Author: Amanda Marcotte
“The Christian right is most known for their denial of inconvenient science, but in many respects, they’re just as bad when it comes to the facts of history. After all, no matter what the topic, they know they can just make stuff up and their people will believe it. So why not do the same when it comes to political history? Here are five examples.
1. Joe McCarthy was a good guy. A new and extremely toxic myth is beginning to percolate in on the Christian right: Insisting that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a paranoid alcoholic who saw communist subversives in every corner, was actually an upstanding guy fighting for God and country. In 2003, Ann Coulter published a book she claims vindicates McCarthy, but its impact wasn’t felt until 2010 when the Christian right members who stack the Texas State School Board tried to get the pro-McCarthy theories into Texas school books.
Christian right fanatics attempted to claim that McCarthy had been vindicated by something (wrongly) called the “Verona papers” (they’re actually named the “Venona papers”). There is a Venona project that has reputed historians who show that the Soviets did have spies in the country, but saying that means McCarthy was right is like saying I’m right to call your mother a serial killer because there are serial killers in America. Harvey Klehr, one of the experts working on the Venona project, denounced Christian right efforts to exploit his work to vindicate McCarthy, noting that McCarthy mostly just fingered innocent people in his paranoid haze.
The new information from Russian and American archives does not vindicate McCarthy. He remains a demagogue, whose wild charges actually made the fight against communism more difficult. Like Gresham’s Law, McCarthy’s allegations marginalized the accurate claims. Because his facts were so often wrong, real spies were able to hide behind the cover of being one of his victims and even persuade well-meaning but naïve people that the whole anti-communist cause was based on inaccuracies and hysteria.
That the Soviets spied on the U.S. is neither surprising—not even to liberals—nor indicative that the communist witch hunts were an appropriate response. The Christian right’s interest in rehabilitating McCarthy probably has less to do with readjudicating the anti-communist cause and more to do with their modern-day obsession with promoting paranoid liars in the McCarthy mold to leadership positions. If they can instill the idea that McCarthy was vindicated by history, it will be easier to argue that the current crop of politically powerful right-wing nuts such as Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz will actually “be proven right by history.” But McCarthy wasn’t and neither will they be.
2. What the Founding Fathers believed. For people who downright deify our Founding Fathers, the religious right is really hostile to accepting them as they actually were, which is not particularly religious, especially by the standards of their time. But David Barton, a revisionist “historian” whose name comes up again and again in these kinds of discussions, has spread the belief far and wide in the Christian right that the Founders were, in fact, fundamentalist Christians who are quite like the ones we have today. Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas confirms this, saying that Barton “provides the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today.”
Barton has convinced the right to believe in their fervent wish that the Founders were religious and even theocratic with quote-mining and outright lying. He likes to whip out this John Adams quote: “There is no authority, civil or religious — there can be no legitimate government — but what is administered by this Holy Ghost.” Problem? Adams was summarizing the opinion of his opponents; that wasn’t Adams’ view at all.
Barton’s reputation took a hit recently. His most recent book, which tried to portray Thomas Jefferson as a “conventional Christian” who wanted a religious government, was so bad that even his Christian publisher decided to reject it. But according to Politico, that’s just a small setback and Barton is quickly being restored to his position as an authority on history for gullible right-wingers. So that means his lies continue to grow and spread in right-wing circles—such as the completely made-up claim that the Constitution (which only mentions religion to insist the government stay out of it) is based on the Bible.
3. God’s protection. If you believe the lie that the Founders intended this to be a religious nation and that secularism is only a recent development, it’s not much of a leap to decide next that God, in his anger, has turned his back on the United States. And therefore that bad things are happening to us because he doesn’t protect us anymore.
You see this belief throughout the Christian right all the time. Every bad thing that happens is blamed on God removing his “hedge of protection” from the U.S. to punish us for turning our back on God in recent decades.School shootings. Global warming. Hurricanes. 9/11.
The problem with this theory should be obvious: If God is turning away from America because we’re supposedly becoming more secular, then things were better back in the day. But when was this supposed Eden of American life supposed to have happened? During the Civil War? The Gilded Age of abusive labor practices? The Great Depression? WWI? WWII? Bad things are always happening, so the notion that they can only be blamed on God’s irritation with us sinners now makes no sense at all.
4. Roman civilization. The Christian right doesn’t just like to lie about our own history; they lie about other nations, too. A popular theory on the right is that the Roman Empire “collapsed” because growing decadence and liberalism caused people to, I don’t know, be too busy screwing to govern. It’s always a little hazy, but the formula is standard: Romans started having a bunch of sex, stuff fell apart, warning for America. Not a day goes by that you don’t hear this theory floated.
The problem with that theory is it makes no kind of sense. It’s not really right to suggest there was some kind decline in “moral values,” by which the Christian right means sexual prudishness, at all. Romans were pretty uptight.The rumors that they turned all perverted and debauched were made up by Christians trying to smear pagan culture. Rome didn’t really “fall” in the sense the Christian pundits mean, anyway. It was more a gradual decline of centralized power.
Anyway, the decline coincided with the rise of Christianity, which under the “God’s protection” theory means that God was punishing Rome for dropping paganism and adopting monotheism.
5. French revolution. One problem with characterizing the American revolution as Christian instead of secular is that there was another one shortly thereafter, built on the same basic ideals, that was undeniably secular due to the aggressive attacks on Catholic power. If the French were so secular, how could the Americans not be? The answer to the conundrum is to lie and claim there was some kind of gulf between the ideals of the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
Rick Santorum floated this theory at the 2013 Values Voters Summit, where he claimed the French revolutionaries were bad because they believed that rights and democracy stem from the social contract, instead of being handed down from God. Fair enough, though really the “reason” is probably closer to how they would have described it at the time, but where he goes off the rails is to insinuate that they were rejecting the values laid out by their fellow revolutionaries in America when they did this. In reality, the arguments of French and American revolutionaries are nearly identical, echoing philosophers like John Locke who were trying to construct an ideal of rights and freedoms that is frankly secularist in nature. “
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.