Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Bible Illiteracy

David Gelernter, in Bible Illiteracy in America in the May 23, 2005 issue of Weekly Standard Online, reports on findings in a report recently issued by the Bible Literacy Project. The report makes clear that young Americans know very little about the Bible, but Gelernter is more concerned with the fact that a sizable number of Americans don’t know why they should. At a time when secular minded activists think it appropriate to eradicate any Biblical references from educational settings, this inattentiveness to core American values is very troubling.

Gelernter identifies Abraham Lincoln as “America's foremost prophet,” and uses the famous passages of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to underscore what is the oldest of American traditions:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right..." Lincoln's speech "reads like a supplement to the Bible," writes the historian William Wolf, with its "fourteen references to God, four direct quotations from Genesis, Psalms, and Matthew, and other allusions to scriptural teaching." "The best gift God has given to man," Lincoln called the Bible. "But for it we could not know right from wrong."
For Lincoln, and many of our greatest Americans before and since, God and His wisdom revealed to man underlies all the strength and structures of our American Experiment. This is enshrined in the writings and institutional artifacts created by the founders.

Gelernter then proffers what he believes should be the first question asked in our history books: “What made the nation's Founders so sure they were onto something big?”

And he amplifies:
What made John Adams say, in 1765, "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence"? What made Abraham Lincoln call America (in 1862, in the middle of a ruinous civil war) "the last, best hope of earth"?
Among all the other influences, intertwined among all the great philosophies of governance, saturating every product of the intellect that nurtured the great ideas that eventually sprang fully formed as our Constitution, first and foremost was the Bible. And the founders read it faithfully.

Gelernter references a major paper by Fania Oz-Salzberger, published in 2002, which documented how the Hebrew Bible heavily influenced the thinkers and writers who constructed our founding governmental forms and documents. Oz-Salzberger describes the “nearly perfect” Republic of Israel, which, “precisely because of its transcendent origin, it was an exemplary state of law and a society dedicated to social justice and republican liberty."

To Gelernter, much of what passes for modern rights activism trying to enforce an inviolable “wall of separation” between church and state would be infuriating to the Founders.
It is a perfect reflection of the nation's origins that the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights--Article one, part one--should be religious freedom. "Separation of church and state" was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The idea that the Bill of Rights would one day be traduced into a broom to sweep religion out of the public square like so much dried mud off the boots of careless children would have left the Founders of this nation (my guess is) trembling in rage. We owe it to them in simple gratitude to see that the Bill of Rights is not--is never--used as a weapon against religion.
And by extending his argument to the period of our Civil War, Gelernter vividly portrays a “biblical” Lincoln, one who translated a very personal and private faith into a commitment to preserve and defend what he viewed as God’s gift to mankind, through the vessel of America and the profound achievement of Liberty expressed within its institutions. This belief he maintained, in spite of the challenges posed by two sets of contrasting orthodoxies, gripped in a mortal struggle as an expression of their God’s will.
As the Civil War approached, both North and South saw their positions in biblical terms. Southern preachers sometimes accused abolitionists of being atheists in disguise. Lincoln rose above this kind of dispute. "In the present civil war it is quite possible," he wrote in 1862, "that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party."
Yet Lincoln made continuous reference to the Source of his strength. Gelernter holds that Lincoln understood the promise of America, and struggled mightily to redeem and transform that promise:
Lincoln was America's most "biblical" president--"no president has ever had the detailed knowledge of the Bible that Lincoln had," writes the historian William Wolf. Lincoln turned to the Bible more and more frequently and fervently as the war progressed. His heterodox but profound Christianity showed him how to understand the war as a fight to redeem America's promise to mankind.
Lincoln was not the average church goer of his age. He had an unusual but distinctly American brand of Christian faith. Gelernter describes the specific scriptural grounds that Lincoln adhered to:
Lincoln never joined a church, but said often that he would join one if "the savior's summary of the Gospel" were its only creed. He meant the passage in Mark and Luke where Jesus restates God's requirements in terms of two edicts from the Hebrew Bible: to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Lincoln's religion was deeply biblical--and characteristically American.
In Gelernter’s view (and mine), the Bible still shapes American destiny. Or better perhaps, the Bible still has the power to preserve the promise of American destiny. This is all the more true today in our Global War on Terror, as an almost biblical project, “One that sees America as an almost chosen people, with the heavy responsibilities that go with the job.”

Gelernter concludes:
The faithful ask, in the words of the 139th psalm, "Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?" And answer, "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." Secularists don't see it that way; but the Bible's penetration into the farthest corners of the known world is simple fact. Most contemporary philosophers and culture critics are barely aware of these things, don't see the pattern behind them, can't tell us what the pattern means, and (for the most part) don't care.
I understand the concerns of some Americans about establishment of religion by the state, or government dictating the terms and conditions of worship. These are real concerns, and we should try to understand what might be legitimate boundaries between government activities and religious expression. (But surely no inseparable wall with religious people and expressions on one side, and government employees and officials and absolutely pristine secularity on the other.)

But equally important, we need to maintain a knowledge and awareness of the great Judeo-Christian foundations in the history, the culture, the ideals, and the creeds of this American Republic. We owe it to the generations of Americans who motivated, labored, fought, served, and often died in America's cause. Often with the name of God on their lips.

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