The Republican Appeal to History as it Should Have Been

We see it time and again across the conservative landscape: how liberals led by Obama are out to destroy religious freedom by attacking our Judeo-Christian heritage with America itself as the ultimate victim. The year 2012 may go down in history as the War for America’s Soul, at least if Republicans have their way.

As with so many labels we humans like to give years and events, it’s not accurate. The Viking Age could have easily have been known as the Magyar Age had Hungarian nationalists (unfortunately a part of the Germanic Austro-Hungarian Empire) been as influential in celebrating their raiders as their Scandinavian counterparts.

Republicans have freely embraced the idea that a narrative about history is history itself, as shown by David Barton’s recent attempts to re-write the Civil Rights era by erasing the GOP’s “southern strategy” from the history books. But that’s to mistake one thing for another. Theology and political ideology are things you believe in; belief is not a fact.

People speak of believing in global warming as though it’s a subject that, like say, a god, you believe in or don’t. But science is not subject to belief. The science is there. It is documented and the data observable. You can appeal to more science to disagree with science but belief has nothing to do with it. Likewise, you can’t “believe” the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Sunrise and sunset are not open to debate. It is, like the science of global warming, or evolution, or gay animal behavior in nature, observable. You can test it yourself anytime you wish. As the saying goes, “it is what it is.” If you told a friend you believed in the sun rising in the east, you would be laughed at, and rightly so.

Since we are talking about history and belief, a good question would be, just what does constitute history?

Look at the Bible for a moment. The Bible is very relevant in any discussion of history because our fundamentalists want us to believe the Bible is history. How many of us haven’t been told just that? Answering those who agree that Deuteronomy and Chronicles “constitute history,” Mark S. Smith writes that he has his doubts:

Even in the case of the books of Chronicles, where the use of sources is clear, their author(s) may have inherited such source material from religious tradition and used that source material not simply to create a narration presenting the past, but one whose primary function was to celebrate the past as an antecedent to the present.”[1]

In other words, its interest is not in furthering the historical record (to the extent it was known) but to structure the past “in terms of the present.”[2]

So is history the historical record as best it can be understood based on the facts that can be known (be they literary, epigraphic or iconographic) or is it a “narrative about the past”? What role is played by “collective memory” in shaping a narrative about the past “produced by the collective memory of a tradition”?[3] These questions are important in analyzing the Old Testament and the history of ancient Israel where history as told in the Old Testament became, to some degree at least, what we today would call “a spin”, a version of history more conducive to current needs. That is, as archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman put it, “history as it should have been.”[4]

This process is happening today. Just as scholars should “examine the degree to which biblical presentations of the past shape the past to conform to present concerns, or in other words, how cultural memory is expressive of present vicissitudes”[5] we should consider the extent to which Republican reshaping of our history has the same goals.

We have seen, particularly in the ultra-nationalistic 19th century, how entire nations remade themselves by way of appeal to the past – not only the Scandinavian countries but Germany, the United States, and Greece also; as they sought independence from the Ottoman Empire the Greeks, ditching the Byzantine (Roman) empire, refashioned themselves as the heroic Hellenes of old. This is a process that continues in this century;  just as the Romans once laid claim to a glorious Trojan past the Greeks have laid claim to the glorious Macedonian past,  even though (and the historical record is unequivocal on this) those heroic earlier Hellenes utterly rejected the Macedonians as barbarians and not Greeks at all. No doubt many Greeks today believe the Macedonians were Greeks. And why not? Many Republicans believe George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Evangelical Christians.

You see where the problems come in?

The past can be and often is a weapon and a past that is, let’s say, inconvenient in certain details, is of correspondingly less use to the day’s ideologues. Liberals often stand accused of disloyalty – very nearly treason – for calling into question the ”collective memory” of the United States – our narrative mind you, not our actual history – which, as it turns out, is far less heroic than imagined. A Davy Crocket who surrenders is far less useful than a Davy Crocket who goes down like Leonidas at Thermopylae swinging his musket. But who else will challenge the narrative a people or a culture has established of their past but liberals? Conservatives won’t do it; conservatism by its very nature is wedded to the idea of things as they have always been – upholders of tradition. Look at the Republican response to secularism – Mitt Romney’s unsupported claim that “3,000 years of human history shouldn’t be discarded so quickly.”

Watch it:

Never mind that those 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian heritage saw incredible evil perpetrated by the religions Romney is defending in his statement, millions of people tortured and killed in every conceivable way; the Old Testament is a celebration of ethnic cleansing and the New Testament promises us genocide at the end of time.  Never mind that the now 3,000 year old “tradition” he sees as needing defending was in its day very quick indeed (zealously eager, even) to discard the 3,000 years of history that preceded the rise of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition; as with religious freedom it’s only their history that matters. As Mark S. Smith points out, the “so-called ‘Judeo Christian tradition’” is “itself a Christian ideological construct of sorts.”[6]

This “tradition” though we now can’t go a day without hearing about it, is not something supported by the historical record (Christianity reviled and rejected Judaism from the writing of the gospels through the 19th century and in some cases, into the 21st) and so it is not history but a Christian narrative about history – shaping the past to match the present, to bolster Christianity’s legitimacy as the upholders of the will of the God of Abraham. The entire history of Abrahamic monotheism is one of re-writing history to suit current needs, of fashioning a narrative at the expense of historical facts.

Most people would agree that in making an argument as in analyzing the historical record, the conclusion must fit the facts. But this process is reversed in theological and ideological arguments, where the facts are made to fit the conclusion – with very unhappy results for the facts. History should at least attempt to be objective; narratives like Deuteronomy are as much theological polemic as history – having this in common with David Barton’s efforts in our own time.

The Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, was written over a period of centuries, creating a narrative of Israel’s past that was relevant for the present. We are seeing the same process accomplished in a matter of a few years. The entire history of the United States is being refashioned into a religious narrative where history comes in second, if at all. Republicans have tried to replace real science by something they like to call “Sound Science”, which as Chris Mooney writes, has close connection “to the science-abusing regulatory reform agenda and to Big Tobacco”.[7] As goes science, so goes history. Actual history, we are being told, has a liberal bias. Therefore our history must be re-written (more accurately, re-invented) by people who know nothing at all about history (like David Barton) but a great deal about the needs of the present.

Like the Republican idea of religious freedom, which is not about freedom at all, and sound science, which is not about science at all, the Republican-revised history has nothing to do with history, but about what people want to believe about history in order to bolster their claims about the present.  It’s been done before, by the 1% in ancient Israel who wrote the Jewish Bible,[8] and our own 1% are more than happy to bankroll another try.


[1] Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle edition, location 336

[2] Smith (2010), locations 327-335.

[3] Smith (2010), location 337.

[4] Finkelstein and Silberman (2001), 249. William G. Dever (2005) calls it “theocratic history” as opposed to “secular history” which he argues “is often more realisti, more comprehensive, better balanced, and ultimately more satisfying” (2005:76).

[5] Smith (2010), location 335.

[6] Mark S. Smith, “Ugaritic Studies and Israelite Religion: A Retrospective View,” Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (2002), 19. He also suggests abandoning the use of “Canaanite” as a scholarly construct. To be fair, there are revisionists at the other end of the spectrum as well, who argue that ancient Israel itself “is a myth; it has been ‘invented’ by Jews and Christians as a torturous exercise in self-identity.” See William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 2005), 81-83.

[7] Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005), 71.

[8] Susan Ackerman calls them “the elitist biblical establishment”: the Deuteronomistic school, the priests and the prophets, “the three groups from whom the majority of our biblical tests have come and the three groups who are the most influential in defining what biblical religion is.” See Ackerman, Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah (1992), 1-2.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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