Barton & Jefferson (Continued & Concluded)

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the controversy over Thomas Nelson ceasing publication of David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies. My aim was to offer a balanced perspective: I appreciate Barton’s ultimate goal of restoring the knowledge of our nation’s Biblical heritage, yet I take issue with him over trying to force someone like Jefferson into the Christian mold. From my own study of the Founding era and of Jefferson himself, I cannot subscribe to the view that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian.

Barton has written a response at his Wallbuilders site to some of the critiques that others have leveled at him. I read his response, and I now have a response to that. Without going into all the details he presents, I will focus on two of his points.

First, Barton takes aim at academic elites who think they are the absolute experts with respect to historical knowledge and proper understanding of primary documents. I have a lot of sympathy with this critique, but a few qualms as well. After successfully navigating through a doctoral program myself, I can say with complete confidence that having letters such as “p,” “h,” and “d” after one’s name does not confer omniscience. There also is a great temptation to believe you are now in a select fraternity of the privileged; there’s almost a gnostic “special knowledge” quality to this temptation. And yes, there are some professional historians with an agenda who want to rip out all the vast evidence of the Biblical underpinnings of American society and government. But one must be careful not to paint all those with history doctorates with that broad stroke.

After what I wrote on Friday, some may view me as part of that fraternity. Well, that would be almost laughable. I’ve spent most of my post-doctoral existence critiquing that very fraternity as a close-knit group of thinkers and writers who think with and write to one another. Very few of them write a book that the general public is aware of. My desire has always been to provide well-documented, scholarly writing that is geared more toward a general audience. When I penned my doctoral dissertation on Noah Webster, for instance, I determined to break from dissertationese and write in a fashion that could be understood and appreciated by a wider audience than merely my dissertation committee.

So, yes, I agree with Barton that a fraternity of the elite does exist; however, many of his critics do not belong to that fraternity, so to lump everyone together into an amorphous academic elite does not effectively answer the criticisms of his book.

Another part of his defense that I found weak was his assertion that Jefferson only wandered off the Christian path toward the end of his life. I think it is pretty obvious Jefferson was a good Anglican in his younger days only as an external convention; it was how he was raised and what was expected of him. I doubt he ever made any kind of real commitment to orthodox Christian faith. Even when Barton writes of Jefferson’s deviations from some points of doctrine, he does not emphasize that Jefferson denied the deity of Christ. No one who denies the deity of Christ can be a Christian. And this deviation didn’t wait until his later years; his time in France in the mid-1780s marks a decided turn in his views. Jefferson loved French society with its permissiveness in both thought and action. It was this very permissiveness and decadence that turned the stomach of John Adams when he went to France.

I think Barton has chosen the wrong person to try to redeem historically. In my view, Jefferson doesn’t rank very high in a list of Founders who deserve our admiration. Yes, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but even he later noted he didn’t contribute anything original to the document; he was simply putting into words the general consensus of the time. Yes, he attended church services in the Capitol, but he did so primarily because he thought it important that the chief executive give his approval to religion. He saw religion as beneficial to society with respect to its morals, but he never submitted his life to the One who set the moral standard.

I also defend Jefferson as the author of the “separation of church and state” letter. That letter was not a declaration of complete separation of faith from public office, but only an affirmation to Baptists that the federal government was not going to set up an official church. Further, I use some Jefferson quotes that are quite pithy with respect to federalism and taxes. He is very quotable, and sometimes says exactly what I wish to communicate to my students. So I don’t despise Jefferson, but I do have a critique of his character and worldview throughout his long tenure in public office.

Before we put Jefferson on a pedestal, consider the following:

  • There has been much controversy over his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation. It is not conclusive that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings; it could have been his younger brother Randolph. Yet I personally believe it is more probable that the elder Jefferson is the father. Honest people can disagree on this point, but Jefferson’s close relationship with Maria Cosway [a married woman] while he was in France and his general acceptance of lax French morality lend themselves to that probability. Jefferson also freed Hemings’s children at the end of his life. He didn’t do that for any of his other slaves.
  • In the 1790s and beyond, Jefferson was enamored of the French Revolution, which, at one point, carried out a policy of dechristianization. He never came to grips with the violent nature of that revolution and supported it completely.
  • As George Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson continually worked behind the scenes to undermine Washington’s policy toward France, which was neutrality. He even sponsored a newspaper that was set up for the express purpose of lambasting the Washington administration and Washington personally. Jefferson harbored the belief that Washington was trying to set himself up as a king. Early in his second term, Washington lost patience with the disloyal Jefferson and would have sacked him had Jefferson not resigned his position.
  • John Adams was elected president in 1796. In a quirk that was later corrected by a constitutional amendment, Jefferson became his vice president even though he was in the opposing party. Adams, to his credit, reached out a hand of friendship to Jefferson and sought to bring him aboard as an active colleague in his administration. Jefferson rejected the hand of friendship and worked to replace Adams with himself in the next election. He placed his own personal political interest ahead of the nation’s well-being.
  • As president, Jefferson, in tandem with a Congress dominated by his party, placed an embargo on all American goods in an attempt to keep American shipping out of the Napoleonic wars. This relegated an entire section of the nation, New England, to potential poverty. It also just happened to be the section that was the most anti-Jefferson politically. The embargo was a major disaster for American commerce and prosperity, it had to be repealed as one of the final acts of the Jefferson administration, and Jefferson left office a defeated man. His presidency was looked upon as a failure due to this.
  • Although fiscally prudent as president, Jefferson was profligate in his personal finances. He continually spent more money than he had. At one point, he sold his entire library to try to pay his debts. It became the foundation of the Library of Congress. However, he fell back into debt again, and at his death his home, Monticello, along with all his slaves, had to be sold to cover his obligations.

Jefferson’s contributions to the American Founding were mixed. His positives were either balanced by his negatives or his negatives outweighed his positives. That’s a judgment call. However, I would advise Barton and others not to spend so much time resuscitating Jefferson’s reputation. There are other Founders who deserve more attention. To Barton’s credit, he has not ignored other Founders who have a Christian foundation, and when he focuses on them, he can continue to perform a valuable service. But it’s time to stop attempting to defend the indefensible.

Ponderings on the Values Voters Summit

Each year in D.C., family-friendly organizations sponsor the Values Voters Summit, which ends with a straw poll to determine which candidate comes closest to the traditional Judeo-Christian moral values of the attendees. Two controversies emanated from this year’s summit: the first had to do with Ron Paul emerging as the winner of the poll, despite the fact that other candidates had stronger credentials for pro-life and pro-traditional marriage stances; the second revolved around a comment by a pastor that Mormonism is a cult, and not Christian.

Let’s deal with them in that order.

Paul seems to have a knack at doing well in these types of polls. Every time there’s a TV debate with the candidates, he always seems to come out on top when viewers are asked to phone in their choice for the winner. Yet his numbers are never very high in scientific polls. Why is this? As I’ve noted before, Paul has a loyal following that is deep, but not very wide. They are quite organized, especially in these types of situations. Attendees at the summit question the validity of the final result, where Paul took 37% and runner-up Herman Cain got 23%. I wasn’t there, but those who were noticed something: even though this summit lasted two days, an unusually high number showed up to register on the second day (about 600), listened to Paul speak, then left.

What was going on? There’s good reason to believe these were Paul supporters who showed up just for the purpose of voting for him, and that they had little interest in the overall summit, the purpose of which was to listen to all the candidates, then decide. They, in effect, were not true attendees with the same goals as the others; their goal was different. Critics of the final vote note that without those extra “attendees” on Saturday morning, Cain would have won the poll handily. In other words, it was a skewed result.

Reports are that Cain deeply impressed the real attendees, and that he had them on their feet constantly, generating tremendous enthusiasm. And Cain’s numbers in the scientific polls are far more impressive than Paul’s. One, a CBS poll, has him tied with Romney for the lead; another has him twenty points ahead, although that seems to be more dubious. Overall, though, Cain is making real strides toward the nomination, despite the charge against him that he has no government experience.

Then there’s the Mormonism issue with Romney, who is a member of the Mormon faith. The pastor who introduced Rick Perry labeled him a true Christian, as opposed to Romney, who was part of a cult. That has raised a ruckus, even to the point of calling the pastor a bigot. What to say about this?

First, the pastor is guilty of bad politics. If you are going to point out a departure from the Christian faith, you need to do so in a manner that allows a fuller explanation of your belief. It doesn’t fit in a short intro; all that does is provide ammunition for those who seek to denigrate your viewpoint. He needed a different venue for making the statement.

The substance of his comment, however, was accurate. Mormonism started in the 1820s, the brainchild of Joseph Smith, a man who was very good at coming up with schemes for making money. He said he was visited by angels. One of them told him where to dig to find an ancient book, and he [Smith] was the only one who could interpret what was in the book. Supposedly, the angel said that all the Christian denominations had fallen away from the true faith, and Smith was the only one with the whole truth. The Book of Mormon tells of an ancient civilization in North America descended from the lost tribes of Israel. The only problem is that there is no archeological evidence at all for this claim. Theologically, Mormonism doesn’t have the same view of who Jesus Christ is. He is not the unique, only-begotten Son of God. He’s no different than we are when we take our rightful place as rulers in eternity. There are too many differences with orthodox Christianity to list here. Suffice to say, the pastor was correct when he made the distinction. Mormonism is not a Christian denomination; it is something else entirely. That’s not a bigoted statement; it’s merely an observation based on the evidence.

Meanwhile, Romney, who is supposed to be the frontrunner, did very poorly at the Values Voters Summit, earning a mere 4% of voter preference. The true activists in the Republican party are not satisfied with Romney as the heir apparent:

This race is not over.

Being Faithful unto Death

Yousef Nadarkhani lives under a sentence of death. Iran plans to execute him for the crime of being a Christian pastor. It all  began in 2009 when Nadarkhani objected to his children being indoctrinated into Islam in the school they were required to attend. He was standing for parental rights as well as the Christian faith.

His outspoken views led to his arrest and the eventual death penalty sentence. This has created a furor in what could be called the remnant of the civilized world. In a rare moment of moral clarity, even the Obama administration has spoken against this unjust sentence. Republicans and Democrats alike unite in admonishing the Iranian regime and calling for Nadarkhani’s release.

Iran is under some pressure, therefore, to review the case. At one point this past week, his lawyer believed there was a 95% chance that the verdict would be overturned. Then, amazingly, the Iranian government changed its tactics—no, Nadarkhani was not being sentenced to death for being a Christian; rather, it was because he had raped someone and even ran a brothel.

That one doesn’t survive the laugh test. It is so transparently false that no one is buying it. These false accusations are reminiscent of the Stalin Show Trials of the 1930s or how Hitler got rid of his enemies: concoct a fantastic story without a shred of evidence and use it to advance the goals of the regime.

What’s going to happen to Pastor Nadarkhani? No one knows for sure yet, but it doesn’t look hopeful. In the midst of this, though, one thing is crystal clear—this man is a model of Christian steadfastness and devotion to the One who saved him from sin. His refusal to deny his Savior is a testimony to the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. His life—and perhaps his death—will serve as a sobering reminder to Western Christians that we are not simply playing a religious game. We are eternal beings with either heaven or hell awaiting us, and we must answer the call to be faithful, even unto death.

Think of Yousef Nadarkhani; pray for him and for his family. Let his life be an inspiration to those of us who claim the name of Christ.

A 9/11 Reflection

My church last night held a superb 9/11 remembrance. The video clips were familiar but always sobering as we relived the events of that day. The personal testimonies were compelling. Remarks by the mayor, chief of police, county sheriff, and fire chief were not only appropriate but inspiring. The music, professional yet heartfelt, led us all into the presence of the Lord. The pastor’s message was perfect for the evening.

It’s nice being part of a community where the various elected officials and appointed first responders feel at home in the Lord’s house. They knew they had the genuine respect and appreciation of the people. Lakeland, Florida, is the kind of place where meetings still begin with prayer. It remains culturally conservative overall, and promoting Christian morality is expected. The local pro-life center that helps lead women away from abortion and into embracing life is influential enough to fill the ballroom in the city’s event complex every time it holds its annual fundraiser.

There will never be unanimity in any community, but there can be consensus. A consensus exists here.

After 9/11, there were hopes that consensus could be achieved nationwide. Yet we are a divided country, roughly half Christian and/or culturally conservative, half secular/progressive allied—I think incongruously—with some who believe that’s the Christian way to go. The cultural divide reveals itself in our politics, where we are again almost evenly split.

Do I seek consensus? Yes, but the only real consensus—the only one of any value—has to be grounded in a Biblical worldview. Anything else will ultimately fail. As we face the challenges ahead—and there will be many, some quite severe—my prayer is that those challenges will drive us closer to a dependence on the One without whom life has no meaning. When we embrace Him, we finally come face to face with what life is all about, and we find the purpose for which we were created.

I believe 9/11 should have been a call to repentance and to humble ourselves before the God who seeks to forgive and redeem. For some, it was, and for that we can be grateful. God has a way of extracting the precious from the worthless. There are no guarantees there won’t be other 9/11-type events that will rock our world. How we face them, and whether we turn to Him who provides the strength and the wisdom to overcome, remains a question mark. I hope we will pass the test.

Multicultural, Relativist Mush vs. Radical Islam

On Saturday, I shared some thoughts from chapter five of Mark Steyn’s book America Alone, but couldn’t finish that chapter without writing a tome of my own. The central message of that post was how the West gives in to radical Islam with scarcely a murmur. I ended the post with the question, “What is the underlying problem that allows this abject cowardice to flourish?” The rest of the chapter is Steyn’s answer to that query.

The bottom line to his answer is that we now live in a post-Christian West, particularly in Europe. Due to that religious vacuum, many Europeans are either becoming Muslim or at least accommodating to it because they have no deep-seated belief themselves to counter it. For the reverts [that’s what Islam calls a convert because it believes everyone is naturally Muslim, but they just don’t realize it yet], Islam “provides the sense of identity that the happy-face nothingness of multiculturalism declines to offer.” For those who choose to accommodate … well, it’s just more comfortable that way.

Steyn relates that he heard from Dutch and English women that they’ve begun going out “covered.”

The Dutch lady lives in a rough part of Amsterdam and says when you’re on the street in Islamic garb, the Muslim men smile at you respectfully instead of jeering at you as an infidel whore. The English lady lives in a swank part of London but says pretty much the same thing. Both felt there was not just a physical but a psychological security in being dressed Muslim. They’re not “reverts,” but, at least for the purposes of padding the public space, they’re passing for Muslim. And as more of the public space becomes Muslim it will seem more and more comfortable to do that.

The mainstream church—as opposed to the real one—is no help in countering the Islamist assault on society. After the London Tube bombings, one Anglican bishop assured his flock that this atrocity had “nothing to do with any of the world faiths.” Another Anglican priest explained to his parishioners, “There are no Muslim terrorists. There are terrorists.”On a personal level, Steyn informs us,

Even in America, the interim pastor at my local church in New Hampshire on the Sunday morning of September 16, 2001, was principally concerned to warn us not to attack any Muslims, even though in that notably undiverse corner of America finding any Muslims to attack would have involved a three-hour drive. That’s why the Church of England and the Episcopal Church and the Congregational Church and the United Church of Canada and many others are sinking beneath the bog of their own relativist mush, while Islam is the West’s fastest-growing religion. There’s no market for a faith that has no faith in itself.

Steyn’s conclusion, in his own inimitable writing style?

Most mainline Protestant churches are, to one degree or another, post-Christian. If they no longer seem disposed to converting the unbelieving to Christ, they can at least convert them to the boggiest of soft-left political clichés, on the grounds that if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an “Arms Are for Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.

The real Christian faith has a backbone. God’s truth changes lives. Changed lives lead to changed societies. You can measure the vitality of a nation’s Christianity by the direction in which society is being changed. As we witness the sad state of Western civilization, one has to ask the question—where does this real Christian faith continue to exist?

A Warning

Jesus exhorted His disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They are supposed to reflect His heart and carry out His mission. That’s hard to do when those who call themselves Christians may not be Christians at all.

The Barna Group recently conducted a study of those who claim the name of Christ. A summary of the findings shows the following:

  1. The Christian church is becoming less theologically literate. Basic Biblical concepts are fading, especially among young adults. Only a minority of those surveyed associate Easter with the resurrection of Christ, although they do know it’s a religious holiday. [This is an indication that those interviewed are probably from all denominations, and not those considered to be more evangelical/fundamentalist in nature.] A majority don’t think of the Holy Spirit as an entity, but merely a symbol of God’s power. Very few believe their faith [such as it is] should be integrated into every aspect of their lives.
  2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented. They are more isolated from unbelievers [although I’m not sure there’s much difference between the majority of those surveyed and those who are self-identified unbelievers]. The emphasis on religious pluralism they receive through their education makes them less inclined to get involved in faith-based conversations.
  3. Growing numbers are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life. For both young and old, life accomplishments are more important than faith. They don’t want to take time for spiritual reflection and they compartmentalize their lives, not allowing the spiritual to interfere with what they deem “the practical.”
  4. Interest in participating in community action is escalating. On the surface, this would appear to be a positive, but that is surface only. What it really indicates is the ascendancy of the liberal worldview’s concept of social justice, which is usually disassociated from a vibrant faith that focuses on the foundational truths of Scripture. This community action is more geared toward government programs than personal self-sacrifice.
  5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian church. We now fear being labeled judgmental. As a result, we don’t take strong stands against immorality and philosophies that lead away from Biblical truth. Only a minority of those surveyed believe that the Scriptures dictate moral absolutes.
  6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible. The media treatment of modern Christianity tends to point out the faults rather than the contributions. Lacking sound judgment and the desire or ability to probe beneath these negative portrayals, those surveyed don’t think the church does much good in society.

Depressed yet? Well, keep in mind that these results are drawn from a broad spectrum of American Protestantism, and most of the mainline churches have departed from Biblical teaching for decades.

It’s still sobering, however, simply because this is the public face of American Christianity. This is what observers consider to be the real thing. What they don’t realize is that this represents more the watered-down, liberal church. The true Body of Christ exists within the overall “church,” but most of what passes for the church today is not the genuine article. How about this for an illustration?

From my own experience, though, I do want to warn that there are serious inroads being made within those denominations and movements that still hold to Biblical foundations. Attempts to erode those foundations are evident, and we need to speak out against them. Is that too negative? Tell that to the apostle Paul and others who gave stern warnings to the believers of their day. We must follow in their footsteps.

 

Tocqueville & American Christianity

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who toured America from 1831-1833, was a keen observer of what he experienced. He put those observations into a famous book, still used in political sciences courses, called Democracy in America, first published in 1835.

Tocqueville quotes can be found throughout the Internet; unfortunately, some of them dealing with religion in America are more legend than fact. I know, since I’ve read the entirety of his book without finding them. However, he did make clear statements about the influence of the Christian faith on American society. Here are some samples:

There is an innumerable multitude of sects [denominations] in the United States. All differ in the worship one must render to the Creator, but all agree on the duties of men toward one another. … All the sects … are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same. …

… America is … still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.

So this French observer was duly impressed with the unity he discovered among the various Christian denominations and the pervasiveness of the Christian faith in the nation. He also saw another practical effect of the universality of Christian faith: “Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected and where they have conceived the highest and most just idea of conjugal happiness.” Would that were the case today.

Christian influence on the morals of society dominated, according to Tocqueville:

Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess openly a certain respect for the morality and equity of Christianity, which does not permit them to violate its laws easily when they are opposed to the execution of their [revolutionaries’] designs; and if they could raise themselves above their own scruples, they would still feel they were stopped by those of their partisans. Up to now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim—one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.

So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.

Religion, which, among Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.

Tocqueville’s experience in France had taught him that religion combines with the state to produce tyranny. He was amazed to find the opposite in America:

On my arrival in the United States it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye. As I prolonged my stay, I perceived the great political consequences that flowed from these new facts.

Among us [in France], I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. Here I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.

What we have here is a nineteenth-century Frenchman with a sharper vision of the greatness and uniqueness of America than most current commentators, particularly those on the Left of the political spectrum. If only they would listen and learn from him.