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America's Culture War: Founding Fathers

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Much Respect for the Quran—Not Much for the Bible

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

You remember the scandal surrounding the mistreatment of enemy prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Another furor has erupted over the treatment of detainees—this one at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Newsweek magazine reported that interrogators flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet (Barry and Isikoff, 2005). Within a week, newspapers in Afghanistan and Pakistan picked up the story. Muslims, outraged by the disrespectful treatment of the Quran, held anti-American demonstrations that resulted in several deaths (Kurtz, 2005). Newsweek has since retracted the story (Whitaker, 2005). A White House spokesman insisted that the United States military goes out of its way to treat the Quran with great care and respect (Holland and Dunham, 2005).

The average American might be surprised to learn that Muslims hold the Quran in such high regard that they compare it—not to the Bible—but to Jesus Christ (Nasr, 2002, p. 23). In fact, insulting the Quran (or Muhammad) is regarded as blasphemy and punishable by death in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (“White House...,” 2005). While Americans, and other western nations that have historically subscribed to the Christian religion, have not typically viewed a physical Bible with such superstitious regard, nevertheless, respect for the Bible as the Word of God was once the norm. The pluralistic assault by the forces of political correctness on America’s Christian heritage has obscured this fact.

America’s initial existence and future survival was originally seen by the Founders to be heavily, if not exclusively, dependent on the successful diffusion of the Bible throughout society. Many evidences of this assertion exist. For example, a year after declaring independence from England, the Colonies began to feel the effects of the British embargo. Consequently, the Continental Congress directed a committee to investigate ways by which Bibles could be secured. The committee made its report on September 11, 1777, stating “that the use of the Bible is so universal, and its importance so great...your Committee recommends that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the States of the Union.” Congress promptly ordered the importation (Journals of..., 1907, 8:734-745). Four years later, as the shortage continued, importation became sufficiently impracticable that Congress was again petitioned for approval, this time to print Bibles in America rather than purchase them abroad. The request was approved and upon completion of the printing, on September 12, 1782, the full Congress not only approved the edition, but their endorsement was given in the front of the Bible: “Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled...recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States” (Journals of..., 1914, 23:574).

The Bible was required reading in the public schools of America from before the beginning of the nation—and for two centuries thereafter up to the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the first book in the classroom was the Bible. It was the centerpiece of a child’s education: “Students learned how to read using the Bible. Much of the school day was devoted to memorizing and reciting passages from it, and passages were copied to learn penmanship” (“Evolving Classroom,” 2001).

For example, the 1636 rules of Harvard included the following directive to students: “Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein” (Pierce, 1833, p. 5). Founded in 1699 by ministers, Yale had the same requirement: “[T]he Scriptures...morning and evening [are] to be read by the students at the times of prayer in the school” (Dexter, 1916, p. 32). The textbooks of American public education were literally loaded with allusions to the Bible—from the New England Primer to the “Blue Back Speller.” One sample is seen in the Fourth Eclectic Reader of the “McGuffey’s Readers” series, which contained a section titled “A Mother’s Gift.” That gift? “The Bible” (1837, p. 255).

The courts of America once underscored and reaffirmed the nation’s devotion to the Bible as the undergirding foundation of society. In Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, the U.S. Supreme Court declared:

Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the college—its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained, and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? What is there to prevent a work, not sectarian, upon the general evidences of Christianity, from being read and taught in the college by lay-teachers? ...[W]here can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament? Where are benevolence, the love of truth, sobriety, and industry, so powerfully and irresistibly inculcated as in the sacred volume? (1844).

The Founders themselves were not silent on their preeminent conviction that the Bible was integral to American public life. One of the signers of the federal Constitution, James McHenry, insisted:

[T]he Holy Scriptures...can alone secure to society, order and peace, and to our courts of justice and constitutions of government, purity, stability, and usefulness. In vain, without the Bible, we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions. Bibles are strong entrenchments. Where they abound, men cannot pursue wicked courses (see Steiner, 1921, p. 14).

Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, stated: “[T]he Bible...should be read in our schools in preference to all other books from its containing the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public temporal happiness” (1798, p. 100). Noah Webster said: “The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men” (1833, p. v).

Proof of the extensive reliance of the Founders on the Bible is seen in a ten-year project dedicated to ascertaining the sources of the Founding Fathers’ political ideas. The group of political scientists who undertook the project reported that the number one influence was the Bible (Lutz, 1988, p. 140). The authors of a Newsweek article even concluded that “historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our Founding document” (Woodward and Gates, 1982, p. 44).

So if a White House spokesman maintains that the American military goes out of its way to treat the Quran with great care and respect, what has happened to a comparable respect for the Bible? What response would be heard from America if Muslims flushed a Bible down the toilet? The silence would be deafening—not because we know that the value of the Bible is in its words, not the paper on which the words are printed; but because America no longer views the Bible with the same regard as the Founders of America. There exists within this country a widespread loss of reverence for the Word of God. Would that Americans possessed half the respect for the Bible that Muslims have for the Quran.

REFERENCES

Barry, John and Michael Isikoff (2005), “Gitmo: SouthCom Showdown,” Newsweek, May 9.

Dexter, Franklin ed. (1916), Documentary History of Yale University (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

“Evolving Classroom” (2001), PBS, [On-line], URL: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/evolving_classroom/books.html.

Holland, Steve and Will Dunham (2005), “White House Says Newsweek Must Do More About Koran Case,” [On-line], URL: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=8526132.

Journals of the Continental Congress (1904-1937), (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office).

Kurtz, Howard (2005), “Newsweek Apologizes,” The Washington Post, May 16, [On-line], URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/15/AR2005051500605.html.

Lutz, Donald (1988), The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press).

McGuffey, William (1837), McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader (New York: American Book Company), [On-line], URL: http://www.howtotutor.com/samples1.htm.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (2002), The Heart of Islam (New York: HarperCollins).

Pierce, Benjamin (1833), A History of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA: Brown, Shattuck, and Company).

Rush, Benjamin (1798), Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia, PA: Thomas and Samuel Bradford).

Steiner, Bernard (1921), One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Bible Society).

Vidal v. Gerard’s Executors (1844), 43 U.S. 127; 11 L. Ed. 205; 1844.

Webster, Noah (1833), The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (New Haven, CT: Durrie & Peck).

Whitaker, Mark (2005), “The Editor’s Desk,” May 16 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7857154/site/newsweek/.

“White House Hits Out at Newsweek,” BBC News, May 18, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4557929.stm.

Woodward, Kenneth and David Gates (1982), “How the Bible Made America,” Newsweek, December 27.




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