Saturday, November 19, 2005

David Gelernter's Revisionism

I thought Gelernter was sacked by the Times, but apparently not. Anyway, as is his wont, Gelernter plays cut-and-paste with history so as to give a legitimacy to his batshit reactionary political stances.

This time, Gelernter is peeved that some annoying atheist has legally contested the "Under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance as unconstitutional. Even worse for Gelernter, the courts have so far agreed. Now the fun begins.

Gelernter knows that it's futile to challenge the ruling on strict legal grounds (that pesky wall between church and state -- damn you Thomas Jefferson!). He also knows that arguing for "Under God" won't pass a historical test vis-a-vis the Pledge itself. So he doesn't go that route, therefore avoiding mention of the fact that a) the Pledge was originally contrived by a socialist and b) that the words "Under God" were added decades later, and only then because of the McCarthyite/HUAC climate of the time.

So what's Gelernter to do? Oh, genius! He makes it where those who wish to remove the unconstitional phrase are fighting the ghost of Abraham Lincoln! Shorter Gelernter: Those who wish to alter the pledge to make it legal actually hate Abraham Lincoln. Very clever.

But it just won't do. This is where it gets funny: to combat the founding legal principles of one infidel President (Jefferson), he has to misrepresent our other famous infidel President (Lincoln):

By delivering the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln built a sacred shrine out of words on the most important battlefield in American history — a small shrine, of wonderful beauty, that reminds us why an earlier generation of Northerners fought, bled and died to win the Civil War: So that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

Lincoln added the words "under God" at the last minute. They don't appear in drafts of the speech prepared beforehand. But he included them in copies he made afterward, and historians believe he said them in the speech. Lincoln had grown steadily more religious as he grew older. As his political and spiritual genius flowered, he re-conceived America as a nation where high ideals were not just words on parchment, they were marching orders, principles to fight and die for.

"It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence," he said, "and if I can learn what it is, I will do it." He wished to be a "humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people." He knew well that Americans are far from perfect. But he believed in their duty to make themselves better.

When we invite our children to say the pledge, including "one nation, under God," we are asking them to repeat Lincoln's phrase, and perhaps even to feel his presence. Children who were reared as atheists, whose parents are wiser than Lincoln on the subject of God, are free to keep quiet.

And even if children should feel coerced by peer pressure (as the lawsuits have argued) to say that terrible G-word, they won't be magically converted into Christians or Jews or God-believers of any stripe. In fact, children who don't believe in God might still like to be reminded how Lincoln saw this nation, might like to test drive the worldview of the man who saved the Union and set it on the path to justice.

If that's unconstitutional, we have made a serious mistake somewhere along the line. If we have any guts, we will go back and put it right.

Take that, heirs of Jefferson! You hate Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and America. What are you, pro-slavery?!?!

I love that "Lincoln had grown steadily more religious" line: the Great Emancipator as Jesus Freak. But, well, that's not really the truth.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian? Umm, no. He was something more subtle: like the ancient Greeks -- and, for that matter, like Jesus Christ himself -- Lincoln was a fatalist. I'll quote several passages from David Herbert Donald's Lincoln:

From his earliest days Lincoln had a sense that his destiny was controlled by some larger force, some Higher Power. Turning away from orthodox Christianity because of the emotional excess of frontier evangelism, he found it easier as a young man to accept what was called the Doctrine of Necessity, whish he defined as the belief "that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control."

"[Lincoln] disagreed with his father over religion. In 1823, Thomas Lincoln and his wife joined the Pigeon Baptist Church as did his daughter Sarah soon afterward; but Abraham made no move toward membership. Indeed, as his stepmother said, "Abe had no particular religion -- didn't think of these questions at this time, if he ever did." That difference appears to have led to the sharpest words he ever recieved from his father. Though Abraham did not belong to the church, he attended the sermons, and afterward, climbing on a tree stump, he would rally the other children around him and repeat -- or sometimes parody -- the minister's words.

Now obviously to be a successful politician in such a Red State millieu, Lincoln couldn't continue mocking religion in public. More from Donald:

Though New Salem had no churches, it was an intensely religious community... There were no Catholic or Jewish residents, but Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were constantly engaged in hairsplitting doctrinal constroversies. A young Yale Divinity School graduate who came to teach in this central Illinois region found that he "was plunged without warning and preparation into a sea of sectarian rivalries, which was kept in constant agitation." Inevitably these relgious wars attracted Lincoln's attention, though, like his father he was reluctant to accept any creed. His parents' Baptist belief in predestination was deeply ingrained in his mind, though he felt more comfortable in thinking that events were foreordained by immutable natural laws than by personal deity. To his cool, analytical mind the ideas of the evangelists were less persuasive than those of the few local freethinkers, who gathered about the cracker barrel and, when there were no customers in sight, engaged in speculation about the literal accuracy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the possibility of miracles.
These contversations introduced Lincoln to Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, that classic rationalist attack on revealed relgion, and he probably also read some of Constantin de Volney's Ruins of Civilizations, which argued that morality was the only essential demonstrable part of religion. Discussion of such issues was heresy in this rigidly orthodox frontier community, and inevitably reports of Lincoln's participation in these conversations leaked out. So damaging was the allegation that he was "an open scoffer at Christianity" that in his race for Congress in 1846 he was obliged to issue a formal denial..

It's true that there is one special occasion where there is evidence that Lincoln personally waffled in his freethinking ways. But it, according to Mary Todd Lincoln, was well into the President's first term, when Willie, their third child, became their second to die at a tragically young age. Before Willie's death, Abraham had "never" considered religion. This is understandable, yet Lincoln still didn't give much indication of a conversion after Willie's passing: Gelernter lets this slip when he admits that that God reference in the Gettysburg Address was tacked-on at the last minute. It makes sense to think it was probably at the urging of an advisor. At any rate, why would it be tacked-on if the urge to Praise Jebus weighed so heavily on Lincoln's mind?

Anyway, I've saved the best for last. This is Gore Vidal, whose Lincoln was approvingly vetted by Professor Donald (quotes are from William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and early biographer):

It will come as a terrible shock to many of those who have been twice-born in the capacious bosom of Jesus to learn that Lincoln not only rejected Christianity but wrote a small book called "Infidelity" (meaning lack of faith in God). Lincoln "read his manuscript to Samuel Hill, his employer (who) said to Lincoln: 'Lincoln, let me see your manuscript.' Lincoln handed it to him. Hill ran it in a tin-plate stove, and so the book went up in flames. Lincoln in that production attempted to show that the Bible was false: first, on grounds of reason, and, second, because it was self-contradictory; that Jesus was not the son of God any more than any man." Later, in the presidency, pressure was brought on Lincoln to start putting God in his speeches. At the beginning, he did so in the vague sense of the Almighty or heaven. Later, there is a good deal of God in the speeches but no mention of Jesus. At heart, Lincoln was a fatalist, a materialist of the school of Democritus and Lucretius.

So, clue to David Gelernter: Abraham Lincoln has nothing to do with the unconstitutionality of God reference in the pledge, but even if he did, he's not the religious nutjob that you claim -- or that you yourself are, for that matter.

See also Elton Beard's Gelernter summation.

**Edit: Eep, I'm a fuck-up. Corrected EP in favor of GA.