Saturday, January 5, 2008

House of Pseudohistory

Have you heard recently about House Resolution 888? It's aim is

Affirming the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation's founding and subsequent history and expressing support for designation of the first week in May as 'American Religious History Week' for the appreciation of and education on America's history of religious faith.
Seems innocuous enough, right?

If you actually read the content of the resolution (and if you're an author versed in Christian pseudohistory) you'll notice that it's loaded with lies and/or distortions. The above linked article goes through 14 of the resolution's 75 claims and points out that every single line is crap. I'll quote what I see as one of the stronger sections.
Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible;
The unnamed study referred to by Mr. Forbes in this statement was conducted by Donald S. Lutz of the University of Houston, whose findings were published in a 1984 article in The American Political Science Review. Misrepresentations of Lutz's study have been around for years, created by taking a particular figure from the study's findings, but omitting crucial parts of Lutz's explanations of these findings. The following is a typical, and slightly more detailed version than that presented by Mr. Forbes, currently being used by the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (NCBCPS).
A study by the American Political Science Review on the political documents of the founding era, which was from 1760-1805, discovered that 94 percent of the period's documents were based on the Bible, with 34 percent of the contents being direct citations from the Bible.
The NCBCPS gives two statistics in this version, claiming that 34% of the contents of the documents studied were direct citations from the Bible, and in an even more astounding claim, that a whopping 94% of the documents of the period were based on the Bible. So, where do these numbers come from?

The 34% comes from the following chart in Lutz's study:

From this chart it does appear that 34% of the documents included in Lutz's study cited the Bible. That's because they did. And, without Lutz's explanation of this figure, this chart seems to support the assertion that the Bible, more than any other source, influenced the political thought of the founders. So, the Christian nationalist history revisionists simply omit the explanation that follows.
...From Table 1 we can see that the biblical tradition is most prominent among the citations. Anyone familiar with the literature will know that most of these citations come from sermons reprinted as pamphlets; hundreds of sermons were reprinted during the era, amounting to at least 10% of all pamphlets published. These reprinted sermons accounted for almost three-fourths of the biblical citations...

Donald S. Lutz, "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 1984, 192.
The 916 documents included in the study were not official documents, legislative proceedings, etc., but writings "printed for public consumption," such as books, newspaper articles, and pamphlets. Only items of over 2,000 words were included. Taking into account that three-quarters of the biblical citations came from the subcategory of sermons, which comprised only 10% of the category of pamphlets, the Bible is really in the same range as Classical influences for documents that weren't sermons.

This explains the 34%, but what about the even more far-fetched claim that 94% of the documents of the period were based on the Bible? Well, that comes from a video put out by pseudo-historian David Barton. Barton somehow concluded from his own "study" that 60% of the documents of the period were based on the Bible, and then just added the 34% from Lutz's study, ending up with a total of 94%.

Of all the findings in Lutz's study ignored by the revisionists, however, none are as important as those found in the section of his article entitled "The Pattern of Citations from 1787 to 1788." As seen in the earlier chart, Lutz broke down the number of citations by decade. In addition to this, he singled out the writings from 1787 and 1788, and then further separated these writings into those written by Federalists and those by Anti-federalists. Lutz found few biblical citations during these two years, and, very interestingly, not a single one in any of the Federalist writings. The following is from what Lutz wrote about the two year period in which the Constitution was written and debated in the press.
The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalist's inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.

ibid, 194-195.
See also
The full article is very long, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. It's enlightening. See also this post at Daily Kos, which quotes large passages from the above article and adds a bit.