MY WORD: How to disprove your own argument

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By Linda Allewalt

Call me picky, but I think if a person has the privilege of being published in a newspaper twice a month, he also has the responsibility to strive to get the facts correct, or at least not wander too far outside of his level of expertise. Chuck Souder’s assignment by The Sentinel-News is to write a column for a Faith page. However, he insists on once again using that space to distort and twist two disciplines to prop up his continuing narrative about the U.S. being founded on Christianity and intended to be an officially Christian nation. In his column entitled “Education standards may lose the Bible.” he attempts to use science and a piece of history for his arguments. Since it is too much to try to tackle both, I’d like to take the tact of applying some lessons of science to his claims about history.

 First lesson in science. Mr. Souder makes a conclusion first, that the Founders intended for our public school systems to teach religion (Christian) and then tries to mold the facts of the Northwest Ordinance to fit his conclusion. In science, as opposed to religion, you have to accept the fact that your evidence may not support your desired conclusion, in fact, it might blow it out of the water! So this is Mr. Souder’s first fail in the scientific method.

 It appears that Mr. Souder’s close associations with the biblical texts have not spared him from being “darkened in (his) understanding” of history. First, one has to consider his sources. D. James Kennedy was a fairly well known writer in Christian apologetics circles. His work provides much of the basics for another writer, whose handiwork I recognized immediately.

His name is David Barton, who has been a very prolific writer of the “Christian Nation” crowd who specializes in claiming to be a historian (if you check his educational background, you see he is not) and using that claim to back up his writings. Mr. Barton’s books have been excoriated by legitimate historians for his bad sourcing, omission of facts, partial reporting of facts, distortion of facts and numerous other violations of good history writing.

He has had to withdraw quotations that he reported came from various founders of our country. Recently, his book on Thomas Jefferson was such a mess his Christian publisher had to pull it from the shelves. So Mr. Souder flunks the second lesson of science: Check your sources!

Now on to his “proof.” the Northwest Ordinance. The actual history of the development of the Northwest Ordinance, its reason for being, and the many provisions within it are all quite complicated when you read the full history. So I will distill it as best I can.

The whole thing started in 1787, when the federal government under the Continental Congress needed desperately to pay off its Revolutionary War debts. This need met a land investment company called the Ohio Land Co. The Continental Congress (not the first Congress as Souder claimed) was presented with a deal from the Ohio Land Co. to purchase properties in the western areas of already established states that had ceded these areas to the U.S. government.

This land speculation company was formed by a group of former army officers. Because of the government’s pressing financial needs, this company knew they had the negotiating advantage, so they threw everything they wanted in terms of provisions into the contracts that were passed as The Northwest Ordinance.

Their wish was to formulate the descriptions of these potential new state areas in terms of taxes, slavery and educational issues. The religion portion of the education issues came about because the key negotiator of this group, who was sent to the Continental Congress, was a former army chaplain and minister named D. Manassah Cutler.

Cutler wrote the language of Article III of the ordinance thusly, “Institutions for the promotion of religions and morality, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

While the overall deal looked OK to the Continental Congress, this language apparently went too far, even though this group was more religiously inclined than the group who developed the Constitution two years later. They changed the wording to “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education should forever be encouraged.”

The Continental Congress kept enough of the language to satisfy Mr. Cutler, but in essence by changing the context and the phrasing of it, had stripped it of any actual authority to promote either religion or religion based public schools.

When the ordinance came up for review in 1789, the first Congress, which was busy writing the Establishment Clause provisions of the First Amendment, recognized the toothless religion provisions and recommended that Washington sign them. The ordinance changed many times over the years, but it should be noticed that the very first time Congress used it to admit a state (Ohio 1802), they substituted a different education clause.

Before that, in 1785, Congress was considering changes to the Ordinance and settled on language written by Thomas Jefferson. Before they adopted his language, though, the committee in Congress working on this had tried to insert “for the support of religion” into the text. The other members quickly rejected this attempt, and the Jefferson language prevailed. Jefferson wrote this for Article III of the Northwest Ordinance, “There shall be reserved the central section of every township, for the maintenance of public schools within each said township.” Period.

There was no provision for religious instruction in public schools.

In fact, James Madison, in a letter to James Monroe May 29, 1785, wrote, “It gives me much pleasure to observe by two printed reports sent me by Col. Grayson that, in the latter Congress had expunged a clause contained in the first for setting apart a district of land in each Township for supporting the Religion of the majority of the inhabitants. How a regulation so unjust in itself, foreign to the Authority of Congress, so hurtful to the sale of the public land, and smelling so strongly of an antiquated Bigotry, could have received the countenance of a Committee is truly a matter of astonishment.”

This is James Madison, the author of the wording of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, plainly rejecting the idea of establishing government-sanctioned, tax-supported, public schools that taught any religion. In fact, he called the idea “antiquated bigotry.” If this doesn’t squash the idea that the Founders “never intended to take Christianity out of our schools,” as Mr. Souder claimed, I don’t know what does.

 What Chuck Souder did by using the Northwest Ordinance as a cornerstone for his argument was basically sabotage his own claims. And this is certainly not the only time in the formulation of our founding documents that the majority of the Founders had to brush off attempts to insert religion and Christianity into them.

There were a number of clergy over those years that complained bitterly about the lack of acknowledgement of Christianity and God in the legal setups for our new country. George Washington received at least one letter on this, and his response was very diplomatic in trying to make these ministers see that no religion in government was best for their future, too.

Mr. Souder continues to offer baseless and incomplete arguments about American history and the nature of the founding of this country in terms of religion and Christianity. It doesn’t matter what the personal religious beliefs of the Founders were, they still did not write it into our framework. They did not equate the term “religion” to Christianity specifically. Thus there are no references to Jesus or the Ten Commandments or anything specific to Christianity anywhere in any of the documents that founded our country, including the Federalist papers, which described in detail the founders’ intents for the new government. And they did all that on purpose!

Now, if Mr. Souder had to submit his work in the same way scientists have to submit theirs, he would have flunked his peer review and been told to go back to the drawing board. Science is not in any way related to religion, religious texts or the exercise of “faith.” I would suggest that he stick to the sermons from now on.


Linda Allewalt lives in Shelbyville.