The History Wars Continue, Part I

The Texas Freedom Network, a left-wing group as committed to Freedom as the former German Democratic Republic was committed to democracy, has issued a report blasting the textbooks that publishers have submitted to the Texas State Board of Education to go along with the new state guidelines, passed in 2010 after considerable controversy, which I wrote about here. Some of the complaints are justifiable, though generally minor. But most are tendentious, to put it kindly. In fact most of the “errors” they allege are not errors at all, but differences in emphasis.

Let’s look at some of the “critical issues” the Texas Freedom Network report identifies. I’ll classify them as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

1. “A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.” How do they do this?

(a) One mentions the Biblical idea of a covenant as influencing the Founders’ concept of the social contract, which, the Network argues, is in John Locke “in many ways a repudiation of the biblical covenant view.” Is that true? It would be fair enough to point out that in Chapter 8 of the Second Treatise of Government Locke observes that the Jews are to some extent an exception to his point about the social contract being the foundation of government, “where God himself immediately interposed.” He goes on to give examples to support his social contract view from the histories of Greece, Rome, and Venice. But that doesn’t deny that the social contract is analogous to the Biblical covenant. This claim isn’t an error; it’s at worst debatable.

(b) Other textbooks list Moses as among the figures who influenced the Founders’ conception of government for originating the concept of a written code of laws. The Network complains that this is vague: Which laws? They also object that Mosaic law is given by God, unlike the laws of a republic. But that does nothing to deny that the concept of public, written laws to live by is important to the American Founding and in fact to the concept of the rule of law itself. I would have thought that a better objection would be that Hammurabi dates from the 18th century BC, while most scholars date Moses as having lived sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries BC. Still, the thought that the Ten Commandments have influenced our conception of law strikes me as uncontroversial. So, this complaint strikes me as bogus.

(c) Still another book states, “The Framers’ political thinking was influenced by a Judeo-­Christian religious heritage, which includes traditions common to both Judaism and Christianity. These religions see the law and individual rights as being of divine origin. Moreover, the Framers benefited from the Protestant Reformation, a sixteenth-‐century Christian reform movement whose leaders developed ideas about individual responsibility, the freedom to worship as one chooses, and self-­government.” That seems uncontroversial. Why does the Network object? I’ll quote them fully, since this paragraph exemplifies the sloppy thinking behind many other objections:

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law. The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government. Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

Let’s take that bit-by-bit.

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law.

Since when is failure to cite an example in a given passage an argument against it? Besides, isn’t this easy to do? Recognize this passage from the beginning of a founding document?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Laws of Nature”? “Nature’s God”? “Creator”? Sounds like some influence to me. I rate this complaint bogus.

But let’s continue:

The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government.

But to say that this passage “omits several important pieces of information” is no argument against its truth. I take it as obvious that Thomas Jefferson influenced Abraham Lincoln; that they might have disagreed about a number of issues, and even disagreed about the proper role of the federal government, is no argument against that claim. This one too is bogus.

Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

This is inaccurate; the textbook spoke of “the Framers” generically, saying nothing about “all of the Founders.” Moreover, that some Founders were deists does nothing to refute the assertion that even their conceptions of rights were influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. “X was influenced by Y” is NOT refuted by the fact that X and Y disagreed about certain issues, even certain foundational issues. Again, the complaint is bogus.

(d) Another textbook writes (again, I would have thought, uncontroversially), ““The roots of democratic government in today’s world – including government in the United States – lie deep in human history. They reach back most particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, and include elements related to Judeo-­Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.” The Network complains that Moses and Solomon did not govern democratically. But that is neither here nor there; the text makes no such claim. The roots, the book says, include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy. That’s a very cautious claim, analogous to asserting that the roots of the theory of relativity include elements related to medieval impetus theory. That’s surely true, and pointing out that Albert of Saxony was no relativity theorist cuts no ice against it. So, the Network’s objection is bogus.

(e) One book states, “Because one of Jesus’s basic principles was the equality of all people in the eyes of God, equality before the law became a central belief within the Judeo-Christian tradition.” What’s wrong with that? Jesus wasn’t the first to think so, says the Network—but the book in no way implies that he was! Moreover, the chain of causation isn’t straightforward—unlike all those other historical trends spanning millennia that ARE straightforward? Perhaps it will suffice to quote Locke, describing the state of nature as

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. (emphasis added)

Locke begins his discussion of property similarly: “God, who hath given the world to men in common….” The link between equality and the will of God is not deeply hidden in the shrouds of history; it’s right there in the chief philosophical text underlying the American Founding, at the beginning of its most famous sections. Bogus.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the Network’s objections to textbook portrayals of the separation of church and state.

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