Monday, November 8, 2010

The Constitution and Prayer In Schools

Listening to Bob Dutko inspires me to address various issues. I disagree with him most of the time and would love to argue with him, but obviously I can't call in every day. My next couple of posts will address some of his recent claims I've heard from him.

Dutko tells us that the Constitution permits teacher lead prayer in schools. It is obvious that the founders of our country had no problem merging church and state. Depictions of religious figures are all over Washington. The 10 Commandments were always displayed prominently at various places. Congress opens with prayer. Prayer was common in schools until only a few decades ago. Why are we suddenly realizing the Constitution forbids this behavior? Our early founders didn't object to this behavior so obviously they didn't regard these actions as a violation of the first amendment.

Atheists reply with various arguments, including the fact that the 14th amendment changed things. They point out that the Treaty of Tripoli asserts that the US is not a Christian nation. They talk about Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, where you get the "separation of church and state" language for the first time (it's not in the Constitution).

Bob is well aware of all of these arguments and comes back at them hard. I think his replies sound plausible. But on the other hand I'm not a Constitutional lawyer. I think it would be useful for Bob to admit his own limitations and concede that he may not have the training required to know. Constitutional law is probably more complex than simply reading the Constitution. The fact is fallible men write laws and sometimes they are inconsistent. It is the job of the courts to work out illogical and inconsistent laws as best they can. Are you really so sure that the Supreme Court has done it wrongly?

Because what follows if Bob is wrong about the law? Does that mean we shouldn't as a country permit a teacher to lead a prayer to Jesus in school? Does Bob believe that all laws are correct? Forgetting Roe v Wade, what was the law in various states concerning abortion prior to 1973? Abortion was legal in many states. Does that make it right in Bob's world? Obviously not. So the issue is not just "What is the law" but more importantly "What is right"?

But when it comes to the founders of our country there's a sense in which people think that the laws they enact are like the Bible. As if everything they say is ideal. When the 1973 Roe court determines that the law says abortion must be legal in 50 states Bob dismisses that because it's just wrong. When Obama passes health care legislation Bob does not presume that this is the way it ought to be because it is the law. He opposes it vigorously. But for some reason if a law has the approval of founding fathers we pretend that this makes it more worthy of support. Why think that?

There's this third grade mentality people have of our founders. It's like the Simpsons and the founder of Springfield, Jebediah Springfield. He said "A noble heart embiggens the smallest man." So inspiring. Tall and handsome, he's a god like figure, while the founder of the neighboring and evil Shelbyville was an incestuous, short, fat scumbag. That's the propaganda we're offered in elementary school, but at some point you should grow up. Not everybody does.

There are plenty of good things that can be said of our founding fathers. But, like most leaders of a state, there's plenty awful that can be said of them too. George Washington may have done the right thing by limiting himself to 2 presidential terms. Good for him that he didn't want power concentrated in that manner. But here's something that he did that was not so good. He slaughtered Iroquois in a genocidal fashion. Consider some citations from David Stannard of the University of Hawaii.

“In 1779, George Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois people. Washington stated, 'lay waste all the settlements around...that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed'. In the course of the carnage and annihilation of Indian people, Washington also instructed his general not 'listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.'" (Stannard, David E. AMERICAN HOLOCAUST. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 118-121.)

In 1783, Washington's anti-Indian sentiments were apparent in his comparisons of Indians with wolves: 'Both being beast of prey, tho' they differ in shape', he said. George Washington's policies of extermination were realized in his troops behaviors following a defeat. Troops would skin the bodies of Iroquois 'from the hips downward to make boot tops or leggings'. Indians who survived the attacks later re-named the nation's first president as 'Town Destroyer'. Approximately 28 of 30 Seneca towns had been destroyed within a five year period. (Ibid)”

Here's an interesting description of the reaction the Iroquois still had to the name Washington 11 years after the destruction.

"When he met with Washington 11 years after the devastating campaign, Chief Cornplanter, who headed the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois, stressed the durability of "Town Destroyer" as the commander in chief's nickname. "And to this day when that name is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers," Cornplanter said. But the title stuck even tighter than the Seneca chief could have imagined. To this day, "Town Destroyer" is still used as an Iroquois name for the president of the United States."

This was not an isolated example of the treatment afforded to the natives. And it's not as if the settlers didn't know what they were doing. Here's a comment from John Quincy Adams in his later years when he was no longer in a position to do anything about the atrocities. He deplored:

"the fate of "that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty … among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement."

Bob wants the children of Hindus, Atheists, and Muslims to be subjected to teacher lead prayers to the Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn't seem to mind whatever impacts would result on these children. OK. I don't want it. Suppose our founders would have sided with Bob. So what? These are not just imperfect people. In many cases these are deplorable people. If this is what they intended then they were wrong and the law should change. The courts have ruled, based on what is probably inconsistent laws, that teacher lead prayer in school violates the establishment clause in the Constitution. Truthfully I find the legal wrangling to be confusing and I'm just not sure who is right based on my limited understanding of the law. I think it's reasonable to side with the experts. But if those experts are wrong all that means is that the law should change. It doesn't make teacher lead prayers right.

To presume that the imprimatur of the founders gives additional credibility is to adopt a third grade Simpsons mentality that says politicians from long ago were god-like while politicians today are just ordinary people that can be readily ignored. The founders are probably not better than modern politicians when the third grade mythos is discarded.


Jeff said...

Very interesting as I read it, then I came to this: "Indians who survived the attacks later re-named the nation's first president as "Town Destroyer""

This is where the author went wrong, as this is in the biography that I am reading, but it was not G. Washington who was named by the Indians, "Town Destroyer" it was his great grandfather. But that is wrong too. I quote from the biography that I am now reading.

“He [John Washington, George's Grand Father) transacted legal business, sometimes before courts on which he himself sat; he was a Burgess, a vestryman, a coroner, president of the county court, and a chief military officer who was implicated in the murdering of five Indian ambassadors. Having a passion for acreage, he [John Washington] used a legal trick to pull the soil out from under an Indian village. This earned him the tribal name Caunotaucarius (town-taker), which that long-memoried people were later to apply by inheritance to his great-grandson [George Washington].” I put the names in there to make it clear [ ]. So you see how things can be twisted? This is from the definitive biography of G.W. by James Thomas Flextner – George Washington; The Forge of Experience – 1965 on page 10.

Jon said...

I'm not sure what you are saying contradicts what I have. Washington's grandfather could be named "Town Taker" and sort of by way of inheritance George Washington is "Town Destroyer" after his genocidal exploits. George Washington could be called both "Town Taker" in memory of his grandfather and also "Town Destroyer". Wiki covers it here:

elhart said...

I've heard Dutko say that because the total population of native people was only 5 million, about the same amount of people in the city of Detroit, that it was all right to move in. He makes it sound like we took over the unused land in between tribal lands. Have you ever heard him talk about that?
Because the way I heard history was that we pretty much took the land by force and then put most of the natives into concentration camps, oops, I mean reservations.

Jon said...

If Dutko did say that then it's another good example of his ignorance since he's only off by like 80 million or so when you look at both N and S America. Not all that different in population density from Europe I don't think. I think there was a city near St Louis that was as large as London at the time.