Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay captured headlines recently with a claim that God wrote the U.S. Constitution. The strange assertion does a great disservice to James Madison, who is generally acknowledged as the "Father of the Constitution," but it’s hardly the weirdest thing members of the far right have said about U.S. government over the years.
The truth is, many leaders of the Religious Right and their followers could use a civics lesson. Their descriptions of American government and the history behind it are usually bound up more in wishful thinking than reality. Like creationists who made up a fake “science” because they don’t like evolution, Religious Right acolytes are prone to rewrite our nation’s governing documents to fit their preconceived notions.
Here are some great moments in Religious Right civics (mis)education:
1. David Barton says the three branches of government come straight from the Old Testament. David Barton is a Texas-based pseudo-historian much beloved by the Religious Right. Barton doesn’t actually have a degree in history—he graduated from Oral Roberts University with a degree in Christian Education—but that hasn’t stopped him from posing as a professor.
Barton is buddies with Glenn Beck, who uses him as “faculty” for online classes that are marketed to gullible people. In 2010, Talking Points Memo actually paid money to view some of the classes. In one lecture, Barton helpfully explained that the three branches of the U.S. government are based on a passage from the Book of Isaiah.
The Old Testament is full of autocratic kings, not democracy. So where did Barton come up with this notion? You just have to know how to read the book. In case you’re wondering, the passage in question, Isaiah 33:22, reads, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” That pretty much settles it.
Elsewhere in the video, Barton explained that the separation of powers comes from Jeremiah 17:9 and tax exemption for churches (which, by the way, isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution) comes from Ezra 7:24.
2. Bryan Fischer advocates limiting voting to those who own property. Fischer, director of issue analysis for government and public policy at the American Family Association, seems to pine for the 19th century. In January, he outdid himself by advocating limiting voting to property holders only.
“You know, back in the day, the colonial period, you had to be a landowner, a property owner, to be eligible to vote, and I don’t think that’s a bad idea,” Fisher said on his radio program. “And the reason is very simple: If somebody owns property in a community, they’re vested in that community. If they’re renters, they’re gonna be up and gone. They could leave the next day. They’ve got no tie to the community, they’ve got no long-term investment in the community. But someone who owns property, he cares, now he cares, about the public policies that manage that community.”
Aside from Fischer’s dubious assertions—who says renters don’t care about their communities?—what he’s advocating here is elitist and fundamentally anti-democratic, which is why such policies no longer exist. Although common during the colonial era, property qualifications for voting began disappearing in the early 1800s and were pretty much a memory by 1850.
3. Pat Robertson says nothing in the Constitution calls for separation of church and state. TV preacher Pat Robertson holds a law degree from Yale Law School, but you would never know that based on the things he says about the Constitution.
According to Robertson, “there is no such thing in the Constitution” as church-state separation; that concept is “a lie of the left.” Robertson has asserted that the separation of church and state comes from “the constitution of the communist Soviet Union.” Robertson publications have compared the “wall of separation between church and state”—a metaphor used by Thomas Jefferson—to the Berlin Wall.
Robertson’s attacks on church-state separation go back to the early 1980s and continue at a brisk pace today. Last year Robertson marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on his “700 Club” program by once again bemoaning the supposed lack of religious faith in America, which he blamed on the separation policy. He also asserted (incorrectly) that religion has been eliminated from public schools. Americans, Robertson said, have gone astray.
“The reason is they have lost their faith in God, they have lost their faith in Jesus Christ, they don’t believe in what the Bible says and the core values of our society have gone away,” Robertson groused. “We’ve done it here in America. We’ve abolished prayer in the schools, we’ve taken out Bible-reading in the schools and little by little by little we’ve eroded the rights—we keep talking about separation and this that and the other.”
4. Jay Sekulow says the Ten Commandments symbolize American law. Sekulow, chief attorney for TV preacher Pat Robertson, is a big fan of the Ten Commandments. His right-wing legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), frequently litigates in court to defend displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other government buildings.
The Ten Commandments, Sekulow’s ACLJ asserts, “have long stood as a symbol of the ideals embodied in America’s judicial system” and “form a bright strand in the fabric of America’s heritage and legal development.”
There’s a big problem with statements like these: They are pretty much the exact opposite of the truth. The Ten Commandments would be the basis for a theocratic government, not one based on religious liberty. Several of the commandments attempt to regulate humankind’s relationship to God and have no reflection in U.S. secular law. (In other words, in this country you’re allowed to worship “false gods,” you can bow before graven images and you don’t have to remember or keep holy the Sabbath.)
In 2003, a collection of 41 historians and legal scholars demolished the “Ten-Commandments-Is-The-Basis-Of-U.S.-Law” school of thought once and for all. In a case from Alabama, they filed a devastating legal brief. The scholars surveyed the sources used by the Founders when writing the Constitution and found no references to the Ten Commandments. Instead, the Founders relied on English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and strains of international law. American law, they pointed out, was also influenced by the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.
“Each of these documents had a far greater influence on America's laws than the Ten Commandments,” asserted the brief. “Indeed, the legal and historical record does not include significant and meaningful references to the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch or to biblical law generally….[A]s can best be determined, no delegate ever mentioned the Ten Commandments or the Bible.”
5. Ben Carson says divine intervention created America. Carson is a surgeon and author of inspirational, quasi-Christian self-help books. He’s also quite popular among the Religious Right, and his name has been bandied about as a possible presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2016.
Like a lot of right-wingers, Carson believes God loves America best and takes a special interest in our nation. In a recent opinion column, Carson asserted, “There are many well-documented stories about God’s intervention on behalf of our country during the War of Independence.”
Despite claiming there are “many” of these stories, Carson told only one: a hoary chestnut about Benjamin Franklin leading the delegates in prayer during a particularly difficult moment of the Constitutional Convention. The tale was much loved by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) who delighted in telling it on the floor of the Senate in the 1980s when arguing for school prayer amendments.
Of course, it’s false. Franklin did indeed make a suggestion for prayer during the 1787 convention, but his motion was not acted on. Instead the delegates broke up the meeting and reconvened later, where they managed to finish work on the Constitution relying solely on human intervention.
Instead of trying to rewrite American history to make the Constitution say things it plainly does not say, Religious Right leaders would do better simply to admit that they find that document lacking and yearn for a do-over.
Every now and then, one of them does that. In 2008, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was running for president at the time, told an audience in Michigan, “I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do—to amend the Constitution so it’s in God's standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”
Of course, Huckabee doesn’t want to rewrite the Constitution according to God’s standards. He wants to rewrite it according to what Mike Huckabee thinks are God’s standards. Those two concepts may not have much in common, which is why, at the end of the day, it’s best to tell Huckabee and other Religious Right zealots to hang up their powdered wigs and leave the handiwork of James Madison alone.