Monday, January 11, 2010

Peter Marshall and the Texas School Controversy

Since both John Fea and Jonathan Rowe have given their opinions on Rev. Peter Marshall and quasi-historian David Barton's involvement with the reevaluation of Texas school curriculum [see "Texas Controversy Persists and Proper Ways to Understand "Christian Nation"], it seems only fair to let Marshall speak for himself:

My response to Texas Freedom Network's politically motivated, hackneyed and utterly wrong accusation that "Barton, Marshall and the board members who appointed them are pushing a religious agenda in public schools that would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment" is: Nonsense!

Our "agenda" is that the accurate teaching of American history must include the Biblical motivations and worldviews of so many of those who discovered this continent, settled the original colonies, fought for our independence, and created our government.

One tiny but important quibble: Neither I nor David Barton "call for teaching the biblical foundations of a 'Christian America.'" Neither of us uses that phrase because it is confusing and misleading. In my books and talks I simply call for schools and textbooks to teach the Biblical foundations of America."

The paper has offered me the opportunity to write a guest editorial, but I have decided that I didn't want to take the time away from working on the civil war book to compose a 650-word article. In addition to the points in the Times editorial that I addressed there are others. For example:

"The Convention of 1787," writes historian Clinton Rossiter, "was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit."

That's not even remotely true. Rossiter was a respected historian, but he got this one wrong. Most of the delegates were practicing Christians, whose Biblical worldview shaped the thinking that went into the formation of the Constitution. About 40 percent of them were office-holders -- not merely members -- in Bible societies, dedicated to spreading the Word of God. Ben Franklin's famous plea for prayer at the opening of each day's business, even though it failed for lack of finances to pay a chaplain, was warmly received. The spirit of the convention was far more Christian than secular -- many of the delegates, including George Washington, attended a Fourth of July anniversary service at the Calvinist church, where Reverend William Rogers prayed for them. And at the successful conclusion of the convention, future President and chief architect of the Constitution James Madison (who was not normally given to enthusiastic Christian sentiment) wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was in France: "It is impossible to conceive the concord which ultimately prevailed, as less than a miracle." In the Federalist Papers, Madison also stated: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it (the Constitution) the finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the Revolution." Secular is hardly the right word to describe the Constitutional Convention.


Full text available here
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12 comments:

bpabbott said...

Re: "Our "agenda" is that the accurate teaching of American history must include the Biblical motivations and worldviews of so many of those who discovered this continent, settled the original colonies, fought for our independence, and created our government."

I suspect Rev. Peter Marshall does not intend to imply that all motivations inspired by the Christian faith and the associated world views must be included.

As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?
-- John Adams, letter to FA Van der Kamp, December 27, 1816

Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public? Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents.
-- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, December 3, 1813, quoted from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

Cabalistic Christianity, which is Catholic Christianity, and which has prevailed for 1,500 years, has received a mortal wound, of which the monster must finally die. Yet so strong is his constitution, that he may endure for centuries before he expires.
-- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 16, 1814, from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.
-- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 5, 1816

I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!
-- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, from George Seldes, The Great Quotations, also from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

What havoc has been made of books through every century of the Christian era? Where are fifty gospels condemned as spurious by the bull of Pope Gelasius? Where are forty wagon-loads of Hebrew manuscripts burned in France, by order of another pope, because of suspected heresy? Remember the Index Expurgato-rius, the Inquisition, the stake, the axe, the halter, and the guillotine; and, oh! horrible, the rack! This is as bad, if not worse, than a slow fire. Nor should the Lion's Mouth be forgotten. Have you considered that system of holy lies and pious frauds that has raged and triumphed for 1,500 years.
-- John Adams, letter to John Taylor, 1814, quoted by Norman Cousins in In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 106-7, from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.
-- John Adams, "this awful blashpemy" that he refers to is the myth of the Incarnation of Christ, from Ira D Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, quoted from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

Tom, I limited myself to quotes by Adams on purpose ... just to poke fun ;-)

What I wonder is if any of the above quotes quotes would be included in a history lesson sanctioned by Marshall and/or Barton?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think it would upset their stomachs, Ben. Point very well illustrated, and well done.

On the other hand, most arguments in this vein depend almost exclusively on Adams and Jefferson, who dominate discussions like these as though they represent the beliefs of the Founding generation. The former was sincere but a ninny, the other a hypocrite of grand talk and base action.

And most amusingly, in 1800, the nation was forced to choose between the two for president. Oh, and then between Jefferson and the eventual traitor to the republic, Aaron Burr, as it all went down.

And do let us keep in mind that your above John Adams quotes were hushhush confidential, and written after he left public life, getting wasted with Abagail, writing to correspondents who mostly found him annoying.

bpabbott said...

Good qualifications Tom.

I think you are correct. We should avoid the implication that the public, in general, shared the theological positions of the founders ... and avoid implying that all founders shared the theological positions of the few that left an accurate record for us to study.

I think the best we can do is trust our perceptions, or the perceptions of someone living closer to, or during, that time. Unfortunately, perceptions are circumstantial, and not reliable.

In any event, regardless of the theological positions of the many who left no record, I'm of the opinion that inspirations of the primary architects of our nation are much more relevant than that of those who did not directly participate ... at least as far as the founding of our Nation is concerned.

Which is to say, I think we focus on Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Mason, Hamilton, etc, for good reason. But that focus should not result in ignoring all the rest.

Daniel said...

Teaching history is a tricky business, particularly teaching it to an audience that would rather be somewhere else. I'm not sure how you convey an accurate impression in a short time and, at the same time, make it live. Ideally students should have a sense of the culture in which the Founding occurred, but the nature of teaching is likely to mean that most will get a characature, or a best, a sliver of reality.

I have almost no recollections of the history I learned in the first eight grades. Some smattering of Greek mythology is almost it, with only one exception. Blazed in my consciousness is the memory of, in fifth grade, reading a excerpt of Johnathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Reading that, my world was shaken and I never recovered. I barely remember the classroom presentation, and I cannot be sure the excerpt was good pedagogy or simply a lucky bit for one boy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not so fast, Ben. It's a grave error to give historical importance to what these men believed privately, and often after leaving public life.

What provides the greatest clarity about the Founding era is what they kept secret, and why.

bpabbott said...

Tom, your two sentences appear (to me) to be contradicting.

I think the founders inspirations are important. Whether they publicly acknowledged them or kept them private, I don't think important.

I agree entirely with your second sentence.

Regarding their theological opinions that would have been a liability for their well being had they been publicly known ... I think they understood that in their place and time religious liberty was more hope that reality, but they made an effort that led to improvements during their life times.

Of course, the state of religious liberty today is so much greater it is hard to be sure what the founders would think of us.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think they would have privileged monotheism, Ben, making all necessary allowances for all conscientious objectors.

And let's call this "monotheism" by the name the Founders called it, Providence. Usually capital "P."

You can poke through the polytheistic religions of the world, Ben, as John Adams attempted to do, but you won't find "Providence."

Although a good case can me made for a Godless Constitution, I think there's not much case for a Godless Nation.

Religion was accommodated, not "neutralized" [as is argued by Ray Soller on this blog and Michael Newdow in the courts].

And this is the nexus of the discussion of religion and the Founding, I think.

Of the Founders' private beliefs, I'd compare them to what Madison said about the Framers' debates---they might have some academic use, but they carry no authority.

And aside from Jefferson & Adams' post-presidential correspondence, we have only guesses of what Washington and Madison were about, in their heart-of-hearts.

But what we do know is that they spoke of Providence, and as Rev. Peter Marshall pointed out, that religious nut we spit on around here, Madison wrote:

"It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it (the Constitution) the finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the Revolution."

The finger of the Almighty hand.

[Thx for fisking, Ben, as is your wont. Our exchanges clarify the matter.]

bpabbott said...

Tom, great clarification. I agree Providence sums it up nicely.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - Although a good case can me made for a Godless Constitution, I think there's not much case for a Godless Nation.

Stop stealing my thunder.

Ray Soller said...

TVD wrote: Religion was accommodated, not "neutralized" [as is argued by Ray Soller on this blog and Michael Newdow in the courts].

Tom, where have I argued that religion should be "neutralized" in accordance with our national founding principles? (I'd sure like to have unsolicited phone calls neutraliized, but that's another matter;>)

I do like to remind people that outside of the federal courtroom, our government in its first 72 years did not impose legislated god-slogans to help define our common national interest. Even, in the case of the courtroom, an accomodation was readily implemented for the sake of the Quakers, who adhered to anormative religious convictions.

It's only been during my life that government endorsed god-slogans have evolved into a nearly ubiquitous onslaught, and I don't see any accomodation being considered for those who are seeking relief from this miasmic condition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

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