Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

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.

David Barton, Thomas Jefferson, & Historical Accuracy

Those who know me know I’m convinced America’s roots are fundamentally Biblical. I deplore efforts to wipe out Biblical influence in the Founding of this country. However, I also deplore any effort to force a Christian interpretation on certain events or individuals. We must be honest with the evidence.

The drive to reestablish the basis for our Biblical roots, at least in more popular Christian reading, probably began with Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which appeared in the 1970s. I read it at the time and was impressed, although I also was slightly disturbed by how the author concocted conversations between historical figures. Literary license, I guessed. Since then, many have entered the field, trying to augment what Marshall began.

The most successful writer in this genre has been David Barton. I’ve read a number of his books and have appreciated the fact that he has tried to unearth documentation that others might have missed. In fact, I was pleased when he admitted that one supposed James Madison quote everybody was using to show that the Founders based our government on the Ten Commandments was, in fact, spurious. That displayed honesty, and I always seek that in someone who names the name of Christ. We must be honest above all.

Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, was published by Thomas Nelson, a respected Christian publishing house. I admit I haven’t yet read the book, but that’s going to be a moot point very soon. Thomas Nelson has ceased its publication and pulled it from the market. Is this a case of pressure from the historical profession, which is so secular it doesn’t want to give Barton’s views a chance to be heard? If so, why are conservative Christian historians critiquing it? Have they gone over to the dark side?

One of the goals of the book is to establish Jefferson as a Founder who didn’t really abandon Christian orthodoxy, among other presumed lies about the third president. There’s only one problem with that: Jefferson did indeed desert orthodox Christianity and considered it a superstition. All one has to do is read many of his letters to John Adams, another of the Founders who fell away from the faith. In one of my earlier blog postings, I pointed specifically to a letter Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, in which he stated he was a Christian, but only in the sense that he was following a Jesus who never claimed to be anything other than a man. In other words, Jefferson admired Jesus’ moral teachings, but didn’t consider him to be God.

Then there’s Jefferson’s Bible. Yes, it was meant to be used to help spread civilization to the Indians, but it was never, in Jefferson’s mind, to be used to convert them to orthodox Christianity. He really did reject the miraculous in the gospels, declaring them to be later insertions by Christians who wanted to make Jesus into more than He really was. That’s why he omitted miracles—even Jesus’ resurrection— in his version of the gospels. There’s just no getting around those facts. They are well established by solid research, and as a Christian, I have to accept their validity.

I certainly don’t mean to speak ill of Barton. I can sympathize with his desire to highlight the role of Christian faith in our Founding. But we do the Christian faith a disservice when we go beyond what the evidence reveals, thereby undermining whatever good we may do otherwise.

Are there historians who denigrate Christianity’s influence in our formative years? Absolutely. Some will ignore vital evidence that points to that influence. Yet the antidote is not to commit the same error on the other side. While I don’t think a non-professional historian like Barton should be dismissed simply because he hasn’t jumped through all the hoops to earn a doctorate, nevertheless, some of those hoops are valuable. I’m glad I had to learn research methods and read widely on the various eras of American history. That training, in itself, is not secular; it all depends on how it is used.

I’ve taught American history now for more than twenty years. When I teach my introductory course that focuses on America from its colonial beginnings to the aftereffects of the Civil War, I begin by showing students that different schools of historical interpretation exist. I take them through a school of thought that believes all the good of America’s Founding came from the Enlightenment’s embrace of human reason. Historians from that school summarily dismiss the Pilgrims as a group hardly worth mentioning and portray the Puritans as harmful for their autocratic ways and doctrinal dogmas.

After that, I tell them about those who are so focused on the existence of slavery during this era that they assume the Founders are all hypocrites who offer us nothing valuable as a study. At the opposite extreme, I say, are those who view the Founding as a Golden Era, almost a utopia, where all things were Christian. I then let them know I have issues with all three of those schools of interpretation.

Finally, I present where I’m coming from as I look at American history, particularly its Founding Fathers. I believe it’s important to inform students where a professor stands on major interpretational issues. No one learns in a vacuum. I tell them I see the Founding era as one based on Biblical principles. This means the consensus of the society at that time was Christian, and human laws were based on a Biblical concept that God’s law was supreme and eternal, and that societal laws had to be in accordance with God’s law. Not everything was perfect and/or Christian; neither were all the Founders. Yet there was a general agreement that society functioned best when Biblical values were incorporated into it.

Some Christian historians don’t agree with me. They don’t see the influence of the faith as readily as I do. That’s their prerogative. Yet I must be sure that my arguments for my views are as historically sound as possible. I cannot try to prove that which is demonstrably untrue. I’m afraid David Barton fell into that error this time. I sincerely hope, for his sake and for the sake of accuracy in Christian historiography, that he will reconsider what he is attempting to prove. I want nothing but the best for him personally; that starts with acknowledging he has misstated the historical evidence in this case.

Meanwhile, I genuinely hope that my fellow historians will be just as eager to hold their more secular colleagues accountable for any inaccuracies they espouse. The critique needs to apply equally.

Misperceptions of Holiness

There’s a perception of some evangelicals, particularly in the media and on the “progressive” side of politics, that they are rigid, unfeeling, unthinking, mean-spirited joy-killers. Anyone who speaks out against licentious behavior and calls abortion and homosexuality sins are akin, in some minds, to those who championed the Inquisition during the Middle Ages or those Puritans who refused to celebrate Christmas [without, of course, studying to find out the reason they opposed the celebration—the way it was carried out in England was far from Christ-honoring at the time].

The word “holiness” has gone out of style, even among many evangelicals. Some holiness denominations have contributed to a misunderstanding of the Biblical concept. They have concentrated on what one doesn’t do rather than the positive, joyful obedience to God’s standards that emanates from a heart of love.

One of the early proponents of a doctrine of holiness was John Wesley, who started the Methodist movement within the Church of England back in the eighteenth century. I’ve been doing a little reading of excerpts from Wesley’s journal. One of those excerpts captures, I think, the essence of Biblical holiness and the joyful life that God wants for everyone. Read Wesley’s commentary here, and if you are one of those individuals with a skewed view of holiness, this might provide a corrective:

I am convinced as true religion or holiness cannot be without cheerfulness, so steady cheerfulness, on the other hand, cannot be without holiness or true religion. And I am equally convinced that true religion has nothing sour, austere, unsociable, unfriendly in it; but, on the contrary, implies the most winning sweetness, the most amiable softness and gentleness.

Are you for having as much cheerfulness as you can? So am I. Do you endeavour to keep alive your taste for all the truly innocent pleasures of life? So do I likewise. Do you refuse no pleasure but what is a hindrance to some greater good, or has a tendency to some evil? It is my very rule; and I know no other by which a sincere reasonable Christian can be guided.

In particular,  I pursue this rule in eating, which I seldom do without much pleasure. And this I know is the will of God concerning me; that I should enjoy every pleasure that leads to my taking pleasure in Him; and in such a measure as most leads to it.

When Christians call for a higher moral standard for America, it’s not because they want to destroy pleasure. What we witness in our culture are all the false pleasures that try to substitute for the real pleasures God would like to provide. True pleasure is never found by following our own selfish desires. It exists only in a relationship with the One who created pleasure. When we lay aside our selfishness and rebellion against His reasonable commands, only then do we come to an understanding of pleasure because only then will we see it as coming straight from the heart of God.

So I don’t apologize for speaking out on the issues of abortion, homosexuality, personal responsibility, political chicanery, or media malfeasance, among others. My desire is to help bring our society closer to the heart of God, which ultimately brings His blessing and every true pleasure.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.

Educating a New Generation

The Fourth of July used to be one of the premier American holidays. People celebrated it because they understood the principles behind the resistance to taxation without representation and the potential for government overreach. Those were lessons we used to know. Things have changed.

But if you were to take a survey of our current knowledge of America’s founding and the principles upon which it was based, you might get a variety of responses, few of them heartening:

If some of our Founding Fathers could appear to us now to explain the those principles, I wonder how we would receive their wisdom?

And if anyone should ask why we have degenerated to this level, I would offer this as one of the reasons:

Education has been stripped of the Biblical, eternal values; they’ve been replaced by a new set of values that goes under the guise of teaching children how to think, not what to think. But if you look carefully at what is being taught, you will realize there is no such thing as value-free education. Values are always being taught; the question is which values.

Along with the expulsion of Biblical principles from our education, we also don’t expect too much of our students. We wouldn’t want to damage their self-esteem by giving them failing grades. I can speak from experience that an unhealthy percentage of college students are shocked when they don’t get an A. The problem must be the professor; he expects too much.

This dumbing-down has affected our entire society. A recent study of how congressmen speak, for instance, is most revealing:

Yes, quality education still exists, but you have to know where to find it. In the meantime, I’m going to do all I can to educate this new generation in the basic Biblical principles that undergird all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We need a new declaration of independence from the likes of Jersey Shore, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart.

The Inside Story of the Impeachment of President Clinton

Last week I talked about two of my books that I encouraged you to read. I have one more, then I’ll go on to more current events again, starting tomorrow.

The saga of the Clinton impeachment needed to be told from the inside. That’s why when the impeachment proceedings ended in 1999, I decided to contact the thirteen House Managers who had argued before the Senate for the removal of Bill Clinton from office. They all received me graciously, I interviewed each one, and they gave me their side of the story. Why did they pursue this quest when public opinion polls said they should not? Even Republicans in the Senate tried to discourage them.

Why did they move forward and not heed the voices that were telling them to stop? It can be explained quite simply: they were acting on principle; they believed that no one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law. Everyone must be held accountable for their actions.

They were pilloried in the press for pursuing this goal; they were called self-righteous and holier-than-thou, yet they persevered. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, but they were not bowed; they knew they had done their duty.

This book allows them to tell their stories. Each manager has a chapter devoted to him. You’ll meet the manager whose sterling reputation with his colleagues was never the same again when he undertook this task. Another manager was from Arkansas, Clinton’s home state; would he suffer politically for taking part in this effort? Still another represented part of Hollywood. How could he survive his role in the impeachment proceedings? In fact, he lost his next election, but he never regretted his actions; he put principle above incumbency.

Mission: Impeachable—The House Managers and the Historic Impeachment of President Clinton was a Main Selection in the Conservative Book Club back in June 2001. C-SPAN taped me talking about the book, and that taping appeared a number of times on C-SPAN2. It also led to a number of radio interviews, including the Janet Parshall program.

Frankly, I’m quite proud [in the proper Christian way] of this book and encourage those of you who want to know more about the impeachment and/or congressmen who understood the importance of standing for principle in politics to read it. There are important lessons for us all.

The book is out of print now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t available. You can go to either Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com and get a used copy; prices and conditions of the copies will vary. It may be out of print, but its thesis is never out of date.

Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America

Yesterday I encouraged those of you who need more information on how the Bible views government to purchase a copy of my book If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. Today, let’s focus more historically.

My doctoral dissertation was on a man who was highly influential in America’s formative years: Noah Webster. That dissertation was published as Defining Noah Webster: A Spiritual Biography. I’ve always thought the title was rather clever, given that Webster’s primary work for which he is remembered is the first American dictionary. But he did so much more.

Long before publishing his 1828 dictionary, he wrote the first American speller, a book that could be found in nearly every family’s home from the cultured environs of Boston and New York to the frontiers of what we now call the Midwest. Pioneer families would carry their Bible and Webster’s Speller.

Webster later became a newspaper editor during the tumultuous years of the 1790s, then an author of a multitude of school books that became familiar to thousands of students prior to the Civil War.

The centerpiece of this work, though, is Webster’s Christian conversion at age 50, a conversion that altered his thinking on government, education, and morality. His famous dictionary was also a treatise for the Christian faith. I have an entire chapter that explains how he accomplished that goal. The conversion and how it affected him is why the subtitle of the book is A Spiritual Biography.

Even though it was originally a doctoral dissertation, I think you’ll find it highly readable. I had that in mind while writing it. To me, it’s such a waste to spend all that effort researching and writing, only to have a committee of three historians read the final product, and then have it fade into oblivion. I wrote this book with the intention of publishing it, and deliberately diminished what some might call “dissertationese.” I believe it’s a fascinating account of the life of a man few know, but with whom we should become better acquainted.

I don’t recommend purchasing this book on Amazon.com. For some reason, they have the correct picture, but not the correct version. They have only the older hardback that doesn’t include the newest revisions. To get this one, go to barnesandnoble.com. Try it; you might like it.