In honor of Presidents' Day, let's talk presidents.
Religious Right activists devote large amounts of their time and resources to revising history. Certain facts about the nation's founding have been terribly inconvenient for that movement for decades.
These historical revisionists loathe the church-state separation principle. They've knocked it as un-American, linked it to communism and derided it as a modern-day tool used to prod Christianity from the public square.
And it is increasingly fashionable for the Religious Right to try and paint several of the nation's Founding Fathers as early brethren.
Let's take the first president, George Washington, for example.
In a recent column for a Colorado newspaper, Troy A. Eid plumped for yet another revisionist history manifesto. Eid says Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State boldly upends the so-called conventional wisdom that the nation's Founding Fathers coalesced around the principle of church-state separation.
Eid, a federal attorney, claims the book "carefully" proves "that Washington, not [Thomas] Jefferson, was in a far better position to interpret constitutional history based on real-life experience."
Essentially the tale goes like this: Washington was in the country during debate over the Bill of Rights while Jefferson was in France, and Washington was a "deeply spiritual person" who had respect for a deity.
We've heard this before. Or least, I've heard it before. I've been to numerous Religious Right gatherings where inevitably a speaker goes on and on about how religious Jefferson, Washington and James Madison were and how none of them ever promoted a nation where religion and government would operate in separate spheres.
These folks know what they hope to achieve. They're working to convince would-be followers that America is and always has been a "Christian nation."
The facts are inconvenient, however.
Jefferson was an eloquent, influential voice for church-state separation in America. It was Jefferson's "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" that brought to an end Virginia's state-established religion. The act was a forebear of the First Amendment.
Jefferson and Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, were the key founders in the nation's battle for religious liberty. Washington was much less active in that area.
The first president, however, did send a letter to a Jewish group in Rhode Island affirming that America would indeed be a nation open to all religions. In his 1790 letter to Rhode Island's Touro Synagogue, Washington wrote that the new nation would feature "a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience...."
Historians have also noted that Washington said little about his personal religious leanings.
Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, has written, "To tell the absolute truth, we do not know exactly what George Washington's religious beliefs were, because he was extremely private about them throughout his life."
Chase added, "We do not know of any instance of Washington preaching to a church while he was president or at any other time of his life."
We can, however, say for certain that Washington was not a fundamentalist Christian of the Religious Right variety. He thought religion was important as a source of public and private virtue, but that doesn't mean he wanted the government to force it on anyone.
It is no wonder that for many decades the federal courts have repeatedly cited Jefferson's metaphor of a wall of separation of church and state in explaining the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Unfortunately it seems a safe bet that despite the facts, some among the nation's Religious Right cadre will continue their attempted recruitment of Washington and other Founding Fathers into their fold.
It's rather odd because what history actually tells us about Washington, Madison and Jefferson is that they sought a nation where government did not meddle in religious affairs and where religion did not employ the levers of government for its benefit.
Happy Presidents' Day!