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.