Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Rep. Thad McCotter is co-sponsoring House Resolution 121, which calls on President Obama to declare 2010 “The National Year of the Bible.” Unfortunately, the resolution contains historical inaccuracies that undermine its credibility. For instance, the resolution states:

Whereas shared Biblical beliefs unified the colonists and gave our early leaders the wisdom to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States…

There are several problems with this statement. First, the notion that the colonists had “shared Biblical beliefs” that unified them is inaccurate. In reality, 11 of the 13 colonies at the time of the writing of the Constitution had established churches that denied equal rights not only to non-Christians but to other denominations of Christianity.

Those “shared Biblical beliefs” did not prevent the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, from imprisoning, exiling and sometimes even putting to death Baptists, Quakers and Catholics. Even as late as 1774, with agitation for the revolutionary war in full swing, Massachusetts had at least 18 Baptists in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support a town’s Congregationalist minister.

Likewise in Virginia, the jailing of Baptist ministers as late as 1778 inspired James Madison to fight for the complete separation of church and state. Persecution of Catholics and Quakers was particularly rampant in almost every colony during the founding of this country, those “shared Biblical beliefs” notwithstanding.

Perhaps even more inaccurate is the claim that those “shared Biblical beliefs…gave our early leaders the wisdom to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.” The Declaration of Independence was written primarily by three people: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson wrote the first draft and Adams and Franklin edited it before it was presented to the full Continental Congress.

While all three men shared a strong belief in God, the only shared belief those three held about the Bible was a rejection of much of its content. All three rejected the notion that Jesus was divine, with Jefferson arguing that he had never claimed to be anything but a man, that the men who wrote the New Testament had corrupted his purely human message and turned him into a god.

The conception of God in the Old Testamant, Jefferson said, was “a Being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.” The men who wrote the gospels were “ignorant, unlettered men,” a “band of dupes and imposters” who turned the words of Jesus into “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” Paul, who wrote the epistles that make up the bulk of the New Testament, was to Jefferson “the great Corypheaues, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”

John Adams likewise wrote, in his many letters to Jefferson and others on the subject, that he thought the Bible contained many inaccuracies and errors. Like Jefferson, Adams was a unitarian (not to be confused with Unitarian, as that actual church did not exist at the time), rejecting and even openly mocking the notion that Jesus was divine.

We also know the sources from whom Jefferson derived the ideas found in the Declaration of Independence because he stated them specifically in a letter to Henry Lee in 1825. “All its authority,” Jefferson wrote, “rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.”

We also know from what sources the ideas found in the Constitution are derived because they are spelled out in great detail in the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. In those 85 essays, written to explain and defend the new Constitution to the people of America, the Bible is nowhere mentioned at all. Nor was the Bible ever mentioned as justification for anything during the debates at the constitutional convention in 1787. The intellectual sources for the provisions of that Constitution were found in the same places Jefferson looked to for the ideas in the Declaration, particularly Locke, Sidney and Montesquieu.

We have had officially declared “years of the Bible” before, most recently in 1983. We will likely have them again. But let’s at least be historically accurate when advocating them.