Friday, January 30, 2009

Church & State: A Task Before Us

Back around the end of 2007, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a cretinous imbecile of a Republican that the 4th District in Virginia has viciously chosen to inflict upon its country, created a noxious little resolution "affirming the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation’s founding and subsequent history..." The resolution went about "affirming" that with a very long series of "whereas" clauses about that alleged history. These are, in the words of Chris Rodda, who ably dismantled the text last year,
packed with the same American history lies found on the Christian nationalist websites, and in the books of pseudo-historians like David Barton.
Barton is the #1 source in the U.S. for this sort of pseudo-historical garbage. Rodda mentions Barton, and even notes things in the resolution that are quoted all-but-verbatim from Barton, but, in my view, the degree of Barton's influence over the total document is underplayed. Nearly all of the phony factoids Forbes employs have been used by Barton over the years--I suspect he is Forbes' direct source for nearly all of them. Forbes certainly shows no evidence of having done any original research.

A few years ago, I wrote a pretty good piece about Barton's lies with regard to James Madison. I think it's one of the better articles on Barton. Not because I think I'm a better writer than anyone else--the article was banged out relatively quickly, and has plenty of shortcomings--but because it demonstrates Barton's method in a more comprehensive manner than any of the other many articles about him. Barton's critics tend to focus on single aspects of his method, such as his use of phony quotations or phony anecdotes. My own shows how he systematically warps the entire historical record to support his predetermined conclusions.

And that's exactly what we're seeing in the Forbes proposal.

Barton's fingerprints are all over it, both in the individual details and in the overall picture it presents. Barton is a propagandist in the worst sense of the the word. He distorts real history beyond recognition, ignores facts that undercut his conclusions, and outright fabricates with no concern at all for accuracy. He and his followers aren't just peddlers of phony quotations. They offer, to a far-too-large segment of the public, a comprehensive view of history, one that serves their reactionary political ends perfectly, but which bears little or no resemblance to actual history.

This is a formidable obstacle for those of us who seek to combat this sort of revisionism, much more formidable than I think many of us have credited it with being. In the "history" offered by "Christian nationalism," we aren't just dealing with some false factoids that can be individually exposed. We're dealing with a vast and comprehensive mythology, one that has taken decades to build. It has proven to be so persistent because, in part, the sane among us don't challenge it in a more comprehensive manner. It's like Lear's lesson; a single arrow is easily broken, but a bundle of them are much tougher. We break the hell out of single arrows--the phony quotations, the bogus anecdotes, the removal of context, etc.--but that doesn't bring down the mythology itself. Expose a James Madison quote as a phony, the nationalists either ignore you and continue to repeat it (and those are the hopeless ones who don't care about the truth), or they merely chuck it, believing that one phony quotation does not amount to a challenge to the overall picture they've been led to believe. That Forbes resolution isn't merely 70-odd isolated pseudo-factoids; it's a representation of that mythology.

Those of us who would defend a policy of religious liberty do have to be able to make the usual philosophical and practical arguments in its favor, but we also have to be mindful of these historical distortions, and we must develop means to deal with them in a more effective way. In this, the internet can be our greatest ally or our greatest enemy. It gives us the means to disseminate information more quickly and more widely than ever before, but it allows misinformation to spread just as easily. I hope we can make of it a friend.

--j. of j. and Jenn

(Part of our Classical Liberals site is Church & State Issues, a modest little project aimed at combating, in a more comprehensive way, Christian nationalist historical mythology.)