Letter to the Editor

Research sheds light on historical context of Declaration

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dear Editor:

In the work I have done in my life, I have been blessed by the opportunity to work in several areas that gave me a chance to continue to learn and grow as an individual.

My work was a challenge as each opportunity exposed me to a different aspect of life. In retirement, there has been time to listen to the wisdom and experience of others and realize there is much more to be learned.

The offer to be involved in writing columns for discussion on different issues affecting life is rich with new levels of examining what is truth and what is not.

Experience has taught me there are so many different opinions on most subjects that great care is needed to sort out bits of what is true and what is passed around as truth and accepted by many.

One thing I have learned is that history must be looked at carefully and from many directions if we are to discover truth. A statement heard some time ago has been a subject of some study.

A historian mentioned that there were those who were claiming to know the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution was built on Christian principles. He used a familiar term I had heard many times but never as he used it.

"Proof texting" in regard to the Bible means someone takes a few words, a phrase, or some verses of the Bible to prove a statement or belief is true. This is done quite often but takes the material out of context and seeks to prove something that is not true as you look at the larger picture.

As he expressed the idea that those who claim the United States was created to be a Christian nation were "proof texting" the information about how the Declaration was crafted, and were using bits and pieces of the letters and writings of the authors to prove Christian origins.

Having heard some historians who have a different opinion, I began to search for information. A video I had seen used such claims that are often repeated, as is done by Mr. Clark. In his letter to the Editor of March 18, he responds to my claim that the Declaration was to grant citizens freedom from religion. Several of his arguments are the result of proof texting, some coming directly from the video.

I want to challenge Mr. Clark and anyone who agrees with him to do some research. As a suggestion I am about halfway through reading a book by Alan Dershowitz, "America Declares Independence." Copyright 2003

He is a Harvard law professor and has made an exhaustive study of the writings of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and materials involved in its preparation.

He says, "this book is about the revolution in principles brought by the pens of American statesmen rather than the revolution won by swords and flint locks of American patriots."

He wants to "reclaim the Declaration for all America, indeed for all people who love liberty and abhor tyranny, both of the body and the mind."

He says, "We must exercise caution in extrapolating the words of the past to the issues of the present. I will try to show the very meanings of the words and concepts which have changed with the times."

He quotes all Oliver Wendell Holmes "a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and context according to the circumstances and times in which it is used."

"Even words as apparently timeless as 'God,' 'nature,' 'equal,' and 'rights' conveys somewhat different meanings today than they did in 1776."

Mr. Dershowitz brings words and influence of the great thinkers, Thomas Payne, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others.

"The immediate purpose of the Declaration was to aid the war effort and solicit support of political allies." The Christian Right and others use terms as they think they were understood as if they were today's words.

He writes, "As I will show in the pages to come, the Declaration was not based on the Bible and the drafters were not 'men of the Bible.'"

He cites comments for which Thomas Jefferson was criticized, even called an atheist. "Thomas Jefferson was neither a man of the Bible nor a person 'of faith.' He was a man of science and reason."

He, and others, were more nearly Unitarian. In the interest of space, I cannot present these arguments as well as did Mr. Dershowitz.

Given the time Thomas Jefferson lived, he could be forgiven for rebelling against organized religion as he understood it and as he saw it lived out in those days. He supported the liberty and freedom he thought God (as he described him) wished for all people.

If you really want to get closer to the truth about the Declaration of Independence, read and study carefully this small book of 174 pages and approximately 46,000 words in the body of the book.

Thomas Jefferson, in his final letter, the day before he and John Adams died (they both died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration), wrote this summary.

"May it, the Declaration of Independence, be to the world (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have submitted, restores the free right to the unbound exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

In disagreement with a theologian, John Calvin, he writes to John Adams, "The Being described in his five points, is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent Governor of the world but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, then blaspheme Him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."

On a personal note, I find myself agreeing with much of what Thomas Jefferson says criticizing the errors of "established religion" and agreeing with many of his positive beliefs.

Had he lived today, and seen the more positive side of faith and religion, he would have been more supportive.

Recently I read another book describing the negative sides of the church in the days leading up to the Reformation and during the period just before the United States began.

It is amazing that THE CHURCH (the one God established) survived the evil of these days. Some of the ideas promoted during that time caused the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to, figuratively, "build a wall between church and state" separating the function of the two institutions.

I am extremely grateful to those who gave of themselves to construct such a government that if we honored its purposes, we would have a far different nation today.

In his letter to the editor Mr. Clark places the blame for many problems facing us today on the fact that prayer has been removed from the schools. There are two problems with that assertion.

One, the Supreme Court decision did not ban or remove prayers from schools. What it did was to say that students cannot be forced to repeat, or listen to a prayer proscribed by some authority. The Supreme Court did nothing to remove voluntary prayer from schools, it is still acceptable.

Two, the prayer "that was not removed" is blamed for the decline in morality since that time. Many people are making such claims but I cannot see how they can possibly prove any of their claims even if the Supreme Court had removed prayer.

As a scientist, I was taught, and believe explicitly, that determining cause and effect is very difficult. Experiments must be conducted under rigid controls with only a few variables at any one time.

When the same results are obtained over many experiments, the truth can be established. Introducing another variable could change the results drastically. How many variables have been introduced in our society since the Supreme Court decision?

Let me suggest a few that have had great impact on what is happening to us as a people. We had just gone through two world wars that had made so much difference that only those who lived through it, or historians, could begin to understand the effect.

Home life had been uprooted, bringing together many marriages that could not have happened had it not been for World War II. For good or ill, these marriages brought together people who would not have otherwise ever known each other.

I and many others were blessed by the marriages that occurred because of the mixing of the population. Soldiers, sailors, Marines, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard were given an opportunity for university and trade training with new facts, skills, a new view and contact with a far different world.

Children born to these marriages were given new opportunities and provided with a prosperity unknown before this time. Television and communications were changing rapidly. Computers began also to enter the picture and created new jobs, new opportunities for learning. Immediate contact with what was happening throughout the world became the norm rather than the rare occasion. Our society became much more mobile, much more under the influence of many pressures, such as advertising.

Greater income, shorter workweeks, so many opportunities in sports, community activities, reduced the emphasis on church in the lives of many.

To place blame on something which did not happen is to fail to use the mental powers that God gave us. I would submit that there are many reasons for whatever lack of morality there may be.

As a pastor and as a citizen of the United States of America, make that a proud citizen, I believe that if our citizens took seriously the message that Jesus sought to bring to us as a people, as a world, we would have a far different world in which there would be much less conflict, much less suffering and a far richer, more abundant life for all citizens and all people of the world.

Lester Thornton