Americhristian Exegesis

Oh, and one more. This was published in The Daily Tar Heel (the student newspaper of UNC Chapel Hill) on 28 January 1994:

To the Editor:

Matt Osman’s Jan. 20 letter (“Columnist Obviously Doesn’t Understand Ways of Baptists”) offers two defenses of Christian intolerance of homosexuality.

Mr. Osman’s first defense is the claim that “this country is founded on Christian principles,” and America’s founding documents are cited as evidence. But Mr. Osman’s memory of those documents seems a bit shaky. The Constitution of the United States contains no reference to God or Christianity. The Declaration of Independence contains a passing reference to God, but nothing distinctively Christian. (This is hardly surprising, since its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a Deist, not a Christian.)

Mr. Osman mentions the Pledge of Allegiance. This hardly qualifies as a founding document, since it was written in 1892, and the words “under God” were not added until 1954. In any case, it too contains no reference to Christianity or any distinctively Christian doctrine.

Treaty of Tripoli

A more relevant document is the 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli, drafted under the authority of George Washington, in which the administration of our nation’s first president officially puts itself on the record with the declaration: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Osman’s second defense is that Christians are required to be intolerant because the Bible requires it, and such Christians must “believe in the Bible …. The Bible is an all-or-nothing deal.” But Mr. Osman’s memory of the Bible appears to be a bit shaky as well. The Bible is full of injunctions that few Christians take seriously, from the prohibitions on self-defense (Matthew 5: 39-41) and the eating of oysters (Leviticus 11: 9-12), to the insistence that slaves must obey their masters (Colossians 3: 22) and the endorsement of witch-burning (Exodus 22: 18).

Why should the Bible’s crude and ignorant animadversions on homosexuality be treated any differently? In practice, no Christians really treat the Bible as an all-or-nothing deal, or regard themselves as bound to obey all its literal commands down to the last bizarre detail.

More to the point, even if Mr. Osman were correct in claiming that Christianity requires a literal adherence to the Bible in every detail, this would be irrelevant as a defense of Christian intolerance. If Christianity really did require intolerance, then Christianity would be an evil and ungodly religion, and Christianity would be morally obligated to renounce it. Fortunately, Mr. Osman’s assertions are as groundless in theology as they are in American history.

Roderick T. Long

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20 Responses to Americhristian Exegesis

  1. Anon November 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    The bits about “Muſſelmen” and “Mahometon nations” should probably be remembered by our religious compatriots as well.

  2. Francois Tremblay November 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    Sorry, but your response doesn’t seem very convincing to the people you want it to be convincing to. Osman using the Bible was a rationalization, not an argument; Christians by and large don’t read the Bible, and simply assume that Jesus and God believe as they do (there have been neurological studies that proved that). What you needed to attack was the ethical premises, not the Bible. Sorry Roderick, but I think that was a miss.

    • Brandon November 13, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

      Which studies are those?

        • Bob November 17, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

          If I believe in God, then – barring some non-standard views about the nature of God – my rational judgments of what I should want and what God wants should line up, no? Believing that God wants what you want seems to be part of believing in God, not an effect of neurochemistry. There is, however, no necessary connection between believing in God and being an idiot; that is a mere statistical correlation.

        • Francois Tremblay November 18, 2011 at 3:14 am #

          “There is, however, no necessary connection between believing in God and being an idiot;”

          I don’t know about that…

  3. Atrium November 13, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    Most evangelical sorts only read the bible according to approved study groups or in the course of meetings or study. The culture is aggressively group-oriented, and private study or thought is as discouraged in favor of authority as much as they think it is for catholics.

    BTW Roderick. You and a lot of other names come up a few times in this really hilarious libertarian argument in the comments section of the misogyny mocking site manboobz

    • zhinxy November 15, 2011 at 12:10 am #

      Hey, I’m in that argument! Are you a manboobzer, Atrium, or do I know you around?

      • Francois Tremblay November 15, 2011 at 12:28 am #

        manboobz banned me for advocating violence. I’m guessing they wouldn’t take too well to Anarchists.

        • zhinxy November 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

          There was some scuffling and “Oh no, another libertarian!” when I arrived in the commentariat, including me being huffily linked to Lind’s infamous salon article to “prove” that the “core” of our movement was authoritarian.

          But I seem to have settled in there as the “left-libertarian anarcho-feminist lady” at this point, and have fielded more than a few polite questions about libertarianism. There’s also another anarchist of the marxist variety about. I don’t remember your banning or the circumstances.

        • Brandon November 15, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

          I’m sure the circumstances were the same as the circumstances in all the other sites he’s been banned from.

  4. Robert Hagedorn November 14, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    Saint Augustine couldn’t do it. But can someone else explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 1600 years it’s time to think, read, and give the real explanation based only on the facts in the story. No guesses, opinions, of beliefs. We’ve already had way too many of these. Treat the whole thing as a challenge to your intellect. But first, do a quick Internet search: First Scandal.

    • Roderick November 15, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

      That interpretation seems a bit ass backwards to me ….

  5. Hume November 15, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    I think the historical evidence favors a religious centered interpretation of the early years, and most State constitutions bear this out (e.g., faith in god requirements for public office). The correct response, of course, is this: so what? The framing generation had and has no legitimate authority, so the religiosity of the illegitimate political officials is completely irrelevant for what we ought to do today.

    • Bob November 17, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

      In the face of Roderick’s evidence to the contrary, saying “I think the historical evidence favors a religious centered interpretation” is a bit silly. Your consideration of that evidence doesn’t take seriously enough the differences between state and federal governments; the role of religion in state constitutions has no direct bearing on its status in the federal constitution. The point is relevant because it matters when your opponent’s argument is internally incoherent and not merely grounded in some alternative set of assumptions or normative judgments.

      • Hume November 18, 2011 at 4:11 am #

        And I will respond by claiming that the formal status of religious principles in the federal constitution has no bearing on interpreting the political culture of the framing generation. I do not care about religious principles or about “The Founders” religious beliefs. They held no legitimate authority in their day and their constitutional framework holds no legitimate authority today. That being said, I think it is historically inaccurate and misleading to downplay the role of religion in political affairs during the framing generation. And I think it is “silly” to resort to formalist distinctions (“state” vs. “federal”) in the context of a discussion of political culture and social forces. Political life and political culture, in reality, do not admit of such formalities. The political society emerging in the wake of the revolution cannot be reduced to two “founding documents” or the state-federal division of power. One must examine all of the historical evidence in order to fully appreciate the political and social climate, and this is especially true in light of the fact that local and state governments occupied a more central role in political life in the framing generation.

  6. Wonks Anonymous November 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    Deist and Christian were not categories that excluded each other, at least according to Deists back then. My understanding is that Jefferson in his letters called himself a Christian, although I’m sure many of his contemporaries would have regarded him as a very heterodox one.

    • Roderick November 15, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

      Well, there were Christian-friendly deists (like Matthew Tindal) and Christian-unfriendly deists (Tom Paine and Elihu Palmer were in the latter category, as Spooner would be later). Jefferson was (no doubt wisely, given his political ambitions) the kind of deist who said as little as possible, publicly, about Christianity.

      Privately, he said that he liked Jesus’ altruistic ethical teachings as a salutary counterbalance to the egoistic tendencies of Greek ethics (which he also liked), and he said that he was a Christian only in the same sense that he was an Epicurean. He rejected the miracles in the Bible as falsehoods, as well as the claim for Jesus of any special religious authority, and regarded much — though not all — of the New Testament as “the fabric of very inferior minds” and/or “ravings of a maniac.”

      That set of beliefs would probably be considered as compatible with Christianity by most of my colleagues, and as incompatible with Christianity by most of my students (and most of Jefferson’s contemporaries). It’s hard to know how Jefferson would have positioned himself wrt Christianity if he’d had less ambition. He seems less hostile than Paine et al., but just plain less interested in Christianity than Tindal.

  7. Bob November 17, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    If most of your colleagues would consider that set of beliefs compatible with Christianity, then shouldn’t they consider most Westerners’ beliefs compatible with Christianity? After all, most Westerners would think that Greek ethics is too egoistic and admire Jesus’ ethical teachings but reject the supernatural elements of Christianity. I’m not unsympathetic to the Jeffersonian attitude, I’m just not sure it’s really compatible with Christianity; after so many centuries, it seems pretty apparent that Christians don’t regard Jesus as Lucretius regarded Epicurus.

    Coincidentally, I also doubt that anything worthy of the title of Epicureanism is compatible even with Jefferson’s sense of what it is to be a Christian; Jesus and Epicurus have more in common than most people would suppose, but even on Jefferson’s highly selective understanding of Jesus, there seem to be too many points of irreconcilable conflict.

    Really, though, I wanted to comment only to say that you impress me both with your willingness to continue to engage in these kinds of arguments with irrational pseudo-Christian quasi-conservatives and with how well you do it. Bravo.

    • Roderick November 18, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

      If most of your colleagues would consider that set of beliefs compatible with Christianity, then shouldn’t they consider most Westerners’ beliefs compatible with Christianity? After all, most Westerners would think that Greek ethics is too egoistic and admire Jesus’ ethical teachings but reject the supernatural elements of Christianity.

      I think the crucial question for the colleagues in question would be what role the teachings of Jesus play in their lives and thought. If it plays a central and “spiritual” role for some people, and if those people find something meaningful in the God-talk even if they don’t believe in a literal God, then my colleagues would probably accept such people’s self-description as Christian.

      I think jefferson did believe in a literal God. But I’m skeptical as to how central a role Jesus’s teachings played in his life and thought.

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