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December 09, 2013 3:23 PM Something In the Water

By Ed Kilgore

Since I was traveling over most of the weekend, I just now got around to reading Martin Longman’s fine post here at PA puncturing Sarah Palin’s ludicrous efforts to make Thomas Jefferson an ally in her book-royalty-driven War on Christmas agitprop.

I’d add just a couple of notes to Martin’s essay. First, Palin is basically regurgitating the revisionist history championed by the increasingly discredited David Barton, whose own efforts to turn Jefferson’s church-state teachings upside down have been demolished by conservative evangelical scholars, leading to the withdrawal of Barton’s Jefferson book by its publisher.

And second, there are all sorts of ironies involved in Palin peddling her nonsense at a Baptist university in central Virginia. Baptists, who were until quite recently staunch, even adamant, defenders of church-state separation—often in alliance with the ACLU and other secularist and non-Christian objectors to state-sponsored religious expression—were the very active allies of Jefferson in protesting government support for organized religion. As Longman notes, Jefferson’s most famous utterance on the subject—calling for a “wall of separation” between church and states—was written in a letter to a Connecticut association of Baptists who hailed the Third President’s election as a powerful blow against the theocrats of that era. Palin’s claim that only “angry atheists” object to state support of religion is an insult not just to the equal citizenship rights of nonbelievers, but to the many believers who have defended their faith against the corrupting embrace of the state.

Now it’s true that contemporary Southern Baptists, almost certainly including those associated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where Palin spoke, have at least partially reversed themselves on church-state separation. But even in those precincts, it’s not a settled manner, and reflected in the frequent attacks on David Barton launched by the new communications director of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Joe Carter.

Beyond all that, Palin’s remark about there being “something in the water” in central Virginia encouraging her kind of politics and religion is interesting. Jefferson’s Charlottesville in a progressive island in the region, but even Falwell’s Lynchburg has a recent Democratic voting history of its own (it was carried by both Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Obama lost narrowly there in 2008), and Liberty is not universally considered an asset to the community (viz. battles over Liberty’s efforts to expand its operations). Twenty miles east from where Palin spoke is Appomattox, where another Cause beloved of white central Virginians, the Confederacy, expired. The region has quite a mixed legacy. But as Longman demonstrates with ease, Sarah Palin’s interest in history appears to extend no further than whatever is necessary to get a cheap applause line, or sell books.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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