Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Jefferson’s Definition of “Christian”

Yesterday I pointed out false quotations attributed to Washington, Henry, and Madison with respect to their linkage to the Christian faith. Now, that doesn’t mean they weren’t Christians. My only purpose in highlighting those false quotes was to caution us to be careful, and to be sure we are accurate when we show how America was founded on Biblical principles.

I have another example today of how well-meaning Christians can convey a false impression—well, actually it borders on an outright lie. This one relates to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, another signer of the Declaration of Independence, written in 1803 during Jefferson’s presidency, Jefferson explained his religious views. Some Christians have referenced this letter to “prove” that our third president was in fact a Christian. Let me give you the first part of that letter, make a few comments, then provide the rest of the letter, which clarifies his language.

Jefferson wrote to Rush about conversations they had carried on earlier in life:

The Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you that one day or other I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian.

Now, that sounds pretty good to the untrained ear. But notice this: he says he is opposed to the “corruptions of Christianity.” What is meant by that? Jefferson thought that later generations added to the gospel accounts by inserting stories of miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. He liked the “genuine precepts of Jesus,” the moral teachings, but he rejected the essence of the gospel message of the atonement and resurrection.

But doesn’t he say “I am a Christian”? Shouldn’t that be taken at face value? Well, throughout history, and today also, you will find a lot of people claiming identification with Christ who were by no stretch of the imagination real Christians. We can’t simply take Jefferson’s declaration and not investigate further. In fact, all we have to do is finish the paragraph in the letter.

You see, his sentence was incomplete in the quote above. Let me give you the rest of it:

I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

In other words, Jesus never claimed to be anything but a human being. He never claimed to be divinity. He was just a man.

If that’s one’s view of Jesus, stripped of the very nature of God, one doesn’t believe the gospel message, and doesn’t consider Jesus to be the Savior. Jesus’ divinity is so crucial to the entire fabric of the Christian faith, that denial of it is to deny the faith itself. Jefferson was not a Christian. He respected the moral teachings of Jesus, but rejected the main message.

One Christian group that strives to showcase the Biblical origins of America put out a newsletter that used Jefferson’s letter to Rush to prove the Christian faith of this founder. What the group did, though, was inexcusable. It stopped the excerpt from the letter with the phrase “I am a Christian,” thereby omitting the rest of the sentence and the fuller explanation of how Jefferson defined the term “Christian.” No one who names the name of Christ should ever promote this kind of fraud on the public. It demeans the faith and makes the job much harder for those of us who know the truth of America’s Biblical foundations, but who seek to lay out the case on solid grounds.

To mislead in this way is the same as outright lying. As I said already, it is inexcusable. I urge all who read this to be forthright and honest in these matters. That’s God’s way.

Honesty, Integrity, & Spurious Quotations

Those who read this blog regularly know that I believe America had a strong Biblical basis at its founding. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Those of us who believe that, though, need to be careful in passing along quotations we have read in secondary sources to back up our belief. Let me give a few examples of spurious quotations we should avoid using.

George Washington was an Episcopalian who had his own family pew at the Pohick church near his Mount Vernon home. He served as a vestryman. I’ve read minutes of the vestry that show he even purchased the communion plates for the church. There are also a number of solid quotes that indicate his faith was genuine. There is one, however, that always comes to the forefront, but has no original source. He is often quoted as saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world [other sources say “a nation”] without God and the Bible.” Just the fact that there is a discrepancy in the exact wording should be a tipoff that something is amiss. While this is a wonderful statement, unfortunately, it cannot be traced back to anything Washington either spoke or wrote.

Then there’s this supposed quote from Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was not founded by religionists but by Christians. . . not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As it turns out, this is actually a statement from the author of an article about Henry, and wrongly attributed to the Virginian of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame.

James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, allegedly commented, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” This one fooled me for some time as it was just so perfect for the principle of self-government that I teach in class. I even used it in my book about Biblical principles and civil government until I had to face the reality that this statement doesn’t appear anywhere in Madison’s writings. Consequently, I removed the quote when it came time for a second edition.

We need to be honest. When I authored my book on the Clinton impeachment, I said the following in its preface:

My presuppositions are first and foremost Biblical in orientation. The grid through which I see the world—my basic worldview—is grounded upon Biblical principles. These principles form the basis for my values, my decisions, and my analysis of right and wrong. These principles also inform my understanding of the role of civil government, placing me on the conservative side of the political spectrum. . . .

But I am also an academic. The training I receive in academia requires that I follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I must be honest and cannot, in good conscience, misrepresent the facts. Properly understood, there is no dichotomy here. My Christianity and my academic training require the same standard. Academic integrity rests upon moral integrity, which I believe flows from Biblical faith. Consequently, when I undertake any research and writing project, I must be true to that faith.

That is my practice, and that is why I thought it important to shed some light on those false quotations. We undermine our position when we latch on to falsehoods to prove a point.

I have another one I want to highlight tomorrow. This one is actually a genuine quote, but it has been twisted out of context. It involves Thomas Jefferson.

See you back here tomorrow?

Bitter Division & Truth-Telling

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the political arena has become bitterly divided. As a historian, let me first say that this is not unique in American history. There have always been periods of strong division: the 1790s, the Jacksonian era, the entire 1850s through the Civil War, the beginnings of the Cold War in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Vietnam and Watergate. And for those who think everyone loved Ronald Reagan [which is what you might surmise from current rhetoric], he was regularly accused of being a warmonger and a dastardly evil fellow who couldn’t wait to starve schoolchildren and throw old people out on the street.

No, what we’re experiencing is not unique. What is unique, though, is that I believe we are at a tipping point as a nation. We are now more divided culturally than at any point in our history, even including the Civil War. During that era, both North and South at least professed allegiance to Christian faith; both said they were fighting to preserve a way of life based on that faith [however inconsistent some of that way of life was to actual Biblical belief]. Today, we are split between Christian and secular. Our future as a nation depends on which vision becomes dominant.

These differing visions naturally play out in politics. If you are an orthodox Christian who holds to time-tested moral underpinnings for a society, you align with the political party that has the closest connection to those beliefs. Right now, that’s the Republican party. Democrats, on the other hand, while they can be vaguely “spiritual,” and can draw some support from Christians who don’t really understand the Biblical limitations on the authority of civil government, are generally further removed from basic Biblical morality, particularly on issues of sanctity of life, sexuality, and marriage and family.

In this blog, I have tried hard to point to the Biblical way as the solution for our societal problems. In so doing, I have to demonstrate the false premises of the opposing vision. My goal has been to do so in a Christian manner. Some people may think that to be a Christian, one can never criticize or judge. I disagree. Christians have a God-imposed responsibility to showcase the errors in thinking and policy that lead a society down a wayward path. Therefore, I do not apologize for attempting to reveal false concepts of governing.

I have been critical of President Obama because I firmly believe that his worldview, and the policies that emanate from that worldview, are dangerous. I also use cartoons to point out the hypocrisy and foibles of the “other side.” All of that is perfectly legitimate. You can search this blog, and I trust you will never find anything that is simply name-calling or an attempt to misrepresent another’s beliefs. I try to be as straightforward and honest as possible.

That’s not the case with some of the political rhetoric you hear nowadays. Might I use a couple of cartoons to illustrate?

The elderly lady on the right represents the Tea Party movement, which has focused on the out-of-control spending of the government. Yet what are these people being called currently? The cartoon makes the point and shows the hypocrisy involved. Who is really responsible for undermining the economy?

Those of us on the “Right” are constantly bombarded with accusations:

Yet when we use the “S” word, we are the ones who are portrayed as extremists. No, the use of “socialism” to describe what Democrats are doing is simply an accurate observation.

I will continue to offer truth-telling because I believe the fate of this nation depends upon the faithfulness of the few who are willing to tell the truth.

Principles & Honor

I spoke last evening at the Winter Haven, Florida, 9/12 Project meeting. For those who are unfamiliar with the organization, it began after the 2008 elections with the expressed purpose of educating citizens on the kinds of principles and values that formed the bedrock of our nation and our government. This organization is performing a valuable public service, and I heartily endorse its goals. They are the same goals I have maintained throughout my twenty-two years of teaching at universities. We are an ignorant people, by and large, and it’s time we once again grasped the essence of the republic that was created over two hundred years ago.

I had spoken to this 9/12 group two times previously. The first time I gave an overview of progressivism and how it has led us astray from constitutionalism; the second time was an examination of the principles that made Ronald Reagan’s presidency successful. Last night I focused on the Clinton impeachment of more than a decade ago, and what we should learn from that sad episode. Drawing from the book I wrote back in 2001, Mission: Impeachable–The House Managers and the Historic Impeachment of President Clinton, I concentrated on the reasons the House Managers gave for prosecuting the president at that time. In the face of public opinion polls that showed 67% of the electorate didn’t want Clinton removed from office, and in the teeth of a Republican-dominated Senate that had no stomach for this endeavor, these House Managers risked the wrath of both to make the case for removal.

Why did they do it?

I interviewed all thirteen of those House Managers and found a fairly consistent rationale. They were concerned primarily about the importance of upholding the rule of law in our society. What does that mean? Simply that no one, not even a president, can set himself up as above the law. Everyone must be held accountable for their actions.

Intertwined with that concern were two others: constitutionality [the need for checks and balances in the government] and the character issue, given how Clinton disgraced the high office he held. Many of those congressmen I interviewed were up front with their Christian convictions, which provided the strength to go forward and do what was right even when the public opposed them.

My conclusion in the book is that the Managers acted on principle and deserve to be honored for their attempt. As one of them stated, we need to put principle above expediency, honor above incumbency. The application for our day, a decade later, is obvious.

I thank the 9/12 group for giving me the opportunity to share. I trust I helped fulfill the goals of the organization. May they continue to thrive and attract others to the cause.

Principle & Compromise: Not Always at Odds

I’ve called this blog Pondering Principles because I’m dedicated to laying a principled foundation for whatever subject I scrutinize. I also want to see principles—Biblical principles—become the basis for all public policy. Those of us oriented toward principles have a natural aversion to compromise; we have a tendency to see all compromise as a step backward. I would like to argue that is not the case.

Let’s start historically and work our way to present-day issues.

At the Constitutional Convention, a major disagreement erupted between states with lesser populations and those with greater. The less-populated states desired representation in the Congress to be based on equality; they wanted an equal vote for all states. Their concern was they would be outvoted on everything if population became the cornerstone of representation. Larger states naturally felt the opposite: since they had the most people, they should have a greater say in legislation. Who was correct? I think both had valid points. Their concerns were genuine and needed to be addressed. The convention came up with a compromise that divided the Congress into two houses, one based on population, the other on equality.

That is an example of an excellent compromise because it didn’t sacrifice principle on either side. Without that compromise, there would have been no Constitution. The nation might have split into three or four warring factions, with all the misery that would have been connected with such a division.

Then there’s the example of New York state during the governorship of John Jay at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jay, an evangelical Christian, had often worked for the abolition of slavery in his state. Now, as governor, he had the opportunity to sign into law a gradual emancipation bill. This bill did not free all slaves immediately; rather, it laid out a plan that would eventually eliminate slavery in the next generation. As someone who believed slavery was contrary to God’s purposes, should Jay have signed such a bill? He had no hesitation in doing so. Why? Because it set slavery on the course of extinction in New York. Long before the Civil War decided that issue nationally, New York had resolved it gradually.

Was Jay disobeying God in signing that bill? I believe just the opposite. His was a principled position. The compromise of gradual abolition achieved the long-term goal of his principle—getting rid of slavery once and for all. The new law made a step in the right direction. Therefore, I consider his action to have been consistent with his principles. Not to have signed it meant the perpetuation of the slavery institution, not its demise.

Now let’s bring this up to date. Let me offer two more examples.

First, let’s look at the issue of abortion. I firmly believe that the taking of an innocent human life is immoral. It is opposed to God’s moral law. My principled position is that all abortions should be outlawed. What if, as a legislator, I were faced with a decision on a particular bill that would eliminate 95% of all abortions in America? Should I vote for it? If I were president, should I sign it into law?

There are some who would say no. Why? They consider it a compromise of principle. Any law that doesn’t eliminate all abortions is less than what God requires. Consequently, support for a proposed law that would take care of “only” 95% of them would be a sin.

Again, I disagree—vehemently. If I have the opportunity to save 95% [or even 10% or 50%] of all babies who would otherwise have their lives snuffed out arbitrarily, I must take that opportunity. I would be advancing the principle in which I believe. By supporting such a measure, I am moving my society closer to God’s purposes. If we take an all-or-nothing approach, I believe we are deceiving ourselves in believing we are standing on principle. I would call it stubborn foolishness instead.

How about the current debt debate? I am opposed to raising the debt ceiling. I am opposed to raising taxes in any way that will harm those who provide jobs for others. I wholeheartedly seek spending cuts. Now, do I hold out for everything I want or is there a way to advance what I believe is principled even while compromising temporarily?

My Tea Party credentials are impeccable, by the way. I just want to say that up front before I continue.

One thing that all principled conservatives have to recognize is that in politics you don’t always get everything you want immediately. Last November’s election was wonderful, but those who believe as I do only control one house of Congress and the president has veto power. Consequently, I cannot reasonably expect to get it all right now, no matter how much I desire that.

So I push for as much as possible. If an agreement is reached, for instance, that raises the debt ceiling, yet also includes “real” spending cuts, a cap on future spending, no increase in taxes, and at least a vote on a balanced budget amendment, why would I not support this? Enacting a law like this would lead us further on the path toward a principled and sane tax-and-spend framework.

Here’s how I summarize it: a compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

I wish I could convince everyone of the wisdom of this perspective, but I’ll settle for whoever has ears to hear.

A Nonjudgmental Society?

In the wake of the Casey Anthony verdicts, I’ve heard a couple of comments that deserve a response. The first is that it’s rather ironic that the mainstream media was so exercised over the death of Caylee Anthony but that if Casey had aborted her, they would have treated her as a courageous young woman making a “difficult choice.” Spot on.

The second comment is that the reasoning of the jury indicates that we’re a society that no longer feels comfortable “judging” people. We’re afraid of being tabbed judgmental. This affects evangelicals as well, who often resort to the “judge not lest you be judged” mantra. I’ll come back to that later.

I don’t know for sure if the nonjudgmental mentality affected this particular jury. However, I can fully agree that as a society we have opted far too much for what we call tolerance. In the name of tolerance, we have tolerated abominations. How did we come to this place?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, as our elites shed belief in absolute truth based on a Biblical worldview, they substituted new ways of explaining man and his actions. For a while, behaviorism was all the rage. This school of thought posited that man is just a higher form of animal; he is a product of his environment, lacking real free will; consequently, he can be manipulated by stimulus-response techniques just like lab rats or Pavlov’s dogs.

One behaviorist, Dr. John Watson, even claimed that children’s brains were blank sheets ready to be written upon, and that if given a number of infants, he could manipulate their environment sufficiently to turn them into whatever type of person he wished. The bottom line with behaviorism is that man is really not responsible for his actions—his environment determines what he will be. Therefore, there is no such thing as sin or genuine personal accountability for one’s actions.

As behaviorism’s influence waned, Freudian explanations came to the forefront. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that the key to man’s behavior could be found in the subconscious [or unconscious]. Hidden deep within each person are urges that developed as a result of traumas at an early age. One might do horrendous things but be completely unaware of the reason for those actions. Instead of the environment, Freud tagged the subconscious as the determiner of all we do. Our unconscious wishes originate in childhood, and they are largely sexual in nature.

Freudian psychology heavily influenced two arenas in our society: childrearing and criminal justice. Parents were told they are the problem; they create neuroses and psychoses in their children by demanding too much of them. Instead they should allow their children to follow their own desires. This led to a permissive-parenting mania that I think helped create the chaos of the 1960s.

In criminal justice, we were informed that criminals were not really evil, but merely victims of society and its pressures. We shouldn’t punish them, but focus instead on rehabilitation. One Freudian psychologist, William White, famously said that if you enter a room and find a man dead on the floor and another man standing over him with a gun that has just been fired, the most surprised person in the entire room is the man with the gun. He was not truly responsible for his actions.

As with behaviorism, the bottom line is that there’s always someone or something else to blame.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a time period where we nearly lost our collective minds, Rogerian psychology began to dominate. Formulated by Carl Rogers, and aided and abetted by Abraham Maslow, we were taught that we needed to achieve our full potential as human beings, and that nothing should stand in our way of achieving that goal. For instance, if a spouse is impeding your desires, put him or her aside and follow your own star. Essentially, they created a cult of self in which you become your own god. There is actually a lot of Eastern philosophy incorporated into this movement. The goal now was to meet one’s own needs before thinking of anyone else—supreme selfishness most often couched in the nice-sounding word “self-esteem.” Great. Now we created a generation that believed it had a license to do whatever it pleased, and it was “wrong” to stop them from “doing their own thing.”

As a result, we developed a philosophy of victimhood based on utter selfishness. What a glorious combination. Perhaps that’s what we have witnessed in the Casey Anthony mega-event.

Now let me briefly return to that so-called Scriptural admonition to be nonjudgmental. Here’s the text in context, found in Matthew 7:1-5:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured out to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck our of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Yes, there is a warning against improper judgment, but not against judgment itself. The admonition is that we are not to be hypocritical when we judge. We have to make sure first that we’re not just as guilty, but once we have taken care of that, we are told to go ahead and take the “speck” out of our brother’s eye as well. Therefore, this is not a passage saying we are never to judge; in fact, there are plenty of other scriptures telling us to do so explicitly.

Have we, as a society, imbibed false notions of personal accountability and judgment? You be the judge. Don’t worry—you can do that.

Speaking Boldly about Ultimate Truth

I’ve been reading through the book of Isaiah recently. It’s poignant in so many ways. It has provided encouragement to speak boldly about ultimate truth. Most blogs that focus on politics and government don’t delve into ultimate truth, but merely comment on events from a distinct political perspective. My mission from God [that’s not boasting, by the way; all Christians have a mission, and all nonchristians have one waiting for them if they submit their lives to Him] is to place current events in the framework of Biblical principles and in the light of eternity.

In chapter 51, these words stood out to me:

Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants will die in like manner. But My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not wane.

We live our lives as if what we see around us will go on indefinitely. That’s not the case. While what transpires on this earth is important, it’s primarily the proving ground for eternity. Consequently, what should be my outlook? The chapter continues:

Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, a people in whose heart is My law; do not fear the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them like a garment, and the grub will eat them like wool. But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation to all generations.

There have been times that I have not spoken what the Lord has placed in my heart for fear of what others will say. I don’t like to be reproached any more than you do. When it comes to matters political, economic, or whatever, it’s often easier to pull back and avoid confrontation. Why should I be the sore thumb sticking up, declaring against all that modern man believes, that homosexuality is a sin? Why continue to point out deviations from sound Biblical economic theory and the rule of law under constitutionalism? So few care anymore. Why not be quiet and at peace?

Then more words from this chapter stand out and strengthen my resolve:

I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies and of the son of man who is made like grass, that you have forgotten the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth?

As a historian, I’ve studied many great individuals from the past. But who has accounted them “great”? Was Alexander the Great really great or a self-centered, bloodthirsty tyrant? By the way, he’s dead now, in case you hadn’t noticed. The same can be said of all the Roman emperors, every pope from the Middle Ages who thought he was Christ’s vicar on earth, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or any other despot you wish to name. Some American presidents who thought they were God’s personal messengers with a “brand new message” have learned otherwise since their deaths [Woodrow Wilson comes to mind].

All those who hold high positions today will one day have to stand before the One who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth. Many surprises await. Jesus made it clear:

Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last. [Luke 13:30]

Thank you, Lord, for the reminder to be humble, to speak Your truths, and to remember what really matters.