Monday, February 15, 2010

The Republican Lunatic Fringe: Yes, There Is One! Thomas Jefferson Spins in His Grave

With so many pressing issues to consider –- jobs, the economy, healthcare –- the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill last Wednesday banning companies from tracking employees with microchips. On the surface such a measure may have preemptive merit as an ethical curb on the future abuse of technology and shows notable respect for personal privacy. While implanted microchips are currently used to track pets, not humans, the bill sponsor’s motivation is straight out of the lunatic fringe of religious fundamentalist paranoia.

Delegate Mark L. Cole said he proposed the bill out of a concern that such devices could someday be used “as the mark of the beast” described in the Book of Revelation. Still unclear is why try to stop him (or her), since the rise of the Antichrist is prophesied as inevitable prologue to the end times; is it to score brownie points with the One upstairs in order to get a better place in line when the Rapture comes around? Were that the case, this could be viewed as a self-serving measure taking special-interest politics to entirely new heights. Said Cole:
“My understanding—I'm not a theologian—but there's a prophecy in the Bible that says you'll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times. Some people think these computer chips might be that mark.”
A skeptical Democrat (he was being ironic, one hopes), Delegate Robert H. Brink, said he did not find many voters demanding microchip legislation during his campaign: “I didn't hear anything about the danger of asteroids striking the Earth, about the threat posed by giant alligators in our cities’ sewer systems or about the menace of forced implantation of microchips in human beings.” It could be he missed connecting with the Coast-to-Coast Art Bell/George Noory demographic. Perhaps if he’d held a campaign meet-and-greet event advertised as “The Alien Menace: America’s Secret Pact With the Grays.”

The biblical passage that concerns Delegate Cole and his fellow travelers is in Revelations, Chapter 13 which describes the rise of a satanic figure known as “the Beast:”
“He causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
Naturally, one of the main proponents of the microchip/Antichrist conspiracies is WorldNet Daily, the wingnut site peddling the Obama birth certificate (“Birther”) conspiracy. They’ve penned the usual paranoid articles --“Next Step in H1N1 Scare: Microchip implants” and “How Obama Prepped World for the Antichrist” –- and are set to release a book called The Islamic Antichrist. It is well documented by the Left Behind series of Jerry Jenkins and right wing activist Tim LaHaye that apocalyptic Revelation as popular fiction is big business. It is likely Delegate Cole was influenced and inspired by the series, an avid WND reader, or both.

Enter Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson, one of Virginia’s most famous sons second only to George Washington, would be appalled. The author of Virginia’s constitution would be horrified by the weirdness of state delegates such as Mark Cole and his fellow believers, not for their beliefs per se, but that they would codify those religious beliefs into law. Next, Mr. Jefferson would surely question the wisdom of any presidential actions he had taken that might have contributed to Texas joining the Union. He might even encourage the separatist Texans who wish to secede.

Jefferson’s approach to Christianity is well exemplified by his treatment of the New Testament. He edited the ethical teachings of Jesus and published them as a succinct book, known as the Jefferson Bible. In it, the teachings of Jesus are shorn of the “artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves.”

Texas is Ground Zero for the latest assault on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers. Religious fundamentalists in control of the Texas Board of Education are making changes to our children’s textbooks that must have the author of the Declaration of Independence turning in his grave. The Texas Board sets the standards for what children will learn in all subjects from science to American history, and what their textbooks will include and omit. As the deciders of curricula that shapes young minds and educates future generations, these individuals wield enormous power.

For example, they have tried to excise César Chavez, the legendary labor leader of the migrant workers, from Texas textbooks. Only a popular uproar saved Chavez. Ted Kennedy, widely recognized as the Senate’s greatest legislator, was nixed but Newt Gingrich, the windbag whose claim to fame is the contract on America and his unsuccessful closure of the government over deep Medicare cuts which President Clinton refused to make, was deemed worthy of mention in Texas textbooks.

The Texas Board also censored the children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? because they confused its author, Bill Martin Jr., with Bill Martin, the author of a book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. So what if it were the other author? What does a political science book for adults that wasn’t being considered have to do with the content of a children’s book? And we have yet to broach evolution. Worst yet, as the Washington Monthly notes, “what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy.”

What these people are doing to Education, to the teaching of sound science instead of religious mythology, and factual, not revisionist, history is enough to make any educated, rational person’s skin crawl. This only begins to scratch the surface. Thomas Jefferson’s deism is considered an “anomaly” by the ultra-conservative ideologues in control of the Texas Board of Education who favor a historical fantasy that distorts the truth, casting the Founding Fathers as devout Christians.

David Barton, one of the “experts” being consulted by the Texas Board is the right wing religious extremist rewriting the history America’s children will “learn,” from fact to Christian fantasy. Among other Orwellian excesses, omissions, gross distortions, and outright lies, Barton and his fundamentalist allies argue that the notion of a wall of separation of church and state, penned by Jefferson, is a liberal myth.

Jefferson wrote that, as president, it was not his place to get involved in matters of religion. Under the First Amendment, he said, the state must not establish a state religion (establishment clause) and ensure the free exercise of religion (free exercise clause), which meant there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Barton claims that Jefferson meant to say is that no single Christian denomination should become a state religion in a Christian state.

Historians and scholars, the real experts, strongly disagree. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and writer of the documentary “Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham,” said:
“David Barton has been out there spreading this lie, frankly, that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation. He’s been very effective. But the logic is utterly screwy. He says the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution. He’s right about that. But to make that argument work you would have to argue that the phrase is not an accurate summation of the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson, who penned it, thought it was.” (David Barton declined to be interviewed for this article.) In his testimony in Austin, Steven Green was challenged by a board member with the fact that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution. In response, Green pointed out that many constitutional concepts — like judicial review and separation of powers — are not found verbatim in the Constitution.”
Speaking for himself, Mr. Thomas Jefferson begs to differ with the Christian fanatics, wingnuts, and Texas Board revisionists who have deigned to dance on his grave. On religious intrusions in government (and against theocracy), Jefferson wrote:
The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” (Letter to J. Moore, 1800).
And here’s a zinger:
“The clergy...believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, 1800).
Jefferson forcefully rejects precisely what Barton represents. He was not in the least inclined, as Barton argues, to piously defend Christian denominations solely to prevent the installation of a Christian state religion. Instead, Jefferson is downright hostile to the “clergy” as a whole. He is an equal opportunity church and state separatist. As they say in Olympic parlance, he nails the landing.

In the following passages, Jefferson further clarifies his stance, railing against the corrosive and anti-democratic history of religion in government:
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” (Letter to von Humboldt, 1813).
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” (Letter to H. Spafford, 1814).
Finally, on the question wrongly argued by Barton that Jefferson had referred solely to the establishment of a Christian denomination in his famous declaration of a “wall of separation between Church & State” rather than the broader separation of the state from all religions, Mr. Jefferson is emphatic and worldly:
“Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality.” (Letter to J. Fishback, 1809).
Here Jefferson is arguing for the protection by the state of religious customs that are not Christian, e.g., the right of a woman of the Islamic faith to wear a burka. In the U.S., unlike France where this custom is outlawed by legislative fiat, this religious custom is protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Whatever fantasies Barton and the Texas Board may harbor about the alleged Christian piety of the Founding Fathers, as far as Mr. Jefferson is concerned, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (Notes on Virginia, 1785.)

In other words, Barton and the Texas Board are the very antithesis of educators; they are history’s pickpockets. Or, as George W. Bush famously said: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”


Ed Darrell said...

Thanks for your support of sanity in Texas.

See also Jefferson's words about the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he wrote:

Carlos said...

Thanks, we do what we can. And thanks for the link; that's an excellent U.S. history site.

Doug Indeap said...

To say the least, Barton should be taken with a grain of salt. As revealed by Chris Rodda's meticulous analysis, zealotry more than fact shapes his work, which is riddled with shoddy scholarship and downright dishonesty. See Chris Rodda, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History (2006) and