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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. By John Fea. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Pp. 287).

Was America founded to be a "Christian Nation?" Did its founders endeavor to create a nation where Christ and Cross were joined hand-in-hand with the Constitution? And if so, how is America's current makeup in harmony/defiance with the "original intent" of our nation's Founding Fathers? These are just some of the questions addressed by John Fea, historian and author of the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. With the current climate of today's culture wars, which seem more interested in mud-slinging, name-calling and partisan hostility than honest scholarly inquiry, Dr. Fea's book is a breath of fresh air that cuts through the nonsense with its sharp historical foundation.

Fea's book jumps right out of the gate to address many of the problems facing the current culture wars v. the actual study of early American history. Appealing to the formula created by historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, Fea suggests that greater clarity on the issue of religion and America's founding can be achieved by adherence to the "Five C's": history CHANGES over time, must be put in proper CONTEXT, is interested in CAUSALITY, is CONTINGENT upon prior conditions and is often very COMPLEX. With this framework in mind, Fea effectively lays out the problems many of the culture warriors face when they simplify history to fit their respective agenda:

Such an approach to the past is more suitable for a lawyer than for a historian...The lawyer cares about the past only to the degree that he or she can use a legal decision in the past to win a case in the present...The historian, however, does not encounter the past in this way (xxvi).
In other words, the "tug-o-war" mentality of today's culture warriors means that they aren't concerned with what history has to say, but with what they can say about history, and in the process the truth has become lost (or less important).

To get the reader back on the Yellow Brick Road of historical accuracy and out of the "sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue", Fea divides his book into three parts. In part I, Fea examines the evolution of the "Christian Nation" thesis by exploring how its conceptualization meant different things at different times to different groups of people. For example, Fea notes how southerners, during the Civil War, endeavored to portray the United States as a godless, sinful society while their new Confederacy embraced the Christian God with open arms:

Southerners looking for evidence that the Confederacy was a Christian nation needed to look no further than their Constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which does not mention God, the Preamble of the constitution of the Confederate States of America made a direct appeal to "Almighty God." (17).
In addition, Fea also mentions the ironic (but often ignored) fact that many liberals during the post-Civil War era supported the "Christian Nation" thesis while many conservatives rejected it. Liberal preachers like Henry Ward Beecher (who, like many preachers today, ended up in a messy sex scandal) campaigned vigorously in favor of America's Christian identity. They sought to ensure that America's destiny was in harmony with Christ's admonition to help the poor, sick, etc.:

These Protestants thought that the Christian identity of the United States should be defined by the way society and government behaved. The citizens of a Christian nation followed the social teachings of Jesus...Those who championed the social gospel sought to advance the cause of justice and love throughout the nation and the world. (37).
Liberal Evangelicals, advocating for the social changes needed in a "Christian Nation." Surely enough to make Glenn Beck's head explode in confusion and rage!

In Part II of his book, Fea addresses the question, "Was the American Revolution a Christian Event?" To address this question, Fea juxtaposes America's "planting" (i.e. the migration of the Puritans) to America's "founding" (the actual creation of the United States). Fea's analysis of America's planting reveals that although many of the first settlers to the "New World" came for religious reasons, their motives weren't always as "Christian" as we sometimes think. For example, the early Puritans, who crossed the Atlantic to ensure "religious freedom" made sure to establish the same rigid rules to protect their faith that had existed back home in England. In other words, America became a land of Christian liberty, so long as your Christianity fell in line with the accepted Christianity. In addition, Fea points out the fact that religion was far from the exclusive motivator for New World colonization. Economic factors (i.e. the "Get rich quick" mentality) became central to the motivations behind American colonization.

When speaking of America's founding Fea discusses the role that religion played in shaping the revolutionary rhetoric that led up to independence. In essence, Fea suggests that religion served as an effective rallying cry, as ministers wielded Christianity as a sword in favor of independence. And though this religious rhetoric proved extremely effective, the American Revolution was hardly a religious debate. Fea writes:

the most important documents connected to the coming of the American Revolution focused more on Enlightenment political theory about the constitutional and natural rights of British subjects than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance to the Crown was necessary. (106).
Fea supports this assertion by pointing to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the federal Constitution. He suggests that all three documents (especially the Constitution) remain intentionally neutral on the topic of religion. In consequence, the Founders essentially left the issue of religion up to the individual states. As a result, the founders were effectively able to endorse the United States as a religious nation without giving Christianity any preference points.

In part III Fea examines the individual religious views of many key founders. In so doing, Fea effectively illustrates the fact that America's founders included devout, orthodox Christians (John Witherspoon, John Jay and Samuel Adams), secular Deists who doubted the divinity of Jesus and Christianity (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson), and unitarian-leaning devotees, who detested orthodoxy but valued public and private religious devotion (George Washington and John Adams). This part of Fea's book is perhaps the most valuable because it shows that America's founding was as diverse as its participants. There was room at the table for Christians of all flavors as well as for skeptics of all shapes and colors.

In summary, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation is a fantastic introduction into this complex but fascinating era of American history. John Fea effectively sweeps away most of the smoke and mirrors employed by various culture warriors on both sides, thus allowing the history to speak for itself. So was America founded as a Christian nation? It probably depends on how you define those terms. Much of this debate is simply an argument over semantics. The more important question is, "can we cut through the convoluted mess of the culture wars and get at an answer"?

John Fea's book is proof that we can.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Alexander Hamilton's Religion

In my studies of the Founding Fathers (particularly their religious beliefs) I have found Alexander Hamilton to be an interesting enigma of sorts. Here was a man, who by all standards, should have never made it into the history books. Having been born on an obscure island to a mother who was essentially a whore and having little education, one would never expect to see Hamilton rise to the heights he achieved. So how did Hamilton achieve such incredible heights? It's actually quite simple: he was a genius.

And when it comes to Hamilton's religious beliefs the story becomes even more intriguing. To be certain, Hamilton was a religious man during the early years of his life. However, it appears that Hamilton's devotion wavered during his middle years only to come alive again at the end.

So what do we make of Hamilton's devotion/lack of devotion to religion?

Ron Chernow, who has written one of the best biographies of Hamilton, states the following on the role that religion played in the life of America's first (and maybe greatest) Secretary of the Treasury:

It is striking how religion preoccupied Hamilton during his final years. When head of the new Army, he had asked Congress to hire a chaplain for each brigade so that his soldiers could worship. Although he had been devout as a young man, praying fiercely at King's College, his religious faith had ebbed during the Revolution. Like other founders and thinkers of the Enlightenment, he was disturbed by religious fanaticism and tended to associate organized religion with superstition. While a member of Washington's military family, he wrote that "there never was any mischief but had a priest or a woman at the bottom." As treasury secretary, he had said, "The world has been scourged with many fanatical sects in religion who, inflamed by a sincere but mistaken zeal, have perpetuated under the idea of serving God the most atrocious crimes."

The atheism of the French Revolution and Jefferson's ostensible embrace of it (Jefferson was a deist who doubted the divinity of Christ, but not an atheist) helped to restore Hamilton's interest in religion. He said indignantly in his 1796 "Phocion" essays, "Mr. Jefferson has been heard to say since his return from France that the men of letters and philosophers he had met with in the country were generally atheists." He thought James Monroe had also been infected by godless philosophers in Paris and pictured the two Virginians dining together to "fraternize and philosophize against the Christian religion and the absurdity of religious worship." For Hamilton, religion formed the basis of all law and morality, and he thought the world would be a hellish place without it.

But did Hamilton believe sincerely in religion, or was it just politically convenient? Like Washington, he never talked about Christ and took refuge in vague references to "providence" or "heaven." He did not seem to attend services with Eliza, who increasingly spoke the language of evangelical Christianity, and did not belong formally to a denomination, even though Eliza rented a pew at Trinity Church. He showed no interest in liturgy, sectarian doctrine, or public prayer. The old discomfort with organized religion had not entirely vanished. On the other hand, Eliza was a woman of such deep piety that she would never have married someone who did not share her faith to some degree. Hamilton believed in a happy afterlife for the virtuous that would offer "far more substantial bliss than can ever be found in this checkered, this ever varying, scene!" He once consoled a friend in terms that left no doubt of his overarching faith in a moral order: "Arraign not the dispensations of Providence. They must be founded in wisdom and goodness. And when they do not suit us, it must be because there is some fault in ourselves which deserves chastisement or because there is a kind intent to correct in us some vice or failing of which perhaps we may not be conscious." How did Hamilton interpret God's lessen after the death of Phillip?

The papers of John Church Hamilton provide fresh evidence of his father's genuine religiosity in later years. He said that Hamilton experienced a resurgence of his youthful fervor, prayed daily, and scribbled many notes in the margin of the family Bible. A lawyer in training, Hamilton wanted logical proofs of religion, not revelation, and amply annotated his copy of A View of the Evidences of Christianity, by William Paley. "I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion," he told one friend, "and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should rather abruptly give my verdict in its favor." To Eliza, he said of Christianity, "I have studied it and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man." John Church Hamilton believed that the time his father spent at the Grange, strolling about the grounds, broadened his religious awareness. During his final months, he was walking with Eliza in the woods and speaking of children when he suddenly turned to her and said in an enraptured voice, "I may yet have twenty years, please God, and and I will one day build for them a chapel in this grove."
(Alexander Hamilton, 659-660)
For the most part, Chernow seems to be in agreement with the general points of history regarding Hamilton's personal faith: he was religious as a youth, became less religious during his middle years -- though never anti-religious -- and renewed his commitment to God/religion at the end of his life. During his middle years, when religion seemed to be of less importance in his life, Chernow argues that Hamilton used religion more as a political tool than anything else. In this way, Hamilton can be likened to some politicians/pastors today, who use religion as a political tool of sorts.

Maybe things don't change as much as we think!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Come, Come Ye Saints

The 24th of July commemorates the day that the first wave of Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake valley. Upon exiting Emigration Canyon and cresting a small hill to the east, Mormon President Brigham Young (who was sick with fever at the time) looked out of his wagon and proclaimed, "It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on." The words, "This is the place" echoed throughout the wagontrain. The long trek across the American plains and Rocky Mountains was over (at least for the first of them). The Mormons had officially found their new home.

And though I may be accused of personal bias, I am still amazed at how little attention the Mormon migration west recieves in the history books. After all, the Mormon Trail helped, in many ways, to blaze further migrations westward. In addition, more Mormons died during their trek west than those who died in the Trail of Tears (no discredit to that terrible event). It is truly a fantastic American story that everyone (not just Mormons) should be proud of. It captures the essense of so much that makes America the special land we all love.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can think of no better way of introducing those unfamiliar with the Mormon migration story than by pointing to the Mormon hymn, Come, Come Ye Saints written in 1846 by William Clayton. The hymn helps to capture some of the powerful imagery and deep sentiment these early Mormons must have endured:

Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell -
All is well! All is well!

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
'Tis not so; all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we'll have this tale to tell-
All is well! All is well!

We'll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West ,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints, will be blessed.
We'll make the air, with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we'll tell -
All is well! All is well!

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we'll make this chorus swell-
All is well! All is well!
And who better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing this song. Enjoy:

An Inconvenient Truth: Thomas Jefferson Style

Dr. John Fea posted a link on his blog to an interesting article by Smithsonian Historian Joshua Kendall entitled, America's First Great Global Warming Debate. In the article, Kendall points out the fact that our colonial forefathers argued and debated issues like climate change long before the Al Gore's and Glenn Beck's of the world found ways to capitalize on the the fear of others. I found the article of particular interest and thought I would share some highlights.

As the 19th century began under the watch of Thomas Jefferson, Americans of all ages were witness to a changing world. The budding infancy of the new republic along with the swift changes that would be brought on by industrialization and capitalism, caused many of our ancestors to wonder how the world might be different for their children. In one such case, President Thomas Jefferson, an avid fan of all things relating to nature and science, began to take note of how weather patterns had begun to change and the possible role that humans might have played in the change. Kendall writes:

In his 1787 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson launched into a discussion of the climate of both his home state and America as a whole. Near the end of a brief chapter addressing wind currents, rain and temperature, he presented a series of tentative conclusions: “A change in our climate…is taking place very sensibly. Both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged. Snows are less frequent and less deep….The elderly inform me the earth used to be covered with snow about three months in every year. The rivers, which then seldom failed to freeze over in the course of the winter, scarcely ever do so now.” Concerned about the destructive effects of this warming trend, Jefferson noted how “an unfortunate fluctuation between heat and cold” in the spring has been “very fatal to fruits.”

Jefferson was affirming the long-standing conventional wisdom of the day. For more than two millennia, people had lamented that deforestation had resulted in rising temperatures. A slew of prominent writers, from the great ancient naturalists Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder to such Enlightenment heavyweights as the Comte de Buffon and David Hume, had alluded to Europe’s warming trend.
And though Jefferson's tedious note taking and personal observations of the supposed climate change of his day managed to convince some, others were not buying it. Among the naysayers was Daniel Webster, whose main claim to fame was the creation of the American Dictionary of the English Language. In addition, Webster had been a powerful advocate for the American Revolution and the creation of the federal Constitution. And though on the surface it would look like Webster would have much in common with his president, on this issue he wasn't drinking the Jefferson Kool-Aid. Kendall writes:

This opinion had been uttered for so long that it was widely accepted as a given—until Webster. Today Webster is best known as the author of the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), but his “great book” was actually his retirement project. He was a pioneering journalist who edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper in the 1790s, and he weighed in on the major public policy issues of the day, cranking out essays on behalf of the Constitution, a 700-page treatise on epidemics and a condemnation of slavery. He would also serve in the state legislature of both Connecticut and Massachusetts. Webster disputed the “popular opinion that the temperature of the winter season, in northern latitudes, has suffered a material change” in a speech before the newly established Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799. Several years later, Webster delivered a second address on the topic. The two speeches were published together in 1810 under the title “On the Supposed Change of in the Temperature of Winter.”


Webster concluded by rejecting the crude warming theory of Jefferson and Williams in favor of a more subtle rendering of the data. The conversion of forests to fields, he acknowledged, has led to some microclimatic changes—namely, more windiness and more variation in winter conditions. But while snow doesn’t stay on the ground as long, that doesn’t necessarily mean the country as a whole gets less snowfall each winter: “We have, in the cultivated districts, deep snow today, and none tomorrow; but the same quantity of snow falling in the woods, lies there till spring….This will explain all the appearances of the seasons without resorting to the unphilosophical hypothesis of a general increase in heat.”
So, in other words, it really isn't much different than today. Granted we have a far better understanding of scientific methodology and better technology to conduct research, not to mention that people on both sides seem to profit more nowadays by proclaiming/denouncing climate change. Despite these differences, I enjoyed this article. Sometimes it's nice to see that we aren't as detached from the founders as we often think we are (or are let to believe).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When did Scotland Become Scotland?

According to contemporary wisdom (not to mention the wisdom of historians over the past few centuries) Scotland was the result of Irish immigration into northwestern Britain shortly after the fall of Rome. The reasons for this take on Scotland's origins are many, most notably the fact that Gaelic language and culture had overtaken a large part of the region. In addition, the natural response by the "native" Picts of the British isles against the incursion of the Roman empire, helped to spawn not only a resistance movement but a movement that would eventually culminate in the creation of a new national conscience.

Originally known to the Romans as the "savage Picts" who inhabited the northern lands of "Britannia", these early Scottish forefathers proved to be a nuisance to the massive juggernaut that was the Roman empire. In fact, many scholars believe that the construction of Hadrian's Wall in 122 A.D. was to defend the northernmost borders of the empire from the invading Picts (It is worth noting, however, that this hypothesis is often rejected by other historians who argue that the sparsely populated lands of the Picts were really no threat or match for the mighty Roman Army. And though that may be the case, the fact remains that the wall was built at great cost to the Emperor, who must have seen a need for it).

It was in the twilight years of the empire that historians believe the world of the Picts became increasingly influenced by migrating Gaels (early Irish) who left an unmistakable impression on the region through their culture and language. In fact, the Venerable Bede (a historian and monk of this era) even noted the migration of early Irish Gaels to the region and the origins of Bede speaks extensively about the creation of Dál Riata, which was a hybrid kingdom of Gaelic Irish and Picts that existed on the western coast of modern Scotland., In the 10th century the kings of the Scots produced a similar “foundation legend” which traced their lineage back to Irish ancestors who came to Dál Riata as conquerors.

But just how credible is this history? Certainly the majority of historians/archaeologists accept it as the most plausible explanation on the origins of what eventually becomes Scotland.

But not everybody is sold.

Renowned Scottish historian Dauvit Broun has challenged the status quo interpretation of Scotland's ultimate origins in the following article from History Today. I glean the following summary of Campbell's work from historian Tim Clarkson's blog:

If the Scots had arrived from Ireland in large numbers we would expect them to build dwellings of similar types to the ones they left behind. No such evidence has been found, nor do the place-names of Argyll [the quasi-capitol of Dál Riata] suggest that a mass of Gaelic-speaking immigrants supplanted an indigenous Pictish or British population. It is usual for traces of an earlier language to be visible among place-names coined in the speech of an invader but the Argyll names are so thoroughly Gaelic that they actually appear to be indigenous. Some historians believe that the Scots came to Britain as a small, elite group of kings and aristocrats. This could possibly explain the lack of archaeological evidence for a mass-migration but, as Campbell points out, high-status foreigners would have imposed the trappings of their own culture on the native elites whom they conquered or absorbed. We should therefore expect the decorated brooch – the ubiquitous badge of high-status among early medieval cultures – to show Irish characteristics whenever an example is unearthed in the archaeology of Argyll. Again, no such evidence is forthcoming: the brooches worn by the early Scots are of recognizably British rather than of Irish design.

What, then, of the foundation legend mentioned by Bede? Surely his testimony – having been written in the 8th century – must count for something? Campbell makes a strong case for believing that Bede was merely stating the earliest form of an origin-story that the Scots would later richly embellish in the 10th century. Such tales were very common in early medieval Europe and were often concocted as political propaganda to create suitably dramatic origins for dominant royal dynasties.

As an alternative hypothesis Campbell envisages no migration from Ireland to Argyll other than a cultural one arising from social and economic links across the narrow seas between the two areas. These links led to the adoption of Gaelic as the common language of trade and social interaction but, although the people of Argyll became Gaelic-speakers, their distinctive regional identity was strong enough to preserve their indigenous culture in the face of Irish influences. Campbell suggests that the linguistic shift from Brittonic to Gaelic was achieved during the pre-Roman Iron Age. Thus, when Roman writers spoke of the Scotti (Scots) of Ireland they were probably referring collectively to all Gaelic speakers – including the Scots of Argyll
An interesting hypothesis to say the least. Campbell does present some interesting questions on the lack of archaeological evidence of early Irish dwellings and the possibility that Gaelic was an indigenous language and not adopted at a later time. With that said, I still believe that these questions cannot refute Bede's account or the fact that the Picts clearly adopted Gaelic language and culture (The Pict language became obsolete shortly thereafter). And, of course, Scotland's ultimate sense of "nation-ness" doesn't emerge until after Wallace, Robert the Bruce, etc. (one could argue that they are still arguing over this concept now that they are a part of Great Britain). Personally, I believe that Scotland's ultimate origins are probably a hybrid of both of these schools. They are a little bit country (Ireland) and a little bit rock and roll (England).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Family Day at Santa's Workshop

About a month ago our family spent the day playing at the North Pole...Santa's Workshop to be specific. Don't believe me!?! See for yourself:

Santa's Workshop in Colorado Springs has been a staple attraction for children for over 50 years. You can check out their website by clicking here.

Jaxson crusing in style.

Hanging out with the big man himself.

Mom crammed in with Zakary. He was too scared to go alone.

And a video:

And here are a few pics I was able to dig up from 2007:

Jaxson lookin cool in his bug car!

Riding Rudolph

This was BY FAR Jaxson's favorite ride! We had to take him on it at least 4 times!

The rocket ship was another favorite! Jaxson especially loved the gun on the front that shot "yogurt" according to this pilot!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Did Zheng He "Discover" America?

Today marks the 665th anniversary of legendary Chinese explorer Zheng He's (鄭和 / 郑和) first epic journey to explore the world. Chances are that most Americans (heck, most people in the western world) have never heard of Zheng He, and to be honest, I knew nothing about him until very recently.

Zheng He was an interesting cat to say the least, and his life story would make for one incredible Hollywood movie. As the descendant of a devout Muslim family (his grandfather and great-grandfather even made the haaj to Mecca. No small feat in the Medieval world), Zheng He was exposed to a world that few in 14th century Asia could possibly imagine. Not only was he a follower of a minority religion in China, Zheng had the unique opportunity to travel a large part of the Asian world. With the backing of a wealthy family, Zheng was fortunate to experience things that few of his contemporaries could possibly imagine.

But Zheng's life would change dramatically. After being attacked by a rival clan (a battle in which his father was killed), Zheng was captured by a group of Ming Muslims and eventually made a eunuch. But despite his terrible misfortune, Zheng rose to a position of great favor with the Ming emperor and was hailed for his bravery and fierceness in battle (some accounts state Zheng was close to 7 feet tall but that is probably more the stuff of legend than reality).

As years past, Zheng He eventually became a prominent figure in the growing Chinese naval/merchant world. His voyages throughout the "Western Sea" (Indian Ocean) were well chronicled, and the riches he brought home are the stuff of legend.

But this is the least of Zheng He's accomplishments...at least, according to some.

In his best-selling book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, author Gavin Menzies makes the bold claim that 14th and 15th century Chinese merchant ships may have landed in the "New World" nearly 70 years before Christopher Columbus. And one of Menzies' chief explorers in none other than the legendary Zheng He.

And though I agree with Menzies' assertion that Zheng He's explorations went much further than the confines of the Indian Ocean (quite possibly all the way to Eastern Europe and certainly to Africa) there is little or no evidence that he made it to the Americas. In fact, Menzies offers extremely shaky evidence that most historians completely reject. For example, his assertion that American Indian DNA can be traced to Asian origins proves little. The overwhelming majority of archaeologists/scientists attribute this to the land bridge from modern Russia and Alaska during the last Ice Age, and the subsequent migration of those Asian people to the "New World." In addition, there are ZERO Chinese artifacts, writings or other documents that were found in America as Menzies claims. This is a complete and total lie and why he would make such a claim is preposterous. In fact, Menzies has had to retract his bogus claim that the remnants of Ming ships have been found in Greenland and North America. Again, a complete fabrication. And finally, Menzies makes the ridiculous claim that Zheng He and his fellow explorers somehow possessed the knowledge that the world was round and were even successful in their mapping and charting of North and South America. This is another complete lie. None of Zheng's maps show anything resembling current geography, nor did Ming voyagers believe the world was round in the 15th century. The following is a typical map from Ming explorers of the world they understood. As you can see, it doesn't resemble anything we might recognize as being North or South America.

Long story short: Zheng He was an INCREDIBLE explorer and his story is worthy of further study by all. However, Zheng He, DID NOT discover America. He didn't even come close. This myth, which is sadly being embraced by some who I am guessing read the title of Menzies' bogus book and take it at face value, is based on nothing.

It's a fraud.

***For more info on Menzies' bogus book click here.***

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Forget the Devil, The Nun Wears Prada

A recent article by German historian Eva Schlotheuber reveals that Medieval nuns were not as humble or anti-worldly as we may think. Recent research on medieval nuns shows that many of them were dressing in the latest fashions instead of simple religious habits. And while their were efforts by the church to make nuns dress more humbly, by the 14th and 15th centuries these rules were becoming less and less adhered to. As Dr. Schlotheuber states:

in the rhythm of daily life and feast days the nuns developed a great deal of creativity, and lived in a much more lively fashion than the morally and didactically coloured theological texts of the period want us to think.
And though efforts were made to restrict clothing for nuns, particularly at the Council of Vienne (1311-12), which forbade the waring of silks, furs, sandals, and lavish hairstyles, many Medieval nuns were slow to fall in line. As Dr. Schlotheuber points out:

The fact that these rules were being repeated again and again makes it clear that many nuns were not following them. This can be seen in the visitation reports of clerics to nunneries. In 1249, Eudes Rigaud wrote that the nuns at Villarceaux were wearing pelisses of rabbit, hare, and fox fur; they wore their hair long and curled, scented their veils with saffron, and adorned their belts with silver- and steeled-work clasps. The nuns were also not following other monastic rules either – Rigaud noted that everybody in the convent seemed to have a lover, and several had children.

Besides wearing fashionable clothes, rings were also widely worn – this symbolized their marriage to Christ. Sometimes these would be adorned with precious stones. During special occasions, such as some feast days, the nuns would dress up. An elderly nun at the German town of Ebstorf wrote how her sisters celebrated the Feast of St. Inocentius (September 22) by wearing felt caps, clothing with fur and knives hanging from the side. She added “others dressed in the courtly style and had primped their hair with a curling iron. A few wore monk’s habits. But we [the older girls] were not allowed to put on costumes. But we were jolly anyway.”
So how did Medieval nuns justify their worldly apparel? Some believed that it was their duty to appear separate (and dare I say superior) to the common people of their community. Being considered the brides of Jesus Christ himself, one could easily see why such fancy clothing and jewelry were considered desirable. After all, if the wife of a king/prince should be adorned in the finest of clothing, then shouldn't the brides of the King of Kings have just as much? And let us not forget that many women who filled the ranks of Medieval nunnery came from the higher social strata. Wearing fancy apparel would only be a natural thing.

But for those who saw the church and its clergy/nunnery as the guardians of faith, one can only imagine how they reacted to the sight of women who were supposed to dispose of all worldliness being covered in silks and jewels. Hard to imagine how they reckoned this with Christ's admonition to go into the world "without purse or scrip."

No wonder why Martin Luther and others would eventually condemn the church for its apparent worldliness.

Space: The Final Frontier...But Who Cares

A couple of days ago my family and I had the privilege of gathering around the television to watch the final launch of the space shuttle.

It was a nostalgic moment to say the least. As I watched Atlantis rocket off into space for the last time I could recall seeing similar launches throughout my life. Of course I remembered being a young boy, not much older than my two sons, and witnessing Challenger explode live on that cold January day in 1986 with all of my fellow 2nd grade classmates. I remember how my teacher, who was unsure as to how we might react, quickly turned the television off and diverted our attention to something else. But as all parents know, kids aren't stupid. We all knew that we had seen first-hand something amazing, tragic, and dare I say special. We saw, as President Ronald Reagan stated later that night, seven heroes who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Despite the Challenger tragedy, Americans (of all ages) were united in our commitment to expand our knowledge of the universe. We were determined to not let the loss of Challenger deter us from our exploration of the final frontier.

Fast forward seventeen years (almost to the day). I remember returning home one weekend from college to visit family and watching with my Dad (who would pass away 4 days later) the news coverage of the Shuttle Columbia disaster. Of course the comparisons with the Challenger explosion were only natural but something was different about Columbia. It seemed as though Americans were indifferent to NASA's "other seven" who had perished upon their reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Perhaps it was the fact that Challenger was a more dramatic tragedy than Columbia. After all, Columbia didn't explode before our very eyes.

Or perhaps there is another reason for our apparent national disinterest in Columbia's disaster.

Over the years, Americans have begun to see space travel as routine. Whether it be shuttle launches, satellites being put into orbit or space stations being constructed, humanity's incredible adventure into the vastness of space has lost its luster. Since the end of the Apollo program, Americans have been less interested in funding space exploration and have even argued that such a program is pointless, since our nearest heavenly neighbors (the moon, Mars, etc.) hold little hope for long term human colonization. And it doesn't look like this sentiment will change anytime soon. In a recent GOP presidential debate, virtually all of the candidates were unanimous in their position that NASA should receive less funding. With such an apathetic view towards one of the most incredible achievements of humanity, it is any wonder why the Columbia disaster is often held in less regard than the Challenger explosion? Have we lost our nerve/interest in exploring the final frontier?

Now fast forward to last Friday, as the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final trip into the heavens. How many Americans are even aware that the space shuttle program is now over? How many Americans care? As NASA Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly stated: "I'm not sure so many Americans actually know that we're not going to have a human space flight program for a while...nor do I think many care". Sadly, Commander Kelly is probably right. As long as we have our iPads, smart phones, GPS systems, and On Demand television we don't care.

But just where do people think we get all those cool gadgets?

Politicians say we cannot afford to fund NASA the way we used to, due to all of our economic issues; I say we cannot afford to NOT fund NASA more now than ever.

Americans seem to regard space flight as routine and lackluster; I say there is nothing routine about breaching the confines of Earth.

The powers that be seem to find nothing of value in our continued exploration of the heavens; I say that the thing of most value is to venture into the vastness of the unknown and to take a step into the darkness. As President John F. Kennedy stated when posing the challenge of landing a man on the moon:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
There is no doubt that the continued exploration of the heavens will require great sacrifice of both wealth and manpower. It will require patience, sacrifice, bravery and fortitude. Yes, more astronauts will be lost in the process and more children will see first-hand the unfortunate consequences of human exploration, but is there a greater lesson to be learned? Would we not prefer to have our children emulating people like Neil Armstrong, Christa McAuliffe and John Glenn instead of Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore? Shouldn't our goals be to land a man/woman on Mars instead of becoming the winner of American Idol or Next Top Model?

We reap what we sow.

As the Space Shuttle program comes to a conclusion I hope it will mark the beginning of greater things to come. When Apollo ended it was replaced with the Shuttle, and now we must ask ourselves what will replace the shuttle. Do we replace the shuttle with something greater or do we just let it rust in a museum as a relic of days gone by? Do we choose to break the shackles of self-imposed security and go deeper into God's playground, or are we content to simply send communication satellites into orbit while remaining "safe" here on the confines of Earth? Do we honor the brave men and women of Challenger, Columbia and the space program in general by daring to venture further into the heavens or by simply stating that we can't afford it any longer?

If we value progress, if we value leaning, if we value humanity, then we cannot permit the conclusion of the Shuttle Program to mark the end (whether permanent or temporary) to human exploration. We must resist the climate of complacency that infects us today and choose to sail the infinite seas of space. As Christopher Columbus aptly put it over 500 years ago: "You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore."

In conclusion, I leave you with some of the words from the men of the Apollo program, who best understand the importance of humanity's further exploration of space:

"I had the earth in my window and all I wanted to do was keep going."
-Michael Collins

"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me - a small disk, 240,000 miles away...Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance. Only the perfection of God's hand"
- Frank Borman

"If somebody said before the flight, 'Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?' I would have say, 'No, no way.' But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried."
- Alan Shepard

"The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful from space. Maybe we can make it that way — the way God intended it to be — by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space."
- Roger B Chaffee

"From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. It wasn't a miracle, we just decided to go."
- Jim Lovell

"We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way."
- Buzz Aldrin

"The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited."
-Neil Armstrong

The God of George Washington's Prayers

And The Historical Revisionism
of Overzealous Christian Nationalists

If you ever followed Glenn Beck's now extinct Fox News program, chances are you have heard of Peter Lillback. Lillback is a Christian fundamentalist and advocate of the "America is a Christian nation" nonsense. And like most of the "historians" quoted by Glenn Beck, Lillback has worked tirelessly in the futile effort to prove that America's Founding Fathers were devout Christian men.

And Lillback's favorite target is none other than America's most important founder, George Washington. In his book, Sacred Fire, Lillback endeavors to show that the father of our fair nation was a devout orthodox Christian, a notion that Glenn Beck gobbles up. Take a look:

Now, aside from all the other garbage Beck and Lillback spew out (i.e. the Declaration of Independence is full of bible verses and the progressive era rewrote the history of America and Washington) both men immerse themselves in a self-indulged fiction regarding our nation's first president. Of course they use the timeless, "liberals are revising history to remove God from all our books" nonsense to help prove their case, but throughout the video (and throughout Lillback's book) not a single shred of evidence is ever presented to help defend their ridiculous conclusions.


Because such evidence doesn't exist.

I first encountered Peter Lillback about 2 years before Glenn Beck made him famous (incidentally, Lillback's book Sacred Fire skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best seller list after Beck proclaimed him one of America's greatest historians...UGH!). I remember the day I received my copy of Sacred Fire in the mail. I was impressed by its length and the depth of its footnote section. Of course this is something that both he and Beck mention to help add credence to their argument. After all, how could a book be wrong if it is super long and has lots of footnotes, right.


Right from the beginning of his book, Lillback states to the reader that the goal of his book is to prove two things: first that George Washington wasn't a deist and second, that he was in fact a devout orthodox Christian man. But as I began reading I soon discovered why every single major publishing company wanted nothing to do with Lillback's bogus book and why he eventually had to publish it himself. The book is essentially a repeating rant on why today's secularist historians are wrong and he is right, and little actual evidence of his original thesis is ever presented. In essence, Lillback goes on a 2000 page merry-go-round that sounds something like this: "George Washington wasn't a deist but a devout believer in Jesus Christ and I am right because the evil secular historians are revising history in an effort to remove God."

Uh...ok. But hey, I can see why Glenn Beck and his mindless followers would eat that kind of stuff up.

In fairness to Lillback, I will say that I am 100% in agreement with his assessment that George Washington was NOT a Deist. To be honest, those who argue such are about as foolish as Lillback himself. Of course Washington wasn't a deist and the historical record is quite clear on the matter (for a more detailed look at George Washington's religious beliefs click here). And though I am in complete agreement with Lillback's assessment that Washington was far from being a Deist, I still remain unconvinced of his orthodox Christian leanings.

In "Appendix Three" of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." This collection contains an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback believes helps to prove Washington's orthodoxy. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith.

With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" (per Lillback's book) to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Christian" - 0
"Christianity" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly. Actually, I don't find it amazing. The fact of the matter is that Washington was extremely careful of the words he used to reference God. He was intentionally neutral in his "God talk" because he didn't want to be seen as something he was not. On several occasions, various preachers and ministers tried to get Washington to state his religious views for the record but he never would. In fact, Washington seemed to detest organized Christianity as opposed to what Lillback argues (again, for a more detailed look at Washington's religious beliefs click here).

Despite the obvious discrepancies in Lillback's argument, I must also point out the fact that his book does provide AMPLE evidence to support his claim that Washington was NOT a Deist. The simple fact that these prayers exist is sufficient proof of this. Regardless of who Washington was praying to, the fact remains that he did, in the end, pray regularly.

But he wasn't a devout Christian.

Regardless of what we may insinuate from these various statements, the fact remains that there are NO specific public or private records showing Washington in prayer to the Christian God. This is why men like Beck and Lillback have an impossible mountain to climb. Yes, it sounds good to conservative Christian audiences when we say things like, "our Founding Fathers were all Christian" and "America is a Christian nation". But when the ACTUAL HISTORICAL RECORD shows otherwise all you are left with is a dog and pony show. You rely on the knowledge that 99% of your audience will never EVER research the actual documents to discover the truth for themselves and that if told what they want to hear, they will make your bogus book a best seller on Amazon. Just wrap your message up in God and patriotism and you should be good.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cartoon Propaganda/Racism: Volume XX

It has been a while since I posted a new cartoon in my Cartoon Propaganda/Racism Series, but when I saw this one I knew it needed to be added to my collection. The cartoon is from the late 1930s and is entitled "Ali-Baba Bound". It was created by a man named Leon Schlesinger, a Jewish Zionist, who had some strong feelings for Arabs and Muslims. Needless to say, this cartoon contains quite a few Arab and Muslim stereotypes.

In Preparation for Independence Day

Tomorrow will mark the 235th birthday of the United States. In a little over two centuries the United States has witnessed some dramatic changes, both for the good and the bad. Despite all of these changes, however, one cannot help but appreciate the wonderful heritage, freedom and prosperity that has helped to sustain America throughout the past 232 years.

Sadly, a large number of Americans have forgotten -- or never bothered to learn in the first place -- our nation's history. A recent study by NPR News sadly reveals the fact that most Americans remain woefully ignorant of this nation's heritage. In fact, roughly 40% of all Americans have NEVER ONCE read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or any of the other important founding documents of our nation's birth.

I for one find it amazing that Americans are so quick to profess their love, admiration and patriotism for this nation, yet remain ignorant of its history and heritage. In many ways, this phenomenon is similar to the professing Christian who knows little or nothing about his/her religion's doctrine. How can one profess loyalty or patriotism to a nation or cause if he/she knows nothing of its history? As Cicero stated so many years ago, "History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity...one cannot become a true citizen without first gaining an understanding of history."

As the barbecue pits begin to heat up and the fireworks are pulled out from the closet, remember that tomorrow's celebration is, in the end, a celebration of America's great heritage. If you are one of those 40% who have never read the Dec. of Independence, the Constitution, etc., then I invite you to correct that mistake, and what better day than tomorrow to do it!

With this in mind, here is a wonderful video on the Declaration of Independence, in which the document is read in its entirety. Also, here are a few links to some historical documents that EVERY AMERICAN should read.

Happy Independence Day!

And some other links:

*The Constitution of the United States click here
*Bill of Rights click here
*Articles of Confederation click here
*Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty of Give me Death" speech click here
*James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" click here
*Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia" click here