Sunday, February 27, 2005

New York Times on Religion, the Founding, and David Barton:

A must read article in the New York Times about religion and our Founding. It's very balanced, probably too fair to Barton, who has done some extremely shoddy work in the past and continues to misrepresent history and make extremely bizarre arguments.

What's really sad is how such a shoddy historian as Barton exerts disproportionate influence as he should. Certainly his shoddiness will hurt his cause.

Mr. Barton, who is also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is a point man in a growing movement to call attention to the open Christianity of America's great leaders and founding documents. The goal is to reverse what many evangelical Christians claim is a secularist revision of history, to defend displays of religion in public life and to make room for God in public school classrooms.

....In a sign of his influence, the California and Texas school boards have consulted Mr. Barton on their curriculums. And sympathetic legislators in a dozen states have passed American Heritage Education Acts intended to protect teachers who discuss religion's role in history_- measures liberals call unnecessary.

Mr. Barton, an expert witness in a case about the public display of the Ten Commandments that is coming before the Supreme Court this week, said he has given his "spiritual heritage" tour of the Capitol more than a hundred times, for scores of Congressmen and thousands of visitors. The contents of articles, books and videos produced by his organization, WallBuilders, about the religious underpinnings of American history have echoed through Christian cable networks, magazines and pulpits around the country.

An example of Barton's bizzare claims: Whereas the strongest argument in favor of the constitutionality of public displays of the Ten Commandments is that doing this does not constitute an "Establishment of Religion" any more than would displaying text from the Koran or the book of Mormon, the weakest argument is that Ten Commandments are *the* historical source of current civil law (as opposed to the historical civil code of the Ancient Jews). And this is exactly what Barton claims. To prove his case, in an affidavit submitted on behalf of Kentucky's public display, Barton pours over the civil codes from pre-colonial America, based on the First and Second Commands and other parts of the Bible, that predate our Founding by a hundred and some years, meriting the death penalty for worshipping non-Christian Gods. True, this used to be part of the pre-Founding civil law, but then again, so too was Divine Rule of Kings. Claiming that we were founded on executing non-Christians for attempting to freely exercise their religion makes about as much sense as claiming that we were founded on Divine Rule of Kings.

The bottom line of the NYT article is that while religious conservative critics correctly note that our Founders probably never envisioned a society where the Wall of Separation has been taken to such extremes as to disallow prayer before public-school football games or bar ministers or rabbis from prayer at public school graduations, the religious right misrepresents history by arguing that our founders intended to create a "Christian Nation," one that is in public principle, "Christian." In reality our founders created a nation that was in principle neutral on religious matters and purposefully left God, specifically the Trinitarian Christian God, out of the equation.

The Times article even quotes National Review's Richard Brookhiser, one of the most well-respected conservative scholars of the Founding, who notes, "[I]f [the Founders] wanted a Christian state they could have done it. They were writing the rules. They could have put God in the rules." But they didn't. Those trying to find "God" in the Constitution, are so desperate that they would look to the customary way of stating the date to prove their case.

Along the way we get expert testimony regarding the religion of our most important founders. True they weren't "pure Deists," but then again, they were the furthest thing from born-again evangelical Christians as well. Regarding Washington:

Joseph J. Ellis, a professor at Mount Holyoke and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose latest book is "His Excellency: George Washington" (Knopf), calls him "a lukewarm Episcopalian and a quasi-deist." "When he died he really did not know what would happen to his soul, if such a thing existed," he added.

On Jefferson:

Jefferson's cosmology was a matter of debate in his own lifetime, when his political opponents denounced him as an atheist. But Mr. Barton told his students that "even Jefferson" called himself a Christian. [Rowe: This is a textbook example of how misleading Barton is. What Barton leaves out is that Jefferson also called himself a "deist" and a "unitarian." And as this passage later notes, Jefferson's "Christianity" if we want to call it that, looks nothing like Barton's.] Jefferson approved the use of the Capitol and other public buildings for church services and attended himself, even enlisting the military band to play religious music. And in 1803, Mr. Barton said, he signed a treaty that called for public funds to pay a missionary to the Indians.

But Jefferson was also the most forthright deist among the founders, meaning that he believed in a creator who merely set the world in motion according to natural laws. When Thomas Paine wrote "The Age of Reason," an attack on organized religion, Jefferson was virtually the only founder who remained his friend.

Jefferson famously assembled his own Bible by cutting out any passage involving miracles or the supernatural to leave only Jesus's teachings. In a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson defended his faith by arguing that true Christians followed these teachings, while belief in miracles like the virgin birth perverted them.

On the other hand, Mr. Brookhiser noted, Jefferson took time to prepare his own Bible. "A modern secular humanist would not do that," he said.

On Lincoln:

"One would have a very hard time saying he was a believing Christian," said Thomas F. Schwartz, the Illinois state historian and director of research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and a member of the theologically conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Christians have sometimes retold stories that Lincoln had a "secret baptism," but "they take you up blind allies or into rabbit holes," Mr. Schwartz said.

And as I've blogged before, D. James Kennedy is one of those folks, along with Barton, taking us up those blind allies and rabbit holes." It's not just gay historians who engage in such speculation and pass it off as settled fact.


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