You might think that our Christianist textbooks would have the decency to mention this true historical event where Jesus handed the Constitution to America’s children while Washington, Lincoln, Adams and Hamilton sang show tunes, but this basic fact is strangely absent from the two textbooks we’ve been reviewing. They don’t even argue that the Constitution is directly inspired by the Bible, though possibly their having been written in the 1990s explains their exclusion of that bit of lunacy, which is mostly a recent product of the highly imaginative David Barton. Even so, there’s plenty of Godstuff to go around!
As usual, our 8th-grade textbook, America: Land I Love (A Beka Book, 1994) wins for the most distortions, in keeping with its mission to pound right-wing Christian ideology into children. By contrast, United States History For Christian Schools, the 11th/12th grade text from Bob Jones University Press, is almost silent on the role of religion in the drafting of the Constitution; we suspect that some actual historians may have been involved in writing this textbook.
Both texts note the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation for a functioning national government, even in the 1780s, which might be a useful reminder to the tricornered tinfoil hat crowd. As to the actual Constitutional Convention of 1787, Land I Love devotes a fair chunk of space to an episode that U.S. History doesn’t even mention; while both note that the debates were contentious, Land I Love explains that Benjamin Franklin and God got together to make everything better:
At one point, the convention seemed on the verge of failure when 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin rose to quiet the shouting. Silence filled the room, for Franklin was the senior statesman of the group, and all respected the elderly, gray-haired politician and world-famous scientist. Benjamin Franklin said:
I have lived a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire [great country] can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” (Ps. 127:1)
Franklin suggested that they begin each morning with prayer, asking for God’s guidance and wisdom. From that day forward, the convention proceeded smoothly.
This story is very popular on the right, but there’s just one teensy problem with it: while Franklin definitely made the proposal, James Madison’s notes on the proceedings of the convention show that it was not adopted or even voted on. Alexander Hamilton thought that injecting prayer into the proceedings at that late date might result in “some disagreeable animadversions,” and North Carolina delegate Hugh Williamson “observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds” to pay a preacher. Land I Love also doesn’t mention that in his memoirs, Franklin noted that “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary!!” Funny how that worked out.
Land I Love gives a similar spin to George Washington’s first inaugural address, quoting several of the lines where Washington offers “fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and leaving out everything else, because of course George Washington was Exactly Like Them. The text also repeats the widely believed myth that Washington established the tradition of adding “so help me god” to the oath of office; in reality, no contemporary source refers to it, and the first claim that Washington added the words was published in 1854. And despite the textbook’s claim that “Since then, it has been tradition” for presidential oaths to end with “so help me God,” the first documented instance was Chester A. Arthur’s oath in 1881. Facts are hard, though, so an unbroken line of God-filled inaugurations is probably best for children to learn about.
On the matter of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” both texts note that free and slave states disagreed over how slaves would be included in the census. U.S. History at least acknowledges that the convention deliberately set aside the question of slavery as an institution, leaving it “to the children and grandchildren of the constitutional framers to resolve.” Where U.S. History says that slaves were counted as “three-fifths of a person,” the authors of Land I Love indulge in a little sleight of hand to avoid that ugliness, saying simply that the compromise resulted in “counting three of every five slaves for representation or taxation.” See! It was just math, ruining everything once again.
The craziest line in Land I Love arises in its discussion of the Bill of Rights; after the Convention drafted the Constitution, they say,
Many Americans did not give their approval to the Constitution until they were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added as an additional control over man’s evil nature.
Not to ensure fundamental liberties, or to outlaw particular British infringements that people were still smarting from, or even to limit government. Nope. Somehow, the Bill of Rights gets transformed here into a theological treatise that curbs sin. Perhaps the only surprise is that the book also doesn’t describe the 2nd Amendment as a measure to promote good parenting.