Friday, April 23, 2010

Stone on the Texas Education Controversy

I missed this last month when he wrote it. A distinguished professor of law at University of Chicago, Stone is, like it or not, one of the most important law professors in the nation if not the world.

A taste:

... [A] coterie of Christian evangelicals ... are attempting to infiltrate our educational system in order to brainwash the youth of America. They are in Texas.

For reasons peculiar to the textbook industry and the Texas educational system, the Texas Board of Education has enormous influence on the content of textbooks used throughout the United States. Conservatives and Christian evangelicals have taken over the Texas Board of Education and they are right now in the process of rewriting the American history our children will learn.

Among the propositions the Texas Board of Education is attempting to impose upon the next generation of Americans is that the United States was founded as "a Christian nation." What follows from this, of course, is that our Constitution and laws must be understood through the prism of this perspective. Although evangelicals have been pushing this line for two centuries, it is simply, factually, and historically false. But the members of the Texas Board of Education, who are not themselves historians, nonetheless persist in this effort to propagandize the youth of America. This is dangerous. It must be contested.

Christianity played a central role in the promulgation of early colonial legal codes. The Bible was the rock and foundation of early colonial law, and the Puritans, in particular, injected a fierce religious fervor into their laws. In 1636, for example, only sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they adopted the "judicials of Moses," which provided that any person "shall be put to death" who "shall have or worship any other God, but the Lord God." Similarly, the 1656 "Lawes of Government" of New Haven colony expressly declared that "the Supreme power of making Lawes belongs to God only" and that "Civill courts are the Ministers of God."

By the late seventeenth century, however, the strict religious foundations of colonial law had crumbled. With the influx of large numbers of immigrants from widely diverse religious, ethnic and social backgrounds, the old Puritan beliefs and institutions faded, and as the new Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, the "pursuit of happiness," and the power of reason spread through the New World, traditional sources of authority were increasingly called into question.

With fresh energy and bold new ideas, eighteenth-century Americans sought to achieve a profound transformation in their society, their government, their politics, and their religion. The great American experiment was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment. In an Enlightened Age, -- an age dedicated to reason rather than revelation -- even the authority of Christianity was open to challenge.

The Framers of the American system of government were often quite critical of what they saw as Christianity's excesses and superstitions. They fervently believed that people should be free to seek truth through the use of reason and they concluded that a secular state, establishing no religion but tolerating all, best served that end.

Unlike the later French Revolution, the American Revolution was not a revolution against Christianity itself. But as men of the Enlightenment, most of the Framers did not put much stock in traditional Christianity. As broad-minded intellectuals and skeptics, they viewed much of religious doctrine as divisive, dangerous and irrational, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of conventional Christianity.



Pinky said...

Thanks for that interesting bit from a distinguished source.
Please note his statement, The great American experiment was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment.

Brad Hart said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

But as men of the Enlightenment, most of the Framers did not put much stock in traditional Christianity. As broad-minded intellectuals and skeptics, they viewed much of religious doctrine as divisive, dangerous and irrational, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of conventional Christianity.

Oh? Even if we ignore the rest of the Framers like Roger Sherman, even of the top 3, Madison, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, who may have all been "Unitarian Christians," such hostility is simply not on the record.

At what point is Dr. Stone going to be put through the same mill as David Barton?

Brad Hart said...

This is another example (IMO) of how both groups go beyond the mark and change history into politics. Surely there are many Christian conservatives who push this "Christian Nation" crap way too far. I have vehemently voiced my opposition to such morons and will continue to do so.

But I think Prof. Stone may be guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater as well on this one. Yes, there are stupid people in Texas trying to do stupid stuff with history, but not everyone is that hard core. Yes, the founders did criticize organized religion from time to time but Stone is wrong in insinuating that this means the founding was primarily based on secular ideals.

I have been studying Mandarin Chinese as of late (it's really kicking my ass...super hard language). In the course of my studies of the language, history and culture I was stunned to discover how much Buddhism and Confucianism helped to shape China's early heritage and government. Of course, when Mao came around things changed because he removed a lot of the "Buddhist Nation" (not that China was "founded as a Buddhist nation) stuff from schools and public life. It's only been since recent that the Chinese public has endeavored to uncover such roots.

Now, I am not trying to pass myself off as an expert on Chinese history (far from it) nor am I suggesting that Prof. Brown or the hard-core Christian nuts are trying to pull a Mao. I'm just saying let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Religion is a cool aspect of national heritage, so long as it is kept in perspective. And recognizing it as such does not therefore mean that we MUST embrace it now or in the same fashion. But we would be historically malicious to establish any one-sided view of this nation's founding.

As we have said many times here at American Creation, this really is an issue where the middle ground has been lost...and it's the middle ground where the truth really rests.

secular square said...

Aside from T. Paine, can anyone else think of another founder who challenged PUBLICLY the dogmas of conventional Christianity? I can't

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly. And when Paine published Age of Reason after the Founding [1794-5], he became a pariah.

And for all his post-presidential "heresies" in his private letters, the public John Adams was the one who proclaimed the "Redeemer of the World" and the "Holy Spirit" in his thanksgiving proclamation.

And Stone, in proclaiming the Founders to be "men of the Enlightenment," tries to tiptoe around the fact that the men of the French Revolution were also "men of the Enlightenment."

Clearly, not all "Enlightenments" are created equal, and the term can quickly get soggier than any notion of "Christian."

Indeed, Paine claimed he traveled to Revolutionary France to save them from atheism! Irony of ironies...

[As noted in other discussions, Stone has a strong point vs. the Texas crowd in that the fading of Puritanism by the time of the Founding weakens building any "Christian nation" thesis on the Puritans' vision of a "covenant." It's not that Stone's completely wrong, but indeed, neither is David Barton. The question is, who's less wrong?]

Pinky said...

I'm wondering precisely what it is in the Stone article that causes the reactions I'm reading here.

Ray Soller said...

I agree that Professor Geoffrey R. Stone has presented something of a stilted point of view, which should be scrutinized on par with any other historical commentator who describes our American religious heritage.

I'm not a particular fan of Gary DeMar, but he's written a rebuttal piece, Historical Revisionism: An Attempt to Rewrite American's Christian History, which is a response to Stone's article, Romney's Founders. As one might guess, Stone used Romney's 'Faith in America' Address as delivered back on December 6, 2007 for his subject matter, where Stone's criticism of Romney's speech parallels his criticism of the Texas Board of Education. (Got all that?)

DeMar presented two arguments, which I feel are worth considering: 1) emphacizing the description contained within The Treaty of Tripoli declaring that "the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" is less significant than it might sound as when it is cited by those who skip over the fact that the United States was not part of the Christian Crusades into the Holy Land; and 2) the scripture referring to what's proper to "render unto Caesar" must be interpreted, as Thomas Paine pointed out, in the historical context where the people of Israel considered the "King of Israel" to be their "proper sovereign."

Brad Hart said...

I don't think it matters that virtually no founder PUBLICLY made any anti-Christian declarations. I'm willing to guess that more of them would have, had it not equated to political suicide. Clearly many held less-than-favorable views towards religion but kept their mouths shut because it was the politically prudent thing to do.

Again, let's not read too much into things here. The middle ground people, the middle ground.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm willing to guess that more of them would have, had it not equated to political suicide.

We have far more Founders to poke through than Jefferson, at least. Any case one way or th'other can surely be made without him.

Brad Hart said...

Who said anything about Jefferson? There's plenty of founders to go either way on this, hence the constant seesawing back and forth from both sides. All I suggest is that we dispense (both sides) with throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Pinky said...

I think we can pretty much agree that there is an ongoing gladitorial effort to force the idea that America was founded on Biblical if not outright Christian principles.
Advocates go to great lengths to prove their claims.
So, much so is this true that when a person of some other persuasion comes up with almost any evidence expressing an opposing view, there almost always is a popup of opposition to that person as in the present reaction to Stone's comments. Does going against a person like Stone make his opposition correct?

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