Ignorance is one thing. While potentially bad, it’s easily curable.
Willful ignorance is quite another.
What does it mean to be willfully ignorant? It means that one is closed to anything factual that might contradict one’s own notion of reality. The evil in that latter sinister brand of ignorance is that often it’s meant to purposefully mislead, dupe, delude, or fleece those too stupid or too lazy to seek the truth on their own – or too willing to let misinformation confirm their own biases. Willful ignorance begets willful ignorance and so on.
Right Wing Watch uncovered a real world example of willful ignorance by way of Georgia State Senator Barry Loudermilk. Loudermilk was pedaling some David Barton inspired malarkey on TBN’s Praise the Lord television show, which is to say that Loudermilk was butchering American history. The link to the Right Wing Watch page and to Loudermilk’s “interview” is here if you’re willing to watch it without throwing something.
For those who may not recall (or who have managed to block him from your brain), David Barton is the guy whose own publisher pulled his book in 2012. The book, ironically titled The Jefferson Lies, was in fact full of lies about Jefferson and was pulled for gross historical inaccuracies. The statements from the Christian publishing company Thomas Neslon are worth repeating:
“[We were] contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about The Jefferson Lies. We took all of those concerns seriously, tried to sort out matters of opinion or interpretation, and in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported.”
According to an article in Publishers Weekly Nelson “recalled copies of the book in retail stores, asked online retailers to stop selling it, and suspended printing and distribution.”
One might think that if a Christian book publisher pulls its own book from circulation for historical inaccuracy, that might be enough to dissuade a State Senator from parroting Barton’s crazy version of American history on television (this in spite of the potential for high rates of historical illiteracy in the audience).
Alas, but this is a Tea Party America, so why not just keep spouting the BS if there are ratings and votes to be gained? After all, if famous American history scholars like Michelle Bachmann and Mike Huckabee defend the accuracy of the work, why not Wayland Baptist University graduate Barry Loudermilk? He does have a Bachelor’s of Occupational Education & Information Technology after all, which surely makes him an expert in early American history.
The problem with this is in the sophisticated delivery of such egregious misinformation. In a nutshell, Barton and other Christian evangelicals want to rewrite colonial political thought. For example, they contend that the founders developed their brilliant concept of separation of powers – which is so vital to our democracy – from scripture. According to them, the founders read Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” and determined that yes, man can be deceitful. They then went on to search the Bible for an adequate means to counter man’s natural deceit, which means the founders had to backtrack to the book of Isaiah, where in 33:22 it says, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us.”
I can almost picture Jefferson shouting eureka!
“Well look at that James,” Jefferson might have said to his friend James Madison over a home brew, “we need a government with three branches to ensure checks and balances! It’s right here in Isaiah!”
Madison might have responded with some trepidation, “But Thomas, this verse is placing all power in one King is it not? Not to mention, weren’t all the houses of Israel in the Old Testament absolute monarchies, and don’t we sort of have a problem with monarchies at the moment?”
Jefferson, being the logical person that he was, would say, “But James, you know that it’s best when interpreting scripture, to use obscure verses to illuminate the obvious, rather than using obvious verses to illuminate the obscure!”
To this Madison would scratch his head and take another swig of home brew.
Of course this whole notion is absurd. And frankly, insofar as actual research is concerned, it might be damaging to any proper academic study of the Bible’s influence on early colonial thought. In other words, when Barton and others take such extreme hermeneutical license to contort scripture to their purpose and make such a royal mess of things, they might actually be impeding the discovery of some historically interesting connections.
The Bible as an influence in American thought does not and should not belong solely to right wing anti-historians.
This is why an education, and particularly a secular education which teaches critical thinking, is so important. Anyone with half of an attention span who has studied early American political history with any degree of rigor, will tell you that Madison championed the separation of powers eloquently in Federalist 47 without any reference to the Bible. They will also point out that the founders drew much of their inspiration from reading the French enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu’s 1750 classic,The Spirit of the Laws.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave these quotes from Madison’s “The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts” for the fair-minded reader to consult:
“The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind. Let us endeavor, in the first place, to ascertain his meaning on this point.”
“The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. ‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body,’ says he, ‘there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner.’ Again: ‘Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.’ Some of these reasons are more fully explained in other passages; but briefly stated as they are here, they sufficiently establish the meaning which we have put on this celebrated maxim of this celebrated author.”
Surely Madison by way of Montesquieu isn’t saying that lodging legislative, judicial, and executive power in a single Lord is a recipe for tyranny is he? Yes he is. The direct opposite of Isaiah 33:22.
Given the evidence from proper historians, how can the Loudermilks, Bartons, Bachmanns, and Huckabees of the world, along with the applauding audience members of Praise the Lord, get it so wrong? Consider the common theme in the short list below. Where did these purveyors of nonsense receive their respective educations?
- Barry Loudermilk: Wayland Baptist University
- David Barton: Oral Roberts University
- Mike Huckabee: Ouachita Baptist University
- Michelle Bachmann: Oral Roberts University (although she did get her undergraduate from a public school, Winona State University)
I look at this list and wonder what exactly were they taught in Political Science 101. Do the instructors in these schools ignore Locke, Blackstone, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Plutarch, etc. in favor of obscure passages from ancient Hebrew prophetic literature?
If that’s the case, then I can only excuse the students their ignorance for a little while as the truth is there to be discovered in your average public library. Eventually their ignorance must either be cured by knowledge, or it must morph in that sinister brand.