exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alan Dershowitz: Blasphemy

I picked up Alan Dershowitz's 2007 book Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence as part of my continuing interest in the whole "America is a Christian Nation" debate. I'll admit up front I'm not a big fan of Dershowitz: he seems to fall into that broad category of "civil liberties ambulance chasers:" people who grind out a career one book/op ed/talk show appearance at a time, who contribute as much to the fear industry from the Left as people like Richard Land do from the Right, people who tend to be more quotable than they are thoughtful, etc.

On the other hand, like a lot of people who came out of my subculture I think I always took it as read that because the Declaration of Independence referred to "their Creator" and the Old Testament God is the Creator God, that these two were the same somehow, a claim tantamount to claiming that everyone who refers to "God" refers to the same God somehow. And this latter claim in recent days makes about as much sense as believing that everybody understands what I mean when I use the word "I."

Anyway, Dershowitz takes on the apparently common claim on the Christian Right that the Declaration of Independence is a peer to the Constitution in defining the United States as a nation, and furthermore that the Creator God who endows people with unalienable rights in that document is somehow the Christian God, and with some success. He sets about doing this in three steps, with mixed success:
  1. Thomas Jefferson, drafter and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, couldn't have meant the Christian God
  2. Various contemporary Christian Right leaders know they're misrepresenting Jefferson
  3. Jefferson's invocation of natural law, including appeals to this Creator God, is no basis for a system of government.
In the first section Dershowitz works from first-rate sources and makes a pretty strong argument: Jefferson, as a man of the Enlightenment, definitely a Deist and not a Christian the way contemporary values voters think of themselves as Christians: he didn't believe Jesus was divine, he didn't believe in miracles, etc. He more or less believed (as many Muslims do today) that the Apostles in general and Paul in particular had invented the Jesus of Christianity out of thin air. Jefferson was certainly no fan of clergymen, etc. His argument benefits greatly from the many letters Jefferson wrote and the many books written about his opinions.

Unfortunately in the second section Dershowitz makes the same mistake many critics of the Christian Right make: he quotes them as if their comments were meant to be statements of fact, where I'd argue that most of them are using aspirational language, or possibly shibboleths, or cultural signifiers: they're not inviting their audience to judge the truth of what they're saying, but rather to believe what they're saying in the face of the facts (supporting or otherwise) as an act of inclusion or exclusion in a faith community. Instead of "this is true," they mean "everyone in my takes this by faith." This doesn't mean that Dershowitz is wrong, per se, but rather that he's just not working from sources of the same quality when he talks about Christian Right leaders as he does when he talks about Thomas Jefferson. And that's a shame, because it leaves him sounding like he hasn't done his homework.

His closing section is kind of a mess: he essentially argues that Jefferson plays fast and loose with natural law, and more or less making up the justification for the Revolutionary War. I have to wonder why he went to all this trouble, but it's his basis for saying essentially that the Declaration of Independence isn't useful for declaring the United States a "Christian Nation."

In the end this isn't an entirely satisfying book, but it leaves Dershowitz in a peculiar position of claiming that people who make "Christian Nation" claims are engaging in a kind of "civil blasphemy" (his term), setting, in a sense, the American civil religion with its various narratives and theology in opposition to Christianity and its God. I don't know what to make of this; in a sense Dershowitz seems to be saying that Jefferson, as a Deist, had a God, and the Declaration of Independence is a religious document, and it's the Christian Right folks who are the blasphemers. Go figure.

I feel obligated to point out that this book is fairly priced at Amazon.com, with both new and used copies being available for less than fifty cents, plus shipping.

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