History, the Plumb Line of Truth
by Derrick G. Jeter
The dust has settled over New York City, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And yet, every four years the political rhetoric of presidential campaigns causes a dust-up that settles like acid rain on the goodness of our nation, eating away at our civility and our historic memory.
This political season is no different. So on this 9/11 anniversary—an anniversary where we are quick to quote, “We will never forget”—it’s important to remember, not just the history of what happened on that beautiful fall morning but why it’s important to remember history at all.
The dearth of historical knowledge among young Americans should be a national shame and sound alarm bells. Students have been robbed of the richness and excitement of history and as a result remain unrooted (not uprooted, for they have never been planted) into the grand story that is America. It is this unrootedness from historic memory, along with moral confusion, legal overreach, and pluralistic globalism, that threatens to wither the fruit of freedom that past Americans have tended with such care.
Because we have forgotten our history—have taken a holiday from history—we become victim to the tyranny of the ever present now. It is this very tyrant that makes us vulnerable to demagoguery and historical distortion; that vanquishes wisdom; and makes vacuous our values and virtues—especially the love of liberty. The tyranny of now promotes self-centeredness, hedonism, utilitarianism, radical pluralism and globalism, and a cynical disregard for the truth.
History is the plumb line of truth, however. And because we are either ignorant of history or choose to ignore history, truth no longer serves as a straight edge for our thinking and rhetoric. An illustration of this is found in a recent article on an admittedly left-leaning website. Using Republican Presidential nominee John McCain and his Vice Presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, as an example, the writer mocks faith in Christ and attempts to create a persuasive link between Christianity and the dangers of non-moderate Islamic belief. He asks, “What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.”1 (A week earlier, at the Republican National Convention, Palin adlibbed a line in her acceptance speech: “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”) Such squalid thinking says nothing about Christianity or Islam, but speaks volumes about the author of this article. Clearly he doesn’t understand the simplest beliefs of either religion, much less the more difficult doctrines of both, or how each is completely antithetical to the other. Empty-headed strawmen and ad hominem arguments are easily enough brushed aside, but what is most troubling is his misuse of history, and therefore the distortion of truth, to advance his argument. He states,
Palin has a right to her religious beliefs, as do fundamentalist Muslims who agree with her on so many issues of social policy. None of them has a right, however, to impose their beliefs on others by capturing and deploying the executive power of the state. The most noxious belief that Palin shares with Muslim fundamentalists is her conviction that faith is not a private affair of individuals but rather a moral imperative that believers should import into statecraft wherever they have the opportunity to do so. That is the point of her pledge to shape the judiciary. Such a theocratic impulse is incompatible with the Founding Fathers’ commitment to tolerance and democracy, which is why they forbade the government to “establish” or officially support any particular religion or denomination.2
Ignoring the implied silliness that non-religious, or at least non-“fundamentalists,” apparently come into political office sterilized of their worldviews or prejudices, so as not to contaminate political policy, let’s focus on the despicable and hypocritical lie the writer cloaks behind the coattails and tricorn hats of the Founding Fathers. Claiming that the Founders were committed to tolerance and democracy is to misread and misunderstand history, or worse—to rewrite history. Tolerance was a word rarely used by the Founders3 and they certainly didn’t define it according to modern political definitions. Noah Webster, who had a better perspective on how the Founders used words, defined intolerant (the word most commonaly used at the time) as, “Not enduring difference of opinion or worship; refusing to tolerate others in the enjoyment of their opinions, rights and worship.”4 The modern definition of tolerance has become politicized into acceptance, not endurance; and since Christians do not accept the claim that their beliefs shouldn’t inform their politics they are branded as intolerant. The irony, of course, is not that Christians are intolerant but that the writer of this article is, whether he sees it or not.
But more to the point, the Founders were not committed to tolerance; they were committed to liberty. The vast majority of the Founders would feel more at home in the company of Christian ideas and ideals than they would in the vapid and dangerous ideas and ideals of the American left. In fact, they did. Christianity was no threat to them or to American freedom. On the contrary, it was the very foundation upon which freedom was laid and constructed.
Here is Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament. . . . All its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well being of civil government.5
John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson said,
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . Now I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.6
John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, signer of the Treaty of Paris, and Chief Justice, heartily agreed:
No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion applied and accepted by all the classes. Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance, men are certain to shed their responsibilities for licentiousness and this great experiment will then surely be doomed.7
And here is a Founder considered less religious, as recorded in the journal of the Reverend Ethan Allen:
President Jefferson was on his way to church on a Sunday morning with his large red prayer book under his arm when a friend querying him after their mutual good morning said which way are you walking Mr. Jefferson. To which he replied to Church Sir. You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it Sir and Mr. J. No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christians religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.8
According to modern liberalism we could only conclude that the Founders were in violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause. But this conclusion can only be drawn by those who are either ignorant of history or would rather ignore history. Either way, truth has been twisted into a lie.
If the plumb line of history is severed we will never be able to square such banal ideas as espoused by the writer of the article in question with the truth. So, if we wish to retain our freedom we must rouse our memory or risk the loss of our country, and not just the memory of the country—that is already taking place—but the country itself.
1. Juan Cole, “A Theocrat is a Theocrat, Whether Muslim or Christian,” posted September 9, 2008, http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/09/09/palin_fundamentalist/index.html, accessed September 10, 2008.
2. Juan Cole, “A Theocrat is a Theocrat, Whether Muslim or Christian.”
3. Noah Webster, in his 1828 dictionary said that tolerance was “Little used. But intolerance is in common use.” See An American Dictionary of the English Language (reprint, 1980; New York: S. Converse, 1828), “tolerance.”
4. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, “intolerant.”
5. Benjamin Rush, “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, quoted in David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion (Aledo, Tex.: WallBuilder Press, 1997), 31.
6. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, on June 28, 1813, in Works, vol. X, quoted in David Barton, Original Intent, 32.
7. John Jay, quoted in The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in America, ed., Os Guinness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2001), 153.
8. Thomas Jefferson, quoted in The Great Experiment, 150.