As yet another parting gift to the nation, the Trump administration has released a document called “The 1776 Report” that attempts to rewrite American history by recycling a number of discredited “Christian nation” myths.
In September, Trump announced the formation of a commission to “teach our children about the miracle of American history.” Dubbed the 1776 Commission, its members were announced about a week before Christmas. Now, roughly a month later, the commission has produced its report.
The 41-page document is notable for what it doesn’t contain: It has no footnotes and cites no references. In fact, it reads more like an extended op-ed than a serious piece of research.
The report has many problems, chief among them its refusal to seriously engage the issue of slavery in America. It is also studded with laughable right-wing talking points. For example, it lists the reforms proposed during the Progressive Era, an early 20th century movement that sought to tackle issues like political corruption, immigration, poverty and women’s rights, as a threat to the Constitution alongside communism and fascism.
And in the document’s Appendix 2, titled “Faith and America’s Principles,” it really goes off the rails.
Anyone who attempts to argue that the government of the United States has a religious basis, as this report does incessantly, quickly runs into a problem: Our Constitution doesn’t say that. In fact, its First Amendment says the opposite.
One way Christian nationalists to get around this is by making constant references to the Declaration of Independence, which contains four deistic references to God, and insisting that there is some sort of unbroken line between these two documents. Indeed, the 1776 Report does this repeatedly.
But the Declaration and the Constitution are two very different documents that aimed to achieve different things. It’s helpful to think of the Declaration as an announcement to the world that our nation was determined to be free from Great Britain. It lists our grievances and solicits the support of other countries.
The Declaration, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, says nothing about the structure of our new government; that is not its purpose. The Constitution, on the other hand, is a true governance document. Drafted years after the Revolution (primarily by James Madison), it’s much longer and deliberative and goes into great detail about the structure of the new U.S. government. It replaced the Articles of Confederation, an interim document that proved to be ineffective.
In one of its most offensive and ahistorical statements, the commission asserts that the founders sought “neither to weaken the importance of faith nor to set up a secular state, but to open up the public space of society to a common American morality.”
This attack on secular government is deliberate; it is a calculated move designed to undermine a key feature of our Constitution.
What’s so cynical about this strategy is that it takes the story of the development of religious freedom in America – which is powerful and inspiring – and replaces it with pious platitudes about “one nation under God” that derive not from the founding period but from the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.
Unlike the 1776 Commission, which promotes the absurd idea that there has been a common American creed that always promotes equality and fairness (a notion impossible to reconcile in a nation that for so long fostered slavery), the real story of religious freedom in America is messy. There were plenty of bumps along the way, plenty of rights were not respected and plenty of mistakes had to be corrected.
Yet the story has lots of highlights: It’s the tale of a nation influenced by a small band of theocratically minded Puritan refugees that became a place where people are free to profess multiple varieties of Christianity alongside Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., or profess no faith at all.
That would not have been possible without separation of church and state and its key partner, secular government. We ought to be proud of those features. Instead, the 1776 Commission tosses them aside and in favor of a tale anchored in myths and wishful thinking.
I have no idea how President-elect Joe Biden will deal with this report, coming as it does just days before Trump leaves office, but I have a suggestion: toss it in the nearest trashcan.