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Leaping Back to the Founding, Part 2: Is this a "Christian Nation" Theory?

Posted on October 25 2009 1:00 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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Click here for Part 1 of Leaping Back to the Founding

Here’s one way to tell when someone is lying about a person or a book: they fail to actually produce any quotes confirming the facts of what they’re talking about. Leftists who lie about David Horowitz do this all the time. They’ll ascribe some wild position to him and then not actually back it with a damning quote. A commenter here at NewsReal recently did it with the Rush Limbaugh controversy once the Left’s racist quote was determined to be fraudulent.

And Alexander Zaitchik did it with W. Cleon Skousen — and Glenn Beck by extension — in his Salon hit-piece on the conservative author.

What has Beck been pushing on his legions? “Leap,” first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah’s George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year’s annual fundraiser).

[Emphasis added.]

Everything that I’ve put in bold in the above passage is a lie about the book. And as our exploration and debates over the constitutional themes of Leap begin and continue then that will become clear.

As an agnostic conservative I have no sympathy for the “Christian Nation” argument that some on the fringes of the Right like to promulgate. (Briefly defined: the idea that Christianity is the foundation of America and deserves some sort of federally-mandated preference in American life.) I acknowledge that the Bible and Judeo-Christian concepts informed the founders but I bristle at the suggestion that the federal government should demonstrate any sort of bias toward Christianity, churches, or religious ideas.

And while Skousen does indeed cite the Bible as an influence for the founders — perhaps somewhat more than he should — 5000 Year Leap does not demonstrate a Mormon version of the founding or a “Christian Nation” thesis. And why would it? Skousen, as a Mormon, knew that only a government neutral to the country’s many religious traditions could be trusted to guarantee religious freedom for all.

Skousen does indeed have a religious tone and somewhat of a religious approach to the American Idea. (Some have rightfully labeled this “hokey” — which in Skousen’s hands it has a tendency to be sometimes.)

However, this conception of “civic religion” is nothing with which a mystically-minded agnostic like myself has a problem.  Though we may be divided by questions of theology, there is a “religion” that can transcend these differences.

Among its scriptures are the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. Its rituals are poltical discussion, campaigning, and voting. Its holidays are the 4th of July and Memorial Day. Its saints are all who have worn a uniform in defense of their country. What’s to object to about this civic religion?

I’m sure as we begin exploring some of the Founders’ concepts which Skousen has collected in his book we’ll find plenty of ideas that the Left has chosen to jettison as it continues its doomed quest to create  perfect.

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