With the clock running out on his term, President Trump fired off two more attacks at the wall of separation between state and church and equality on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The 1776 Commission’s report seeks to rewrite American history through the lens of the Christian identity and impose that revisionist fabrication on public school students. The National Garden of American Heroes is a vanity project to erect a statuary park to “reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism,” a project that seeks to capitalize on Trump’s defense of Confederate monuments.
Trump’s executive order states that “belief in the greatness and goodness of America has come under attack in recent months and years by a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions, and very identity.”
Garden of Heroes
The Garden of American Heroes appears to include something for everyone. Trump may not realize that many of these dignitaries are secular figures worthy of honor outside of their advocacy of freethought or state/church separation.*
But several of the 250 individuals are deeply divisive religious figures. These include:
• Junípero Serra, a Catholic missionary who persecuted and enslaved indigenous Americans. FFRF has opposed his inclusion on city seals and other government property.
• Rev. Billy Graham, a noted anti-Semite and a figure known entirely for his religious work, whose campaigns inflicted massive damage to the American separation of state and church over six decades. FFRF fought North Carolina’s attempt to honor Graham with a statue in the Capitol.
• Christopher Columbus, already honored with a federal holiday, who enslaved many native inhabitants and treated them with extreme brutality. He was a devout Christian who sought to convert those he conquered to Christianity.
• Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Roman Catholic “saint,” and Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint.
• Nellie Gray, an anti-abortion activist, who founded March for Life in 1974.
• Fulton J. Sheen, the divisive U.S. bishop, televangelist and Cold War crusader.
• Augustus Tolton, the first Roman Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be black when he was ordained in 1886, and a former slave, and Thomas Merton, a priest and theologian.
Other dubious nominees include Antonin Scalia, an ultraconservative Supreme Court justice who introduced a harmful brand of judicial activism he labeled “originalism.” FFRF frequently criticized his jurisprudence and tendency to put his Roman Catholicism above his oath of office. Similarly, former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist notoriously wrote that the constitutional separation between state and church was “a metaphor based on bad history . . . It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
“Individuals whose only contributions were religious, such as Serra, Graham, Seton and Sheen, certainly should not be singled out for this honor by our secular government,” comments Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.
Notably absent from the list is Thomas Paine, who fomented the American Revolution, was first to publicly oppose slavery and who named the United States of America. Making the omission of Paine all the more egregious is the fact that no statue or memorial to Paine exists in Washington, D.C.
The 1776 Commission
Created a few months ago, the 1776 commission has issued an insidious report that is little more than Christian Nationalist propaganda.
“It’s especially distasteful that just days after insurrectionists incited by Trump were chanting ‘1776!’ as they assaulted our Capitol and democracy, Trump would still issue this report,” says Barker. “He’s learned nothing and now wants to taint the education of America’s children.”
As the statuary garden is a jab at removing Confederate statues, so the 1776 Report is a pushback of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. No historians helped author the report and it lacks footnotes, endnotes, or citations to any sources, even for direct quotes. The report condemns not the Founders who enslaved people, but those who criticize slaveholding Founders, charging that doing so “has done enormous damage.”
The report falsely argues that Christianity is responsible for separating state and church (“the sundering of civil from religious law with the advent and widespread adoption of Christianity”). It erroneously seeks to recenter clergy at the heart of the American revolution (“the American Revolution might not have taken place or succeeded without the moral ideas spread through the pulpits, sermons, and publications of Christian instructors”).
Most problematically, the report sets up the constitutional principle of separation between state and church separation as a strawman to fight against: “We often use the phrase ‘the separation of church and state’ to refer to the founders’ practical settlement of these questions, but this phrase is usually misunderstood to mean a complete separation of religion and politics.” Of course, the core message of state/church separation is not that religion cannot be exercised in public, but that the power of the government cannot be wielded to advance one religion over another. or religion over nonreligion.
The report contains an entire appendix on “Faith and America’s Principles” essentially arguing that America's founding principles are based on faith, a central claim of Christian Nationalism. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel, who debunks this in his book, The Founding Myth notes: “There’s little doubt that this report was meant to push a Christian Nationalist agenda.”
It repeats common Christian Nationalist tropes like “Religious chaplains open every session of Congress, and clergy pray at presidential inaugurals, state funerals, and other official occasions” and even goes so far as to define the religion of American families: “When families pray together, they acknowledge together the providence of the Almighty God who gave them their sacred liberty.”
Amid the Christian Nationalist rewriting of history and law are subtle nods to the QAnon conspiracy: “Progressives instead created what amounts to a fourth branch of government. . .. This shadow government” the report authors claim, “continues to grow around us.” This is the sort of fuel that keeps such conspiracies burning with agitation and controversy for months.
FFRF will be urging the Biden administration to retract this report and undo other Trump administration damage to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
*Individuals nominated for the Garden of Heroines include freethinkers or secularists such as: Ansel Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Lauren Bacall, Clara Barton, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, Julia Child, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Madison, Herman Melville, Lucretia Mott, Edgar Allan Poe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Roger Williams. (See FFRF’s Freethought of the Day site for details on most.)
Photo via The White House Flickr / Public Domain