The New York Times

February 27, 2005

Putting God Back Into American History

In a memorial illustration after Lincoln's assassination, George Washington is shown welcoming Lincoln to heaven.

ASHINGTON On a recent evening, David Barton, a leading conservative Christian advocate for emphasizing religion in American history, stood barefoot on a bench in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building with a congressman by his side and about a hundred students from Oral Roberts University at his feet.

"Isn't it interesting that we have all been trained to recognize the two least religious founding fathers?" Mr. Barton asked, pointing to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in a painting on the wall. "And compared to today's secularists these two guys look like a couple of Bible-thumping evangelicals!" Even Jefferson signed letters "in the year of Our Lord Christ," Mr. Barton told the group. "What would happen if George Bush did that? They'd rip his head off!"

Mr. Barton, who is also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is a point man in a growing movement to call attention to the open Christianity of America's great leaders and founding documents. The goal is to reverse what many evangelical Christians claim is a secularist revision of history, to defend displays of religion in public life and to make room for God in public school classrooms.

Their campaign and the liberal resistance have turned even the slightest clues about the souls of the Republic's great leaders - that Washington left church before communion and almost never referred to Jesus, that the famously skeptical Jefferson attended Sunday services in the House of Representatives, or that Lincoln never joined a church at all - into hotly contested turf in the battle over the place of religion in public life. In a sign of his influence, the California and Texas school boards have consulted Mr. Barton on their curriculums. And sympathetic legislators in a dozen states have passed American Heritage Education Acts intended to protect teachers who discuss religion's role in history_- measures liberals call unnecessary.

Mr. Barton, an expert witness in a case about the public display of the Ten Commandments that is coming before the Supreme Court this week, said he has given his "spiritual heritage" tour of the Capitol more than a hundred times, for scores of Congressmen and thousands of visitors. The contents of articles, books and videos produced by his organization, WallBuilders, about the religious underpinnings of American history have echoed through Christian cable networks, magazines and pulpits around the country.

Custodians of historical sites testify to the currency of similar ideas. When the Mount Vernon Estate and Museum sent out a recent fund-raising letter, for example, "We got more calls on the subject of religion than any other topic," mostly from evangelical Protestants encouraging more discussion of Washington's faith, said James C. Rees, the museum's executive director.

In response to the frequent questions, he said, the museum is installing a replica of Washington's church pew and a video about his church attendance. It is also asking the conservative thinker Michael Novak to write a book about Washington and religion.

But academic historians, including some conservative and evangelical scholars, give the Christian conservative veneration of this history about a B-minus. They say that Mr. Barton is more or less right, as far as it goes, that the founders never guessed that courts would construe the First Amendment to forbid public displays of religion like prayer in the schools. But the 18th-century religious views of the founders hardly fit into contemporary categories like evangelical Protestant or secular humanist. Nor, historians say, do the great leaders' public expressions of faith necessarily tell us much about how their notion of an ideal relationship between religion and government.

"Barton is a very hard-working researcher, but what I guess I worry about is the collapsing of historical distance, and the effort to make really anybody fit directly into the category of the early 21st century evangelicals," said Mark A. Noll, a prominent historian at Wheaton College, a prestigious evangelical school.

But, Professor Noll added, "I would say he is no worse than some of the Ivy League types who do the same thing, who say the founding fathers believed in separation of church and state and therefore we do, too."

Gordon Wood, a professor at Brown and historian of early America, agreed that the founders never imagined a culture as secular as ours. After all, many states had tax-supported churches well into the 19th century. "They definitely did not contemplate this kind of what we might call 'extreme,' where a minister or a rabbi at a public school graduation is considered to be a violation of separation of church and state," Professor Wood said. "We have built that wall much higher than any of them, even Jefferson, would have anticipated."

But he said educated colonials like the founders also took a dim view of religious fervor. "They just were not in favor of religious 'enthusiasms' - that is the word they would have used for what we would call evangelical," he said.

Richard Brookhiser, a biographer of Washington and a senior editor at the conservative National Review, put it differently. "The temperature of a lot of 18th century religion was just a lot lower," he said.

But debates over the spirituality of America's most inspirational leaders are as old as the nation itself; in the early Republic, newspapers published accounts of leaders' dying moments in part to assess their readiness to meet their maker.

"People care passionately about the founders because they want the founders to be like them," Mr. Brookhiser said. "So you get this from Christians, and you get it from secularists who say the founders are like them and want them to be 'closet deists.' " His own view: "They probably couldn't conceive that the country could ever change so much. But, look, if they wanted a Christian state they could have done it. They were writing the rules. They could have put God in the rules."

The secularists Mr. Brookhiser refers to - self-described religious skeptics - make the omission of "the Creator" from the Constitution the cornerstone of their view of the Republic. In "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan), Susan Jacoby argued it could hardly have been an accident. The Rev. John M. Mason of New York, a Christian champion of the 1780's, for example, argued that God's absence was "an omission which no pretext can palliate" and warned that if Americans proved equally godless "we have every reason to tremble." But he was unsuccessful.

Each side can find ammunition for its perspective in almost any great historical figure or moment. Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, notes in his recently published book "Winning the Future" (Regnery) that the relative skeptic Benjamin Franklin suggested that the Constitutional Convention hire a chaplain. But what Mr. Gingrich leaves out is that the convention declined to do so, in part for lack of funds and in part because the participants worried that turning to prayer in the middle of their debates might signal to the public that they were in trouble.

Forrest McDonald, a professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and a conservative critic of what he sees as liberal political correctness in history departments, said that, all in all, Christians probably outnumbered deists among the founders. Even so, he said, "Just because the founders were a Christian nation and just because they expected it to be a Christian nation doesn't tell us anything about what we should do today."

As Mr. Barton strolled the Capitol with his escort, Representative Bob Beauprez, Republican of Colorado, the first stop on his tour was inside the Capitol dome, where a mural depicts "The Apotheosis of George Washington," in which the first president sits in the clouds surrounded by angels. Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, stopped to listen as he crossed paths with the tour. "You don't get tour guides like this around here very often, and I had to stop and listen," Mr. Holt told the students. "You all are lucky to get to hear him."

Standing before a painting of Washington with his hand outstretched, Mr. Barton read from the best-known testament that the first president was indeed a heartfelt Christian: his "prayer for America" from his letter of resignation as a general, urging citizens to imitate "the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our Blessed Religion." "He's saying, hey, we have won the war but if we don't imitate Christ we won't be a happy nation," Mr. Barton said. "That is Washington!"

Other historians, though, say that letter was one of the only times Washington referred to Jesus at all. Instead, he more often spoke of a divine "Providence" that established the laws of nature and deserved thanks for favorable events. He was an active member of the Masons, who emphasized enlightenment ideas about reason and natural law, and swore his oath of office on a Bible borrowed from a Masonic lodge.

Mr. Barton says that after Washington's death, religious members of his family testified in great detail to a personal faith hidden from the public. But Joseph J. Ellis, a professor at Mount Holyoke and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose latest book is "His Excellency: George Washington" (Knopf), calls him "a lukewarm Episcopalian and a quasi-deist." "When he died he really did not know what would happen to his soul, if such a thing existed," he added.

Washington's opposition to establishing or even favoring any religion, though, was clear. In 1790, for example, he wrote to a Jewish synagogue in Rhode Island to say that in America all faiths were not only tolerated but fully equal: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."

Jefferson's cosmology was a matter of debate in his own lifetime, when his political opponents denounced him as an atheist. But Mr. Barton told his students that "even Jefferson" called himself a Christian. Jefferson approved the use of the Capitol and other public buildings for church services and attended himself, even enlisting the military band to play religious music. And in 1803, Mr. Barton said, he signed a treaty that called for public funds to pay a missionary to the Indians.

But Jefferson was also the most forthright deist among the founders, meaning that he believed in a creator who merely set the world in motion according to natural laws. When Thomas Paine wrote "The Age of Reason," an attack on organized religion, Jefferson was virtually the only founder who remained his friend.

Jefferson famously assembled his own Bible by cutting out any passage involving miracles or the supernatural to leave only Jesus's teachings. In a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson defended his faith by arguing that true Christians followed these teachings, while belief in miracles like the virgin birth perverted them. On the other hand, Mr. Brookhiser noted, Jefferson took time to prepare his own Bible. "A modern secular humanist would not do that," he said.

In a later era, a young Lincoln was pilloried as irreligious too. He was known to have devoured the works of skeptics like Paine, and he was never baptized, never joined a church, and never or rarely mentioned Jesus. "One would have a very hard time saying he was a believing Christian," said Thomas F. Schwartz, the Illinois state historian and director of research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and a member of the theologically conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Christians have sometimes retold stories that Lincoln had a "secret baptism," but "they take you up blind allies or into rabbit holes," Mr. Schwartz said. "His wife said he was not a technical Christian but he was a man of faith," Mr. Schwartz said.

But Lincoln knew his Bible. His speeches overflowed with Bible verses, including some like "a house divided against itself cannot stand" that are now better known as Lincoln verses than Bible verses. He had "the cadences of the King James Bible in his lungs," as Mr. Brookhiser put it.

After the death of a son, he took comfort from a Presbyterian minister, and during the ravages of the Civil War, he took his questions to God. In 1862 he wrote a private essay, "Meditation on the Divine Will." Some of its ideas ended up in his Second Inaugural Address about an unfathomable God who "gives to both North and South this terrible war."

Professor Noll argued that Lincoln's religious oratory shifted from mere metaphors or window dressing to substantive statements about the will of God. "He moves during his lifetime from being a kind of secular fatalist toward being something closer to a Christian," Professor Noll said.

How such nuances are conveyed in textbooks and popular histories is Mr. Barton's watch. Ever alert to the treatment of religion, he recently posted an article on his group's Web site (, "Revisionism: How to Identify It in Your Children's Textbooks," listing some quotations from a best-seller, "Don't Know Much About History," by Kenneth C. Davis. Mr. Barton found what he considered several significant omissions.

For example, Mr. Davis quoted Patrick Henry's famous cry: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" But the phrase "Forbid it, Almighty God!" was left out.

Asked about the quotation, Mr. Davis said any such elision was an accident made in the interest of brevity, not to censor religion. He noted that he included a reference to God in another quotation, one from William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, describing Indians being burned alive after a battle: "horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God."

"Sure, God shows up on the bad stuff," Mr. Barton said in an interview. "We don't hear much about the five revivals in American history, but we always hear about the Salem witch trials." Still, he said, he only sought to dust off the fact of the founders' Christianity, not to argue for or against it. "If we are arguing off the premise that we have to be secular today because we have always been secular," he said, "then we are arguing off the wrong premise."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company