texasmonthly.com: What kind of background research did you do for this story?
Nate Blakeslee: I read Barton’s books, of course, and several recently published works by mainstream historians on the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. There were plenty of books to choose from; it really has become a hot topic. What struck me most, I guess because I had not been paying attention in my American history classes, was the popularity of Deism among the Founding Fathers. It was very fashionable in Europe at that time to believe in a sort of absent and uninvolved God, and those ideas made their way over to the colonies in a manner not too different from fads like Buddhism and transcendental meditation in the sixties. Some of the Founding Fathers’ writings would shock the conscience of many Americans even today. Thomas Jefferson, for example, would have a hard time getting the presidential nomination of either major party today because of his many published writings on Christianity. In an 1823 letter to John Adams, he wrote: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take you to report this story?
NB: I spent a good deal of time with Barton and our conversations covered a lot of ground, much of which did not make it into the story, such as his thoughts on the state of the Republican party and the conservative Christian movement. Whatever may be said about his merits as a historian, I found him to be a sophisticated activist and organizer. He seems to have a genuine fascination with the civil rights movement, and we talked at length about what his movement could learn from the struggle of African Americans.
texasmonthly.com: What elements of Barton’s arguments did you find convincing?
NB: Barton does a good job of demonstrating that many of the founders were devout Christians, and that the types of public expressions of religion that are considered unconstitutional today were once considered quite normal. Of course, blasphemy laws were also considered normal in early nineteenth-century America. We are not the same country we once were, and our understanding and interpretation of the Constitution today reflects our society’s evolving mores and values as much as it does our understanding of the original intent of the framers.
texasmonthly.com: You write, “To spend time with Barton is to get a sense of another America, one that has always been around you but that you have never noticed before.” Who lives in that other America?
NB: It’s a myth that fundamentalism is a phenomenon of the South or Midwest—there are believers across the country. What is interesting to me is that they live in some respects in a society within a society. They have their own churches, of course, but also their own schools, television stations, popular music, movies, social clubs, summer camps. Barton’s daughter, Damaris, is a good example. She attended Christian school in Aledo for a few years, then home school, then an evangelical college, and finally landed a job at the Republican Party of Texas, where her boss is the former director of the Texas Christian Coalition. She has had very few opportunities to be exposed to a worldview that was different from the fundamentalist Christian worldview. People tend to object when they feel that religion is being interjected in places they think it doesn’t belong—like public school science books. But I think this story raises another question, What does it mean to have two parallel societies, whose worldviews are diverging so much that now we can’t even agree on the reality—not the desirability, but the reality—of fundamental principles of the American Constitution, like the separation of church and state?