Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I got back from a quick trip out of town for lunch with a friend to find several people emailed me a link to this letter to the editor by David A. Paszkiewicz, the New Jersey history teacher who has been using class time to proselytize his students and was recorded by a student for doing so. Unfortunately, his attempt to defend himself has only reinforced the conclusion that he is ignorant of history and thus unqualified to teach it. He begins:

It is my firm conviction that there is an effort afoot to undermine the very underpinnings of our freedoms. Kearny has been characterized as a backward town inhabited by barbarians. This is unfortunate, because Kearny (the town I love, have chosen to live in and serve) is nothing of the sort. It is made up of intelligent, hard-working, benevolent, tolerant people and it pains me greatly to see it maligned


Then you should have stuck to teaching history. The only reason Kearney is being viewed badly is because your actions brought disrepute on them, and many of the people in that town are supporting those actions rather than supporting the Constitution.

But first let me say this, the words “separation of church and state” cannot be found in our Constitution. The intent of the founders was to limit the government’s encroachment into matters of conscience and religion, not to exclude any discussion of religion from public life.

And the words “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” aren’t in there either, but I bet he teaches those concepts when discussing the Constitution. That’s because those are descriptive phrases for various provisions in the Constitution used by the founders themselves to so describe them; no one in their right mind would argue that those concepts are not in the Constitution. The same is true of the phrase “separation of church and state.” In all three cases, there are many arguments over precisely what they were intended to mean, but no one can reasonably deny that the concepts are there.

The so called “wall of separation” is mentioned only in a letter to an organization of Baptists in Danbury Conn. in which Jefferson uses that phrase to assure them that he will not restrict their religious liberty.

Serious historical ignorance from a man who teaches history. In fact, this phrase appears multiple times, in various forms, in the writings of James Madison as well. And it was originally coined by Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony. He also clearly has not bothered to actually read Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. He did not use that phrase to “assure them he will not restrict their religious liberty”. They wrote to him praising his stand in favor of religious liberty and hoping that his views would filter down to the state level where they were the victims of the Congregationalist religious establishment in that state. Jefferson agrees with them about the importance of disestablishment but notes that the first amendment dealt with Federal action only, so there was nothing he could do about a state establishment.

It is unfortunate that this is the only Jefferson quote on the subject that gets attention in the press. Allow me to share some more. The first group I’d like to share concern Jefferson’s beliefs.

And without even bothering to read the rest of his letter, this much is very predictable: he’s not going to quote the many other things Jefferson said about separation of church and state at all. When he says “on the subject” he means on the general subject of religion and he intends to offer a bunch of quotes from the founding fathers about how great religion is. But that is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. One can be a devout Christian and still favor strict separation of church and state; Roger Williams did, as did many Baptist clergy at the time of the founding. This is an extremely common tactic of the religious right, to change the subject from church/state separation to the utility of religion itself.

“I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush April 21, 1803).

Both irrelevant and completely out of context. Here’s the quote in context and without the ellipses:

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 he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

As the rest of his letter makes clear, Jefferson did not mean by “real Christian” what Paskeiwicz means by it. Not only did he reject the notion that Jesus was divine, he rejected the notion that Jesus had ever claimed to be divine; that was one of the many “myths and fabrications” that he blamed on Paul and the 4 gospel writers. He rejected the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, the miracles and every other supernatural claim about Jesus. But he considered him a great ethical philosopher. If he was alive today and Paskeiwicz knew his views, he would reject Jefferson as an infidel, just as the religious right of his day did.

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781).

Yep, Jefferson said that, but it has precisely nothing to do with his views on separation of church and state. Believing in God does not mean rejecting separation of church and state, nor does it say anything at all about one’s views on whether the government should say anything on the subject. Jefferson made very clear that he rejected all government endorsements of religion; that’s why he refused to issue thanksgiving proclamations and declarations of prayer like his predecessors had.

These next quotes concern Jefferson’s thoughts on the courts. I’m sharing these because they seem to have been prophetic. Jefferson’s worst nightmare has come true! The courts have been used to strip us of our liberty!

More equivocation. Yes, Jefferson opposed judicial review; he lost that argument. The Constitution gave that power to the courts whether Jefferson believed they should have it or not. And this has nothing to do with religious liberty. Mr. Paszkiewicz has the absolute right to religious liberty when he preaches in church; when he acts as a teacher in our public schools, he acts not as an individual but as a government employee. He is not exercising his religious liberty when he uses the classroom to proselytize his students, he is violating the first amendment by using his position as a government employee to push his religious views on children.

If a Muslim teacher did the exact same thing Paszkiewicz did, told his students that they’re going to hell if they don’t worship Allah, Paszkiewicz and those who support him and dishonestly claim that this has something to do with religious liberty would be the first ones gathering the tar and feathers (if not the dynamite and the shotguns) to bring a quick end to that exercise in “religious liberty.” They only call it “religious liberty” when the government endorses their religious views; endorse anyone else’s and they suddenly discover the meaning of the establishment clause. Go figure.

George Washington, the venerated father of our beloved country, also had some interesting thoughts on the subject:”What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ.” (Washington’s speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs May 12, 1779).

Yet another fictional quote.

“It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and humbly to implore his protection and favors.” (Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation Oct. 3, 1789).

And therefore what? Therefore it’s okay for Paskeiwicz to abuse his position to proselytize his students? Again, would he support a Muslim teacher doing the same thing? Hell no, he wouldn’t.

He goes on to offer quotes from Franklin that – again – do not address the issue of separation of church and state at all (one of them is from 1749, when Franlkin was still a Christian; in his autobiography, he describes in detail how he left Calvinism for deism later in life). And then he offers this absurd conclusion:

In closing, with regard to this town being made up of unintelligent barbarians … if that is true, it is only because they share the same thinking as Jefferson, Washington and Franklin!

Incredible, isn’t it? I know of no one who has suggested that Kearney is full of “unintelligent barbarians”, but it is clear that many of them are extremely ignorant of history, including the man they pay to teach them about history. Perhaps if he spent less time preaching and more time teaching, that wouldn’t be the case.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave S.
    January 14, 2007

    Ed writes:

    Both irrelevant and completely out of context. Here’s the quote in context and without the ellipses:

    There were no ellipses in the original “quote” by Paskeiwicz either. This is even more blatant quote-mining than we’ve come to know from your typical Creationists, who are at least honest enough (usually) to put those ellipses in to give the reader a clue something, possibly important context, is missing.

  2. #2 Jillian
    January 14, 2007

    Just as an interesting side note (coming from someone who once lived not too far from Kearny) the locals pronounce it “Carney”. Interestingly enough, this makes Paszkiewicz a “Kearny shill”.

    Because there haven’t been enough bad jokes around here lately.

  3. #3 John Pieret
    January 14, 2007

    (Blatently propagating a line I’ve used elsewhere …)

    It’s time to update Santayana:

    Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat David Barton.

  4. #4 386sx
    January 14, 2007

    There were no ellipses in the original “quote” by Paskeiwicz either.

    That quote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”, is not from a letter to Benjamin Rush as the historian Mr. Paszkiewicz says, but it is from a letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816.

    http://christianparty.net/tjthomson.htm

    I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; 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. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.

    Lol, poor Mr. Benjamin Rush, he’s already got enough letters to worry about!

  5. #5 Dave S.
    January 14, 2007

    That would explain that then. I was wondering how one gets from A to B regardless of where the ellipses were laid.

    The ‘history’ teacher erroneously missattributed his missquote. Thanks 386sx.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    January 14, 2007

    No, the quote, while mangled, does come from a letter to Benjamin Rush, one of the few people to whom Jefferson showed his syllabus on the ethics of Jesus, which later became the Jefferson Bible. You can find that letter at http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl153.htm. The relevant quote:

    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 he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

    He omits much material, without bothering to put ellipses in there. Absolutely appalling for a history teacher, but absolutely standard for the religious right.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 14, 2007

    But first let me say this, the words “separation of church and state” cannot be found in our Constitution.

    Uh huh. And the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible.

  8. #8 386sx
    January 14, 2007

    No, the quote, while mangled, does come from a letter to Benjamin Rush, one of the few people to whom Jefferson showed his syllabus on the ethics of Jesus, which later became the Jefferson Bible.

    “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

    Hmm, that exact phrase can be found in the letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816, but, for example, the word “disciple” and the phrase “that is to say” don’t appear in the letter to Benjamin Rush. It looks to me like some quote miner somewhere along the line had the right (out of context) quote but got the attribution wrong. Maybe I’m confused or something.

  9. #9 Dave S.
    January 14, 2007

    Hmmm…now I’m confused.

    Here’s the relevant portion of the texts from the letters from the U. of Virginia Library….

    To Charles Thomson
    Monticello, January 9, 1816

    I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; 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.

    To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus
    Washington, Apr. 21, 1803

    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 he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

    Now compare these to to the cited “quote”:

    “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

    It looks pretty clear to me that it’s from the Thomson letter and missattributed to the Rush letter, wherein Jefferson makes a similar statement.

    Not that this vindicates this history teacher, so-called. It does explain the lack of ellipses however.

  10. #10 John B
    January 14, 2007

    And therefore what? Therefore it’s okay for Paskeiwicz to abuse his position to proselytize his students? Again, would he support a Muslim teacher doing the same thing? Hell no, he wouldn’t.

    This seems like something that should be so obvious to everyone. And yet it keeps coming up, over and over with the Christians & public school arguments.

    Proof positive of the hypocrisy came with that whole Virignia Public School hand-out from a unitarian universalist Church inviting students to celebrate Yule.

    http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=53250

    The ‘Bigoted Backlash” is described well here:
    http://blog.au.org/2006/12/bigoted_backlas.html

    Anyway, I have a hard time believing someone could seriously entertain the idea that their religion is somehow exempt from the rules they want other religious groups to operate by. It’s such an obvious fair-play issue, I’d feel patronizing explaining it to anyone more than five or six years old.

  11. #11 Alex
    January 15, 2007

    Anyway, I have a hard time believing someone could seriously entertain the idea that their religion is somehow exempt from the rules they want other religious groups to operate by.

    Ah, but if you’ve been paying attention to the recent stuff by and about Nathan Bradfield, you’ll notice that many of these modern antidisestablishmentarians believe that “religion” in the context of the First Amendment really means “any sect of Christianity” (I believe that former Chief Justice Roy Moore made a similar argument). Occasionally, they may make exceptions for Orthodox Jews, but mostly these other “religious groups” don’t qualify as actual “religions” at all – they’re mere “sects” or “faiths” and therefore aren’t entitled to free exercise protection.

    That’s why Ed has to keep quoting Jefferson’s words about all religions being protected; and it’s why Bradfield keeps ignoring those quotations – they don’t support this weird argument.

  12. #12 John B
    January 15, 2007

    I guess it’s easier to see them as all equal when you have no stake in any of them being correct. I’m told it’s one of the downsides of secular society for conservative religious groups, that equality translates into equivalency (the valency here being zero)

  13. #13 Jon Rowe
    January 15, 2007

    What Jefferson meant in his letter to Rush is no mystery. He believed in Jesus’ moral teachings, but rejected as “corruptions” doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Virgin Birth, plenary inspiration of scripture, and others. In other words, to orthodox Christians, Jefferson wasn’t, regardless of whether he labeled himself as such. And it’s simply bizzare that the religious right try to quote Jefferson’s words in this regard as proving something for their side. It doesn’t. If Jefferson had his way, “Christianity” would be gutted of all the doctrines they hold dear.

  14. #14 Jim Lippard
    January 15, 2007

    Is the Washington quotation regarding the Delaware Indians actually fictional? Jon Rowe seems to think otherwise.

  15. #15 Jon Rowe
    January 15, 2007

    It actually was fictional because he didn’t quote it right. The actual quotation is:

    “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention.”

    This was being done in the context of what basically amounted to an “exchange program” with Indian children. He seemed to be telling the Indians to assimilate into our culture. Washington later expressed approval of converting Indians to Christianity and consquently to “civilization.” Almost all of Washington’s quotations where he says something positive about Christianity don’t seem to indicate that he believed the doctrines were true or that people’s souls needed to be saved, but rather that religion had an instrumental or utilitarian effect in people’s lives.

  16. #16 khan
    January 15, 2007

    These distortions of history are all part of a plan:

    http://www.harpers.org/ThroughAGlassDarkly-12838838.html

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