The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy and Rewriting American History


I’m in Phoenix at the moment about to speak on the topic of “A Nation ‘Under God’: Hype, Hysteria, or Heritage?”

If you listen to groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation that sued the IRS to get it to monitor churches on the political content of their sermons, a person would get the idea that America was founded by atheists like themselves.

The FFRF can get away with this nonsense because there has been a general dumbing down of what young people are taught about American history.

There were certainly some religious skeptics during the founding era, but none of them were atheists.

What’s happened in supposedly scholarly works on the topic of religion and the founding of America is that the authors have cherry picked their subject in what has been described as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:

“A Texan aims his weapon at the side of a barn and shoots a number of times. Seeing that his shots are somewhat scattered but wanting to get a good score, he draws a number of circles creating a target that shows that he has placed his shots within his own drawn circles and then exclaims ‘bulls eye.’”

The historian purposely committing this fallacy will choose data that only suits his already accepted conclusion. For example, an historian will pick selective founding fathers like John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine to “prove” that Christians were not involved in the founding of America.

The problem with this approach is that these weren’t the only men involved in contributing to America’s beginnings and not one of them was an atheist.

“Much that has been written about the founders has emphasized the thoughts, words, and deeds of an elite fraternity of famous founders, ignoring a large company of now forgotten men and women who made salient, consequential contributions to the construction of the American Republic and its institutions.

******

“A good example of this tendency is Edwin S. Gaustad’s Faith of Our Founding Fathers, which explores the founders’ attitudes toward religion by carefully considering only the views of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, and Washington . . . More orthodox founders, and those who desired closer cooperation between religion and the polity, are largely ignored. . . The net result of this selective approach to history is the distortion of the founders’ collective views on religion, religious liberty, and church-state relations.”1

Little is written about Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister who signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey and served as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), James Wilson, George Mason, Elias Boudinot, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay (the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers), Benjamin Rush, Luther Martin, Roger Sherman.

John Jay is interesting. He worked hard to abolish slavery in New York and succeeded. In addition, he had a great deal to say about rights and the provocation of war:

“In a letter addressed to Pennsylvania House of Representatives member John Murray, dated October 12, 1816, Jay wrote, ‘Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war. Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.’”

Note the phrase “our Christian nation.”

Jefferson was not involved in the drafting of the Constitution, but he had a hand in drafting the Declaration of Independence. If the FFRF had been around back then, they would have protested loudly to anybody who would listen to remove the following:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
  • “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions. . .”

If you listen to atheists, they will say that these types of phrases are “the sort of deism which was common among many of those responsible for the American Revolution as well as the philosophers upon whom they relied for support.”

Let’s suppose they are, but they’re not atheistic, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation is about the promotion of atheism. If you recall, the Christian John Jay used the word “Providence,” and he was no deist. In fact, the use of “providence” by Christians is well established as the historical record proves. I suggested that the atheists check out Chapter V of the Westminster Confession of Faith “On Providence.” The WCF has been the foundational doctrinal statement of Presbyterians since the 17th century.

Moreover, describing God as “the Supreme Judge of the world” is hardly a deistic statement.

The danger in cherry picking history is that judges “have been selective in the founders to whom they have appealed. Collectively, when justices appeal to specific founders to cast light on the meaning of the religion clauses, 79 percent of their appeals have been to Jefferson and Madison, while only 21 percent of their appeals have been to one of thirty-one other founders.”2

If these judges are cherry picking the history record in this case, then what are they doing in other cases?

  1. Daniel Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., Preface, The Forgotten Founders of Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2009), xiii, xv. []
  2. The Forgotten Founders of Religion and Public Life, xvi. []
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