Issue 267 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


In Defense of Original Sin,” by John Taylor Gatto, in the January 1998 issue of The Sun was worth the price of a year’s subscription.

Watson A Bowes Jr. Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Original sin is the simple belief that we are not worthy of love. It is not a separation from God, but rather a separation from one’s own self. Like a deadly, mutating virus, it insidiously attacks the young before their immune systems have developed, producing needless suffering.

It’s shocking how loving parents can traumatize their young children by teaching them that they enter this world with blood on their tiny hands. These parents dare speak of family values while bestowing upon their innocent offspring the belief that they are unworthy in the eyes of God. Long before such children are old enough to enter the “godless” centers of learning John Taylor Gatto denounces, they have already been stripped of their inborn spirituality. Whatever the “sins” of the public schools may be, at least original sin isn’t one of them.

David Wahl Edmond, Oklahoma

John Taylor Gatto is not in support of spirituality in the schools; he’s in support of Christianity in the schools. This is elitism, and leaves a tremendous amount of spiritual wisdom out in the cold.

Gatto exhibits his ignorance of history in his narratives about the Constitution and the Puritan settlers. To begin with, the Constitution came almost in its entirety from that of the Iroquois nations. Our new country even took the Iroquois’ symbol, an eagle holding five arrows, and adapted it for its own use, making it thirteen arrows.

As for the Puritans, they and other settlers were continually running away to live with the Indians because there was more freedom and “democracy” among the natives than in the colonies. The Puritans made laws against running away that, at the extreme, imposed the penalty of death on the “criminal.” To cover this up, the history books, especially the Puritanical ones, listed such people as “captured by raiding Indians.” Gatto also seems to forget that the Puritans — particularly his favorite sect, the Congregationalists — used their religion to justify wiping out the Indians and to rationalize their “Manifest Destiny” of settling the entire continent.

Original sin says, quite openly and above board, “You are bad, and you will always be bad, because you were born bad.” And, of course, after centuries of hearing this, people believe it, which begets bad, unethical conduct. Buddhism, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in original sin; it teaches the basic goodness of man. Had we been taught from the start that we are basically good at heart, we would not have the mess we have today in the world.

James L. Secor Lawrence, Kansas
John Taylor Gatto responds:

My critics seem to share a single misconception: that Christianity and formal, established Christian religions are one in the same. This is a shallow take on a complex matter, and prevents one from understanding what has attracted so many people to Christianity over the past two millennia.

I wrote “In Defense of Original Sin” to answer my own questions. For most of my life, I was utterly revolted and thoroughly baffled by the hold original sin has had on apparently intelligent people throughout history. Finally, at the age of fifty-eight, I took three full months off from everything and worked seven days a week from early morning to late at night, wrestling with this notion. My intention was not to believe, but only to understand original sin’s power. What I learned I stated as straight as I knew how before The Sun’s readers.

The message of original sin is strong, useful, and not at all inhumane, as Wahl and Secor characterize it. I believe they have mistaken John Calvin’s opinion, or John Knox’s, for the wisdom of Christianity. Jesus founded no church, and Christianity requires no middlemen. The truest thing Martin Luther ever said was “Every man his own priest.” Which is not to say a congregation can’t be inspired, or that anybody needs to go it alone, but only that the primary responsibility is yours. You can’t get rid of it. That’s the genius of Christianity.

My essay was neither an attempt to defend the church Establishment — whose record is spotty to grotesque — nor an attempt to Christianize the schools. But I do think the moral standard I outlined can and should be compared, point by point, to the moral standard sold by forced schooling. To do this you must bypass all the rhetoric and extract the message of secular schooling that resonates from every bell, every standardized test, every classroom segregated by social class and family income (forget race), every lie told about a correlation between school performance and success in life. List the prescription school teaches for a good life, point by point, and sit down with a bottle of good tequila to compare the Christian curriculum with the government version. Then choose the one that will serve you best as you work, play, deal with pain, age, and die. Another wonderful gift of Christianity is free will.

The Sun has rarely done anything I truly hate, until now.

I hate that you published Marvin Schwartz’s photograph of an infant boy about to be circumcised by his Jewish elders [January 1998]. This photograph was nestled amidst other prayerful photographs of Jewish life, as if it were somehow equally holy. The baby lies peacefully in the arms of an old rabbi, oblivious to the fact that he is about to be sexually mutilated without his permission, by people who supposedly love him, in the name of some ancient “covenant with God.”

Indeed! No God I know would require me to sacrifice the foreskin of my clitoris against my will.

Would you have published a photograph of tribal African women holding a little girl about to be ritually circumcised? And if you did publish such a photograph, would it have been presented as just another lovely aspect of African life? Perhaps you join many traditional Jews — and many non-Jewish Westerners alike — in thinking that involuntary circumcision for boys is different. If so, you’re in need of some education.

If you’re truly interested in showing the truth, then how about publishing a photograph taken five minutes later, when the baby’s foreskin was being sliced off?

The photograph mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.

Cat Saunders Seattle, Washington

Jerry Mander’s “The Rules of Corporate Behavior” [December 1997] got me thinking that, whenever I choose to invest in a stock or a mutual fund with the main goal of maximizing my return on investment, I’m participating in — and, in fact, encouraging — the evils he writes about.

Jim Guinness Newton, Massachusetts

I have just finished reading “Down the Garden Path,” W. Bradford Swift’s interview with Daniel Quinn [December 1997], and I had to stop immediately and write to you. Every now and then, I read an article that takes my breath away because its author is expressing my exact views, ones I’d thought only I held.

Like Quinn, I’ve often wondered how people can believe they are powerless to make changes and blame everything on corporate America. He renews my faith in humankind.

Diana Daigle Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Voices of clarity and sensibility are rare in this (Mis)Information Age. Noam Chomsky [“The Common Good,” November 1997] and Jerry Mander are two such voices.

Chomsky and Mander can be heard above the din of today’s confusion, expounding on the many insidious aspects of the corporate structure. While I agree with much of their writing, there is one aspect where I feel they are either horribly mistaken or dangerously enlightened: their shared view of corporate CEOs — today’s conquistadors.

Somehow I feel uneasy with Chomsky’s notion that “it’s the job that should be questioned, not the person.” This allows these avaricious barracudas off the hook too easily for my tastes.

Likewise, when Mander states that corporations are “largely autonomous entities,” and that “the corporate structure is at fault,” I am left with the sense that some vague apparition is responsible for the clear-cuts, strip mines, cultural annihilations, and dead streams. It is not an intangible structure that destroys ancient forests and civilizations in the blink of an eye; it is the murderous desire of the colonial heart, which feels entitled to conquer and possess. It is not just a matter of profit, but goes into the deeper realms of power and control. While the forms may change to suit the times, the greed remains the same.

Perhaps it is my own need for a pound of flesh, but I believe the rapacious bastards who make these corporate policies (knowing all too well the devastating consequences) must be held fully accountable for the crimes they commit.

Michael A. Bryant Belchertown, Massachusetts

Half the letters in the Correspondence section remind me of the rednecks who drove around when I was a kid, looking for someone “different” to beat up on so that they could feel superior. Those who don’t like what they read should stick their heads back in the sand, and, when they come up for air, turn on the TV. I’m sure they’ll feel safe with the mediocrity of most media in this country, and will be able to continue considering themselves much better informed and more enlightened than the rest.

Not everyone has to agree with or like all of the writing in The Sun, but we should let the magazine evolve naturally. It will go wherever it’s supposed to travel. Don’t try to control it. Let it move you into unfamiliar territory. And when it reaches the point that you can no longer deal with it, just stop reading. You can always switch to People.

In my opinion, the Correspondence section is a waste of two sheets of paper that could carry more of the tantalizing writing that makes up the rest of The Sun. Why not just pick a topic every month, like in the Readers Write section? One month: “To Smoke or Not to Smoke.” The next month: “To Fist-fuck or Not to Fist-fuck.” It’s absurd.

I hope that The Sun will not fall victim to people’s opinions but will continue to have its own personality, whatever that may be.

Mark Durbin Los Angeles, California

After eight years or so of devouring Time magazine the moment it arrived in the mail, I am now surprised to find that, when Time and The Sun arrive simultaneously, it is Time that sits for days unopened. Too bad for my wife, Leslie; The Sun is her subscription, but she can read it only when I’m done. Actually, she can’t believe I’m reading it and thinks it’s wonderful. Your publication is helping to melt away my third-generation-conservative religious intolerance.

I wish I could say that I know someone else who would appreciate The Sun, but I don’t; everyone I can think of would respond with a truckload of religious dogma. So I guess my wife and I will have to “grapple honestly with the disappointment and excitement of being alive” by ourselves.

Russ Reed Diamond Springs, California
What Do You Think? Has something we published moved you? Fired you up? Did we miss the mark? We'd love to hear about it. Send Us A Letter