Friday, December 30, 2011

Debunking the Debunkers

Snopes.com has made its name debunking (and presumably occasionally bunking) urban myths and Internet circulars, those emails your friends (real and faux) send to you while you are trying to work.

One Snopes post from six years ago debunks a piece that has been in circulation for much longer. The Snopes bit www.snopes.com/politics/religion/monument.asp includes a more or less full copy of the circular email upon which it comments.

The circular tends to interpret the appearance of religious symbols surrounding the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital as showing the religious nature of our country and of the Founding Fathers, George Washington in particular. The Snopes commentary tends to undermine the circulator’s religious interpretation by showing, for example, that while there is a Bible in the cornerstone of the monument, there is also a long list of other books and objects, most of which have no religious significance. Or that one of the monument’s many engraved stepping stones, which the circulator claims was put there by Chinese Christians was actually put there by Chinese citizens who did not leave any kind of Christian message at all. Or that the circulator’s claim that the placement of the monument in combination with the Capitol and other monuments forms a cross which was part of “the original plan of the designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant” is belied by the fact that the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were built long after L’Enfant, were built in their present locations only after debate as well as adjustment to material conditions (the soil of the original location chosen for the Washington Monument was unsuitable for building), and only “impose a cross upon the landscape” by accident. (Ah, but the National Park Service admits that the prominent placement of the monuments and the Capitol do form a “great cross” along north-south and east-west axes originally found in the plans of L’Enfant; if the religious want to believe that this was “ultimately” no accident, there is no way to prove them wrong.)

Another quibble with Snopes: They argue that an alleged prayer by Washington was not actually a prayer but part of a letter to all of the governors of the “thirteen states,” that it was not written by Washington and that it has been altered to seem more like a prayer. (Snopes notes that the quotation was turned into a prayer not by the email writer but by someone who made a bronze tablet for St. Paul’s Church in New York where Washington was a parishioner during his presidency.) On each of these points we might quibble. Certainly the email circulator did not realize that the tablet was an alteration of the original text, but even granting that objection it is not entirely accurate to say that the quotation is not in any sense a prayer. The original paragraph begins, “Now I make it my earnest prayer….” Thus while the author of the letter is not at the moment praying, he does report his prayer.

As to whether General Washington wrote the letter himself, or it was rather the creation of his aide, Col. David Cobb, I can add something further to consider. In the 1990s, I saw a televised conference of Washington scholars meeting at Mount Vernon. One of them presented his discovery that President Washington characteristically wrote all correspondence himself and then had a secretary rewrite each letter so that it appeared in another’s hand; Washington would then sign the letter and have it mailed, thereby deliberately creating the impression that he was not micromanaging everything that went on in his administration when in fact he was doing just that. It is hardly improbable that Washington established this practice by the end of the Revolution when the letter in question was written. BTW, I put “thirteen states” in quotation marks because there were fourteen states by the end of the Revolution, Vermont having been carved out of New York State by then. (Of course, perhaps Washington snubbed Vermont for some unknown reason.)

The email circular ends with a declaration that “Washington’s America” was “established under the guidance, direction and banner of Almighty God, to whom was given all praise, honor and worship by the great men who formed and fashioned her pivotal foundations.” Snopes slaps this down by pointing out that the Washington Monument was a nineteenth-century project and that its religious messages (whose significance Snopes could undermine but not deny altogether) reflected the later century rather than the sentiments of the eighteenth.

Not so fast. The circulated email might be inaccurate on many points, but this one is debatable. The Founders, by and large, were, indeed, religious men. Snopes reports that it is difficult to find references to Jesus, by name, in Washington’s writings, but references to “Providence”—by which all of the Founders who used that word meant “Almighty God”—are plentiful in Washington’s pronouncements. Many of the Founders—including Washington—clearly saw the creation and development of the United States as a sacred venture.

Does Snopes.com betray a liberal bias as some complain? At least it would seem that Snopes follows the liberal party line on the issues brought up in this case. Liberals generally have an animus against religious belief, especially a traditional, personal, passionate one that is based on traditional values. Liberals butress their bias by maintaining that history shows the Founders to have been deists whose faith was cool and intellectual and did not play up traditional Christian faith in Jesus Christ. This view is not entirely justified by historical fact. Some of the Founders had their doubts about questions of traditional religious faith, and they were often liberal in their ecumenical acceptance of other sects of Christianity and even of Judaism, but most of them were church-goers and possessed a palpable degree of passion in their trust of what they so often called Providence. This was no small or unimportant thing to them; many of them often expressed the feeling that they were embarked on a dangerous adventure that could only be successfully navigated under divine protection and guidance. It was just this kind of concern that led Benjamin Franklin—not a man whose religious views were entirely conventional—to complain about the absence of any reference to God in the proposed Constitution of 1787.

I am reminded of Bernard Goldberg’s observation in his book, “Bias,” that liberals do not think they are being liberal, just reasonable. The “knowledge” one has received at the temples of American liberalism—originally the universities but now almost every public school—and kept up with by reading the daily press, seems reasonable. But too often this “knowledge” is fully wrapped in a coating of shiny ideological bias, so familiar that its consumers cannot recognize it for what it is.

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