Saturday, January 13, 2007

Paszkiewicz on Jefferson on Jesus

Back in November 2006, David A. Paszkiewicz, a high school history teacher in Kearny, New Jersey, was caught on tape telling students, according to one account, "that the Christian Bible is the word of God, and that dinosaurs were aboard Noah's ark. If you do not accept Jesus, he flatly proclaimed to his class, 'you belong in hell.' Referring to a Muslim student who had been mentioned by name, he lamented what he saw as her inevitable fate should she not convert. In an attempt to promote biblical creationism, he also dismissed evolution and the Big Bang as non-scientific, arguing by contrast that the Bible is supported by what he calls confirmed biblical prophecies" (from The Lippard Blog).

The story was widely reported and discussed, but Paszkiewicz was, for the most part, quiet. This past week, however, he wrote a letter (also available here) to his local newspaper defending his actions in the classroom. In part of the letter, Paszkiewicz argues, through the use of quotations, that the Founding Fathers were Christian and sought to make this a Christian nation.

Example: Thomas Jefferson said, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." Paszkiewicz cites as the source of this quotation "Letter to Benjamin Rush April 21, 1803."

This caught my eye, because I know Jefferson's 4/21/03 letter to Rush, and this isn't it.

Here's what Jefferson wrote: "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."

(You can read the actual letter, in Jefferson's own handwriting, here; scroll down just a bit to "Jefferson's Opinion of Jesus" and click on the accompanying image.)

These two sentences get exactly at Jefferson's thinking on Christianity and Jesus: Jesus was a great teacher, and his words provide a good ethical guide; Jesus never claimed to be anything but human; and organized Christianity, by ascribing divinity to Jesus, has corrupted what Jesus was all about. It's simple and straightforward. But if you pull out just a few of those words--"I am a Christian"--you can easily get a very different impression of Jefferson.

But I believe Paszkiewicz was actually quoting a different letter, one written later in which Jefferson discussed the cut-and-paste job he had done on the New Testament, tossing out all the supernatural miracles that he couldn't accept and saving Jesus' ethical teachings. "It is a document," Jefferson said, "in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." Again, by pulling out a few words and ignoring the context, the quotation can be used to show something Jefferson never intended.

I wonder if Paszkiewicz is aware of all this. Classroom proselytizing is bad enough; I hope he's not also teaching his students that it's all right to take someone's words out of context to prove a point.

Thanks to PZ at Pharyngula for the inspiration.


Alison, at Alison Blogs Here (where else?), has an interesting take the Paszkiewicz affair.

A posting by People for the American Way suggests that
Paszkiewicz got his quotations from David Barton, who is well-known for misquoting, pulling words out of context, etc. I suspected as much--Paszkiewicz's letter had Barton written all over it--but I didn't take time to track it down.


Ed Brayton, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, has the most thorough analysis. Thanks to Jim Lippard for the tip (in comments).