While the flap over Rush Limbaugh’s latest in a long line of offensive and hateful commentary continues on, other figures with (arguably) more longevity and influence continue their assault on Barack Obama and what they see as the decline of Christian America. To wit: the Texas intellectual entrepreneur David Barton, who provides the footnotes for the “war on religion” thesis that currently has captivated the right.
Most recently, Barton’s post, “America’s Most Biblically-Hostile President,” details a theme that has become known to the public largely through the Gingrich/Santorum bloc: that Barack Obama has led the most actively anti-Christian administration in American history. This is a talking point with a lot of traction across the airwaves and blogosphere of the right.
Given Obama’s frequent Christian testimony—explicit enough to make most founding fathers uncomfortable with its public expression of private matters—how can this view be so widely held?
Is it because, like Thomas Jefferson, Obama has been sitting in his office, snipping away with his scissors and cutting out the relatively few passages of the Bible that he has deemed worthy of inclusion in his own expurgated text of trustworthy Gospel sayings? Is it because, like Andrew Jackson, he has opened the White House doors to the huddled masses, yearning to sip some “cider” with the POTUS and his crew? Is it because, like Abraham Lincoln, he avoids any explicit mention of Jesus, and confesses that the ways of the Almighty are unknowable to humans?
No, of course not. Rather, it boils down to this: because Chuck Norris, Franklin Graham, and the American Family Association (whose biblically-based policy toward employees has been detailed by Sarah Posner) say so. And because David Barton has 47 footnotes that say so. Yes, it’s true: Bibles being burned by the military; the president allowing for the funding of stem-cell research; the denigration of Christianity and the “preferentialism” toward Islam; the Air Force Academy (in my home city of Colorado Springs) forced to pay to “add a Stonehenge-like worship center for pagans, druids, witches, and Wiccans”; the celebration of Iftar and conscious shunning of National Prayer Day at the White House; and on and on.
If you think this issue hasn’t caught fire with the base, just check out the screens of hatefully acidic commentary when Messiah College History Professor John Fea’s piece on Obama as the “most explicitly Christian President in U.S. History” found its way onto The Blaze. John Fea’s auto-da-fé came not only in the comments section, but in nasty emails, phone calls, and demands for his firing from Messiah College. As he discovered, the culture wars are real, and practiced even on those (like Fea) who largely have been critical of Obama’s actual implementation of his promises about faith-based policies.
More important than these blogosphere wars, however, is understanding something deeper about these screeds about Obama as the anti-Christian force behind the homosexual/Islamic/secularist/socialist/radical agenda.
The “deep history” behind the latest round of Christian right polemics can be followed back through a long tradition of worries about the decline of a Christian America. Ultimately, these can be traced back to the founding of the Republic. More directly, they emerge from the rise of Christian apocalyptic conservatism from the early twentieth century forward. Matthew Sutton details a similar assault on the FDR administration, one with numerous parallels to the contemporary campaign against Obama, in “Was FDR the AntiChrist?”—a Journal of American History article whose findings are distilled in this New York Times piece. These themes carried forward into the “suburban warriors” who empowered the rise of the Goldwater Right in Cold-War California, and then to what came to be called the “New Christian Right” of the 1970s and 1980s. Communism disappeared from the enemies list after 1989 (except for older Christian Right stalwart David Noebel, who keeps even that faith while leading the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade even into his retirement), but Islam, an economic “New World Order,” the “gay agenda,” the always-present secular humanists and feminists, and numerous other threats arose to take its place.
A Religion of Fear
Perhaps this is because we always need a “Party of Fear,” whether it comes in the form of Federalists dubious of democracy in the New Republic, or nativists fearing the influence of “new immigrants” in the 1850s (or the 2000s), or contemporary commentators suspicious of Obama’s foreign, Islamic, or radical roots. Even from his grave, hack journalist Andrew Breitbart continues to taste that fear, and spread the hate. And a “religion of fear” serves a multitude of purposes for its followers, both titillating and politically energizing. Fear is fun—and fear is mobilizing.
Unlike Barton, Breitbart claimed no particular Christian credential, instead reveling in the joys of political mudslinging. Barton, by contrast, has recently appeared in works with respected Christian historians, and exercises a quiet and long-lasting influence through his congressional connections, his intellectual one-stop-shop for all things Christian Nation, and his role as unofficial (and official) vetter of history textbooks. Like a one-man think tank, he steamrolls opponents with position papers, textbooks, blog posts, talking head appearances, and footnotes. In his work on the Christian origins of the United States, at least he has a modicum of evidence to produce, given the Christian proclivities of certain of the founders. In the war against Obama, however, Chuck Norris and Franklin Graham have to stand in the stead of Patrick Henry or Parson Weems.
Thus, for the anti-Obama agonists, the president’s overtly Christian testifying, praying with Billy Graham, championing of C. S. Lewis, and quoting of the Old Testament in major public speeches simply shield the fact that the enemy always comes clothed in righteousness—and that the Great Deceiver is among us.
David Barton summarizes it most succinctly: “Many of these actions are literally unprecedented—this is the first time they have happened in four centuries of American history. The hostility of President Obama toward Biblical faith and values is without equal from any previous American president.” Roll over, Thomas Jefferson.