News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Cleveland’s biblical heritage

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Remember when Ted Turner made a fool of himself, declaring the Ten Commandments out of date, particularly the one on adultery? He has new company in Tom Brazaitis, a senior Washington editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and husband of liberal commentator Eleanor Clift.

Brazaitis wrote in a recent column, “The Ten Commandments have their place as a historical artifact. But over the centuries, humankind has refined and improved them.” Neither Brazaitis nor Turner seem to realize that, as the old saying goes, you don’t break the Ten Commandments, you break yourself on them.

Brazaitis’ first target was Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who has displayed the Decalogue in his courthouse. But the columnist quickly moved to ridicule the Commandments themselves. By his account, the first four are just concerned with “protecting God’s turf”; the third, if enforced, would violate free speech; the fifth would kill the economy and require that Sabbath breakers be executed; the sixth only makes sense if the parents deserve it; the seventh through ninth are not original; the ninth would kill politics; the tenth would kill capitalism.

He committed the “straw man” fallacy, attacking an easily defeated, make-believe position. Neither Moore nor his supporters suggest that all of the Ten Commandments should become statutory law, backed by governmental punishments. Rather, they say that the Ten Commandments are bedrock convictions on which a nation and its legal system prosper. That’s why they’re chiseled into the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court.

When I read that Brazaitis represented Cleveland, I did a little reading on the city. What I found is typical of what you would find throughout the United States — scratch a city, and you’ll find respect for the Bible, including the Ten Commandments, everywhere. Brazaitis may call them “historical artifacts.” I call them Judeo-Christian foundations.

Ten observations:

1. Many names linked to Cleveland are scriptural. The city was named for founder Moses Cleaveland. Tabitha Stiles was the first pioneer baby. John Willey was the first mayor. Corporate heads used biblical language whenever they introduced themselves — Abraham Stouffer (Stouffer’s); Joseph Eaton (Eaton); Michael Feuer (Office Max); Jacob Sapirstein (American Greetings); Joseph Cole (Pearl Vision); Cyrus Eaton (Republic Steel; now ISG); Solomon and Samuel Siegal (Olympic Steel). Even the decidedly sub-Christian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a cornucopia of biblical names — Paul Simon; Isaac Hayes; Dinah Washington; John Lennon; Phil(ip) Spector; David Bowie; Pete(r) Seger; Nat(hanial) “King” Cole; Steven Tyler (Aerosmith); David Crosby and Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills and Nash); John Fogerty (Creedance Clearwater Revival); Pete(r) Townshend and John Entwistle (The Who); Mary Wilson (The Supremes).

2. Great benefactors were serious churchmen. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil), was a Baptist Sunday School superintendent who gave $300,000 in 1926 dollars for Euclid Avenue Baptist Church’s new auditorium. (He also established the then-Baptist University of Chicago.) Leonard Case Jr., who endowed Case School of Applied Science (later Case Institute of Technology, which merged into Case Western Reserve University) was a key donor at the founding of the Cleveland Female Seminary, founded by Rev. Eli Sawtell.

3. Cuyahoga County has 186 Roman Catholic schools, 15 Lutheran schools, 15 nondenominational Christian schools and seven Jewish schools — a total of 50,000 students.

4. When James A. Garfield ran successfully for the 20th presidency of the United States, his campaign headquarters was in Cleveland. Garfield was a seminary-trained lay minister of the Disciples of Christ.

5. Western Reserve professor Edward Williams Morley, of physics’ Michelson-Morley Experiment (which paved the way to Einstein’s work), received a master’s degree from Andover Theological Seminary. Case Western Reserve’s Morley Chemistry Building is named for him.

6. Charles Thwing was a graduate of Andover Theological Seminary and a pastor in Massachusetts and Minnesota before coming to Western Reserve University as president in 1891. During his 31-year tenure, the faculty grew from 37 to 415, 26 new buildings were built, and schools were added in the fields of library science, applied social science, law, dentistry, pharmacy, education, religious education and graduate studies. Today the student newspaper and other student services are housed in the Thwing Center.

7. Cleveland State University grew from Fenn College, which was originally an educational program of Cleveland’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

8. Since 1933, Baldwin-Wallace College in suburban Berea has hosted a world-renowned Bach festival, featuring such works as the St. John Passion and the Christmas Oratorio.

9. In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formalized themselves in Cleveland, adopting their original constitution at Second Presbyterian Church.

10. The train bearing Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Ill., after his assassination stopped in Cleveland on April 28, 1865. The body was taken by hearse to Public Square, where Episcopal Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine conducted a short service for 9,000 before the day-long viewing began.

Does this sort of heritage prove anything? Not necessarily, for institutions can outgrow their past. The Plain Dealer has done so; it no longer disparages Abraham Lincoln’s war effort to free the slaves, as it once did as a “Copperhead Democrat” newspaper. But surely the burden of proof falls upon a newspaper writer who would suggest that his city’s founders were foolish in their respect for the Ten Commandments.

Is Brazaitis suggesting that America, and Cleveland, could have just as easily happened had the founders been devotees of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran, the Dhammapada or the Humanist Manifesto? That would be a tough sell, even for a “doubting Thomas” Cleveland journalist.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. For more reflections by Coppenger, logon to listten.com or evanstonbaptistchurch.org.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger