Christian history, and other oxymorons

Apparently the fundamentalists haven’t read the part of the Bible where it says “Do not lie to one another.”

The fundamentalists who have appropriated the previously-respectable word “Christian” for their brand of right-wing-politics-plus-sexual-purity-cult claim to respect the Bible. Presumably that includes Lev. 19:11, “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.”

Yet pseudo-historian David Barton, whose book on Jefferson was so fraudulent even Thomas Nelson had to withdraw it under pressure from actual professors at fundamentalist schools (and whose professional credentials consist entirely of a B.A. in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University), remains a celebrity and a political powerhouse, courted by Presidential candidates.

Barton is helping to lead the charge against the Common Core on the grounds that – wait for it – by not teaching cursive writing, it makes students dependent on scholars to read the founding documents. (No, seriously.)

The symmetry convention in political reporting made a kind of sense when the two major parties were in fact more or less symmetric. But there is simply nothing like David Barton among progressives or Democrats. This is as if Hillary Clinton thought she needed to court David Bellesiles.

The press’s acceptance of the dishonest self-label “Christian” for this bunch of loons has a bad impact on religion as well as on politics. For the first time since the Revolutionary generation, there is now a substantial body of anti-religious opinion. Since, like Franklin, I think that religion can have value in personal and social life more or less independent of the truth-value of its doctrinal claims, this seems to me regrettable.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

50 thoughts on “Christian history, and other oxymorons”

  1. Um, I have no great love or respect for Mr. Barton. And on balance I don’t think that teaching cursive writing is the highest “ROI” use of the time that kids are in school. But its neither a crazy nor a despicable position to assert that not teaching cursive writing is bad because a massive amount of textual material is only available in manuscript form written in a cursive hand. One who values democratic access to information may very well think that students should be taught to read texts in their own language in whatever broadly available forms they might come in.

      1. Perhaps – but I’m sure that doing the former without the latter is that much more time-efficient. Maybe.

      2. I have terrible handwriting and have to print if I want to be even barely legible. I wish I had better handwriting. Also, kids today still need to learn how to write on paper for when the iPad runs out of power or they have something private to say.

        I agree it’s an obviously pretextual objection to the core standards but I can’t agree that it is a meritless one

    1. This is utterly beyond nuts. There is nothing, and I mean nothing that 99% of people have any interest in reading that is not available in typeset form. Is there a great deal of text only available in manuscript form? Yeah, sure – but those people who are sufficiently interested to seek it out are also sufficiently interested to learn the script; indeed, even if they nominally already know “cursive” they will most likely need to master the particular script of the manuscript in question.

      1. Well, the point isnt so much reading printed materials as the ability to communicate without using any devices that communicate over networks, either the Internet or telephone cables. In fact, the way things are going with the surveillance state, if you have something to say that you want kept private you’d better be able to write or at least print legibly because they don’t seem to be making typewriters any more. As a certain front pager of this blog would say, too late for privacy, freedom’s gone, learn to adapt or learn to submit.

        Maybe if we and our children and our children’s children must lives our lives naked in public, the best hope for the future will be good handwriting.

        1. Nothing in your comment suggests it’s desirable to teach a second handwritten script, and one that’s justly incredibly unpopular to boot.

          1. Fair enough. Although I’d like to remind you that both Presidents Bush owe their successful elections in no small part to the lovely handwritten “thank you” notes and Christmas cards they and their families sent to the Village press over the years, so there’s that to consider.

    2. Your argument seems to lead to the conclusion that we should teach palaeography, not writing cursive. Also, many foundational documents were written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Should it be compulsory to learn those, or should we be dependent on scholars?

    3. Just what percentage of the population are going to dig out originls of the DOI or Constitution? Is it worth teaching this to kids wholesale when only a tiny fraction of professional historians-to-be would use it?

      There is a German handwriting style called “script” in English, very difficult form of cursive to make out. I learned how to read it at age 35 for my studies, no problem. I would not be able to write a single word in it.

  2. “But there is simply nothing like David Barton among progressives or Democrats.”

    Bellesilles is a Republican? I think he did a pretty good job of demonstrating that liberals can push fake history, too, and be pretty darned successful at it for a while.

    Anyway, if we abandon cursive, what are we going to do for signatures? Adopt hankos? This is a serious practical question, I’m actually on board with not teaching cursive, and we haven’t taught it to my son yet, though we have taught him to type. But it does have a certain limited use even now.

    1. I missed reading about Bellesilles being a powerful broker in the Democratic party. Barton is a powerful broker in the Republican party. Curious that you don’t defend him directly, resorting instead to “there is a random name vaguely affiliated with Democrats, and they’re worse, so it doesn’t count.”

      1. I thought the point was about partisan fake history, so I cited a purveyor of fake history on your side to demonstrate it isn’t a sin reserved for Republicans. Barton is a powerful broker in the GOP? Never heard of him.

        Mind, as pointed out below, the Democratic party has some remarkably despicable power brokers. You’ve got your fraudulent historians, and reliance on them. That the two classes happen not to overlap much is hardly something to justify bragging about asymmetry.

        1. “I thought the point was about partisan fake history, so I cited a purveyor of fake history on your side to demonstrate it isn’t a sin reserved for Republicans. Barton is a powerful broker in the GOP? Never heard of him.”

          Then have a friend read Mark’s post to you, and explain what it meant.

        2. “Barton is a powerful broker in the GOP? Never heard of him.”

          For you folks in the audience learning about poker for the first time, this is referred to as a “tell.”

    2. “Bellesilles is a Republican? I think he did a pretty good job of demonstrating that liberals can push fake history, too, and be pretty darned successful at it for a while.”

      And Brett does what Brett does best.

      I’ll accept your example, Brett – on the Democratic side, we have somebody who was exposed as a fraud, and given the boot. On your side, you have somebody who was exposed as a fraud, and accepted.

    3. This is a serious practical question…

      Nope. Not by a long shot. Most kids find a way to scribble a signature, and even practice it. It’s a rite of passage. A lot of the output has no relation to cursive,but it’s a signature, not an exegesis. Too bad for them I say. I’ve heard that the signatures of folks who employ some of those old fashioned cursive lines are harder to forge. But, then there are digital copies.

      Of course this would all change if we went back to the original founding Constitutional principles and states’ rights, I’m sure.

  3. Knowing nothing about the cursive debate other than what I read here (and always enjoying Mark’s view), I’m not sure that I understand the argument. Is it over the wisdom of teaching cursive, or is it over a claim that teaching cursive is distinctively Christian, or what?

  4. Well, here goes nothing :^)

    Mark Kleiman, September 9, 2013: “There is simply nothing like David Barton among progressives or Democrats.”

    Mark Kleiman, September 9, 2003: “Al Sharpton is easily the most despicable major figure in either of the two major parties, and yes I do include Trent Lott and Tom DeLay. The fact that no Democrat can run for President without appearing in the same room as Sharpton is the only good reason I can think of for voting Republican. It’s not a good enough reason, but it’s not chopped liver either.” And of course Sharpton spoke at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic conventions.

    1. That was then, this is now. Really. But I think Mark Kleiman may be overstating Barton’s influence. He sure speaks to the base, and maybe some relatively depoliticized evangelicals, but is he really a power broker? Does appearing on the Daily Show enhance his reputation as such? Enquiring minds want to know!

      And by the way, Al Sharpton is a shadow of his former self, in more ways than one. Having become a pundit instead of an activist, he’s borderline respectable now.

        1. BTW, how many events is Sharpton prominent at?
          I think of him as a former second-tier, now struggling to remain in the third tier.

        2. Oh, please. Give it a break. Sharpton is currently a non-entity employed by a network with very dismal ratings. He’s pretty much run his course. Jeez.

      1. I put Sharpton in a class with Limbaugh and the rest of the worst of the right. Actuall lower, since Limbaugh, despite his equally toxic effect on American politics, has never been involved, so far as I know, in stuff that got anyone killed.

  5. Mark,

    You make an interesting point about the usurpation of the term “Christian” by fundamentalists and evangelicals. Nevertheless, I don’t see what business it is of yours. It’s God’s brand so it up to him or her (if indeed he or she exists) to act if Christianity is being tarnished by being so closely associated with the nuttiest of his or her followers. The fact that Michele Bachmann and Pat Robertson are with us suggests that God either doesn’t exist or is a terrible person with very poor morals and no sense of Christian charity.

    1. Sorry, that was me who pushed the submit button without making sure my name and email address was filled in.

  6. Stephen, this is nonsense. I was taught cursive in first and second grade, and can write a fairly decent Chancery Cursive today. But I’m hopeless at reading the scrawls of many of our literary and political ancestors, even when they write English. Fraktur is out of the question, even for moderns. Try this sample of Queen Elizabeth I’s handwriting and see if you’re up to it. And she was renowned for her hand.

  7. Surely we need not only to teach cursive writing (and quillmanship!) but also the use of that weird eighteenth century cursive “s” that looks like an “f”. As a kid, I read a whole comedy-history book whose principle conceit was reading that letter as an “f”.

    PS how utterly ludicrous is it that these proudly dogmatic Christians, so concerned that our Founders’ words must be read in photostat rather than in printed texts, almost certainly don’t read Greek, let alone Hebrew or Aramaic?

      1. If you could read Runnymede Cursive (coming soon to a font folder near you), you’d be able to figure how it works.

        My two cents, as an historian working in his field: my ability to decipher 18th and 19th century hand-written texts depends much, much less on the Palmer Method cursive I was taught some decades ago in a little Nebraska Catholic school, than on my ability to read the languages in which the documents are written–usually English, sometimes French, Spanish, Portuguese. Anticipatory whingeing about not being able to read the fundamental documents of history because of a lack of instruction in cursive penmanship is just another outcropping of Rage Against The Twentieth Century (let alone the 21st).

  8. … it makes students dependent on scholars to read the founding documents. (No, seriously.)

    Has this guy even seen an original of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence? The copy of the Declaration in the National Archives (in particular) is so badly faded as to be unreadable in the light provided. Cursive, printed or whatever, the ink is so faded that it is barely recognizable.

  9. @Warren T.

    I have colleagues (at a major university) who teach Greek and Hebrew–they all get a fair number of evangelical students who want to learn these languages so they can read the original texts.

    I suspect that some of the pro-cursive push comes from the same nostalgia for an earlier and better (because more Christian) USA; there was (still may be) a love by people of this persuasion for teaching reading using the McGuffey readers.

    1. Oh, sure, some of those people exist. I took Hebrew at University, and we had a fair number of Christians in the class. Or, rather, we had them for about a fortnight; the only gentile I can remember toughing it out was an Army Captain sent to University get a postgraduate degree and some language skills. Most of the Christians who registered for the class in order to learn to read the Torah were a bit pitiful, really (not that this applies to all Christians with similar ambitions!). In any case, I doubt Barton or his acolytes have made the effort – which is faintly ridiculous for a group of people so dedicated to the Revealed Word Of God, and who (in another context) insist that even transcription (let alone translation) must be eschewed. It’s like the (possibly apocryphal) stories of angry nativist rural conservative American Christians insisting that the Bible must be the King James version, like Jesus spoke.

  10. Barton is too modest. It’s a scandal that our citizens can’t read the Bible in its original texts. I demand that our children be taught Aramaic, Hebrew and ancient Greek.

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  12. Hucksters like Barton call to mind the quotation often attributed to the Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  13. Or the American philosopher Don Maclean “some believe in Jesus, they don’t act like they do.”

    As one raised in a very fundamentalist/evangelical religion ( and who, with great difficulty, escaped) I would assert that there is very little “Christian’ about fundamentalist Christianity today. As to the intelligence of such Christians, when I was a student at a respected fundy school, the theology students were known as the – I was going to say least inteligent but – dumbest students on campus. The most frightening aspect of fundamentalists is their perception that “God” has given them license to push their beliefs on everyone else. Barton wants to define this country in terms so odious that I can’t believe that anyone pays attention, the problem is that there are no end of “scholars” who think as he does who are spreading his religious idiocy.

    A comment on Sharpton – I’ve always thought him a jackass (google Cornell West and Sharpton for an excellent takedown of rev. Al), I find Barton far more dangerous, more frightening than Sharpton can ever be. I didn’t believe that “Christianity” could ever achieve the degree of influence in this country that it has and I see the Bartons suceeding in pushing that fascist influence even further. It is easy to dismiss Barton’s obvious stupidity – don’t. There is a large group of our fellow citizens who think he’s just great, after all, he is spreading God’s word. Remember: “The Gospel unto all the world, then shall the end come.”

  14. If we allow the removal of cursive writing from school curricula then what’s next? It’s a slippery slope from there to also dropping instruction in the use of slide rules and morse code.

    1. A Writer’s Lament (with many apologies to Rev. Niemöller):

      “First they came for the slide rules, but I said nothing because I was not a Mathematics major.
      Then they came for the Morse keys, but I said nothing because I was not a Communications major.
      Now they’ve come to do away with my cursive writing classes, and I am unable to stop them because I cannot write a Letter to the Editor that my descendants will be able to read…”

  15. “…I think that religion can have value in personal and social life more or less independent of the truth-value of its doctrinal claims…”

    Please identify any “value in personal and social life” that a religion can have, independent of the truth value of its doctrinal claims, that isn’t accessible to anyone whether they espouse a religious belief or not. If such value can be gained without affiliating oneself even tangentially with religious doctrines whose truth claims are either unverifiable or demonstrably false, why should anyone form or retain such an affiliation?

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