09 July 2008

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Fractured Founders pt 2

This second part of my commentary on the collection of Christian Nation proof-texts (or open-source propaganda, in Daveawayfromhome's happy expression) I've referred to as "America's Christian Roots" picks up where the first part leaves off. I did think I would take a moment, however, to comment on exactly what the Christian Nation hypothesis entails.

First, the idea is that despite the establishment clause of the first amendment, and despite the no-religious-test limitation of the constitution, and despite numerous writings by the founders explaining matters, and despite many court decisions, the Founding Fathers did in fact intend the Federal government to be able to establish one religion—Christianity—at the expense of others.

Second, that this view was generally accepted until some time after World War Two, when revisionist historians and activist judges got together and concocted a new concept of American government as secular, treating all religions alike, rather than explicitly Christian.

For this reason it does no good to show that certain Founders were Christian, or that they thought Christianity (or religion or morality) were good things. It is entirely possible for an individual to be a Christian (or a Buddhist or an atheist) without in turn believing that it is the job of the government to promote Christianity (or Buddhism or atheism). By the same token a person may well consider that religion or full employment or medical care are good things without necessarily feeling that the government is the entity that should be providing them.

In my experience the religious right is particularly prone to the error of arguing point X by providing evidence that supports point Y, and then proudly proclaiming that point X is now established. J. A. T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament is filled with such examples of muddy thinking—and so is the document now before us.

And one other point before getting back to that document; except for the beginning and ending items, this installment comments entirely on text found in the first lacuna of the shorter recension. In other words, most of what follows is found only in the longer recension. We left off with a bogus quotation attributed to Patrick Henry; we pick up with a problematic quotation from Thomas Jefferson:

Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the front of his well-worn Bible: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our creator and, I hope, to the pure doctrine of Jesus also."

The words in italics are missing in the shorter recension; this is the beginning of the first large lacuna that distinguishes the shorter recension from the longer. This is also a significant piece of evidence that the shorter recension is derived from the longer; the "hole" in the document takes out some words that were a genuine part of the (alleged) Jefferson quotation.

I say alleged because this quotation is something of a fake. It is in fact made up of pieces of two different letters Jefferson wrote at different times to two different people—oh, and by the way, none of it was written in the front of his well-worn Bible. To grasp the meaning of these items requires a digression into the religious ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was a rationalist, a child of the Enlightenment. The crude supernatural elements of the Bible disgusted rather than inspired him, and the paradoxes of Christian theology merely offended his sense of reason. One result of this was that he believed neither in miracles nor the trinity. He detested Paul and the "religion-builders [who] have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, [who] have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers". Like Marcion before him he attempted to get behind the gospels to the true doctrines of Jesus by slicing out the things that offended him; where Marcion had conformed Jesus to Paul, Jefferson threw out anything tainted with Pauline theology, supernaturalism, or a claim to divine status. The result was the so-called "Jefferson Bible".

It was in connection with this that Jefferson wrote to Charles Thomson, one-time secretary to the Continental Congress and translator of the Septuagint, on 9 January 1816: "it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw." And it was about the "the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three" that he wrote to Timothy Pickering on 27 February 1821, "I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator," that is, as opposed to the doctrine of the trinity, "and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also", that is, without the Pauline theology and the miracles and the claims to godhead.

There is a certain humor in this claim by the Christian Nationites; if they weren't so gung ho on claiming Jefferson as one of their own they would undoubtedly denounce him as an infidel. When Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, he was denying the right of trinitarians—which most modern-day fundamentalists are—to use the name. And they of course in turn deny that unitarians, like Jefferson, are really Christians either. Go figure.

As a final note McDermott's text says about Jefferson: "He supposedly was a Deist—but not in the strictest mold." This seems to be unique to his version. Our text now (longer recension only) moves on to George Washington.

Consider these words from George Washington, the Father of our Nation, in his farewell speech on September 19, 1796: "It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supports. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

The first sentence is a notorious "unconfirmed" quotation that has never been found in Washington's genuine writings. One form of it ("It is impossible to govern the world without God") can be traced back to 1867, where it surfaced in a religious tract. No source is given, and the entire quotation seems to be made up of fragments taken from various papers of George Washington. It is possible that this is a distorted reflection of an 1835 account, likewise unattributed, that reads in part: "It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being."

It should be noted that—regardless of its authenticity—the sense of the original, if it is the original, is very different from the sense we are supposed to get from the derivative version. The author is claiming that only positing a Supreme being can explain the mystery of the existence and continued functioning of the universe, not that "God and the Bible" are necessary in ruling a nation's affairs. This is a very different matter.

The rest of this quotation is actually, for once, from the source it claims to be, namely Washington's Farewell Address, though mutilated and misquoted. (For a complete text of the address, see here.) Just for the fun of it, let's take a look at the quoted material as it was before the editor of this document got his hands on it. Omitted material is bold; added material crossed out.

It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that which lead to political prosperity, our Religion and morality are the indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politican, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the Oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure—reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

William Benson refers to this in his commentary as one of the most disturbing claims made by the anonymous authors because of their insertion of the God and Bible passage into the text. Personally, I call it criminally dishonest—but maybe integrity in reproducing sources is an old-fashioned virtue no longer valued in these anything-goes days. The addition of the dubious God and Bible quote, the words "our" before "Religion" and "the" before "indispensable supports" completely alters the sense of the opening passage. Without the opening there is nothing here to support the notion that George Washington is advocating government promotion of religion. However much he may feel that religion is a good thing for a nation—especially for keeping the uneducated in line as far as oaths are concerned—there is nothing here to suggest that he felt the government should promote religion. And there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that he meant that it should promote Christianity in preference to other religions.

With the next section we descend into a wilderness of lies intertwined around lies.

Was George Washington a Christian? Consider these words from his personal prayer book: "Oh, eternal and everlasting God, direct my thoughts, words and work. Wash away my sins in the immaculate blood of the lamb and purge my heart by thy Holy Spirit. Daily, frame me more and more in the likeness of thy son, Jesus Christ, that living in thy fear, and dying in thy favor, I may in thy appointed time obtain the resurrection of the justified unto eternal life. Bless, O Lord, the whole race of mankind and let the world be filled with the knowledge of thee and thy son, Jesus Christ."

This is unintentionally hilarious. At least I suppose it's unintentional. First, George Washington's formal connection with the Church of England (which after the Revolution became the Episcopal Church in America) is well-known. Second, this piece is the usual mishmash of disconnected fragments jammed together. But the cream of this particular jest is that the document this is taken from—the infamous George Washington Prayer Book—is a well-known literary hoax. As I intend to cover this in a later Dubious Documents entry, I won't go into that here. These particular phrases are drawn, seemingly at random, from the prayers for Monday morning, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning.

The next bit, concerning John Adams, is—for this document anyway—relatively honest:

Consider these words by John Adams, our second president, who also served as chairman of the American Bible Society. In an address to military leaders he said: “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and true religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Okay, John Adams wasn't chairman of the American Bible Society, though this may be confusion with his son, who was at least vice-president of that body. And there's only one sentence silently hacked out between the first two quoted sentences: "Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net." And only one extra word inserted—the word "true" before religion. (The full text of the letter is given here.) For "America's Christian Roots" this isn't bad. The quotation is still irrelevant, however. John Adams is contrasting people who are sincere and straightforward (whom he characterizes as moral and religious) with those who are dishonest and hypocritical. The Constitution, he says, has no defense against people who pretend to uphold it while ignoring its regulations. He speaks of morality and religion in general as restraints on human passions (such as avarice and ambition), but says nothing about Christianity or the Ten Commandments in particular. He also has nothing to say on the topic of the federal government promoting Christianity, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or for that matter the Noble Eightfold Path. Frankly it's kind of a relief to turn to the next item.

How about our first Supreme Court Justice, John Jay? He stated that when we select our national leaders, if we are to preserve our Nation, we must select Christians: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian Nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."

For once the assembler has actually quoted a genuine document without adding anything to it or omitting anything from it. Okay, the quotation is taken out of context to support a different point from the one the author was making, but still—for Mr. or Ms. America's Christian Roots this is outstanding.

What was John Jay's point? Well, let's take a look at what leads up to the quotation in question. The subject is war—specifically, are all wars unjust? John Jay argues from the Bible that, as Yahweh commanded wars, some wars must be just. He goes on to observe, "It certainly is very desirable that a pacific disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it, is by extending the prevalence and influence of the gospel. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war." (I like his confidence, but after nearly two hundred years of self-described real Christians starting wars with abandon since then, I find it hard to share it.) "Almost all nations" he goes on, "have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." That is, as opposed to unelected leaders who are neither wise nor virtuous. You can read the letter here. Next.

John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the sixth U.S. President. He was also the chairman of the American Bible Society, which he considered his highest and most important role.

This is the end of the lacuna in the shorter recension; the first sentence, about John Quincy Adams, is missing, but the second is present. The result is that it seems to apply to Thomas Jefferson, rather than to Adams. The Ciniraj version has another lengthy interpolation at this point.

On July 4, 1821, President Adams said, "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: "It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity."

All four texts examined here contain this item. These words, however, are not Adams'. They were written by John Wingate Thornton in his introduction to The Pulpit of the American Revolution, p. xxix. They are his summary of something supposedly said by John Quincy Adams, though Thornton doesn't say what. He does not say, state, or imply that the words are from Adams himself, only that the idea goes back to him.

Interestingly, for once David Barton seems to be on the right track. "His above statement in connection with Adams is Thornton's summation of part of a lengthy speech delivered by John Quincy Adams during an 1837 Fourth of July celebration at Newburyport, Massachusetts" (link added). The parallels he gives seem convincing, and it is reasonable to suppose that he has found the very document Thornton had in mind. Whether Thornton's paraphrase is in fact accurate I will leave as an exercise for the reader. If this be vindication, make the most of it.

[There will be a third part to this series, if I can stomach it.]


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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