News reports are indicating that an agreement has been reached to settle the legal costs for the lawsuit that required Haskell County in Oklahoma to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lawn of its county courthouse. Sadly, the residents of that county will be paying $199,000 plus interest over the next 10 years for the mistake of believing people like David Barton.
For more than two decades, David Barton has been deceiving many honest but naÃ¯ve Christians with a revisionist history about our system of government that promotes the mythology of Christian nationalism. The meticulous research in Chris Rodda’s “Liars for Jesus” demonstrates that Barton’s work is not simply the result of a pious but simpleminded Christian who cannot fathom the legal differences between the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Constitution of the United States (1789).
Her research reveals a pattern by Barton of deliberately distorting documentary evidence to leave an impression that the U.S. Constitution assigned the same legal authority to the Christian faith as did the Mayflower Compact.
The poor residents of Haskell County swallowed Barton’s mythology hook, line and sinker. They erected a monument on their courthouse lawn with the Ten Commandments on one side and the Mayflower Compact on the other.
At the dedication and at rallies to support the monument after its constitutionality was challenged, both county commissioners and citizens proudly proclaimed that the monument demonstrated their belief in Christian nationalism. One commissioner – at the microphone on the podium – spoke to a crowd and said “a bulldozer would have to run over him” to remove it. (He later denied this under oath, but I was there and heard it with my own ears.)
Ironically, the citizen who proposed erecting the monument, some of the commissioners and many of the citizens of Haskell County are Baptists. If they knew their Baptist history, they would have known that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Baptists from the colony, arrested them for holding unauthorized worship services in private homes, and flogged Obadiah Holmes for refusing to pay a fine for unauthorized preaching.
Frankly, that was mild compared to what the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay did to Quakers. Four Quakers were hanged for violating their ban against Quakers.
If those Baptists in Haskell County knew their Baptist history, they also would have known that the Baptists who fought in the Revolutionary War – and there were many – were fighting to put an end to the religious persecution they were facing in the colonies. In Massachusetts, just a decade before the revolution, both private property and church property were being confiscated for colonists’ refusal to pay taxes to support the Congregational church.
Between 1772 and 1776, the jails in Anglican Virginia were full of Baptist preachers who were arrested for preaching the gospel without a license – and they couldn’t get a license because they were Baptists.
That’s why, for Baptists, the Revolutionary War was a war for religious liberty. And that’s why Baptists would not rest until the Constitution of this new nation explicitly guaranteed that every citizen would have an equal right to liberty of conscience.
John Leland, the leader of Baptists in Virginia, told George Washington that liberty of conscience was “dearer to us than property or life,” and he meant it. For the Baptists of that time, liberty of conscience meant that church and state would be separate, that no one could be forced to pay taxes to support religion, that no one could be coerced into participating in a religious exercise against their will, and that everyone would have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Instead of reading Baptist history, the Baptists and most of the other residents of Haskell County have been reading or listening to Barton, TV evangelists and other talk-radio hosts who take the Massachusetts Bay Colony as their model for a Christian America.
That’s why they believe the Supreme Court provoked the wrath of God when it prohibited government agents from forcing school children to participate in acts of worship – the daily recital of officially approved prayers. That’s why they think separation of church and state is a communist idea found only in the constitution of the Soviet Union.
Their understanding of the U.S. Constitution is that it created two classes of citizens: first-class citizens, people of the majority faith who are free to impose their religious values on society by legislation; and second-class citizens, people of minority faiths who are tolerated only so long as they remain invisible and stay away from the public square.
The poor residents of Haskell County now have 10 long years to pay for their collective failure to learn the real intentions of our country’s Founding Fathers. The truth is, our nation’s Founding Fathers were revolting against the basis upon which all governments had been founded until 1776 – and the foundation they were rebelling against was a religious foundation.
The Declaration of Independence was addressed to an English king and his loyal subjects – people who believed that sovereignty was bestowed by divine right of birth and that the king was the vicar of Christ responsible for the souls of all his subjects. The Founding Fathers boldly asserted that the time when kings and tyrannical governments could lay claim to divine authority in both worldly and spiritual matters was passed. They were declaring that, in America, government was going to be based upon the consent of the governed.
Once the revolution was won, they created a Constitution that explicitly prohibited any religious test to hold public office, that separated church and state by explicitly prohibiting the establishment of religion, and that secured liberty of conscience by explicitly prohibiting restrictions on the free exercise of religion in the nongovernmental public domain. In doing this, the Founding Fathers themselves were accused of being “atheists” and “anarchists.” They established the first “secular government” in the history of the world.
This nation was the first nation in world history that was not founded on religious authority. It was founded on the consent of the governed. We have a government that is of the people, by the people and for the people, because every person in our society – no matter what their faith or lack of it – has an equal right to justice and liberty.
These are the real ideals upon which our nation was founded. That is why the Bill of Rights, not the Ten Commandments, is the most appropriate monument that could be erected on the courthouse lawn.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.