In mid-January, freshman Delegate Jason Miyares, a Republican representing Virginia Beach, and the first Cuban-American elected to the Virginia Assembly, introduced House Resolution 297, Recognizing the Influence of Christian Heritage in Virginia.
The resolution, which passed with bi-partisan support, is intended to celebrate “the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history.”
Taking liberties with the historical record, H.R. 297 presents an abridged, greatest-hits version of Virginia’s Christian history, focusing on the arrival of the Jamestown expedition in April 1607, followed by the alleged baptism of Pocahontas a few years later, and then jumping to the civil rights era.
Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), a member of the Virginia Assembly since 2002, co-sponsored the Christian Heritage resolution, though he did not play a role in drafting it and had little to say about its inception.
“I thought it was important to recognize our Christian heritage,” he said in an email; “so I signed onto the resolution after it was submitted.”
Virginia defines a resolution as legislation that “expresses legislative opinion or sentiment on a particular issue,” in contrast to a bill, which carries the force of law and must be signed by the governor. Introducing a resolution in the House by request is, as Del. Miyares explained over the phone, considered a form of “constituent services.”
But just who are these constituents?
Del. Cole has long championed legislation sensitive to the attitudes of conservative fundamentalist Christians. In 2010, he sponsored a bill, which his Senate colleagues later dismissed as “a solution looking for a problem,” to prevent employers and insurance companies from requiring their customers or employees to implant microchips inside their bodies for rapid data collection.
In addition to concerns about privacy, Cole argued that fundamentalist Christians might perceive a microchip implant as the Biblical "mark of the beast.”
"My understanding—I'm not a theologian—but there's a prophecy in the Bible that says you'll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times. Some people think these computer chips might be that mark,” Cole explained to The Washington Post.
According to Del. Miyares, Rodney Walker, President of First-Landing Festivals, a Christian organization that stages a theatrical reenactment of the arrival of the Jamestown expedition at Virginia Beach’s First Landing State Park, asked him to introduce the Christian Heritage resolution on the festival’s behalf.
The goal of the First Landing Festival, Walker told The Virginian-Pilot in March 2016, is “to educate, commemorate and celebrate what he calls an overlooked moment in history”—when Rev. Robert Hunt, the preacher who accompanied the Jamestown settlers, erected a cross on the beach and performed “the first blessing on this country.”
Walker and the members of his organization point to Hunt’s initial prayer as the instant “our American story began, for the benefit of all.”
Walker is also the author of two Christian novels: Destiny’s Spear (2013), in which Adolf Hitler and “his nemesis,” General George Patton, pursue “the Roman weapon used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” and Mr. Gunderson's Home Economics (2014), a story of failing high school students redeemed by “a radical, new, biblically-based course in home economics.”
The Virginia Assembly’s passage of the Christian Heritage resolution offers legislative endorsement of the First Landing Festival and legitimizes Walker’s fundamentalist Christian version of history.
H.R. 297 will also help to ensure that Walker’s reenactment continues to receive voluntary financial support from Christian groups.
Last year, the Christian Broadcasting Network donated $5,000 to Walker’s organization to help cover the cost of the First Landing Festival. In November 2016, Walker created a GoFundMe page to raise $5,100 for this year’s reenactment but has not yet received any pledges of financial support.
Although Walker composed the bulk of the resolution, Del. Miyares said he decided to add several passages underscoring the influence of Judeo-Christian principles on Western civilization and American legal and intellectual traditions, particularly the civil rights movement. He saw no need to consult independent experts when drafting the resolution.
“Clearly Christianity has influenced Americans and American history. Of course it did. It would be denying history to argue otherwise,” he stated bluntly. Del. Miyares believes that offering official recognition of the influence of Christianity in Virginia or the nation as a whole is simply a matter of acknowledging the historical record.
“The influence of Christianity is undeniable no matter your faith background. Judeo-Christianity is also critical to the notion of individual rights, which was radical when first proposed 2,000 years ago and remains at the core of the American experiment.”
To those who would view the Virginia Legislature’s recognition of Christian heritage as exclusionary or potentially divisive, Del. Miyares had this to say:
“The House not only passed H.R. 297 last month, it also passed Joint Resolution 573, designating January 18, 2018 Pongol Day in honor of a Hindu religious festival.” “No one has called to complain that J.R. 573 is exclusionary,” he added. “We celebrate all faiths in Virginia.”
What happened in Virginia is echoed across the nation. Take Congressman J. Randy Forbes, who introduced House Resolution 397, America's Spiritual Heritage Resolution, in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, “affirming the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation's founding and subsequent history.” “While America has always welcomed individuals of diverse faiths and nonfaith, we have never ceased to be a Judeo-Christian nation,” Rep. Forbes wrote in a US News op-ed in 2009.
Similarly, in 2012, Congressman Stephen Fincher introduced House Resolution 789, seeking to prompt the House of Representatives to recognize “that Judeo-Christian heritage has played a strong role in the development of the United States” and to reject “efforts to remove evidence of Judeo-Christian heritage and references to God from public structures and resources.”
And then there’s Donald Trump, whose statements and actions—both as President and as a political candidate—make plain his embrace of the notion that America is now and has always been a Christian nation. He favors “extreme vetting” for visitors and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries and an immigration policy that prioritizes Christian refugees.
At the behest of conservative Christian leaders, Trump is also threatening to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, set in place over sixty years ago to restrict tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from openly supporting candidates for political office.
But there are legislators at the state and federal level who strongly disagree with the Republican consensus on this question.
Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), a fourth-generation Episcopalian with African American and Pamunkey ancestry and an M.A. in Christian theology from Howard University, voted no on Virginia’s Christian Heritage resolution. She found H.R. 297’s jump from Pocahontas to Oliver Hill jarring and “irresponsible.”
As Del. Price explained by phone, “Celebrating our history means embracing and being completely honest about the full historical record, including the not-so glamorous parts. African slavery, the exclusion of the enslaved from Christianity, the mistreatment of Native peoples, and Jim Crow—these are critical aspects of Virginia’s history and too important to pass over.”
Del. Price also pointed out that, while she can’t speak for her colleagues, no African American delegates voted in favor of the Christian Heritage resolution.
Wary of tacitly approving a resolution that whitewashed slavery and racism out of Virginia’s history, African American legislators either voted no or abstained. Their quiet disapproval serves as another poignant reminder, Price stressed, of “the plea for diversity in our legislative bodies.”
Other Virginia delegates who voted no on H.R. 297 echoed Price’s concerns.
Del Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) remarked that the “religious purpose of the founding, as described in the opening lines of the resolution, didn’t seem like accurate history. And the fact that it was submitted ‘by request’ also raised a red flag.”
Del. Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church) expressed her general disapproval of legislation intended to validate a religious narrative. “I do not believe in singling out one religion,” she noted in an email. “I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state.”
Del. Kenneth Plum (D-Reston) agreed. “Our heritage is more complex than what the resolution states. We should leave the issue of our heritage to historians.”
And what do historians make of H.R. 297?
Manisha Sinha, Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut, expressed concern that Virginia’s Christian Heritage resolution avoids addressing the “long and complicated” relationship between slavery and Christianity.
“Although some early Christian missionaries recognized the equality of souls, mainly in New England but also in Virginia, Virginia legislators were the first to use Christianity to justify slavery. Beginning in the 1660s, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation declaring the righteousness of enslaving the ‘heathen other’ and clarifying that conversion wouldn’t lead to emancipation.”
Similarly, “before the Civil War, all the major Protestant denominations were divided over the question of slavery, and the predominantly Southern denominations took an illiberal view of slavery, one that certainly didn’t align with principles of equality and justice.”
“This,” Sinha emphasized, “is not a very praiseworthy history.”
Perhaps that explains why the less savory aspects of Virginia’s Christian heritage—slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow—were left out in favor of more feel-good history, such as the supposed conversion of Pocahontas to Christianity.
But even H.R. 297’s account of Pocahontas’s baptism is not without serious flaws.
Rebecca Goetz, Associate Professor of History at New York University and a specialist in early Anglo-Indian relations, contends that “it’s very difficult to use Metoaka (ak.a. Pocahontas) as the poster child for Christianity and Christian conversion in Virginia.”
“What did she actually believe? We don't know. But when you hold her up as an exemplar of Christian conversion, you intentionally obscure her motives, her thoughts, her feelings. And you uphold a narrative of Christian triumphalism and the myth of vanishing, doomed Native people.”
Legislation that invokes historical Native Americans but does not involve contemporary American Indians in the conversation offers stark evidence of the pervasiveness of assumptions that Native peoples have vanished.
When asked about the Christian Heritage resolution, chief Robert Gray of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe—the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas—said that the Pamunkey were not consulted.
They hadn’t even heard of the resolution.
But chief Gray didn’t seem surprised to learn that Virginia legislators were appropriating Pocahontas for their own ends. Her symbolic importance in English and American narratives has always outstripped her more modest role in tribal history.
While Del. Miyares is correct to assert that Christian beliefs and practices played a key role in Virginia’s history, the exact nature of that role remains open to interpretation and discussion, as does the influence of Christianity in modern America.
When pressed on some of the details, Del. Miyares admitted that the Virginia Company, which sponsored the Jamestown expedition and whose shareholders sought to mine North America for riches, was “not exactly an altruistic Christian organization.”
When asked whether it was potentially problematic for the Virginia Assembly to commend the baptism of Pocahontas despite her abduction by Jamestown settlers and the uncertainty surrounding her conversion, Miyares conceded that this was “a fair point” and “in the future it might be helpful to run stuff by historians.”
He nonetheless reiterated his support for legislative acknowledgment of the importance of Christian heritage in Virginia and throughout the nation.