On July 4, many newspapers across the country ran a full-page ad placed by the Hobby Lobby corporation. Headlined “God Bless America,” the ad’s purpose is to imply that Christianity once had a prominent place in American law and government but was forced out by the mean old courts.

As I read the ad, I could immediately tell that it was heavily influenced by David Barton, the Religious Right’s favorite pseudo-historian. Many of Barton’s errors, distortions and omissions appear in the ad.

Hobby Lobby: good at selling craft items, not so good at interpreting American history. .

It would take a small book to dissect the entire ad. As I noted in an Independence Day post, the “Christian nation” thesis collapses because our Constitution nowhere says that the country is officially Christian. Instead, its First Amendment protects the free exercise of all faiths and bars government from establishing any.

But I did want to point to a few things in the ad that are especially disingenuous, mainly:

The ad claims that the Supreme Court struck down “voluntary prayer in schools” in 1962 without using any precedent. First off, there was nothing voluntary about those prayers. In many parts of the country, youngsters were compelled to take part. Moreover, Hobby Lobby’s assertion that the 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale, does not cite precedent is simply wrong, as anyone who takes the time to read it can see.

The ad distorts James Madison’s views on separation of church and state. By wrenching a quote from context, the ad does a great disservice to James Madison, a primary author of the First Amendment and the Father of the Constitution. Ironically, the quote in question comes from Madison’s 1785 Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, one of the most powerful defenses of church-state separation ever written. No one who gives that document an honest read could walk away from it believing that Madison favored any form of church-state union.

The ad quotes Benjamin Franklin at length about his pitch for prayers during the 1787 Constitutional Convention but never bothers to point out that there were no prayers. The story of Franklin’s call for prayers is well known and much beloved by the Religious Right, but the fact is, the Convention did not act on his suggestion. As Franklin himself later noted, “The Convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

The ad cites people and institutions whose views are not relevant. Hobby Lobby’s ad cites the views of Patrick Henry, who was a strong advocate for the revolution but also a fan of church-state union. Henry’s views on separation of church and state are interesting mainly as an example of the kind of thinking that the founders consciously rejected. The ad also includes a quote lauding Christianity’s relationship to the government by Jedidiah Morse, a geographer and pastor who had nothing to do with the creation of the Constitution. Morse hated religious liberals and spent much of his time promoting conspiracy theories about the Illuminati. By no stretch of the imagination can Morse be considered a founder.

The ad points out that student guidelines at Harvard and Yale from 1636 and 1787 respectively required students to read the Bible and be Christian. This is not surprising since both institutions were founded by clergy for the purpose of training more clergy. At that time, religious colleges often imposed theological dictates on students – just as many still do. What any of this has to do with the Constitution and U.S. government is unclear.

There are many other problems with the Hobby Lobby ad. It’s obviously based on Barton’s work, which I debunked back in 1993. Furthermore, the ad is an insult to the intelligence of its readers. It assumes that they will see it and stop there, smug in their belief that history shows that the Religious Right is correct about our nation’s official ties to Christianity. Indeed, many of those who see it will stop there, but those who do a little more research will quickly learn that the ad is misleading.

The ad ends with an invitation for readers to “know Jesus as Lord and Savior” and refers them to an evangelistic website. And that’s what this ad is really all about. It is designed to persuade people to become fundamentalist Christians, not to make a coherent argument about U.S. history.

Hobby Lobby sells a lot of craft supplies. The company should probably stick with that and stop trying to rewrite American history.  

P.S. Hobby Lobby is in the news for another reason today. The company, which plans to open a Bible museum in Washington, D.C., this fall, recently agreed to pay a $3 million fine after it illegally imported antiquities from Iraq. Hobby Lobby agreed to purchase about 5,000 ancient cuneiform tablets, even though it was warned that the deal looked suspicious. Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, has attempted to portray himself as a neophyte in the world of antiquities collecting who got in over his head.  But as federal prosecutors put it, the deal was “fraught with red flags,” from the beginning. The cuneiform tablets, which will be returned to Iraq, were fraudulently labeled as tiles prior to shipment to America. Green and Hobby Lobby love to judge others. Perhaps they should get their own ethical house in order first.