opposed to the manner in which courts apply it today. "Separation of church and state" currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant."
That passage, identified as having been adapted by Jim Rice from Separation of Church and State by David Barton, is so problematic it's hard to know where to start so and I'll leave that to Chris Rodda, who covered the subject in a May 13, 2007 story she posted at Talk To Action (the web site I co-founded with Frederick Clarkson back in late 2005), The Department of Defense -- Bringing Historical Revisionism to a High School Near You
One of the subtler points Rodda makes in her piece is that the passage on "Separation of Church and State" appears in a chapter that instructs cadets on how simple majoritarian democracy functions, and that's a deeply deceptive intellectual frame given the textbook is supposed to enlighten the hundreds of thousands of JROTC students, who might in theory read the chapter, about the process of American democracy.
The chapter asks cadets to form groups, with chosen moderators, and come to majority consensus about issues such as changing the legal voting age. But that's really not how American democracy works. There are legal safeguards built in to prevent simple democratic majorities from voting to change basic rights outlined in the Bill of Rights. Otherwise voting majorities could strip minority groups of their rights, even decide to have them slaughtered en masse and the Rwandan Genocide could be interpreted as a model of democracy in action, with the majority will expressed, rather than through voting, by machete.
In context, the Barton-derived passage on church state separation is rather incongruous and seems to suggest that simple voting majorities could vote to change the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" and also, perhaps, Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution which bars religious tests for public office:
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
The First Amendment, and Article VI of the Constitution establish quite clearly the principle of church-state separation, which might be why the JROTC curriculum with David Barton's take on church state separation doesn't mention them - cadets reading the chapter merely learn, per Barton and Rice, that the principle has been grievously misinterpreted and they might even come away with the impression that the problem could be addressed during a national election, perhaps through a voter referendum that would reestablish what Barton and his fellow revisionists claim was the founder's true intent, to create a Christian nation.
To gesture at one more example of fake history in American civic and political life, for years the National Prayer Breakfast, established by the theocratic group The Family ( most notably covered in a book by that name from journalist Jeff Sharlet), has featured, in its printed program, a falsified quote attributed to George Washington.
"George Washington's Prayer" even served as the printed invocation prayer for the 2001 National Prayer Breakfast, and it has been publicly cited by at least one US president, Gerald Ford, and declaimed several times (at least) on the floors of the US Senate and House of Representatives. Historians have known it to be fraudulent for, literally, decades. As I wrote in 2007,
In June of 1783, George Washington wrote a circular letter to the Governors of the Thirteen States announcing his resignation as Commander and Chief of the Armies Of The United States, upon the disbanding of the army. This letter is considered one of the more significant documents from American history, and for a number of reasons. The period of Washington's Circular Letter was a time of considerable economic and political turmoil for the newly forming nation, and there was some fear that Washington might heed the encouragement of some who were urging that he simply declare himself king. Washington did not heed such advice and opted, with considerable grace, to step down from his position as top military commander.
The exact origins of the alleged "Washington's Prayer" have not yet been fully traced but the actual text of the prayer has been identified - "Washington Prayer" is actually a bastardized version of text excerpted from the end of Washington's Circular Letter and then substantially altered.
The sobering point I am about to make is this : not ONE United States Senator or Congress Member, or any of their aides, has shown an ability to recognize or a willingness to call out the fabrication if they did recognize it, a falsified quote constructed from one of the more important source documents of American history. Our leading public servants, nearly every one, have shown themselves to be either cowards or history ignoramuses and that sorry state of events shows how much ground the Christian right's falsified American history has gained