On April 26, Susan Jacoby and Dinesh D’Souza debated one another, with the question to be “Is Christianity good for American politics.” But much of that debate focused on separation of church and state and the religious views of the founding fathers. D’Souza offered many arguments that were disingenuous at best and outright dishonest at worst. Let’s begin with his absurd arguments about Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
In his very first speech, D’Souza began to equivocate on this issue. As proof that Christianity is absolutely intrinsic to the American system of government, he cited the Declaration of Independence. He said that when the founders wanted to declare independence from England, they asked Jefferson to go into a room and write that document (true so far), and that Jefferson did not base the concept of inalienable rights on reason but on his contention that rights were endowed upon us by our Creator (also true).
But notice that he has already begun to subtly change the subject. The subject was Christianity, not theism. And surely he isn’t going to claim that Jefferson founded his ideas of liberty on Christianity, is he? Not explicitly, no, but by using Jefferson’s invocation of a “Creator” as a stand-in for the Christian God of the Bible, that was the core of his argument even if it wasn’t stated directly. And he returned to this again and again during the debate, that the mention of the “Creator” by Jefferson in the Declaration was evidence that Christianity was not only influential on our founding documents, but absolutely necessary for them.
Later in the debate, Thomas Paine came up (only tangentially, as he was asking Jacoby why it would be okay to put up a statue of the “anti-Christian” Paine on public property but not a statue of Jesus or Moses). Several times he used Paine as an example of an “anti-Christian” figure that Jacoby was “in love with” (Jacoby responded sarcastically by noting that, given what she knew of his private life, she could never fall in love with him).
When it came time for questions from the audience, I asked the first question and I noted the incoherence here. He uses Jefferson and his belief in a “Creator” who endowed us with inalienable rights as evidence of America’s Christian origins, yet Paine he dismisses as an “anti-Christian” figure in contrast to Jefferson. But as I pointed out, Jefferson and Paine agreed on almost everything when it came to religion and about Christianity in particular. So why, I asked, do you treat Jefferson, who rejected nearly all of the Christian mythology as false, as evidence of America’s Christian nature, while calling Paine, who rejected all the same things for all the same reasons, as an anti-Christian?
He began his answer with a blatantly false statement, that the difference between the two of them was that Jefferson accepted the ethical teachings of Jesus while Paine did not. Here is what Paine wrote in the very first chapter of the Age of Reason:
NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.
Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people; and as to the account given of his resurrection and ascension, it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth. His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground.
The wretched contrivance with which this latter part is told, exceeds everything that went before it. The first part, that of the miraculous conception, was not a thing that admitted of publicity; and therefore the tellers of this part of the story had this advantage, that though they might not be credited, they could not be detected. They could not be expected to prove it, because it was not one of those things that admitted of proof, and it was impossible that the person of whom it was told could prove it himself.
But the resurrection of a dead person from the grave, and his ascension through the air, is a thing very different, as to the evidence it admits of, to the invisible conception of a child in the womb. The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon, or the sun at noon day, to all Jerusalem at least. A thing which everybody is required to believe, requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because that evidence never was given. Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.
It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter. The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is as impossible for us now to know, as it is for us to be assured that the books in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear. The best surviving evidence we now have. respecting this affair is the Jews. They are regularly descended from the people who lived in the time this resurrection and ascension is said to have happened, and they say ‘it is not true.’ It has long appeared to me a strange inconsistency to cite the Jews as a proof of the truth of the story. It is just the same as if a man were to say, I will prove the truth of what I have told you, by producing the people who say it is false.
That such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution at that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability. He preached most excellent morality, and the equality of man; but he preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests, and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priest-hood. The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject and tributary; and it is not improbable that the Roman government might have some secret apprehension of the effects of his doctrine as well as the Jewish priests; neither is it improbable that Jesus Christ had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans. Between the two, however, this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.
That is absolutely identical to what Jefferson said on the subject repeatedly in his private letters to John Adams, Benjamin Rush and others — that Jesus was a man with an excellent ethical system but that the gospel writers perverted his views, piled mythology upon fact (Jefferson compared this to looking for diamonds in a dunghill) and invented supernatural stories that made nearly all of the gospels unreliable and dishonest.
I noted that Jefferson called the Biblical God “cruel, capricious, vindictive and unjust” and that he had referred to the gospel writers as a “band of dupes and imposters.” Paine said nearly identical things. Both rejected the virgin birth, the resurrection, atonement for sin and all claims that Jesus was divine or had ever claimed to be, while both also accepted that the ethical teachings of Jesus, the man, were excellent and worthy of emulation.
Their views are virtually indistinguishable. Yet one is presented as having written Christian principles into our system of government while the other is presented as the exact opposite, as someone who opposed Christianity entirely. This is only the first example of D’Souza’s utter dishonesty in dealing with historical facts. There will be many more examples over the next few days.