Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/14/2011

Damn! I don’t want to write about politics.

Pleasant Grove’s Light Unto the World

I haven’t posted for six days. I’ve written thousands of words. But all frustration and disconnection. I can’t figure out any moderately sensible way to say what I want to say. It needs a book.

I grew up thinking that to say “damn” was short hand for “God damn,” and that was wrong because it was either taking the Name of the Lord in Vain or swearing by heaven or committing some other grave error (see Matthew 5:34-36; Romans 12:14; or Pleasant Grove, Utah, city park).

Well, I’m leaving the gods out of this. It’s just “damn!”

In a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, President Bush explained that

In the Persian Gulf we fought for good versus evil—it was that clear to me . . . . And America stood fast so that liberty could stand tall. Today I want to thank you for helping America, as Christ ordained, to be a light unto the world (1).

As Christ ordained? I searched for “America” in Strong’s Concordance of the Bible. It’s not there. Christ didn’t ordain America to be anything. The 1996 Davis editorial I’ve quoted is not prescient; rather, it was President George Herbert Walker Bush who said that in 1992, not his “Evil Empire” son.

I am aware that, even for people who might basically agree me, the idea I’m about to state is objectionable, over-the-top, and irrational. That will not bring me to retreat from the proposition:

Believing Christ ordained anything for America is directly analogous to the Taliban’s believing God willed the 2001 destruction of priceless 6th-century Buddhas carved in a mountainside of the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan.

Both come from the same impulse to claim divine authority for what one is likely to do anyway. Divine authority makes human interaction—social, political, familial, professional, or any other kind—unnecessary. Believing Christ ordained one’s actions also renders unnecessary such bothersome niceties such as truth or intellectual integrity.

That a President of the United States—any President—could say publically, “Christ ordained [America] to be a light unto the world,” is first frightening and then repulsive.

For a traditional Christian the statement is, I should think, heresy.  Blind Simeon, prophet in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s birth, did not say God had allowed him to see America. Simeon was ready to die in peace because he had seen the Christ, “the salvation, Which [God] hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. . . ” (Luke 2:29–32). Not America, Jesus.

Later on, Jesus did not announce to his disciples that “America is the Light of the World.” He reserved that appellation for himself. “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). And so on. Biblical references to light are not about America.

There’s that Massachusetts Puritan stuff about the City of God in America. That’s not Biblical, either. It’s St. Augustine. Filtered through John Calvin. Filtered through Oliver Cromwell. Filtered through John Winthrop to refer to Salem, “the City on the Hill” (or the home of the witch trials—you choose).

Fast forward. “Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true. He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary” (2). [“That” refers to the Fatherly Sixteen-year-old working tirelessly to end slavery.]

White House Portrait

Michele Bachmann is half right. JQA did serve “essentially” as his father’s secretary during negotiations to end the Revolutionary War. He had witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill. He eventually became President. But his efforts to end slavery were spotty at best and are not evidence the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery.

The minutiae of history matter.  Bachmann’s playing fast and loose with the facts matters. The frightening aspect of Bachmann’s statements is that she comes from an educational milieu in which such non-truths are taught and believed, an educational tradition gaining ever more currency (3).

JQA is a favorite of Bachmann’s Religious Right because the pseudo-historian David Barton has perpetrated a lie about JQA’s religious belief. Barton, in his video series America’s Godly Heritage, uses what he says is a quotation from JQA. However, JQA did not say or write, “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity” [please see the website referenced below (4) for a complete discussion of this matter].

Back to the Taliban and the light of the world. Bending the facts to claim an indissoluble bond between the principles of civil government and the principles of Christianity cannot be commensurate with being the light of the world. One claim to divine authority is as dangerous as any other.

Barton’s myth about JQA has been conflated with the myth of his tirelessly working for the end of slavery. JQA was elected a minority President in a contingent election. The Kentucky slave owner, Henry Clay, engineered his victory. JQA thanked Clay by appointing him Secretary of State.  Clay had engineered the Missouri Compromise governing admission of slave states to the Union, of which JQA said,

Congress has no power to meddle with it. . . I would leave that institution to the exclusive consideration and management of the states more peculiarly interested in it, just as long as they can keep it within their own bounds (5).

JQA worked “moderately” (6) for the abolition of slavery, but he was also a deft politician (his extraordinary election as President rendered him ineffective and thwarted his re-election). He participated in the anti-slavery debates in the House of Representatives, but mainly because he opposed as unconstitutional the “gag” rule against mention of slavery in House debate. He never formally embraced abolitionism. Although “Adams disappointed abolitionists by refusing formally to join their ranks, he could not escape identification with the anti-slavery cause” (7).

His most notable opposition came when he argued at the Supreme Court as counsel for the defendants  in the case of the Amistad mutineers, United States V. Amistad Africans.  This came near the end of his life in 1841, and he still refused to call himself an abolitionist (8).

An aside. In her misuse of facts, Bachmann invokes a political philosophy contradictory to her own. JQA hardly fits the stereotype of the small government conservatism Bachmann espouses.

A Light unto the World

A Light unto the World

In his first annual message he presented a far-sighted plan for national improvement: it included federal support for literature and the arts, the financing of scientific expeditions, a national university, an astronomical observatory and a network of roads and canals. He thus revealed a spirit not to be displayed again in the White House until the days of John F. Kennedy (9).

I wax pedestrian and obvious. If America is the “light unto the world,” we ought at least require our leaders—even our potential leaders—to discover and speak the truth.  Believing in the indissoluble bond between the principles of civil government and the principles of Christianity may create much heat, but it does not enlighten. Basing political ideas and ambitions on distortions of history must certainly dim the “light unto the world.”

______________
(1) Davis, Derek H. “Christian faith and political involvement in today’s culture war.” Journal of Church & State 38.3 (1996): 477.
(2) Bachmann, Michele. “John Quincy Adams a Founding Father? Michele Bachmann Says Yes.” George’s Bottom Line. ABCNews. June 28, 2011. Web. 8 Aug 2011.
(3) This complex subject is explained in: Lizza, Rayn. “Leap of Faith: The making of a Republican front-runner.” The New Yorker. August 15, 2011. Web. 10 Aug 2011.
(4) Haraldsson, Hrafnkell. “AFA Uses Barton’s Fake John Quincy Adams Quote to Support Theocracy.” Politicususa.com April 25, 2011. Web. 12 Aug 2011. The untruth of the Religious Right’s perpetration of this error is documented in many places; easily accessible is: http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/misq5.htm. The hyperlink leads to the article: Peterson, Kurt W. “American idol.” Christian Century 123.22 (2006): 20-23.
(5) Mattie, Sean. “John Quincy Adams and American Conservatism.” Modern Age 45.4 (2003): 305-314.
(6) See, for example: Charvat, William. “Prescott’s Political and Social Attitudes.” American Literature 13.4 (1942): 320.
(7) Sharp, Allen. “Presidents as Supreme Court Advocates: Before and After the White House.” Journal of Supreme Court History 28.2 (2003): 116-144.
(8)Jones, Maldwyn A. “John Quincy Adams.” History Today 30.11 (1980): 5-8.
(9) Jones, op cit.

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Responses

  1. Yay, Harold! Well said!

    Like

  2. ” … we ought at least require our leaders—even our potential leaders—to discover and speak the truth.”

    Dream on, Harold. If you ever come up with a way to enforce this, please let me know and I’ll back you 100%!

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  3. Wonderfully laid out. Well done! Re: GHWB you could append with “thousand points of light” and “New World Order” (if you wanted to blog about politics). In my humble understanding, Jesus never “ordained” anything — his was only the message to “all mankind” to speak directly to the Father. Tricky, this subject, and a woeful lack of historical information and education en masse is maybe the most overlooked problem with the country.

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  4. I’ll say it; God Damn good blog.

    Like


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