Saturday, November 3, 2007

Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence: Book Review

I recently finished an interesting book: "Blasphemy:How the Religious Right is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence" by Alan Dershowitz. That is, he refutes, point by point, attempts by Christian fundamentalists to rewrite the history of our nation's founding by claiming that the Founding Fathers were all orthodox Christians who never intended the separation of church and state, but rather founded the USA as a "Christian Nation".

This short book contains three long chapters. The first chapter examines the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, focusing on the decidedly not Christian Thomas Jefferson, quoting extensively from his writings. The views of John Adams, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and others are also covered in lesser detail.

The first chapter also looks at the God-language that was used by the Founders though the lens of Deism, which many of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, believed in. Dershowitz shows that the "Nature's God" that is referred to is not the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, but rather, a "Blind Watchmaker" Creator, who created the universe then stepped back and let nature take its course. He goes into more detail as to how Deism and Universalism differs from today's conservative evangelical Christianity.

The second chapter covers the Religious Right's strategy for making the Founding Fathers over in their image and their plans to turn the US into a theocracy. He asserts that their plan is essentially two-fold. The first step would be a Trojan horse: to lower the wall of separation between church and state enough to allow non-threatening "generic" religion -- God, nonsectarian prayer, multiple religious images into the government sphere. The next step would be to then insist that Christianity is America's only "true" religion, as our nation was, in their view, founded by Christian on Christian principles. This would effectively make adherents of other religions be second class citizens, with atheists and agnostics being officially condemned as immoral, and would no doubt bring back the legality of having religious tests in order to hold elected office.

The third chapter, "What Are the 'Laws of Nature' and 'Nature's God'?", is the most fascinating in the book, in my opinion. In this chapter, Dershowitz compares the concept of "natural laws" vs positive legal enactments. He shows the logical fallacies in the notion of natural law, yet concedes that it is a useful legal fiction that give the legal basis on which to oppose or resist unjust laws that have been properly enacted.

Dershowitz shows that human knowledge, from which laws flow, comes from three main sources: discovery, invention, and revelation. Positive law is based on invention, which is an imperfect thing and is subject to amendment and improvement as times and circumstances change. Natural law, on the other hand is based on discovery and/or divine revelation. It is fully developed and flawless and is just waiting for humans to discover/discern it, then to live from thence forward by its unchanging principles.

But the sticking point in "natural law" is the fact that nature itself is morally neutral. Dershowitz quotes Robert Ingersoll: "In nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are only consequences." Anatole France concurred: "Nature, in its indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil".

Dershowitz asserts: "Morality evolves with experience, and nature is part of that experience, but not the only part. In constructing a moral code, one should not ignore the varieties of human nature, but the diverse components of nature cannot be translated directly into morality. The complex relationship between the is of nature and the ought of morality must be mediated by human experience".

Rather than the laws of nature or God's revealed word, Dershowitz believes that source of higher morality is human experience -- trial and error. "We are at our best when we recognize our past mistakes and try build a better system of morality to avoid repetition of those mistakes. Rights come from wrongs!" He goes on to say, "Our present system of rights is not based on Nature or God, but rather on a recognition of our past wrongs and a desire not to repeat them -- or do worse".

I give this one five stars and it has earned a permanent place in my library

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