Founding Myths

From a student term paper:

Biblical scripture is not necessarily quoted in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc… but there are MANY references to such in these documents.

No source cited for that claim, no examples given (not that it would be possible), nothing. It’s very tricky to respond to these types of things in papers without appearing to be attacking a student’s ideology or faith. Whether it works or not I don’t really know, but in these cases I point out that a) the claim is factually untrue, and b) it perverts Christianity by turning it into a temporal political movement of the type scriptures clearly say Jesus rejected.

But of all the errors I see in student papers, this is the one that bugs me most. The student has been lied to, and he’s been lied to by people claiming to be followers of Christ. That just bugs me, deeply.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to Founding Myths

  1. Lance says:

    And sadly your pointing this out to the student will probably just reinforce another lie they have been told, that academia is conspiratorially anti-Christian.

  2. Scott Hanley says:

    Is it not enough, in this case, to say that you require specific examples?

  3. James Hanley says:


    Perhaps that’s the best approach. But I like making the argument about the perversion of Christianity because I hope that by demonstrating concern for Christianity–rather than antagonism toward it–it ameliorates the “anti-Christian conspiracy” response that Lance mentions.

  4. D. C. Sessions says:

    Recalling my paper-grading days, my immediate thought is that you don’t get away with Zen references in an academic paper. If you’re relying on them for authority, you freaking well cite them. Something I had pounded into me before I escaped high school.

    Yank that out, and the grade on everything that depends on it falls apart.

  5. I guess my reaction would depend on the centrality of the student’s claim. If this was just a tangential assertion and not the main point of what the student was trying to claim, I might say that “if this is true, it’s irrelevant, but you better have evidence anyway.” If this was the central point that the student was trying to prove in the paper, again, I would ask for specific evidence/examples and ask the student to consider counterexamples.

    I probably would be reluctant to say the claim is “factually untrue” because there is at least some mention of “Divine Providence” in the Declaration and one could relate that, at least indirectly, to scriptural authority. Also, it seems to me that a lot can theoretically be related to scriptural authority if one deconstructs the text far enough. Finally, it’s been a long while since I read the Federalist papers, but are there any references to some of the more “historical” accounts in the Bible (e.g., the Chronicles, or Joshua) as examples of the problems of faction and governance? (I don’t remember, but the authors of the Federalist certainly used classical examples, so they might very well have used “historical” Biblical ones.) It’s not that I disagree with you that the claim is “factually untrue,” it’s just that it’s not necessarily something that is easy to assert.

    I do agree that these types of statements are perversions of Christianity as I understand it. (It also suggests a want of faith among those who seriously propound these statements: their faith appears so weak that it needs to have been observed by the founders to gain validity.) But I would hesitate to tell this to a student because that seems to me to be imposing my notions of what Christianity should be, or what it “merely” is when that is not my role as instructor. Also, if someone’s faith is really tied so intimately with temporal politics, then pointing out that such a tying is a “perversion” of Christianity does, in a sense, feed the “anti-Christian conspiracy” notion, if one sees Christianity as so tied to temporal politics.

  6. James Hanley says:

    If it was the student’s main point or line of argument I would have failed him on the assignment. It was sort of a throwaway statement up front–his protest against my directions that students needed to remember (in assessing the constitutionality of DOMA) that religious beliefs were not legitimate bases for argument.

  7. My comment probably sounded more critical than I had meant it.

    I made it because almost every time that I have strayed from the purpose for which I was being paid–to teach history (and the collateral skills, like writing and critical reading)–I usually foundered spectacularly. I was using these experiences (the substance of which I won’t disclose) as my source-base when criticizing any attempt to convince the student that his/her version of Christianity was not truly Christian. Not because I don’t believe it, but because the student is coming to me for religious or theological instruction. I do think my past experiences make me more cautious than, perhaps, I ought or need to be.

    I will say that I have no problem with stating that religious considerations have no place when it comes to discussing the constitutionality of DOMA (unless, I guess, one wants to seriously argue that America should have something like a Christian ayatollah who pronounces on whether any law is consistent on the meta-norms of “Christ’s law.” But even then, one would have to understand the constitutional arguments for and against before invoking the desirability (?) of what would amount to an extra-constitutional theocratic regime.)

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