Voices

Forging ahead

The falsifying of documents has a history and a worldview

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

The ham-handed forgery of memos by someone trying to defeat President Bush is both hilarious and shocking. Only someone whose memory does not extend back to the days before personal computing would think that a Microsoft Word document could look like a type-written memo from the early 1970s.

This attempt to hijack the election and the democratic process is part of a long history of high-profile forgeries-one that includes fake documents with equally glaring faults but far more success in influencing world events.

The biggest political forgery of all time was the Donation of Constantine. In the Middle Ages, the pope claimed authority not just over the church but over all secular governments. He also was an earthly monarch, on the grounds that the first Christian Emperor of Rome had given the pope and his successors his authority over the Roman Empire and the actual rule over Rome and Italy. Thus, in an issue much disputed by the Reformation, the pope asserted the right to appoint and depose kings, govern vast lands, and wage wars.

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The Donation of Constantine was a document purporting to be from the Roman Emperor Constantine, who, three days after his conversion, supposedly expressed his gratitude to the then-reigning pope by granting to him and his successors "the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions; and relinquishing them, by our inviolable gift, to the power and sway of himself or the pontiffs his successors." As for Constantine, he would move the seat of his realm to the east, to the patriarchal see of Constantinople.

With the authority of this legal document, the medieval popes exercised earthly sovereignty. But then, in 1440, Lorenzo Valla, one of the pioneering scholars of the soon-to-emerge Renaissance, studied the document. He pointed out, among much other internal and external evidence, that three days after Constantine's conversion, the purported date of the document, the city of Constantinople, mentioned in the document, did not exist. How, he asked, "could one speak of Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees, when it was not yet a patriarchate, nor a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned"? The document, as even the Roman Catholic Church now admits, was forged in the 800s.

But the biggest and most shameless forgers of all time were the Gnostic heretics in the days of the early church. They supported their non-Christian brand of Hellenic mysticism by writing gospels and epistles modeled after those in the Bible and ascribing them to the apostles or even to Jesus Himself. Never mind that these were demonstrably written several hundred years after the time of Christ and the apostles and that they consisted of mystical gibberish that was far from the down-to-earth language and narratives of the Jews who wrote the Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, the Gnostics set forth their teachings in books that were supposedly by Thomas, Philip, James, and Peter.

The best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code puts forward these apocryphal writings as legitimate, and liberal theologians such as Elaine Pagels are hailing them as the true Christian Scriptures.

The Gnostics felt free to make forgeries because they rejected external truth, considering physical reality to be an illusion, with their elite inner spiritual knowledge the only thing that mattered. The body was of no importance, so that they could be sexually permissive and somewhat "feminist," which is why contemporary theologians like them so much.

But they have a deeper affinity to contemporary thought. Postmodernists too reject objective truth. They too believe religion is just a private inner state. Morality, law, and culture become mere constructions, which we can reconstruct at will. Language too has no objective meaning, so that it can be manipulated. There is no problem making up new histories and twisting the news to conform to bias. A convinced postmodernist would see nothing wrong with constructing a historical document on Microsoft Word.

Years ago, when this column was discussing the previous president, we put forward a principle to keep in mind when dealing with postmodernists. We may call it the Bill Clinton Axiom: Those who do not believe in truth can be expected to lie.

Now we can propose the John Kerry Corollary: Those who do not believe in language can be expected to falsify documents.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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