Monday, June 9, 2008

More on "Christian America" as a Social Myth and Historical Standards:

I want to thank historian/blogger Clayton Cramer for getting the word out to his very traditionalist conservative readers on the "unconfirmed quotations" of the Founding Fathers in the primary sources. I noted in my last post I think the kernel of truth that David Barton et al. get at is if you go back one hundred and some odd years ago a lot of folks really did believe in the Christian America myth. Many do today, but they don't write respectable works of history or schoolbooks. This is one of Barton's talking points: School books in the 1800s used to teach ideas like mine but we don't do that anymore and we should.

I've debated a number of these Christian America apologists who really believe that in the 1800s and early 1900s history was more "accurate" and the secularists of the 20th Century have "stolen" history from them. This is a ridiculous claim. History, if anything, is far more accurate in the modern era. History, like medicine, is an evolving science that depends on increasing information. We know much more now, in a purely factual sense, than we did one hundred years ago.

The following anecdote should illustrate just how superior history is now than to the 1800s. For instance, the following is a fragment of a PROPOSED ADDRESS TO CONGRESS that I've seen some folks offer for evidence of Washington's orthodox Christianity (if you read further you see GW mentioning "The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God"). Washington never used this address and as a "fragment," it's an incomplete document. But read the editor's explanation for why this document may only exist in fragmentary form:

Note: This document now exists in fragmentary form only. The first pages are missing. Apparently intended as Washington's inaugural address, or as his first annual message to Congress, it was discarded and not used. Jared Sparks, finding that the document had no official existence, did as be had done in other instances (specifically the Washington "Diaries"), split up the document and presented pages and cuttings of pages to his friends. The complete manuscript was more than 62 pages in length, Washington having numbered each page himself. It was most carefully written and evidently was considered of importance at the time it was inscribed. Some of the widely separated pages bear Sparks's initialed statement that this is Washington's handwriting, and on the margin of page 33 Sparks has written "Washington's handwriting, but not his composition. J. S." Comment is needless. It is extremely doubtful that the complete document can ever be recovered.

Jared Sparks was the President of Harvard and a very distinguished historian and intellectual for his day. But could you imagine a present day historian doing something so utterly incompetent? I suppose historians today do do things that are this bad. But when found out they are rightly disciplined. Clayton Cramer himself helped to bring down an Emory historian for his incompetence or downright fraudulence. I don't think Sparks' behavior caused any controversy because it was probably par for the course in the early 19th Century.

Likewise Parson Weems, a well respected biographer of George Washington in his day, made stories up out of whole-cloth about GW, most famously the cherry tree myth, but also stories about Washington's supposed piety.

We see this pandering to the Christian America social myth with American Vision (and other sources like Townhall and WorldNetDaily) selling a book from 1864 entitled "The Christian Life & Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States." You don't need to buy it from them; you can download it for free.

As could be expected from any history book written in 1864, it's riddled with factual errors. In five minutes of perusing I noticed the book begins with one of those "unconfirmed quotations," and recites Parson Weems' fraudulent account of George Washington's death. This may have been acceptable according to 1864 standards of historiography, but not present day standards. If you read the book with a grain of salt and not judge it by present day standards, it could be a fun and informative read. But if Christian America apologists think this book, standing alone, will win them a factual or historical argument, they are in for a rude awakening.

1 comment:

Brad Hart said...

Amen to everything you said. I've read through a number of late 19th century and early 20th century history books and am amazed by their ridiculous claims. Many of these books provide excuses and justifications for slavery, abuse of Native Americans and women.

I also think that Barton needs to look at a few more boos from that time, because there are a number of them that actually challenge the religious beliefs of our founders. At the beginning of the 20th century, historian Charles A. Beard published a very controversial book entitled, "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States." The book slammed the founders for being motivated purely out of greed. Beard also accused the founders of even being atheist. Though the book was troubling to many of Beard's contemporaries, it proves that not all works of history were pro-Christian as Barton argues.