Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The deeper I dig into this, the more astonished I am at just how shoddy this bible curriculum is. I spent much of the afternoon exchanging emails on the ReligionLaw listserv with Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, Pat Robertson’s legal group that has endorsed the NCBCPS curriculum. He just said that they support the notion that it’s possible to teach a bible course that is constitutinal. I fully agree, but this one isn’t the one and he seems entirely unconcerned about the fact that the curriculum is riddled with lies and nonsense. I want to look a little closer at the section on the founding fathers and the false quotations attributed to them in the curriculum.

Here’s what jumps out at me about this. David Barton, the Christian Nation apologist and founder of Wallbuilders, is on the advisory board of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. And David Barton is the man responsible for passing on so many false quotations from the founders that continue to find their way into the media today, 5 of which are also found in this curriculum. But Barton himself wrote a letter a few years ago admitting that those quotations were “unconfirmed” – which means no one has ever found them in the writings of the men they are attributed to – and urging his followers not to use them. So why on earth does an organization on whose advisory board he sits continue to use quotes that he has publicly admitted should not be used? Dr. Chancey, who wrote the report on this curriculum that was released yesterday, has told me that the version of the curriculum that he used was dated 2005 and that they do change it every year. The fact that these quotes are still in the text after being disavowed publicly by the very man in whose writings they found the quotes, a man who sits on their board, tells you all you need to know about the lack of rigorous scholarship involved here. Here are 3 of the most commonly seen quotes that Barton foisted upon the public and then later disavowed:

It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. — George Washington

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! — Patrick Henry

I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens. — Thomas Jefferson

This last quote is instructive because of the manner with which Barton admitted that it is unconfirmed. This will show you the sheer chutzpah of the man. He maintains that it’s the sort of thing Jefferson would have said and he presents a couple of other quotes that he thinks supports that claim. Here is one of them, word for word as he quotes it:

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.”

This is from a letter he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1803, to which he attached a syllabus comparing the views of Jesus to the views of earlier Greek and Roman philosophers. But Barton leaves out something very important. There is no period at the end of that sentence in Jefferson’s original letter and what he left off is something very important. Here is the full text of the sentence with the portion he left out in italics:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

This is important because Jefferson not only did not believe that Jesus was divine, he didn’t believe that Jesus had ever claimed to be divine. He argued that the claims of divinity were distortions foisted upon Jesus by his followers, that Jesus was nothing but a man (a brilliant man, but still a man) and that the apostles, and Paul in particular, piled legend and myth upon his teachings. “Of this band of dupes and impostors,”, Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Short, “Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.” Barton conveniently leaves out the last clause of the sentence because it makes it impossible for him to claim that Jefferson could have said what he attributed to him, since almost the entire New Testament was written by that “band of dupes and imposters”. He also includes this quote from a letter to William Short:

But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own country, was Jesus of Nazareth.

But again, the context strongly cuts against his argument. In this letter, he is comparing the ideas of Jesus to those of Epicurus, and his belief that both had been distorted by their respective followers. The fact that in this letter he also says, “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us,” should give one a hint about a similar meaning when he says, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be…”. He even refers to him Epicurus as “our master” in this letter. With that as background, now look at the context of the quote above:

But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.

It should also be noted that he considered Jesus to be the great reformer of his corrupt religious tradition precisely because he rejected the Old Testament conception of God completely. In his syllabus he compares the ethical system of Jesus to the Jewish beliefs found in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. He declared that their ideas about God were “degrading and injurious” and their system of ethics was “not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations.”

So if Barton had included more of the context of the two letters he cites, it would have become obvious that his claim that “this positive reference to the Bible could easily have flowed from his pen” was false. He rejected entirely the Old Testament conception of God and ethics and believed that almost the entire New Testament was written by “dupes and imposters” who corrupted the words of Jesus. It takes some serious nerve to present out of context quotations that distort the views of the men they are attributed to, especially while in the process of admitting to having passed on false quotations from those same men. I suspect that Barton relies on the fact that the vast majority of his followers won’t bother to check up on him. He tells them what they want to be true; hence, it must be true.

Incidentally, Barton is not only a dishonest hack pretending to be a historian. He’s also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party and was hired by the Bush campaign in 2004 to represent the campaign in reaching out to evangelical churches.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew Reeves
    August 3, 2005

    What bothers me as a medievalist about this nonsense is that the curriculum is almost certainly going to omit the way that the Bible was interpreted and commented upon for close to 1500 years. Instead, what the kids are going to get from this abortion is not only the Christian take on the OT, but the Evangelical Protestant take on the Old and New Testaments.

    I myself would *love* to see a curriculum that chronicles the twists and turns taken by the Christian faith from 33 to 2005 and how the faith has both changed and been changed by the world at large. Instead, it’s going to be dishonest proselytizing.

    OTOH, Ed, as a secularist, you should be happy since given the naturally contrarian nature of teenagers and schoolchildren in general, nothing will turn more people away from Evangelical Protestant Xianity than to have it preached from a position of the teacher’s authority. :P

  2. #2 Dave S.
    August 3, 2005

    I suspect that Barton relies on the fact that the vast majority of his followers won’t bother to check up on him.

    And he’s probably correct to rely on this. Fact is, if anyone were of the mind to actually check the original text to see if any given quote is in context, they are not likely the kind of person Barton would ever convince in the first place.

    I’ve had people with a straight face tell me that unless you could prove they didn’t write what Barton said they wrote, they were fully justified in continuing to use the quote as if it were genuine.

  3. #3 Matthew
    August 3, 2005

    Andrew Reeves:

    Indeed, I would love to see a course like that at the university level. I would definitely take it. Finding out this sort of information on your own can be quite challenging as the vast majority of all bible interpretations today only present the current catholic or evangelical protestant viewpoints. I’d love to learn what was thought 500 or 1000 years ago.

  4. #4 Matthew
    August 3, 2005

    Dave S.

    Unfortunately I think we all do that to some extent. I certainly don’t check up on every quote I come across, confirming a trustworthy original source. I think we all take them for granted unless they are suspicious enough to cause us to question their validity. I think people like Ed are familiar enough with the founders’ religious viewpoints to question quotes that don’t quite fit, but the common evangelical christian…. they have no idea how different Jefferson, Paine, Madison, etc. viewpoints were to most politicians today. Quite frantically most Americans would be shocked by them, so they don’t see any reason to question these fake-quotes’ validity.

  5. #5 Dave S.
    August 3, 2005

    Matthew,

    Depends on the circumstances, but yes, we can’t be expected to verify every quote. If someone offers for example a witty aside from Wilde or Twain I’m apt to simply take them at their word that it’s accurate since those kinds of quotes are not generally central to an argument.

    If however the quote is central to the argument and provided as evidence that Person X thinks a certain way, then I’ll want to check the original for myself. If the person citing the quote is doing so in proper context, then they are correct and I’ll concede the point.

    Though I think you are correct and a vast majority would be surprised to see the actual writings of some of these people. I have personally seen people stunned when I show them what we would consider racist quotes (like the one below) and ask them to guess who said them. Answer: Abraham Lincoln

    I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

    Source: Lincoln-Douglas Debates (#4), Charleston, Illinois, Sep. 18th, 1858.

  6. #6 llDayo
    August 3, 2005

    Denied for questionable content? I couldn’t make my post either :(

  7. #7 Robert Madison
    August 3, 2005

    Dave S Writes:
    If however the quote is central to the argument and provided as evidence that Person X thinks a certain way, then I’ll want to check the original for myself. If the person citing the quote is doing so in proper context, then they are correct and I’ll concede the point.

    This is why I just can’t stand arguments that rely on quotes.

    The way I see it, I don’t care if Jefferson really thought the Federal Government should reign supreme, and the states should cower in complete and total subordination…I don’t care if there is even an actual letter, signed by the man himself, which supports said statement.

    What matters to me is this: What did he end up agreeing to? I mean, when it comes right down to it, although Jefferson’s thoughts (or any of the founding fathers thoughts for that matter) provide interesting, and sometimes relevant context with which to judge their motives, the only thing that really matters is the document that they – as a committee – agreed to: The Constitution.

    Folks who quote-mine the founding fathers looking for statements which support their favorite argument, or (as with Mr. Barton), to simply make shit up, are missing the point. Jefferson or [insert favorite founding father figure here] may have been the smartest men to have ever lived, but whatever their personal opinions were, the only thing that matters is the document, rules, and structure they created (and agreed to) as a committee.

    Sorry…I tend to ramble a bit at times…

    [/rant]

  8. #8 chris
    August 3, 2005

    Fascinating post. These people not only misquote persons out of proper context, they tend to misquote the Bible itself to support their conservative views. I don’t think the Bible should ever be taught in a public school setting. you just can’t get two experts to agree on what it literally means, and teaching it as a historical document, rather than a spiritual/religious one, isn’t the point these fundamentalists want to make.

    Anyway, thanks. I’m going to do some research of my own into this, because I have 7 kids, and I really don’t want their minds corrupted in school. I’m christian myself, but I’d rather my kids learn religion from me (and those I trust), not from some “curriculum” that’s an attempt to imprint false christianity on young people. It’s an outrage.

  9. #9 Bill
    August 3, 2005

    David Barton! Has anyone taken into account that the vice-president of the Texas Republican Party happens to be a man who believes state governments should have the power to imprison atheists, agnostics, deists, and God knows who else for expressing their views?

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