Tuesday, November 30, 2004

More on Christians and Intellectual Honesty

A few days ago, this story began making the rounds of conservative and religious right circles. The Reuters story reports that a teacher in California has been prohibited by the principal from using handouts that refer to God. The part that's getting everyone frothing is that one of the documents from which quotes were cribbed is the Declaration of Independence. As it's being passed along, however, the story has mutated into the claim that he has been forbidden from teaching the Declaration because it refers to the creator.

Here's Seeing the Forest on the controversy:

The school did not "ban the Declaration of Independence" -- that is just a lie. This story is like when you hear that a man was "arrested for praying" and you find out he was kneeling in the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour and refused to move.

This is the BIG STORY today, on Rush, and Drudge, and the rest of the Usual Suspects. And it is a carefully planned and carefully timed lie.

That's pretty much dead-on. I mean, this story obviously doesn't pass the smell test; what's probably happening (and what I suggested when told about it) is that the teacher is a lunatic that's cutting and pasting quotes from the founding fathers in order to support his thesis that America is a 'Christian Nation' that's favored by God, who has actively intervened to show his favor. Or if not precisely that, something equally suspect and controversial. The key, though, is that we're just not sure at the moment what's going on. We can conjecture, but we can't make conclusions.

At any rate, the actual issue is probably something like 'Should a teacher be permitted to instruct his students that there shouldn't be a wall between church and state?' or possibly 'Should a teacher be permitted to instruct his students that America should be a Christian Nation?'

Instead, the issue is being presented as 'Should a teacher be allowed to teach his students that some of the founders believed we have rights that derive from a Creator?'

Now, it's entirely possible one could believe that a teacher should teach that America ought to institute Christian policies, but the important thing is that we argue honestly about it, which is to say that we argue about the actual issues at stake. In the present case, the Alliance Defense Fund distributed a press release which contends that the handouts were banned because they contained references to God, which probably isn't the case. Of course, the ADF is a Christian legal fund, so it could be argued that they're selectively using facts to their client's advantage, which is what lawyers are supposed to do. The problem with this is that while they are a legal organization, they're also a Christian legal organization, and ought to hew more closely to standards of intellectual honesty.

Anyhoo, the end effect of dishonesty of this sort (and having participated in Christian chat boards, I know that the level of dishonesty and/or gullibility is stunning) is to create a closed circuit that amplifies itself: the more the religious right hears this stuff, the more likely they are to be hornswoggled by the next allegation (the closed circuit thinking would go something like this: 'Well, this story is plausible, because I know from that last [bogus] story that the country is going to hell in a handbasket' and so one). I wouldn't consider merely believing the story to be dishonesty, but Christian groups and news organization that disseminate these stories clearly have a heightened ethical obligation to perform some due diligence on the facts that underpin their arguments. In constructing arguments, we have a duty of intellectual honesty to have reasonable assurance that our facts are correct, and to rejigger the argument if the supporting facts are shown to be dubious or false.

The lesson should be a familiar one: Trust, but verify.


Looks like At Ease has a good bead on one of the fliers the teacher was using. Here's an excerpt:

What Great Leaders Have Said About The Bible:

George Washington...It is impossible to rightly govern the world without the Bible.
John Adams...The Bible is the best book in the world. It contains more than all the libraries I have seen.
Thomas Jefferson...The Bible makes the best people in the world.
Abraham Lincoln...But for this Book we could not know right from wrong. I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man.
Ulysses S. Grant....The Bible is the anchor of our liberties.
If this is indeed the flier, then the teacher has clearly stepped over the line. Teaching kids that belief in the Bible is necessary for a free people just ain't allowed. It's notable that in the teacher's complaint, it's stated that all this was part of the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of the Founding. Given that the handout includes quotes from such non-founders as Grant, McKinley, Hoover, and.......wait for it.....Jesus Christ (!), and fails to mention quotes (of which there are plenty) that cut against the Judeo-Christian Founding hypothesis suggest that this teacher has An Agenda that violates the law.

Finally, here's a story which utterly violates the norms of intellectual honesty from the loony-toons Praise-God-and-Pass-the-Ammunition stalwart Talon News:

Williams has been barred from giving out copies of the Declaration of Independence to his students by the school's principal, Patricia Vidmar, because it refers to God....This has led to other materials that refer to God or Christianity being rejected, such as George Washington's journal, John Adams' diary, Samuel Adams' "The Rights of the Colonists," and William Penn's "The Frame of Government of Pennsylvania."

William's attorney, Terry Thompson, claims his client is being singled out for being a Christian.

This story has everything: breathless indignation, misinformation, and the paranoid everyone's-out-to-get-christians complex. The only thing missing is a connection to the UN's grand scheme to create the Godless New World Order.