Dear Scrotty Students. Really? (concluded)

          The “Dear Scrotty Students” letter that supposedly addressed a controversy concerning a statue said that “a key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition [is that] you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic—otherwise your idea is worthless.” The letter did not tell us why the students said that the Rhodes statue should be removed, so we can gauge the worth of their contentions, but, on the other hand, it presented little by the way of logic and facts for keeping the statue of Rhodes other than to say that he was an Oxford benefactor. I understand that money often trumps everything else, but I hoped that the university would present at least some reasoned argument for keeping the Rhodes monument. Instead, the response attacked the change-seekers’ heritage, country, and continent: your ancestors lived in mud huts; the Bantus have not contributed to modern civilization; South Africa has high rates of murder and sicknesses. Even if true, so bloody what?  That “reasoning” does nothing to explain why Rhodes statue should stay where it is. Surely, I thought, a spokesperson for Oxford ought to know the meaning of non sequitur and avoid it.

          The supposed letter did say that Oxford “always prefers facts and free, open debate.” But it closed with: “you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.” You can’t believe both statements. That closing is not a tenet of open debate, but of the closing of the British, or at least, the Oxford mind. No one who is truly an educator should ever say that I won’t listen to you. No one who believes in open debate would ever say that they have nothing to learn from someone else.

          This “reasoning” is akin to the following scenario: A brit tells me that kale is healthy and will not invariably make me puke. I reply: “I do not need to respond to your reasoning. I won’t even listen to your contentions. I have nothing to learn from you. You are English, and your ancestors were brutal, murderous, disease-spreading colonists, and your country can’t even play good rugby anymore.”

          An intelligent, reasoning person should have quickly questioned the authenticity of a letter employing such schoolyard logic (“So’s your mother”). Americans especially should have had doubts when the letter asked, “Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution?” Jefferson, of course, was not a drafter of the Constitution, and the question is unlikely to have come from an informed person.

After reading the letter, I did five minutes of internet research, and I was not surprised to find that the letter was indeed a fake. It was a product of a writer on Breitbart.com in 2015. He had concerns that the relatively moderate and reasoned approach by Oxford to the Rhodes statue controversy had not been firm enough. He wrote the “letter” but prefaced it with: “Here is the letter Oriel College should have written to the campaigners from Rhodes Must Fall.”

Subsequent appearances of the letter on the internet and in emails have dropped this introduction, and without this preface it elicits many comments of praise from people who have reflexively accepted it as authentic. Why the commendations? It must be the intemperate tone towards the African students. Like the actual letter writer, the praise-givers must be fantasizing that this is what they would have said to those seeking change if they were the head of Oxford. In their fantasy world, this is a convincing letter.

Some versions of the letter place an asterisk after “Autres temps, autres moeurs” in the text, and that phrase is translated after the letter’s conclusion. Apparently whoever placed the footnote and those who forward the letter don’t expect their readers to understand the foreign language even though the letter castigates those who lack this comprehension: “If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?” The irony seems lost on many who read this passage.

Once again, I am reminded of the power of the internet. It places a world of knowledge at our fingertips, but many can’t spend the few moments to seek it out. They are not equipped to detect sloppy thinking and prefer to remain in the ignorance that the internet could dispel. But they can use the internet to pass along stupidities to other like-minded people.

I wonder if “scrotty” should be applied to them.

Dear Scrotty Students: Really?

A friend asked me what I thought about an email recently forwarded to him. Its preface said, “The letter below is a response from Oxford University to black students attending as Rhodes Scholars who demand the university removes the statue of Oxford Benefactor, Cecil Rhodes.” The letter said:

Dear Scrotty Students,

Cecil Rhodes’s generous bequest has contributed greatly to the comfort and well being of many generations of Oxford students – a good many of them, dare we say it, better, brighter and more deserving than you.

This does not necessarily mean we approve of everything Rhodes did in his lifetime – but then we don’t have to. Cecil Rhodes died over a century ago. Autres temps, autres moeurs. If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?”

Oxford, let us remind you, is the world’s second oldest extant university. Scholars have been studying here since at least the 11th century. We’ve played a major part in the invention of Western civilisation, from the 12th century intellectual renaissance through the Enlightenment and beyond. Our alumni include William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, William Tyndale, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, Erasmus, Sir Christopher Wren, William Penn, Samuel Johnson, Robert Hooke, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Emily Davison, Cardinal Newman. We’re a big deal. And most of the people privileged to come and study here are conscious of what a big deal we are. Oxford is their alma mater – their dear mother – and they respect and revere her accordingly.

And what were your ancestors doing in that period? Living in mud huts, mainly. Sure we’ll concede you the short lived Southern African civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. But let’s be brutally honest here. The contribution of the Bantu tribes to modern civilisation has been as near as damn it to zilch.

You’ll probably say that’s “racist”. But it’s what we here at Oxford prefer to call “true.” Perhaps the rules are different at other universities. In fact, we know things are different at other universities. We’ve watched with horror at what has been happening across the pond from the University of Missouri to the University of Virginia and even to revered institutions like Harvard and Yale: the “safe spaces”; the #blacklivesmatter; the creeping cultural relativism; the stifling political correctness; what Allan Bloom rightly called “the closing of the American mind”. At Oxford however, we will always prefer facts and free, open debate to petty grievance-mongering, identity politics and empty sloganeering. The day we cease to do so is the day we lose the right to call ourselves the world’s greatest university.

Of course, you are perfectly within your rights to squander your time at Oxford on silly, vexatious, single-issue political campaigns. (Though it does make us wonder how stringent the vetting procedure is these days for Rhodes scholarships and even more so, for Mandela Rhodes scholarships) We are well used to seeing undergraduates – or, in your case – postgraduates, making idiots of themselves. Just don’t expect us to indulge your idiocy, let alone genuflect before it. You may be black – “BME” as the grisly modern terminology has it – but we are colour blind. We have been educating gifted undergraduates from our former colonies, our Empire, our Commonwealth and beyond for many generations. We do not discriminate over sex, race, colour or creed. We do, however, discriminate according to intellect.

That means, inter alia, that when our undergrads or postgrads come up with fatuous ideas, we don’t pat them on the back, give them a red rosette and say: “Ooh, you’re black and you come from South Africa. What a clever chap you are!”  No. We prefer to see the quality of those ideas tested in the crucible of public debate. That’s another key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition you see: you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic – otherwise your idea is worthless.

This ludicrous notion you have that a bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from Oriel College, because it’s symbolic of “institutional racism” and “white slavery”. Well even if it is – which we dispute – so bloody what? Any undergraduate so feeble-minded that they can’t pass a bronze statue without having their “safe space” violated really does not deserve to be here. And besides, if we were to remove Rhodes’s statue on the premise that his life wasn’t blemish-free, where would we stop? As one of our alumni Dan Hannan has pointed out, Oriel’s other benefactors include two kings so awful – Edward II and Charles I – that their subjects had them killed. The college opposite – Christ Church – was built by a murderous, thieving bully who bumped off two of his wives. Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution? Winston Churchill had unenlightened views about Muslims and India: was he then the wrong man to lead Britain in the war?”

Actually, we’ll go further than that. Your Rhodes Must Fall campaign is not merely fatuous but ugly, vandalistic and dangerous. We agree with Oxford historian RW Johnson that what you are trying to do here is no different from what ISIS and the Al-Qaeda have been doing to artefacts in places like Mali and Syria. You are murdering history.

And who are you, anyway, to be lecturing Oxford University on how it should order its affairs? Your
#rhodesmustfall campaign, we understand, originates in South Africa and was initiated by a black activist who told one of his lecturers whites have to be killed. One of you Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is the privileged son of a rich politician and a member of a party whose slogan is “Kill the Boer; Kill the Farmer”; another of you, Ntokozo Qwabe, who is only in Oxford as a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, has boasted about the need for “socially conscious black students” to “dominate white universities, and do so ruthlessly and decisively!

Great. That’s just what Oxford University needs. Some cultural enrichment from the land of Winnie Mandela, burning tyre necklaces, an AIDS epidemic almost entirely the result of government indifference and ignorance, one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates, institutionalised corruption, tribal politics, anti-white racism and a collapsing economy. Please name which of the above items you think will enhance the lives of the 22,000 students studying here at Oxford.

And then please explain what it is that makes your attention grabbing campaign to remove a listed statue from an Oxford college more urgent, more deserving than the desire of probably at least 20,000 of those 22,000 students to enjoy their time here unencumbered by the irritation of spoilt, ungrateful little tossers on scholarships they clearly don’t merit using racial politics and cheap guilt-tripping to ruin the life and fabric of our beloved university.

Understand us and understand this clearly: you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.

Yours, Oriel College, Oxford

(Punctuation as in the copy forwarded to me.)

          Before I responded to my friend, I asked the spouse to read it. Her immediate reaction mirrored my own: “Is this real?” I certainly hoped not. If it had been an official Oxford response, I would have lost respect for what I had thought was a great university. Of course, part of my concern was the intemperate tone, but more disturbing was the poor logic. If this is how Oxford teaches its students to think, it would be a poor place to get an education. And I thought that any marginally informed person should have been skeptical about the letter.

(concluded July 10)

Statues and the Executive Order

Peacefully and violently, many have questioned some of our public statues and monuments. Trump responded by issuing an executive order.

He prefaced the order by saying, “Their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history, and is indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past and to erase from the public mind any suggestion that our past may be worth honoring, cherishing, remembering, or understanding.”

Trump went on to command: “It is the policy of the United States to prosecute to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law, and as appropriate, any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property. . . The Attorney General shall prioritize within the Department of Justice the investigation and prosecution” of such matters. The order concludes: “This order is not intended to, and does not, affect the prosecutorial discretion of the Department of Justice with respect to individual cases.” Prioritize, but you still have all your discretion. Prosecute, but only “as appropriate.”

What, then, does the executive order do? One thing it fails to do is to give guidance on what duties within the DOJ should be given shorter shrift. If Department of Justice attorneys shift priorities to statues, then other matters in the DOJ bailiwick will have to have a lower priority. What now should get lesser attention? Immigration? White collar crimes? Antitrust matters? Drug crimes?

But what I most noticed is that the president said that others have a “deep ignorance of our history.” He said something similar a few years ago in response to a movement to remove memorials to Confederate soldiers. President Trump then said that he was “sad” at the removal of “our beautiful statues” and that “you can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” I wonder, however, if Trump applies these statements to himself. Has he ever sought to learn about our history after looking at those beautiful statues?

The president has a home in Manhattan’s Trump Tower. It is a short distance from a great, amazing, huge collection of public statues and monuments—Central Park. I wonder how often he has gazed at them and was inspired to learn more history.

The southeast corner of Central Park, the closest entrance to the Park from Trump’s penthouse, is only a few minutes’ walk (or more likely, a few minutes’ golf cart ride) from the Tower. There he would have encountered a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback. If looking at the monument inspired him to read about that General, he might have learned that Sherman’s capture of Atlanta is credited with guaranteeing Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and thereby the defeat of the Confederacy. Lincoln pledged to preserve the Union; his opponent was expected to make peace with the Confederacy. Does Trump think about what would have happened had Sherman failed at Atlanta? He may not think about what it would have meant for slavery and Blacks or the cotton trade and the New York financiers who backed it or how it would have affected our country’s expansion into the territories, but surely you might think that he would wonder how Mar-a-Lago and his Charlottesville winery would have been affected if they were now in the Confederate States of America.

If he sought to learn more about Sherman, he would learn how important the defeat of the Confederacy was to this American patriot. He could learn that Sherman, like many others of his era, had changing views about Blacks; that thousands of freed slaves joined his March to the Sea; that he settled thousands of the recently-freed on land expropriated from Southern whites, in what were some of the first actions of Reconstruction. Trump might be inspired to learn more about Reconstruction; its end in 1877 that wiped away many of these gains for the former slaves that had been initiated by Sherman; and the institution of Jim Crow that did much to shape our present nation.

Trump might learn that Sherman declined the Republican Presidential nomination of 1884 by saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” Would he find this amazing? If you don’t want to do the work of a President, you should figure that out and say so before running for the office.

A block away from Sherman’s likeness are statutes of Simòn Bolivar, the Venezuelan who is known for liberating much of South America from Spain, and José de San Martin, the Argentine who helped liberate both Argentina and Peru from Spain. He might learn from these figures that Latin Americans do not look kindly on foreign powers trying to dictate to them. But, of course, if Trump had learned this, he probably would not have made some of his statements about Venezuela and Mexico.

A short hike, or even shorter ride, from these men on horseback is Balto’s statue. Balto was the Siberian husky that led a final team of sled dogs delivering diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, a story that was covered breathlessly by newspapers worldwide. Surely there are lessons to be learned here about humanitarianism and the mainstream press. And perhaps the president might also realize that he ought to have a puppy.

Maybe Trump has seen these statues near his penthouse, and though I find it doubtful, even learned something from them. I am more confident, however, that Trump has not learned from a statue at the other end of the park from the one of Sherman. It is near 110th Street, which borders Harlem. There he could see a statue of Frederick Douglass. Enough said.

Central Park has, not surprisingly, more statues and memorials, including ones of Beethoven, Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns, and many others. But perhaps the most important one to visit if you are in the park these days is on the east side of the park near 74th Street—Alice in Wonderland. Surely there is much to contemplate at her feet.

Was the Declaration on the Fourth of July?

My personal Fourth of July routine has included re-reading the Declaration of Independence.

Only recently, however, have I learned that the Declaration of Independence, or at least widely accepted versions of it, contain revisionist history. The document we celebrate on July 4 has fifty-six signers. But the only signatures on the original Declaration, which was attached to the official proceedings of Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, were that of John Hancock as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson, who was not a delegate, as Secretary.

The Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum is different and does contain the fifty-six signatures. Although the Archives version says, “In Congress, July 4, 1776,” it was, in fact, executed later. On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved that that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment and that it “be signed by every member of Congress.” The signers, then, did not sign on July 4, 1776. Most signed on August 2, 1776. You might think that the revision is minor since the signatories had agreed on July 4 to adopt the Declaration; they only failed to put their John Hancocks on the original document. However, several members of Congress on July 4, 1776, were absent on the day the Declaration was adopted. Even so, they later signed the engrossed copy. Furthermore, several other signers were not even members of Congress on the Fourth of July. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was appointed as a congressional delegate by Maryland on July 4 (is it surprising that the Maryland legislature was working on a holiday?) but did not present his credentials to the Continental Congress until July 18. He still signed the parchment. Five other signers were not appointed until July 20.

The National Archives Declaration states that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Such unanimity language does not appear on the original Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, because it was not unanimous. The New York delegation abstained on that date and sought further guidance on how it should vote from the New York State convention. Only eleven days after the Declaration was adopted did the New York delegates receive approval to vote for independence.

I have now realized that I have been reading both versions of the Declaration of Independence without noticing that they varied. The copy that is in reach above my desk is of the original one promulgated on July 4, 1776, without all the signatures and without the unanimity language, while the version I have most often read reprinted in newspapers and in broadsides is the historical re-write. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the most famous version of the Declaration is revisionist history, but it does not matter much which version you read because both contain the memorable language that we most often ascribe to Thomas Jefferson that begins “When in the course of human events. . . .”

Even after reading this text many times, I note the archaisms, but still admire the rhythm and the phrasing of the Declaration’s first section—“a decent respect to [not for] the opinions of mankind. . .”; “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established. . . ,” “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

When we think about the Declaration, we usually only contemplate the opening paragraphs, but I am also fascinated by the list of elegantly written grievances about the King to justify the Revolution. I have tried to remember, not always successfully, what specifics had occasioned the often-vague complaints. Some of my frustration at my lack of historical knowledge was relieved when, after many perusals of the Declaration, I read American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, who wrote, “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King, which is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.” (Even so, I find it ironic today that the indictments included the assertions that the Crown had impeded immigration to our shores and prevented free trade.) Indeed, one of the assertions does not appear to be true. My own research into the American jury system for a book mirrors Maier’s conclusion: “Even the most assiduous efforts have, however, identified no colonists of the revolutionaries’ generation who were actually transported ‘beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses.’” Even Jefferson, it seems, was not above a bit of revisionist history.

Sometimes, however, in reading the Declaration I think about what I have learned about writing from Strunk and White in Elements of Style and similar books. The advice is consistent: Eliminate extraneous words; strive for clarity; be succinct. I look at the opening paragraph and think that it violates these precepts. It reads: “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”

If I had drafted the Declaration, it would have read: “We are declaring independence from Great Britain. Here is why.” Clear and succinct, but hardly memorable, and I recognize again Jefferson’s linguistic genius. (The spouse says that after finishing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, she can no longer hold Jefferson in the highest regard.) My conclusion has been tempered as I have learned that the Declaration was preceded by ninety or so state and local Declarations whose phrasings often were echoed in the Fourth of July proclamation and that Jefferson’s draft was frequently improved by the editing done by other delegates to the Continental Congress. But even so, Jefferson produced the draft that in its final form still lives centuries later. And it will and should continue to live as long as some still read it. On this Fourth of July, read it. All who consider themselves American should.

Conscience of a Baptist (concluded)

          In the days when I attended the church, Baptists seldom mentioned abortion. That may have been because then there was little public discussion of it, although I have learned since that there were many private discussions of the practice as many people sought one. The lack of a Baptist discussion, however, may also have been due to Baptists’ reverence for the Bible and for liberty of conscience. The last time I checked a biblical concordance—admittedly quite some time ago, but surely this has not changed—“abortion” was not in it. One has to interpret or extrapolate from verses and contexts to conclude that the Bible condemns abortion. Biblical passages can be construed to say that life begins at conception, but what “conception” meant in biblical times is not clear. I doubt to ancient Israelites it meant a sperm fertilizing an egg. Other biblical passages, however, indicate life begins with the first breath. But even though the Bible does not explicitly, and may not implicitly, condemn abortion, it is also hard to suggest that it supports the view that abortion should be the choice of the woman and her doctor.

          A Baptist, however, might extrapolate from Baptist principles and conclude that because there are ambiguities in the Bible on the matter, whether an abortion is sinful must remain a matter of conscience. The opinion would hold that the state cannot dictate what is sinful and should not dictate that a woman cannot have an abortion. In fact, when some states began to change their absolute proscriptions of abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, many Southern Baptist leaders held quite liberal views on the subject. For example, a poll in 1970 found that 70% of Southern Baptist ministers supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman; 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity; and 71% supported abortion in cases of rape. The next year the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

          This liberal viewpoint, however, soon vanished. Since Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed many resolutions about abortion that are much different from the 1971 pronouncement. On the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Convention stated that that Supreme Court “decision was an act of injustice against unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. . . . We lament and renounce statements and actions by previous conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture. . . . We pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the action of abortion will be not only illegal but unthinkable.”

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, then, Southern Baptist shifted away from dogmatic opposition to school prayer and aid to religious school and towards dogmatic opposition to abortion. These moves have had more than a religious impact because they are all opinions that affect how people vote. Southern Baptists, for example, now want their elected officials to be strongly against abortion and generally friendly, at least, to public support of religion, or at least some forms of religion. This certainly has had importance for the country since the Southern Baptists are the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Over the last generation or two Southern Baptists seem to have moved even further to the political right than they were before. Perhaps people who are better historians, sociologists, or theologians than I can explain why, but I do point out that the Southern Baptists were not alone in the rightward lurch during this period. Something similar also occurred with the National Rifle Association, which had been largely an apolitical group interested mainly in marksmanship and gun safety, but was captured by an element that began the NRA’s move to become one of the most important conservative organizations in the country. Both Baptists and the NRA moved to the right at the same time. Is there a connection?

          Baptists, and other evangelicals, have become a major political force. Baptists are at the core of the modern conservative movement even though these Baptists no longer seek the traditional principles that defined Baptism. They now advocate the intermingling of church and state. Toleration of private consciences no longer seems a defining principle

Nevertheless, when I see one of those white frame New England Baptist churches, I still hope that their congregants believe that religion should not be founded on ritual or coercion or enforced rules. Instead, it should be founded on the consciences of individuals, persuasion, reason, and toleration. I want those bedrock principles of Baptism, and of the country, to remain.

Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          American Baptists were not alone in accepting the Supreme Court ruling about school prayers. Southern Baptists agreed. The Southern Baptists came into being in the1840s when they segregated themselves from other Baptists. It should come as no great surprise that race was the dividing factor. The specific issue, as I understand it, was whether slave holders could be missionaries.

But even with the split, Southern Baptists maintained the same doctrinal positions as other Baptists. They maintained that the Bible only authorized two sacraments—adult baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. They also were without a hierarchy. There was a Southern Baptist Convention to which churches sent “messengers,” but the pronouncements of the SBC did not bind anyone; they were just recommendations or urgings or food for thought. As with American Baptists, the church was congregation-based with the congregants selecting a minister. And Southern Baptists also believed in the strict separation of church and state. Shortly after the Supreme Court held that public school prayers were unconstitutional, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, praising the decision, said that it was “one of the most powerful blows in our lifetime, maybe since the Constitution was adopted, for the freedom of religion in our lifetime.”

          Soon thereafter, however, Southern Baptists started changing their positions. In 1982, the SBC supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed individual or group prayer in public schools as long as the government did not require participation in the prayer. (This was a curious proposal. Individual prayer was never outlawed, and of course, a silent prayer could not be. Surely, I am not the only one who reached out to the Almighty before a calculus exam. A spoken prayer might run into troubles with school authorities, not because it was a prayer, but because any vocalization in a classroom might be disruptive to school order. Part of the power of prayer, it seems to me, is that at least silent ones can be said anywhere, including in ,government facilities.)

When I was young American Baptists opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it forced people, through taxes, to support religious practices, and no one should be forced to support religion. Southern Baptists also opposed government aid to religious schools. Thus, in 1971, when a voucher system was proposed to allow public money to go to parochial schools, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that said, “We reaffirm our belief that the use of public funds for education in church-controlled schools, regardless of the manner in which these funds are channeled to church schools, is contrary to the principle of religious liberty.” The Convention went on to “reaffirm its commitment to our system of public education.”

          But times change, and, apparently, so do religious principles. That adamant opposition to state support for parochial schools has shifted. The Convention passed a resolution in 2014 entitled “On the Importance of Christ-Centered Education.” The SBC now encourages lawmakers to enact policies and laws that maximize “parental choice.” It goes on to say, “We affirm and encourage support for existing Christ-centered K-12 schools as they engage in Kingdom work.”

          What, you might ask, accounts for this change? Although religiously tolerant, Baptists were quite opposed to Roman Catholics, who were not seen as real followers of Christ. (A Sunday School teacher of mine once announced that the United States had three major religions: Christians, Jews, and Catholics.) A generation or two ago, the term “parochial schools” was often seen as a coded term for “Catholic schools,” even though other denominations also had religious schools. (My father and a nephew went to Lutheran schools.) The adamant opposition for aid to parochial schools that then existed could have sprung from opposition to Catholicism, but, in fact, the position was consistent with long-held Baptist views that go back to Roger Williams.

          So, why the changes? A generation or two ago, Baptists had few K-12 schools. (A fair number of colleges and universities have Baptist roots, including, for example, Wake Forest and the University of Chicago.) However, then came the school desegregation movement. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that meaningful desegregation got underway. And, surprise, surprise, Christian Academies started springing up in places–coincidentally, I am sure—where opposition to desegregation was strong. Non-Catholic Christian Schools doubled their enrollment between 1961 and 1971. And while there were few Baptist K-12 schools before Brown v. Board of Education, they became more numerous just at the time when public schools were being desegregated.

          Many of the Christian Academies were originally unabashedly segregated. We tend to forget all the preaching that said the separation of the races was commanded by the Bible, and Brown did not apply to private schools These schools, however, could get back-door government help in the tax code. In the 1960s, donations to the schools were tax-exempt, but that changed through a series of Supreme Court decisions into the 1970s that declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for the tax break.

          After these legal decisions, most, if not all, of the schools no longer claimed to be all-white, but not many became truly integrated. The schools increasingly said they existed to fight secular humanism and to oppose liberalism. That message and the costs of the schools attracted few non-whites. The schools no longer touted segregation, but that remained the implicit draw of many of them.

          Funding of a Christian Academy education, however, is difficult for many who desire it no matter what their reasons. Therefore, many of those seeking a religious education today support school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality, but the vouchers raise questions about the separation of church and state.

          Because the voucher can be used at any private school including parochial ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but vouchers, by giving parents control over the state money, is an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not violate the federal Constitution.

          In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, espousing its traditional religious view, took a strong stand against vouchers as an improper state aid of religion. The Supreme Court, of course, cannot change the religious principles of Baptists, but since that strong stand against vouchers, many Baptist schools have been created, and, for whatever the reason, that adamant opposition by Southern Baptists has disappeared. Apparently, theological opposition to public moneys for religious schools wavers when those schools might be Baptist institutions.

(concluded July 1)

Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          For Williams, the progenitor of American Baptists, religion was a personal thing. A person’s conscience is God’s line of communication to the individual. Humans being imperfect might be wrong about what conscience demands, but since the conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

          In other words, all must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship or support religious practices against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

          A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Thus, Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

          These views led not just to liberty of conscience and toleration on religious matters, but on all subjects. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and that all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

          (I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision.

When I attended the Baptist church, the views of separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, equality, and religious toleration espoused by Roger Williams were strong. Tolerant Baptists may not have been publicly militant about much, but they were militant about the separation of church and state. On occasion, however, I recognized a bit of Baptist backsliding. I was home from college or law school during the Vietnam War and went to church. The minister’s sermon gave support for that war. I was offended for two reasons: (1) He was wrong about the war. (2) He was wrong as a Baptist. The church should not give or withold support for the government. It cheapened the worship of God to bring the state into it. Church and state. Separate.

I voiced my displeasure to the minister after the service, and he invited me to visit him during the week, which I did. We discussed the war. I knew that as Baptists he could not speak to me from a position of authority where he could attempt to dictate what my views should be. He, using either reason or the Bible or both, had to persuade me that his sermon was correct. He did not.

This interjection of politics into church was rare, however. Church and state were kept separate, and it was easy to predict how American Baptists would react in those days to some prominent church-state issues: prayers in public schools and government aid to parochial schools. For American Baptists the answers were a simple no and no.

The public prayers profaned God. If one prayed because the state required it, then the prayer came not out of devotion to God, but because of devotion to or fear of the state. This made such a prayer unholy and defiled true religion. If the prayer was uttered, not out of devotion and faith, but merely out of a habit, like saying “Good morning, Miss Ketter” to the teacher each morning, the prayer was still sinful.

          We American Baptists thought that the United States Supreme Court got it right when it held in 1962 that a recitation of a state-written prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment, which prohibits an establishment of religion. Furor around the country, however, resulted. Godlessness would prevail. Communists would ascend. I found this panic amusing. My public school did not have prayers. I believe they were outlawed in Wisconsin, as they were in many–perhaps most–other states. I listened to the rants about the Court’s decision and looked about me and could not figure out what they were going on about. Wisconsin, to my keen eye that was on a vigilant lookout for such things and disappointed when I could not find them, did not seem to be more a hotbed of iniquity than the places that required public prayers. It was clear to me that there was no connection between morality or godly behavior and the recitation of prayers in public schools.

(continued June 29)

The Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant baptism. The baptisms mentioned in the Bible, for example, of Jesus by John the Baptist and one done by Phillip, were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not of adults.

          Infant baptisms are a man-made ritual, according to Baptists, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible says that Jesus and others came out of the water, and other passages do seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse–I think it is in one of the Romans–that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that.

          Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  And on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder Bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and its congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I did like communion, but it brought some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked about why no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.

          Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark.” No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)

          Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of much ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only kind of churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme.

          American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

          Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect and produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

          Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to the rulers.

          This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is sheltered by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians, not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

(continued June 26)

The Conscience of a Baptist

          I was raised in Wisconsin. I was raised a Baptist. To many these would seem incompatible statements. They think of Baptists in Georgia or Alabama or Texas. They think of Southern Baptists, but there are many varieties of Baptists in this country.

My childhood church was part of the American Baptist Convention, which now has the name American Baptist Churches. (Earlier it was Northern Baptists.) Our affiliation came from the mother’s side of the family, which had roots in upstate New York. If you drive through New York State or New England, you can see hundreds of little frame buildings, invariably white, neat, and small, at crossroads or byways that are American Baptist churches. These northeastern churches always remind me of the First Baptist Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which was also small and white. Our church building did not have to be spacious because the congregation was not large. I doubt that the pews ever held anywhere near 100 people at a time.

I have not paid enough attention to the New York churches to know whether they invariably have a belfry, but to me our building seemed especially like a church because hanging in those upper reaches was a real bell. When a boy in this First Baptist church got to be twelve, he would be put on the roster to ring the bell at the beginning of the services. (Back then, I never wondered why girls were not bell ringers.) 

I loved ringing the bell. At the appointed time, I would walk upstairs at the rear of the church to the balcony, which was always free of parishioners. A ladder went from the balcony through a small opening to the belfry. A rope hung from the bell to the floor. We had been instructed on how to ring the bell. The first strike must not be tentative; it had to sound as full-throated as any of the other rings. This meant grabbing the rope as high as possible. I would get on my tiptoes and pull as hard as humanly possible to the floor so that the bell would swing as far is it could and the clapper would hit the bell firmly.

To me it was always a thrilling sound to hear that first strike correctly executed. And just as that first strike had to be full on, the last strike had to be as firm as any other and then silence. We were not to allow any ding, ding, ding trailing off. This required halting the bell’s swinging by getting an extra firm grip on the rope and then holding the rope at the floor as the last striking occurred. And thus the first prayer of the day: “Don’t let the rope slip out of my hand. Don’t let the bell pull me off the floor. Don’t let the bell pull my shoulders out of joint. Don’t let my feet slip.”

With the bell successfully stopped, it had to be carefully returned, through good rope management, to its neutral position where it stayed for another week. Job done. Having felt as if I had called the service to order, I descended the ladder and the stairs to take a seat in a pew. Sometimes as I got to a seat, an adult, almost always a man, would give me a nod, which I took to mean, “Well done.”

That ringing bell was the most flamboyant part of the service. Think about all those jokes you might have heard about the taciturnity of a New England farmer. Our church descended from those roots.  We had a simple service with little ceremony or pomp. Yes, there was hymn singing, a responsive reading, readings from the Bible, and a sermon. I wouldn’t say that it was joyless, but it was staid. I was surprised when I went to church with a high school girlfriend. (Ok, not the hottest date of my life.) The Methodist minister said something that was meant to be amusing during his sermon (it was mildly amusing at best in any other context than a sermon), and some congregants sort of laughed. I realized that in my church, I had never heard a chuckle during the service, much less a laugh.

          What most people know about Baptists is that they practice adult, not infantile (ok, infant), baptism, and baptism not by merely sprinkling of water but by full immersion of the believer into water. The definition of an adult for baptism, it turns out, may be a bit loose. I was baptized when I was twelve or fourteen. But apparently old enough to profess that I was willing to accept Jesus as my savior.

          Our church, as with many if not all Baptist churches, had a place near the pulpit for the baptisms, but it was different from what others may consider a baptismal. It had to hold enough water to dunk a six-footer. Ours was about the size of a hot tub, but without the heaters or the air of decadence. It, of course, was plumbed so it could be filled with water and then drained. Those of us being baptized changed out of our Sunday finery into something that could survive being soaked. When my time came, I got into the water that came up to my waist. I was surprised by the minister, who was wearing fishing waders that were not visible to the congregation. He supported my back and head. I leaned backwards until I was under the water, and then he lifted my sputtering body upright and said that this symbolized death and resurrection and a new life in God. And, so, at least for those moments, I was saved.

(continued June 24)

Snippets

There is talk about a baby boom because of the shelter-at-home mandates of the last three months—call them Covid-19 babies although I hope that none are ever named “Covid.” But I wonder how many were conceived in the first fortnight and how many in the last few weeks after partners had spent months continually together.

“Ezra watched spellbound, eyes bright and jaw slack; he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.” Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry.

Those of us who are sports fans have heard the National Anthem countless times at stadiums and arenas and on broadcasts, but in the last few months we may have not heard it at all. Without the usual doses of the “Star-Spangled Banner” have we become less patriotic or is that ritualistic singing irrelevant in having a love of America? Perhaps it might be a good thing if, because of the pandemic, we reassessed the connection between sports and patriotism, but we still have the controversy over athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. This action has been labeled by the Golfer-in-Chief as “disrespectful to the flag.” The kneelers, whether they are correct or not in their assessments, seek to make the United States a better country. Wanting a better country implies not disdain, but love for the nation. However, if you believe that it somehow undermines the country to silently kneel during the National Anthem, then you should be happy that with sports cancelled or postponed the country has not been so undermined during this period. Do you feel that the country is stronger as a result? This makes me wonder. I have never attended a professional golf tournament. Does each session begin with the National Anthem? Since the golfers begin their rounds at different times and spectators seek different vantage points around the course, it would not make much sense. If golf does not have the National Anthem for all participants and spectators, may I assume that those at a golf event are less patriotic than those at a football game?  And, does Trump stand and sing the National Anthem—assuming he knows the words—before he plops down in a golf cart for his frequent eighteen holes?

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.

“It is what it is.” I want to retire this phrase. The spouse does not. Yet again, the spouse is winning.

What is the name for the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet paper?

The spouse asked me what time I wanted to leave to be on time for our restaurant reservation. I answered. She immediately said she wanted to go five minutes earlier, and it was clear that we were going at her preferred time. As I started to ask why she asked me what time I wanted to go, I, of course, knew the answer. If by happenstance I had stated the time when she wanted to go—the time when we would go–she could look like she was merely acquiescing to my wishes. Smart or manipulative?

Are you a zen master if, when you order a hot dog, you say, “Make me one with everything?”