08 July 2008

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Fractured Founders pt 1

There is a document circulating about the intertubes that purports to recover the suppressed truth of America's history. What is this suppressed truth? It is nothing less than a claim that the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation. Googling various phrases from the piece shows that there may well be some ten thousand copies circulating, and casual comparison suggests that no two of them are alike. (Some of them must be, just like snowflakes, but there is a great deal of variation among them.) The text, to use the jargon of textual criticism, is wild. Individual editors seem to feel free to modify it at their pleasure—to add material, alter it, or take it away at whim. There are at least two major branches, easily distinguishable by the presence or absence of the George Washington material (among other variations). It goes by many titles, but for my purposes I'll call it "America's Christian Roots". The author is unknown—though as much of it is made up of purported quotations of American founders, it might be more accurate to describe the originator as an editor or assembler.

The shorter recension is characterized by two large lacunae in the material. There is evidence that both of them are omissions from the longer text, rather than additions made to the shorter text. (For the convenience of the reader I have provided a copy of "America's Christian Roots" here; the lacunae in the shorter recension are given there in blue.) The first lacuna begins at the end of a Thomas Jefferson quotation, and includes material attributed to George Washington, John Adams, and John Jay. The text resumes with a note to the effect that "He" was also chairman of the American Bible Society. In the shorter recension "He" is Thomas Jefferson; in the longer "He" is John Quincy Adams. Hypothetically this should provide strong evidence on the subject. If Thomas Jefferson had in fact been chairman of the American Bible Society and John Quincy Adams not been, that would argue in favor of the shorter recension, in that the notice would have been accidentally displaced by the insertion of new material. Conversely, if John Quincy Adams had been chairman and not Thomas Jefferson, the longer recension would be more likely the original, the notice having been displaced by the omission of material.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Neither man was ever chairman of the American Bible Society. Which leaves us back where we started.

Or does it? One of the men mentioned in the longer recension, John Jay, actually was elected president of the American Bible Society in 1821. One possibility is that the notice originally applied to him, became detached with the insertion of the John Quincy Adams item, and then became detached yet again with the omission of the larger block of material. It's a bit convoluted, but it does make sense of the situation, and is a slight argument in favor of the longer recension.

[correction: Although John Quincy Adams was neither chairman nor president of the American Bible Society, he was vice-president of the society from 1818 to 1848 (source). It therefore seems likely that this notice did originally apply to him—a point decisively in favor of the originality of the longer recension. ]

Also in favor of the longer recension is the fact that the end of the Jefferson quotation is authentic (though the quotation itself is a bit of a fake); the simplest explanation is that it was originally included in the document and then accidentally omitted (favoring the longer recension), rather than that the quotation was originally shortened and then the ending restored (in the case that the shorter recension was original).

As far as the second lacuna is concerned, the evidence is decisively in favor of the longer recension. Where the longer recension correctly quotes the Harvard handbook as saying "and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning", the shorter recension has "and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments." Where did this gibberish come from? Comparison of the two recension shows that the words "our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments" is the conclusion of a comment by the assembler of the document on a Supreme Court decision: "Is it not a permissible objective to allow our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?" The two have become joined by the omission of the intervening material, which means that the longer recension in this case is certainly more original.

Why was the shorter recension created? What purpose do these omissions serve? The short answer seems to be—none. The omissions significantly damage the sense of the document, and seem utterly purposeless. They look, well, accidental. If this were a document from the paper age I would suggest that maybe a couple of leaves were accidentally lost or somehow not copied. This being the computer age, it is also possible that an ancestral file became somehow corrupted. A casual examination of internet examples suggests that the shorter recension is the more common of the two; it was the first that came to my attention at the very least.

For this discussion I examined four of the many versions available—two from the shorter recension, and two from the longer. These are (1) J. Vitello, "America's Christian Roots," in The Christian Journal (February 2005) (PDF); (2) Ed Brayton, "Answering a 'Christian Nation' E-mail," Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 7 December 2003 (this one is derived from a version published in World Net Daily that I couldn't find and may no longer be available); (3) Paul Ciniraj, "Bible and Prayer in the History of America," Free Republic, 13 January 2005; and (4) Kenn McDermott, "Forsaken Roots," Kenn McDermott's Home Page, 28 June 2008. Kenn McDermott and Ed Brayton both present the piece as anonymous, and both make critiques available to the reader; J. Vitello and Paul Ciniraj are both listed as authors of their respective versions. The Vitello and McDermott versions belong to the longer rescension; the Brayton and Ciniraj versions to the shorter—though Ciniraj extends his version with numerous interpolations, either his own or derived from some other source, making it longer than the longer recension.

"America's Christian Roots" contains many mini-documents, excerpts from letters and speeches that are supposed to support its thesis. Each of these has its own history before it came to lodge in this conglomerate. That history is often obscure and convoluted, so bear with me as we cut through the underbrush. To begin:

The U.S. Constitution was founded on Biblical principles, and it was the intention of the authors for this to be a Christian nation.

This is the Ciniraj version; the Brayton version puts it baldly "We are a Christian nation" and the two longer recension versions omit this preamble altogether. Stated or not, this is the thesis of the document in all its forms. In many cases the document simply begins

Did you know that 52 of the 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence were orthodox, deeply committed Christians? The other three all believed in the bible as the divine truth, the God of Scripture, and His personal intervention.

Only Brayton's version omits this item, though there are minor variations in the others. The Ciniraj version for example adds (anachronistically) the word "evangelical" to the "deeply committed" of the other two. A major oddity is the statement that there were fifty-five signers of the Declaration of Independence; in fact there were fifty-six. (Some recent versions have changed this item accordingly, though none of the three I examined had yet done so.) How many of them were "deeply committed Christians" is unknown; some of them were members of mainline churches, and others weren't. Personally, having myself tried to run down the data on some figures of the time, I'm skeptical of any claim that purports to give hard statistics. Here is a chart by somebody who has actually attempted to determine the formal religious affiliations of the signers of the Declaration, and here is a blog entry covering the religion of the founders in a more general way.

In any case it is irrelevant to the thesis of the document, which is that the founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation. As Ben Abbot aptly observed in a comment on the blog entry I just mentioned, "Even if *all* the framers/founders were Trinitarian Christians, it would *not* mean that our Nation was intended by them to be a sectarian one. Further, even if all were Deists, it would not mean that they intended to banish the inspiration of organized religions from its borders." It's easy to see why Brayton's source omitted this item.

At this point comes one of the Ciniraj interpolations; I'll give it for flavor:

The founding fathers understood that for a country to stand it must have a solid foundation; the Bible was the source of this foundation. They believed that God's ways were much higher than Man's ways and held firmly that the Bible was the absolute standard of truth and used the Bible as a source to form the government.

Of course no source is given for these unlikely statements. They appear to function as a kind of commentary on the text, rather than being a part of the text themselves. Moving right along

It is the same Congress that formed the American Bible Society.

This is found only in two of the four versions: the Ciniraj (shorter recension) and the McDermott (longer recension), but it almost certainly appeared in the ancestor of the other two versions. (The Brayton version [short recension] simply omits the item, but the Vitello version [long recension] retains the phrase "the same Congress" while omitting its essence.) Why did these two versions, presumably independently, omit it? Probably because it isn't true. Sure, that doesn't stop them from retaining other items, but in this case it is extremely easy to check; the American Bible Society was founded in 1816, years after the Continental Congress ceased to exist. And oh yeah, Congress had no part in its founding.

How did this come to be here? My guess is that this item is a distorted reflection of an account such as that in W. P. Strickland's 1849 History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time (see my piece on the Bible of the Revolution). Strickland wrote "the first Congress of the States assumed all the rights and performed all the duties of a Bible Society"; it would be easy to turn this into the misstatement that the Continental Congress actually did found a Bible Society. Onward.

Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of Scripture for the people of this nation.

Three of the versions have this word for word, and the Vitello version has it with minor variations caused by its awkward elimination of the American Bible Society item. This item by contrast is true, or at any rate mostly true. It was actually a year later, rather than "immediately", and the Continental Congress never finalized the resolution, so that no Bibles were ever imported, but other than that, it is fairly accurate. It doesn't really support the Christian Nation thesis: the point of Congress being involved was to prevent price gouging, and the money loaned against the purchase would have been paid back by the sale of the books. It certainly provides no precedent for any present-day action by the government; this took place during the pre-Constitutional period, when the First Amendment had yet to be written, and it was not yet clear what sort of entity the new nation was to be.

The Ciniraj version has another lengthy interpolation here, which I will skip, and move on to the next item that is an integral part of the document:

Patrick Henry, who is called the firebrand of the American Revolution, is still remembered for his words, "Give me liberty or give me death"; but in current textbooks, the context of these words is omitted. Here is what he actually said: "An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death."

This appears virtually word-for-word in all four versions (the two longer-recension versions omit "actually" before "said"). Now this speech has its own problems, not the least of which is that there is no actual evidence that Patrick Henry ever said it or anything approximating it, but that aside, I'm curious—is it true that this speech has been "erased" from modern textbooks? William Benson, in his critique, suggests otherwise. "Here again is an error in fact and an error in implication," he wrote. "The error in fact is that this famous Patrick Henry speech has not been erased from public school text books; at least it hasn't been erased from the history textbook used by the Los Gatos Union School District schools in California. Their history textbook is entitled The Americans a History and is published by McDougal Little/Houghton Mifflin. The full and unedited text of Henry's speech appears on page 125 of this textbook" Benson went on to note, "The error in implication is that Henry's speech was stricken from public school textbooks because it makes references to God. But our courts have never ruled that public schools cannot recognize the impact that religion and the belief in a God or gods has had in the history of the world. Teaching about the role religion has played in history is not a violation of the Establishment Clause whereas teaching denominational religious dogma is."

These sentences have been erased from our textbooks. Was Patrick Henry a Christian? The following year, 1776, he wrote this: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here."

The is part of all four texts examined here, except that the first two sentences were omitted in the Ciniraj text. The quotation, as I showed in an earlier entry, is a fake, having actually been written in 1956. One peculiarity of this piece is that while the quotation really has no bearing on the question asked—was Patrick Henry a Christian?—since a non-Christian might well reach the (erroneous) conclusion that the United States was "founded…on the Gospel of Jesus Christ", it is at least germane to the central thesis of the article. The author clearly believed in the Christian Nation hypothesis. But even if the author had been Patrick Henry, would it have really helped?

Both Benson and Brayton in their critiques of the document answer no. Benson somehow gets himself lost in a jungle of confusion over whether "establishment" is a noun (of course it is, no matter in which sense it is used), so Brayton is more on point here. He wrote "…remember that when the time came to frame the Constitution, Patrick Henry was opposed to the passage of the first amendment establishment clause. … When the constitution was passed, Patrick Henry opposed it specifically because it was a 'godless document' and he preached long and hard that because the constitution did not establish the US as an officially Christian nation, it would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. In other words, he was on the losing end of history on this issue and … in point of fact, citing his views on church and state proves the opposite of what the author intends—it shows that those who pushed for theocracy were in the minority."

[This commentary will continue in one or more future installments, Allah willing.]

1 comment:

daveawayfromhome said...

open-source propaganda?

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