Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More Falsehoods in NCBCPS Curriculum

Chris Rodda is doing an exceptional job of documenting the many false claims and wild exaggerations in the NCBCPS Bible curriculum. Her latest post exposes the highly dishonest distortion of the findings in a 1984 article by historian Donald Lutz about the influence of the Bible on public (not government) documents during the founding era. If there is one recurring theme in culture war contexts it is the willingness of our opponents, whether creationists or Christian Nation advocates, to completely distort the work of legitimate scholars, presumably counting on their followers’ ignorance to get away with it. Thankfully, Rodda is taking the time to actually check original documents against their claims about them; the results are clear.

Lutz’ study was of documents with explicit content regarding political theory printed for public consumption – books, newspaper articles, pamphlets, etc – between 1760 and 1805. His goal was to determine the primary sources for the founding premises of the nation, and Christian Nation apologists love to cite one particular chart in the study that showed that 34% of those documents contained references to Biblical concepts. But as Rodda points out, this is highly misleading and ignores the primary source of such references.

Here’s how the NCBCPS curriculum portrays the results of that study:

As noted above, a frequently cited university study, (i.e., Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review 78 (1984), pp. 189-197), concluded that the Founders cited the Bible four times more often than either Montesquieu or Blackstone, and twelve times more often than John Locke. In fact, the study of 15,000 original documents concluded that biblical references accounted for 34 percent of the direct quotes in the political writings of the Founding Era.

Rodda points out the many false claims in this one paragraph. First, and most obviously, the study was not of documents written by “the Founders” (though some of them were, of course); the study was of documents printed for public consumption that had explicit political content relating to the foundations of government. Second, the study was not of 15,000 documents; that was the sample Lutz began with, but he ended up including only 916 documents in his study. Nor did the study count “direct quotes”. But most importantly, it ignores Lutz’ own explanation of where the bulk of the Biblical citations came from. Lutz wrote in this study:

…From Table 1 we can see that the biblical tradition is most prominent among the citations. Anyone familiar with the literature will know that most of these citations come from sermons reprinted as pamphlets; hundreds of sermons were reprinted during the era, amounting to at least 10% of all pamphlets published. These reprinted sermons accounted for almost three-fourths of the biblical citations…

Thus, 3/4 of the references to the Bible came not from the founding fathers at all but from ministers preaching about politics. More importantly, they ignore another major conclusion of Lutz’ study, that when you actually do limit the study to those documents written by the founders themselves during the years the Constitution was being written and ratified, the influence of the Bible all but disappears. Rodda writes:

Of all the findings in Lutz’s study ignored by Barton and the NCBCPS, however, none are as important as those found in the section of his article entitled “The Pattern of Citations from 1787 to 1788.” As seen in the earlier chart, Lutz broke down the number of citations by decade. In addition to this, he singled out the writings from 1787 and 1788, and then further separated these writings into those written by Federalists and those by Anti-federalists. Lutz found few biblical citations during these two years, and, very interestingly, not a single one in any of the Federalist writings. The following is from what Lutz wrote about this two year period in which the Constitution was written and debated in the press.

The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.

In other words, those who wrote and advocated the passage of the Constitution (the Federalists) did not refer to the Bible at all in explaining or supporting the provisions it contained. Those who opposed the passage of the Constitution (the anti-Federalists), like Patrick Henry, were the only ones citing the Bible and they did so in opposition to its passage.

Indeed, you will not find in the Federalist papers – the series of essays written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay to explain and defend the various provisions in the Constitution – a single reference to the Bible or to Christianity. Surely if the Constitution was based on “Biblical principles” those who wrote it would have said so in their attempts to explain to a predominately Christian public why they should vote for ratification of that document. The reality is that Lutz’ study argues strongly against the argument they’re making.

You might also want to take a look at Rodda’s previous post on what the NCBCPS curriculum has to say about the alleged influence of the ten commandments on American law. Predictably, more false claims and non-sequiturs abound. The curriculum attempts to show such influence by citing laws from the state of Kentucky (which wasn’t even a state when the Constitution was ratified) that, they claim, are based upon the ten commandments. To call their analysis superficial would be far too kind:

Needless to say, some of the comparisons are pretty big stretches. Pornography laws are a prohibition of making a “graven image;” the acknowledgement of God in the state constitution’s preamble is an example of “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me;” the fee for a minor’s marriage application is an example of “Honor thy father and thy mother;” etc.

Rodda reprints the entire list and you will laugh out loud. The prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s house, they claim, is the basis for laws against criminal conspiracy. Their credulity seems to know no bounds.

Comments

  1. #1 Alieaday
    April 19, 2007

    The thinking of so many of the christian right seems to be when the facts don’t back up your position, just lie about it.

    An act that appears rather un-christian for these self professed christians.

  2. #2 Will E.
    April 19, 2007

    They are lying to save our Jesus-denying souls. That is perfectly acceptable. Paul says something about it in the New Testament, but damn if I can’t remember where.

  3. #3 Bruce Wilson
    April 19, 2007

    Ed – I don’t know if you’ve made this point before or not, but it’s my observation that lies from creationists or “Christian nation” advocates tend to be perpetrated at such a level of complexity that only specialists, such as Chris Rodda, can demonstrate the deceptions involved.

    Now, I wouldn’t want to propose that as a blanket statement; I’m an advocate for more science education in American schools because I think a greater level of scientific literacy could help deter some of the “liars for Jesus” you and Chris Rodda specialize in debunking.

    But, I don’t want to put all of the onus on average Americans because, in many cases, it can take more time than most people have to penetrate the multiple levels of deception involved in Creationist argumentation or Christian historical revisionism.

    I don’t want to let professionals off the hook though ; for decades, scientists and historians let Creationist dogma and revisionist versions of American history get their hooks into popular American culture.

    The end result is that fake history – according to the National Council On Bible Curriculum in Public Schools ( NCBCPS ) tally of how many schools its curriculum is used in – now gets taught in hundreds of American school districts nationwide.

    Liars abound always, and I feel it’s the responsibility of those who know better to rebut their lies before those become dogma. A whole generation of American historians walked away from the task of rebutting Barton et. al, and now it falls to a few – Chris Rodda, Rob Boston, Frederick Clarkson, and a few others (you’re doing your part here on this blog), to pick up all of that professional slack.

    It’s absurd, annoying, and of course crucial, work.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    April 19, 2007

    Bruce Wilson wrote:

    I don’t know if you’ve made this point before or not, but it’s my observation that lies from creationists or “Christian nation” advocates tend to be perpetrated at such a level of complexity that only specialists, such as Chris Rodda, can demonstrate the deceptions involved.

    I think this is true, which is why I’m not inclined to let those who perpetuate such lies off the hook based on sincerity. They may be sincere in the sense that they are deceiving themselves as much as their followers, but on some level they have to know they’re peddling nonsense. A guy like Wiker, for example, simply has to know that his arguments about Darwin and Hitler are ignoring an equally compelling connection between Christianity and Hitler, particularly his exploitation of the brutal anti-semitism of Martin Luther in German culture. That doesn’t mean that Christianity led to Hitler (I don’t believe it did), but it does bleed his arguments about a connection between Darwin and Hitler of all their rhetorical power. He is being dishonest by omission and he simply has to know that. He’s cleverly telling only one small part of the story knowing that his target audience doesn’t know the rest of the story and isn’t likely to look it up.

    There are lots of other examples. Paul Nelson’s outrageous lie about Keith Miller’s position, which I exposed on this blog a year ago, is another example. All of his protests to the contrary, he simply had to know that he was lying and misrepresenting Keith’s position. He’s just too intelligent a guy not to see it. But again, his audience isn’t going to catch him at it. Even if it exposed as a lie, as this one was, his audience isn’t going to read my blog and find out about it. These are safe lies.

  5. #5 Jon Rowe
    April 19, 2007

    Thanks. That’s what I thought. Lutz’s study is one of the Christian Nation talking points that I’ve often seen bizzarely quoted out of context. I’ve always wanted to get an original copy of it and probably will do so eventually.

  6. #6 Skemono
    April 19, 2007

    Mr. Rowe, I could send you a PDF of the article if you wanted?

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    April 19, 2007

    Skemono-

    Please send one to me. I’ll forward it to Jon.

  8. #8 Jon Rowe
    April 19, 2007

    Yes. I’d love that!

  9. #9 Bill Poser
    April 19, 2007

    I’d like to read it too. Copyright permitting, perhaps you could post it for anyone to download.

  10. #10 Skemono
    April 20, 2007

    Okay, just sent it to Ed.

    Probably shouldn’t post it, though. Sorry, Mr. Poser.

  11. #11 Bill Poser
    April 20, 2007

    Skemono,

    No problem. Actually, I had missed the reference above. I got it from the library myself.