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Mike Huckabee's Distortions of U.S. History

Friday, April 08, 2011 at 07:27 AM EDT

Mike Huckabee went on The Daily Show last night and said some remarkably ignorant things about the history of the Constitution and what he refers to as the views of secularists.* In a discussion on the well-worn ‘debate' about whether or not the founders intended America to be a "Christian Country," Huckabee claims all conservatives like him want is a ‘recognition' that most of the founders were Christian.

This is to bring some balance to the idea that the Founders had no spiritual direction at all .... there is a perception among many that this is a completely secular nation, and that the Judeo-Christian worldview was not a very significant part of our creation."

First, I don't know of a single atheist who would deny that the majority of the founders were professed Christians. This is obviously true. What Huckabee and nearly everyone on the Religious Right fails to grasp, however, is that this does not change the meaning of the First Amendment. Right now, conservatives like to claim that the separation of church and state is a latter invention (this is something else Huckabee goes on to claim in the interview), which only means that the state will not persecute religion (rather than also, the state will not advocate a particular religion.) But these are not two clearly separate things -- any attempt by the state to promote or advocate a particular religion is clearly, by implication, discouraging the practice of other religions (or no religion at all). As always, conservatives like to pretend that culture has no power except for when they fantasize it is arrayed against them in the form of the incipient atheist takeover.

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Second, what does he mean by the Judeo-Christian worldview being "a very significant part of our creation"? If he means most of the founders were Christian, well of course. But is he a scholar of eighteenth century political thought? Can he point me to the amendments in the Constitution that would not be there, or would be substantially different, if it weren't for the Christian belief of the founders? What is it, about our form of government, its constitutional structure, that can be traced back to the Bible? Most of the time, I believe you get an answer along the lines of "all men are created equal, that is a Christian concept," etc. And true enough, the Protestant Reformation did have a lot to do with helping this concept come into the world. But so did the Enlightenment, a movement largely led by secularist philosophers, some of which, like Voltaire, were open atheists. The classical republican tradition that, by and large, the founders looked to for inspiration was not exclusively Christian and in fact had more to do with the Renaissance and the revival of its political thought in the Enlightenment than with the Bible. Mike Huckabee can try to learn about this, if he wants, in J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment.

In any case, anyone who thinks that a reading of the Bible leads inevitably to the embracing of the concept of the equality of man is simply purposely closing their eyes to the majority of what is actually in the Bible, the various sects and societies it has inspired that were clearly not based on a concept of human equality, and invoking the fallacy of No True Scotsman.

Thirdly, Mike Huckabee is being completely disingenuous when he claims that all he and others like him want is ‘recognition' of the Christian history of the country. You've got to be kidding me. The vast majority of Americans identify as Christians -- we pledge to a country under God and spend money that claims the same. Christian assumptions about life and death are the prevailing assumptions, and the Federal calender is organized around observing the holidays of this religion. People like Mike Huckabee want more than ‘recognition' -- they want prayer back in schools, they want abortion to be illegal, and they want creationism in textbooks. ‘Recognition' is merely code for turning back the clock to the time when the hegemony of Christian culture was unchallenged and the views of dissenters and the work of scientists unprotected.

Finally, I like to always close these discussions of what the founders thought with a resounding what does it matter? By which I only mean that to slavishly hook ourselves to what eighteenth century men -- and might I add it was almost entirely men -- thought about this or that as though they and only they had access to an unchanging truth is absurd, and the opposite of the free thinking independence someone like Jefferson would have hoped for us. I only enter into these debates about the historical record because as a historian, its distortion enrages me. But if we really want to do well by the memory of the founders, I suggest we start looking at our world today and our problems and based on our knowledge, try to make a better society and imagine new possibilities that an adherence to traditionalist dogma will never allow.

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* There was actually so many things wrong with the arguments Mike Huckabee made here, and his distortions of logic so profound, I couldn't possibly write a post covering it all because it would turn into a book. Especially disturbing was his advocacy of David Barton, a theologian posing as a historian. I suggest you watch the full interview, in which, as always, Jon Stewart does a masterful job.