Oklahoma State University history professor James Cooper has spent a decade restoring Colonial-era documents from historic New England churches and a career writing academic papers on the role of religion in the founding of America.
Nearly all of his published work has been on the impact religious leaders had on the country’s independence from England.
“The time of the American Revolution was during a religious age, and people were religious,” Cooper said. “Preachers were successful in a call to arms on the basis that it is a sin not to resist and fight against tyranny. Historians will not argue religion did not play a role.
“I am the last person to deny there is not a correlation between religious and democratic practices, but it was more about political reasons.”
Cooper’s expertise is at odds with claims by the Black Robe Regiment, which received attention this week when Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Yukon, presented House Bill 1380 to ban Advanced Placement history classes from Oklahoma public schools.
Fisher has since pulled his bill to rework it but had criticized the AP course as not being patriotic enough and resembling Common Core.
Messages left for Fisher on his phone and email seeking comment have not been returned.
As a member of the Black Robe Regiment, Fisher is pushing for Christian-based governance and challenging religious leaders to get political in the pulpit. The group also promotes Christian themes in education, including in history, civics and economics classes.
For years, Fisher has been giving public presentations in costume with his version of American history, which centers on the role ministers played in American independence. He wears an 18th century pastor’s black robe, then takes it off to finish the speech wearing an American Revolution military uniform. A musket and pistols are used as props.
In a 35-minute presentation found online, Fisher uses quotes from preachers of the time to argue that America’s founding was based on Judeo-Christian principles.
On Fisher’s website — called “Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment” — he argues that “without a resurgence of biblical patriotism in the pulpit, America cannot survive much longer.”
Fisher has said AP history omits the concept of “American exceptionalism” and emphasizes “what is bad about America.”
Cooper said historians would consider the claims of the Black Robe Regiment “preposterous.”
“The split with England was primarily over political rights,” he said. “Major founding figures in George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were deists. They would not be considered Christians as (Fisher) and the Black Robe Regiment think of as traditional Christians. The founders wrote into the Constitution a separation between church and state.
“The historical community regards people like this as religious zealots trying to push their agenda. They will have no success in trying to push history to their side.”
Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos, who is also an adjunct scholar for the conservative think tank Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, said the separation of church and state has a complicated history.
“The best way to describe the original design is that the founders distinguished between the state and the society,” Spiropolous said. “The government would be secular, meaning that there would be no official government church or religious tests to serve in office. But they believed society was, and should remain, religious.”
Spiropolous said the founding documents show the tension between state and society.
“The Constitution says little or nothing about God, but the Declaration of Independence, which is a more direct statement of our fundamental beliefs, explicitly refers to the Creator and Divine Providence,” he said. “The founders supported, and expected, people to bring their religious convictions to public discussion and the voting booth.”
University of Oklahoma law professor Joseph Thai, who specializes in constitutional law and was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Byron White, disagrees.
“Religion plays no role in the Constitution, which lays out the blueprint for the United States based on principles of separation of powers and federalism, not on articles of faith,” Thai said. “The Bill of Rights does explicitly reference religion, but to keep government out of religion, rather than to endorse a government takeover of religion.”
University of Tulsa law professor Gary Allison said the Black Robe Regiment is new in name but not in mission.
“That’s a very old movement, practically from the origins of our country and one some of the early Supreme Court justices ascribed in that way, but I’m not sure the founders believed that,” Allison said. “They set out for no religious test to hold office, and there is no mention of being a Christian nation. They spoke of a Creator but not in terms the Christian ministry would use.”
The extent of religious participation and views among some key founders — such as Washington, John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton — have been a source of ongoing debate among scholars.
In Fisher’s online presentation, he recommends “The Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution” by Frank Moore, published in 1862, and the 1860 book “The Pulpit of the American Revolution” by John Wingate Thornton.
“If you really want to read about the true history of America, you generally can’t read modern books,” he says on the video. “You have to go back many years.”
Fisher grew up in Van Buren, Arkansas, and began apprenticing at age 16 in the Fort Smith First Baptist Church. He attended Westark Community College and then Arkansas Tech University.
In 1983, he became pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Poteau. Since 1992, he has been pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon.
Throughout the presentation, Fisher asks rhetorically what would happen if a preacher spoke about politics today. He said pastors have been told not to mix politics and religion and fear push-back from congregants and the government.
“Some pastors are cowards. Pastors have grown soft,” he said. “It is time for pastors to do something.”