The Christian Right’s Consistent Misunderstanding of the American Revolution

From a profile of Michele Bachmann in this week’s New Yorker:

Later that year, [the Bachmanns] experienced a second life-altering event: they watched a series of films by the evangelist and theologian Francis Schaeffer called “How Should We Then Live?”

Schaeffer, who ran a mission in the Swiss Alps known as L’Abri (“the shelter”), opposed liberal trends in theology. One of the most influential evangelical thinkers of the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, he has been credited with getting a generation of Christians involved in politics. Schaeffer’s film series consists of ten episodes tracing the influence of Christianity on Western art and culture, from ancient Rome to Roe v. Wade. In the films, Schaeffer—who has a white goatee and is dressed in a shearling coat and mountain climber’s knickers—condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism. He repeatedly reminds viewers of the “inerrancy” of the Bible and the necessity of a Biblical world view. “There is only one real solution, and that’s right back where the early church was,” Schaeffer tells his audience. “The early church believed that only the Bible was the final authority. What these people really believed and what gave them their whole strength was in the truth of the Bible as the absolute infallible word of God.”

The American Revolution was very much an Enlightenment revolution. Ideas we cherish and that are embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, from freedom of speech and religion, to restrictions on state police power, to a popularly elected government, were the result of political theory that emerged during the Enlightenment as a rejection of traditional European oligarchies.

Bachmann, Rick Perry, and others on the Christian right consistently miss this point. Worse, they misunderstand the religious views of the American Founders, usually to justify advancing their own religiously-motivated political agenda. As a simple refutation of this, I offer the first few paragraphs of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;
that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

When people like Schaeffer reject the Enlightenment and other cornerstones of modern Western political thought, they are very much rejecting the founding principles of the United States. Bachmann and others that seek to govern this country should be reminded of this simple fact at every opportunity.