The book is short - 166 pages in hardcover - but packs a punch. Dershowitz first amptly demonstrates that the DoI is in no way a Christian document, but in fact a product of the Enlightenment and the deism and unitarianism of the founders who had a role in its drafting; and that it was written to be not merely an expression of Jefferson's views, but as representative of the mind of the colonies at the time.
Given that Thomas Jefferson did the actual drafting, a large chunk of the book is dedicated to rescuing Jefferson from the fundamenalist revisionists of today who seek to turn him into a prop to support beliefs and policies that Jefferson was adamantly opposed to. Dershowitz does a superb job of recreating the views of Jefferson and demonstrating just how far removed they are from the views of the religious right.
The next section consists of Dershowitz briefly listing some of the efforts of the religious right to misuse the Declaration, which stand out as all the more absurd after just having read the historical context of the document and the beliefs of its creator. The views presented are frankly appalling - and I've said this before but I believe it bears repeating - it is this kind of historical revision that Hannah Arendt believed to be a precursor to totalitarianism. As Dershowitz makes clear, the goal of these fundamentalists is to get their version of history into public schools so that they can start indoctrinating a generation into believing that America is a Christian nation, which will be the movement's first step towards making all non-"Christian" citizens second class citizens.
Of course, now we just hear the rhetoric that this is a "Judeo-Christian" nation. But that is simply because the authoritarian fundamentalists of the various sects have united against what they consider to be a common enemy: liberal democracy. If they were ever able to truly succeed at turning America into a theocracy, it is inevitable that secatarian strife would then follow, with rigid orthodoxy of some sort ultimately winning out.
"It seems a melancholy irony that a union which the common bonds of Christian fraternity could not achieve has been forged by the ecumenicism of hatred." - Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life
[Blogger's Note - Dershowitz doesn't use that quote, by the way. I've had it in my notes and have been itching for an opportunity to work it into a post.]
Two egregious examples given are a curriculum devised by Alan Keyes meant to be a covert attempt to convert school children to Christianity and the Cupertino County case of elementary school history teacher Stephen Williams who was using his classroom in order to fraudulently tell his students that America was founded as a Christian nation while selectively citing the DoI's reference to Nature's God and a Creator to make that case.
The Williams case is particularly infuriating because although Williams was 100% in the wrong, this was a media victory of sorts for the religious right, as much media coverage reported that a school in California had "banned the Declaration of Independence." Dershowitz mentions it in passing that Sean Hannity (big surprise) was one of those in the media making this false claim. I could write an entire post devoted to Hannity's behavior regarding the case (and I might, given that it's another instance where his behavior should warrant being fired if his job was remotely dependent on professional integrity) but will just state that Hannity hyped the story to great extent as the Declaration of Indepence having been banned by "liberals", but never did a follow up show telling his audience that the Declaration of Independence was never banned or that Williams's discrimination suit against the school was dismissed as being without merit.
To give an idea of the extremism that hides behind the claims of the religious right to be merely interested in giving children an accurate view of history, here are some choice quotes that Dershowitz provides:
"I hope to the day when as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them ... We must never allow our children to forget that that this is a Christian nation. We must take back what is rightfully ours." - Jerry Fallwell
"Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to Evangelical Christians. It's no different ... more terrible than anything suffered by any minority in our history." - Pat Robertson (Here Dershowitz wonders, justifiably imo, if by liberal Robertson means Jewish)
"If Christian people work together, they can succeed during this decade [the 1990s] in winning back control of the institutions that have been taken away from them over the past 70 years. Expect confrontations that will not only be unpleasant but at times physically bloody ... Institutions will be plunged into wrenching change. We will be living through one of the most tumultuous periods in human history. When it is over, ... God's people will emerge victorious. But no victory ever comes without a battle." - Pat Robertson
In the final section (before the conclusion which summarizes the book and the necessity to preserve the wall of separation between church and state) Dershowitz argues (correctly) that as great a document as the Declaration of Independence is, it is not sancrosant. Specifically, where Jefferson attempts to claim that the rights enumerated in the DoI are unalieanable because they are immutable laws of Nature, Jefferson at best commits the naturalistic fallacy. Jefferson would have been more in the right (but lacking as much rhetorical bite) if he grounded the assertion of those rights in their true origin - human ethical reasoning.
I'll give Professor Dershowitz the final word
Every day is a struggle for the separation of church and state. We must be willing to buck the tide of of majority intolerance and to struggle against religious bigotry because we share Jefferson's vision. We know what losing this battle will do to America. We know that the greatness of this country depends on its being the most heterogeneous, the most diverse country in the world. We understand the experimental nature of the American dream.Blogger's Note - This post has been edited (3-6-10) since first posted. Specifically, a quote was removed for this reason.
If Thomas Jefferson could observe our nation today, he would, I believe, be pleased as well as surprised. He would be pleased that the wall he deemed so essential still stands, despite so many challenges and threats. he would be pleased that our complex system of checks and balances - between the branches of government as well as among churches, the media, the academy, the economy, and other nongovernmental institutions - is working. He would be surprised at the increasing power of the federal government, and especially of the executive, and of the relative weakness of the states. He would be surprised, most of all, at how his own views were being hijacked by the Religious Right in an effort to use him as a battering ram against the wall of separation between church and state that was so central to his theory of governance. He would regard this deliberate distortion as a form of civil blasphemy that should be confronted in the marketplace of ideas and rejected.