Good Idea, Bad Book

Bringing together a good idea and a good writer doesn’t necessarily make a good book – unfortunately.

Wiley is publishing a series of books on turning points in (mostly American) history: William Least Heat Moon has written about Columbus and Scott Simon has written about Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. I have just read Alan Dershowitz on the Declaration of Independence (America Declares Independence). You would expect it to deal with the historic significance of American independence. You would be wrong.

Dershowitz sees it as an opportunity to attack the fundamentalists who like to claim that our founding fathers were creating a Christian nation and to beat Antonin Scalia around the ears for holding the Constitution to be a “dead document.” That’s an attack I’m happy to endorse, but I wanted to gain a wider perspective on the Declaration and felt cheated when Dershowitz spent most of the book pounding the fundamentalists into the ground.

Dershowitz likes Jefferson on the whole and wants it known that Jefferson was a Deist, not a Christian. I agree. Jefferson was really down on organized religion. So am I a good deal of the time. But let’s not get carried away. Jefferson used the phrase “monkish ignorance” once and Dershowitz uses it perhaps a dozen times in the first hundred pages. I’m sure some monks were ignorant, but far from all. It was the monks in their monasteries who preserved civilization in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, for goodness sake.

Dershowitz, unfortunately, is also ignorant about some things. He speaks of “‘Natural law’ based on divine revelation.” But divine revelation and natural law are two quite different things. He says the Presbyterian Church was disestablished in Connecticut in 1818, but the Presbyterian Church never was established in Connecticut. The Congregational Church was established in Connecticut until 1818, but that’s not the same thing.

More important is the attempt Dershowitz makes to do away with Jefferson’s reliance on “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Dershowitz recognizes no natural law or natural rights. Human beings construct their own rights in Dershowitz’ view. But why and how do we construct these “rights?” We do it in response to “wrongs.” But how do we recognize these wrongs? Dershowitz never tells us. I guess we just know – as we would if there were such a thing as natural law.

And then there’s the editing. Do publishers use proof readers any more? There are misspellings like “devine” and “posies comitatus,”(I think spell check may have sabotaged him there, but I like the result!) misquotations of the Bible: “when ye pray use not then [vain] repetitions,” a garbled quotation from the first draft of the Declaration that drops one phrase and repeats another, and redundancies like “those who seek today to Christianize America now.”

The book jacket tells us that the book “becomes an argument with Thomas Jefferson.” It’s also an argument with fundamentalists, Antonin Scalia, and God. That’s too much even for Alan Dershowitz.

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