WE HAVE been visiting the personal website of Don McLeroy, the creationist dentist who is currently chairman of the Texas Board of Education. Your Curmudgeon has made this excursion because the creationist-dominated board is currently struggling to decide whether it should keep the anti-science, anti-evolution, creationism-friendly “strengths and weaknesses” language in the state’s current standards, and it’s therefore important to know how the board’s chairman thinks.
At that website, in addition to a handsome photograph of McLeroy, there is an essay which was presumably written by the creationist dentist himself, entitled: The Gift of Medieval Christendom to the World .
We stumble at the title. The term “medieval period” is synonymous with the Middle Ages, that dreadful 1,000-year span of time following the collapse of the Roman Empire and ending with the Renaissance. The major part of the medieval period is known as the Dark Ages, and for good reason.
Why does McLeroy focus his discussion of the West in that dismal medieval era? It was, by most accounts, the very worst of times. Let’s take a look at his essay, not with any desire to criticize McLeroy’s religious beliefs, but to understand the man’s thinking.
McLeroy begins by praising the accomplishments of Western Civilization. No problem there. He says, with bold added by us:
The West is very remarkable and unique in the world. The West has relieved human suffering to a unprecedented degree; the West has developed freedom to a unparalleled level … It is most obviously seen in the elimination of slavery …
Fine accomplishments indeed. Cheers for Western Civilization! The essay continues:
The key question is “Why?” What is it about the development of the West that made it so remarkable and unique? Why in the West are all people important? What is the ultimate source of these ideals of freedom, equality and limited government?
Good question. Our own answer would be to start with the originators of Western Civilization — the Greeks, especially the Athenians, who developed philosophy, geometry, logic, democracy, and early science. When Alexander (not an Athenian, but a student of Aristotle), marched out in 334 BC to conquer the Persian Empire, he was regarded as the very embodiment of the West. But let’s continue with McLeroy’s paragraph, which we interrupted:
What was the defining ideological force that uniquely shaped the West’s political development, especially in its formative medieval period?
It’s “formative medieval period”? Is he saying that the formative period of the West wasn’t until after the collapse of the Roman Empire? What about the 800 years between Alexander’s conquests and the Fall of Rome? What’s that — chopped liver? Let’s read on:
I believe the best and really only answer to all the above questions is the gradual assimilation of Judeo-Christianity in the West. By arguing that humankind is “made in the image of God”, medieval thinkers developed the idea of the dignity of the individual, not something arbitrary-man-given, but a reality, inherent in every person-God-given. This gradual assimilation of this ideal, for example, gave rise to the Cortes’ in Spain, the Reichstag in Germany, the Estates-General in France and the Parliament in England. It gave rise to bills of rights, to limits over the powers of kings (i.e. weak governments), to property rights, to taxation by consent, to the development of common law and to that great document of freedom, the Magna Carta. No man, including the king, was better than all others.
That’s all very nice, but Magna Carta didn’t come along until the year 1215, and although it limited the absolute power of English kings, it didn’t establish anything remotely like our current governmental system. As for the Cortes of Spain, which we’ve never studied, Wikipedia says that institution “arose in the Middle Ages as part of feudalism. A Corte was an advisory council made up of the most powerful feudal lords closest to the king.” Sounds great, if you happen to be a feudal lord, but it doesn’t do much for us.
The Reichstag, again according to Wikipedia, “… was the assembly of the various estates of which the [Holy Roman] Empire was composed. More precisely, it was the convention of the Reichsstände (“imperial states”), those legal entities that, according to feudal law, had no authority above them besides the king himself ….It started as a convention of the dukes of the old Germanic tribes …” It existed, more or less, as far back as the time of Charlemagne. Nice, if you’re fortunate enough to be born a duke.
These institutions may indeed have been formative regarding the early states of Europe, but nothing like the American Revolution could have occurred in those days. And we must point out that the abolition of slavery — which McLeroy rightly praises — didn’t happen in the West until quite recently. Constantine, who made Christianity respectable in Rome, never considered it, nor was it on anyone’s agenda during the Dark Ages. Anyway, let’s continue:
I argue that the development of medieval political structures with their limiting of the power of the governments and the resulting freedom for commerce, and the freeing or releasing of human energy coincides with the assimilation of the ideas of the dignity of the human being-“created in the image of God”. This was a gift of the spread of Christianity in Europe or as many call it “Christendom”.
Great, except that most of the people in those days lived in filth, poverty, and ignorance. Medical knowledge was virtually non-existent. Most people died young. Free enterprise didn’t exist. The common people had no rights. None. Witches were killed, heretics were burned, and the most notable events of the Dark Ages were the Crusades and the Black Death. Of course, they were all creationists back then, so that’s certainly something a creationist dentist might appreciate. The Dark Ages may be an admirable period in history to McLeroy, but not to us.
Let’s keep reading. Perhaps we’ll learn why McLeroy is so enamored of the Dark Ages:
Most world history books identify all the characteristics used in my argument but, in my opinion, fail to give them the significance they deserve. These books do not really give an explanation of the coincidence of Christianity and the freedom that follows it around.
As with evolution, so too with history. McLeroy has his own view of things — something like the “strengths and weaknesses” of history. He mentions “the coincidence of Christianity and the freedom that follows it around.” That sounds like a lovely coincidence, but is there any such thing?
For three centuries after the birth of Jesus, pagan Rome ruled the West. No freedom. Then, starting with Constantine’s conversion in 312 AD, the Empire became increasingly Christian. Was there any noticeable increase in freedom then? Hint: no, there wasn’t. Well, Christians weren’t being persecuted, and that’s something, but others were persecuted. Perhaps the “coincidence of Christianity and freedom” is a capricious thing. Anyway, McLeroy started out praising freedom, equality and limited government. Those things didn’t happen as a result of Constintine, or any of the emperors who followed him.
Perhaps we understand why the creationist dentist doesn’t focus on those years. They contradict his personal historical theory about “the coincidence of Christianity and the freedom that follows it around.”
Here is McLeroy’s final paragraph, which he places in parentheses:
(I know the Enlightenment gets all the credit for the what I have said about freedom. But, where on the globe did the Enlightenment arise? In a vacuum or in Christendom? And again, the key question is “Why? Why did the Enlightenment spring up in Christendom?”)
Yes, that’s where the Enlightenment happened, but why didn’t it occur until 16 or 17 centuries after the birth of Jesus? Was Christianity really the cause of the Enlightenment? Hint: Look up post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Second hint: Ask yourself if it makes sense to argue that the Olympian gods were the cause of Athenian democracy.
Our regular readers know of our appreciation of the Enlightenment. For example, see: Our Politics, and also one of our earliest essays for this blog: Discovery Institute: Enemies of the Enlightenment.
If McLeroy had never learned about the Enlightenment, we could understand that as a shortcoming of attending dental college. But he knowingly dismisses the Enlightenment, which engendered the American Revolution; and he finds the source of all good in the Dark Ages, which was hell on earth. And McLeroy dominates the Texas Board of Education.
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