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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Christmas Story

The following is the Christmas story that I know, or I guess I should say that I like (along with Jean Shepherd’s): my only-slightly-tweaked version of the Bible story that I and so many others grew up on. This is the origin of traditional crèche Nativity scenes dusted with snow on the village green, the Xmas parts of “The Messiah” [UPDATE: Well, no, the wise men are not in "The Messiah"], the festivals of lessons-and-carols, etc. The narrative below blends and trims a big chunk of Luke 2 with a small chunk of Matthew 2 (Luke and Matthew are the only Biblical gospels with any Nativity story), and the last line is one of my favorites in all of both Bibles — not that I know all or even most of the lines even in one of them. It’s all King James. Further remarks on sources and significance follow today’s reading.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, behold, there came wise men from the east, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Commentary:

1. That last line may be a breakthrough in narrative technique. Not sure. Anyway, the sudden close-up of psychological realism, humanism, intimacy — and yet mystery — of what the young mother may have been making of all these things is kind of breathtaking. It first got to me somehow when I was, I think, about six. (more…)

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[Having fielded a few cracks about the title, let me say it was intended as a joke. (Not saying a good joke.)]

It’s OK — the title is longer than the post will be.

Good discussion at BookCourt last night, led by Dan Bergner, regarding his new book What Do Women Want?, which I wrote about yesterday. A guy in the audience was reminiscing about his glory days in the late 1960’s, when women were all over him (proving I guess one of the points of Dan’s book, that women’s libido can be indiscriminate). The guy ascribed the sexual looseness prevailing at the time to the deleterious impact of recreational drugs on Judeo-Christian rules. Dan noted that the Judeo-Christian tradition — and actually he was emphasizing the Christian — involves a primary human fall from grace via the actions of of a wayward woman, and the resulting need for human redemption from that sin by a savior, both god and man (born, I’d add, not merely of a woman faithfully married but of a virgin, who is herself immaculately conceived!). Dan’s point was that these strictures regarding the dangers of unbridled female sexuality run as deeply as can be imagined into the roots of our ideas of civilization.

Which sent me rambling back to topics I used to study fairly closely and haven’t really pondered in a long time. I now recall the earliest “promiscuous woman,” thousands of years perhaps even before the emergence of the Hebrew people, was the Queen, who took a consort, the King, honored as the Queen’s choice for about a year, honored as her son, brother, and husband, honored by being allowed to have sex with her, then honored by being torn to shreds alive, and consumed, becoming the dying god, who shows up everywhere in later classical-era “cults,” and of course even later in Christianity. He is reborn, both in the agricultural fertility resulting from his sacrifice and in the new annual consort, again chosen by the Queen. The new King, the new dying and returning god, because again she chooses and discards him. Some of the roots of “redemption” are there. The story is actually far from unfamiliar: its echoes are long in later classical mythology, literature, and art. (There’s an ancient Mesopotamian myth/ritual I recall, having to do with either the beer or the wine harvest, where the Queen goes away for a while, and the King takes the opportunity to sit on her throne. Big mistake. She comes back and that’s about it for him.)

This is the stuff the Hebrews didn’t like, when they saw it in Ishtar/Innana; the stuff the Sumerians must have decided not to like, so they invented literature in the story of Gilgamesh overcoming it; the ancestors of the Achaians didn’t like it, in what became Kore/Demeter, but the Greek ethos incorporated much of it in the pantheon [UPDATE: and tamed it, birthing tragedy out of the spirit of music]. Christianity clearly draws on its survivals within patriarchy in the “mystery cults” of the late, Hellenized empire. And Christianity doesn’t like it either. The Queen becomes a virgin, the sacrifice an occasion for pieta, with madonna and whore joined in mourning, etc. … Witches are an enemy. Etc.

The oldest back story: father-god culture (I’d except the Hebrews on that score, since their concept of deity was unique in the ancient world) besting mother-goddess culture.

Yes, that’s glib and sweeping — this is a blog — and not history, really, but based on close reading (not mine but many others’) of text. I used to poke around in it, via some of the authors in the title. I’m Freudeo-Protestant by inclination and experience, kind of anti-Jungian, and many of those authors are steeped in Jung, but there’s a lot to consider regarding the roots of male fear of untrammeled female sexuality, maybe because that’s where we came from. In this simplistic but possibly compelling reading, it’s not that civilization will topple if women are free to “aggress,” which simply means choose and discard men at will. It’s that the patriarchal civilizations beat the matriarchal years ago and, regardless of all changes in modern female status, have no intention of going back on that one.

Enough sex talk for today, kids.

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It won’t surprise many who follow Glenn Beck to hear that his The Original Argument is one weird book. The premise: Those famous essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, gathered in 1788 as The Federalist, are so critical to understanding the nature of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore to renewing our nation today, yet so hard to understand — so downright boring — that they cry out for handy summary and translation into modern English by none other than Glenn Beck.

And yet the main text doesn’t come from Beck. He wrote an introduction and put his name on the front cover and his photo on the back, but in what is easily the most interesting part of the book, one Joshua Charles describes its real genesis. (I use the term advisedly: Charles discerns the hand of Providence in the affair.)

In 2009, as a piano performance major at the University of Kansas and a fan of Beck’s radio and TV shows, Charles began translating the Federalist essays, unbidden, into modern English. Then he heard Beck himself say on the radio how badly the country needs just such a translation. The youngster’s jaw dropped. After going to genuinely amazing lengths to meet the man, Charles succeeded in pressing his early versions on Beck, and in what Charles justly calls a dream come true, the master and the acolyte teamed up.

Together they’ve identified seven “core themes” in the 85 Federalist essays, and they’ve selected 38 of the essays to publish in modern translation, re-ordering the essays by grouping them under each theme. Federalist essays 9, 10, and others, for example, come under the theme “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” (drawn from Franklin).  78 and 80 are grouped under “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (drawn from Superman).

Charles’s essay translations were refined via group effort, and “Glenn and his team,” Charles says, wrote easily scannable, one-page, cheat-sheet summaries for each of the translated essays, breaking them down by “The Message,“ “Original Quote,“ and “Relevance to Today.“ The team also wrote brief, generously sub-headed intros for each of the major themes.

Hence the oddball volume here under review: a preface by Joshua Charles explaining all that; an introduction by Beck amping the Federalist essays’ importance to the founding and reminding us that reading the original essays can be “boring … okay, excruciatingly boring”; introductions to each of the seven themes; the 38 translations themselves, each with its one-sheet summary; and appendices presenting the Constitution as cross-referenced to the essays, the Articles of Confederation, and Jay’s Address to the People of New York. That’s the new Glenn Beck book.

Since in the original Federalist essays, obscurely defensive rhetorical flourishes proliferate, especially from Hamilton — “I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the oppositions of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicions)”, etc., etc. — it’s fair enough to call them boring, and it’s undeniable that few people have read all or even 38 of them. While some of the more obscure numbers can be revealing in various historical and political contexts, it’s never been clear to me that reading or knowing the gist of more than a few major ones would be critical to any fundamental, active engagement with our country. It’s a truism that Madison’s ideas about the purpose and mechanics of representation and republican separation of powers are benchmarks of historical literacy that Americans would do well to engage with, and many guides and annotated anthologies exist to serve that purpose.

“Translating” the essays manifestly doesn’t serve that purpose. (more…)

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To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. (more…)

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Responding here to a bunch of comments posted during recent months, since I don’t like burying and scattering the discussion:

Elites versus the crowd. Working backward and starting with lacithedog’s comment on my “New Deal 2.0″ post. Laciethedog is reading Declaration and comments further on the “New Deal” post here. I appreciate the interest and support. And I have a concern about the idea that the founding fathers “incited the masses” and then found “the mob” hard to control. In both Declaration and that “New Deal” post, I do discuss tensions — indeed, outright enmity, at times — between the adherents of populist democracy and the adherents of republican liberty who banded together to defeat reconciliation with England in 1776. But I think I also show that I see the alliance as a matter of mutual manipulation, with ordinary people possessing plenty of initiative, intelligence, and what the historians call “agency,” and not of a mindless mob being incited and then imperfectly controlled by elites. Not sure if laciethedog is thinking of it quite that way, but the terminology gives me pause.

War on Christmas. Laciethedog also comments on my “war on Christmas” post. Point taken. Can’t agree that anything would have made either Adams literally a Tory — but even without a time machine, John Adams’s “Good God!” on reading the radically democratic PA Constitution of 1776 (and his predicting that PA would soon want George III back), and Samuel’s calling for the death penalty for the so-called Shays rebels, made many at the time think the Adamses and others had reverted to a kind of Tory authoritarianism. Neither Samuel’s nor John’s disgust with the populism they’d collaborated with in 1776 represents a reversion, however — which is really the well-taken point of laciethedog’s comment. While they differed in influences, emphases, and personal styles, both Adamses remained pretty consistent in their elite Whig republicanism throughout the period. Whigs were not democrats.

Socialist Pilgrims. Michael Pichowsky makes a thought-provoking comment regarding my post on the “Socialist Pilgrim” flap. But even given all of Pichowsky’s nuanced understanding of the Calvinist-socialist problem, I’m still unconvinced that it’s fair to see the very specific Plymouth experience as revealing some big truth about the virtues of free markets versus a centrally planned economy. Bradford does seem to have been reading the lesson pretty much that way, though.

Inalienable rights and God. My Constitution posts are leading me toward an article that would qualify as something other than a post, more like what I call a “work” in this post — whether I end up publishing it here, on another blog, or in a magazine. Interesting comments in this regard included Martin’s, of What Would the Founders Think?. Martin raises the issue of where the in- or un-alienable rights come from and says that Glenn Beck gets it right: from God. Liberal readers may be surprised to hear me say that, in this context, I agree: (more…)

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ho ho ho

Moving on to the next holiday. May we now anticipate an annual revival of the past few years’ flap about the war on Christmas — i.e., how liberal secularism suppresses Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus by removing creches from village squares and forcing everybody to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”?

[UPDATE: Yes, we may. See J.L. Bell's comment on the Inhofe holiday parade, below.]

If so, I’d like to bring back those socialist Pilgrims for a reprise role and credit them with starting the war. For of course Pilgrims, and indeed all of Puritan New England, didn’t celebrate Christmas and would have severely prosecuted anyone who did, or at least did so loudly. They hated Christmas, for all the obvious reasons.

No, not because it requires putting toys together at three in the morning on Christmas Eve and having the family over when you’ve just seen them at Thanksgiving. That’s why we hate Christmas. [UPDATE: That's just a joke.] Pilgrims and Puritans hated it because it was a pagan-based feast of the Antichrist Pope of Rome, a sacrificial revelry, a ceremony of the Harlot, and contrary to Scripture. The whole idea of a “Christ mass” was what they’d been fighting to the death for a long time, the work of the Beast.

The point isn’t, of course, that the Puritans would have been sympathetic to modern secularism. Anything but. The point is that the idea of a “Christian nation” denies the antipathy our founding Christians felt, mainly and most significantly, for other Christians. The Pilgrims came here to get away from Anglicans. If a boatload of Lutherans had pulled into Plymouth harbor, muskets would have come out. And if Samuel Adams came back to life, and were forced to walk past the Roman Catholic churches in today’s North End of Boston, he’d be sure that his entire life’s work had been for nothing, wasted in what had become a horrifying enabling of the forces of utter spiritual evil, staining what he’d once hoped would become a Christian Sparta (meaning to him a Congregational one). The ancestors of Bill O’Reilly and the ancestors of Glenn Beck would have been a lot more interested in trying to kill each other than in trying to kill, say, Jews.

Happy Holidays!

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gobble gobble gobble

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the MSM no longer even remembers it, I will comment — I actually feel forced to comment! — on the flap about the Pilgrims as socialists that I was drawn into over the past week. The trip began when I was quoted in an interesting Sunday Times “Week in Review” piece, which lays out the controversy.

(Briefly here: For years, Rush Limbaugh and some publications of the Austrian School of economics beloved by American libertarians, and more recently Glenn Beck, have been saying that the story of the Pilgrims is a story of socialism failed — that the Pilgrims began by holding property in common in a socialist-utopian way and starved because of it, then switched to private property and thrived enough to thank God for the bounty of the harvest: the first Thanksgiving. Thus America began in a lesson about the evils of socialism and glory of property. This year, thanks to the Tea Party, the story has received new mainstream attention.)

The Times quoted me near the end of the piece, not on that subject but on the problem that I think arises when people across the political spectrum seize on some historical event and force it to serve an overdetermined purpose for a current position. Bad history, bad politics. As I told the reporter, history is always slanted. How and why it’s slanted, in particular cases, is something we should be keenly aware of. … blah blah blah.

But thanks to that one, general quote, which came with a reference to my MIT Press book Inventing American History (where I write about distortions in public history), and thanks also to my seemingly endless eagerness to promote myself, I went on both Michael Smerconish’s syndicated radio show and ABC News “Good Morning, America” (do they observe that comma?), to weigh in not on my subject, which is the way everybody across the spectrum, each of us, distorts history, but on the current controversy: whether the Pilgrims began as socialists and then learned the error of their ways.

In the interviews I tried both to wrangle with the immediate question about the Pilgrims and to discuss what is, to me, the great, non-seasonal theme, political tension in public history. I also suggested that now and then we might want to lighten up a bit on the whole “lessons of history” thing. It was fun. Smerconish gave me ten minutes, and we had what I thought was an interesting conversation (and I like his unique effort to bring talk-radio intensity to centrism). “Good Morning America,” with its very specific needs, managed to shoehorn three seconds (literally!) of a twenty-minute interview into a piece on the controversy. Not surprising, but startling to watch: my name flashed on the screen so briefly that all I can do is hope that subliminal advertising actually works.

So now that I’m a media-certified expert: Were the Pilgrims socialists?
(more…)

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This is the third in a series of posts about how people from Tea Partiers to pro-choice, anti-gun liberals invoke and rely on what they call “the Constitution,” often without being able to say anything very specific about it. The first post was on the First Amendment and religious freedom; the second was on the Second. Comments on those posts, some related off-blog correspondence about them, some related statements on Twitter, and a remark on my Facebook author page inspire this one.

But first, for context, this mess (anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen my outbursts about it):

In a piece in Saturday’s New York Times, offering perspective on the Tea Party’s reverence for the Constitution, Samuel G. Freedman wrote:

… Constitution worship has not historically been the province of any one political faction. Despite the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass intoned its language about equality and inalienable rights.

The gaffe is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about inalienable rights or equality. [UPDATE: By "equality" I meant anything that Frederick Douglass would have been intoning; the Constitution does of course have things to say about equality in the post-Civil War amendments. But Freedman meant Douglasss's reference to "all men are created equal."] That language is found — and pretty memorably too! — in the Declaration of Independence.

Gaffes are gaffes. I’ve made my share. This one is painfully revealing of a significant problem in liberal thinking. [UPDATE: I think I mean "for liberal thinking." That help?] Freedman nodded, it happens, but so did his editors. A lot of people fussed with that piece before it went out. Nor has the error been corrected since, nor do I see any uproar about it online. That means the Tea Partiers, too, though hairtrigger sensitive to NYT slight (and they would have taken Freedman’s piece as a slight), read right past it.

So what’s the big hairy deal? Why am I knocking NYT and liberals who don’t their Constitution so much harder than I knock Christine O’Donnell for not knowing hers? Or, to put it the way David Tuttle (a cousin, and nice to hear from him even in this weird postmodernist manner) put it on my FB author page: Is the Times error so much worse than what David calls the Tea Party’s effort to deny separation of church and state?

Yeah. It’s a lot worse. (more…)

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[UPDATE: This turned out to be the first in a trio of posts about misapprehensions and misappropriations of the Constitution, across the political spectrum. The second one, on the Second Amendment, is here. ]

Say “first amendment” to most people, and they’ll say “freedom of speech.” They’re right, of course, as far as it goes. But.

The failed Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell drew some laughs a while back when she asked, she hoped rhetorically, where in the U.S. Constitution church and state are separated. Her opponent knew the answer and paraphrased the relevant part of the First Amendment aloud. Her laughing audience were law school students and faculty, so they knew the answer too.

But many otherwise well-informed people, who are sure that there is a constitutional separation of church and state, don’t know where in the Constitution to find it; or know that the First Amendment opens by disestablishing religion, and only then goes on to protect speech; or that the amendment is based on what was known during the founding period as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Jefferson, its author, listed it among his proudest accomplishments).

That ignorance raises some weird questions. One has to do with the inveterate scorn of educated liberals for the likes of O’Donnell. It’s far from clear that many who deem themselves intellectually superior to her could have responded to her challenge (it’s good that her opponent could). The challenge might seem a dopey one, but it would have left plenty of liberals sputtering. And since she is not well-educated, and those liberals generally are (in ways other than law and history), that’s bizarre and disturbing.

“These Tea Party people don’t know any history,” fume some I know, and while in some cases (like O’Donnell’s) that’s true, in others it’s not. A lot of them know American history because they just happen to like it. You could argue with their interpretations — but only if you knew something about it yourself!

I find that it’s liberals, and I mean the kind of liberals who can read Chaucer in Middle English, who really don’t know any American history. (more…)

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Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. (more…)

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