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The Dangerous Lies We Tell About America’s Founding

Myths may comfort us, but facts are our best weapon against Tea Party perversions

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When it comes to the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, we can tell a lie—and we have been, ever since before the musket-fire stopped. We tell lies of exclusion, of exaggeration, of complete fabrication. Scholars tell them to our young people in textbooks; politicians tell them to adults in an unending stream of rhetoric. Such mythologizing is not surprising. Especially when it comes to origin myths, we humans love stories with clear heroes and villains and neat endings. But as two new books published for Independence Day show, it is dangerous. If we get lazy about our historical facts, we risk accepting at face value the interpretations of those facts we’re being fed.

According to Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths, a collection of primary-source documents assembled to counter the too-simple stories found in elementary and secondary school textbooks, we have the American Revolution wrong literally from beginning to end—mistakes that reveal a lot about American attitudes toward radicalism and military intervention. We think of the beginning as the “shot heard round the world” at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. However, Massachusetts farmers had already shaken off British rule in a popular uprising in 1774. Raphael contends that because we could find no individual face to attach to that earlier rebellion, we leave it out. (We love to distrust a leaderless movement. See: Occupy Wall Street.)

The Revolutionary War’s traditional finale at the Battle of Yorktown is likewise arbitrary: In the 18 months after Yorktown, 365 people were killed, more than at Bunker Hill, Lexington, Concord, and Quebec combined. But extending the end date, Raphael argues, would require explaining the Western battles against Native Americans, and young America’s awkward role as a proxy between Europe’s two great powers, England and France. (Americans, he writes, “have always done their best to avoid European entanglements.” We certainly tried to stay out of World War II until it arrived on our doorstep at Pearl Harbor.) The very existence of this book attests to the perennial appeal of such mythology: It’s a tenth-anniversary reissue.

Where Founding Myths is meant as a broad corrective to the historical record, Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Foundations of the American Republic bets all its chips on a founding myth that, studies by the Public Religion Research Institute have shown, more than half of Tea Party members believe: that our Founding Fathers were religious men, and that America is therefore a “Christian nation.” Actually, writes Stewart, in deism, the philosophical school of Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams, values and rights are granted to individuals not by the whims of a supernatural, transcendent authority, but by the natural, immanent laws of the universe. “We are and always have been the source of our own authority ... we govern ourselves not through acts of faith but through acts of understanding.”  To think otherwise opens up a path to fascism and dictatorship. “If we should find ourselves beholden to some other imagined authority, this can only mean that we have constructed the conditions of our own servitude.”

Many founding documents are, to be sure, dressed up in Christian language. The opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, for one: “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people… to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” But just who is this “Nature’s God”? That is, to what degree did the Founding Fathers consider themselves loyal to the version of Christianity that prevailed in America at their time? Not much, Stewart concluded after a decade of research. Deism, he argues persuasively, “is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism.” Them’s fighting words.

It’s a fight that matters. Since 1997, the right has been making a coordinated and persistent effort to pass varieties of a species of law that redefines the term “religious liberty” in a way that is directly contradictory to this understanding of the founders’ intentions. Rhetorically, these laws just provide extra protection for the freedom of religion and apply to everyone, be they evangelical, Catholic, Spiritualist or Bahai. But in practice, as observers in the 18 states that have passed variants of the law have noted, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow people to claim religious exemptions from all kinds of laws meant to protect everybody. (A Center for American Progress report cites “an organized coalition comprised of conservative evangelicals, the Catholic bishops, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and others [who] are engaged in a campaign to claim a monopoly on religious liberty.”)

Before the Hobby Lobby ruling, perhaps the most salient example of this redefinition was in Texas in 2010, where the Pat Robertson–founded American Center for Law and Justice defended a municipal bus driver who sued the government on civil rights charges when he was forced to resign after refusing to drop off a woman at Planned Parenthood, on his scheduled route, because he claimed it violated his religious beliefs as a “Christian minister.” The founders purposely relegated religion to the private sphere, as every individual’s natural right to freedom of mind would compel. But by diligent effort, the right has effectively translated “religious liberty” as “the right of conservative Christians to impose their private religion on the public discourse.” Now, the Supreme Court has handed the right a huge victory for this understanding of the term.

To conclude that America is a “Christian nation,” as numerous Christian conservatives insist, underestimates both the radicalness of the ideas on which the republic was founded and, more crucially, the source of our continuing national strength. That power, according to Stewart, is the ability of liberalism to effect progress—however slowly—through ideas like equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty.

Stewart, best known for his philosophical history of Leibniz and Spinoza, The Courtier and the Heretic, gives deism the gift of serious historical roots. He traces this strain of radical philosophy from Epicurus, via Lucretius, to Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and through to the ideas of Jefferson, as evidenced in the Declaration of Independence. Nature’s God is an enormous, ambitious philosophical history that works to redefine the very building blocks of our American society. That’s exactly what the religious right has been up to for decades now: redefining the terms of the debate. For those of us terrified by the resulting perversion of the idea of “religious liberty” that led to the Hobby Lobby decision, Stewart’s efforts are impassioned, noble, and necessary. It’s just that they feel a little late now.

Ray Raphael is well aware that the canonical Revolutionary War stories are not going anywhere. “Collectively, the litany is our identifying American story, our heritage,” he writes in Founding Myths. And heritage is important. “But heritage is not history, even if they sometimes overlap. Heritage places the past in service of the present; history receives the past on its own terms.” Understanding the past on its own terms has never been simple, though, and we acquiesce to one interpretation of history at our peril. It would be foolish to think that there’s only one set of terms with which to interpret the facts.

The question is not whether we should use the past to understand the present, or to imagine the future. We must use the past as a resource, if only because it’s all we have. The question is: What do we use it for? To improve our adolescent republic, or to justify our perversions of liberty and equality?