Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dershowitz's Blasphemy:

I was thumbing through this yesterday at Barnes & Noble; it's definitely on my summer reading list. The book is sort of a repackaging of a book he wrote just four years ago in 2003 called America Declares Independence.

So why did he need to write a new one? Back then as today, the religious right has been "revising" history, arguing America was founded on "Christian principles" to be a "Christian Nation." Though he already debunked such notion in the past book, presently, books with similar themes are quite hot. So Dershowitz wants back in the game.

To support his argument from his last book, Dershowitz draws from Brooke Allen's and Jon Meacham's recent books on the matter. And, to make the book timely, he incorporates some recent controversies such as the Rep. Keith Ellison's swearing in on the Koran, and the Stephen Williams brouhaha, where it was falsely claimed that this public school teacher couldn't teach his students the Declaration of Independence, when, in reality, he was teaching them fraudulent history, complete with David Barton's phony quotations.

As a work of serious scholarship, from what I have read, I'd give it a mixed review. Dershowitz is quite brilliant and has no problem demolishing the Christian Nation fraud. But it doesn't take someone of his intellect to destroy such a straw man.

Parts of the book dig deep into the primary sources (those parts are strong). Huge parts of the book, though, simply reiterate what other experts conclude. In an area as disputed as what the Founding Fathers personally believed on religion, simply turning to what some expert concludes isn't good enough.

And, he categorizes Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin as "deists." This is problematic because 1) they didn't call themselves deists. And 2) each of them invoked an active personal God and Dershowitz himself defines deism as belief in a non-interventionist God. Now, they may well have been deists. But if they were, one has to explain why they oft-talked of a warm personal God, not a cold distant watchmaker. And Dershowitz, from what I've been able to glean (I spent about an hour with it yesterday, but still haven't bought it), doesn't.

It's more of a "fun," informative read than a work that seriously breaks new ground in scholarly research.

The book's site generously offers some excerpts, and the blurbs from some very prominent folks are entertaining as well (I especially like Pete Stark's).

"This is an engaging refutation of an insidious form of 'political correctness' of the right—the nonsensical idea that our country was founded on Christian principles. Anyone, left or right, who admires the foundations of American democracy will enjoy this spirited reminder of the Founding Fathers' true genius."
—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor, Harvard University author of The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought

"The wall of separation between church and state is one of the great barriers to religious tyranny. Among the wall's most articulate defenders is Dershowitz, who shows in this readable book why the authors of our Declaration feared theocracy and favored democracy."
—Nadine Strossen, Professor of Law at New York Law School and President of the American Civil Liberties Union

"Blasphemy proves that many Christians are as deliberately bewildered about the history of our nation as they are about the evolution of life on this planet. Dershowitz has done a great service in rescuing Jefferson, Adams, and the other Founding Fathers from the religious delusions of the Christian Right. This book will strike a great blow to the forces of theocracy in the United States."
—Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

"Right wing Christian zealots don't know Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Starship. The assertion that our Declaration of Independence is a Christian document is absurd. Colonists fled Europe to escape religious persecution, not to be controlled by a different religion. Dershowitz proves that Jefferson and his compatriots purposely built a wall between Church and State that the Religious Right is now attempting to destroy. If conservative Christians are successful at shoving God down our throats, the end of democracy as we know it will soon follow."
—U.S. Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA)

"Blasphemy is a brilliant, well-researched critique of the Religious Right's 'Christian Nation' mythology and its misuse of the American historical record. Just as significant, Professor Dershowitz illuminates the open hostility and vitriol this movement routinely exhibits toward all, religious or secular, who dare to challenge its faulty conclusions."
—Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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